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Sir Peter Emery : I have been dealing with many interruptions. May I have an assurance from the Home Secretary that every clause of the Bill will be debated? If, within the schedule that is laid down, it becomes evident that that is not possible--
If that is not possible, the House would then use the procedure in paragraph 7(2) of the motion, which would allow extra consideration of specific points. Therefore, there is the possibility of a let-out for the Government. If they are not able to deal with every clause, some extra time could be found. The House has a right to be assured that every clause will be debated before the Bill goes to the House of Lords. If I have that assurance, I have the right to ask all hon. Members who are interested in reasonable procedures in the House to support the Government in the Lobby tonight.
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : The speech by the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) does no more than reflect that he has not been present during our debates. If he had been present, he would have understood what he plainly did not understand--that we cannot apply to a Bill of this kind, which touches upon the freedom of our citizens and the relationship between state and citizens, the kind of mechanistic framework for debate that he seeks to impose.
Column 94If that is the thinking of his Procedure Committee, it does not commend itself to the House. Indeed, it casts a somewhat sinister light upon the thinking of the Leader of the House in opening the debate and suggesting that that kind of thinking lies behind the move to guillotine the Bill.
Hon. Members have sometimes thought that there is some protection in the fact that we do not have a written constitution and that, in consequence, it is possible gradually to adapt our constitutional procedures to take account of changing political realities and perceptions. I found the Leader of the House's gradual adaptation of our parliamentary constitution extremely disturbing, as I did the idea that he, as spokesman for the Government's business management, could come to the House and say, "We are going to make guillotine motions the norm. They will become regular practice. This will be the way in which we shall proceed in the future--not the way that we proceeded in the past." That appeared to be the only real justification for this motion. The Leader of the House did not say anything about dilatoriness in our consideration of the Bill. He did not try to say that it is a simple Bill that we can understand and allow through on the nod. The motion is all about the convenience of the Executive organising legislation according to a preconceived timetable.
Perhaps when he replies to the debate, the Home Secretary will give us his view about whether that is an appropriate way for the Government to proceed because that is even more sinister than the imposition of a guillotine on the Bill. It is true that this Government have been more ready to introduce guillotines than their predecessors. They have done so 47 times during this Conservative Administration.
Like the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), I do not take the view that because it is a constitutional Bill and one that the Government have thought fit to debate on the Floor of the House, it is inappropriate ipso facto not to have a guillotine. There are circumstances in which it is right that when a constitutional measure is before the House, the majority in the House should be allowed to decide and the efforts of the minority to frustrate the majority should not be allowed to prevail, but that is not the case that we are considering. In all our debates on this issue, the Government have shown that they are in a position to command votes and to ensure that they have a substantial majority. It is true that a sizeable minority of Conservative Members are deeply disturbed by several important principles enshrined in the Bill and by the creation of an absolute offence in clause 1.
If the hon. Member for Honiton is surprised that we took so long to debate clause 1, he should read and understand what we said because the clause is at the heart of the issue. It is the clause that makes it impossible for what has been described as a whistleblower to stop criminality in a public service. It is the clause that provides no defence on which that exposure of wrongdoing can be invoked in the courts. It is a critical proposal and it is right that it should have taken 13 hours to consider. Incidentally, as the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) said, that clause is closely linked to several other matters and to other clauses, especially to clause 5, which were also debated, and not in a dilatory fashion.
The reality is that the Government have introduced the Bill and have said, in terms, "We are not prepared to accept amendments. We are not prepared to listen to
Column 95arguments. We will tell you something in answer to one debate and contradict ourselves half an hour later if we get it wrong." That is what the Minister of State said on the issue of judicial review. In this Bill the Government are treating the legislative procedure with contempt. They are not interested in the arguments. They have made up their minds. Indeed, they are not even interested in the arguments of their hon. Friends. They are interested only in concealing their hon. Friends' arguments from the public. They do not wish the public to know the extent of the dismay on their Benches. That is why they are not allowing the debate and why they are curtailing it to three days.
Many serious issues remain to be decided. There is, for example, the question of prior publication, an issue that caused Lord Armstrong to trail off to Australia and to go through the courts there rubbing the noses of our lawyers in the mud to protect the Prime Minister, who had determined to squash the Spycatcher affair. That issue has not yet been debated in Committee. We must consider it properly, not because it is a matter of partisan dispute between the two sides, but because the issue whether, if a piece of official information has been published, that fact should not constitute a defence against a charge of criminal behaviour, possibly leading to two years imprisonment, is a matter of considerable importance. The idea that that should be squeezed into a debate in just one hour when probably 20 Conservative Members--never mind Opposition Members--want to contribute and have a right to be heard is preposterous. That is not the only serious matter that has still to be considered. There is also the whole question whether information coming from the European Economic Community should be treated with a net of criminal sanctions. The fact is-- no one knows this better than the Home Secretary--that there is little in our public life today that does not pass through one of the channels to or from the European Community. The Bill represents a blanket exception. It is something that we have every right to debate for more than one hour. Goodness me--we debated joining the European Community for 80 or 90 hours, as the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent knows.
This is a matter of grave seriousness, but the Home Secretary is scuttling it through in a way that is offensive to the parliamentary process. He is trying to treat the House as though it exists just to nod through what the Executive deem shall be.
Another issue of great importance still to be considered is the departure of the Bill from the clear recommendation of the Franks committee that the criminal law should be invoked only in cases where there is serious injury to the interests of the nation. However, that phrase does not appear in the Bill. There are various tests of harm, and fine distinctions can be drawn from different sides of the argument about the six different categories of information. We want to hear the Home Secretary justify those different categories. We want to hear why he has dispensed with the recommendation of the Franks report. We want to hear more on that subject than he told us on Second Reading or in the debate on the White Paper.
Column 96opening brief? When I asked why that phrase does not appear in the Bill, I was peremptorily told that he would make his own speech. However, in a formal letter the Minister of State wrote : "The object of the Bill is to ensure that in future the criminal law will penalise only those unauthorised disclosures of official information which cause a serious degree of harm".
Yet that does not appear in the Bill.
Mr. Maclennan : In his opening remarks the Leader of the House gave every indication of not having read the Bill either. His complete inability to answer any intervention of substance and his reliance on the argument about the Government's convenience suggest that he is prepared to leave these little problems to his colleague to deal with later.
The Home Secretary has most responsibility for what is happening. He seeks to portray himself--I no longer understand why--as the reasonable man, l'homme moyen sensuel. His behaviour with legislation this Session suggests that he is far from being the reasonable man. He is the creature of a Prime Minister who has effectively dispensed with collective Cabinet decision- making. The only possible justification for his attitude and approach, not only to the content of the Bill but to the way in which it is being handled, must be the self-justification, "If I were not here, there would be somebody worse doing the job." I am not sure whether I would not almost prefer someone else, the colour of whose eyes one could see and whose prejudices were less masked by his behaviour. I am rather tired of seeking to defend the Home Secretary from his colleagues, of trying to draw distinctions between him and his colleagues and of making excuses for the behaviour that so ill becomes him.
The Bill merits consideration for as long as the House thinks that it merits consideration. It seems to be in violation of our international treaty obligations under the European convention on human rights. It seems probable that we shall be back before the European Court of Human Rights for infringing article 10's guarantee of freedom of information. It is extremely probable that the Bill will not do what the Government hope that it will do, which is to silence the whistleblowers. Those whistleblowers are usually men and women who are concerned about the public interest and will not be silenced by threats of this sort.
The Bill has had a rapid passage to the present position. It has had 13 hours of debate on a serious group of amendments. I do not believe that it would take long to debate it because what has been discussed is undoubtedly the most important part. The important matters still to come would take only time which the Government could and should afford.
The Government have become contemptuous of free speech. That is implicit and almost explicit in the Bill. They are contemptuous of parliamentary and public opinion, and they are governing ever more as though Parliament does not matter. That is what is wrong with the guillotine motion.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Madame Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : Order. Several hon. Members wish to take part in this debate. I appeal to hon. Members to impose a personal timetable on their speeches so that I may call all those seeking to speak.
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Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion) : I shall come down from the eloquent diatribe we have just heard to submit two practical reasons why the guillotine is premature. The first is that the Bill may not prove to be the same Bill as the one that we passed on Second Reading. The second is that I am not sure that the House is yet aware of some of the Bill's implications for the rights and freedoms of hon. Members. Let me substantiate those points.
On Second Reading I ventured to ask about the conditions on which members or former members of the secret services could be authorised to publish their memoirs. I do not want to discuss the merits : that would be out of place in this debate. I suggested several criteria which I thought the Government might apply and which were rather more liberal than the obligation of lifelong confidentiality which they had originally suggested. When the debate came to a close and my hon. Friend the Minister of State replied, he gave me in great detail the assurances which I sought.
It was an exhilarating experience. In nearly 40 years in the House of Commons, I had never had the satisfaction of hearing a Minister accept almost everything that I had advanced earlier in the debate. I had a feeling of self-satisfaction at my persuasive powers and a genuine appreciation of the understanding which the Minister had shown. I went cheerfully into the Lobby and voted in support of Second Reading. There I was greeted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister who said, "If any points remain unanswered, please write to us." There were one or two, so afterwards I wrote to them and I received in reply a letter from my right hon. Friend which, as I understand it, repudiates almost wholly the assurances that I had received.
If the House will allow me, I should like to read out the relevant passages. The Minister in his reply said :
"the sole criterion for authorising publication is whether publication of a particular piece of information will jeopardise national security directly or indirectly. It is a judgment about considerations which are relevant today, not about past history or former embarrassments.
If a point of difficulty were to be identified it might still be possible through discussion to agree with the author a change in the text to overcome the problem."
A little later he added :
"If the problem is larger than just a few minor textual changes or if agreement cannot be reached, sometimes authorisation will not be given."-- [ Official Report, 21 December 1988 ; Vol. 144 c. 538.] A few days later, the letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State stated :
"I must emphasise that authorisation to members or former members in respect of disclosures of information about their work will be rare and given only in exceptional circumstances."
There is no easy way of reconciling those two statements. I refuse to believe that my hon. Friend the Minister said what he did to lure me into the Division Lobby. [ Hon. Members-- : "Oh, no."] I reject that wholeheartedly. Nor do I believe that he spoke beyond his brief, as sometimes happens with a junior Minister. I am satisfied that he and the Secretary of State were in agreement about what he said to me in his reply. Perhaps in the cold light of dawn they reflected that they had gone
Column 98too far. Or perhaps they consulted a higher authority--though for the senior Secretary of State, there are not many higher authorities.
I can only conclude that, on reflection and after consultation, they decided that they would like to go back on what they had said. At the minimum, that shows some confusion in Government thinking about the Bill, and that alone would justify giving a little more time for them to think it out and perhaps to take into consideration the views of the House of Commons.
But I would go a little further than that. I still hope that the Secretary of State, on further reflection, will allow the assurances given by the Minister of State to stand. After all, they are engraved in the tablets of Hansard for all to see. That is the Government's position. That is the basis of the Bill. But if my right hon. Friend is determined, as his letter suggests, to go back on what the Minister of State said, he will have to explain himself to the House, and it will not be easy. I am sure that, if he decides to repudiate my hon. Friend, he will have to admit that he, however involuntarily, had misled the House. If he does that, we shall surely be entitled to a full day's debate on the issue, on which some of us were persuaded to support the Second Reading, and to have the matter clarified. We must be given a second chance to persuade the Government to do what I believe is the right thing.
Mr. Budgen : Has my right hon. Friend noticed the way in which the courts have been extending their power, through the mechanism of judicial review, and the way in which they are increasingly examining the way in which the legislation was passed? If there is a plain error on the record in Hansard, and it is not cleared up, is there not a serious risk that the legislation will be subject to frequent judicial reviews? Would it not be much better if we spent a little more time and clarified the muddles into which Ministers, for all their grandeur--they are human and fallible--may enter? It would be much better if we spent more time on the Bill now and stopped any future litigation.
I do not wish to over-stress the importance of the point, because I doubt whether 60 people out of nearly 60 million of Her Majesty's subjects would wish to write their memoirs on such matters. But this is what set the Peter Wright case and its subsequent folly on its way, and made a laughing stock of the Government at home and abroad.
Mr. Aitken : The House can see that the Minister of State is in his place. Would it not be appropriate for some comment to be made about this extraordinary repudiation or discrepancy? We cannot leave the matter in this embarrassing state of limbo.
Mr. Amery : I take my hon. Friend's point. Perhaps in the reply to the debate we shall have some clarification. I would not wish to embarrass either my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or my hon. Friend the Minister of State by asking for an immediate comment on the rather awkward corner in which they find themselves. My second point relates to the defence of public interest, on which we had an extremely interesting debate. Again, I do not wish to go into the merits of the matter, which would be inappropriate in this debate, but there was
Column 99an error which was frequently repeated. Some hon. Members drew attention to the information that had been given to Sir Winston Churchill between the wars. They were in error because that information was authorised, in the case of Wigram and of Desmond Morton. But there has been a convention that officials or others who speak to Privy Councillors should not be considered guilty of indiscretion.
It occurred to me to try to form a bridge between my right hon. Friend and his opponents on the defence of public interest by suggesting that it would be within the scope of the Bill if someone who wanted to make a protest, instead of speaking to the newspapers, asked his Member of Parliament to put him in touch with a Privy Councillor so that he could make his point. I do not wish to go into the merits of that line of approach, but my inquiries suggested that there was some doubt as to whether communication of such matters to Members of Parliament would be privileged, or even whether the disclosure by Members of Parliament of that information would be privileged.
My anxieties on that score were deepened when I investigated Hansard and found an exchange between the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and my hon. Friend the Minister of State. The right hon. Gentleman said :
"If a member of the security services tells me that my telephone is being tapped without warrant and therefore illegally or that my house has been burgled without warrant and therefore illegally, is it or is it not a criminal offence for me to make that information public?" My hon. Friend replied.
"It would be a criminal offence for the right hon. Gentleman to make that public, and quite rightly so because he has an avenue of redress. He can go to the tribunal set up under the Security Service Bill."--[ Official Report, 25 January 1989 ; Vol. 145, c. 1051.] The waters surrounding privilege are very deep, but the Minister of State's comments seem to fly in the face of the decision taken in the Duncan Sandys case and the much more recent opinion offered by the Committee of Privileges in the Zircon case. The Strauss case may put forward arguments the other way. We wish to know how the Government interpret the Bill. Will our correspondence be privileged? Will anything that we may say in the House be privileged? It would help if we could be told that today. If we cannot be given that assurance, would it be appropriate to move a motion asking that the Committee stage and further proceedings be postponed until we have secured the opinion of the Committee of Privileges?
I want to make my position clear. I am no crusader for open government. I do not wish to have the arrangements that pertain in the United States. Executive secrets must be kept. I do not want publication without authorisation, provided that authorisation is not unreasonably withheld. I am not very strong on the defence of public interest, subject to the right of an individual to raise his grievance through his Member of Parliament.
All I have been begging my right hon. and hon. Friend is not to screw the lid down too tight. They should not make an ass of the very law that they are trying to put forward. The Wright case should have taught us all a lesson. All I ask is that the Government should give the House and themselves a bit more time to consider the legislation before us.
Column 100It is, I fear, untrue that Doctor Guillotin ended his life on the machine which he had invented, but I would not like to see my right hon. and hon. Friends guillotining themselves in the course of these proceedings.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : I shall follow a chain of thought which was initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), when he asked about the position of the Leader of the House. I would like--I hope, politely--to ask the Leader of the House what he considers is his job in these situations. My right hon. Friend, as Leader of the House, was present almost throughout the controversial legislation-- in which he may not have taken a leading part--during the Labour Government. It was the same with Dick Crossman and Iain Macleod, my first Leader of the House.
I hope that the House will forgive me if I say that, had Iain Macleod been the Leader of the House, the junior Minister at the Home Office would have been up at the Dispatch Box within 48 hours explaining what he did mean, because the Leader of the House would have required him to do so. I should have thought that--whereas one must not be absurd and say that the Leader of the House should be a universal expert on the most minor legislation--on major Bills such as as this, one really could expect the Leader of the House to be familiar with the Government's legislation, because, presumably, he is the Chairman of the Legislation Committee.
Mr. Winnick : Does my hon. Friend agree that the previous Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), was dismissed because he showed some independence? Although, of course, he was always loyal in arguing the Government's case as a Cabinet Minister, he had a loyalty to the House. I suppose it was for that very reason that he was dismissed from office.
Mr. Dalyell : I certainly accept that. I also happen to believe that the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) might well have required a statement on judicial review and exactly what was involved, which was the point that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) sharply raised. I believe that there would have been some explanation forthcoming. Hitherto we have had none.
Time is limited and I would just like to draw attention to yet another fundamental muddle over the concept of harm tests which juries will be asked to consider under the Official Secrets act when it becomes law. The Minister of State at the Home Office told me in a letter :
"Your fourteenth Question"--
posed during the Second Reading debate--
"is based on the assumption that the object of the Bill is to stop leaks. The object of the Bill is to ensure that in future the criminal law will penalise only those unauthorised disclosures of official information which cause a serious degree of harm to the public interest, and that such disclosure will only be an offence if the discloser has good reason to know that his disclosure was likely to cause specified harm. As a result of the Bill the unauthorised disclosure of the great majority of official information will no longer be a criminal offence."
That was written in a long and serious letter. However, Ministers have consistently turned down requests from any side of the House--mostly their side--for the "serious
Column 101injury" test, which was proposed by Lord Franks, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and their colleagues back in 1972.
Now, in its draft form, the Bill says that leaks of information relating to security and intelligence matters have to be "damaging" for a prosecution to succeed. The harm test for international relations leaks is that they are required to "jeopardise" United Kingdom interests abroad. The prosecution will have to prove that defence leaks "prejudice" the capability of the armed forces. Admittedly, the Home Secretary has in the past few weeks proposed that the harm test for defence leaks should be raised to "damage". However, even so, the test falls a long way short of "serious" harm or injury, or "serious degree of harm to the public interest", which were the words used by the Minister of State in his letter to me. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said that is surely the situation.
It is all very well for Home Office Ministers to use the phrase "serious degree of harm to the public interest" in letters, but the courts will look at what is in the Bill. On Friday night, 10 February, in a very interesting programme on Channel 4, Lord Griffiths of Gouilon, chairman of the Security Commission and an Appeal Court judge, said that the judges do not, and should not, read Hansard to find out what Parliament meant and that Lord Taylor and Sir Gordon Slynn and the other judges accepted that. In fact we all know that to be true. The fact is that no serious harm test appears anywhere in the Bill. Either the Minister of State's letter must be amended by parliamentary statement or the Bill must be changed. If Ministers were to act quickly, it might be less acceptable for the guillotine procedure to be introduced. Given their record, however, there is no feeling that Ministers will quickly accept error.
There is no serious definition of "international organisation." That term is extremely wide. What about all the EEC examples? Is the EEC's research into salmonella to come within all this? Surely we are entitled to know about EEC documents, regulations and research. With such little time available to us, I leave the point there. Then there is the power to designate. We could have a great deal of argument with any Secretary of State about that. On what grounds should there be no appeal? As you have appealed for short speeches, Madame Deputy Speaker, I shall move on.
It is being widely said in Whitehall that the Government will try to carry out their wishes by bypassing the House and operating through the Civil Service discipline regulations. I am told that the Government need not come to the House to do that. It is said that the Government, through the regulations, will say that those who have leaked documents will lose their pension rights. Is there any talk in the Home Office, or in any other Department, about punishing Civil Service leakers by the withdrawal of pension rights? As you have appealed for short speeches, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall resume my place.
Mr. Norman Tebbit (Chingford) : It is some time since I have spoken from the Back Benches on a guillotine motion. The debates do not change, do they? They are always the same. They are always ritualistic. The House
Column 102almost always shows itself at its worst on these occasions, with some extremely pompous speeches being made on the issue.
These debates are ritualistic, and this one is as ritualistic as any of them. The Opposition and others who are opposed to the particular measure that is passing through the House always claim that there has been insufficient time to discuss the Bill, however much time there has been to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) would know that if he could remember the passage through the House of Bills such as the Housing Finance Bill, as it then was, in 1972.
It is interesting that once we have a timetable motion--this is so on almost every occasion--those who are opposed to the Bill in question tend to speak less and less and to appear on fewer and fewer occasions. I can recollect many instances when once the timetable motion has been agreed to, following all the ritualistic objections, it has been difficult for Opposition to keep debates going. Dinner breaks in Committee have become longer and longer and the rising hour has become earlier and earlier.
What I say is particularly true of Bills that are considered in Standing Committee. I know that things are different when Bills are considered in Committee on the Floor of the House. The Opposition and others who want to seek concessions feel that they have even more ability on the Floor of the House to delay the Government's legislative programme by procrastination, if nothing more. The Government dissidents see the prospect of better leverage and better prospects of obtaining concessions to meet their point of view. There is nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with the Government taking the view that they will not make concessions unless they think that it is right to do so, and that they want to get the business through the House. I say to some of my hon. Friends, as well as to Opposition Members, that it is conceivable that they could be mistaken and that Ministers could be right. I beg them to take that into account.
There is only a limited amount that can be said on any Bill and the major difference--
Mr. Tebbit : My hon. Friend says that democracy is irritating. He knows that that is an extremely stupid and offensive remark. He does not like me saying something with which he disagrees. I fancy that that is the remark of someone who is slightly intolerant. The great difference between Bills taken in Committee on the Floor of the House and those considered upstairs is that Privy Councillors can speak here, but not upstairs. Privy Councillors tend to take up a lot of time. They cannot speak upstairs because they are not Members of Standing Committees.
It is a great privilege, but my goodness, I sometimes wish that Privy Councillors would not be quite so keen to
Column 103speak in Committees of the whole House. We are not in Committee on a Bill now. This is a timetable motion and that is what I am speaking about.
In speaking to the timetable motion, my remarks differ from many that we have heard today. At times it would have been possible to imagine that this was a Second Reading debate. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) made a Second Reading speech, and a third-rate one at that.
I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about some aspects of the Bill. As he is aware, I believe that clause 2 is lamentably weak and should be strengthened. I shall press that view on him at some stage, but I shall do so briefly and concisely. I suspect that he will advance his reasons to the contrary. There has been some discussion this evening about precedents for timetable motions. Everyone who brings forward a timetable motion has a perfect reason for it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) made a speech which would have stuck in his throat if he had made it between 1955 and 1959 or between 1970 and 1974. He obviously takes some pride in the fact that he did not use a timetable motion on his Industrial Relations Bill in 1971 whereas I had to ask for a timetable motion on my Employment Bill in 1982. Of course there was another difference between the two, but it would be slightly impolite to my right hon. Friend, and perhaps a little boastful on my part, to mention it.
Every debate on every Bill could be extended almost interminably. However, every debate on every Bill comes to an end sooner or later. The only question is, should it be sooner or later? The question that we have to ask ourselves tonight on this motion is whether this is the time to take the decision and whether another 16 or 17 hours of debate is sufficient. I am prepared to take that decision tonight. I am perfectly prepared to support my right hon. and hon. Friends in saying that another 17 hours of discussion should be ample for this Bill.
Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South) : I am not sure whether I am happy to follow the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). I have always thought that he was one of the most unpleasant and objectionable Members of this House.
The right hon. Member for Chingford wants clause 2 to be strengthened. I do not know what he wants to happen, whether he wants people to be shot, but from his tone I am glad that he is no longer a Minister. This Government are bad enough without him.
We know why the motion is before us tonight. It is not because time has been wasted. If the right hon. Member--what a description--for Chingford had been present, he would have known that no time has been wasted and that we were dealing seriously with combinations of amendments. We were not restricting ourselves to clause 1 alone. We were extending debate on important issue after important issue in the Bill.
Column 104The right hon. Member for Chingford does not even seem to understand the Bill's importance, especially when he speaks so casually about clause 2. The Official Secrets Bill follows the Security Service Bill, when the Government also ensured that not a single amendment could be taken, so that matters could not be further discussed on Report. And after only 13 hours of debate on the Official Secrets Bill, the Government are introducing a guillotine. The truth is that the Bill before the House is obnoxious. It is being guillotined because the country, and the press especially, are growing increasingly aware of how bad it is. That is the same reason why the Government ensured that there will be no Report stage for the Security Service Bill. They got away with it on that occasion, but it caused so much annoyance that the Government were less sure that they could do so again in respect of the Official Secrets Bill. Consequently, they have truncated debate. Now that people are beginning to understand the Bill's implications for our freedom and liberty, the Government are introducing the guillotine.
There is another, allied, reason for the Government's action. The people who are most worried about the Official Secrets Bill, and who honourably and openly express their concern, are the Government's own right hon. and hon. Members. Every time that more Tories listen to the debate, the more they oppose the Bill. Conservative Members listening to the debate on the Bill for the first time were later to be found in the Lobby, voting against it. In only a short period, the Government would have found themselves with neither a majority of the House, nor of Conservative Members in favour of the Bill.
Mr. Rooker : As further proof of my hon. Friend's point, and leaving aside the extra two days that the Government are making available, the fact that, this week, on consecutive days, the Government are not allowing time for mature consideration of the Bill adds further weight to the argument that they never intended to allow debate on the Bill. That illustrates, as my hon. Friend points out, the bad faith with which Members on the Government Front Bench have approached the passage of the Bill, right from its Second Reading.
Mr. Buchan : What has been an extraordinary experience has been the sheer lack of understanding by Members of the Government Front Bench of their own Bill. We require time to debate the Bill because on every single point, Ministers were getting it wrong. The more they spoke about the Bill, the more contradictions we heard. We have heard another terrifying contradiction tonight. I refer to the correspondence between the Home Office and right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery). No answer has yet been given. The Home Secretary says that something is white, but then the right hon. Gentleman receives a letter from the Home Office saying that it is black. The Government say, "We will resolve that difficulty when we wind up the debate."
It is an appalling Bill, and for the right hon. Member for Chingford to enter the Chamber for the first time and try to defend it, and to say that it should be made stronger, is also appalling. On both Committee days, the Government moved the adjournment, which is also extraordinary. After only two days of single debates, the Government moved the adjournment. I should like to know the last occasion on which adjournment in respect of
Column 105a guillotined Bill was moved by the Government. Those of us who were prepared to debate the Bill all night were unable to do so, because on at least two occasions the Government prevented discussion. They then introduced the guillotine, on the ground that there had been sufficient discussion. It was the Government who destroyed earlier opportunities for debate.
There is no excuse for the Bill, and I do not believe that the Government themselves understand it. The Government have shown their ignorance of several issues already raised this evening. Another is the question of harm. There is nothing in the Bill to say that harm must be shown, and neither has it been defined in relation to different clauses of the Bill. I shall give another example that requires investigation. I did not put down an amendment on this point, because, until last week, I did not expect the current state of affairs to be thrown upon us. Not only is the subject of harm not mentioned, but the Government do not define examples.
Clause 2 relates to defence and raises an issue that I mentioned mildly last week. There has been no answer, no comment and no public statement on the issue, which related to what the word "harm" referred to. If there is a radiation leak from a nuclear base on the Clyde which is not disclosed by the authorities, but is disclosed by an honest whistleblower who is concerned that health precautions should be taken, the Government will claim that, in the clause, "harm" is the harm done to our defence establishments by the knowledge of its inadequacies and the truth of its function. However, we would be concerned about the harm to the health of the people in that district which would not be a defence. The whistleblower would automatically be guilty, although the harm would have been done to the health of the people nearby.
It is not right for that sort of problem to be left in the air without proper time for discussion--or even time to let the poor Minister of State, who has been thrown into the debate on this Bill, receive some answers from the Box.
I do not want to speak for too long, because many Conservative Members, as well as Opposition Members, wish to speak, but I am horrified by the decision. I have been a Member of the House for more than 20 years, and I know that not all guillotines are the same. I have never known a guillotine to be introduced with such speed after adjournments have been moved time after time by the Government ; the Government have shown their own inadequacies and failed to answer questions ; and the more hon. Members have listened, the more opposition has built up against the Bill. The present guillotine is unique.
The Bill is concerned with the freedoms and liberties of the people of this country. It involves their most precious freedom, that of the word and the honesty of speech--along with other Bills that truncate the same freedoms of speech in the media. The Home Secretary is a dab hand at cutting and savaging the BBC. People whose task it should be to expose the iniquities of executives and Governments, have been silenced. The Bill is in the interests of the Executive, not of Parliament or the people of this country. It preserves the secrecies of a Government who not only have too large a majority for anybody's sake, but have been in government too long for any good that they have done. They have substituted for the sovereignty of Parliament the sovereignty of the Executive.
We still need to know who will have the authority if the Home Secretary gets it wrong and backs up the Minister of State when he gets it wrong. Whose decision will be