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Clause 9—(Disclosure Of Information)

Volume 437: debated on Thursday 22 May 1947

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I beg to move, in page 5, line 17, to leave out "criminal proceedings," and to insert:

"proceedings for an offence under this Act."
This Amendment raises the question of whether information which has been obtained under this Bill should be available for any criminal proceedings, or only for criminal proceedings under the Bill. Hon. Members who were present during the Committee proceedings will remember that this subject was very fully debated, and that I sought to deploy the arguments which could be advanced against this Amendment. As the discussion went on, the contrary point of view was strongly urged, in particular by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). At the end of the day, although I expressed myself as not being convinced by the arguments advanced against the point of view I put forward, I said that I would like to have an opportunity to reconsider the matter in case I should think it proper to change the point of view I had expressed. Since the Committee stage we have carefully reconsidered the arguments which were advanced, in particular by the two hon. Members to whom I have referred, and we think we ought to accede to those arguments. For those reasons we have put down the Amendment, which is in almost identical terms with theirs

The effect of it is that information obtained will be available only for use under the Act. The case put forward was that if it was available for any criminal proceedings, that would constitute an invasion of a principle that when information was obtained from a person, unless it was voluntarily given it should not be used against that person. The Amendment does not quite correspond with that because it prevents that information being used in any criminal proceedings. I still do not think that that was an adequate reason for the Amendment. It seems to me that perhaps some importance should be attached to the specific character of the Bill and to the actual circumstances in which the information will be required. There are a number of precedents for such Clauses, both in the amended and in the unamended forms, going back, for example, to the Livestock Industry Act, 1937, and to other Acts about that time. Equally, precedents can be quoted on the other side. The question whether one should adopt one form of precedent or the other admits of a good deal to be said on either side. On the whole, we feel that the point of view put forward by the hon. and learned Gentleman was right. It impressed the Committee very much, and so did the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne. I hope the House will now think that the Amendment as we have put it down meets the point of view which was obviously strongly felt by hon. Gentlemen opposite.

The Solicitor-General has now confessed that he was defeated by the combined operations of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) and his hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). 1n the speech he has just made he appeared rather to want to carry on a rearguard action. It seemed that he was moving his Amendment in the sort of spirit that hoped that, at the last moment, the Opposition would turn round and defeat it, and that he would be happy to go into the same Lobby with us and defeat the Amendment.

I am glad that at long last the Government have recognised the force of the arguments which were put forward in favour of this Amendment. I raised the point on the Second Reading of the unwarrantable and unwarranted extension of the use that could be made of information obtained upon a census, an extension over previous Acts of Parliament. I hoped that the battle would he continued. I had not the good fortune to be on that Standing Committee, but I gather from what I have been able to read that the battle was indeed continued and was fast and furious. I read the arguments of the Solicitor-General with astonishment and amazement.

I hope that it is clear now that, after the acceptance of the Amendment, there is no substance at all in the contention which was argued that information obtained from a person under this Act could be used in any other prosecution than a prosecution for an offence under the Act. That is always what we have been seeking to limit it to, and there is nothing to choose now between the Amendment put forward by the hon. and learned Member and the Amendment which we put upon the Order Paper.

The learned Solicitor-General rather understated the matter when he said that the view he took before was that there was a certain amount to be said for one view and a certain amount to be said for the other. As a matter of fact, the view he took was the very contrary. He put up a very strenuous argument against the Amendment. I: he spoke at rather unnecessary length on his Amendment this evening, it was because he had to make his apologia for the attitude which he had taken up before. In future, perhaps hon. Members opposite, in spite of the derision which has sometimes been expressed among them, may now begin to understand that there is some use in a Parliamentary Opposition. The Solicitor-General will do well to bear that in mind and to realise that some of the suggestions that come from this side of the House are very often of greater utility and validity than those which come from the Government side.

I do not wish to detract from the credit that has been given to. my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) in regard to this Amendment, because he and I discussed this matter with much help to me on the Committee stage, but it does so happen that the Amendment referred to was moved by me, and the argument, which was strenuous, was pursued throughout the Committee Although at the time I felt we were making little headway, it appeared towards the end of the Debate that the Solicitor-General was, at any rate, sympathetic with our point of view. The point which I stressed was by way of an analogy to the kind of case under, say, the Bankruptcy Acts, where information is compulsorily obtained in an examination in bankruptcy, and it is subsequently impossible for any prosecution to take place under, for example, the Larceny Acts based upon the statements compulsorily obtained, or indeed at all. The general principle underlying protective legislation of that nature is that information compulsorily obtained, and not voluntarily given, is protected. That is the point behind the ordinary,-police-man's caution, where information is voluntarily given. In the case before us the information is compulsorily obtained. We endeavoured to rub that point home, and it is extremely gratifying to feel that, on reflection, the Solicitor-General has realised that, on balance, the case that we made was correct.

I think we ought to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Challen) on his success. Apparently, it was my hon. Friend who set the ball rolling and who, with the able assistance of others, including the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), has enabled the Government to take out of the Bill the word "criminal." I cannot imagine why the Government are always so anxious to try to make crimes. In this instance there is no reason for labelling the unfortunate people as criminals when what they commit are, at the worst, misdemeanours. they are being forced, compelled, and bullied, by the President of the Board of Trade and others, to make these returns, and in almost every case they will have to make the returns with considerable and wasteful expenditure of time and energy. I do not think it is ever very wise to say. "I told you so" when one has a repent. ant sinner before one, and as the Government seem to be fairly repentant on this occasion, I will merely say how glad I am that they have not persisted in their endeavour to label harmless citizens as criminals simply because they have not filled up forms quite as the Government would have liked them to do. I congratulate the Government on this small sign 'of a greater kindliness, and what I will call this sign of progressive civilisation, in not wishing to label people as criminals whenever they have the smallest chance to do so. For that reason, even if any hon. Members on their own back benches wish to vote against the Government. I shall support the Government.

Amendment agreed to.

10.30 p.m.

I beg to move, in page 5, line 19, to leave out "for the purposes of a census."

I suggest it would /be for the convenience of the House if we discussed this Amendment and those which follow and which are consequential.

That course, I think, will be convenient, although the Amendments really fall into two separate categories. I shall deal generally with the Amendments which we propose in Subsection (2) of Clause 9. That Subsection is one which the House ought to consider carefully. Its effect is that no matter what restrictions on the disclosure of information might have been imposed by other enactments of this House, and however strict those restrictions were, they are by this Subsection all taken away. It is all levelled down to a restriction on the disclosure contained in this Bill, except that in particular cases where the Board of Trade think that greater restrictions should be imposed, they can do so by Order in Council. If this House has thought fit, after careful consideration, to impose greater strictness on the disclosure of information than is contained in this Measure, I think it is wrong for those restrictions automatically to be removed. It would be much better to put it the other way round, to let the restrictions remain and provide that they can be removed on a case being made out by the President of the Board of Trade. That is the first point covered by the Amendments to Subsection (2). The second point is that the Subsection is limited to information obtained for purposes of a census. Why does it not extend to information obtained under Clause r? I should like an answer to that question. The Board of Trade is taking power to impose greater restrictions than those contained in the Bill, but only greater restrictions on the disclosure of information obtained for the purpose of a census. It may be just as important to impose those greater restrictions on information obtained by any one of the 21 Government Departments under Clause I. In this instance we are suggesting that the President of the Board of Trade should take greater powers for protecting information obtained under the very wide powers contained in this Measure.

There are, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has said, two points involved here and I shall deal with them in the order in which he dealt with them. If the Acts which have at various times over the last century imposed restrictions on the disclosure of information were all extended and recently brought up to date by Parliament, I think there would be quite a strong argument for the course suggested by the hon. and learned Gentleman. But, where many of them may be very much in the past, and very obscure, it is extremely difficult to make them apply automatically to these restrictions because, in effect, many people in industry and elsewhere know nothing, or very little, of them at all. There may be some quite incidental Section in some old Act, which deals with a restriction which nobody considers wise or necessary today. There could be an opposite course under the Clause to the one which the hon. and learned Gentleman is suggesting. We have taken power to impose those provisions which are known to appear in an Act of Parliament with which everyone is familiar. We cannot be certain what the others may be. But, the hon. and learned Gentleman can rely on us to protect the persons who are asked to provide figures. We shall take every reasonable and proper step to protect them by carrying this forward.

The hon. and learned Member asks, secondly, why this is restricted to the census. As regards the general disclosure of information, that is covered in the Clause which deals with the foregoing provisions of this Measure generally. We feel that that gives adequate protection where there is not going to be a wide publication, associated with the census. The object of the census is to get detailed figures which will be published, and it is necessary, therefore, to have a greater degree of protection for people where these figures are published in great detail as against cases in which my Department is getting figures not for publication in anything like the same detail. The hon. and learned Gentleman can rely on the persons dealing with this matter under Clause 9 (1) to see to it that any individual statistics or returns or figures relating to individual undertakings will not be published without the previous consent of the person making those returns. That gives a very fair safeguard for people concerned under that Clause. But we want a particular safeguard because of the very detailed nature of the figures published.

The right Lon. and learned Gentleman has covered in greater part, if not entirely, the points I have raised, but the restriction is imposed by Clause 9 (1) on this disclosure. I am not so worried about disclosure in an officially published document, but, under Subsection (6), there is a penalty for wrongful disclosure. It occurs to me that, under Subsection (1), one may get information of a vital character, and one may want to impose greater restriction on this disclosure than is contained in this Measure. It is suggested that this Subsection (2) ought to be extended so as to enable the Board of Trade to increase the degree of security attaching to information obtained in that mariner. I do not know if the right hon. and learned Gentleman can deal with that point.

I do not think that one can get a greater degree of security except by increasing the penalty. It is stated that a certain thing shall not be published, and I suggest that one cannot make any provision which is more definite than that. The only way we could give a greater degree of security would be to increase the penalty on the person liable for publishing them, if he does publish them against the provisions of the Act. I think there is an Amendment on that point which the hon. and learned Gentleman or some of his colleagues propose to move at a subsequent stage.

Does that mean that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is going to accept the Amendment?

I find it a very unsatisfactory position when again and again we are asked to rely upon the good will of the Government in these matters. That is not making laws; that is not telling the subjects where they are under this legislation. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been in charming humour tonight, and everything has been so nice, but we know that, whatever he may say here, in effect his actions could be as severe as he wished to make them. I do not know that there is any chance of getting these Amendments passed. I know that assurances are given in perfectly good faith, but the position of the subject is not being safeguarded properly, and I very much regret it.

Amendment negatived.

I beg to move, in page 6, line 14, to leave out from "be," to the end of the paragraph.

This paragraph deals with matters in respect of publication of information. As I understand it, paragraph (a) provides that no such report shall be made of the number of returns received with respect to the production of any article if the number is less than five. It seems to me that paragraph (b) vitiates completely the directions given in paragraph (a), because whilst the number of people making the report will not be divulged, yet the total number of articles and the total value of those articles will be. If one sees in the columns of figures, that one column is left blank, a shrewd idea of the position can be gained from that fact and on reference to the subsequent columns the case will be made practically certain. It still seems to me that in the case of small industries, and where we may be exporting to hard currency areas, trade secrets involving a great deal of trading, may well be lost if information is given away about particular firms. There is nothing in paragraph (b) to prevent that information being given away. The words we wish to leave out make it possible for this information to be disclosed thus doing the trade of the country considerable harm. As matters stand, it seems to me that there is no protection whatever to industry in this and for those reasons we think these words should be omitted.

10.45 p.m.

I beg to second the Amendment.

My hon. and gallant Friend has made so forceful, lucid and persuasive a case for this Amendment that it is unnecessary for me to add much to what he has said. The point, of course, is that as the Clause stands there is a risk of disclosure which would be damaging not only to the firm concerned but, in the cases which my hon. and gallant Friend has referred to, to the national interest. Such a risk of disclosure is acknowledged by the Government themselves in putting in the concluding words of the Subsection, which provide that any person concerned may make representations on this point. It is obvious that the skilled draftsman who advise the Government would not have inserted the words if the Government had not thought there was a risk of disclosure. Therefore it seems to me that it would be better to cut out the whole of the latter part of the Clause and prevent any risk of disclosure.

I must ask the House to resist the Amendment. It is the case very often in modern industry that the whole of one commodity is controlled by one concern, or by two or three concerns, either as a monopoly or a near monopoly. This was taken into consideration by the Census of Production Committee under Sir George Nelson and they made a specific recommendation that such disclosure should be permitted, because they realised that in modern conditions, it is possible for one concern to publish the whole productive capacity of a given commodity. Without this provision in the Bill it would be impossible for us to obtain information about that commodity which had become a monopoly and to know whether the information was available. It would be intolerable if the Bill were amended so as to make it impossible to acquire necessary information about a necessary commodity.

As I understand the first three lines of Subsection (5), it only deals with information given to the public. I think the Parliamentary Secretary is addressing himself to a different matter.

I am sorry. I used the wrong word. There might be a case in which prior to the monopolisation of a commodity, such information was available to the public but when the commodity became subject of a monopoly they could not get it. That really would be intolerable, and I think it is essential that we should have all information.

I strongly support the Amendment. When I first read Subsection (5) I was inclined to think the Amendment ill advised, but after hearing the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, who speaks with a very limited knowledge on this aspect of the subject, I am sure I should support my hon. Friends. Let us take a commodity of which I have no special knowledge. Suppose a manufacturer was struck by the fact that large numbers of persons in the United States use chewing gum and he decided to set up a factory for the manu- facture of chewing gum in this country. Suppose he was the pioneer of that particular industry, and was endeavouring to set up a powerful monopoly or ring. He would be compelled during the first year, being a pioneer in this industry, to publish, not under his name but under statistics which would be readily recognisable, the following particulars. He would have to publish the total quantity or value of his product, the amount sold or delivered, and that would give the precise information to the American importing company which had hitherto had a monopoly in the British market. It would give them the character and value and strength of this nascent industry. They would learn how weak and soggy it was, what little encouragement it was getting from the Board of Trade, and it would encourage them intensely in their campaign against this industry and so destroy it.

If statistics are going to be used for that purpose—and I submit the example I have given, which is imaginary, is sufficient to put my meaning before the House —it is obvious that no original industry could be set up in the face of competition without disclosing nakedly its weakness year after year to its competitors. If the collection of statistics is for the purpose of weakening British economy—and I fear that in 'this and similar instances it will be for that purpose—I shall support the Amendment. These statistics are not very palatable to me under any circumstances. I belong to the school of thought which believes that ignorance may well be bliss. The creation of a Grand Inquisitor to inquire too closely into too many facts may not be advantageous to the body politic. In this case, those who have put down the Amendment are justified in desiring to eliminate this objectionable conclusion to Clause 5 (b), and I have great pleasure in supporting the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

I beg to move, in page 6, line 29, to leave out "one," and to insert "five."

I think everyone in this House will admit, particularly after the earlier discussion we have had on this Clause, that one of the most serious things that could happen would be the illegal and illicit divulgence of information under this Subsection, and we feel that this ought to be recognised by increasing the penalty stipulated in line 29, from £100 to £500. We feel, in view of all that is at stake— which is recognised by Members on bath sides of the House—that there should be a sum commensurate with the offence against industry and private industry that would be committed by such an act.

I beg to second the Amendment.

The obtaining of figures under this Bill, and the provision of those figures quite freely by industry, is obviously going to be determined by the feeling of satisfaction which industry has that no disclosure of this information will take place so far as the Civil Service is concerned. Therefore, we have suggested in this Amendment that the gravity of such an offence be recognised by the Government and by everybody concerned, by increasing the penalty from £100 to £500. I hope the Solicitor-General will agree to the Amendment, because it would help to safeguard traders and give them some confidence in the administration of the Bill.

I have listened carefully to the arguments advanced in support of this Amendment, and I feel that they are convincing. We think it would afford the business community a greater measure of confidence if the seriousness of disclosure was perhaps rather more emphasised in terms of the penalty than it is at the moment. For those reasons, I am happy to say that we can accept the Amendment

Here we have an Amendment accepted by the Government, yet apparently nobody is allowed to say "Thank you." The manners of hon. Members opposite appal me. I wanted to say "Thank you," and I also wanted to make it perfectly clear that all through this Bill the Government have taken great pains to inflict penalties for accidents; that is to say, on people who, by mistake, do not give the right returns. Yet when it comes to a matter involving deliberate disclosure and the injury of trade the Government have been rather slack. Once again they have been pulled up by Members of the party to which I belong, and I thank them very much. [HON. Members: "Hear, hear." I am glad hon. Members opposite are now awake to the fact that occasionally, although very occasionally, the Government do something sensible, so that it raises a small cheer.

Amendment agreed to.