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Patrick Pottle And Others (Sentences)

Volume 654: debated on Wednesday 21 February 1962

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(by Private Notice) asked the Home Secretary whether he will immediately advise the exercise of the prerogative of mercy in respect of sentences passed at the Old Bailey yesterday on Patrick Pottle, Terence Chandler, Ian Dixon, Trevor Hatton, Michael Randle and Helen Allegranza

No, Sir. It is open to the persons concerned to apply to the Court of Criminal Appeal for leave to appeal against their sentences.

In asking the Home Secretary to have second thoughts on this matter, may I ask him to bear three things in mind? First, that this was a symbolic political trial of half a dozen people arbitrarily selected among thousands of people who consider themselves equally technically guilty—

Order. The hon. Member cannot, in a Question, criticise the conviction of a court.

I was hoping, Mr. Speaker, in the Question and in my supplementary, to avoid any reference to the proceedings of the court and therefore to underline my submission to the Home Secretary that this is a case for the exercise of the prerogative on these grounds: that the real conflict here was not between the State and its power to protect itself against illegal activities, but between the image of Parliament and democratic processes against those who are half convinced that those democratic processes are no longer adequate to deal with the issues before the nation.

Is it not a fact that it is not the severity of penalties which will deter these activities, but a conviction that the green card which I hold in my hand—that is why I say only half convinced that the democratic processes do not work—carrying the name of one of the defendants, with an address in Paddington, who, a few hours before his trial, was prepared—

I have no authority from the House to allow the hon. Member to make a speech in the guise of a question. He must have regard to the rules of the House.

Is the Home Secretary aware that there is grave public concern at the fact that the Official Secrets Act, which was designed expressly and only for the security of the State, is being used as a vehicle for the suppression of freedom of political opinion?

I am not prepared to comment upon the proceedings in court on this case, but I should like to stress that it is open to the persons concerned to apply for leave to appeal within ten days of their conviction. In the meantime, it would not be right for me to comment on the case.

Is the Home Secretary aware of the deep sense of injustice which is felt that such savage sentences—

Although the accused are technically guilty under the Official Secrets Act, since there is no doubt whatever that they are sincere young people who are patriotic in the deepest sense in their concern for the safety of the people of the country, would it not be a welcome act if the Home Secretary would use his powers to advise the Queen to exercise clemency in mitigation of these harsh sentences?

When I realised that this Question would be put, I knew that it would place a natural inhibition upon me, because it would be quite wrong for me to comment on the case while the right of appeal lies open to the convicted.

Surely, the problem is this. The Official Secrets Act was designed to protect the country from a foreign enemy. It is not designed to protect us against political disturbances. We have legislation with regard to public nuisance. Indeed, I believe that the Attorney-General has to give his consent to a prosecution under the Official Secrets Act precisely to avoid its being misused. Here, surely, no foreign enemy was involved. This was a public nuisance and a nuisance to the police. Is it not an abuse of procedure to have used the Official Secrets Act on this occasion?

On a point of order. I should like to ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker—

Having heard those exchanges, I thought that we could not further pursue the matter today. Sir Samuel Storey.

It probably is convenient to me to hear the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) on a point of order on this subject before passing to another.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I rose several times to address a question to the Home Secretary, but apparently I did not catch your eye. l observed that several hon. Members caught your eye. Nevertheless, I wish to address a question to the right hon. Gentleman which I regard as relevant to the subject. Am I to be allowed to put my question?

I intended no kind of discourtesy to the right hon. Gentleman or to anybody else, but I came to the conclusion, in the discharge of my responsibilities, having heard what had passed, that it would not be right to allow further questions about the matter. It was for that reason that I passed on. Sir Samuel Storey.

It is very unfair. [HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] I said that it was very unfair and I say what I mean.

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to criticise the conduct of the Chair, he must take the proper steps about it.

You will no doubt recollect, Mr. Speaker, that on 6th December, just before the charges were brought under the Officials Secrets Act, I attempted to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 to raise the question of the use of the Official Secrets Act in this connection. You will remember that on that occasion you refused my request and said that I would understand that this was a matter that the House would want to discuss at some other time. Since then, I have made every effort to raise the matter during the normal course of Parliamentary procedure. I applied during December for an Adjournment debate, but was unsuccessful. Last week, I applied for an Adjournment debate this week or next week, when I understood that the trial of the members of the Committee of 100 would be over, but, again, I was unfortunate and did not gain an Adjournment debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It is clear that this is a matter which demands discussion.

May I, therefore, ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, as to the point at which, either before or after possible appeals have been made, you would regard it as appropriate that this House should have the opportunity to discuss this matter, which is vital to our democratic civil liberties?

The hon. Lady will understand that I have nothing to do with the fixing of business. Sometimes, under a Standing Order, I have to decide whether I can leave an application to the House, but otherwise I have no control of these matters.

Further to that point of order. While it would be quite improper for the House or the Home Secretary to comment on the actual case, or its conduct, or its result, nevertheless, under the Official Secrets Act, such a prosecution cannot be instituted without the leave of the Attorney-General, and for the giving of that leave the Attorney-General remains responsible to the House of Commons. When are we to have an opportunity of calling the Attorney-General to account for what many of us believe to be an abuse of his powers?

I do not understand this. The hon. Gentleman rose to a point of order. There just is not one in that.