|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 1059Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Townend, John (Bridlington)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Waddington, Rt Hon David
Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Winterton, Mrs Ann
Young, Sir George (Acton)
Younger, Rt Hon George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones and
Mr. Tony Durant.
Question accordingly negatived.
but "international relations" shall not include any information relating primarily to the domestic affairs of the United Kingdom whose unauthorised disclosure in the United Kingdom would not be an offence under sections 1, 2 or 4 of this Act.'.
Under the provisions in the Bill, the phrase "international relations" provides a catch-all way of arguing that the disclosure of information is a criminal offence. On a previous occasion when the Committee considered clause 6, the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) drew attention to the fact that clause 6 created a highly anomalous situation in which information communicated abroad might be regarded as criminal, yet if the same information had been communicated at home it would not be regarded in that way. Much trivial matter passes between our Government and other Governments, particularly within the European Community. Under this clause, much of that will be caught and its disclosure could result in an offence being committed. That could attract a penalty of two years' imprisonment.
We complained in the Committee that the phrase "international relations" was too wide and we tried to remove it. The purpose of the amendment is to try to narrow the definition of "international relations" to recognise that there might be certain matters which affect the conduct of our relations with other countries, but there are other matters about which we may be in communication with other countries which are essentially domestic and should not attract a criminal penalty if they are disclosed.
In that respect, the right hon. Member for Worthing referred to such information as our Government's proposals about VAT rates, which might be discussed with another European Government in relation to an EEC proposal to harmonise VAT. The Minister might argue that the revelation about VAT rates must still pass the harm test before an offence is committed. Of course that is
Column 1060so, but we know that the harm test is a very low hurdle to leap. The simple test is whether the disclosure is likely to jeopardise the United Kingdom's interests abroad.
It could be argued that such a test could easily be passed if it was shown that, using the example of the right hon. Member for Worthing, a VAT communication had irritated another Government who were seeking to harmonise at a different level, or that there was some lining up of our Government's interest in the matter with the interest of another member country. The sanction of the criminal law should not be invoked in that case.
Although I have not, in the time available to me, been able to draft the amendment in precisely the appropriate way, I am sure that the Minister would not rest on that because the Government's resources for drafting are much greater than those available to individual hon. Members. However, I hope the Minister will accept the principle that it is undesirable and unacceptable to provide for a new criminal offence of disclosure of something so minor as a proposed change in the rate of VAT.
Through the use of the concept of "international relations" the Government have enormously widened the Bill's ambit. Many of the Home Secretary's claims that this is a liberalising Bill are set at naught by the Government's refusal to exclude the provision relating to international relations. So much of what is primarily domestic material is the subject of international discussion. There is scarcely any matter of public policy which does not come before some institution of the European Community for consideration. The very fact that the matter has been communicated from part of a process abroad will be sufficient to bring into play the criminal law in a wholly unacceptable way. I commend the amendment to the House.
I support amendment No. 10, which I believe represents the views of the House. It limits the definition of "international relations" as it applies to clause 6 in relation to disclosures taking place overseas of information supplied by the British Government. The subject was discussed on 16 February under an amendment which would have omitted information about international relations from the scope of clause 6. This amendment proposes a different solution to that problem by limiting the definition of "international relations".
The amendment attempts to exclude from clause 6 information which, in the normal sense, is not about international relations at all but is primarily about Britain's domestic affairs--information that we pass on to another Government or international body, perhaps because discussions about harmonisation or common standards are taking place. We might pass on information about consumer protection measures in Britain, pollution, VAT, the harmonisation of summer time, the labelling of food products, or measures to encourage motorists to use lead-free petrol. The list is endless.
On 16 February my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) made the point that if we pass such information on to an international body or to another Government, and if it forms part of our discussions with that body or Government, it is, technically, transformed into information about "international relations". We therefore have the bizarre situation in which it might be an offence to publish information
Column 1061about Britain that had been leaked overseas, though if that information had been leaked in this country it could have been published without giving rise to an offence. The problem is caused by the all-embracing definition of "international relations" used in clause 3(5). This makes it clear that information of any kind, on any subject, is covered if it is
"capable of affecting the relations of the United Kingdom with another State or with an international organisation."
Any information that we pass on and discuss with another Government must be capable of affecting our relations with that
Government--perhaps with others, too.
The harm test mentioned in clause 3(2) would have to be met, but, as previous debates have made clear, this test is extremely weak--a disclosure likely to "jeopardise" United Kingdom interests abroad meets it. For example, Britain and another EC country might be having private discussions aimed at obtaining derogation from an EC directive on water pollution standards. We might pass on unpublished information about pollution levels in Britain and about the cost of meeting the standard. The fact that Britain appeared to be secretly discussing ways of avoiding meeting an EC standard that was being met by other European countries could well affect our relations with some of those countries. The information would therefore fall within the definition of "international relations".
This amendment, which relates to clause 6(4), seeks to avoid that situation. It says that, for the purposes of clause 6, the definition of "international relations" in clause 3(5)
"shall not include any information relating primarily to the domestic affairs of the United Kingdom"
if the disclosure of that information in this country would not be an offence under clause 1, which deals with security, clause 2, which deals with defence, or clause 4, which deals with law enforcement. If the information related to sensitive Foreign Office negotiations its disclosure overseas would still be an offence under clause 6, but leaks of other information, primarily about Britain's domestic matters, would not be caught by the international relations definition simply because we had passed the information overseas. I think that the argument is a formidable one, and I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would accept it.
Mr. Foot : This debate is a further illustration of how objectionable it is that the House of Commons should be considering a Bill of this nature under the restrictions that have been imposed on it. We are now approaching the parts of the Bill--indeed, we have reached them--in respect of which the truncation started at the Committee stage, when debate was curtailed by the falling of the guillotine. Now we are being denied a proper chance to judge what consideration the Goverment have given to these amendments, as happened in the case of the amendments that were moved during the Committee stage.
As the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) said, there is not the slightest doubt that the use of the words "international relations" greatly enlarges the ambit of the Bill in various ways. Never has a Bill dealing with subjects of this kind included provisions of this kind. It is, therefore, all the more necessary that the Government should be careful to ensure that the House of Commons has a chance to satisfy itself that the references to international relations would be properly applied, and
Column 1062would not be invoked in a way in which the Government may claim they do not wish to see them invoked. But we have not had that chance. The Government are leaving the several references to "international relations" without any qualification, and that is one of the Bill's many flaws.
Let me refer to clauses 6, 7, and 8. At the Committee stage we had quite a sensible debate with the Home Secretary about how a new amendment might be formulated to deal with the question of premature disclosure--a balance that could cover the view of the Government and the view being put forward by the Opposition. It seems to me that those clauses, though they would affect international relations, have not been considered by the Government. I am not saying that the Home Secretary gave an absolute promise that he would consider accepting an amendment, but we did have a sensible debate in which we said that there surely ought to be a way of dealing with the situation, particularly in the light of terrorism.
I fully acknowledge the problems that the Home Secretary and the Government have in respect of acts of terrorism, and so on. Of course, these create a whole new dimension of horror. I do not have the slightest doubt that the worst problems the Home Secretary has to deal with every morning when he comes to his office are those concerned with terrorism in its new forms. But all the more necessary is it that the Government look at this question and see whether we could have an amendment that would take into account all the anxieties that have been expressed on the Labour side of the House and by Tory Members, and still give protection.
We could have had an amendment giving some protection to newspapers. That is what I am concerned about. I fully acknowledge my interest in newspapers, although I am no longer an editor. Indeed, I have not been offered an editorship for quite a considerable number of years, such is the decline in standards in Fleet street. However, this Bill introduces a whole range of new offences that have to be dealt with by newspaper editors, under the provision concerning international relations. So far as editors and other journalists are concerned, this is fresh legislation. During the Committee stage the Minister told me that he had had discussions with editors and others on these questions. I know that there were some discussions, but the Minister could not answer my question then, and I do not think that he can answer it now.
None of these clauses provides properly for consultation with editors or the others who work in this industry. There has been a very startling and dramatic outrage on the part of the judges in the last few days. When the Government do not consult the judges and the Law Lords, they are told-- quite properly--that they are not discharging their functions properly. I bet that the judges would have a good deal more chance of consultation about the supposed reforms to be introduced in their case than the journalists will have in theirs. What is being forced on the journalists is a new measure dealing with questions involving criminal offences. It involves what they can print. It involves a whole range of questions--in particular, as this clause discusses, how they are able to report a whole range of matters affecting international relations. What we should have had is a detailed list of amendments on all the clauses including clauses 6, 7 and 8. All of them should have been opened to proper
Column 1063amendment, and then we might have had a Bill that showed that the Government were really approaching the matter seriously.
I hope that the Government will listen to what is being said and that they will accept this amendment. It might not make the Bill very much better, but it would be a small sign that the Government are listening to what the House of Commons is saying.
Mr. Hind : I am glad that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) has decided to exclude from his amendment information relating to security, defence and crime--matters that are dealt with in clauses 1, 2 and 4. The House is being asked to consider the narrow issue of information connected with international relations which does not come under those headings. We should view the matter from the point of view of damage that could be done to the national interest if that information were disclosed. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that if information connected with the British Government's position on negotiations about VAT harmonisation were revealed by way of document or discussion, that should not attract the full force of the criminal law. I urge him to reconsider because real problems can be created for Government, particularly in negotiations of that kind, by the disclosure of such information. 8 pm
Mr. Maclennan : I do not wish to take up time because this is a ridiculously short debate. The point is that under the Bill it is not an offence to reveal such information in this country--to reveal it abroad. Presumably, the embarrassment will be the same whether the information is revealed abroad or at home.
Mr. Hind : The hon. Gentleman quoted the example of VAT harmonisation negotiations with other EC member states, which is a matter connected with international relations. Under the provisions of the Bill, the courts would take that view. It would therefore be regarded as an offence within the context of disclosure in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman is trying to impose far too narrow a definition. He is trying to create something in a grey area of the law that is not capable of definition. The beauty of the Bill is that it is clearer about this. If information connected with international relations, as VAT would be, is disclosed, that could undermine negotiations in the Council of Ministers. That would cause positive harm to the British public and would undermine the national interest. Therefore, it should attract the full force of the law.
I think that the public will agree that information on matters as emotional as the British Government's decision on VAT on food and children's clothes, or trade negotiations with other countries, which may be highly sensitive, should be included in the provisions of the Bill because positive damage can be caused to the national interest.
Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing) : How will we tell whether information has been leaked from this country so it will not be caught by the Bill, if enacted, or from elsewhere and so will be caught by the Bill?
Column 1064fairly strong evidence that the information was leaked by a Crown servant or somebody caught by the Billl in this country.
Mr. Hind : As I understand, my right hon. Friend is asking how we can determine whether the information has been leaked by somebody in another country or by somebody here. If the information is leaked by the foreign power, that is a different matter.
Mr. Hind : The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland also referred to information being leaked during negotiations. If a civil servant involved in the negotiations, knowing that a document has been passed over to a foreign power in the negotiations, decides to disclose that information, that is a different situation. The foreign power has the information, and the test of harm does not apply because it can be argued that no harm would arise, so no prosecution will be brought in such circumstances. The Attorney-General would examine the circumstances, but no prosecution would be brought. What the hon. Gentleman is trying to put into the Bill is too unclear. The Bill is much clearer. The harm test will apply in all circumstances. In our attempts to introduce exceptions to the rule and to cover this or that corner we forget that the harm test, which is so beautifully simplistic, protects the national interest and covers many of the points that have been made.
It is not necessary to put the amendment into the Bill, so that the hon. Gentleman can confidently withdraw it.
Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central) : This is a ridiculously short debate in which to discuss a provision that will shroud much of our lives in secrecy. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) on his valiant defence of the Government. When the Bill has received its Third Reading he should get a prize for being the only Tory Back Bencher to support the Government regularly. It is frightening that so much of the information relating to potential EEC legislation would be struck out under the Bill's provisions by the wide drawing of the clause. Much of the prospective legislation that affects the lives of our people is discussed at ministerial level or between Government officials or organisations of Governments. For example, three countries in the Shengen group are discussing the single European market and the movement of people in advance of 1992. If I am told, and I reveal, that the Government are supplying information to those countries, that would be an offence under this provision, because it might be damaging and might damage the United Kingdom's interests abroad. Those countries might take great exception if what they were discussing was known either here or in continental Europe.
However, those discussions might be of great interest to our people. The clause will keep our people in the dark about what is being discussed at ministerial and Government organisation level. At a time when more and more decisions are being taken in the EEC, we should know what is being said on our behalf, and know what legislation is being considered. If the clause becomes law, we shall not have that option if the information is revealed by way of leak.
Column 1065The clause affects more than international treaties. As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said, if information on harmonisation proposals on VAT or water pollution or other matters of great importance is revealed and reported through leaks, it will be struck at by the legislation. The Minister might reflect on the fact that if he proposed a similar provision striking at the revealing of information in the normal course of day-to-day discussions in this country, never mind international relations, people would regard that as unjustified and objectionable. Because the clause covers international relations and because the definition of international relations is so widely drawn, many of the negotiations on matters that will affect the way in which we conduct our lives and move about will be covered by the clause. If it is revealed to an individual, we in this country are not entitled to know about it.
Mr. Hind rose --
If the Minister says that the clause is badly drafted or needs tighter definition, I am sure that the Government could so arrange things when the Bill goes to the other place or comes back here. The definition of international relations is so widely drawn that it will strike at just about everything, and that cannot be good for discussion in this country. I trust that the Minister will come up with something better than a criticism of the drafting of the amendment. He must accept that, as drafted, clause 6 is far too wide and is thoroughly objectionable.
Mr. Higgins : My remarks will be brief, because my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) has clearly spelt out the case. Matters were confused at the end of the Committee stage. I cannot believe that the Minister will manage to resolve them in the five minutes that remain before we must reach a decision on the matter. In that case, it is debatable whether hon. Members should waste time on a Division when there are other important matters to be discussed. Be that as it may, the House of Lords must sort out a matter which this House should have had time to deal with.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten) : The position is perfectly clear. I will return to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) in a moment. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) on the way in which he moved the amendment, though I disagree with it in principle and also because of the effects that it would have. It is important that we realise that the effect of the amendment would not have much logic. First, it would be an offence to disclose international relations information which has never left this country, because such disclosure could be proved to jeopardise our interests abroad in one or other of the harm tests in clause 3(2).
The other effect would be that, if the same information were entrusted to another state or to an international organisation and was leaked and then disclosed by exactly the same period in the same circumstances with exactly the same effect, it would not be an offence. There is no logic to the way in which the amendment would apply.
Column 1066As I told the House at the end of the previous debate, clause 6 does not extend the categories of the information protected by the Bill. It extends the protection to the three categories that are specified when that information is entrusted in confidence to another state or to an international organisation and is then leaked abroad by a foreign national. All that clause 6 does is to extend the protection to information already protected in this country by clauses 1 to 3 when it is thereafter sent abroad and disclosed. Before my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing came into the Chamber, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland referred to what he had said in Committee. What makes the information relate to international relations in the case of VAT or water pollution is not the circumstances of the disclosure or where it is sent, but the nature of the information itself. The information has precisely the same definition in all the offences in the Bill which relate to international relations, and it is in clause 3(5). I do not accept the criticisms of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) about the drafting of clause 3(5).
If some official information is produced in this country relating to international relations--say because it relates to relations between states or international organisations--of course it could be covered by the Bill, but only if the unauthorised disclosure met the harm test to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) referred, relating to international organisations in clause 3, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) rightly referred.
The point I made to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing on 16 February was simply that, if the information in this country does not meet the language of clause 3(5), which we have debated before--say it is a statement of our VAT charges or information about water pollution levels-- it cannot simply meet the language of clause 3(5) by being sent off to another state or to an international organisation. If it does meet the language of
It being quarter past Eight o'clock, M r. Deputy Speaker-- proceeded, pursuant to the order [13 February] and the Resolutions this day, to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.
Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 186, Noes 309.
Division No. 112] [8.15 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Beith, A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)