UK Politics

Late Labour MP Malcolm Wicks admits child benefit leak

Malcolm Wicks Image copyright PA
Image caption Malcolm Wicks felt the cabinet had been misled over child benefit

Former Labour minister Malcolm Wicks leaked plans by James Callaghan's government to reverse a pledge to bring in child benefit, his memoirs reveal.

Cabinet meeting minutes were passed by an unknown source to the press in 1976, prompting a leak inquiry which failed to find the culprit.

But Mr Wicks, who died in 2012, says in his posthumously published memoirs that he was responsible.

He argues that he felt child benefit was a "moral issue".

In 1976 Mr Callaghan's Labour government was expected to move to the system of universal child benefit, rather than means-tested alternative, as promised in the party's election manifesto.

But minutes of cabinet meetings were leaked, in which it was revealed that the prime minister had manipulated colleagues in an attempt to force the abandonment of the pledge.

The disclosure led to an extensive leak inquiry, while child benefit was introduced in 1977.

'Could not be right'

Mr Wicks, who was then a junior civil servant at the Home Office, escaped detection and went on to become a Labour MP in 1992 and later a government minister.

The papers were passed to Frank Field, who in 1976 was head of the Child Poverty Action Group but later also went on to be a Labour MP and minister. This was despite Mr Wicks having signed the Official Secrets Act.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption James Callaghan's government introduced child benefit in 1977

In his book, My Life, he says: "Was I right to leak the cabinet papers? I still think I was.

"In the normal course of events civil servants, ministers and special advisers should not leak confidential material. It goes without saying that matters relating to national security have to be heavily safeguarded.

"But regarding the introduction of child benefit there was, I felt, a moral issue. It simply could not be right that ministers, at the most senior level, should manipulate internal discussions in such a way that the cabinet itself was misled.

"I thought - and still think - that in those circumstances it was justifiable to leak or, putting it more positively, to let the wider public know what was going on."

In extracts of the book, published in the Guardian, Mr Wicks, who served as MP for Croydon North, says: "As days passed and I saw more documentation, including cabinet papers, it was not so much the attempt to abandon child benefit that incensed me, but more the way it was being done: the manoeuvring, the downright lies and the attempt to play off Labour MPs against trade union bigwigs.

"My view was that if a Labour government was to abandon its policy, having connived and misled, then I had a duty to leak what happened to the papers - knowing full well that this would have repercussions - so that people would see the truth."

The papers were passed to Mr Field, who broke the story in an article in the magazine New Society and dubbed his source "Deep Throat" in a reference to the Watergate scandal.

In the foreword to the memoirs Mr Field said only a "tiny handful" of people had known the secret, adding: "Without the leak of cabinet papers, it is entirely possible that child benefit would never have been introduced."

Mr Wicks, a former academic, remained an MP until his death in September 2012, serving as an energy minister and work and pensions minister.

Child benefit is currently paid at the rate of £20.30 for households with one child, with an extra £13.40 per extra child.

The coalition government last year introduced means-testing of child benefit - removing it in stages from households in which one person earns more than £50,000, with those earning over £60,000 no longer getting it.

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