HC Deb 22 January 1985 vol 71 cc884-5 4.52 pm
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911; and for connected purposes.

For many years, there have been strong arid telling criticisms of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. Lord Scarman, in his recent Guildhall lecture, said that it should go. Twelve years ago, the Franks committee described it as "a mess". Shortly before that, Mr. Justice Caulfield, in his summing-up at the conclusion of the Sunday Telegraph case, remarked to the jury that they might well feel it was time for the Act to be "pensioned off". Only a few years ago, the Home Secretary told the House that the section was "simply indefensible". They were absolutely right in condemning section 2 of the Act then, and they would still be right now.

I am impelled to place this issue before the House today because one of my constituents faces prosecution next week under section 2. Following earlier discussions this afternoon, I cannot, of course, comment directly on the Clive Ponting case because of the sub judice rules of the House. It is sad that we are prevented by those rules from questioning further the issue of the case and the way in which it is to be handled. However, I must accept your ruling, Mr. Speaker.

I must make a number of extremely important general points. We should remember the circumstances in which the 1911 Act reached the statute book. It passed through all its stages in the House of Commons, including Committee, in about 45 minutes. It was presented to the House as a minor amendment to legislation. The Attorney-General of the day said: There is nothing novel in the principle of the Bill".—[Official Report, 18 August 1911; Vol. 29, c. 2252.] The Under-Secretary of State for War told the House that the actual change in the law was "slight". They were wrong. Section 2 embodied a major change in the law which fundamentally affected, and still affects. the liberties of those citizens who work in the Civil Service and the ability of all of us to know what they are doing. The rushed manner in which the Bill became law reflected no credit on any of those who allowed it to happen, although I am pleased to note that the 10 hon. Members who voted against the measure on Report in 1911 included Keir Hardie and his Labour colleagues.

Section 2 was not mentioned at any stage during the Bill's passage. It is a catch-all section, covering potentially any piece of paper that ever crosses a civil servant's desk, any discussion held or action taken and any establishment owned or run by the Government. It is clearly absurd to have such a broad sweep of prohibition against contact with the public, with criminal prosecution and potential imprisonment facing civil servants where ordinary disciplinary procedures under codes of employment would be appropriate, if any action at all were needed.

I am not arguing that national security should not be protected in law. It should, and the provisions of section 1 of the Act—which purports to deal with spying—should be tightened up to ensure that that is achieved. Section 2 is not needed for the protection of genuine national security matters. It can, in fact, be used by Governments of any political persuasion for purposes that may well run counter to the national interest.

The danger that is inherent in section 2 is not so much that its use—which is subject to the Attorney-General's decision—might be over completely trivial matters, although it remains an absurdity to have a law that does cover so much trivia. The danger is that Governments—again, this applies to all Governments, of whatever party—may use this section of the Act for political purposes that have no connection with the protection of national security. For example, they may wish to avoid embarrassment over the actions of particular Ministers. They may wish to clamp down on leaks that are politically but not nationally damaging. They may wish to obtain warrants for the search of pressure group premises. This section of the Act permits them to do so, and it should not.

It is worth noting in this connection that there has been a worrying resurgence in recent months in the use or threatened use of section 2 of the Act. Sarah Tisdall has not been alone in feeling its brunt. From 1916 to 1982 there had been only 38 prosecutions under the section. Parliament should be concerned when such a discredited piece of law is wheeled out so vigorously again.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, repeal of section 2 is a prerequisite for the necessary task of opening up the processes of government to wider public scrutiny and knowledge. There is far too much secrecy in government in this country. Before freedom of information can ever become a reality, this particular piece of legislation must go.

We are a democracy. It is surely right that the public—the voters—who supposedly hold the ultimate power over all of us should know to the fullest possible extent what is going on in government on their behalf—the facts, the options being considered, the decisions taken.

It is with that aim in mind that I urge the House to take this first but necessary step along the road to greater openness in government, greater access to knowledge for the citizen and greater liberty for us all.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Chris Smith, Mr. Jonathan Aitken, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Alex Carlile, Mr. Tam Dalyell, Mr. Alf Dubs, Mr. Michael Foot, Ms Harriet Harman, Mr. Robert Maclennan, Mr. Matthew Parris, Mr. Merlyn Rees and Ms Jo Richardson.