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There are another 17 or so debates in prospect on amendments already tabled. That is simply not adequate progress for a Bill which has only 16 clauses.
Mr. Winnick : Will the Leader of the House confirm that there was no element of filibustering in those debates and that there were no unduly long speeches or unnecessary interruptions? Will he confirm that, because, on all previous occasions when the right hon. Gentleman has moved a timetable motion, there has always been an accusation that the Bill's opponents have tried to drag out the proceedings? Will he confirm that that has not happened in this case?
Mr. Wakeham : In any of the guillotine motions that I have proposed- -I have something of a record for this, as no doubt some hon. Member will tell me in a few moments--I do not believe that I have ever accused anyone of filibustering, not least because the other person will respond, "Oh well, what about Mr. Speaker? Why didn't he rule me out of order?" I do not accuse anyone of filibustering. There were some good speeches, but some of the actual and hypothetical examples of giving information were perhaps a little repetitive and a little wide of the mark. That was my reading of it, but I am not accusing anyone of filibustering.
Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West) : Does my right hon. Friend believe that in every respect the information given by Ministers to the House was accurate? Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends fear that a junior Minister wasted the time of the House for about an hour because he misunderstood the nature of judicial review. I make no criticism of that, as we all make mistakes. However, is that not an inevitable consequence of the proper discussion of a complicated Bill?
Column 73I understand the concern felt by some hon. Members about the Bill, but that concern is certainly not shared in other quarters. At one stage during the second day's debate in Committee there were a mere 11 hon. Members on the Opposition Benches.
Mr. Wakeham : I am just going to make the point, if the hon. Gentleman can contain himself, that for three hours there were fewer than 20 Opposition Members present. It is difficult to reconcile the desires of some hon. Members for extended debate on this Bill with my duty as the Leader of the House to ensure that sufficient time is available for all the other measures that attract right hon. and hon. Members' concern to be properly considered by the House.
I believe that we now need to take steps to structure the rest of the discussion on the Bill in a sensible manner. We still have several important issues to debate, including the principles underlying the tests of harm, the category of information obtained in confidenece from other states or international organisations, the prior publication defence and allowing disclosure to hon. Members. By introducing a timetable motion at this stage, adequate time can be given to discussion of those and other measures.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : I have no intention of involving myself in this debate. However, on every occasion when it is possible I listen to the debate. The fact that there are fewer hon. Members present is no indication of interest or involvement in the Bill. Hon. Members who come in to listen to the debate are exceptional because hon. Members have a great many other things to do at the same time.
Mr. Wakeham : Absolutely. That accounts for the fact that there are only about 20 hon. Members on the Opposition Benches at the moment. I understand that hon. Members are busy and that many other matters must come to the Floor of the House. That is why I must sometimes resort to a timetable motion to provide the proper allocation of time.
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the basic problems of any guillotine from either side of the House is that sometimes issues are not discussed? Will he assure us that some time will be available to debate the amendment dealing with European papers? Will he endeavour to ensure that there will be time to discuss the important issues?
Mr. Wakeham : Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, another important matter of principle must be considered. That is whether some Bills are of such significance that they should not be timetabled. Governments of all persuasions have guillotined Bills of great political and even constitutional importance. On the same day in November 1977, the last Labour Government
Column 74guillotined the Scotland Bill and the Wales Bill, both of which would have fundamentally altered the nature of the Union. The Labour Government before that guillotined the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Bill--a controversial constitutional measure if ever there was one.
I do not claim that we have never in turn imposed a timetable on important measures. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) guillotined the European Communities Bill in 1972, and that was followed by a guillotine on the Counter-Inflation (Temporary Provisions) Bill, which was also discussed by a Committee of the whole House.
Mr. Skinner : Earlier, the Leader of the House mentioned that only 20 right hon. and hon. Members are on the Opposition Benches. He failed to say that most right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches can be added to those on the Opposition Benches who oppose the guillotine. While the Leader of the House is giving a rundown of previous guillotines, can he say whether he has introduced a guillotine on any Bill, constitutional or otherwise, when as many as 18 Conservative Members were agin it?
So that the Liberal party is not left out of the pantheon, I recall the guillotine in 1911 of the Parliament Bill, which fundamentally altered the constitutional powers of another place. That is the best example I can find, because it is a long time since the Liberals had responsibility for such matters.
Last Thursday, I said that in matters of timetable motions, I bow to the knowledge of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), who said, when guillotining the Scotland Bill :
"it is constitutional Bills for which guillotines are most required The House should not give the impression to anybody that there is something extraordinary, improper or contrary to our traditions in the application of timetable motions to constitutional Bills." On that occasion, the right hon. Gentleman also observed : "to read my speeches on guillotine motions is almost a liberal education in itself."--[ Official Report, 16 November 1977 ; Vol. 939, c. 585-87.]
The right hon. Gentleman supplied an impressive list of constitutional Bills that had been guillotined. Among the more interesting were the Members of Parliament (Charges and Allegations) Bill 1888, which the right hon. Gentleman thought might have been a constitutional Bill, and the Military Training Bill in 1938-39, which he was sure involved "important questions". I recommend the right hon. Gentleman's speech to hon. and right hon. Members interested in such matters.
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether, during the passage of any of the Bills to which he refers, the Government of the day had an overall majority in this House of more than 100?
Column 75closure they want. The Government could impose a guillotine as the Bill proceeds, but they choose not to do so, because they do not want the Bill debated.
I accept that the Official Secrets Bill deals with the interests of the state, as do many bills. It goes to the heart of the Government's responsibilities, and that is why it is being considered by a Committee of the whole House. However, it appears from the precedents that I have cited that there is no Bill, however profoundly it affects the constitution or even the sovereignty of this country, that may not be timetabled. Having established that, it is a matter of whether the proposed timetable is reasonable. I believe that it is.
The motion before the House will allow about another 17 hours for Committee stage on the Floor of the House, making about 30 hours in all. For a Bill of 16 clauses, that is a generous amount of time. There will be a further full day for Report and Third Reading. By the time that the Bill goes to another place, it will have been considered in this Chamber for about 42 hours.
Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North) : Can my right hon. Friend say, from his knowledge of precedents, whether any Bill has been guillotined after 13 hours of debate, and when the majority of time has been taken up by the speeches of Privy Councillors--as opposed to the contributions of ordinary Back Benchers such as myself?
Mr. Wakeham : If any right hon. or hon. Member struggles hard enough, he or she can probably find a precedent. There are certainly precedents for guillotining Bills even earlier. I cite as an example the 1972 anti-inflation Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Sidcup and Bexley, which was guillotined immediately after Second Reading. Two of the Bills of the right hon. Member for Blaenau, Gwent were also guillotined immediately after Second Reading.
While the Bill is important, it is not lengthy, and the amount of time allowed for it in Committee is more than adequate.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) and I are the first two Leaders of the House to defend the use of timetable motions against criticisms from two directions. The more recent of those criticisms is that mounted by the Select Committee on Procedure, whose recommendations in the last Parliament, if put into effect, would mean that almost every Bill of significance or controversy would have a timetable motion for its Committee and further stages.
The second, more traditional line of attack will no doubt come in the speech by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), criticising the number of
Column 76timetable motions that I have introduced to date. But to make that criticism is to miss an important point. On several previous occasions--particularly during the debate on procedure last November--I made it clear to the House that it is now my practice to move towards the introduction of timetable motions where necessary ; and, if possible, at a time that allows for properly apportioned consideration of a Bill. That is in the spirit of the Select Committee's recommendations, although it does not go quite as far as it would like--and inevitably means that timetable motions will become slightly more routine than they once were.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras did not oppose the principle of timetabling in the procedure debate, although he drew attention to the number of Bills that were guillotined last Session. I note that he added :
"However, the number was still only six, so we are not reduced to guillotining Bills too frequently."--[ Official Report, 30 November 1988 ; Vol 142, c. 801.]
I agree, and I would like to keep it that way. I strongly believe that the best way to proceed is through discussions and agreement on the issues as they arise. I have spent a great deal of time, both as Patronage Secretary and as Leader of the House, taking matters forward in that way--as I believe is essential to preserve the flexibility that our present procedures provide.
This is an important Bill, and one that needs careful consideration, in whole rather than in part, by the House. Timetables have been imposed on politically important Bills before, and no new precedent is being set today. The motion before the House allows generous time for discussing the remaining part of the Bill.
Mr. Aitken : My right hon. Friend says that no new precedent is being set. Is he aware of the important correspondence between the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), in which the Home Secretary repudiates an important series of assurances given on the Floor of the House of Commons by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office? Surely it is right that those repudiations should be properly debated, and that room be made in the timetable for that discussion?
Mr. Wakeham : There is plenty of time to debate everything that is relevant, and I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will deal with the points to which my hon. Friend refers when he winds up the debate. The time allowed by the motion for discussion of the Bill is adequate, and I commend it to the House. 7.17 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) : This is the third guillotine motion moved by the Leader of the House in four weeks. The first two were objectionable, but this is much worse. This latest motion is particularly objectionable because it seeks to curtail debate on proposals that go to the heart of the relationship between the citizens of this country and the state, the servants of the state, and those who, for the time being, control the apparatus of the state--usually referred to as the Government.
Tonight's debate also goes to the heart of the relationship between Government and this elected House.
Column 77The Government accept that the Official Secrets Bill is sufficiently important for its Committee stage to be debated on the Floor of the House. But now they want to curtail that debate, and one must ask why. So far, the Committee stage has taken just 13 hours, spread over two days. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) pointed out, on both days the Government themselves adjourned the debate. On neither day was there any question of repetition or of unnecessarily extended debate. Even the Home Secretary has commented favourably on what he called "the long debate which has gone to the heart of necessary" I emphasise "necessary"--
"discussion of the Bill."--[ Official Report, 2 February 1989 ; Vol. 146, c. 527.]
I must admit that that was generous of the right hon. Gentleman, because those speaking against the Bill have not only outnumbered its supporters but worsted them at every stage--so much so that some Conservative Members who wandered into the Chamber out of curiosity to listen to the debate stayed to speak against the Bill. No doubt some of them were as appalled as I was to hear some modern Tories abandon Winston Churchill's motto "Trust the people" and replace it with what has been the motto of the lackey since time immemorial, "Trust the people in charge". I hope that that idea is offensive even to some modern Tories.
One problem has been the inability, or unwillingness, of Ministers to answer questions raised by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House or to provide anything approaching a lucid or convincing explanation of their own Bill. Ministers have been reduced at times to trying to reassure Conservative Members with soothing words from Home Office press releases. Unfortunately, the soothing words do not appear on the face of the Bill, and it is the Bill that we are being asked to enact, not Home Office press releases.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite continual comments and requests, no Law Officer has been present to assist the Home Secretary to answer the important legal questions which, if we are to have confidence in the legislation, the Government should be only too willing to provide?
Mr. Dobson : That is certainly the case, but perhaps my hon. Friend has more faith in the lucidity of Law Officers than I have. The Government can scarcely complain about time being taken in debate when ministerial speeches have often raised more questions than they have answered. The Minister of State might reasonably be expected to thank the dozen hon. Members who spoke briefly between 10.30 pm and 11.30 pm on Thursday 25 January and so gave him time to find out that one aspect of the Bill would be subject to judicial review. He had thrice previously asserted that it would not. If the Home Secretary wants to save time, I suggest that he ensure that his Ministers give the right answers from the start.
All in all, the Government's response to Committee stage questioning has been contradictory and unconvincing. When pressed to explain the drafting of the Bill, they fall back on the oldest cop-out of all. They say, in effect, "Something must be done about the Official Secrets Act. This is something ; therefore this must be done." That is not a good enough response on a Bill of this significance.
Column 78Even if the debates had been more protracted, that would be no reason to curtail them. We are not discussing trivial matters. If passed in its present form, the Bill will be, in part, contrary to the principles of natural justice and to the fundamentals of the rule of law.
Mr. Cryer : Does my hon. Friend agree that, if there was any extension to the debate it was by the Government, who sent the Whips scurrying around to get hold of some Tory hack to speak for the Bill? The views expressed on both sides of the House were 99 per cent. against the tenets of the Bill.
We are talking about a Bill that affects the principles of natural justice and the rule of law. Hon. Members must ask the question : if the House of Commons cannot find time to debate such matters, what do the Government suggest we should debate instead? For what business should we find more time?
Since time immemorial, the laws of this land have made murder unlawful. In one way or another, they have obliged every one of us, without exception, to report murder and to ensure that it is investigated and punished. If passed, the Bill will not only relieve members of the security services of that timeless obligation but oblige them not to report murder or to see it investigated or punished. We cannot tolerate the use of an Act to breach the most fundamental rule of law, which is that all are equal before the law, be they individual citizens or public servants.
The Bill seeks to introduce a noxious innovation into the law of the land. It springs from the recently invented, proposterous notion that members of the security services have a lifelong duty of absolute silence about anything they learn in the course of their work. No one has ever suggested, even in more oppressive earlier times, that such a duty was absolute. To make that duty absolute, the House is being asked to approve a Bill that does not merely countenance the possibility of a cover-up of murder by the security services but enforces it by law. That cannot be right.
I shall give an example of what might happen. The House will recall that members of the French security service, in an unforgivable act of state terrorism, blew up the British-registered Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in harbour in Auckland, New Zealand, and killed one of the crew. Let us suppose that that or similar actions were carried out by members of the British Security Service, not necessarily with authority from the top but perhaps as an act of private enterprise on the part of some Security Service oddball such as Peter Wright or his friends.
Under the Bill, a member of the Security Service could not report such a murder except to someone within, or closely associated with, the security services. Such people in the higher echelons-- [Interruption.] The Home Secretary says, "What about the police?" The matter has been raised time and time again in Committee, and he and his colleagues have failed to come up with any convincing
Column 79argument included in the Bill to show that what I am saying is wrong, and that a member of the Security Service could report such a matter to the police.
I remind the Home Secretary that, in the words of the Prime Minister, there is "a lifelong absolute duty" of silence, not one that can be varied so that someone can report matters to the police if he does not like what his bosses are doing.
If anyone among the higher echelons were informed of such a matter, they might prefer to keep it quiet, for what they would call "reasons of state". Such reasons would be not upsetting the Government and people of New Zealand, or the people of this country, by revealing the existence of some uncontrolled far-Right freaks roaming round in the Security Service. Is that the sort of country in which Conservative Members want to live?
Let us examine another crucial aspect of the Bill. Few can deny that it can be in the public interest to release official secrets without authority. A good example of this, which has been mentioned in the debates, was the information provided about the state of London's air defences before the second world war to Duncan Sandys. His use of that information was profoundly embarrassing to the then Government. As a result of his revelations, work to correct what was wrong was undertaken sooner than might otherwise have been the case. Who would now deny that that was in the public interest? Yet the Government at the time argued that it was not.
Up to now, civil servants or service personnel who disclosed a secret have been able to claim that the disclosure was in the public interest. That argument has not been used very often in the courts but, in a sense, it is not the use of the public interest defence but the existence of that defence which is so crucial. It existence both restrains Governments from mounting prosecutions and colours their attitude to secrecy. In Winston Churchill's words--and he should know, because he voted for it in 1911--the Official Secrets Act was "intended for spies, crooks, traitors and traffickers in official information."
The Official Secrets Act was not intended to protect the Government from scandal being revealed or to prevent them from being found out when they lie, deceive or disinform, as all Governments do. Surely we as a Parliament have not sunk so low that we want to introduce new laws to protect official wrongdoing. That is what we could do tonight.
Under the Bill, if civil servants know that a wrong has been done, they must send their complaint up the hierarchy, so that ultimately if the top dogs decide to do nothing, wrongdoing will be left unpunished and unheard of. If by the Bill we remove the threat of exposure backed up by the plea of public interest, those in the higher echelons of the Civil Service will no longer feel under any pressure to do the right thing for fear of exposure, because all disclosure will become an absolute offence. All the Government's arguments against the public interest defence depend on the existence of whistleblowers at the top of the Civil Service. Is that realistic? As Shakespeare said,
"A dog's obeyed in office."
Perhaps we should call to mind the gyrations, over the Westland and "Spycatcher" affairs of Sir Robert Armstrong, at that time supreme guardian of the
Column 80professional ethics of the Civil Service or, in colloquial terms, the whistleblower-in-chief. Few can doubt that sadly, by the end of his career, he had reached the stage where "his little wooden whistle wouldn't whistle."
Let us take another example. Supposing, today, a Government press officer knows that she is being asked to peddle deceptive information, or to mislead the press about something said by an apponent of the Government from the Tory or the Labour party. To whom should she turn to complain about being forced into an act contrary to the ethics of her profession? The answer is she should complain to the head of profession for Government information officers. Who is that peerless pearl of ethical rectitude, and where can he or she be found? Since last Thursday, the answer is a Mr. Bernard Ingham, and her complaint should be addressed to 10 Downing street.
Let us suppose that the press officer does not fancy complaining about her enforced deception of the public to Mr. Ingham. Who could blame her? As she is being honest and truthful, she may decide to ring up a journalist and say, "What I told you yesterday was a lot of cock and bull. The eggs have salmonella, the hospital waiting lists have been doctored, nuclear electricity costs more than that from conventional power stations." If the information that she then discloses is classified, that honest act will be an offence under the Bill, rendering press officer, journalist or broadcaster, newspaper or television or radio station liable to prosecution without being able to mount the defence that the revised information is the truth and that it was in the public interest for the truth to come out.
Mr. Dobson : There seems to be some hesitation among Conservative Members [Interruption.] If that press officer had been designated as one of the people connected with such material, and that material was classified--[ Hon. Members :-- "Where?"] As my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) pointed out, the NHS review was classified as secret, and it would have been wrong to disclose it.
Mr. Hurd : Will the hon. Gentleman say in which clause of the Bill a test of classification of documents exists? The shadow Leader of the House simply has not bothered to master the Bill which he is discussing.
Mr. Dobson : If she had been notified as such a person--I am sorry if I got the phraseology wrong--she would be committing an offence. It is no good the Secretary of State pretending that it is not the case. [Interruption.] A Conservative Member is suggesting that no one in the Government press service would be notified in that way. Is he really suggesting that the chief Government press officer is not likely to be notified that he deals in matters involving the Security Service? I simply do not believe that.
Unless I am utterly off the beam, it is clear that plenty of people at the Department of Energy who deal with nuclear power stations and such matters will be notified. In the dim and distant past, because of my involvement in the nuclear side of the electricity industry, I was involved in classification of material, clearances and so on. I do not
Column 81think that there is any evidence that the nuclear side of the electricity industry or matters involving the energy industry have changed in any respect.
Mr. Dalyell : Perhaps the Home Secretary could help us by telling us what would happen to Colette Bowe if by some chance someone opened her bank vault? She put her account of events in a bank vault and under clause 5(2) of the Bill--
Mr. Deputy Speaker : (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. We are not discussing that subsection or any other subsection. We are discussing the motion on the Order Paper. I do not see any reference to that subsection on the Order Paper [Interruption.] Order. Mr. Dobson.
Mr. Dobson : I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is on the ball again. Would the bank clerk who opened the vault be guilty under that arrangement, if the Government could find out who that person was and select him as covered by the Bill?
Everyone agrees that the existing Official Secrets Act is bad, but in many respects the new Bill is worse. It infringes our civil liberties, breaches the principle of natural justice, sets some public officials above the law and makes Ministers the sole unchallengeable judges of the public interest. We are used to seeing our country slip down the economic league table.
Mr. Gorst : The hon. Gentleman has produced a catalogue of the offences that the Bill commits to society, but he has left out one important offence. Article 10 of the European convention on human rights states :
"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to receive and impart information without interference by public authorities and regardless of frontiers." Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should address himself to that supreme violation which the Bill will commit.