Skip to main content

Councillor Trevor Brown: Tv Interview

Volume 417: debated on Thursday 26 February 1981

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government which of the three short answers given by Councillor Trevor Brown in the "Newsnight" programme of 11th March 1980 contained information which was not already published.

My Lords, Mr. Brown did not disclose any official information which was not already public knowledge. He took part in the programme, having been refused official permission to do so.

My Lords, when the councillor first notified the authority that he was proposing to take part in the programme, was he not told that the reason why he could not do so was that it might constitute a contempt of court? Did he not write to the authority four days before the programme was due to be transmitted, giving the advice that he had received from the county solicitor: that in no circumstances could it possibly have been held to be a contempt of court? Is it not a fact that now the Atomic Energy Authority is offering to put Councillor Brown out to grass seven years before he would otherwise have been due to retire, on half the salary that he is at present receiving, forfeiting any pension rights to which he might become entitled, as well as any promotion and regrading? Is this not an extremely severe penalty to impose on a man for three short answers on a television programme which did not contravene any Official Secrets Act?

My Lords, on 3rd March Mr. Brown's chief administrative officer wrote to him and refused him permission to appear on the programme. Under the Civil Service Pay and Conditions of Service Code, which applies to all civil servants, Mr. Brown is required to obtain permission. It is true that the letter refusing him permission mentioned the point that, since there were legal cases still in midstream, there was a risk of contempt of court; but the fact is that the permission was refused. As apparently is widely known, Mr. Brown has been severely reprimanded. So far as I am aware—and I believe this to be the case—no other action has been taken against Mr. Brown, whose rank and position in the service and the department are unaltered.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount denying that the opportunities for promotion and regrading which apply to other persons of similar competence and efficiency to Councillor Brown have been denied to him? With regard to the letter of 3rd March, was that not overtaken by his reply giving the authority the information that I mentioned in my first supplementary question? The noble Viscount said that the code is applied to all civil servants. Therefore can he explain why three of the shop stewards at Aldermaston took part in the programme, without there being any retaliation, and without their having been granted the permission of their superiors?

My Lords, I am sorry that I did not deal with the noble Lord's supplementary question about Mr. Brown's reply, which was dated 5th March, to his chief administrative officer. It was received on 10th March, by which time the programme had been recorded. But the position remains unaltered: all civil servants are not allowed to take part in public programmes involving the disclosure or the use of information obtained through their official duties without having permission; and in this case permission was not granted. So far as Mr. Brown's personal position is concerned, I cannot go further than my earlier answer. There is nothing in the penalty that forbids Mr. Brown being promoted, if that were recommended in respect of any particular post.

My Lords, looking to the future, would the Government be willing to use the machinery of the National Whitley Council, as recommended by the Armitage Committee, to set up an independent review body, so that when a civil servant feels that he has been unreasonably refused permission he may appeal to a body distinct from and independent of his own department, so that the department will not be in the invidious position of being judge in its own cause?

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government do not believe that this case is in any way the kind of case that the Armitage Committee mentioned in its recommendations. The reason I say that is indeed because the Armitage Committee made it clear that they would expect civil servants who had been granted permission to serve as local councillors, or in other political appointments, to continue to follow the rules in the code of conduct. The procedures for appeal are open to Mr. Brown, as they are to the whole of the rest of the Civil Service; and since in fact the right of appeal against his reprimand is still open at this present time I would much prefer not to make any further comments.

I did not answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on the comparison with the trade union officials and their position. Their position is that they have an exemption from the Civil Service Pay and Conditions of Service Code in this respect, but that exemption applies only where the matter under discussion directly affects the conditions of service of union members as employees, and where the spokesman is not himself officially concerned with the matter in question.

My Lords, is not the noble Viscount's Answer a little alarming? Here we have a body as delicate as the Atomic Energy Commission; we hear that one of its servants deliberately and publicly defies its orders, and he gets away with a mere reprimand. Surely that is rather alarming.

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, particularly as I have to say that Mr. Brown's department has had occasion in the past to warn Mr. Brown that he must comply strictly with the rules on the disclosure of official information and on dealings with the media.

My Lords, as there may be an appeal, is it not rather wrong to go on discussing this matter until we know whether there is in fact going to be one, anyhow?

My Lords, while some noble Lords opposite may want to sweep this matter under the carpet, is it not fundamentally wrong that a councillor representing his constituents should be in a position inferior to that of a shop steward representing the interests of his members?

My Lords, the Government have no intention of sweeping any matter under the carpet. The Government—the previous Government, in fact—appointed Sir Edward Pochin and his committee in connection with the whole subject-matter upon which Mr. Brown has been commenting, so there is no intention to sweep anything under the carpet at all. The two cases are entirely different. Not only would I agree with the previous supplementary question, but every civilian organisation that I have ever known—and I have been in business all my life—makes it very clear that its managers do not appear on public programmes or write to newspapers on matters in relation to which they have obtained the information from their official duties.