HC Deb 27 November 1917 vol 99 cc1946-50

"Any person who may obtain any information which by virtue of Clause twenty of the said agreement is to be treated as confidential shall be required to make a declaration of secrecy in such form as may be prescribed by the Board of Trade, and any person who has made such a declaration shall for the purposes of Section thirty-eight of the Income Tax Act, 1842, and the declarations made thereunder, be treated in relation to the disclosure of information under Clause nineteen of the said agreement as if he was a person sworn to the due execution of the said Act"—

Brought up, and read the first time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, " That the Clause be read a second time." —[Mr. Wardle]


I must protest against the business of the House being conducted in this absurd way. Here is a new Clause which we want all to understand. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade is in charge of this Clause. I do not know if he knows more about it than I do. I know nothing about it. It refers to Clause 20 of the agreement, which says: Any information obtained under Clauses 17, 18, or 19 shall be treated as strictly confidential, and shall be used only for the purposes of His Majesty's Government or any Department thereof, and no person who obtains any such information shall disclose or make use of any such information for any other purpose. This paragraph refers back to Clauses 17, 18, and 19, so that there are five separate Clauses involved in this new Clause, and no explanation is offered to the House.


I can explain the matter, if desired.


I am in no hurry. If the Government would show the right kind of hurry at the right moment and do what they profess to do, Do it now," these interruptions from below the Gangway would not be made. But some of us are safeguarding interests outside, and we do not wish to leave these matters to hon. Members of a Government who want to pass legislation on the nod, under an auctioneer's rule. We want to know what it is we are doing. We want to be satisfied that those in charge of the Bill understand the Clauses which they are moving. I want, for instance, to have from the hon. Member an explanation of the Income Tax Act, 1842. I know nothing of that. He ought to give the House an explanation of that before he gets the Bill. If the hon. Member's explanation is satisfactory it will shorten the Debate. I invite him now to explain.


It was because I thought the point raised so clear that I did not make any explanation, but if the hon. Member thinks one required, I am quite willing to give it. I meant no discourtesy. The object of this Clause is that persons who are in possession of special informa- tion which they have in consequence of their being officials of the Government are to be put in the same position as other officials who have to administer the Income Tax Act that is to say, they have to take the oath of secrecy, and for that purpose this Clause is necessary.


Why should information obtained for a special purpose with regard to the coal control agreement be used for other Departments? I recollect that when the Census Production Act was discussed in Committee, and it was agreed that information obtained under that Act should not be used for the benefit of other Departments. Why should other Departments go to the Coal Controller and get information obtained only for that Department? It is a most improper thing. It has always been held that the Government should not avail themselves of information got for a special object.


I think that this Clause is pure camouflage. These officials are not by a long way Civil servants. A great number of them are brought in from outside to deal with this matter, and the information which they are going to obtain dealing with those businesses is information which they can use, when this temporary Act is out of the way, to the detriment of the people who are running those businesses at the present moment. Therefore, it is absurd to say that if you put them under this rule of secrecy, while this legislation is in force, you are in any way safeguarding the interests of the people who are interested in this matter, because it is evident that the men who have access to this information will carry away with them from the Coal Controllers information which they acquired for a special purpose while they were associated with them. I think that is a very unfair advantage to give to people who in ordinary circumstances are competitors with those who are called upon to disclose the information. I like to see a fair deal. 1 should like the Government to be honest. They ought to say, "We cannot protect these men."


Perhaps I may be allowed in a sentence or two to put again what has already been stated by my hon. Friend. The Clause provides with regard to persons who obtain information under Clause 20 that they shall be required to make a declaration of secrecy, and when they have made that declaration of secrecy they are to be for the purposes of the Income Tax Act, 1842, as if they were persons sworn to the due execution of the Act. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge) asked us as to the meaning of Section 38 of the Income Tax Act, 1842. That Section provides that any person appointed as a commissioner under the Act shall take the oath of secrecy, and that any information which he receives in his official capacity shall not be disclosed by him to anybody except such persons as may be sworn to the due execution of the Act. In other words, this Clause will not enable any person to disclose information under the agreement, but the object is to enable the Commissioners of Income Tax to treat him for the purpose of disclosing matters to him as if he were sworn under the Act of 1842.

10.0 P.M.


I am sure the House is indebted to the Solicitor-General for his explanation of the meaning of the Clause. The Government by putting down the Clause has given the best statutory protection in its power to those who under the terms of the Act will have to disclose their affairs either to the Controller or to persons appointed by him. But while it is the best statutory provision it is obvious that it is inadequate, because we are in this unfortunate position that many of the people to be appointed by the control will have been in the past and are likely to be in the future competitors in trade with those whose business secrets will be revealed to them. I think that is inevitable. They are going to discover particulars of their rivals' contracts and of the conditions of those contracts, and by the possession of that knowledge they will be in a position later on, when the War comes to an end, to take advantage of that knowledge without any disclosure of it. They will not, in fact, require to disclose it although they will be able to obtain a very considerable pecuniary advantage. That is the unfortunate result. I do not think it is possible to avoid it, and it is only fair to say that the Government has done its best to diminish it.


I quite agree with the hon. and learned Member that the Government has tried to do all it can, but I want to point out the. injustice of our not being able to deal with the agreement. There will be men to whom this information will be very useful in their business negotiations in the future. It only shows, I repeat, the desirability that we should be able to deal with the agreement.

Clause read a second time, and added to the Bill.