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Official Secrets Acts

Volume 958: debated on Monday 20 November 1978

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I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the use by the Attorney-General of his discretion in allowing prosecutions in cases under the Official Secrets Acts in the light of the verdicts and sentences in the case of Regina v. Berry, Campbell and Aubrey, which was settled on Friday."
I do not think that there will be any dispute that this is an extremely important matter, because it goes to the roots of press freedom and freedom of information in Britain. It arises out of a case in which three individuals, among them two journalists, have been harassed for 20 months on charges under the Official Secrets Acts which the House now knows have resulted, in the case of the two journalists, in mere conditional discharges.

This issue goes directly to ministerial responsibility, which is one of the points you have to bear in mind, Mr. Speaker, in the sense that the Attorney-General's discretion was deliberately included in the Official Secrets Acts by Parliament as a safeguard to avoid abuse of those Acts when, from time to time, they were passed by this House. It is worth remembering that the Official Secrets Act 1911, under which these charges were laid, was said at the time it was passed to be intended solely to deal with cases of espionage.

In addition, the Attorney-General has made it clear, both by his words and by his actions in the recent Gouriet case concerning the Post Office, that he considers himself answerable in his discretion in no way to the courts of justice but to this House. Those were his words. The day after the case involving Mr. Gouriet, he came to the House and made a statement about the use of his discretion in that case. Since he has not done so today, there is a strong case for the House demanding that he should. It is essential for him to explain what his policy now is in authorising prosecutions under section 1 charges—which, it is worth remembering, were dropped in this case after the judge had declared them oppressive—and section 2 charges.

Another point which you have to consider, Mr. Speaker, in deciding this issue is the opportunity which the House might have of debating the matter in future. Like the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Attorney-General comes to the House to answer questions for only 10 minutes every two months. He has only recently done so and, therefore, will not be due back until about Christmas time. It is essential that we have the chance to call him to account in this absolutely vital matter very quickly.

I come now to the issue of urgency, which I have to prove to secure a Standing Order No. 9 debate. At the moment, members of the public, journalists and everyone else have been relying on the statement of the Home Secretary as to the Government's policy on prosecutions under the Official Secrets Acts which was made on 22nd November 1976. Having said earlier that the Government no longer considered mere receipt of information to be an offence, the Home Secretary said:
"It was important that the statement should be made so that the Government's intentions might be taken into account."
That is the intention that receipt of information should cease to be illegal.
"Although the operation of the Act is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, it will no doubt be open to the Attorney-General to take into account the Goverment's intention to introduce legislation on the lines I have indicated in considering whether to bring proceedings under section 2. For that reason alone, it was vital that a statement should be made."—[Official Report, 22nd November 1976; Vol. 919, c. 1882.]
Everyone in this House assumed that that meant that there would be no more prosecutions under section 2 of the Act for receiving information. In this case, after the section 1 charges were dropped, after being categorised by the judge as oppressive, the judge went on to say that the Attorney-General could start prosecutions and he could also stop prosecutions. In my submission, that was an open invitation by the judge for the Attorney-General to drop not only the section 1 charges but the section 2 charges also.

The urgency is that until the Attorney-General explains the position no one knows exactly where he stands. The Official Secrets Act is breached daily within and without the Palace of Westminster. If mere receipt of official information is once more to become a prosecuted offence, no one—not merely journalists—will know where he stands. The Attorney-General must combat the accusation that there has been oppressive discrimination in prosecuting procedures, which is so far explicable only in terms of influence over those prosecutions by those in the security service who are not answerable to the House.

You have indicated before, Mr. Speaker—for example, after the Tame-side judgment—that the aftermath of an important judgment such as the one to which l have referred is a proper occasion for a Standing Order No. 9 debate. put it strongly to you, Mr. Speaker, that there can hardly be a more important issue for the House to consider than freedom of speech. This is pre-eminently a proper issue for a Standing Order No. 9 debate.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) gave me notice before 12 o'clock noon that he would seek leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the use by the Attorney-General of his discretion in allowing prosecutions in cases under the Official Secrets Acts in the light of the verdicts and sentences in the case of Regina v. Berry, Campbell and Aubrey, which was settled on Friday."
I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, and I repeat to the House once more that I do not decide whether a matter is to be discussed. My discretion is limited solely to whether the matter is of such a character that it must be discussed this night or tomorrow night.

As the House knows, under Standing Order No. 9 I am directed to take account of the several factors set out in the Order but to give no reasons for my decision. I have to rule that the hon. Gentleman's submission does not fall within the provisions of the Standing Order, and, therefore, I cannot submit his application to the House.