Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that, in the course of our work

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1148

as Members of Parliament, we receive confidential information. I certainly have on occasions from the local police force. That does not make me a Crown servant or require me to comply with the Official Secrets Act.

Mr. Shepherd: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for, in a sense, supporting an important contention.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West): I think that we both agree that the Bill as amended by the other place is a huge improvement, and we welcome the Government's change of mind. The justification for the application of the Official Secrets Act, even to the Executive, needs to be stated explicitly. The hon. Gentleman's argument, with which I agree, is that there is much less justification for applying the Official Secrets Act even to members of the Executive, even to the First Secretary of the Welsh Assembly, than there is to Ministers of the Crown.

Mr. Shepherd: We do agree. On a quantum basis, it must be better that only the Executive of the Welsh Assembly is covered, rather than its totality, but the principle still remains. What is necessary to divide the Executive of the Welsh Assembly, whose members are elected on an equal franchise, different though it may be in type, from the other members of the Welsh Assembly?

In that context, other features of the Official Secrets Act are worrying. This is a life-long duty. A person who was a member of the Executive for perhaps only six months would, in theory, be bound thereafter until such time as he was released from that burden. Who releases people from that burden? None of them is self- authorising.

This is a battle that has been fought in Whitehall--I can see the nature of the civil service defending it--but, on the grounds advanced, the Minister did not give an instance that demonstrates why it is necessary to go to a democratically elected assembly. Nowhere else in the world do they try to impose this.

Lord Williams of Mostyn puts his finger on perhaps the critical reason. In a short debate, he accepted that the measure is unlikely to affect many issues or instances in the Assembly but, almost as a giveaway, he added:

That is one of the themes that have caused confusion, certainly to me, as to the status of the Welsh Assembly. What is its relationship to the Crown in Westminster? We know full well that the Crown is another way of saying the Prime Minister, Downing street, the Cabinet supported by a majority in the House of Commons. This is very much a subordinate body. We are asking to whom civil servants owe their duty of allegiance. Is it to the parliamentary apparatus headed by the Prime Minister, or to the Welsh Assembly?

The Government have just said that the Welsh Assembly is merely a Crown body, so perhaps it falls into that. In the course of Lord Mostyn's address--[Interruption.] I shall just finish this point--he advises us that the Scottish Executive, no less, not a Crown body, will also be subject to the Official Secrets Act. So much

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1149

for the claim of right where authority lies with the people. We again have the profound question: to whom do the civil servants owe their responsibilities and duties?

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): That is an acute question in Scotland. I apologise to the Whips, but this is a central matter. The truth is that Pandora's box has been opened and we want to know whether the Cabinet Secretary and the other senior civil servants have agreed to what will amount to a breakdown in discipline in the British civil service. That is the issue.

Mr. Shepherd: I appreciate that, and that is why I am concerned. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) wish to intervene?

Mr. Rogers: No, I wish to speak after the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Shepherd: I am concerned about this. The culture of secrecy is one side of the argument, against which I tried to fight, because, even in the example given by the Minister of child abuse in Wales, the culture of secrecy did not aid the revelation of what was going on. Would it not have been better if people had come forward, and more loudly, at an earlier stage, rather than everyone being silenced by an Official Secrets Act?

The arguments put forward by the Government in relation to the functions and purposes of the Official Secrets Act are not appropriate for Wales. What signal does that give to Wales? Where is the culture of openness, which is the Government's flagship, no less? I have always been a believer in freedom of information. I fought the new Official Secrets Act. It was brought in, I regret to say, partly in response to my endeavours to reform section 2. There is no reason why a democratic assembly should be subject to it, in a way that does not happen in the rest of the world. Its application to Scotland compounds that outrage.

As this is a Report stage, the Government must give detailed arguments as to why the measure is necessary. I rather suspect that it is that final point--that the civil servants would not owe their duty to Ministers and the Secretaries within the Parliament and the Assembly. Therefore, they have to draw Assembly leaders into the circle of secrecy. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Rhondda wish to intervene?

Mr. Rogers: I want to speak after the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Shepherd: It is on that basis that we would argue that we disagree with the Lords amendment.

Mr. Rogers: Like other Labour Members, I am concerned about this critical issue. The Welsh Assembly was supposed to mark the new millennium with a new open democracy, all inclusive, which the people of Wales could crawl all over every day to see what their elected representatives were doing. Now people have to sign the Official Secrets Act. I am confused about why. Why does it have to be applied?

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rogers: I would rather not, because I want to continue with my argument. I have been a district and

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1150

county councillor, a Member of the European Parliament and a Member of Parliament and, other than when I was in the Army as a lad, I never had to sign an Official Secrets Act. No Member of Parliament has signed it, except for Ministers of the Crown and those who are on the Intelligence and Security Committee, but that Committee is most peculiar, as it deals with national security.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rogers: No. I want to finish. Hon. Members on the Intelligence and Security Committee have to sign the Act for specific reasons, but why should Assembly Members have to sign it? [Interruption.] I wish that the Deputy Chief Whip would let me make my speech. If he wants, I shall continue for an hour and a half--I shall make my point, as it is important. Why should Assembly Members have to sign the Act?

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ron Davies): They do not.

Mr. Rogers: As I understand it, and as the Government briefing suggests, the provision will apply only to members of the Assembly Executive Committee, who will be Members of the Welsh Assembly. I do not suppose that the Secretary of State will deny that, unless he intends that the Executive Committee be made up of people from the arts and television. Why will members of the Executive have to sign the Act? Will they be privy to national secrets? As far as I can see, the Assembly will be only a glorified county council carrying out administrative functions. It will not indulge in any secret exercises.

As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said, people who are on county councils--chairmen and members of social services committee--deal with confidential information on child abuse cases. People who sit on education committees receive information on what happens in the education service, but they do not have to sign the Act, so why must members of the Assembly Executive Committee?

Mr. Öpik: Liberal Democrats, too, believe that we are discussing a matter of principle, but I want to put on the record our welcome for the fact that the Government have listened to the representations made during consideration of the Bill. The Official Secrets Act 1989 will now be restricted to the Assembly First Secretary and Assembly Secretaries, so it behoves us to acknowledge the fact that progress has been made. I have always found Ministers at the Welsh Office honest and open; I do not for a moment think that such individuals would need to be bound, even if they were to end up in the Welsh Assembly--I make the possible exception of cases that relate to the Powys health trust, which I must mention yet again.

Nevertheless, the Government have failed to make the assumption--which we must all make--that people who are elected to the Assembly will be honourable; we shall be able to be trust them to keep their mouths shut and not breach confidentiality without the threat of criminal proceedings. The provision on the Official Secrets Act is inappropriate, given the commitment--which I believe to be genuine--to government that is more open and does not depend on threats of prosecution to make people behave responsibly.

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1151

We recognise that progress has been made, but we echo the comments of hon. Members on both sides of the House that it is inappropriate to impose the Official Secrets Act on Assembly Members. We strongly encourage the Government to listen to what we say. We want the Assembly to be an open book with a few private notes rather than a closed book with many hidden chapters.

Next Section

IndexHome Page