HC Deb 10 February 1977 vol 925 cc1640-2
8. Mr. Aitken

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland why members of the Housing Executive and other public bodies in Northern Ireland have recently been asked to sign the Official Secrets Act.

Mr. Carter

All persons entrusted with official information in confidence have an obligation to protect that information. Whether or not such persons sign a declaration of their awareness of the requirements of the Official Secrets Acts, they are subject to their provisions.

The Housing Executive is the only public body in Northern Ireland whose members have recently been asked to sign such declarations.

Mr. Aitken

Has the Minister forgotten that the Official Secrets Act is a major criminal statute designed to protect the security of the State, a measure that should not be used as a convenient suppressing device for preventing ministerial embarrassment? As information on matters relating to housing can hardly involve national security in Northern Ireland, will the hon. Gentleman please find other methods of preserving confidentiality? Will he ask the Government to stop abusing the Official Secrets Act in this way?

Mr. Carter

I think that the hon. Gentleman needs to study the affairs of Northern Ireland in a somewhat more profound way than he has done so far. Housing matters can be the subject of severe problems and difficulties in Northern Ireland in a way that they are not in the rest of the United Kingdom. I might add that every member of the Housing Executive voluntarily signed the Official Secrets Act declaration.

Mr. Fitt

Does my hon. Friend agree that a great deal of resentment has been occasioned in Northern Ireland by locally elected representatives of the various district councils being asked to sign an official declaration that they will not divulge information? Does he recognise that this is understandable in respect of civil servants but not where local authority people have been elected by popular mandate? Surely their right should not be infringed. From the knowledge we have gained in the House, does my hon. Friend agree that it would not he difficult, whether or not an official declaration is signed, for the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) to get the information that he has so often divulged in the House?

Mr. Carter

No other bodies have been asked to sign the Official Secrets Act, although its provisions have been drawn to the attention of the chairmen of a number of bodies. As for the last part of my hon. Friend's question, I have no knowledge of leaks that might have occurred and the information from them that has found its way to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley).

Mr. Molyneaux

As this practice would have the effect of muzzling the indirectly-elected members of the various bodies if it were extended, is that not a sound reason for suggesting that ultimate control of such bodies should be restored to directly-elected representatives?

Mr. Carter

That is a matter for the hon. Gentleman and his hon Friends to attempt to resolve.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is it the fact that drawing the attention of certain chair- men of boards to the Official Secrets Act is the beginning of insistence that the members of boards will have to sign the appropriate declaration? Is it not a fact that there was no talk about the Official Secrets Act until there was a scandal in the Housing Executive and many millions of pounds—this is now under investigation by the police—went into the hands of the Provisional IRA? Is is not the case that it was only then that the Official Secrets Act was brought in?

Mr. Carter

The hon. Gentleman is factually wrong. It had nothing to do with the revelations to which he refers. As for the extension of the Act to other bodies, I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), that there is no intention now of extending it.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Having heard the views that have been expressed strongly from both sides of the House, is the hon. Gentleman prepared to reconsider this matter? Should not distinction be drawn between officials and elected members of local authorities?

Mr. Carter

In the peculiar circumstances of Northern Ireland, many statutory bodies deal with functions which are normally in the hands of elected bodies here and in the rest of the United Kingdom. There was no demur on the part of individual members of the Housing Executive when they were asked to sign.

Mr. Aitken

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment.