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Official Secrets Act

Volume 655: debated on Thursday 8 March 1962

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asked the Prime Minister whether he will move to set up a Select Committee to inquire into the working of the Official Secrets Act and to make recommendations for limiting its scope to the purposes for which it was originally intended, and for the prevention of abuses.

Is the Prime Minister really unaware of the grave anxieties about this matter which are affecting a great many people in the country—at any rate, those who are still concerned with liberty? Is he also not aware that over the years the scope of prosecutions under this Act has become wider and wider and gone further and further from the Act's original intention, that every pledge to limit the scope of it has been broken and that the Attorney-General only recently informed the House that every safeguard in the Act can be evaded and avoided by the simple device of bringing a charge of common law conspiracy instead of a substantive offence? Is the right hon. Gentleman really satisfied with that? Does not he think it time that the Government had another look at this matter to see whether we need this apparatus of a police State?

All those matters will be considered, but I do not think that this is the time to consider them because these cases are before the courts on appeal, and it would be very improper for me to comment on the propriety or otherwise of the prosecutions.

On the general principle involved, would the Prime Minister agree that there appears to be a case for inquiring into the operation of this Act? If it is found that it is being used for purposes not originally intended, would it not be preferable to introduce new legislation so that Parliament might have the chance to consider it?

I think that this is a bad moment for me to discuss the general principle while the particular application is about to go before the appeal court.

Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that he will consider the appointment of a Select Committee to consider this matter as soon as this immediate case is dealt with? Meantime, will he undertake to examine and study the Report on the Sandys case which was made to this House before the war and which gave the view that the Official Secrets Act should be restricted in its use in the light of the present case when the opportunity is available?

I cannot undertake to set up any particular form of procedure, whether by Select Committee or otherwise, but when the appeal is over I will discuss the matter with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to see whether, in the Government's view, any action is necessary.