Croydon’s “Deep Throat”: Frank Field breaks his silence

Frank Field, the veteran campaigner on social policy, has broken a five-decade omerta over the identity of a government whistle-blower who helped shame a Labour government into honouring its election promise to introduce child benefit.

Frank Field MP: honoured his whistle-blower source for five decades

Frank Field MP: honoured his whistle-blower source for five decades

Field’s admission this week explained that, to help himself avoid revealing his source of leaked Cabinet papers, he would only ever refer to the senior civil servant responsible by his Woodward and Bernstein-esque “codename” – Deep Throat.

But this week Field, the Birkenhead MP, admitted that the source of the leaked information, which helped ensure that Prime Minister Jim Callaghan could not abandon plans for child benefit, was Malcolm Wicks, who was to serve Croydon North as its MP for 20 years until his death in 2012.

Jonathan Bradshaw, the professor in social policy at Durham University, has described Wicks’ leaking of the documents as “a hugely courageous act”.

Professor Bradshaw said, “The government was outraged that their shenanigans had been exposed. The parents and the children of this country owe a debt of gratitude to Malcolm Wicks. He can be given the credit for nearly 40 years of financial help to mothers and children, an enormous contribution to relief of child poverty and to child well-being.”

Field said that he had been relieved of his code of silence over his source’s identity with the publication of Wicks’s posthumous memoirs, My Life.

“To prevent me exposing him, I renamed him Deep Throat,” Field said this week. “I never referred to my informant other than by this title.”

Malcolm Wicks' posthumous memoir revealed a long-held secret

Malcolm Wicks’ posthumous memoir revealed a long-held secret

Child benefit was a commitment in Labour’s manifestos for both general elections held in 1974. In the mid-1970s, Wicks was working as a civil servant, but he was deeply disappointed when he discovered what he describes in his book as “ministers, at the most senior level”, meaning the prime minister and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, manipulating “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.”

Wicks passed the information to Field, who was then the director of Child Poverty Action Group.

In an article published in The Observer, Field wrote about Wicks’ memoir: “As Malcolm relates, it was the deceit employed by the prime minister and chancellor that pushed him into giving me his detailed notes on the killing of a government’s commitment. Like Malcolm, I was incensed at the whips alleging that backbenchers were against the scheme – once the whistle had blown they protested loudly that they had never been consulted…

“Once the anonymous article I wrote was published in New Society, under the headline ‘Killing a Commitment’, the balloon went up. Not only was there the embarrassment of the prime minister and chancellor misleading their colleagues in cabinet, in the unions and on the backbenches, but the papers had been wrongly reclassified as top secret. If these papers could get out, was any government secret safe?”

With an official investigation ordered to find the source of the leak, Field burned all the papers he had received from Wicks and his own diaries, panicking somewhat when he could not flush all the ashes down the toilet. “I accepted that my phone was tapped. A leak on this scale, with child benefit papers wrongly reclassified as top-secret in an attempt to stop the leak, meant that it was important for the government to find the culprits,” Field said.

Face-palm moment? Prime Minister James Callaghan, left, and his Chancellor, Denis Healey, sought to avoid introducing child benefit by misleading Labour back benchers

Face-palm moment? Prime Minister James Callaghan, left, and his Chancellor, Denis Healey, sought to avoid introducing child benefit by misleading Labour back benchers

“If I had been home secretary, I would have authorised the tapping of my phone.

“But that didn’t stop me phoning Malcolm. Here, as in every conversation, I would talk about ‘Deep Throat’.

“The conversations I had with him during this period were all about informing him about grillings I’d received that I hadn’t been able to talk about during media interviews. I made many other phone calls talking about ‘Deep Throat’ so that, as far as humanly possible, I would disguise the importance of my calls to Malcolm.”

In 1977, child benefit was introduced in Britain. In 1992, Wicks himself became a Labour MP, elected in Croydon North, and was to serve as a junior minister in Tony Bliar’s and Gordon Brown’s governments.

But thanks to the discretion and loyalty of Frank Field, the identity of the courageous person who leaked those 1976 Cabinet papers was something which Malcolm Wicks was able to take to his grave.


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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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