HC Deb 14 July 1975 vol 895 cc1055-7
62. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Attorney-General how many writs he has issued on behalf of the Government during his term of office.

65. Mr. Dalyell

asked the Attorney-General how many writs he has issued on behalf of the Government during his term of office.

The Attorney-General (Mr. S. C. Silkin)

I have issued two writs at the request of Government Departments. In addition, nine writs have been issued in my name by virtue of Section 17(2) of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947.

Mr. Hamilton

Does my right hon. and learned Friend appreciate that this is the only form in which we can table Questions to him and that on certain matters we are more or less tongue-tied by the rules of order? However, will he say when the Government intend to take another look at the Official Secrets Act with particular reference to Section 2? What are his views on the 30-year rule —which is an absurd rule, as he may well agree?

The Attorney-General

Any matter relating to the Official Secrets Act is in the first instance the concern of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. In regard to the 30-year rule, I would refer my hon. Friend to an accurate statement of my views which appeared in The Guardian this morning.

Mr. Norman Lamont

How can the Attorney-General maintain that in deciding what extracts from political memoirs are to be published he does not consult the Secretary of the Cabinet, when the Secretary of the Cabinet to all intents and purposes seems to decide what extracts can or cannot appear in newspapers? Surely the right hon. and learned Gentleman must consult the Cabinet Secretary.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken about what I have said and, indeed, about what has been said by the Prime Minister. It has never been suggested, and could not be, that when I make up my mind in my independent rôle, to which I assume the hon. Gentleman is referring, I shut my eyes and plug my ears. I find out whatever may be material to enable me to make my decision, but my decision is an independent one. It is not a decision of the Government.

Mr. Dalyell

What is the distinction between the right hon. and learned Friend's rôle as Attorney-General and his rôle as guardian of the public interest?

The Attorney-General

My rôle as Attorney-General includes the rôle of guardian of the public interest. That rôle is exemplified in many ways—for example, by my power to give consent to certain prosecutions embodied in statutes and also, as in the case of the Paul Foot contempt case, by my power to bring proceedings before the courts in my own name if the public interest so requires.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

It is not unusual for a Minister to answer a Question by referring a Member of Parliament to something which has appeared in a newspaper? Does he intend to reproduce it in the proper and ordinary way in the Official Report?

The Attorney-General

The reference in the newspaper is a substantial one and would take up very much more than Question Time to detail. It is not a matter that can be summarised in short form.

Mr. Heffer

In view of the fact that the Labour Party manifesto made it clear that the Government's intention was to ensure more open government and to look at the Official Secrets Act, will the Attorney-General say whether he will consider this matter when he issues writs in relation to a book which we are not allowed to discuss in this House at the present time?

The Attorney-General

As I have said, the question of legislation to deal with the Official Secrets Act is a matter for the Home Secretary and not for me. Any decision I take as guardian of the public interest in my independent capacity must have regard to the law as it is and not as it may be in the future.

Mr. Aitken

Will the Attorney-General explain the apparent inconsistency between his policy of trying to suppress certain political memoirs with writs and the authoritatively leaked Press reports in today's newspapers which indicate that he has given evidence to Lord Radcliffe's committee to the effect that the rules restraining publication of political memoirs by Cabinet Ministers should now be relaxed? Will he clarify this apparent extraordinary distinction?

The Attorney-General

I thought that my last answer had performed that function. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I repeat that my task in my rôle as Attorney-General is to uphold the law as it stands.

Mr. Tebbit

What about Clay Cross?

The Attorney-General

I can take a view whether the law as it stands needs amendment. I was asked to express a view on that matter to the Radcliffe Committee, and I did so.