HC Deb 15 November 1939 vol 353 cc783-92

6.34 p.m

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir John Anderson)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The purpose of this Bill can be explained in a very few words. It contains one operative Clause, and its object is to restrict the scope of Section 6 of the Official Secrets Act, 1920. As the law stands at present, that Section empowers the police—or any member of His Majesty's Forces engaged on guard, sentry, patrol or other similar duty—to require any person to give any information in his power relating to an offence or suspected offence under the Official Secrets Acts, 1911 and 1920, and any person refusing to give such information on demand is liable to prosecution. That is a drastic power, and it has been generally recognised that it is a power which should be used only in rare and exceptional cases. In fact, according to my information, the power has not been used on more than six occasions since 1920, and I am told that in only two of these cases was there an actual prosecution for refusal to give the information demanded. Certain events in 1937, however—which will be clearly within the recollection of hon. Members—gave rise to some anxiety about the uses to which this power could be put; and there was a general desire that all possible safeguards should be applied to ensure that the powers conferred by this Section should not be lightly invoked. In order to meet this feeling, my predecessor gave certain undertakings to this House on 12th May of last year. The broad effect of those undertakings was that these powers would not in future be used in respect of any published matter except with the authority of the Attorney-General—or in Scotland the Lord Advocate—or the Secretary of State, and that such authority would be given only in cases where the information which had been disclosed was itself of serious public importance. Subsequently, on 7th December last, in the course of a Debate in this House on Censorship and Restriction of Liberty, my right hon. Friend announced that the Government were considering whether it was practicable to make these undertakings even more definite and permanent by putting them into statutory form. The present Bill is the result of the further consideration given by the Government to that problem.

Hon. Members will have observed that the Bill not only gives effect to my right hon. Friend's undertakings, but it goes even further. What it does is to substitute for Section 6 of the Act of 1920 an entirely new Section which limits these special powers of interrogation to cases of offences or suspected offences under Section 1 of the Act of 1911—that is to say, in practice cases of espionage. Moreover, it is to be made a statutory requirement that, except in cases of great emergency, the permission of the Secretary of State must be obtained before these powers of interrogation are exercised. It will be noticed that the permission to be obtained is that of the Secretary of State, not the Attorney-General. That has been done advisedly, because at this stage the matter is one of investigation and, moreover at a later stage the Attorney-General might have to decide whether proceedings should be taken in the event of failure to give the information. It has been thought more appropriate that the Attorney-General should not be brought into the matter at the stage of interrogation.

In cases of great emergency, a chief officer of police is authorised to act without first obtaining the permission of the Secretary of State. In the view of the Government, it is essential to leave this element of discretion to chief officers of police in grave and urgent cases where time does not permit of prior reference to the Secretary of State. It must be remembered that in future this power of interrogation will apply only to the grave offence of espionage. There may well be cases of suspected espionage in which, by prompt action taken under this Section, it may be possible to prevent the communication to an enemy of information which would be very useful to them. In such a case a chief officer of police may have to exercise this power of interrogation as a matter of great urgency, without obtaining the prior permission of the Secretary of State, if he is to prevent the information being communicated to the enemy.

There are, however, I suggest, safeguards which should in practice prove ample against any abuse of this exceptional power. It may be exercised only where it appears to the chief officer of police that in the interests of the State immediate action is necessary, and he is required to report the circumstances to the Secretary of State forthwith. Section 9 of the Act of 1911 leaves with chief officers of police a similar discretion, in similar circumstances, to issue a search warrant, for which the authority of a magistrate is normally required.

I should also draw the attention of the House to two minor points. First, the Bill proposes that in future the power of interrogation for which provision is made shall be exerciseable only by the police, and not by members of His Majesty's Forces as in the existing law. Secondly, the Act as it stands does not deal specifically with the case of a person who does not refuse information but knowingly gives false information; and opportunity has been taken to remedy this defect.

I hope that this Bill may put an end to the long drawn-out controversy about the use of Section 6 of the Official Secrets Act. I feel that I can assure the House that the Bill strikes a proper balance between the rights of the individual and the interests of the State. It has always been recognised that powers of this kind should be used sparingly and under proper safeguards; and this, I suggest, is amply secured by the provisions of this Bill. On the other hand, the Bill does nothing to weaken the powers of the State to protect itself against espionage, and for this reason as well as for the reason that, as the House knows, the Government is now armed with other emergency powers to protect itself against espionage, I make no apology for the Government's decision to ask the House, in fulfilment of a pledge, to proceed with this Bill even though we are now at war. The Bill has already passed through all its stages in another place without amendment, and I think I can confidently ask the House to give it a speedy passage into law.

6.44 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn

There are two phases of this matter, the war phase and the peace phase. We are dealing here with peace powers. As the Secretary of State has truly said, everybody, including the journalist, whose grievances were the origin of this Bill, is subject to very much more severe restrictions under, I think, Section 80A of the Defence Regulations, than ever existed under Section 6 of the Official Secrets Act, 1920. Although we are at war, no one need think that in the passage of this Bill anything is being done to weaken the powers of the Executive, because the control of the House is exercised by our unimpaired power. We are dealing with something which is to become a permanent peace legislation, and it is something to our credit that in the middle of war the House of Commons should be enlarging the liberties of the subject in this way. We are fighting the war for freedom, and it is something which the neutrals should observe, that this is the only place in the world where a deliberative assembly is enlarging the freedom of the Press. I am sure that the very existence of this House and the liberty which we enjoy because of its existence is one of the strongest arguments which we can make to the world court to which all the belligerents are at present appealing.

Of course, if this were peace-time one might say a great deal about the Official Secrets Acts. I remember the passage of both of them. The first of them was introduced by Colonel Seely, now Lord Mottistone, and the second by Lord Hewart, and, in recommending these Bills to the House, they said in that rather secretive, suggestive and ominous way which the Home Secretary and Law Officers adopt, "If you only knew we could give even greater powers." Lord Mottistone and Lord Hewart both assured us that these Bills were passed for the sole purpose of preventing espionage. That was an understood thing, and passages in the Debate bear that out. But when the Bill became law we did not find that sparing and careful use to which the Home Secretary referred. The Amendment to Section 6 was made necessary by the fact that Section 6 was brought into operation by a pressman, for an offence which had nothing to do with espionage at all. I think his name was Lewis. He had got from a sergeant of police early information about the impending arrest of a certain person and he published it in an enterprising journal. When asked where he got the information he declined to give the particulars and then found himself subject to this Section; he was, in fact, fined £1.It was so clearly a breach of the intention of the Act that an agitation followed for making clear the original intention of the Act. Here we have the result of that agitation and the fulfilment of the pledge given by the Government. It is certainly a great improvement.

It is made clear that the failure to disclose information must refer to information in respect of Part I of the principal Act of 1911, which deals purely with being on prohibited premises, or something of that kind, whereas by the time we got to 1920 a whole collection of offences had been created which had only a very distant relationship to espionage. Now this power to require information is given to the police only in the case of information relating to Section 1 of the principal Act, which deals with espionage. In those circumstances, we welcome this because it is the fulfilment of a pledge given by the last Home Secretary, and because, as I say, it is a good thing that we should sit here this afternoon in these circumstances and enlarge the bounds of freedom.

6.50 p.m.

Mr. Dingle Foot

Ever since the trial of the case to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, the exercise of powers of interrogation under Section 6 has been of particular concern to the Liberal Members of this House. We welcome this Bill and offer our thanks to the right hon. Gentleman and to his predecessor during whose term of office it was introduced. The Lord Privy Seal, when he gave, on 12th May last year, the answer to which the Home Secretary referred, spoke of these powers of interrogation as being exceptional and drastic. I think they are a good deal more than that. They are quite unique as far as our Statute law is concerned. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Gorton (Mr. Benn) has pointed out, it is clear to anyone who has looked back through the columns of the OFFICIAL REPORT, that the House passed Section 6 in the belief that it would and could be used only against enemies of the State. That belief turned out to be ill-founded, but I suggest that in these days, when we consider matters like Defence regulations, for example, it should be a lesson to us all never to entrust to those in authority or to any Minister or Government powers in excess of what they strictly need, because if we do we may be fairly certain that sooner or later the time will come when these powers will be used in a way never contemplated or intended by the House of Commons.

Of course, we welcome this Bill. In fairness, I should say I think it goes even further than the amending Bill which we introduced from these benches. But there are two reservations I should like to make. Firstly, we hope that at some future time, at the end of the war, the Government will reconsider the whole of the Official Secrets Acts. We do not take the view that Section 6 is the only Section in need of amendment. We think, for instance, that the wording of Section 7 of the 1911 Act, as amended by the 1920 Act, is far wider than it need be and we would like to see some amendment there. We should also like to see some amendment of the very wide search warrant Sections in these two Statutes. There is also a minor amendment which I would venture to suggest in the case of this Bill.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to cases of emergency, and I would not dissent from his proposition that when you have an emergency you ought not to put upon your chief officer of police the necessity of obtaining prior sanction of the Secretary of State, but I think the wording should be changed; it should be made necessary for this emergency power to be used if the chief officer of police should have reasonable grounds for thinking that it is a case of emergency, and it should, in the last resort, allow the reasonableness of these grounds to be tried out in a court of law. A similar factor was conceded by the Government in the Prevention of Violence Bill shortly before the outbreak of the war, and I think they should concede an alteration of this kind here.

I particularly remember the considered reply given by the Home Secretary on the 12th May last year, after weeks of consideration. He told us that while the powers of interrogation would not be used without the permission of the Attorney-General or the Home Secretary, nevertheless it was quite impossible that there should be any statutory restrictions of these powers, and the Department really could not consider any question of an amending Bill. On that occasion and on subsequent occasions the House showed that it was not satisfied with that answer, and as a result we have got the second thoughts of the Home Office here. I think we might draw the moral that when the Government are pressed on a matter they can dispense with powers which at one time they thought were indispensable.

6.55 p.m.

Mr. Maxton

No one could have spoken fairer than the Home Secretary has done in introducing this matter, and I do not wish to oppose it in any way. The great safeguard, so far as the House of Commons is concerned, is that the responsibility definitely rests upon the Minister's own shoulders, and presumably we may take it that the Minister will exercise those powers only after very serious consideration. He assures us that this can only be operated in relation to matters of espionage, where everybody will agree that action of a swift and definite kind should be taken in the interest of the country's safety. I hope that in our experience of the operation of this Section this will be proved to be true. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) will remember that he and I sat together for some weeks on the Committee dealing with Incitmeent to Disaffection, and we then had from the Attorney-General the most specific assurance that this legislation was being introduced only to deal with people who were definitely working inside the ranks of the armed forces to destroy the morale and withdraw the allegiance of the men from the Crown.

The Attorney-General, now the Lord Chancellor, has assured us again and again that that was the case and that the powers would be used only against people for whom even the hon. Member for Dundee and the hon. Member for Bridge-ton (Mr. Maxton) could not find a good word to say. As a matter of fact, when the powers were used they were used against a student—a callow youth from Sheffield or Leeds—the son of a clergyman, who went into a railway station refreshment room at the time when the Spanish trouble was on, fell in with an airman and got talking to him. He said, "You are an airman?" and the man replied, "Yes." He said, "Can you fly an aeroplane?" and the airman replied, "Yes." He said, "What about flying over to Spain and helping the Republicans?" That was the first, and I think the only, case under the Incitement to Disaffection Act, and I think he received 12 months' imprisonment.

Mr, Foot

Was it not nine months?

Mr. Maxton

I think the sentence was 12 months, and there was a subsequent reduction. I think that was shocking and there are the same possibilities here. Our safeguard is that the Home Secretary will examine with meticulous care any case that is put up to him. But while he stands here to-night and tells us that that is what would be done, we know from experience that while the right hon. Gentleman means that to-night, when the papers actually come up to him containing a case of this description on which he has to put his initials, unless it is specifically put to him the possibilities are that his signature will go down if the matter is brought to him from one of these responsible civil servants. Some innocent person such as the young student to whom I referred may find himself within the clutches of the law, while the Home Secretary feels morally bound to stand by his subordinates who have initiated the Acts. I think an adequate safeguard lies in the probability that any innocent person caught in this way would have opportunities of letting the facts be known to friends, who would convey them to Members of this House, who in turn would probably not be slow in duly ventilating the point. With that as the ultimate safeguard, and on the assumption that the House of Commons will continue in being, I do not propose to oppose the Second Reading.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Tuesday next.—[Lieut.-Colonel Kerr.]

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

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