HC Deb 06 April 1943 vol 388 cc557-63

(1) No information relating to any undertaking, premises or place, being information which has been obtained by, or on behalf of, any person for the purposes of his functions under this Act, shall, without the previous consent in writing of the person carrying on such undertaking or owning such premises or place, be published or disclosed otherwise than in connection with the execution or for the purposes of this Act or any order or regulation having effect by virtue of this Act.

(2) Nothing in the preceding Sub-section shall apply to any disclosure of any information made for the purposes of any legal proceedings pursuant to this Act (including any public inquiry under Section three, Section four or Section seven of this Act) or of any criminal proceedings which may be taken whether pursuant to this Act or otherwise, or for the purposes of any report of any such proceedings as aforesaid.

(3) If any person publishes or discloses any information in contravention of this Section, he shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds or to both such imprisonment and such fine or, on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds or to both such imprisonment and such fine.—[Sir R. Clarry.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir Reginald Clarry (Newport)

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

In simple language the Clause means that there shall be no transmission of trade secrets or anything of that sort from one establishment to another. I am not in a position to talk about the particular kinds of trade secrets in this industry, except that they may be recipes, or methods of cooking, purchasing or organisation of one sort or another. I see no reason why this provision should not be inserted, as it would improve the Bill—such as it is.

The Solicitor-General

I want the Committee to consider whether the proposed new Clause, having regard to its general effect, is necessary. The last thing we would desire is to create a new criminal offence, if that is unnecessary. As I see the position, any inspector or person in that class would be completely covered by Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act.

Sir H. Williams

These persons are not in the service of the Crown in the ordinary sense. I thought that the Official Secrets Act related to only those in the service of the Crown. I shall be very much obliged if the Minister will give us the reference.

The Solicitor-General

I welcome the interruption. I am very anxious to help the Committee on this point. The words which I have in mind are: having in his possession information which he has obtained, owing to his position as a person who holds or has held office under His Majesty. I take the view—everyone I have consulted has also taken the view—that inspectors would undoubtedly be in that position. They come under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, and it would be an offence for them to give information to any person, other than a person to whom they were authorised to communicate the information or a person to whom, in the interests of the State, they ought to communicate it.

Sir H. Williams

The Commission will be created, in principle, by Parliament and appointed by the Minister. It is suggested that officials of the Commission then come under the Official Secrets Act. Let us take an analogy. The Governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation are a body created by Parliament. Do I understand that every official of the B.B.C. comes under the Official Secrets Act? If not, why not?

The Solicitor-General

My hon. Friend will be the first to appreciate that I cannot give off-hand an opinion on a matter like that without having the Charter of the Corporation in front of me. I am very anxious that the Committee should receive the best information on any question of law which I can give to them, but I must ask my hon. Friend not to press me on the question of the B.B.C. By all means let him press me with regard to this Commission. I take the view that inspectors and officers appointed under Clause 12 are in the position that I have said, that is, of those who have obtained their information through a position of holding office under His Majesty. To be quite frank, the position of the actual Commissioners themselves is more doubtful.

There would be an argument, and I cannot officially decide that argument, as to the position of the Commissioners or of the members of the wages boards. The answer to that is, whichever side of the line it may fall, to look at what the Commissioners or the wages boards are concerned with. They are concerned with general questions. The Commissioners have, first of all, to decide whether the industrial machinery of employers and employed is sufficient. Then they have to consider, if it is not sufficient, whether they will make a wages board recommendation. So far as I can see, there is no need for the Commissioners to obtain detailed private information. The wages board have to make recommendations to the Minister as to general rates of wages that will obtain. If one concedes that there is an argument that they are servants of the Crown, I do not see the practical fear which inspires my hon. Friend on this point. The new Clause appears mainly directed against the misuse of information by the officers who will be in a position of asking for information and of conducting prosecutions. I take the view that they are covered by the Official Secrets Act. With regard to the Commissioners and members of the wages boards, even if they are not covered, I do not think they can be in a position to misuse their powers.

Sir H. Williams

We have had a most illuminating speech from the Solicitor-General. When he was halfway across the river he realised that he was in difficulties. The whole of the brief which he had prepared for himself was based on Clause 12, under which it is clear that the officers appointed by the Minister to perform certain functions of civil servants come under the Official Secrets Act. When you turn to the First and Second Schedules, and when you also look at the earlier Clauses and the powers to obtain information, it is clear that both the Commission and the wages board can obtain private information about all sorts of firms, corporations and institutions, and that there is no prohibition. They are not persons in the service of the Crown, and they do not come under the Official Secrets Act. The Solicitor-General admitted that there is some doubt about the position of the Commission. Having regard to the speech of the Solicitor-General, I suggest that the Mover of the proposed new Clause should ask leave to withdraw it on the understanding that the rather difficult legal and constitutional position shall be looked into by the Law Officers of the Crown before we reach the Report stage. It is manifest that there is a real element of doubt about the position of members and officers of the Commission and members and officers of wages boards.

Major Petherick

There are two possible leakages of information with regard to the proposed new Clause. The first is the inspectors under the Crown. I am not at all satisfied with the Solicitor-General's explanation. It is true that inspectors, being Government employees, are obviously bound by the Official Secrets Act, but that only applies to the King's secrets. Suppose an inspector under the Bill parts with a recipe for an extremely good dish which he has happened to learn from the landlord of an hotel. What is the position in that case? As regards members of the Commission and of wages boards, all kinds of information might very well be discovered, relating, say, to the amount of capital involved, the amount already paid in wages or technical questions of cold storage, efficiency and development of trade. It is not so far-fetched as it may have seemed. It is clear when we are talking about wages boards that they are to be persons connected with the trade. They will be placed in a responsible position, and it seems possible that one, representing an employer, might obtain the secrets of another employer and inadvertently pass them on. There seems no good reason why the Clause should not be accepted. The fact that it increases the size of the Bill is not a very good reason for rejecting it.

Mr. Bevin

The hon. and gallant Member who has just spoken raised the question of inspectors covered by the Official Secrets Act, and the whole of the argument in the last few minutes has been concerned with what an inspector might discover in the course of his inspection. My difficulty is when we get to the Commission. I have given an undertaking that there shall be a report to the House. I do not want a conflict between the Official Secrets Act and my undertaking as to a report to the House of Commons of the grounds on which the Commission arrived at their conclusion. The proposal that the Commission should be brought within the Official Secrets Act will hamstring the House of Commons entirely in regard to that report. I am sure, while we have no desire to give any secrets away—in fact, I understand that this is the one trade in which there are no secrets, and that is why we all look so well—from my knowledge of wages boards for many years, that if there is one institution in the world whose discussions have been kept private it is this kind of board and Commission. I know of no place in which there is greater respect for matters conveyed to them than there is on joint bodies like the proposed Commission and wages boards. You never see the information leak out to the Press or anywhere else. If the Commission are to discharge the duty to the House of Commons of presentation of their annual report, I suggest, and this is what I am troubled about, that they should not be hamstrung any further.

Sir H. Williams

I was quite satisfied when the Solicitor-General spoke that the Government were in a mess, but I am convinced beyond all possibility of doubt after hearing the Minister. What has he told us? That, "You must do this, otherwise the Commission will be prevented from reporting to Parliament." Really, that is not good enough. After all, this Commission can have officers, can have secretaries, such officers as the Minister thinks fit. The Official Secrets Act applies to the employees of the Crown, but it does not bind Ministers. Ministers, in some cases without specific sanction from His Majesty, in some cases requiring his specific sanction in certain Cabinet matters, can always speak freely. The Minister is now trying to suggest that if my hon. Friend's new Clause is carried, the Commission will not be able to report to Parliament. He must be in an awful mess if he has to use that argument, which has no intellectual validity whatever.

His Majesty's advisers are in a mess at this moment, and I hope they will accept the suggestion I made earlier. I believe the hon. Member will withdraw his Clause provided they will give an undertaking that they will look into this subject between now and the Report stage, because it is obvious that the Government do not know where they are. It is no use fumbling with it and saying that no wages Commission has ever blown the gaff. That does not impress me in the least. We are now passing an Act of Parliament, not discussing the right hon. Gentleman's pre-war colleagues, who, I agree, are most honourable and proper. We are laying down that people employed by the Commission and the wages board who receive confidential information must not themselves disclose it. What the Commission should do in presenting an annual report to Parliament is a different matter. We must not be fobbed off by the suggestion that if we pass this Clause we shall never have a report to Parliament. That is nonsense, and the right hon. Gentleman would not have said it unless he was in difficulties. That the Minister is using an argument of no intellectual validity shows he is in a mess, and I hope he will say that he will look into this between now and the Report stage.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

I wish to ask the hon. and learned Gentleman, in view of this fear of the caterer that another caterer may know his secrets, whether it does not strike him as remarkable as showing how little trust the robber capitalists have in one another? Would it not be better to intern the whole lot of them for the duration of the war?

Sir R. Clarry

It is clear that this Clause has disclosed a very substantial loophole in the Bill. We understand that inspectors come within the Official Secrets Act but that there are other classes who may get in possession of trade secrets, who might not or do not come under the Official Secrets Act. On the understanding that the matter will be carefully examined between now and the Report stage, I beg, to ask leave to withdraw the new Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.