Previous Section Home Page

Column 584

Rowe, Andrew

Rumbold, Mrs Angela

Ryder, Richard

Sackville, Hon Tom

Sayeed, Jonathan

Scott, Nicholas

Shaw, David (Dover)

Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)

Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')

Shelton, Sir William

Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)

Sims, Roger

Skeet, Sir Trevor

Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)

Soames, Hon Nicholas

Speller, Tony

Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)

Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)

Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John

Steen, Anthony

Stevens, Lewis

Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)

Stokes, Sir John

Stradling Thomas, Sir John

Summerson, Hugo

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Taylor, John M (Solihull)

Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman

Temple-Morris, Peter

Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)

Thurnham, Peter

Townend, John (Bridlington)

Tracey, Richard

Tredinnick, David

Trippier, David

Trotter, Neville

Twinn, Dr Ian

Viggers, Peter

Waddington, Rt Hon David

Waller, Gary

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Watts, John

Wells, Bowen

Wheeler, John

Whitney, Ray

Widdecombe, Ann

Wiggin, Jerry

Wilkinson, John

Wilshire, David

Winterton, Mrs Ann

Winterton, Nicholas

Wolfson, Mark

Wood, Timothy

Woodcock, Mike

Yeo, Tim

Young, Sir George (Acton)

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. Tony Durant and

Mr. David Lightbown.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Column 585

Clause 6

Information entrusted in confidence to other States or international organisations

Mr. Maclennan : I beg to move amendment No. 75, in page 6, line 4, leave out defence or international relations' and insert or defence'.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Harold Walker) : With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 76, in page 6, line 39, leave out defence and international relations' and insert and defence'.

Mr. Maclennan : The context of the amendments is the extraordinary provision of clause 6 whose purpose seems to be to make it a criminal offence to disclose British information relating to

"security or intelligence, defence or international relations," if that information has been leaked in another country ; for that is what I think is meant by the phrase in the Bill

"disclosed without the authority of that State".

It is highly anomalous because the existence of the offence in British law does not result from a criminal act of leaking having occurred in another country. The disclosure may not have been criminal in that other country where it took place.

The effect of the clause is that a British citizen could be imprisoned in Britain for up to two years for repeating information that has been leaked abroad without infringing the local law in, for example, Brussels or Strasbourg. On the other hand, because the law is different in the United States, Canada or Australia, where there is a legal right to obtain information through a Freedom of Information Act so that disclosure is achieved not through leaking but by applying for the information, the British citizen is at liberty to repeat it.

10.15 pm

It is astonishing that a criminal offence in Britain should depend upon the state of the law in the country in which the information becomes available. It is bizarre that it should be a criminal offence to publish information leaked in Brussels but not if it has been obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in the United States. That is the highly anomalous effect of clause 6.

Whatever may be the virtues or follies of that, it is unacceptable that the categories of information leaked which lead to the imposition of a penalty of up to two years' imprisonment should yet again include that extremely vague reference to international relations.

Under clause 6(2) it is an offence to repeat information which has been supplied by Britain to another Government or an international body which has been improperly disclosed by someone who does not commit an offence under the Bill in so doing.

My purpose is to reduce the impact of that by deleting the words "international relations". The new offence applies to information specified as I have described, but the reference to international relations amounts to an extraordinary extension of the law because it applies to the repetition of information which may have been widely available abroad. However, I do not want to run the risk of repeating the arguments that we have just had on prior publication. Whether that provision is justified is arguable. The Government have previously argued that it is necessary primarily to protect increasing international co-operation

Column 586

in recent years on defence and international problems such as terrorism. But by including international relations the Bill has gone substantially beyond what the Government earlier sought to cover. It covers disclosures on any subject if they have been discussed by the Government, Government Departments or international bodies or their organs. The purpose of my amendment is reduce the ambit of this sweeping clause, which is anomalous and indefensible.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing) : I intervene briefly. It is always difficult under a guillotine motion to know precisely where to raise some points, but this seems to be an appropriate point to raise a matter that is giving me some cause for concern.

It has been an underlying theme of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's arguments in support of the Bill that it is in many ways a liberalising measure in as much as much information that was previously caught by the old legislation will no longer be caught, even, it is sometimes stressed, the United Kingdom Budget. There may be those who have some doubts about it, because, if a Budget leak takes place, it is possible that the Revenue could suffer substantial loss as a result, for example, of the change in the rate of excise duty on petrol, wine or cigarettes being known in advance. I accept, however, that it is the Home Secretary's general intention to widen the exemptions from the effect of secrets legislation as much as possible.

Having said that, I then begin to wonder whether the extent of this liberalisation is as great as we suppose. Let us suppose that there is some information within the economic management sector that is given in confidence to the OECD, which I presume must be an international organisation within the definition in the Bill. If that is then leaked in some way, or subsequently disclosed unlawfully, that would appear to give rise to the full impact of the criminal law falling upon the individual who publishes that information. If it was obtained directly and published, it would not be subject to criminal law, but if it was given to some other international body or other state and subsequently published, it would still be caught as it is under existing legislation. That appears to be rather strange and curious and I hope, therefore, that the Minister in his reply will be able to put my mind at rest.

The clause widens the matter considerably. I shall cite another matter which concerns me. A journalist from this country, who covers events in Europe, could obtain information from some international body--not necessarily the OECD, but perhaps the European Commission--and in good faith believe that that is something which is generally known in Strasbourg or Brussels and is, therefore, something that he could report back to a newspaper in this country for publication. It may turn out, however, to be something that was authorised either by the state or by the organisation concerned. It would then seem that the individual or the newspaper who had published that information in this country would be subject under criminal law to the sanctions imposed in the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend can clarify that point.

The final point that I would like to make at this stage--perhaps some others will emerge during the discussions, as they have previously--is that we are taking stringent measures, in many ways of an extraordinary kind, to protect the information which we give to international organisations or other states. I speak not only of whether

Column 587

that information should be released, but of the argument that the mere disclosure may be harmful to our international relations, although the information itself turns out not to be so.

I ask the Minister how many other countries have such reciprocal legislation? Is it the case, for example, that the United States is equally concerned that, perhaps, if it gave us information in confidence, which was then subsequently published, that would damage its international relations? Does it have such legislation? If it does, we can take the matter from there. If it does not, one is bound to ask why we have to be much more sensitive than the United States on such issues. I would be grateful if the Minister could at least tell us the position of the United States and the main European Common Market countries in that regard. I hope that he can enlighten us on those points because the clause gives considerable cause for concern.

Mr. Dalyell : I want to ask one question. Most of the offences under this clause would presumably be committed by people in the Civil Service. If that is so, is there any truth in the suggestion that the Government are thinking of using the Civil Service discipline regulations to have some authority over civil servants in this respect with a view to cutting or curtailing pensions? Is there a threat to remove the pensions rights of a Civil Service leaker? I would of course like a categoric denial.

Mr. John Patten : I can deal with that now. Of course, the hon. Gentleman raises a very important point which is of concern to civil servants and to the Committee. Pension forfeiture provisions cannot be used as a disciplinary measure. They can apply only to people who are convicted of a criminal offence. The hon. Gentleman asked me to give a binding undertaking or a clear statement of the Government's position. We have no proposals at the moment to bring forward legislation to alter the existing public service pension forfeiture arrangements. I hope that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is satisfied with that undertaking.

Mr. Dalyell : That is a completely reasonable reply to my question.

Mr. Greg Knight : On a point of order, Mr. Walker. You are aware that on Monday there was much comment in the House from Opposition Members about the fact that the Government were being unreasonable in the allocation of time for discussing the clauses in the Bill. However, Conservative Members have noticed that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has not been present in the Chamber since 7.15 this evening. Have we been allocated too much time and

The Chairman of Ways and Means : Order. Let us not waste any more time.

Mr. Buchan : It might be out of order for me to mention the fact that the absence of any Conservative Members who support the Bill has been the most notable feature of our proceedings this week. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) must be the first Conservative Member to support the Bill. The problem facing the Government is not the absence of Opposition Members, but the fact that they are desperately trying to find Conservative Members to support the Bill.

Column 588

I asked the Home Secretary only a few moments ago how many Conservative Members who voted for the Bill actually supported it. He did not reply. The answer was probably none. Anyone who has listened to five or 10 minutes of our debates on the Bill must have been convinced that it would be an utter tragedy for this country if it were passed. The Bill and the proceeding have been a travesty. For the hon. Member for Derby, North to appear suddenly with this kind of nonsense--

Mr. Greg Knight : I have been here all week.

Mr. Buchan : The hon. Gentleman certainly has not been here all week. I have been here all week apart from the past three hours when I was discussing the city of Glasgow in 1990. If I had not been doing that, I would have been here discussing the position in Britain in 1989.

I am very concerned about this clause because we are not being given an opportunity, probably for the best of reasons I suspect, to debate amendment No. 60 which would leave out "be damaging" and change the wording to

"would cause serious injury to the interests of the nation." I understand why we are not going to discuss amendment No 60. We have discussed that wording before and presumably it would be repetitive to discuss it in this part of the Bill. However, in many ways I would be less worried if that caveat were inserted. As it is, we are left with the situation where "international relations" is left unqualified and without significance and what is damaging to international relations becomes a crime.

Some of the most notable services to humanity have been performed by investigative journalists who have leaked information. For example, it might have reflected more honour on this country if, before the invasion of Suez, we had known a bit more about the international relationships then prevailing between Britain and France and the events in Egypt and Israel. This clause puts a blanket prevention or a cloud of anxiety on the good, intelligent and honest journalist whose job it is to find out what the hell is going on in "international relations".

Mr. Higgins : I note that the part of clause 6(4) that the amendment seeks to leave out refers to "international relations", which term is said to have

"the same meaning as in section 1, 2 and 3 above",

which the hon. Gentleman mentioned a moment ago. That is very strange : we would have expected to find the definition of international relations not by reference to earlier clauses but in the definitions that appear in clause 13--which, of course, we shall not be able to discuss. Is this not an extraordinary piece of drafting? Perhaps the Minister will pick it up in his reply. 10.30 pm

Mr. Buchan : I am sorry. I have been so absorbed in the lack of caveat in the "damage" provision that I did not notice that. It is indeed very strange--and dangerous too--that "international relations" should be inserted in such a form when clauses 1 and 2 deal with the "formation" of the Bill : security and intelligence, and then defence. Is this intended? It seems extraordinary that the term should have been left raw and unqualified if, in fact, it means "defence and security". I do not think that the Minister himself knows the answer, but it would be useful to hear an answer. If "international relations" means "defence and security", we are in a different ball game, and it is time that

Column 589

we were aware of it. I would not mind giving way now so that the Minister can tell us whether this was intended. Are we dealing with defence and security, or what? Until now we have assumed that we were dealing with the simple, straightforward issue of international relations.

Next Section

  Home Page