Major rows likely over Queen's wealth documents
The seeds of three major political rows are contained in the publication in Saturday's Communist Morning Star of classified Whitehall documents from 1973 involving the Queen's shareholdings.
The first is the question of security and whether a Communist or Left-wing extremist civil servant is active in the Department of Trade or some other ministry.
The second is whether the copying of the documents took place under a Conservative or a Labour Government.
The third raises the constitutional issue of the Monarchy's relations with the Government.
In any case, a storm is already bound to break out among Labour MPs on Wednesday when about 50 of them will oppose a Government Order in the Commons increasing the Queen's Civil List for her official expenses by £420,000 because of inflation. The Morning Star revelations will give the rebels a wealth of ammunition, but the Government will not be defeated because the Conservatives will vote for the Order.
Sir Peter Thornton, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Trade, launched an investigation into the leakage of the documents on Friday as soon as the Government was told by the newspaper that it had photostat copies of the documents in its possession. So far, the police have not been called in by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
However, the view of the Government's law officers is that under Section Two of the 1911 Official Secrets Act, it would be an offence if a civil servant handed over a document to a newspaper “without authority.” Alternatively if someone stole or copied the documents, a prima facie case of theft could exist.
The legal position of the Morning Star is not yet clear. Although it is not an offence to publish a classified document, it could be one to “receive” a document when knowing or having reason to believe that the informant had breached the Official Secrets Act. The Morning Star says, however, that it has no idea who sent the documents.
Lord Wigg, who was responsible for security for a time during a recent Labour Government, said on the BBC yesterday that it was not known when the documents were copied. “It could have been done several years ago. It could be that someone now thinks it would be highly inconvenient to the present Conservative leadership to publish them now because the Conservatives were playing ducks and drakes with the truth.”
On the other hand, MPs are bound to ask why, if the documents had been photo-copied when the Conservatives were in power, the informant should have left it so long.
Mr. Bill Wainwright, Deputy Editor of the Morning Star, said he had promised to co-operate with any inquiry into the leak. He did not know the source of the documents, which had arrived by post.
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Opposition, wrote to the Prime Minister on Saturday asking for an inquiry into the affair. “If any leak has occurred it has serious implications for the conduct of Government business,” she wrote. Mr. Peter Walker, Secretary for Trade and Industry in 1973, commented: “The disappearance of confidential documents from a major department to a Communist newspaper is very disturbing.”
Extracts from the documents in the Morning Star suggested that the Heath Government made arrangements to try to keep details of the Queen's shareholdings secret. The proposal was to exclude her and other Heads of State from the requirements of the December, 1973, Companies Bill for disclosure of share holdings.
Sir Geoffrey Howe, QC, now “Shadow” Chancellor but at the time Mr. Walker 's Minister of Trade in charge of this Bill, said the legislation proposed a number of important changes in company law. One would have required nominee shareholders in certain circumstances to disclose the identity of beneficial owners of shares. This was intended to limit the scope for certain practices in take-over situations.
Another clause, he said, was designed to provide for some reasonable exemptions, “both necessary and proper.” These were mainly to deal with the position of such persons as international organisations, foreign governments and Heads of State.
“I should have expected, and been very ready, to define and defend those positions in course of the Bill's normal passage through Parliament, had that not been prevented by the February 1974 General Election.”
A possible landmine for the Conservatives would be if Buckingham Palace in 1973 had taken the initiative in suggesting that disclosure of the Queen's shareholdings should be excluded from the Bill.
Mr. Bob Cryer, a Left-wing Labour MP, said yesterday: “Unless the Queen's shareholdings were really significant there would have been no necessity for the backdoor dealings which took place” —a feeling which is shared by MPs in the centre and on the Right of the party.
But yesterday none of the previous Conservative Ministers I spoke to could remember whether the 1973 initiative came from a Government department or not. One of those most closely involved with the Bill pointed out that Whitehall always examined any legislation to see whether it infringed the Royal Prerogative and his guess was that the formula for the Companies Bill had emerged jointly from the Governor of the Bank of England and one of the Government departments.
But he could not be sure. A former senior Conservative Minister said he only came to deal with the Bill after it had been “discussed by the DTI and the Palace.”