HC Deb 07 June 1957 vol 571 cc1565-71
The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I will, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, make a short statement in response to the request which the Leader of the Opposition made to me yesterday.

The prerogative power of intercepting telephone communications can be used only by the personal authority of the Secretary of State. This power is one which Parliament has always recognised to be essential for the protection of society. It is used solely in cases involving the security of the State, or for the purpose of detecting serious crime. Information from this source is jealously guarded and it is settled principle that it is not disclosed to persons outside the public service.

The circumstances of this case, that is, the one we were discussing yesterday, were, however, wholly exceptional. It was represented to the Secretary of State that the disclosure of this information to the Bar Council was desirable in the interests of maintaining our high standard in the administration of justice. The Secretary of State felt it to be his duty to supply to the Bar Council information which had already been obtained, as I said yesterday, from an intercept on the telephone communications of a notorious and confessed criminal.

As certain disciplinary proceedings are pending and the matter is sub judice, it would be improper for me to go into any further detail. But I must make clear that this case will not be treated as a precedent. I can further assure the House that Her Majesty's Government appreciate to the full the necessity of preventing any abuse of this necessary but distasteful power.

Mr. Gaitskell

The House will be obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for having made a statement this morning. He will forgive me if I say that, nevertheless, the statement does not carry us very much further than we were yesterday. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman, first, when was this decision made, and, secondly, whether he can explain in what way passing this information to the Bar Council was related to the detection of serious crime or to public security, because the right hon. Gentleman pointed out that it was only for those reasons that the power was exercised, even the power of tapping telephones, much less the power of passing on information.

Mr. Butler

The answer to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question is that the decision was taken at the end of last year, that is, under my predecessor's administration. The answer to the second part is that I cannot go into details as this matter is now sub judice, and it would be impossible for me to do so while the case is in that state.

Mr. S. Silverman

On a point of order. So that further exchanges shall not be embarrassed, may I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether this case is or is not sub judice within the meaning of those words applied in the House of Commons? I understand that this is a professional, domestic inquiry by a professional body into the professional conduct of one of its own members. In what way is that sub judice as far as the House of Commons is concerned?

Mr. Speaker

The strict meaning of the words "sub judice" I have always understood to be that the case is before the constituted courts of justice. I should not like to give that as a final opinion, but it is what I have always understood, and in response to the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) I express that opinion. But with regard to the tribunal of which I have heard today, I think it may be that it is not within the terms of "sub judice" as hitherto applied. I would say, however, and I think that the House will agree, that it might be undesirable to prejudice any case which is being considered, even by such a tribunal. That is a matter of opinion, and although the narrow construction of the words is as I have said, yet the inadvisability of prejudging issues which are to be considered by other bodies applies to some extent in both cases.

Mr. Silverman

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker, and your Ruling— for which I am sure the House will be grateful—may I submit that when the point at issue is not the merits or demerits of a particular charge in a particular place, but the fundamental question of the administration of justice and the preservation of civil liberty in this country, the judges of that issue are properly the House of Commons and not any outside body, except in so far as our own practice has led us in previous cases not to act in such a way as to prejudice people or to prejudice the investigation by the courts of matters within the jurisdiction of the courts?

Naturally, we are all grateful for the advice that in anything we say about the matter we should exercise our own personal discretion, having regard to what is involved. All I am submitting is that there is no rule which prevents the House of Commons from discussing this matter merely because a professional body is investigating a private, individual case.

Mr. Grimond

As I understand, the Home Secretary himself admits that this is a departure from all settled principle. If that is the case, cannot he tell us why it is necessary to report these conversations to the Bar Council? It surely cannot be concerned either with the security of the State or the detection of serious crime. He must exercise this prerogative in accordance with some principle, and when he makes a serious departure from this principle should not he make a statement as to the reasons for that departure?

Mr. Butler

I really cannot go further. I have given the facts of this case and I have given the authority, namely, my predecessor as Secretary of State. Therefore, the hon. Member is not quite exact in attributing responsibility to me, personally. As Secretary of State, however, I am defending the situation, and I am right to do so. I cannot go back on the action which has been taken, but I have said that this case will not be treated as a precedent. In my opinion, the general principle that this sort of information is not disclosed to persons outside the public service should be the line of conduct in future.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

On the first part of his statement, would my right hon. Friend be prepared to make a more extensive statement after the Recess, containing a precise list of the crimes or alleged crimes upon which permission is given by him to cause telephones to be tapped? If this is not done, a grave fear will arise in the public mind that police methods themselves rest not so much upon the law, but upon power, privilege and personality. If that course is followed we shall be entering on very dangerous paths.

Mr. Butler

I sympathise with what my noble Friend says, but I must reserve this right as a prerogative power of the Secretary of State, just as my predecessors have done. In my statement I have endeavoured to indicate that this power will be used only in defence of the security of the State or for the purpose of detecting serious crime—and I now speak as one of Her Majesty's Secretaries of State. I would like to make it quite clear that that is the case, so that the very natural anxieties which have been aroused by this sort of incident are not spread more widely in the country, because I think that people will then feel that the power is being exercised properly and duly, as it should be.

Mr. Gaitskell

I am sure that the House will welcome the statement of the right hon. Gentleman that this kind of thing is not to be a precedent. I am sure, too, that we all have some sympathy with him in the position in which he finds himself. But I am afraid that we must press this matter a little further. With respect, the right hon. Gentleman has not told us why this information was passed on. I would ask him whether he can answer the question which the Leader of the Liberal Party and I both put to him, namely, in what way was this related to serious crime or the security of the State?

Further, in view of the feelings among hon. Members that this should not have been done, is it not most undesirable that in considering this matter the Bar Council should continue to have this information available and take it into account? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider withdrawing the information which has been passed on and asking the Council to disregard it in considering this matter?

Mr. Butler

I would not like to give an immediate answer to that because, the information having been passed on, it is rather difficult for me to take any action now. I will, however, with the aid of expert advice, give consideration to the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion.

Mr. Speaker

May I make an appeal to hon. Members on both sides of the House? I fully recognise the importance of this issue and I would like very much to indulge it, but can it be carried further today? Meanwhile, I have on my conscience the timetable of private Members, whose day this is. This is one of the few occasions upon which private Members have the opportunity of airing constituency grievances. I hope that the House will let the matter stay there for the moment. without prejudice to anything that may arise later.

Mr. Lipton

As the originator of the Question, yesterday, may I be allowed to put one question to the Home Secretary, Sir? It relates to his statement with regard to the barrister concerned. I am now at liberty to name him as Mr. P. Marrinan. The Home Secretary yesterday said that … persons concerned in the administration of justice should not be associated with criminals in their criminal activities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th June, 1957; Vol. 571. c. 1469.] Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Mr. Marrinan is quite willing that a complete transcript of all these telephone conversations should be placed in the Library of the House, so that any hon. Member can read through the transcript and decide for himself whether or not there has been any breach of professional conduct in this matter? Will the Home Secretary be willing to place the transcript in the Library?

Mr. Butler

I shall have to give that request consideration. I would only say that my own perusal of the papers is represented in digest in the statement which I gave this morning, namely, that it was represented to my predecessor that the disclosure of this information was desirable in the interests of maintaining a high standard in the administration of justice. I do not want to criticise any person or persons, but I do not think that he would have acted unless he were sure that that was the case. I must say that out of fairness to the decision taken.

I will consider the two requests made— one by the right hon. Gentleman and the other by the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton)—and I will, of course, also be available to hon. Members in this matter, because I must treat it with the utmost seriousness.

Mr. J. Griffiths

The Home Secretary has kindly promised to consider the important suggestion put forward by my right hon. Friend that this information should be withdrawn from the Bar Council and that it should be asked to disregard it in any decision which it comes to. May I ask the Home Secretary to consider that matter together with the suggestion that the Bar Council might be asked to suspend any action on this matter while he is considering it? Further, will he make a statement on the matter again when the House resumes?

Mr. Speaker

I hope that hon. Members will bring this matter to a conclusion. We are getting very much behind time.

Mr. E. Fletcher

May I ask one question, Mr. Speaker? I do not think that the Home Secretary's statement today will have allayed public concern. Might I ask him to tell us quite clearly, perhaps after Whitsun, whether or not we are to understand that he claims that. as a matter of prerogative, the Crown can use information obtained by tapping telephone conversations and, in any circumstances, convey that information to unofficial bodies? I would have thought that if that doctrine is being enunciated it is an entirely novel one, and one which the House would wish to consider in detail.

Mr. Butler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am able to give him again the assurance that it is the settled policy that such information is not disclosed to persons outside the public service. I have said that there were exceptional circumstances in this case and I have added that this case is not to be used as a precedent.

I should like to say something else, if it is any consolation to the legal profession: that there is no question of using this power to obtain information about what passes between a lawyer and his instructing solicitor or a member of the legal profession and his client. The power is used, as I said, to detect serious crime, and would never be used for prying into confidential communications between an accused person and his legal adviser. I can say no more about this case.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heath.]