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Official Secrets Act

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 28 January 1988

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3.36 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question on government policy on changes to the Official Secrets Act which is being given in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. My right honourable friend's reply is as follows:

"I gave the House an account of the Government's intentions in this respect, and of the issues which we are considering, in the debate on the Bill introduced by my honourable friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Richard Shepherd) on 15th January. In my interview for the BBC "Analysis" programme to be broadcast tonight—during which I discuss in general terms the balance to be struck between the obligations of civil servants and the public's right to know—I set out again some of the ground which we are covering in our review of these matters. In particular, I give examples of different types of information which might or might not require the protection of the criminal law. The analysis I offer is in accordance with the Franks Report and has been common ground since 1972.

"As the House knows, we hope to publish our proposals in a White Paper in June, and the House will have an opportunity to debate those proposals before the Summer Recess. My interview tonight—a full transcript of which I propose to place in the Library of the House—gives no details of our proposals."

My Lords, that completes the reply which was given by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

My Lords, on behalf of the House I thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement, which is singularly uncommunicative. It would seem that this great public debate has been removed from Parliament to broadcasting, perhaps not for the first time.

May we have at least the assurance that in any legislation they may propose to repeal Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act which, on common ground, has long been regarded as a mess and was so described in the Franks Report, the Government will ensure that a mere certificate by a Minister that national security was involved would not be regarded as sufficient to prove to a jury the guilt of an accused under a new official secrets Act? That is what the Government did—or they made suggestions along those lines—in 1979. May we have an assurance that we shall have something more satisfactory if and when something erupts from the governmental mind?

My Lords, following the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, perhaps I may also thank the noble Earl for having repeated the Statement. May I ask two questions? First, could he discuss with his noble friend the Government Chief Whip the possibility of a debate in government time before the Summer Recess, given that he has indicated that the White Paper will be published in June, a time when this House will inevitably have before it a very substantial amount of government legislation?

Secondly, is he aware that many of us will welcome the apparent statement of the Home Secretary in the broadcast this evening that in the future any civil servant guilty of a breach of confidentiality will be proceeded against under the disciplinary regulations applying to civil servants and that there will be no repetition of the folly of the Ponting prosecution?

My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Lords for the welcome, even if partial, that was given to the Statement. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, is ingenious, if I may say so, in asking me to give an undertaking as to what will appear in the Government's White Paper. With the greatest of respect, I suggest that it would be best if the noble and learned Lord were to wait until the White Paper arrives, although his remarks will obviously be taken into account.

With regard to the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, whether or not there is a debate is a matter for the usual channels. I have no doubt that the importance of the matter will be given its due weight. He too was fairly ingenious in asking me to give a commitment. I cannot give any such commitment until the Government's White Paper comes forward.

My Lords, clearly one does not wish to impose on the noble Earl at this time, but in considering the White Paper and what ground it covers can those of us who have been involved in public life on the official side and who have played according to the rules—namely, that we have not breached confidentiality at any time—be assured that the Secretary of State has in mind that the legislation will also cover Ministers, so that they might also consider sticking to the Official Secrets Act, both in the letter and in the spirit?

My Lords, I am sure that all these matters are high in my right honourable friend's mind, but I merely remind the noble Lord and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, that what my right honourable friend was saying was no indication of Government policy. He was merely taking part in a public debate on a matter of public interest and indicating the kind of areas which the White Paper might cover.

My Lords, the noble Earl will agree that some of the revelations which have been made from time to time by civil servants and others have been revelations of misdemeanours, sometimes amounting to criminality by the secret services. Have the Government any plans to get to the root of the matter? Have they any plans to bring the secret services under more effective supervision, quite apart from the question whether or not it is proper to prosecute those who reveal such secrets?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, has put down a Motion on the secret services for about a week's time. On the general point, I would merely say that the Government have been discussing and considering these matters since April last year and it is right that we should wait until the conclusions on those deliberations are available which should be in about June this year.

My Lords, various governments have been considering this issue for many years now without producing anything. Can we take it that the Statement made by the noble Earl now indicates specifically that in the next Session the Government intend to bring forward some form of legislation—particularly in view of their attitude to the Private Member's Bill last week—to alter Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act?

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, gives the Government credit for taking action whereas previous governments have not done so. I can only tell him that he must wait until the White Paper appears. It would be quite wrong for me to prejudge it or to give the noble Lord any assurance as to what will happen. I can tell him that the matter is under acute consideration. My right honourable friend is aware of the problems and hopes to put forward the Government's view on how those problems should be overcome. Having done that, it is of course up to Parliament to decide whether or not those views should be accepted.

My Lords, can the noble Earl give an assurance that in the White Paper there will be some cover of the security services? Will it be of such a kind as to calm the fevered imagination of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney? In such a reference to the security services will it he possible for the Government to move out of the era of John Buchan and into that of John Le Carré in the sense that the heads of the services should be able to be made public and be answerable in a limited fashion for what the services are sometimes accused of doing? If that is not done, serving officers and past officers of the security services will be traduced unmercifully by Members of another place without any kind of redress.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Annan, is competing in the stakes of ingenuity with his other noble friends. I hear what he has to say but I have no intention whatever of saying what will be in the White Paper because neither I nor the Government know. They are still considering.

My Lords, will the noble Earl acquaint the noble Lord on this side of the House with the fact that the fevered imagination that he attributes to me exists only in his own mind?

My Lords, not for the first time. I think I am acting as a conduit between the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, and some other noble Lord.