|Previous Section||Home Page|
Hon. Members who are not drawn to a public interest defence would have the comfort of knowing that anyone who is in a dilemma and is inclined to believe that his or her duty requires disclosure will be a potential martyr because he or she cannot be sure what will happen. But the possibility that a person with an irrepressible conscience will be labelled an enemy of the people is better than the certainty, and that is the case for the amendment and new clauses. The fact that a jury will have power to decide--we hope by applying the same common sense standards as the person in the dilemma--may help to sustain a future Sir Thomas Haxey.
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley) : The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the fact that it could not be certain in advance how a jury would decide. Is not the difficulty that if one asked any 12 people their definition of the national or public interest one would receive a completely different answer from that which one received from another 12. It would be unsatisfactory if the public interest, which can be determined in many different ways by many different people, were the issue at stake.
Mr. Archer : The jury in the Ponting case retired for only a short time before it returned with a unanimous verdict. I am wholly in favour of the jury system and have been amazed at how well it has worked in these cases, from the seven bishops case down.
It is important that someone, at some stage, should be able to make these judgments. We must not remove from anybody the power to make such judgments and say, "There will be no defence and no one will have the authority to vindicate you." That would be completely unacceptable.
Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant) : In my judgment, the public interest is the obverse of the portcullis, which is the proud badge of Parliament. Neither Government nor Parliament is the sole custodian, but they are both major custodians of the public interest.
The Government of the day, however it may be drawn from the House, must always be the trustee of the public interest. The discharge of trust, and the conduct of that trust, must always be subject to a broad, continuing and on-going examination inside and outside the House. As I understand it, that is the definition of democracy. It is defined in the House by the width of the carpet between us. Sometimes the width is an enormous gulf, but at other times it is narrow indeed. I suggest that this evening it is very narrow.
Nonetheless, the Government are entitled not to be humiliated by those who serve them, and that is where the difficulty begins. In imposing the necessary disciplines on their servants, the Government must define carefully, and often in the greatest detail, precisely what the measures and limits of that discipline are. As several right hon. and hon. Members have said, in distinguished speeches, the moment that they extend that definition into the area of public interest, the greatest difficulties arise.
It was my privilege, as a very amateur historian, to deal with a case that is highly relevant to the debate. I propose to put the case before the House because my decision on whether to support the Bill will depend on the answer that I receive from my hon. Friend the Minister of State about the case. In 1941, our tanks were performing extremely badly in the western desert. They were outgunned, under armoured and too slow and they were being shot up and destroyed by the Germans on a distressingly large scale. Our tanks were no match for the 88 mm guns, whether mobile or fixed. That must have been known to the commanders concerned and to everyone up to the general staff, but nothing appeared to be done and, from my analysis of the records, very little was being done.
A Captain Scott in one of the armoured regiments decided that the only action to take was to write to his father, who happened to be Lord Herbert Scott, the chairman of Rolls-Royce. I have seen the letter and it described the appalling situation in the desert. He said to his father, in so many words, "For God's sake, do something." Lord Herbert Scott was in the position of being able to inject an important urgency and rethinking into tank production, performance and design. I have no doubt--and Captain Scott had no doubt--that he was in breach of the Official Secrets Act 1911, and his father was in no doubt of that either.
But from what I have heard earlier, it seems that the position is this. Captain Scott should have gone through
Column 501the usual channels : first his commanding officer, then his brigadier, then his divisional commander, then his corps commander, then his commander-in-chief in the middle east, General Wavell, then the chief of the Imperial General Staff and finally the War Cabinet. In reality, how far would he have got? How far would his message have got?
Mr. Hind : If my hon. Friend thinks carefully about what he has just said--and I am sure that we all commend the courageous action of Captain Scott--he will realise that Captain Scott would not have committed an offence under the Bill, for the simple reason that the harm that would have come from his disclosure would have been nil. In fact, his disclosure would have been beneficial to the country. The point that my hon. Friend has missed is that the pillar of the Bill is what harm comes from a disclosure.
Sir Ian Lloyd : All I can say is that the possible harm of disclosure from a means more public than that of a private letter would have been that the Germans would have learnt what our position was far sooner than they would have done from their military experience.
Mr. Buchan : I was in a tank regiment in the 8th Army. We said that if we saw an 88 mm, we were dead. That was the difference between the two weapons. The other problem was that if any other rank had written the letter, it would never have reached the end of the line. Many deaths had already resulted.
Sir Ian Lloyd : I am obliged to the hon. Member, who speaks from great personal experience, which I certainly do not have. I am merely reporting the facts as an amateur historian. What happened was that as a result of the highly private, unofficial and irregular intervention, the tanks that we produced and which went into action on D-Day in 1944 were significantly better than the tanks in the western desert. I have no doubt that, had Captain Scott's action been known to the military authorities, he would have been
It seems ludicrous to argue that in all such cases, the official channels must be used to the ultimate limit before any other action is taken. Under the provisions of the Bill, would Captain Scott be prosecuted or would he have a defence in the public interest? If he would have such a defence under the Bill, I would support it. If he would have no defence, I cannot support it. I believe that there will be other circumstances in other times when other Captain Scotts will have to take courageous decisions similar to those referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) when his distinguished grandfather acted as he did because of inside information in the 1930s. If we rule out such occasions by definition and put such a weight on the exercise of courage that it becomes impossible, we shall not be acting in the public interest and the Government will not be either.
Mr. Heffer : Under the provisions of the Bill, Captain Scott would obviously have been in some difficulty and so too would the gentleman to whom the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) was referring. So too would those who gave valuable information to his grandfather. That is the point of the amendment and the arguments against the Bill. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) made that point clearly when he said that someone who is not of the lowest levels in the Civil Service may see something with which he or she does not
Column 502agree, become upset and go right through the channels to the Minister. The Minister may say, "Well, keep it quiet and don't tell the press anything about it." That person may go back later and be told, "It's all right, you've no need to worry, because it's all being dealt with." Three months later, that person may discover that nothing has happened that his or her views have not been taken into consideration, that there has been no change. He may feel passionately about it, but what can he do?
It is true that nothing could be done under the present Act, but nothing can be done under the Bill either. Such a person cannot resign and make a statement. Anyone who has been a Minister can have an argument and resign-- or in my case, get kicked out. He can make a speech in the House explaining his point of view, but civil servants will not be in a position to give a press conference. If they do, under the provisions of the Bill, they will immediately be in trouble and they will have no real defence. They already know the terms of the Bill and they are in real trouble.
The problem does not concern only military equipment. That is important, but the Bill raises other questions, and of course, people have different views about what is in the public interest. That is a serious problem.
Take the example of a practising Roman Catholic--indeed, somebody practising any religion. What is that person supposed to do if his bishops issue a statement on something? The American bishops issued a pastoral letter to their national conference, entitled "The Challenge of Peace". Paragraph 147, on page 46, says :
"Under no circumstances may nuclear weapons or other instruments of mass slaughter be used for the purpose of destroying population centres or other predominantly civilian targets."
Paragraph 150, on page 47, says :
"We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare, on however restricted a scale, can be morally justified."
Suppose that a Catholic member of the Civil Service, who had not thought much about the question, received that pastoral letter and thought, "That's right. It is a matter of conscience." I am giving an extreme example because I think it important to do so, but one could give other examples.
That civil servant may discover that someone is about to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. What is he to do? Under the Bill he would have to keep quiet. His conscience might tell him that he had to speak out, in which case he would be in immediate trouble under the Bill. That is the whole point. One cannot stop people having a conscience or feeling so concerned about something that they have to make a stand.
If I remember rightly, the Home Secretary himself said that he did not think that, in the last analysis, fear of criminal action would stop people. Of course it will not. I could not. In the end, a person will make that statement irrespective of whether it is criminal to do so, and will suffer the consequences. We should at least give people the opportunity of some defence--the defence that they consider that what they have done is in the public interest. Others may not agree with them, and they may end up on the receiving end, but people who feel strongly should have the right to argue the public interest defence.
No real action was taken against any of those who argued that there should have been better equipment and aircraft, and rearmament, to offset the growth of German
Column 503weapons under Hitler. Thank God they did that. We were in trouble as it was, and we should have been in much greater trouble if civil servants had not taken that view.
I know that other hon. Members want to speak and I know that it is nice when one has sat here all day to think, "Now that I am at last on my feet I shall go on as long as I want." I shall not do that ; I shall restrict myself to a few points.
I wish that we were discussing a freedom of information Act, which would be far more useful to the people of this country than this Bill. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup made an excellent speech, but I did not agree with him that the Bill improves matters. I cannot see how it does. It may improve minor details here and there but in some respects it has made matters worse, and that cannot be acceptable.
It would be a good thing if we had a freedom of information Act. Look what happens in the United States. The list of defectors from the CIA is getting longer and longer. They all go on television and write books and newspaper articles. The effect of that has been that the American people are much more careful and much more concerned about the CIA. They look more closely at what the CIA does in other countries, although they could look closer still. Take the case of Oliver North : how could all that have come out, with secrecy laws like ours?
Mr. Heffer : Precisely ; it could not. We have to look at the American example. I think that hon. Friends will agree that I am not in love with the American system and American politics. I do not like the Americans' unbridled capitalism, but that is another matter. One cannot say that their legislation is not vastly superior to ours in some respects. There are two British examples. How did we find out that we had agreed to the manufacture of the bomb? We learned years afterwards. We had a Labour Prime Minister at the time. How did we learn about Chevaline? Again, it was a long time afterwards. Everybody said, "It was done in our name but there were no debates or discussions" Why not? Why should not people know about these things? I am cutting my speech considerably, but I want to conclude by quoting what is unfortunately a somewhat lengthy statement from a book called "The Second Oldest Profession" by a man called Knightley. It is a very interesting book, and the last page sums up the position :
"So in the mid-1980s we are faced with an intelligence community which has grown to a size and power which is unprecedented. It is so big and so expensive that we can only guess at its size and cost. But there is no doubt about its power. In the Soviet Union national leaders come from its ranks. In the United States its influence on presidential decisions is such that it is sometimes difficult to decide whether the President is running the CIA, or the CIA is running the President
There might, just might, be some justification for the intelligence community if it did what it claimed to do : provide timely warnings of threats to national existence. But, as we have seen, this claim is exaggerated even in wartime and, in peacetime, intelligence agencies seem to have spent more time trying to score off each other, protecting their budgets and their establishments, and inventing new justifications for their existence, than in gathering intelligence.
Column 504Perhaps this is because--when not deep in their fantasy world--the intelligence community knows that open, published information, and that obtained through traditional diplomatic and other overt contacts, have proved this century by far the most useful source of military, political and economic intelligence for both sides."
I shall end on that note, because that is what we should be talking about. Meanwhile, we can at least support the excellent amendment tabled by my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Front Bench.
Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) : On a point of order, Miss Boothroyd. Forgive me for raising a point of order at this stage. It is not meant to offend you, in the Chair, or other hon. Members. You will be well aware that certain hon. Members have been waiting to make a contribution in this debate for nearly five hours and I believe that other hon. Members have arrived more recently.
The Second Deputy Chairman : The hon. Member is always very courteous to the Chair. I am sure that he will understand that calling a Member is at the Chair's discretion. I really am doing the best I can to be as fair as possible in a very difficult debate where so many hon. Members are seeking to speak.
Mr. Wheeler : I hesitate to enter into the whirlpool of this debate, for many of us have indeed been here for well over five hours, listening to most complicated but important arguments on the new clauses. Those of us who have been here from the outset will agree that those who have spoken thus far have spoken from a position of great worthiness and a desire to see the law right.
So far, my right hon. Friend's proposals have been almost friendless. I at least intend to speak in support of the Government, if only to show that, from all this ebb and flow, the Government offer the Committee certainty in the law, and that is the one principle to be gained from this Bill. The plain truth is that, if we accept either new clause 1 or new clause 4 we shall virtually wreck the Bill. Both are effectively wrecking clauses. They may not be intended deliberately so to do by the whole Committee, but that will be the outcome of supporting them.
In essence, my right hon. Friend suggests that the criminal law should define the offence with certainty. The law should be concerned with the actions of an individual rather than motive. That has been the essence of our debate. New clauses 1 and 4 include phrases such as "reasonable cause to believe" and
"existence of crime, fraud, abuse of authority, neglect in the performance of official duty or other misconduct".
That is a catch-all phrase.
The trouble with these phrases in the new clauses is that they are vague and ambiguous. They will import uncertainty into the law if the Committee passes them, whereas my right hon. Friend seeks courageously to reform section 2 of the Act, to restrict it severely and to impose upon the prosecution tests of harm, which are provided for five of the six categories.
I shall dwell on the test of harm for just a moment. I heard several hours ago, although I hope that I was deceived--the phrase "balance of harm". This is nothing to do with the balance of harm. It is to do with the test of harm, which the prosecution would have to prove unambiguously before a jury. As we have gone through the past five hours, we have lost sight of the integrity that my
Column 505right hon. Friend brought to the proposals. He is saying that the prosecution will have to prove its case before a jury, which is a formidable test. More than 50 per cent. of cases tried before a jury in London today in which there is a "not guilty" plea result in an acquittal. The fact is that some fanciful suggestions from hon. Members have been to the extreme of credibility, including the notion that the Crown prosecutor or the Director of Public Prosecutions would embark on a prosecution in such cases.
We are elected to the House to perform a function based upon trying to do something in the public interest. If we were to be judged at the end of the day on how much harm we had done, we would have got the balance of philosophy wrong. The same could be said about this piece of legislation. My hon. Friend is absolutely wrong to say that it is important to judge whether harm has been done. We ought to judge whether the matter has been dealt with according to the public interest. After all, if we were to judge whether a bank robber had done more or less harm in his crime where would that lead us?
Mr. Wheeler : My hon. Friend is reversing the arguments of the past five and a half hours. He has really put forward a plea in mitigation. While we could go down the road proposed by right my hon. Friend and aim for certainty in the law, the defence could advance the argument in mitigation before a jury to justify what had been done to break the law. It would rest upon the jury whether they wished to believe that.
I would say to my hon. Friend, as we have gone round this subject for many hours, and there is little more that is new to be said about it, that one cannot persuade a British jury to convict anyone if they do not want to. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is proposing to trust the jury.
Mr. Buchan : I have waited a long time to try to deal with some of the points that have now been encapsulated by the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler). He exactly exemplified the Government's wrong-headed attitude in this case. I hope that they welcome him as an ally. He has at least been consistent in stating the argument. He talked about certainty in the law. But our view of the law was certainly exonerated by the Ponting trial. Twelve out of 12 jurors said that the law was an ass and should be rejected. They knew that he was technically guilty within the law, and they rejected it.
Throughout the "Spycatcher" case and the series of judgments on it and from what was said by the Government, we thought that this antiquated law, which proved to be an ass, would be swept out and something intelligent, sensible and rational would be put in its place. Instead we have a cheat of a Bill which claims to be a reform. If anything, it has made the situation worse. It introduces the spurious concept of harm, allowing juries to think that they are getting some kind of balanced argument as opposed to the ass that was made of the previous one. It has introduced a series of absolutes which would declare everyone who would have been exonerated by the intelligent behaviour of the Ponting jury now automatically guilty.
Column 506Their argument is wrong. The hon. Gentleman's technical argument in accusing the amendments of being wrecking amendments is also wrong. They are far from wrecking amendments. Public interest is essential if we are to have security legislation that can be acceptable in any democracy.
It was said that the Colonel North case would not have occurred in this country. That is quite true. If an Irangate had developed in this country, the case would never have been prosecuted--certainly not in front of cameras and not in a court. The honest whistleblower would have found it almost impossible to come forward. That is one of the problems. Far from being wrecking amendments, these are the only kind of amendments that will ensure that the law which is about to be passed can be at all acceptable.
The hon. Member for Westminster, North asked how the disclosure or retention of information or an article was in the public interest in that someone had reasonable cause to believe. Much fun has been made of the phrase "reasonable cause to believe". Much of English law--I specify English law, not Scottish law--depends on the assumptions to be made by a reasonable person.
Mr. Hind indicated dissent --
Mr. Hind : The hon. Gentleman is correct. Much English law is based on the reasonable man principle, but a jury will look not at what was done and the harm that resulted from disclosure but purely and simply at what the person who made the disclosure believed to be the situation. That is not dealing with the problems that the Bill sets out to correct.
Mr. Buchan : That is precisely the reference to the reasonable person in English law. The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong again. That person will not necessarily be found innocent. He will have to prove that he had reasonable cause, not that he imagined that he had reasonable cause. [Interruption.] He will have to prove that he had reasonable cause to believe. He will have to bring forward the objective factors on which he based his belief.
Far from being neglected, that argument was brought up in a curious way in regard to the obscenity legislation. A jury had to decide whether a reasonable man would consider whether a certain act of obscenity could cause gross offence to others. The reasonable cause to believe principle is perfectly sensible and right, although not in that case. It is the only way in which a man who after all cannot prove that he is not guilty until he is brought to court can then prove it.
Every case that is brought forward is based on reasonable cause to believe, or there would be no trials. The point of jury trial or any other trial is to decide whether there was reasonable cause to believe that X happened. That is the basis of law. I wish that Conservative Members would grow up.
The Home Secretary said that there has been no such public interest proposition in law before. He is wrong. He is wrong even about the Act he seeks to amend. If there had been no public interest case, Ponting's defence would have nothing to argue, but there was a glimmer of public interest.
Column 507Section 2 of the 1911 Act refers to the interest of the state. That is to be wiped out. There is no clause to allow the interest of the state to be pleaded. The Ponting case was concerned with whether the interest of the state was the interest of the Government of the day. But it was in the Act. The Home Secretary is talking nonsense when he says that it is no defence to any charge that the long-term effect of the criminal act was beneficial and that that benefit outweighs the harm done. That is not totally our argument but let us accept it for the moment. The Home Secretary is wrong. It was in the obscenity legislation and even in the Act which he seeks to replace. In the "Spycatcher" judgment Lord Griffiths ruled that if a serious iniquity arose, which could not be stopped by complaints to the authorities, an official should be relieved of his duty of confidence so that he could alert his fellow citizens to the impending danger. Lord Griffiths said that if iniquity was being committed and if there was no other means by which it could be stopped, because complaints were not being listened to, an official had no other means of action if he had reasonable cause to believe that there was danger. His duty of confidentiality should be suspended so that he could alert his fellow citizens. So their lordships were saying that it was not only proper that this should happen but that it was a duty.
Some of the historical cases rehearsed today have proved the occasional necessity for the honest whistleblower. It was the honest whistleblowers leaking like hell to Churchill throughout the 1930s who began to alert the country to the serious mess it was in. One reason why such people were not charged was that if they had been brought to public trial it might have alerted the whole country to the truths which were being concealed by the Government of the day. Some Conservative Members failed to understand that point today. There may be a width of carpet between us but it is not a carpet under which we can sweep honest arguments.
Even the amendments which we are putting forward cannot always deal with the problems. I was touched by the case referred to by the hon. Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd) of the man Scott who wrote to his father in England about the weakness of the guns. I was in the 8th Army and, as I said in an intervention, we had a common saying that if a man saw an 88 he was dead because it shot faster and more accurately. We had 75s, which were useless against 88s. I had one tank commander who lost three tanks in one day at Sidi Rezegh. If a private or a corporal had said what Scott did, he would have been in gaol.
The old boys' network has helped the honest whistleblower. It was easier for Churchill, Vansittart and others. It was not so easy for the honest whistleblower in the lower ranks. It is one thing in a country which has the safety of the old pals' network ; it is another when we have larger numbers of civil servants than ever before and papers go further down. It is no longer a case of simply dropping into the Athenaeum and saying, "Look here, old boy, this is what they are up to." It is ever more dangerous and difficult.
Even their Lordships failed to understand. Many civil servants, coming across iniquity, are terrified to raise it with the next in command. He, too, is terrified to raise it further up. There has to be some means by which the
Column 508iniquities of Government can be explored. This is not to exonerate the dishonest whistleblower or to encourage the continual leaking of information.
Most of the information which is leaked is not secret. Modern technological surveillance is the important thing. The old-fashioned spy might have mattered, but it is not so serious now. A new development does not take place out of the head of Gallileo when he remembers the imaginary story of the lamp moving in the cathedral of Pisa. It arises because of the exchange of technology throughout the world and a new technical development here or there.
Developments take place through the interchange of scientists. I speak of Erickson in Edinburgh. One week he is lecturing on nuclear strategy to scientists, engineers and generals in Washington. The next week he is in Moscow lecturing about what the generals in Washington are saying. Satellites do the job.
What happens in the kind of balance adumbrated by the Secretary of State--I fear slightly dishonestly, because he is bright enough to know what this Bill does--to the people on the Clyde estuary. What will happen on the Clyde, where we have to consider the well-being of people living near to a nuclear base? What happens if there is a radiation leakage and it is not disclosed?
I have a letter that refers to somebody further down the ranks and, frankly, I am not sure how to use it. I shall send it privately to a Minister. I hope that now I have mentioned this man in the House, he will receive some protection. He talks in his letter about a radiation leak. He served for 13 years on the Polaris submarines. The authorities have denied it, but he claims that, one way or another, he has seen his medical records in which it is referred to. He cannot, however, get the Government to disclose those records to him. If he were an admiral, all hell would be let loose until he acquired his medical records. If another leakage, this time of information about the first leakage of radiation occurs in the Clyde nuclear base, it will harm the defence of the State, under clause 2, on two counts. It will harm our relationship internationally, because other countries will ask, "What has happened? Is there a weakness in the British defence and American bases?" It will also harm the people who live on Clydeside.
If someone leaks information about a radiation leakage and gets charged for so doing, the argument under clause 2 will be that it will harm defence. It prejudices the capability of and it jeopardises the interests of defence. We will have been told that we have certain inadequacies in our defence.
Clause 3 deals with confidential information obtained from a state other than the United Kingdom which does harm to the state. The only way to decide that the man who I mentioned had an honest reason to believe that his information should be exposed is to bring the matter to trial. If that ingredient is missing, he has no chance.
I had hoped that we would have received a response from the Home Secretary.
I feel that I should give some reason for my interest in this as I am not especially concerned with problems of secrecy. Other hon. Members know much more about it than I. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is an expert on the matter. I have been pulled into this question of secrecy because I have a vital interest in another matter, which I call the freedom of the word. I have been concerned over the years that not only is secrecy at the top getting more powerful and rigid, but that the
Column 509inability to have freedom in this area is mirrored by what I see happening to the freedom of expression elsewhere. When three people in Britain--Maxwell, Stevens and Murdoch--control more than 80 per cent. of the popular press, freedom is in danger.
At one time the grandfather of the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) had the Daily Express, which was both a popular and a serious paper. It had the best foreign correspondent in Britain, Sefton Delmer. The paper was pursuing the interests and views of Lord Beaverbrook, but serious propositions were being put forward. It was a paper that mattered. Foreign affairs were on the front page. Alongside it was the Daily Mirror, iconoclastic, Left-wing and radical. How different now. If no one sees the danger to freedom, understanding and knowledge, when three people control more than 80 per cent. of the press, they must be dead to the world.
At the same time the Government are slashing public service broadcasting and passing television and radio across to the private sector. We have broadcasting in this country under the same man who introduces Secrecy Bills such as this. So much for freedom of the word in this country ; the man who is supposed to be in charge of broadcasting and defending freedom of the word is the same man who allows the special branch to invade the Scottish BBC. This is a strange situation, a dangerous situation. What is happening under his White Paper which is to be debated next week is that public service broadcasting is being passed across to the same people who own and possess the newspapers. Those three newspaper magnates are going to take over satellite broadcasting, too.
This is what concerns me. I see it in the arts in which I am concerned. Public sponsorship is lower and lower in proportion and private commercial sponsorship is increasing. Ibsen's plays are classics and can be seen in the National Theatre, but it is not quite so easy for a contemporary Ibsen to write a play such as "An Enemy of the People". It is not so easy for the contemporary film maker to raise the necessary money to expose the enemies of the people as Ibsen did. If hon. Members laugh it is because they do not begin to understand what is happening in this country.
It is alongside this that we are worried when we see Bills of this kind. We should be opening up understanding and access to information, instead of which we are closing and clamping it down.
At one period in history we depended upon the sovereignty of Parliament to defend and expand our liberty. That sovereignty of Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has pointed out to me on more than one occasion, has now degenerated to the sovereignty of the Executive, and the sovereignty of the Executive has further degenerated to the sovereignty of the Prime Minister. We have a Prime Minister buttressed by the press being in the hands of three people, and an Executive buttressing her position by this kind of secrecy Bill.
That is why we would welcome even the most minor of amendments to this Bill to allow some kind of concept of public interest to be involved, so that the honest whistleblower observing an iniquity within what I regard as an iniquitous Government can honestly declare it and be exonerated if he proves his case.
Mr. Dykes : The hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) as usual, went a little over the top, to say the least, but he is a very articulate, fluent speaker and he said much with which I agree--and at least he has been here since the beginning of the debate. I was both amused and distressed when my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) made an admittedly very brief intervention and left a few minutes later when the hon. Member for Paisley, South had started speaking. My hon. Friend is the very distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and I understand that, but I am sorry that he was not able to be here longer because he referred whimsically to the five hours that we have had on this debate already. [Interruption.] It is true that he had been here earlier, but I have been waiting since the beginning of the debate, and some of my hon. Friends have not been here so long.
I intend to be brief, but I think that these points have to be made. Hon. Members on both sides who have been here all the time have with great force, and almost without exception, pleaded sincerely and honestly with the Home Secretary to give very serious consideration to their very earnest request that he accept the new clause and the amendments clustered around the concept of the public interest defence. This is one of the most powerful debates that I have heard in recent times in a Committee stage on the Floor of the House. It has been a very profound expression of the will of the House of Commons by hon. Members who have advanced very sincere arguments. It has been not a partisan debate or a party battle but a high- level, high-profile parliamentary occasion. People do want to get this Bill right.
Like others, I express gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for introducing a Bill which contains improvements to the overall situation, thus fulfilling the will of the House as expressed a number of times in recent years when we have seen the difficulties, the leakages and the various prosecutions, as well as the distinguished work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) with his own private Member's Bill--nothwithstanding the Government's reaction to that, which caused disappointment in some quarters. The Home Secretary has given a substantial response to those anxieties. I welcome legislation that does away with section 2 of the Official Secrets Act in its present ridiculous form.
I cannot understand why the Home Secretary has not said that he is prepared to accept the public interest defence. It is genuinely in the interests of this Government, of any future Government, of governmental integrity, of public life and of the value of this House as a guardian of the public interest--whatever its future electoral composition. There is scope for him to modify his seemingly obstinate stance. I understand the Home Secretary's difficulty and sympathise with him.
Earlier in the debate, some hon. Members rightly said that one could not analyse why juries returned a certain verdict. They said that public interest came into the minds of the jury in the Ponting case by implication and discussion, and thus affected their decision.
I was surprised when hon. Members--mostly Conservative--started to decry the jury system, because I thought that we attached great importance to it in the traditions of our British legal system. I, like other hon. Members, have my doubts about the tradition of our British legal sytem. I, like other hon. Members, have my