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Attorney-General

Volume 118: debated on Monday 29 June 1987

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Mr Peter Wright

48.

asked the Attorney-General if he will make a statement on the proceedings in the Wright case in Australia.

The hearing of the Government's appeal against the judgment delivered in the Supreme Court of New South Wales is due to commence on 27 July.

Having lost the court case in Australia, why is more public money being wasted in pursuing this matter further in the courts? Would it not be useful if the Attorney-General started his new post with a clean sheet and recognised that the Wright case has become a farce? Is he aware that another book which the Government tried to ban, "One Girl's War", and which technically is banned in the United Kingdom, is now freely available in the Library and I have a copy of it in my hand?

I thought that it was well enough understood by now that the Government were upholding, or seeking to uphold, in the courts of New South Wales the principle that those who have served in the security services of this country owe a lifelong duty to the Crown to preserve the confidentiality of any material that came to their knowledge by reason of that employment, unless authorised to publish it. That is the principle that I shall seek to uphold in the Court of Appeal. I certainly do not intend to embark on my tenure of this office by surrendering after one adverse hearing.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that all right-minded people support him in his endeavours and his desire to ensure that former members of the security forces are not allowed to publish their memoirs? Will he also consider the longer term, that is that section 2 should not be abolished, but should be replaced by a freedom of information Act which would ensure what the permissible boundaries are in respect of all these publications?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the first part of his question. I did not notice that this was much of an issue during the general election, and if it was, it did not seem to advantage the Labour party to any discernible extent. On the second part of his question, my hon. Friend will recall that the Government introduced a Bill in another place along the lines that he suggested, but that it did not find favour. Further policy on that matter is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Where is the consistency in the Government's position? Why is it that they pursue Wright in the Australian courts, yet they leave Mr. Nigel West, now a Tory Member of Parliament for Torbay (Mr. Allason), free? The Government do not pursue him in the courts, but he wrote two books which set out, in detail, the internal workings and structure of both MI5 and MI6. Are there two laws in this country? The Government pursue one man but leave the other, when both have committed the same alleged crime.

In spite of the numerous questions that the hon. Gentleman has asked and the answers that he has received, I am afraid that he still has not understood that the principle that the Government are seeking to uphold is that anybody who has held employment in the security services owes a life-long duty of confidentiality to the Crown.

May I re-emphasise to my right hon. and learned Friend that for many of us on the Conservative Benches the only thing that matters is that a trusted public servant has abused his position of trust. We firmly support what the Government are doing.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall not comment upon anything that is in issue in the proceedings before the court in New South Wales, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the principle that the Government are seeking to uphold.

I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman to his new office, if not to entirely new responsibilities, and wish him well.

On the assumption that Wright's main allegations have already appeared in the British press, and noting that the whole book is advertised for import from the United States, is not the attempt to hush it up now a waste of money and effort? Would not that money and effort be better expended in investigating what are, after all, extremely serious allegations, made by somebody who is in a position to know?

I am grateful to the hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I believe that expression has already been given by others in the House today to the importance of the principle that the Government are seeking to uphold. It is a matter to which the Government attach considerable importance and I believe that the public support them.

Family Courts

50.

asked the Attorney-General if he will make a statement on the future of family courts.

53.

asked the Attorney-General if he will make a statement on his consultation document on the establishment of family courts.

The Government published a consultation paper in May 1986 setting out three possible options for reform in the handling of family cases. That paper indicated that Ministers intended to be in a position to take decisions about this matter not later than December 1987. That remains the target, but the matter is a complex one and the Government cannot commit themselves precisly to that date or to any particular decision.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that if, at the end of the day, for reasons of cost it was decided not to proceed with family courts, that decision would be met with widespread disappointment by those who are involved in trying to make sure that the system of family law in this country works as efficiently, effectively and humanely as possible? In those circumstances, would my right hon. and hon. Friend at least undertake to look at jurisdiction in the various levels of courts—magistrates, county courts and so on—to see how that jurisdiction might be simplified to make it more streamlined for the benefit of all involved in applying family law in this country?

I recognise my hon. Friend's long-standing interest in this important subject. Officials are still considering the resource implications of the various options upon which decisions can be made. I do not think that I should speculate upon the outcome of their considerations when it ultimately comes before my right hon. Friends to decide the matter. Plainly, the issue to which my hon. Friend has referred will be one to which importance will be attached.

Piecemeal reforms may be a 11 very well, but our court systems were arranged at a time when attitudes to children, divorce and maintenance were quite different from those of today. Before taking any final decisions, will my right hon. and learned Friend look again at the entirely innocent victims of the present arrangements, the 160,000 dependent children who are annually involved in divorce cases? There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that a coherent family court structure would best serve their needs.

I know my hon. Friend's interest and experience in these matters. The interests of children will, of course, be in the forefront of my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor's mind. That is a matter—

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has a good deal more interest in this matter than has the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is shouting from a sedentary position. I note what my hon. Friend has said, and I shall draw it to the attentiion of my noble Friend.

Does the Attorney-General not agree that in any restructuring of the court structure, which is long overdue, some effort should be made to ensure that the courts are adequately staffed and have adequate resources? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not also agree that the example that we now see in Crown courts and county courts, where lists cannot be met simply because of the shortage of court staff, does not give us much hope of confidence in the future of the court structure if he or his party is in charge?

Without commenting on general assertions, of course I acknowledge the importance of adequate staffing.

The precedent of the Crown Prosecution Service does not augur well for adequate staffing. Will the Attorney-General bear in mind that from the time of the Finer report there has been an increasing consensus among all those involved, both legal practitioners and those on the welfare side, that there must come about a unified, coherent court structure?

I note the strong expression of opinion voiced by the hon. Gentleman today. As I said, all these matters are being considered, and my right hon. Friends will take a decision as soon as possible.

Zircon Satellite

51.

asked the Attorney-General if he will make a statement on the progress of inquiries resulting from the search of BBC premises in Glasgow in February in relation to "Project Zircon".

The police investigation which started in January is continuing, and the matter is being considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

February, March, April, May, and now June—is it right that the police investigation involving the Special Branch on that Sunday morning should go on for so long? Is not the truth of the matter that this has little to do with the national security of our country and everything to do with pressurising the BBC?