HC Deb 04 January 1916 vol 77 cc911-4

In Sub-section (1) of Section 11 of the principal Act, which specifies the matters in respect of which owners of establishments in which persons are employed are, if required by the Minister of Munitions, to give information, the following paragraph shall be inserted after paragraph (c):—

(cc) the cost of production of the articles produced or dealt with in the establishment, and the cost of the materials used for such production, and the names and addresses of the persons by whom such materials were supplied or who are under contract to supply them."


I beg to move, at the end of paragraph (cc), to insert the words,

"Provided always that information given under Section 11 of the principal Act as amended by this Act or any subsequent Act, shall be used only for the purpose of such Act, and any person communicating or attempting to communicate such information to any person to whom the same ought not for the purpose aforesaid to be communicated, shall be guilty of a breach of official trust, and, within the meaning of the Official Secrets Act, 1889, will on conviction be liable to the punishment provided by that Act."

This Amendment is in a different form from that which appears on the Paper. Clause 10 is of an extraordinary character, and under it the Minister of Munitions may demand from any single trader in the country, and not merely a controlled trader, the most minute and confidential details of that trader's business. I am advised that the proper construction of the Clause will enable such information to be demanded of any trader, whether his business is under control or not, and the Minister of Munitions may demand the most minute particulars of his business, as to the cost of production of the articles, the cost of materials for such production, the names of and addresses of the persons by whom such materials are supplied, or who are under contract to supply them; in other words, there is no information which a trader cannot be required to tell to the Ministry of Munitions; there is no limitation, and I am advised that this is so by a competent lawyer. I cannot help thinking that these powers are a great deal more stringent than was originally intended by the framers of the Bill; they go a great deal further than anything that was explained in the Committee stage. Certainly I would suggest that it may be proper, when the Bill gets to another place, to put in an Amendment limiting the operation of the provision to controlled establishments. If this information is given, I think there ought to be much greater security than is contained on the face of the Bill that this information will be treated strictly confidentially. The Ministry of Munitions is largely staffed by temporary workers who are in many cases giving their services at great sacrifice to their country, but who may be actually trade competitors of the person from whom the information is going to be sought. I think, under those circumstances, if the information is to be obtained, we ought to have an absolute guarantee that it will be treated in the most confidential manner possible.


I beg to second the Amendment. I think that the Minister of Munitions may accept the proposal which is now made, in respect of a Clause which is of an inquisitorial character. There have been other measures of an inquisitorial character brought forward by the present Government, and in one case such a proposal as this was accepted by the President of the Local Government Board. I cannot see any reason why information of such a confidential character as set forth in the Clause should not receive the protection of the Official Secrets Act, in view of the danger to which my hon. Friend has called attention, of trade secrets passing to competitors through the Ministry of Munitions. I think that my right hon. Friend might at present accept the Amendment now moved, and if it should contain any defect it could be-rectified in the House of Lords.


I think the main part of my hon. Friend's Amendment is already completely covered, because the Official Secrets Act provides that where anybody obtains information owing to his position under a Government Department, and communicates it to any person without proper authority, he is liable to certain penalties. I think that covers the whole of the ground of the Amendment as it originally stood on the Paper, and the greater part, if not the whole, of the Amendment as now moved, but if my hon. Friend desires to have express words inserted in this Act, we will not oppose a final negative to his proposal, but will give it consideration before the Bill becomes law.


I am not sure that the suggestion which the Solicitor-General has made gives satisfaction to hon. Members on this side. I would remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that the persons who will be involved and from whom danger will come in connection with the divulgence of information will probably be persons who will not be cognisant of the provisions of the Official Secrets Act, and unless there be a safeguard in this Bill itself, by means of which attention may be directly called to the penalty for divulging secret information, it is possible that the offence might be committed on many occasions in complete ignorance of the provision of the Official Secrets Act. I think we must have some more definite undertaking than the suggestion given to us by the Solicitor-General. I think the Minister of Munitions may be in a position here and now to give us an assurance that some words will be inserted providing a safeguard such as that which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham has proposed.


I am not sure that the Minister of Munitions knows exactly that this danger which is apprehended has already arisen, and repeatedly arisen. I do not know whether they are Civil servants or not, but workers in the right hon. Gentleman's own Department have got information of this kind and have used it for their own private purposes. It must be remembered that individuals, perhaps unknown to the right hon. Gentleman, will have power to demand information in an arbitrary way. It is not a case where either the Minister or his second in command knows the circumstances personally, but it is the case of comparatively obscure individuals who have a purpose to serve, some of them giving their services voluntarily, to get repaid tenfold. These men are getting information from trade rivals, and I know of men who are getting orders with such information week by week and diverting business. I feel sure that when his attention is drawn to this fact it is the last thing my right hon. Friend would want I would not have taken part in this Debate but for the circumstance that I know the facts.


My attention has been called to the apprehension that those who were in the Ministry would be able to obtain information which might later on assist them to the detriment of their competitors. One of the things I had in my mind was that my hon. Friend did not quite cover the whole of the case. I hope he will be satisfied with the assurance that we will consider a form of words which will be more applicable.


Does the right hon. Gentleman really mean to apply it to commercial establishments ail over the country?


This Clause was designed in order to enable us to get information as to plant, machinery, or material, which might be utilised in the making of munitions of war. That necessarily must apply to establishments which are not controlled, because we ascertained that there were firms which had the means of turning out munitions, but which, were not controlled at the time, although, they have been controlled since.


Under those circumstances I wish to accept the assurance of the Solicitor-General and ask leave to withdraw. I do want to emphasise what has been said' by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sherwell), that it is very important that the fact that these are official secrets should appear on the face of the Bill, and be known to the people in the employment of the Ministry.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.