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Official Secrets Acts

Volume 975: debated on Monday 10 December 1979

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34.

asked the Attorney-General if he will now make a statement about his prosecution policy under the Official Secrets Acts.

In deciding in any case whether to give my consent to a prosecution I shall consider whether there is sufficient evidence to support a charge and whether it is in the public interest.

May I congratulate the Attorney-General on his part in dropping the Protection of Official Information Bill in the wake of the Blunt affair? Is he aware that intimidation over the use of section 2, which all civil servants have to sign, is still a great inhibition upon civil servants opening up scandal and waste in Governments? When will the right hon. and learned Gentleman bring forward a Bill to abolish section 2 and introduce a freedom of information Bill on the lines of the Bill put forward by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud)?

I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the restriction on civil servants. Their obligations and duties as to how they should deal with official documents are clear. It is a matter for my right hon. Friend to decide when, at what time and in what form, any Bill to replace the present Act should be produced.

If the Attorney-General does not intend to invoke a law that appears on the statute book is it not high time that it was revoked?

I have not said in any way that I shall not invoke a law that is on the statute book. I shall have to consider each case and decide whether, both upon the evidence and in the public interest, a prosecution should take place.

Does the Attorney-General appreciate that the Government have, at present, left this matter in mid-air? Can he give the House any idea of the Government's policy regarding the repeal of section 2?

As is known, the Bill was withdrawn from the other place, so section 2 still applies. In appropriate cases, when I am considering the public interest aspect, it will be open to me to take into account the recommendations of the Franks committee, the proposals made by successive Governments—because this goes back a long way—and public opinion on these proposals as expressed in Parliament and elsewhere.

Is not the Lord Chancellor one of those who has expressed, from time to time, concern about what he described as an elective dictatorship—a view about which he seems rather mute these days? Is not one of the ways in which scrutiny can continue through more open government? Would it not be a matter of public concern if a civil servant spoke out freely about waste in government, for example? Does not this all point to the need for more open government? What, for goodness sake, will this Conservative Government do about that?

The question asked about my policy on prosecuting under the Official Secrets Acts. I have described that. How far a civil servant can go in disclosing matters about his ordinary day-to-day work would be a matter for me to consider. I should have to consider whether a disclosure was a breach of the Official Secrets Acts, bearing in mind all public interest aspects, some of which I have referred to today.