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Attorney-General

Volume 12: debated on Monday 9 November 1981

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Public Order Act 1936 (Prosecutions)

45.

asked the Attorney-General how many prosecutions have been brought, since May 1979, under the incitement to racial hatred provision of the Public Order Act 1936.

During the period 5 May 1979 to date I have consented to the prosecution of 11 persons for offences contrary to section 5A and two persons for conspiring to contravene the section. The two conspirators have been found guilty, and five persons have been found guilty under section 5A. Proceedings under section 5A against the other six are still outstanding.

Is the Attorney-General aware that many people are puzzled at the small number of prosecutions that have been brought, given the rather nasty racist material that is in circulation? Is that small number of prosecutions due to an inability to identify the publisher and distributor, because the material comes from abroad, or for some other reason?

As I said when this matter was previously raised, there are, and have been, serious evidential difficulties, but the House may be interested to know that the number of prosecutions to which I have consented has greatly increased over the past few months.

I sympathise with the difficulties involved in bringing proceedings under the existing section. However, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that years of patient work in community relations can be destroyed in an hour by a busload of mischief makers brought in from another area, or a busload of material brought in from London, which sometimes uses language that is not necessarily threatening, abusive or insulting? Will he invite his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to consider whether in this respect the limits of free speech are still too widely drawn?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is no doubt right when he says that a great deal of patient work can be destroyed almost in a matter of moments either by a busload of people or material, some of which, unfortunately, is printed outside our jurisdiction. However, we are now engaged in a much greater drive against it, so far with considerable success. I should like to see how that continues with the cases that are outstanding before I say any more.

I thank the Attorney-General for his reply to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer). Does he agree that the existing law, particularly in its emphasis on the word "hatred", makes it too difficult to prosecute the pernicious material that is circularised and which no doubt floods into his Department as it used to do in my time? Will he therefore take urgent steps to urge his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to tighten the law so that in future one can be sure that prosecutions will be successful?

The Director of Public Prosecutions is keeping a close eye on this. One must always maintain the balance that has existed for centuries between those statements and speeches that are racist in their intent and the maintenance of a measure of freedom of speech.

Bill Of Indictment Procedure

46.

asked the Attorney-General if he will review the use by the Director of Public Prosecutions of the Bill of Indictment procedure.

I am satisfied with the Director's use of the present procedure and do not intend to review it.

Before I call the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) to ask a supplementary question, I ask him to do his utmost to avoid referring to the two cases that are sub judice.

I hope, Mr. Speaker, that I can abide by your ruling. Does the Attorney-General accept that, while it was right to use the Bill of Indictment procedure in one case where it appears the magistrate got the law wrong, it is quite another matter to use it—

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to a well-known case, where people's rights and liberties are still at stake. It is a long-established custom in this place that we never seek to influence the courts when people's reputations and names are at stake.

I am in no way seeking to interfere in that way, Mr. Speaker. I am merely asking about the use of particular procedures by the Director of Public Prosecutions that have caused public concern. I believe that it is right that this issue should be raised in this place—

Order. Let me make it quite clear. The hon. Gentleman must not refer to any case that is currently before the courts, as that would be highly irresponsible.

Will the Attorney-General say whether he thinks it right for the Bill of Indictment procedure to be used in a way that steps in before the due process of law has been completed and prevents the defendant from testing the prosecution's argument that there is a prima facie case against him? Is that not unjust?

I shall, Mr. Speaker, be careful in my answer. The use of a voluntary Bill in circumstances in which the court is satisfied that the defendants are deliberately delaying the committal proceedings has operated on a number of occasions over the last few years.

Commercial Confidentiality

48.

asked the Attorney-General whether he will implement the recommendations of the Law Commission's report on breaches of commercial confidentiality.

The Law Commission's report deals with breach of confidence generally and is not limited, as the question implies, to commercial confidences. It was published on 29 October last, and the Government will have to take into consideration the comments and criticisms of the public before announcing their decision.

Will the Attorney-General give an assurance that in making that examination the Government will bear in mind the immense damage done to inventive and innovative firms by breaches of confidence that continue to take place?

That is one of the serious consequences of a breach of confidence, and that will be considered along with all the other recommendations in the report.

Mr Leo Long

49.

asked the Attorney-General if he will prosecute Mr. Leo Long for treason.

The Attorney-General will be aware that the Prime Minister has today issued a long and comprehensive written answer on this issue to my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan), which confirms what he said on this matter. Does not the history of the Blunt revelations, and now the Long revelations, together with the Prime Minister's refusal to name any further names, mean that there should be greater supervision over the operation of the security services than we have had so far? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman raise with the Prime Minister the possibility mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) during the Blunt debate, namely, that a committee of Members of Parliament could well oversee the security services to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen again?

We must look at the present position. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in her wrtten answer, the present procedures of the security service do not permit a person suspected of an espionage offence to be interviewed on the basis that he need not fear prosecution unless the case has first been referred to me and permission given for the interview to be conducted on that basis. That, and the other safeguards set out by the Prime Minister in her speech on 21 November 1979, now make the situation quite safe.

Am I not right in my recollection that the Attorney-General said in his statement on the Blunt affair that there were a few cases where inducements had been given to particular individuals, which would have made subsequent prosecution inappropriate?

In answer to a question from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on 20 November 1979 I maintained that in only on case had immunity been granted. I told the House—it appears to have been forgotten by the press and in other comment over the last 10 days:

"I understand that in a few cases in interviews with other persons inducements were offered which might have rendered any statements made as a result of the inducements inadmissible in any subsequent criminal proceedings."—[Official Report, 20 November 1979; Vol. 974, c. 99.]
The interview with Mr. Long was one of those to which I was referring.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General, because I wanted to remind him of his statement that there was only one case. Is he making it clear that Mr. Long's case was the only one, or were there others where inducements were offered? If so, how many? How far was the Attorney-General briefed on the matter when he took office, because he told the House on 21 November 1979 that when he was briefed, within a month of entering office, he was told of all the matters about which the security service felt he should know? Is that position not unlike Mr. Macmillan's famous complaint that nobody told him anything?

It is not the case that I was told nothing. I was told everything of importance relating to the existing and future position in May 1979. In the few cases where inducements were offered, there was no question of the Attorney-General of the day either being told or giving his consent.

Questions To Ministers

I draw the attention of the House to the fact that one question occurs six times in identical language on the Order Paper today, and it is one of my responsibilities to do my best to guard the Order Paper. If that custom were to continue, there would be nothing to stop hon. Members from putting down 50 similar questions on the Order Paper. As, in my mind, the open question has seriously affected Prime Minister's Question Time, I look with disfavour at the same question being repeated.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on the practice of transferring questions to other Ministers, with particular reference to the transfer of a question that I tabled to the Attorney-General to the Secretary of State for Social Services, and which is now numbered 54.

On 8 December 1980, the Lord Chancellor announced a feasibility study to consider making available microfilms of registers of births, deaths and marriages in the custody of the Registrar-General for research purposes. The Solicitor-General answered written questions that I tabled on the subject on 26 and 30 January. The Attorney-General answered an oral question from me on the same issue on 6 April. My question today on the same matter was transferred to the Secretary of State for Social Services. I understand that the registers in question are not, legally speaking, public records and therefore come under the Secretary of State for Social Services. However, if the question of their transfer is being considered by a feasibility study that has been set up by the Lord Chancellor, for whom the Attorney-General answers in this House, should there not be a practice whereby one Minister takes responsibility for the matter here and should not we stand by it? Would that not make sense and also be for the convenience of hon. Members who wish to table questions, not only on this matter but on all others?

I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman said will be borne in mind by those who have heard it. However, he must realise it is not a matter on which I can rule.