HC Deb 05 April 1962 vol 657 cc610-2
2. Mr. Driberg

asked the Attorney-General if he will state the principles which guide him in deciding whether or not to authorise prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act.

The Attorney-General

I authorise prosecutions for offences against the Official Secrets Acts in those cases where, having regard to the relevant facts, I consider that it would be in the public interest to institute proceedings.

Mr. Driberg

While thanking the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that staggering Answer, may I ask whether, in making these decisions, he accepts the general principle that the original intention of this Act was to proceed against serious espionage and things of that order, rather than against relatively trivial offences, and least of all for what amounts to political persecution?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman is quite Wrong in his observation about political persecution. The Official Secrets Acts are intended to protect official secrets. The actions of the accused in the recent case were, and were meant to be, akin to sabotage, and it was clearly right to prosecute them for the offences with which they were charged.

Mr. Fletcher

Does the Attorney-General adhere to the assurance given in this House when the Official Secrets Act was passed that it was intended to deal with cases of espionage, and was not intended to affect the freedom of speech?

The Attorney-General

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Acts in detail, he will see that they cover a wide variety of subjects, including registration of postal addresses and things of that kind. In considering whether or not to prosecute, I must direct my mind to the language and spirit of the Acts and not to what my predecessors said about them many years ago in an entirely different context.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the definition of the words "in the public interest" to be left solely to the prerogative of the right hon. and learned Gentleman? Would he be good enough to define what is meant by "in the public interest"?

The Attorney-General

It is not a question of my prerogative. It is a question of my duty, which I do my best to discharge.

Mr. S. Silverman

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman reconsider this matter? Does he not appreciate that the present operation of the law has become so farcical as to bring it into supreme contempt? Is it not the case that in the recent proceedings which we all have in mind, the protection offered by the Statute, by requiring the Attorney General's fiat before any prosecution under the Act is taken, is set at naught by the simple device of charging a common law conspiracy where more than one person is concerned, so that that safeguard has gone? Is it not completely farcical for the common law offence of conspiracy to commit offences under the Official Secrets Acts to be allowed to proceed, and people to be sent to gaol for it, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman himself indicated, according to his Answer to me, that when people did the things they were incited to do. it was not in the public interest to prosecute them under the Official Secrets Acts?

The Attorney-General

With regard to the first question, I do not think the law has been brought into contempt at all. In relation to this prosecution, there was no question affecting freedom of speech. The accused made no secret of their intentions, and their own literature showed that they contemplated the possibility of being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Acts. With regard to the second point, relating to my consent as to prosecuting or not for an offence under the Official Secrets Acts, my consent was not formally required, but as I told the hon. Gentleman, in fact, my consent was given to the prosecution on the charges preferred against them, because they were preferred by the Director of Public Prosecutions under my authority. In reply to the third question, which suggests that it was somewhat farcical to bring these proceedings, there I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Silverman

On a point of order. Owing to the entirely unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I should like to give notice to raise the matter again at a suitable opportunity.