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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Official Secrets Act 1989 (Prescription) (Amendment) Order 2003

Eighth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 8 July 2003

[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]

Official Secrets Act 1989
(Prescription) (Amendment)
Order 2003

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Official Secrets Act 1989 (Prescription) (Amendment) Order 2003.

It is good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Hurst.

The order has already been debated in the other place. It updates a number of designations under the Official Secrets Act 1989. The Act allows us to treat certain categories of people as equivalent to Crown servants. That means that it is an offence under the Act for such people to reveal—unless they are authorised to do so—any damaging information that they may have obtained through their work. The Act also allows us to list by order any organisations that can give official authorisation for the disclosure of information, thus exempting the person disclosing the information from criminal liability under the Act.

The draft order amends the provisions of the Act in two ways: it designates employees of three new companies as equivalent to Crown servants; and it designates the tribunal established under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 as a body that can authorise the disclosure of information. The three companies are new, subsidiary companies. The parent company—Urenco Ltd.—was designated by order in 1990. Urenco makes enriched uranium for nuclear reactors. The reason for designating it was not to do with the material that it produces, but to do with the technology that it uses. I understand that the method can be adapted to produce highly enriched uranium suitable for nuclear weapons. As such, it needs a high level of protection, as I am sure hon. Members will appreciate.

A subsidiary of Urenco that was established in 1993—Urenco (Capenhurst) Ltd.—was also designated by order. Those two companies will shortly be transferring staff to the three new subsidiaries. One of the new companies will oversee the enrichment operations; another will be responsible for the enrichment technology business; and the third will be the UK subsidiary. The split is entirely for business reasons. We need to designate the new companies so that they can begin operating. All the employees involved are covered by the earlier orders, and this order will ensure that they remain covered.

The second purpose of the order is to designate the tribunal set up under the 2000 Act as one that can authorise the disclosure of information under the Official Secrets Act. It replaced three tribunals that were established for similar purposes by previous

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legislation. It considers complaints from anyone who thinks that they may have been a target of covert investigation by either the security services or the police and law-enforcement agencies.

To deal properly with complaints, the tribunal might need access to sensitive information that is protected by the Official Secrets Act. The complainant and witnesses need to be able to disclose such information in confidence. The tribunal can authorise the disclosure of information only to the extent that is necessary to investigate the complaint. It is consistent with the tribunal's independent status that it should be able to authorise disclosures to itself.

The order is intended to keep references to the Official Secrets Act up to date, and I commend it to the Committee.

2.33 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst. As I said to the Minister beforehand, this matter can be dealt with briefly.

I am grateful to the Minister for his full explanation of the reasons for adding the Enrichment Technology Company Ltd. and other Urenco subsidiaries to schedule 1 to the 1990 order. It is obvious that there are good grounds for doing so, and I will not trouble the Committee any further with remarks on that subject.

The issue of the investigatory powers tribunal is, perhaps, more important, although it is apparent that the tribunal should be covered by the Official Secrets Act 1989, so I welcome the Minister's remarks on that.

I want to take the opportunity to tweak gently those who drafted the explanatory memorandum. Although it did not take me too long to understand what was going on, it might have been helpful to indicate that the Civil Aviation Authority's presence in schedule 2 was merely due to the fact that an entire schedule was to be replaced. I thought that was probably the case, and that that was why no reference was made in the explanatory notes. I can see that for the sake of tidiness it might be easier to substitute one schedule for another, but it would of course have been equally possible to remove the reference to the Interception of Communications Act 1985 and to substitute the investigatory powers tribunal.

I came to the conclusion long ago when considering statutory instruments that the civil service delights in leaving some areas opaque so as to require MPs at least to think about what they are passing. Alternatively, there is a risk that we may approve something unintentionally. It would be helpful for those of us who are complete duffers if the Minister would confirm that the Civil Aviation Authority already featured in the schedule.

2.35 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): May I endorse that last comment? I do not think that I am particularly dim, but I always find that the explanatory notes to statutory instruments are not very explanatory—they are a contradiction in terms. Explanatory memoranda are slightly more explanatory, but not entirely so. There is some work to do in the plain English

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department to make statutory instruments understandable to the general public as well as to Members of Parliament, who at least have some dealings with such instruments.

Like the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), I think that there is little to quibble about in the order. It seems sensible that we should take all necessary precautions to ensure that sensitive technology should not be betrayed in circumstances that would be unhelpful to our country and to the stability of the world in general. In a way, it is strange that we have had to debate the order, as I should have thought that the original legislation could have taken account of the division of a company into subsidiaries for business purposes; it would not then have been necessary to bring MPs together to rubber-stamp such a provision.

It is obviously sensible to update relationships with the various tribunals referred to in the order. The tribunals seem to me to be somewhat pointless; their point seems to be to conform to EU legislation. They do not discover anything, or rule in favour of any complainant, in my experience. I think that I am right to say that no complaint has been upheld by any of the tribunals that look into the security services.

Further work may be needed on the matter of freedom of information to get the balance right between the necessary security interests of the country and the rights of individual complainants. I realise that that takes us some way beyond the scope of the order, so I will not pursue the point any further today, except to ask the Minister to set out, either now

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or subsequently in writing, the arrangements for whistleblowers who work for companies that would be added to schedule 1 under the order.

In a parliamentary answer, one of the Minister's colleagues said that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority constabulary is partly funded by Urenco Ltd. Will the Minister confirm that that funding will not now diminish in totality, but will be split between the subsidiaries?

2.38 pm

Paul Goggins: I noted the remarks of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, and I can confirm that his point is covered in the schedule. I am sure that the Minister and officials will feel suitably tweaked by his remarks.

I understand what the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said about the need for the Committee to debate the new arrangements for subsidiary companies. The fact that we come back to discuss such changes is a sign of the seriousness with which we take the matter. As for whistleblowers, and the funding matter that he raised, I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the information, if he is content with that.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Official Secrets Act 1989 (Prescription) (Amendment) Order 2003.

Committee rose at twenty-one minutes to Three o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Hurst, Mr. Alan (Chairman)
Baker, Norman
Betts, Mr.
Blizzard, Mr.
Gerrard, Mr.
Goggins, Paul
Grieve, Mr.
Heppell, Mr.
Osborne, Sandra
Palmer, Dr.
Randall, Mr.
Smith, Mr. John
Taylor, Mr. Ian

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Gardiner, Mr. Barry (Brent, North)


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