HC Deb 12 May 1930 vol 238 cc1446-51
48. Sir W. DAVISON

asked the Prime Minister whether he can inform the House of the result of his inquiries as to the recent publication in the Press of a Cabinet decision with regard to the arrest of Gandhi; and what action has been taken with regard to the person or persons who disclosed this Cabinet secret to the Press?

90. Mr. KINLEY

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he is aware that Scotland Yard officers recently visited the home of a journalist and severely questioned him regarding the source of a published statement concerning the Government's intentions towards Mr. Gandhi; if so, under what regulations that visit was made; who authorised the questioning; what was the result; and what, if any, further action is contemplated?

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir William Jewitt)

I have been asked to reply to these questions. Under the Official Secrets Act, 1911, it is an offence for any person in the service of the Crown to disclose any confidential information acquired in his capacity as a Crown servant to any person not in that service. Under Section 6 of the Official Secrets Act, 1920, where there appears to be ground for suspecting that such a disclosure has taken place, any person may be required to give to a chief officer of the police designated for that purpose all the information in his power relating to the source of a statement, and, in default of full disclosure, becomes guilty of an offence.

The House will observe that this offence differs fundamentally from an ordinary charge: there, a person accused or suspected of an offence is under no obligation to say anything and may consequently rightly resent interrogation. Here a person is not accused of any offence, but an offence is committed if—and only if—he does not comply with the statutory duty of giving all the information in his power. This drastic power should, in my view, be used sparingly and only where serious issues are involved. On Thursday, 1st May, there appeared in three newspapers statements to the effect that Gandhi's immediate arrest had been decided on. The Prime Minister informed me that he took the view that in the existing Indian situation this was a gravely serious publication from which tragic consequences might have ensued. I considered that there was ground for suspecting a leakage of confidential information either in India or here. The published statement contained the following information:

[By our Political Correspondent.]

"The Government of India is preparing, I understand, to take decisive action against Gandhi.

His arrest is to be expected at any time.

The matter is entirely within the province of the Government of India.

Nevertheless, the latter has taken the precaution of ascertaining the views of the Home Government before moving.

The British Government has decided to support the Viceroy and his advisers.

The matter was reviewed at some length at yesterday's meeting of the Cabinet, and the conclusion was reached with natural regret."

I would point out that by this leakage the task of the Viceroy and his advisers might have been thwarted at every stage. Accordingly, acting under my directions, the Director of Public Prosecutions instructed a chief officer of the police to attend the offices of the three newspapers in question for the purpose of demanding from the editors any information in their possession regarding the suspected leakage of information. The editors of two of the newspapers gave assurances that the information which formed the basis of the statement had not been obtained from any improper source.

The acting-editor of the third newspaper—an extract from whose columns I have read to the House—after expressing his great regret for the publication of the report, gave the name of his political correspondent as being the person who had furnished the information. The police officials, on my directions, then got in touch with this correspondent on the telephone, and arranged with him that he should be interviewed at his private house as he particularly desired to avoid any publicity. The House would not desire me to make any statement as to the extent or nature of the information I have received, nor would it be proper to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]

It is the fact that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had made a statement—the purport of which was, I should have thought, sufficiently obvious—that the home Government would not disassociate itself from any action which the Viceroy might find it necessary to take; but I should like to take this opportunity of denying a statement which has apparently found credence in some quarters, namely, that our inquiries have revealed the fact that a Cabinet Minister disclosed information relating to the intentions of the Indian Government to arrest Gandhi or disclosed information that there had been consultations between the two Governments. These statements are completely untrue.

With regard to the incident now under consideration, I desire to make two further observations:

  1. (1) I have every reason to believe that the police conducted their inquiries with tact and consideration—and in this I am confirmed by a letter from the journalist concerned which appears in to-day's Press.
  2. (2) I do not contemplate further proceedings, nor do I consider it in the public interest to say more than this, that I shall do my utmost to close any source of leakage which may exist, and, in so doing, I shall hope to receive the co-operation of the Press as a whole.


Can the Prime Minister say that there is now no longer the practice, which at one time obtained, of Cabinet decisions being referred to an outside body of Members of the House or others, and that Cabinet decisions are entirely secret, so that if there was any leakage the information must have been in some way obtained from a member of the Cabinet or the Cabinet Secretariat?


I can assure the hon. Member that what he says as to procedure is true. Every Cabinet, at any rate recently—because we sometimes compare notes of our experiences—has suffered from leakages, sometimes innocent and sometimes otherwise; but nobody would ever take the trouble to take any action unless a leakage really was a very serious one from the point of view of national affairs, and that is what happened the other day, very much to my regret.


May I ask the Prime Minister to say whether it is perfectly clear that the leakage in this particular case has not been through Civil Service channels?


There is no doubt at all, so far as the information is concerned, that there was no leakage in the proper sense at all. It was a construction, but that construction, under the circumstances of Wednesday and of Thursday morning, is just about as bad as it can possibly be.


Arising from the Attorney-General's statement, is it not a fact that the three much-respected Lobby journalists concerned only made a proper inference from certain general statements? Is it not a fact that the Viceroy in India supplied the correspondents of the various newspapers with advance information, and, in fact, the "Daily Telegraph's" correspondent—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech!"]


May I ask a question in order to prevent a misunderstanding of what was just said? Apparently, the journalist, by an intelligent anticipation, arrived at an opinion, which he expressed. That cannot be contrary to the Official Secrets Act, and it cannot be a crime, however inconvenient it, may be to the Government of the day. Every Government has from time to time suffered from intelligent anticipation, but surely there cannot be any blame.


The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right. What I said, or at any rate what I meant to say, was this, that publications such as took place on Thursday morning, which might have led to the most deplorable consequences, are surely the proper subject for an inquiry by the Government to see why they were made and how the information came, and then to decide what to do under the circumstances.


Is the Attorney-General going to take no further steps in this matter? Do I understand that the whole matter has ended in this way—that there have been five hours interrogation of a well-known Press corre- spondent? The Attorney-General has not told us what he said. Cannot the Attorney-General tell us what he is going to do? Is it not a storm in a tea cup? Are we not to get the whole information?


I certainly should not think it consistent with my public duties to disclose the information which I got in the circumstances.


What are you going to do?


I shall undoubtedly take steps to deal with it if I find evidence that there has been a breach of the Official Secrets Act in any quarter of the House.


Suppose that he finds that there has been no breach of the Official Secrets Act, and that this journalist has been wrongly suspected—is the Attorney-General not then going to take such steps as may be necessary to clear the journalist in public?


I am very glad to have an opportunity of answering that question. It shows a complete misapprehension. The journalist is not and never has been suspected of anything at all. It is merely in order to find out whether there has been a breach of the Official Secrets Act, and the journalist is under a duty, as is any member of the public, to state what he knows. I, in the exercise of my discretion, thought it right to take these steps. I do not doubt for one moment that the journalist in question, who has a perfectly honourable record, acted honourably.


Is it not a fact that this journalist was threatened with arrest?


Might I ask, seeing that these secrets would not be given away unless there was a market for them, that steps should be taken to stop newspapers from offering sums of money for information of this kind?


May we ask the Attorney-General, on behalf of the Government, to say directly a journalist is discovered to have been an innocent person, that that will be declared publicly, in order that the freedom of the Press may be preserved?


I should certainly desire to uphold the freedom of the Press in every possible way, but I would point out that there is no question of this journalist either being guilty or innocent. He was merely asked to comply with the duty which the Statute imposes upon him, namely, to give the source of his information.


Does it take five hours of intense interrogation to secure that?