HC Deb 12 May 1938 vol 335 cc1691-4
22. Mr. Dingle Foot

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he has now considered the recent decision of the divisional court in the case of Lewis v. Cattle; and whether it is his intention to introduce legislation amending the Official Secrets Acts?

30. Mr. C. Wilson

asked the Home Secretary whether it is proposed to amend the Official Secrets Act so as to limit its scope to the purpose originally intended, namely, the protection of the State and national interests?

33. Mr. Kennedy

asked the Home Secretary whether he is now in a position to announce his intention to introduce legislation amending the Official Secrets Acts?

59. Mr. Louis Smith

asked the Home Secretary whether he has now decided what action he can take to meet the views of all British newspapers that the Official Secrets Act, 1920, needs amendment to prevent police use of this Measure which was never contemplated by the Government of the day which sponsored the Act?

60. Mr. Stephen

asked the Home Secretary what steps he intends to take to deal with the resolution forwarded to him by the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society with regard to the Official Secrets Act?

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Samuel Hoare)

In view of the length of the answer I will, with the permission of Mr. Speaker and the leave of the House, make a statement at the end of Questions.


Sir S. Hoare

I have given very careful consideration to this matter and have had the advantage of discussions with representatives of the newspaper proprietors and of the Institute of Journalists.

There are two aspects of the matter. From the point of view of those who are concerned with the administration of justice, it is of the highest importance that information obtained by public servants in the course of their duty should not be disclosed, without authority, to other persons, and I regret to say that in recent years there have been a number of cases where matter has been published in the Press which has been based on information improperly, and in some cases corruptly, divulged and that the detection and prosecution of criminals has, as a result, been seriously hampered. From the point of view of the Press, I understand that their main apprehension is lest the use of the exceptional and drastic powers of interrogation conferred by Section 6 of the Official Secrets Act, 1920, should come to be regarded as a matter of routine, and that they would like the Acts to be amended so as to apply only to cases involving the disclosure of military or naval secrets.

The difficulty in the way of limiting the application of the Official Secrets Acts to naval or military secrets is that there are other secrets the disclosure of which might be equally prejudicial to the national interests, and it is impracticable to define by Statute the circumstances in which the use of the special powers of the Acts is warranted. I am, however, in a position to give assurances which I hope will remove all reasonable apprehensions. In 1930 an undertaking was given by the then Attorney-General that the special powers of interrogation in respect of published matter would not be used, except after authorisation by the Attorney-General or the Secretary of State. I reaffirm that undertaking and I am prepared to amplify it by giving an assurance that the authority of the Attorney-General or the Secretary of State will only be given to the use of this power of interrogation in cases where the information disclosed is itself of serious public importance. This undertaking will be brought to the notice of all chief officers of police, and adequate steps will be taken to secure that they act in conformity with its terms. So far as Scotland is concerned, I am authorised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate to say that, in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Scotland, he will take such steps as may be necessary to secure that the power will be similarly used in Scotland.

I must, however, make this reservation. It is possible to conceive that leakages of confidential information of an official character might assume such proportions as to raise an issue of serious public importance even though the matter disclosed was not in itself of that character. In that event the Government would have to reserve to itself the right to make use of this power. I do not, however, think that there is any reason to apprehend that this will occur. I am confident that I can rely upon the co-operation of the Press in discouraging attempts to obtain official secrets by improper means from the police and other public servants, and I hope that the statement I have just made will remove any fears on the part of the Press that their legitimate liberties are endangered.

Mr. Foot

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the reply and the steps he is taking; but are we to understand from the reply that the right hon. Gentleman definitely rules out any question of amending legislation?

Sir S. Hoare

Yes, Sir. The Government have considered the question very carefully and have come to the view that no amending legislation is required.

Mr. Foot

Is it not the fact that, when the 1920 Act was passed, most definite assurances were given to the House on behalf of the Government of the day that Section 6 would apply only to spies and spying?

Sir S. Hoare

The hon. Member must read any statement of that kind with the context, and if he reads the Debates and the further comments made by the then Attorney-General in 1930, he will find that the undertaking I have given is fully in the spirit of that undertaking and that I have considerably amplified that statement.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn

May I ask whether the assurance the right hon. Gentleman has given has any binding effect on his successors?

Sir S. Hoare

That is always so in practice. It was so when the right hon. Gentleman's friends were in office in 1930 when the then Attorney-General made his statement on the subject.