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Column 1067Clause 1(1) asserts that a public servant may never release any information without authorisation, even if to do so will reveal criminality, fraud, the deception of the House, or the abuse or undermining of our democratic principles--that never in any circumstances may that be done. We have been arguing against that course, not just over the three weeks since the Bill's Second Reading, but for the past year. However, the Home Office asserts that it is nonsense, and the Government-- through the Attorney-General and through every other office that appears before the courts--maintain that their arguments are respectable.
The Government also say that, in the last analysis, the courts will judge. But there have been court judgments, and still the Government say, "We do not like the courts' judgments, and we shall legislate accordingly. After all, the judges say that in issues of national security, it is the duty and responsibility of the House of Commons to legislate and to give guidance."
However, when it comes to matters that touch on the common law of the United Kingdom, the duty of confidentiality, while correct and lifelong, cannot be absolute in the particular. In some circumstances, such confidentiality will be against the public interest and the public good. The Committee should be mindful of that, and I hope that it will accept the amendments in the names of the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South and of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South and myself.
"a person notified that he is subject to the provisions of this subsection."
I have not yet been notified, but imagine that I will be, when the Bill becomes law.
The importance of clause 1 is that it deals not just with the Security Service but with the security and intelligence services. That is extremely important. For the first time, we are dealing with a new category of people. The Government have decided not to declare those people in the way that has been done in the past. I believe that that is the right decision. It nevertheless means that we must be mindful that we are legislating for a different group of people. We are also legislating, for the first time ever, in a way that could jeopardise those people's freedoms in a very basic fashion. The clause asks us to accept that those who work in the security and intelligence services should be treated entirely differently from other servants of the Crown, and it deserves, at the very least, careful scrutiny.
I think that it would have been more in keeping with the spirit of the legislation if either the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary had attended the debate. I mean no rudeness to the Minister, but the fact is that Ministers of State do not deal with these matters in either the Home Office or the Foreign Office. They are dealt with by the Secretary of State, and rightly so. The Secretary of State should be answerable to the Committee for these extraordinary powers, and should explain to us why he considers them necessary.
I may not carry every hon. Member with me when I say that there is, in my view, a strong case for treating people in the security and intelligence services differently. People
Column 1068who enter those services are indeed in a different category, and I would be prepared to accept clause 1 as drafted if it included four essential safeguards.
The first is, of course, a public interest defence. The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), in an important intervention, reminded the Committee of what had been done in the past, referring to the pre-war years. I do not think that passing this measure would make much difference : if people thought that the nation's security was under threat, I believe that they would conduct themselves as they had in the past, regardless of the legislation. It is worth remembering that when Ralph Wigram, head of the central department in the Foreign Office, made the decision--agreed, incidentally, by his superiors in the Foreign Office--to begin the systematic briefing of Churchill, he would have made the same decision even if this ludicrous piece of legislation had been on the statute book, so dire were the circumstances.
The Prime Minister--who, undoubtedly, has personally rejected a public interest defence--should ask herself, believing as she does that that period showed Churchill's greatness, whether it was right to introduce legislation that would have given those public-spirited men no defence in law for their actions. What they gave Churchill was not minor information, but the deepest intelligence known to the Government of the day. Having made their decision on 26 October 1934, they sent Churchill the first significant report, describing how the Nazis were aiming to have 1,000 war planes in two years' time. They went on to give him the transcript of a long conversation between Hitler and Admiral Erich Raeder, dated June of that year, in which the Fu"hrer demanded complete secrecy about the construction of U-boats.
Those were not just reports from the ambassador in Berlin--a fat lot of use a report from him would have been at that time. They were intelligence reports, which over the years were systematically diverted towards Churchill. We only really knew about it when another member of the central department, Michael Creswell, revealed--nine years after Churchill's death- -the extent of the information. In a wonderful description, he said that, sitting in the Box under the Gallery, he could not understand why the Ministers at the Dispatch Box did not realise the basis on which Churchill had obtained all the information. He concluded that the only reason was that people like Hoare and others simply had not read their own briefs. Every now and again Churchill had to make a deliberate factual mistake to cover up the fact that at that time he was probably the best-informed Member in the House, better informed than any member of the Cabinet. If the legislation goes through, if those circumstances ever returned people who gave such information would never be able to claim in court that they had acted in the public interest. That is ludicrous and not a single Tory Member should vote for it, but not a single Cabinet Minister is here to listen to the arguments. What is happening to the House? What is wrong with it? Why are we allowed to pass such legislation with hardly any serious scrutiny? I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), whom we welcome back to the House. I said a few rude things to him during the by-election campaign, but judging by the noises that have come from him it seems that he also objects to the legislation, in which case I must take it all back. It that
Column 1069is so, in the first few weeks of his return to the House he will have exhibited a healthy independence, as befits the Member of Parliament for his constituency.
The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent also mentioned the outrageous conduct of a former Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Devonport. There is some sympathy between the right hon. Gentleman and me in this regard. Hore- Belisha's conduct in the Duncan Sandys case was indeed outrageous, and was undoubtedly the reason why Churchill never forgave him.
If the Government ask us to pass the clause, they must concede the case for a public interest defence. We cannot place a blanket ban on those who work for the security or intelligence services, and provide no redress through the courts when those people believe that they have acted in the public interest. Such a defence is particularly pertinent to that category of people, and to clause 1.
Secondly, as suggested in new clause 6, tabled by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason), there is no doubt that the House must be satisfied that an independent mechanism exists to vet the memoirs of members of the security and intelligence services. It is not enough for that to be left to the Government of the day, because they will be making judgments about the disclosure of information that affect other Governments and decisions made by other Ministers. It is possible, for instance, that a Conservative Government would not have wished for a full disclosure of what did or did not happen in the Crabbe affair. If memoirs and biographies, which will undoubtedly continue to be written, are to be properly vetted they must be vetted by a body with a measure of independence, and the House is the only authority that can be satisfied that it has that measure of independence.
That could be done formally, as suggested in new clause 6, or there could be an understanding--which has usually applied in such cases--that the Prime Minister would appoint a group of people, subject to discussions with the Leader of the Opposition. There was a time when that convention was sufficient for most Members of Parliament ; I doubt whether that is still the case, and I think that we should know who will sit on such vetting bodies. It should be clear to those who write material of this kind that they are entitled to do so, subject only to an independent vetting procedure. That arrangement governs those who work in the FBI and the CIA, and we have a right to know that it would apply to those who work in our security and intelligence services.
Thirdly, such employees must have a contract of employment, which must make clear the terms on which they undertake the onerous obligation under no circumstances to reveal any information. The contract should assure them that a public interest defence is available to them, and that they have the right to go through a vetting procedure relating to the disclosure of information in memoirs.
Although provision has been made for those in the security services, those in the other category that is not covered by statute or by the Security Service Bill also need an internal procedure to allow them to bring anxieties or apprehensions, perhaps about malpractice, to an independent ombudsman or arbitrator. We have heard nothing about that. A Bill that lays a new statutory obligation on the security and intelligence services must give some satisfaction on those grounds.
Column 1070In the absence of any such provisions, clause 1 deserves to be rejected.
Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest) : It is a pleasure to follow the speech by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). He said some rude things about me during the recent by-election, but entirely redeemed himself tonight if only because he was kind enough to notice that I am here. When I asked the previous occupant of the Chair if I might be permitted to say a few words about my distinguished predecessor, he confessed to me that he did not notice that I had been away.
Happily, my absence from the House ended in December, but it is a matter of some sadness to me that the event which precipitated my return to the House was the death of our old friend Sir John Biggs-Davison, who served in the House and sat in or near the place from which I am speaking for 33 years. The hallmark of Sir John was that, however one regarded his views, one understood him to be a man of tremendous integrity, absolute honesty and loyalty to his principles. Sir John was universally well regarded, and if he were here he would listen very intently to hon. Members' observations. I should like to speak about that extraordinary phenomenon, a second maidenhood, although I am not sure how gynaecologically, medically or politically that is possible. My successor in Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said some kind things about me in his maiden speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) was of great assistance to me during the years when I represented Oxford, East. The hon. Member who now sits for that constituency and I fought each other in 1983 and he shadowed me for the next four years. Because of the pathetic collapse of the Alliance in 1987, he managed to take the seat from me. He and I debated matters of policy long into the night and very hard, and in all the time that I was the Member of Parliament he never descended to the level of personal abuse. I hope that it can be said that I did not do that either. I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman, and from the safety of a seat which I was advised by one of my local committee members not even a chimpanzee could lose for the Conservatives I wish him every limited success in his new seat.
I shall disappoint some of my hon. Friends who suggested to me that the glittering prizes in life are withheld from those who discomfit the Government, especially if they manage to do so in a maiden speech. In this matter I have some sympathy for my hon. Friend the Minister because the position that he is bound to defend is simply untenable.
The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) was characterised by the integrity and courage that we have come to recognise as his hallmark in these matters. The fundamental rationale of the Bill is to rid us of one of the most discredited pieces of legislation on the statute book--section 2 of the Official Secrets Act. We all know that section 2 does not work, because it is so ludicrously widely drawn that it is plainly unenforcible. In the Ponting case, as hon. Members will know, a jury was invited in the clearest possible terms to convict and simply said, "This is nonsense and we will not do so." Because it is so draconian and so widely drawn, the clause is now utterly unusable and it is perceived only as a device for the convenience of the Executive.
Column 1071Clause 1 seriously implies that no person who has ever been covered by section 2--no matter how old he or she may be and how many years have passed since the events about which that person is speaking--may say anything at all. That person may not reveal even a trivial matter, and that prohibition seems to be outside the bounds of any serious attempt at legislation. He may not reveal anything serious, even if it exposes an illegality of the kind spoken about by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). Both sorts of information are automatically proscribed, and if a person should make such information known to us he will be the subject of a criminal prosecution. That is nonsense.
Some of my hon. Friends asked me when I intended to speak in the Chamber. Not surprisingly I said that I proposed to speak on the Bill. They said, "Ah, yes. It's nonsense, isn't it?" They are right. Clause 1 is dangerous nonsense, and the only excuse for it is that it provides a convenient tool for the Executive. The only circumstances in which it can be used, abused, are those in which the Executive simply do not want the public at large to know. That is dangerous. We have heard about the information fed to Churchill before the last war. The right hon. Member for Devonport spoke about that, and he will forgive me when I say that many of us know about that.
Mr. Norris : I defer to my hon. Friend. I noted his intervention when he asked what Labour was doing at the time. I hope that I can carry my hon. Friend with me when I say that, with hindsight, there is no doubt that the information supplied at that time was vital in the ensuing conflict and in preparing the nation for that conflict. It provided Winston Churchill with the tools that were needed to enter the fray when he was called upon to do so.
I urge my hon. Friend to listen carefully to this important debate. Few debates are more important and the House should consider this not as a partial issue because, however incredible it may seem, the Conservative party will not be in power for ever. Since returning to the House I have been tempted to the view that for ever may be a long time away. This issue is about the public and the Executive. The characteristic of conservatism, certainly the kind with which I am in sympathy, is the belief that individual freedoms are paramount and that the duty of the state is not to suppress those freedoms but to protect them. The only legitimate grounds on which individual freedoms should be proscribed are those on which there is a definable greater interest, such as national security. No hon. Member speaking in favour of the amendment has seriously denied that.
I do not in any sense deny the concept of the right to confidentiality in certain circumstances, and it is clear that for the sake of the national interest the Bill should contain such a provision. This is an important amendment, and I invite my hon. Friends to see this not as a contest between Government and Opposition or between Conservative and Labour, but as the individual against the Executive. In that context, Conservative Members will lose their credibility if they do not support the amendment.
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Mr. Heffer : I agree very much with the hon. Members for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), whose amendment No. 14 goes to the heart of the matter. Let us suppose that a member of the security services or a civil servant found out that things were going wrong and, in the public interest, decided that he had to make a statement and take a stand on an issue that would affect the entire nation. Under the provisions of the Bill, that person would find himself in real trouble and in prison as a result of action taken against him.
We are talking about what may be "damaging". Let me refer to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) about Churchill. I am glad that he got round to that point because, when I first read that Churchill had been fed with information by high-level civil servants, who were responsible for the interests of the nation, I thought how right they were to do so. If he had not been fed with all that information and those matters had not been raised in the House of Commons, alerting the nation about what was going on, the country, and particularly people of my age, would have been in an even worse situation.
I now understand precisely what is meant by the word "damaging". We must consider to whom the disclosure of information would be damaging. The Government will argue that anything that can be interpreted against their interests is damaging. That is precisely how all authoritarian Governments- -indeed, most Governments--tend to argue because they do not like people saying things that are damaging to them. However, the disclosure of information may not be damaging to the nation ; in fact, the opposite might be true. The nation might benefit as a result of the arguments put forward by those people. Clive Ponting was absolutely right in what he did. That is why I support the amendment. Under the terms of the amendment, a civil servant can say, "I've had enough. What I'm hearing is not good enough. I'll resign and go to the people in the country and explain what has happened." However, under the Official Secrets Act, that may be considered as damaging to the Government and that person will be in real trouble. That is the heart of the argument.
The provision for a member of the security services to go to a tribunal sounds all right. The Government will say that, if such a person goes to a tribunal, he may well be given clearance, but so what? We cannot guarantee a person's right to do this and that is an infringement of people's freedom. We do not have liberty in this country simply because the Government decided to give us our liberty. No one gave us those liberties ; they were achieved over the generations. We help to keep them going now, but our forefathers fought for all the liberties and rights that we now have. They did not achieve them without a tremendous struggle. We have been arguing to get rid of certain parts of the Official Secrets Act, but, in one sense, this Bill makes the position worse than it was before and that is surely not good enough. We cannot accept it because it is an infringement of our liberties.
I do not intend to make a long speech. Some excellent arguments have been put forward, so those hon. Members who still wish to speak need only say where they stand on the issue. The Opposition's case is unanswerable. If I were on the Government Benches, I would do what I used to do
Column 1073regularly when I sat on that side and vote against my Government if I thought that they were wrong and that the nation's interests demanded that I do so. The nation's interests demand that the amendments are carried tonight.
Unfortunately, nowadays, relatively few hon. Members attend debates. That is sad. When I first came here and such issues were debated, the House would be almost full. Nowadays there is scarcely anyone here, so we cannot hear all the arguments. That is worrying. Hon. Members are like lap dogs ; they trot in, vote and do not hear all the arguments. They have probably not even read the Bill. This is a sad day for democracy and it is about time that those of us who regularly attend debates, particularly debates of this kind, explain to our hon. Friends that it is their right and duty to be here, not only to express their opinions, but to hear the arguments, make up their minds and vote accordingly.
This is one of the most important Bills laid before us for a long time, apart from the rubbish that the Government have brought forward regarding privatisation which nearly gives me apoplexy when I read it. This is a fundamental issue concerning the rights of people and the interests of the nation and whether we allow secrecy to be extended even further under this Government. This Bill does not do what we had hoped ; it does the very opposite.
I think that the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) misunderstood me. I was not attacking him. I do not think that what he said was sinister. I do not believe that he is an MI5 or MI6 agent. I am simply suggesting that he must have friends who can give him information. His research is brilliant. It is important that he said what he did because it enables us to obtain information that we would not otherwise have. His contributions to our debates are important, and I hope that he will support the amendments.
Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South) : I join the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) in wishing that more hon. Members were present to hear the arguments. I suspect that many of our absent colleagues have the general impression that the clause, as unamended, will be effective in stopping a future Peter Wright. Many hon. Members would support such a clause, if drafted correctly, provided that it limited its objective to doing just that. Patriotic Members of Parliament do not object to the imposition of the duty of confidentiality and secrecy on members of the security services--MI5 and some of the other ones that serve our country. However, the clause does not limit itself to that admirable horizon. It goes much further. The clause deals with an absolute, lifelong doctrine of eternal confidentiality at all times and under all circumstances. That is a new-fangled doctrine. It is certainly new to our country, which traces the continuity of civil liberties from the days of Magna Carta to the days of the Churchillian tradition, amplified by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) who quoted from page 973 of the Churchill biography by Martin Gilbert. A different theme has run through our history of civil liberties from the one that suggests that there should be an eternal, lifelong duty of confidentiality. That doctrine is new to the secret service. Mr. George Young, a vice-chief of the secret intelligence service in former years, gave an interview to Mr. Richard Norton-Taylor of The Guardian some
Column 1074months ago, in which he said that during his years of service he had never known of an absolute doctrine of lifelong confidentiality and that it was new.
Who invented it? Almost certainly the Prime Minister invented it in the heat of the strong feelings that were generated by the Wright affair. One understands and sympathises with the Prime Minister's point of view. The trouble is that the moral point of view was legal nonsense when it came in front of court after court in jurisdiction after jurisdiction. It was not just. The Australians threw it out on its ear. Our own courts, at every level, disagreed with the notion that there is a doctrine of absolute, lifelong, permanent confidentiality.
There must be circumstances in which there are exceptions to that basic rule. There are at least three areas where such exceptions ought to exist. One of those areas relates to public policy. I refer to nothing that relates to operational secrets, past or present, of the security services but to public issues of debate that relate to the overall concept, supervision, management, accountability and so on, of the security services.
How wrong the Government have been is illustrated by looking at the saga of the BBC radio programme "My Country Right or Wrong". A totally responsible group of BBC producers looked at how our security services might be improved by certain changes in public policy. They invited to appear and take part in those programmes a number of former members of the security services. The programmes that were recorded were so anodyne that the director-general of the Security Service pinned on the notice boards a memorandum for his staff that gave the time of broadcast of the programmes and said that the security services had nothing to fear from them. The director-general of the Security Services was briefed by some of his former colleagues on what they had said to the BBC.
That was the attitude of the security services. They did not believe in the absolute doctrine of lifelong confidentiality extending to a prohibition on the right of former members of the security services to talk about how accountable Ministers should be, and whether there should be better oversight and management of the security services. They appeared to recognise that there were limits to the doctrine of confidentiality and that there should be sensible extensions to the right of freedom of speech.
That was not the Government's attitude. Who will forget the extraordinary scene when the Attorney-General rushed to the Dispatch Box on a Friday morning to announce that he had banned the programmes and had issued writs? He caused mayhem in the BBC by placing a total ban on the programmes, in observance of the absolute doctrine of confidentiality that he named several times in this statement. What happened when the dust had settled and the plethora of writs subsided? After dialogue and a good measure of common sense it was found that not a single comma or word of those radio programmes had been deleted. The only interesting fact is that almost nobody listened to the programmes or commented on them. Except to a few specialists, the programmes were very dull.
It is clearly a civil right of former Crown servants to use their common sense and to comment from time to time on public policy issues. The more general area of civil rights for Crown servants was superbly highlighted by the
Column 1075intervention of the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), during the speech of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). If it had been scripted by a television producer to illustrate perfectly how seriously we are trampling on the civil right of Crown servants in this matter, he could not have done better. Talk about people rushing in where angels fear to tread.
The Minister of State demonstrated clearly that a Crown servant who briefed the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook on the fact that his telephone was being illegally tapped and that his house was being illegally burgled would be guilty of a criminal offence, even though he might be able to put it right later by going to a tribunal. That is a pretty serious limitation. We are not talking about a complete fantasy. The French secret service got up to some totally illegal bombing activities when it bombed Greenpeace and others. If civil servants are not to have the right under any circumstances to talk to a Member of Parliament or a Privy Councillor about their worries, we are being unreasonable in placing these limitations on Crown servants' common sense, loyalty and civil liberties.
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil) : The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely interesting point, but let me put another case to him. A civil servant might get to know of a private security firm that is under contract to the Government and that, without the statutory constraints that are laid on MI5, is operating in just such a manner. Even under those circumstances the civil servant could not bring that matter to the attention of the Member of Parliament concerned.
Mr. Aitken : The leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats is right. The clause that we are discussing refers to any information that is ever come across as a result of a person's employment in the security services.
Mr. Hattersley : The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to remind the Committee of a question that I asked the Minister of State, who is the focal point of, and who will become the star of, this debate when it is discussed in years to come. The hon. Gentleman said that the concession had been made that if my telephone was being illegally tapped and my house illegally burgled, it would be a criminal offence for a member of the security services to tell me and that it would be an offence for me, having found out that fact, to tell anybody else--certainly a solicitor. It is now put to me by those who understand the law--and I ask this question during the hon. Gentleman's speech so that the Minister of State can contemplate the matter--that were I to discover from a member of the security services that my house was being illegally burgled and that my telephone was being illegally tapped, it would be an offence for me even to tell a policeman. I think that the Minister of State ought to consider whether that would be the case.
Mr. Aitken : I think that I am going to go out and buy shares in companies that make handcuffs. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the special branch will be arresting a whole chain of people who have no business to be charged with criminal offences because, in one capacity or another, they are receiving information quite properly and handling it quite appropriately.
I hope that the Minister of State will not try to escape from this argument by referring to the staff counsellor. The tenure of the staff counsellor is very transient. Nobody has
Column 1076made that clearer than the Minister of State, who refused to write his responsibilities and role, even in the words of the Prime Minister, into the Security Service Bill. That staff counsellor can be blown away in one puff of a written answer just as he was appointed in a puff of a written answer. I have considerable doubts about whether he is in any way a safeguard to the civil liberties that we are discussing.
The argument about memoirs was ably dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) when speaking to new clause 6. He did his best this afternoon to turn Hansard into an illegal bestseller. I think tomorrow at the Vote Office we will need a notice saying, "Burn before reading". My hon. Friend's idea of a publications board is good. Such a system operates effectively in the United States. We should not miss the effective sanction by which the Central Intelligence Agency can, with the most punitive legal weapons, go after those who try to break the rules in definance of the publications board or whatever it is called.
We cannot allow the Government alone, without any independent involvement, to be the sole arbiter of whether memoirs are authorised. We cannot have Mr. Chapman Pincher's version, as Mr. Wright told him, being the authorised version and being allowed to be printed when Mr. Peter Wright's version is pursued in courts all over the world.
The position on memoirs is unsatisfactory. The Minister of State got into trouble on Second Reading when he was threatened with withdrawal of support by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery). The Minister of State tried to buy him off by involving the staff counsellor ; he said that somehow the staff counsellor would be helpful to authors. When Mr. Anthony Cavendish approached the staff counsellor on his book he was refused an appointment, so the staff counsellor was a fat lot of good. After my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion wrote to the Home Secretary to make that point, lo and behold, suddenly Mr. Cavendish was given an appointment with the staff counsellor. I understand that he met him this morning. I am not aware of what went on. I think it was a case of tea and sympathy and not much more.
The fact remains that the sudden intervention of the staff counsellor is a cosmetic device and of no relevance to the theme put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. We have had many memoirs in the past. There is no reason why there should not be responsible ministerial or other memoirs provided they are properly vetted by an independent element. A publications board is a good idea.
Mr . Dalyell : I fear that Brighton, Pavilion, must be more effective than Linlithgow. I wrote asking Ministers to allow Anthony Cavendish, with whom I was much involved, to see Sir Philip Woodfield, I thought responsibly, at an early stage. That request was denied. What else has Sir Philip Woodfield done as a staff counsellor? He was a distinguished civil servant and private secretary to Ministers. What else has he done since becoming staff counsellor?
Mr. Aitken : When we put down parliamentary questions to find out what Sir Philip Woodfield has done and is doing it will be interesting to see the answers. Perhaps we will be told that these are security matters which we cannot discuss. I suspect that will be the answer.
Column 1077The more one considers these problems the more one realises that they cannot be dealt with by the all-singing, all- dancing, all-embracing doctrine of lifelong confidentiality. That is what the clause seeks to impose artificially in a manner contrary to our parliamentary, historical and judicial traditions. We must remind ourselves that we are sent to the House not just to pass laws but to preserve liberty. We could easily adjust the clause by a couple of good amendments such as amendment No. 14 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), the Opposition amendment or new clause 6.
Mr. Allason : Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a great difference between the Bill and the introduction of an all-embracing contract for present and perhaps future employees of the Security Service and all other Crown employees which they could opt in or out of? The problem is that the Bill is retrospective. It will cover people with even the most vague connection with intelligence from the first world war.
Mr. Aitken : If there are such people, no doubt my hon. Friend will trace them and get a good story out of them. However, he makes a serious point about contracts. We were told repeatedly by the Attorney-General that the basis of the case against Mr. Wright was that he had a contract which he had violated. When I suggested that that was wrong, I was told that I was being ridiculous and that it was an outrageous suggestion. Of course, the courts ended up finding that there was no contract and no legal relationship. We have to do better than the present laws.
The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) asked a good question. He asked what had happened to the House of Commons which, apart from a minority of Members, does not listen properly to argument. The Committee does not seem to worry about the preservation of liberties ; it is not interested in amendments. The Government have encouraged that philosophy by refusing to accept any amendments to legislation on the great issue of security. They seem to suggest that it is perfect legislation brought forward by perfect legislators--a ridiculous proposition.
Something is wrong with the House of Commons. There is a strong note of unanimity in the speeches from all parts of the Committee. I hope that the message will get across to those who are listening that there is something rotten in the Government's state of Denmark in regard to the clause.
Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) : The major point on the group of amendments relates to the doctrine of lifelong confidentiality. A minor point is touched on in new clause 6, which was ably moved by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason). New clause 6, which suggests the setting up of a publications review board, could be described as a job creation scheme but it is none the worse for that. Even at this late stage I urge Ministers to consider the sensible and practical suggestion for job creation in the new clause and to support it.
It is not often that we contemplate personal human tragedy, but I want to draw attention to the sad case of Sir Robert Armstrong who destroyed his standing in public esteem and his reputation for future generations by chasing off to Australia and other points west in defence of the doctrine of lifelong confidentiality. I need only quote
Column 1078his words from the book on the "Spycatcher" case by Malcolm Turnbull. At one point in the trial poor Sir Robert Armstrong turned to Malcolm Turnbull and said, "Don't worry about me, Mr. Turnbull, I am just a fall guy." And a fall guy is what he was--pursuing through the courts the nonsensical notion of absolute confidentiality. In putting forward the proposal in the Bill the Government are being fundamentally dishonest because they know that the practice will continue as before and that the secrets about the Security Service that they want to be made known will get out through what can best be described as the Chapman Pincher route. Mr. Chapman Pincher has been used for years by the Government and by the security services to bring into the public domain information which cannot be brought out any other way. He was described by a leading historian as a conduit for leaks from Government Ministers. To quote : "The columns of "The Express" may be seen as a kind of official urinal in which, side by side, high officials of MI5, MI6, sea lords, permanent under-secretaries, Lord George Brown, chiefs of the air staff, nuclear scientists, Lord Wigg and others stand patiently leaking in the public interest."
It is dishonest of the Government to bring before us the notion of permanent confidentiality when they know perfectly well that it has been breached and will continue to be breached by what we might call the Chapman Pincher or public urinal method.
It is not clear to hon. Members what the Government's rooted objection is to the practical vetting of the memoirs of spies or members of the security services such as exists in the United States of America. It is particularly important to look at the matter seriously in the light of last week's debate, when the Government refused to take on board the idea of serious political or administrative oversight of the security services. In the group of amendments, and especially in new clause 6, we ask the Government, even at this late stage, in the interests of practicality and common sense that a few retired gentlemen who have served their country well should be able to turn an honest penny. In the interests of showing what the House thinks of the Chapman Pincher public urinal method of journalism, I ask the Government to reconsider their attitude to the amendments and to new clause 6.
Sir Ian Gilmour : I want to speak briefly at the end of a remarkable debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) that it is a pity that more people have not heard it. It used to be thought that to have the Committee stage of Bills on the Floor of the House was a constitutional safeguard--and this is a constitutional Bill--but that is no longer true. Few people hear the arguments and then the block vote is trooped in--or bussed in--and that is that. In an ordinary Standing Committee, one or two hardened sinners are allowed to infiltrate and the others have to listen to the arguments. That is more likely to produce an acceptable result than a Committee of the whole House. I am not suggesting that the Government had realised that--they clearly thought that they were doing the right thing--but there is a defect in the current procedures.
There is a defect in the Bill, too, as this debate has clearly shown. The Bill is, after all, supposed to be a liberalising measure, but anybody listening to the debate would find it difficult to see anything liberal in clause 1. As
Column 1079my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge- Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said, the absolute blanket stipulation that members of the secret service or anybody who has ever been connected with them are automatically not allowed to say anything should not appear in a parliamentary democracy. The hon. Mr. Justice Scott said that the life-long duty of confidentiality was not attainable this side of the iron curtain. He was right, and the Bill should not be this side of the iron curtain either, in a number of respects.
Several hon. Members have suggested the safeguards that are needed. In his winding-up speech, my hon. Friend the Minister may not be the only boy on the burning deck because he may have one lone supporter, but he must be aware that anybody who pays attention to the Bill knows that the overwhelming opinion is that the Bill requires serious amendment. I hope that the Committee will not face a series of blanket noes to avoid a Report stage, as has happened on other Bills. The idea that no amendment will be accepted by the Government is unacceptable to the House. I am sure that that is not my hon. Friend's view.
Sir Ian Gilmour : Nevertheless, the mere fact that a Government amendment has been tabled means that the Bill must have a Report stage, albeit a fairly truncated one. That does not alter the point that I am trying to make. I hope that when the Government hear the arguments which, with one solitary, but no doubt important exception, they will have a duty to pay some attention to what has been said in Committee.
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : The Government have chosen to have the Bill discussed by a Committee of the whole House because it is a matter of constitutional importance. However much it may convenience the Government's management of business, it none the less gives a stamp of seriousness to the debate, which is not usual. But if the Bill is a matter of constitutional importance, the Government are treating it in an unusually unserious way. I add my voice to those that have already been raised in criticism of the fact that no Minister with responsibilities for these issues has been in the House for the whole debate, which has now run for almost three hours. That is treating the Committee with less than appropriate attention in a matter of constitutional seriousness.
There is a second important issue in introducing constitutional change. Bills that effect constitutional change--and they are supposed to last-- should not be introduced in a partisan fashion, without a broad degree of support or change. The Official Secrets Act 1911 has been very much criticised--and rightly so--for many years, but it must be recollected that at the time when it was
Column 1080introduced it had broad-based support in the House. The Government, in bringing forward this Bill, have no such support. Not one speech has been made so far in the debate in support of the provisions in clause 1 which seek to introduce an absolute offence that will apply to members of the security and intelligence services throughout their lives. The fact that there have been no speeches in support of that suggests that the Government have got it wrong.
The Government should do as they did on an earlier occasion when seeking to tamper with a fundamental right--the right of those charged with criminal offences to enjoy the privilege of being tried before a jury. They put forward the proposition that there should be no jury trial for those accused of serious fraud. Eleven out of the 12 speeches in the debate attacked the idea and the Government properly scrapped it. I suggest that that would be an appropriate action for clause 1. If there had been a great inquest into section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 that came up with a proposal that enjoyed broad-based, cross-party support and support in the country at large, the Government's course might have been understandable, but that is not the case.
The committee set up to examine the provisions of the Bill, under Lord Franks, addressed the issues that we debated earlier. It addressed specifically the question whether members of the security services should be absolutely responsible for information and it concluded that they should not be. In paragraph 124 of its report, the committee included specifically information relating to the intelligence and security services, information obtained by them and information about internal defence and security as being proper for the test of serious injury. Some test of harm is surely appropriate in this case, and surely the hon. Member for Aldridge- Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is right in seeking to point to the ridiculous position that the Bill creates when, under the disclosure of the most innocent information about the conduct of the Security Service, an individual is capable of being subject to prosecution.
I do not think it right that the criminal law of this country should stray so far from reflecting the moral perception of people in this country that it makes those in public service--the Security Service is an important arm of public service--guilty of offences of that kind.
In a trenchant leader--one of many attacking the proposal--the Financial Times stated :
"It cannot be criminally wrong to point the finger at iniquity." But that is what the clause would achieve or seek to achieve because there is no prospect whatever that public-spirited members of the security services will be deterred from pointing a finger at iniquity because of this clause.
What the Government are now doing will be done in vain. This is simply a foolish response to defeats sustained in courts in this country, first on appeal before the House of Lords and in other jurisdictions around the world. It does not reflect the Government's considered judgment of how to strengthen the Security Service--it reflects the petulant response of the Prime Minister, made in the heat of the embarrassment about the Wright affair. There are lessons to be drawn from the Wright affair and we shall turn to some of them in our discussions on later amendments.
Mr. Dalyell : On the question of iniquity--the hon. Member is a lawyer and I am not--does this not overturn or at least damage the case of Gartside v. Outram, in which there was a judgment that in no circumstances can there be confidence in iniquity. I should like a legal opinion from the Minister or from Home Office civil servants on the effect of the classic 19th century case of Gartside v. Outram in relation to iniquity.
Mr. Maclennan : I wish that I could help the hon. Gentleman, but I am not sure that my legal knowledge extends as far as that with which the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) credits me. Perhaps we should invite the Government to bring the Attorney-General to the House to answer that question because then we would at least have someone who is involved in such matters to advise the House.
Mr. Richard Shepherd : I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman reflects for a moment he will remember that the judgment was that one could not enjoin a citizen to confidentiality where a crime is involved. It was rich language, but it struck true and that is what the Government are trying to strike against.
As I have said, the criminal law of this land should seek to reflect the moral perceptions of society and this clause plainly does not do so. It does not reflect the moral perceptions of this House and it will be a constitutional outrage if the Government press ahead without accepting the amendments which have been so cogently deployed by members of their own party.
The other amendments are meritorious and I suspect that there is much agreement in the House, especially among those who are present, regardless of party, that this occasion is very much an illustration of the way in which the House of Commons can operate effectively--that is, if the Government do not simply roll in their absent Members. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) is assuredly right in seeking to amend, in amendment No. 71, the provision that the clause should apply not only to those who are in the service, but also to those who have been in the service. The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) is also right to seek to provide a means of scrutinising effectively and fairly the publication of memoirs by those who wish to give information and advice in the public interest about their experiences in the Security Service. Those amendments are needed and if they are accepted they will not invalidate the purpose of the Bill. They will strengthen the Bill and make it a more generally acceptable means of modifying the more unenforceable sections of the Official Secrets Act 1911.