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Official Secrets Bill Hl

Volume 40: debated on Friday 25 June 1920

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Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee, read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—( Viscount Peel.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1:

Unauthorised use of uniforms; falsification of reports, forgery, personation, and false documents.

1. If any person for the purpose of gaining admission, Or of assisting any other person te gain admission, to a prohibited place, within the meaning of the Official Secrets Act, 1911 (hereinafter referred to as "the principal Act"), or for any other purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State—

  • (a) uses or wears, without lawful authority, any naval, military, air-force, polioe, or other official uniform, or any uniform so nearly resembling the same as to be calculated to deceive, or falsely represents himself to be a person who is or has been entitled to use or wear any such uniform; or
  • (b) orally, or in writing in any declaration or application, or in any document signed by him or on his behalf, knowingly makes or connives at the making of any false statement or any omission; or
  • (c) forges, alters, or tampers with any passport or any naval, military, air-force, police or official pass, permit, certificate, licence, or other document (hereinafter in this section referred to as an official document), or uses or has in his possession any such forged, altered, or irregular official document; or
  • (d) personates, or falsely represents himself to be a person holding, or in the employment of a person holding office under His Majesty, or to be or not to be a person to whom an official document or secret official code word or pass word has been duly issued or communicated, or with intent to obtain an official document, secret official code word or pass word, whether for himself or any other person, knowingly makes any false statement; or
  • (e) uses, or has in his possession or under his control, without the authority of the Government Department or the authority concerned, any die, seal, or stamp of or belonging to, or used, made or provided by any Government Department, or by any diplomatic, naval, military, or air force authority appointed by or acting under the authority of His Majesty, or any die, seal or stamp so nearly resembling any such die, seal or stamp as to be calculated to deceive, or counterfeits any such die, seal or stamp, or uses, or has in his possession, or under his control, any such counterfeited die, seal or stamp;
  • be shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and subsection (2) of section one of the principal Act shall apply to prosecutions under this subsection in like manner as it applies to prosecutions under that section

    (2) If any parson—

  • (a) retains any official document, whether or not completed or issued for Use, when he has no right to retain it, or when it is contrary to his duty to retain it, or fails to comply with any directions issued by lawful authority with regard to the return or disposal thereof; or
  • (b) allows any other person to have possession of any official document issued for his use alone, or communicates any secret official code word or pass word so issued, or, without lawful authority or excuse, has in his possession any official document or secret official code word or pass word issued for the use of some person other than himself, or on obtaining possession of any official document by finding or otherwise, neglects or fails to restore it to the person or authority by whom or for whose use it was issued, or to a police constable;
  • (c) without lawful authority or excuse, manufactures or sells, or has in his possession for sale any such die, seal or stamp as aforesaid;
  • he shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.

    I am loath to interrupt the silent course of proceedings on this Bill, and I shall not detain your Lordships for more than a minute. I do not differ in point of aim and purpose from His Majesty's Government. We are all out for ensuring the security of the Realm. I desire only to point out that in Clause 1, subsection (2), a new category of offence is created which goes very far beyond the sphere of espionage, or what leads by cumulative steps to other like offences. There is nothing that I less wish to do than to make it more difficult for His Majesty's Government to secure that amount of protection which was denied under the old Act, and which might have had serious consequences during the great war.

    What I wish to bring before your Lordships is this. In the second subsection of Clause 1 a series of new offences is created, and the principal one is that any person who is in possession of any official document, the return of which is demanded by a competent authority, is guilty of a misdemeanour. If he is guilty of a misdemeanour he may, under Clause 8, be severely punished, the penalties amounting to two years' imprisonment with or without hard labour. He is, therefore, in a very grave position. I do not know a single editor of a national paper who from time to time has not been in possession of official documents which have been brought into his office, very often not at his own request, and which it may be inconvenient to the Minister of the responsible Department should have gone out. Is it proposed that any man in that position should be liable to prosecution and be subject to such penalties? I do not suppose, for a moment that the noble Viscount, or his colleagues, would use, this Bill for any such purpose, but it is possible that in their place there might be Ministers holding peculiar views in regard to the liberty of the subject and the liberty of the Press, such as are openly avowed by certain sections of the Labour Party in this country to-day, and you cannot guarantee that such powers will always be reasonably used.

    I think the words in the subsection are dangerously wide. It would not be any proof of espionage, or any such offence that an editor had in his possession documents which the Department possibly had not wished should be issued, but which even those who might not have any corrupt or sinister motive desired should come into the possession of those responsible for political comment and criticism in the Press. I do not quarrel with the Bill in the least. I quite see it may be necessary, with the experience of the war behind us, to embody by way of Statute those provisions which have been found extremely useful during the war under the Regulations made by virtue of the Defence of the Realm Act. But I would ask the noble Viscount whether he would give me some assurance that he will carefully examine this clause, and, if he finds—because the Bill has to go to another place—that these words are dangerously wide they will be so limited, not in the least to defeat the object of the Bill, but to protect the newspaper Press from prosecutions which might be instituted, and of which they have a reasonable fear.

    I do not believe any editor would be safe if the Bill were passed in its present form. They would have to take out policies of insurance against this sort of prosecution, and I have not such unlimited faith in Government Departments that I wish to give them the sort of autocratic powers that have no doubt been exercised, in regard to publication in the Press, in other countries, which have treated documents as if they were inspired and sacrosanct. I shall raise no further objection, but I would ask the noble Viscount to give an undertaking that, if he has not strong reasons for disagreeing—because I can raise the matter again on Report—he will endeavour to find words which will give to the newspaper Press that measure of assurance which I think they are entitled to demand.

    We are put in some difficulty, as my noble friend knows, with his Parliamentary experience. This Bill was down for Second Reading on Tuesday, and no noble Lords took any part whatever in the discussion.

    Therefore nothing led me to believe that there was any objection to the Bill in any quarter of the House. Moreover, there is no Amendment on the Paper now, and of these objections—important ones no doubt—I have had no notice which would have given me the opportunity of consulting with the authorities concerned. I am in a further difficulty, because the noble Viscount has not even tabled an Amendment now, so that I am not quite sure of what point he is dealing with. I suggest that the Bill should go through as it is, and then I will discuss with him and make strong representations to the authorities, so that the necessary limiting Amendments are moved in another place (because some of the words probably are rather wide), or, if he prefers it, he can move an Amendment on Third Reading.

    I must apologise to the noble Viscount, but I moved no Amendment because I wish the Government themselves to suggest appropriate words. On the other hand, two hours ago I was in communication with certain expert gentlemen who advise the noble Viscount, and therefore it is not so absolutely unexpected as might appear. I should suggest to him that the words can be inserted on the Third Reading, if he would take that course.

    My noble friend has asked me to say a word. I am sure the noble Viscount will see, that it is really a very inconvenient course that he proposes. Whilst this House has always retained the right to make Amendments on Third Reading, it is obviously a very inconvenient course that detailed Amendments to any Bill should be moved at that stage. The noble Viscount will see that there would be complete confusion between the two stages, and there would be no Report stage of Amendments. The matter is very complicated, and I am inclined to think, as a first impression, that the language used is a little wide in more than one of these clauses. I think that in Clause 1 (2) it might be possible to insert such words as these—

    "If any person, for any purpose prejudicial to the safety and interests of the State—."
    and so forth. There is one other later clause in which I have observed some equal vagueness in the drafting. If the noble Viscount will discuss these matters with the noble Viscount in charge of the Bill between now and Third Reading, it may be that one or both of them may put down an Amendment which will correct the latitude of the language.

    Clause 1 agreed to.

    Remaining clauses and schedules agreed to.

    House adjourned at seven o'clock.