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Civil Servants: Confidentiality

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 21 January 1988

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3.18 p.m.

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether Treasury civil servants are bound by the terms of their employment to the same rules of confidentiality as those imposed on civil servants employed in the security services.

My Lords, as Sir Robert Armstrong said in his note which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced in another place on 2nd December 1987, all civil servants are under an obligation to keep the confidences to which they become privy in the course of their work.

My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that that is a most remarkable Answer to my Question, bearing in mind that on 24th December the Daily Telegraph carried a detailed account of highly confidential discussions between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and senior officials of the Treasury? Can he tell the House how that came about?

My Lords, all I can say to the noble Lord is that the Government are concerned to prevent the unauthorised disclosure of information at all times.

My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that sometimes leakages occur not from civil servants but from Ministers? Is he therefore prepared to put the same barrier in the way of Ministers who continually leak information as that imposed on civil servants?

My Lords, in a sense I have replied to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, on that point. Perhaps I may add to what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said in that it would be better not to probe too deeply into this because it goes very wide of the original Question.

My Lords, is the House to understand that the Treasury advisers, who according to the Daily Telegraph were involved in a row with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will be prohibited when they come to publish their memoirs from giving a detailed, blow-by-blow account of what actually happened on this auspicious occasion?

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord would not expect me to comment on any individual case.

My Lords, will the noble Lord refresh his memory on the report of the Radcliffe Committee of Privy Counsellors, of which I happen to a be a member, on the publication of ministerial information? It is an allied matter. If we expect civil servants to maintain an undertaking, the same must apply to Ministers, and not just ex-Ministers.

My Lords, of course I take seriously the point made by the noble Lord. This is in fact wide of the original Question but that does not detract from its importance. Perhaps I may go back to my orginal Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy. Quite genuinely, this Government, as all governments have been, are concerned to prevent the unauthorised disclosure of information.

My Lords, is it not a fact that some of the autobiographies of Ministers, ex-Ministers and others have shown this whole matter to be full of riddles and something of a farce? The noble Lord, Lord Molloy, in tabling this Question must have known that it is a matter of a person's integrity. The person concerned knows that he is working for the government of the day and he should shut up afterwards. Some Ministers do not give a very good lesson, do they?

My Lords, I cannot possibly improve on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Mellish.

My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that many hundreds, if not thousands, of civil servants are now of the opinion that the Government have certain standards for what they call important confidential reports made to Ministers? Some civil servants have been hauled before the courts-they were freed—and others have written books upon which there has been world-wide discussion. However on the vital issue of the next budget of Great Britain information was leaked which has apparently upset many civil servants who believe as I do, in the loyalty that the Leader of the House espouses but are of the opinion that at certain levels and in certain quarters you can get away with disclosure? In other situations a person is harrassed even if there is grave doubt. There is no doubt about the supplementary question which I put: is the Leader of the House prepared to take that matter very seriously?

My Lords, I do indeed take seriously the exchange which we have had across the Floor of the House, but I do not think that I should repeat the answer to the first supplementary question which the noble Lord asked me. I do not believe that I can improve upon the original Answer that I gave to him. All civil servants are under an obligation to keep the confidences to which they become privy during the course of their work.

My Lords, whatever steps my noble friend may feel it is necessary to take in this matter, will he take great care to ensure that they do not result in making dull books into best sellers?

My Lords, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he would be prepared at some time, as I am sure he takes this matter extremely seriously, to consider coming to the House to make a further statement?

My Lords, I am not sure that that entirely appeals to me, much as I have enjoyed the exchanges this afternoon.