HC Deb 22 March 1976 vol 908 cc163-6

Lords amendment: No. 6, in page 7, line 22, leave out: knows or believes that he".

Dr. Summerskill

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment we may discuss Amendments Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 10.

Dr. Summerskill

These amendments are designed to do two things. First, they clarify the drafting of the clause and, we hope, meet some of the criticisms of drafting expressed on Report in the House of Commons. Secondly, they introduce a provision in relation to Northern Ireland, by which a person can avoid committing an offence by disclosing information within the scope of the clause if he discloses it to a member of the Armed Forces instead of to a constable; that is, the saving will apply both in the case of the police and the Army.

Subsection (1) has been redrafted so that the position of the words "knows or believes" is altered in accordance with criticism of the original drafting, principally by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). We accept that the new structure is clearer and perhaps more logical than that of the original clause.

We took note of the point that has been made on several occasions, that the requirement to disclose information only to a constable might be too restrictive, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland. We therefore decided that a logical and desirable extension of the clause, in view of the particular conditions prevailing in Northern Ireland, would be to provide that, in Northern Ireland, information might also be disclosed to a member of Her Majesty's Forces. However, we think it impracticable to go any wider than this in the list of those to whom the information may be passed.

We have looked closely at the terms of this clause in accordance with the undertaking given by the Home Secretary on Report in the House of Commons. These amendments are the result of that consideration and represent all that we can suggest to clarify and limit this clause without destroying its basic purpose.

On Report in the Commons the question was raised whether the use, in Northern Ireland, of the "confidential telephone" would be sufficient to comply with the requirement to disclose the information to a constable. I can give the House an assurance that information given over the confidential telephone is received by the police and that details are recorded. In those circumstances, disclosure of information in this way would be disclosure to a "constable" and, as a detailed record is kept, the person disclosing the information would have no difficulty in establishing that he had given it.

Mr. Powell

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the explanation she has given of the specific application to Northern Ireland. It is certainly desirable that the giving of information to a member of Her Majesty's Forces should have been put there upon the same basis as the giving of information to a constable.

As regards the rest of the amendments, there are two guests whom we miss this evening at this feast. One is the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn), whose heart would be rejoiced by observing that the position in Scotland has been more delicately sorted out from the position in England and Wales as a result of these amendments. I promise the hon. Lady that at the next opportunity I shall draw the matter to the attention of the hon. and learned Gentleman.

It is a pity that we do not have in the Chamber the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo), for it is with him that I must share any merit that attaches to having drawn attention to the absurdity of anyone only believing that he has information, and not knowing that he has information. The amendments deftly dismiss that logical or epistemological difficulty. We shall leave the clause in a better condition if we agree to make the Lords amendments.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I am glad that we shall be able to leave the clause in a better condition than when it last appeared before us.

I do not want to sound churlish, but I believe it to be right in principle that on occasions Governments should accede to pressure from Back Benchers to include new clauses. That which is before us tonight is partly the work of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Fins-bury (Mr. Cunningham), whose original ideas found their way into a clause that came before the House.

The criticism that I felt had to be made when last the clause appeared before us—this is a matter that must still be borne in mind—is that I did not believe any Northern Ireland Minister had given serious consideration to the terms of the clause. I do not believe that any Northern Ireland Minister could have envisaged such a clause applying in Northern Ireland without the reference to Her Majesty's Forces and without clarification about the use of the confidential telephone.

The clarification throws a new light on the confidential telephone operation. One of its features is that it is anonymous—[Interruption.] Perhaps the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) finds my English a little confused at this time of night.

Mr. Powell

No, I am following the hon. Gentleman's logic.

Mr. Beith

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is with me on this issue. If one of the advantages of the confidential telephone is that it is anonymous and that information can be given without a person identifying himself as giving it, the subsequent exercise in which he has to say to the police "I was the person who telephoned you at 11.42 on Tuesday 14th March and gave the following information, which you can check from your records" may not be entirely what was envisaged by the hon. Lady. I am not quite sure that it was envisaged when the confidential telephone was first devised. To some extent I rest my willingness to leave the clause as the Lords now recommend it on the fact that it may be tidied up by another amendment.

Power will remain in the Bill for the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland to ensure that prosecutions are not undertaken under this clause in inadvisable circumstances. I as sure that there will be many inadvisable circumstances in which prosecutions either should not be undertaken or will be impossible to undertake.

That is not because we do not wish to see the same degree of co-operation from the public in Northern Ireland as has clearly assisted the police in Great Britain in their recent successful investigations. It is because in some cases conditions in Northern Ireland make it genuinely difficult for people to declare themselves, because the public declaration, the appearance in court, and matters of that sort have been associated—this is inevitably the consequence—with the giving of information. That is genuinely feared in Northern Ireland.

It was pointed out when the clause last appeared before us that once it appears before a Northern Ireland court, and there is the defence of a genuine fear of intimidation, it is uncertain how subsequent prosecutions can successfully follow.

I share with UUUC Members a desire to see a framework of law in Northern Ireland as broadly similar to that in the rest of the United Kingdom as is possible. On those grounds I want to see the clause remain more or less as it stands, but we must be frank about some of the difficulties. I am not quite sure whether all of the difficulties have been clarified by what the hon. Lady has said.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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