HC Deb 09 April 1984 vol 58 cc13-5
37. Mr. Winnick

asked the Attorney-General if he will list the criteria used for deciding whether to prosecute under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act.

The Attorney-General

I take my decisions on the basis, first, of an objective assessment of whether sufficient evidence is available to prove the offence. On this and on other aspects of the case I, of course, have the advantage of the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Having satisfied myself on that, I then consider whether, in the particular case, the public interest requires a prosecution. I have no hard and fast rules. Each case is judged on its own particular facts and with special regard to the circumstances both of the alleged offence and of the alleged offender. This is simply an application of my general guidelines on the criteria for prosecution which I issued in March last year and a copy of which is in the Library. Official Secrets Act cases receive no different treatment.

Mr. Winnick

Is the Attorney-General aware that there will be much disappointment about the refusal of the judges to permit Sarah Tisdall permission to appeal against an unjust and unnecessary sentence? How does the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain his attitude to section 2 of the Official Secrets act when he was in opposition and the manner in which a clearly politically motivated prosecution was brought in this case? Was Sarah Tisdall's real offence that she objected to Parliament being deceived over the delivery of cruise missiles to this country?

The Attorney-General

I suspected that the hon. Gentleman would say that the prosecution was "politically motivated". Whether Franks, the 1889 Act or the 1911 Act had been in operation, it would have been an offence just the same. What Miss Tisdall did was a grave breach of trust. She lied a number of times about what she had done and sought to blame her colleagues for her own crimes. I decided that the case should be tried at the Central Criminal Court, and today the Court of Appeal has upheld the decision of the trial judge.

Mr. Stanbrook

Although the recent prosecution and sentence in the Tisdall case were fully justified in all the circumstances, is it not a fact that not all confidential information in the Government's possession needs the protection of the criminal law? Will my right hon. and learned Friend therefore consider whether we have got it right in the present law?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend will recall that in 1979 we tried to legislate in respect of the Franks report. It went through some stages in the other House, but there was a concerted attack on it by Fleet street and many other organisations and it was withdrawn. Recently my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that the Government have no intention of introducing further legislation on the subject.

Mr. John Morris

During the weekend the Attorney-General stressed the need for reasonable consensus in law reform. Does he recognise that there is a growing consensus for reform of the catch-all effects of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, which the Franks committee described as a mess? Should not the Government seize this nettle and accept that, in a democratic society, there should be provision to protect only such of the Government's information that can be proved to require protection? Does he further agree that the Government should not continue to demand coverage of such a wide umbrella, which has been described as a blot on the statute book and results, unhappily, in many people questioning the need for protection at all?

The Attorney-General

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will take the time and trouble to examine the cases that have been brought under section 2 since I have been Attorney-General, he will find that each was absolutely justified. The catch-all provisions are dangerous only when employed by a Government to prosecute the type of case that he described when such prosecutions are unnecessary. I am pround of my record during the five years that I have been Attorney-General. I have used section 2 sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.

Mr. Mark Carlisle

Although I do not dispute the need to re-examine section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, will my right hon. and learned Friend, in view of the comments of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), take the opportunity this afternoon to reiterate that individual sentences must be matters for individual members of the judiciary and the courts? It would be disastrous if the House attempted to impose its views on matters such as whether the sentence is too harsh or too lenient.

The Attorney-General

My right hon. and learned Friend, whom I welcome back, is right. He will have noticed that I did not refer to sentences when the original question was put to me. It is an important part of our constitution that the Executive and the judiciary are kept entirely separate. It would be quite wrong for any Government to comment on sentencing, as that could damage the independence of the judiciary, on which we pride ourselves.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

If there is to be no reform of the Official Secrets Act—it is a difficult matter—will the Attorney-General examine the report of the Franks committee, on which I served 12 years ago, which devoted much time to classification, which is a subjective rather than an objective matter? Even if there is to be no reform of the legislation, surely the Government could consider classification, which I am sure plays a part in the nature of the sentence if the classification is too high.

The Attorney-General

I entirely understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. I refreshed my memory on the Franks report this morning. According to proposal No. 6, it is quite clear that, even if we had implemented Franks by statute, the offence by the girl in question would still have been an offence. However, that is not a matter for me, as the right hon. Gentleman, as a former Home Secretary, knows. I shall ensure that his comments are drawn to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

38. Mr. Dubs

asked the Attorney-General how many people have been proceeded against under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act since 1979.

The Attorney-General

Approaching such cases on the basis that I outlined in my answer to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), there have been 14 prosecutions under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 since 1979.

Mr. Dubs

Is it not a fact that the case of Sarah Tisdall differs from the others which the Attorney-General has mentioned in that no damage whatever was done to British security, even if it caused major embarrassment to the British Government? Is it not wrong in principle that section 2 should be used in that way and that we have an offence which in the United States and other countries is not an offence but is part of the rights of citizens in a democratic society to know the facts about their Government?

The Attorney-General

As I read the Franks report and understand the law in other countries, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The classification of documents —a matter raised by the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees)—depends on the position when the classification was imposed. The position at the time of trial, as the Franks report pointed out, is irrelevant. When the Ministry of Defence classified the documents as secret, it was obvious for security reasons that plans for the movement of nuclear weapons should be kept secret. Their disclosure on the occasion in question could have heightened the risk of attempts by people opposed to the deployment of cruise missiles to interrupt the deliveries, thus increasing the risk of possible violent confrontation between security forces and demonstrators. It was also potentially a major source of embarrassment to us in our relations with those allies who were consulted about the timetable.

In retrospect — I am referring to the damage assessment given to the court at the Old Bailey when Sarah Tisdall stood trial—because of some quick alterations in planning and timing by the Ministry of Defence, those expected damages, for which the classification was applied, did not occur.

Mr. Jerry Hayes

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I shall take points of order after Question Time.