§ Amendment made:
§ In page 1, line 22, insert "and on tender of his reasonable expenses."—[Mr. Peake.]
§ 4.28 p.m.
Mr. Dingle Foots
I beg to move, in page 2, line 4, to leave out "it appears to."
Hon. Members will see that this Amendment has to be considered in connection with an Amendment on the following line, after "police," to insert "has reasonable grounds to believe." I hope I shall have the permission of the Committee to discuss the two Amendments together. If they are accepted it will mean that the Sub-section will read:Where a chief officer of police has reasonable grounds to believe that the case is one of great emergency.It has, of course, been recognised, at any rate by implication, by those who are responsible for the Bill that the. powers of interrogation contained in Section 6 of the Act of 1920 are both dangerous and exceptional, and that they need to be hedged about with every kind of safeguard. Therefore, two new safeguards are introduced in this Bill. There is, first, the provision that the powers shall be confined to offences or suspected offences under Section 10 of the Act of 1911, that is to say, espionage and kindred matters; and secondly, that those powers shall not be exercised without the prior consent of the Secretary of State. In Sub-section (2) of this Clause, however, there is a provision that:Where it appears to a chief officer of police that the case is one of great emergency and that in the interest of the State immediate action is necersaryhe may then exercise the powers without any previous permission from the Secretary of State. I do not think anyone will dispute that situations might arise where the case was one of emergency, and where it would be unreasonable to require that the chief officer of police, who might be 1276 a very long distance from London, should obtain the prior permission of the Secretary of State. To do that might defeat the whole purpose of the interrogation. Our objection is that under this Subsection the chief officer of police himself is the sole judge as to whether the case is one of great emergency, and his decision cannot be challenged afterwards in any way. As a result of this, if there were an unscrupulous chief officer of police or a chief officer who was anxious to stretch his powers more than the House intended, one might have a position which would make complete nonsense of the safeguard about the Secretary of State's approval, because the chief officer of police could simply use his powers of interrogation and if afterwards he were challenged in a court of law, he could say that in his opinion the case was one of emergency. It would simply depend upon his decision in his own mind, or upon a decision which afterwards he said he had made at the time.
In these circumstances, it seems to me that it would improve the Bill, and would not really take away from any of its main purposes, or weaken the hands of the police in any material way, if the words of the Amendment were inserted, requiring the chief officer of police, before proceeding under Sub-section (2), to have reasonable grounds for thinking that the case is one of great emergency and that the interest of the State demands immediate action. This would mean that in the very last resort, it would be possible in a court of law to test the reasonableness of the grounds. It is very unlikely that it would ever be necessary to test the matter in that way, but I think the fact that words of this kind were contained in the sub-section would have the result of making chief officers of police a little more careful than otherwise they would be in deciding that the case was one of great emergency and that the interest of the State demanded immediate action. For these reasons, I hope that the Government will accept these Amendments.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Wedgwood Benn
I hope the Government will accept the Amendment. This Bill is a great improvement on the Act, but I think that everything which the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot) 1277 has said will be admitted by the Government to be true. The Amendment really means that the chief officer of police will have to have reasonable grounds for believing that the case is one of emergency and that the interest of the State demands immediate action, instead of its being purely for the chief officer of police to say "Yes" or "No." I think every hon. Member will agree that if powers of this kind, which are usually exercised only by the Secretary of State, are to be given to a chief officer of police, then we should at least say that the chief officer of police must make it clear that he has reasonable grounds and that we should not simply leave the matter to his "yea" or "nay," because if a chief officer of police did this purely on his own notion, without having reasonable grounds, I cannot see that there is anything in the provision which would enable him to be brought to book. The point is one of substance. The Amendment would improve the Sub-section, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to tell us that in another place they will accept what we in this House consider—whatever their views may be—to be a slight improvement in the Bill.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peake)
I have looked very carefully at this Amendment, which is similar to one that was moved in another place by Lord Samuel, when the Committee stage of the Bill was being taken on 7th March. In introducing that Amendment, Lord Samuel stated that it covered a very small point, and that indeed is the view which the Government take of the matter. We regard this as being a very small point, and I am not sure that the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Foot), in moving the Amendment, realised what a very small point it is. I thought that it could be taken from what he said that, as he read Subsection (2) of Clause 1, these powers of interrogation, which are limited by this Bill to cases of espionage, could be put into operation by a chief officer of police upon his forming himself the opinion that the case was one of great emergency and that in the interests of the State these powers should be exercised. Of course, that is not so. If hon. Members will look carefully at Sub-section (2), they will see that: 1278Where it appear? to a chief officer of police that the case is one of great emergency and that in the interest of the State immediate action is necessary, he may exercise the powers conferred by the last foregoing Sub-section.Therefore, one has to turn back to Subsection (1) to find out what are the powers which the chief officer of police may exercise. If hon. Members will look at Sub-section (1), they will see that in the first three or four lines it contains two vitally important safeguards; first, that the chief officer of police has to be satisfied that there is reasonable ground for suspecting that an offence of espionage has been committed, and, secondly, that he has to have reasonable grounds for believing that the particular person is able to furnish information as to an offence or suspected offence.
§ Mr. Foot
Surely, it is not quite correct to say that the chief officer of police has to have reasonable grounds. What the provision says is that he must be satisfied that there is reasonable ground. If one turns back to Sub-section (1), again the chief officer of police is the sole judge as to whether the grounds are reasonable.
§ Mr. Peake
I do not quite agree with the hon. Member's interpretation of Subsection (1). It seems to me that if there were a prosecution for an offence under this Bill, it would be open to the defendant to plead that the chief officer of police was not satisfied that there was reasonable ground either for suspecting that an offence had been committed or for believing that the particular person was able to furnish information in regard to the suspected offence. The powers exercised under Sub-section (2) are only such powers as are contained in Subsection (1). Therefore, what Sub-section (2) does is, that it enables the prior consent of the Secretary of State to be dispensed with, in circumstances where it appears to the chief officer of police that the case is one of great emergency. I must confess that it seems to me that the best judge of whether there is a case of great emergency is bound to be the chief officer of police himself. After all, an emergency presupposes that one has to act with a certain amount of haste, and it might be that if the chief officer of police did not make up his mind quickly on such an issue, the opportunity of obtaining some very vital information in connection with espionage might go by.
1279 The chief officer of police has to make up his mind quickly and he will not be in a position to check and counter-check the information upon which he decides to act.
At the same time, as I have said, I do not feel that this is a very big matter. I have a good deal of confidence in the judgment of chief officers of police, and I feel that if they were able to satisfy a jury on the first two provisos of Subsection (1), they would not have very much difficulty in satisfying the jury also on the matter contained in Sub-section (2). The hon. Member for Dundee and the Committee should also bear in mind that the action taken under Sub-section (2) has to be reported forthwith to the Secretary of State, and further, that no prosecution can take place under the Act without the consent of the Attorney-General. There seem to us to be a mass of safeguards, but I repeat that this is a very small matter. The hon. Member for Dundee has been after a certain number of what I may call sizeable fish in the Defence Regulations. Here he seems to be pursuing a very small sprat, but if he desires to have this sprat, we are prepared to let him have it.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Further Amendment made: In page 2, line 5, after"police,"insert"has reasonable grounds to believe."—[Mr. Foot.]
§ Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended, considered; read the Third time, and passed, with Amendments.