HC Deb 12 January 1987 vol 108 cc13-6
51. Mr. Dubs

asked the Attorney-General how many prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act there have been since 1979.

52. Mr. Spearing

asked the Attorney-General if he will make a statement concerning recent consultations he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions concerning prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act.

54. Mr. Janner

asked the Attorney-General what recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions concerning cases currently under consideration involving alleged offences under the Official Secrets Act.

The Attorney-General (Sir Michael Havers)

Since 1979 there have been 16 prosecutions under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911, including two which were not proceeded with. During the same period there have been seven prosecutions under section 1, including one which was not proceeded with, and three under section 7 of the 1920 Act. Five cases under section 2 are presently pending before the courts.

The consent of the Attorney-General is required before any prosecution under the Official Secrets Acts may proceed, and this may be granted either on the basis of a written request by the Director of Public Prosecutions, or after a discussion. Recently I met the Director of Public Prosecutions and we discussed the various cases which are under consideration arising out of the Wright case and its wider aspects.

Mr. Dubs

Does it not seem that in recent years the motive in deciding whether there should be prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act was more to avoid political embarrassment than for any other reason? While I appreciate that, until the Wright case is over, the Attorney-General cannot make a full statement, would it not be right, when the case is completed, for him to make a full and frank statement to the House as to the basis on which future prosecutions under the Act will be carried out?

The Attorney-General

I refer the hon. Gentleman to a list published in answer to a question by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), on 15 December last year, which discloses the type of offence. There are too many cases of people who have for money given information that is subject to the Official Secrets Act, such as police officers who have given details of previous criminal offences and things of that kind. I intend to make a full statement the moment that I am able to do so.

Mr. Spearing

Is it not frequently the case that Governments, faced with the publication of unpalatable facts, engineer or promote the leakage of those facts from Select Committee or minority reports of Select Committees, or by other means? Bearing in mind the dual responsibilities of Law Officers of the Crown, political on the one hand and legal on the other, is it not a principle that their legal actions, particularly in matters relating to prosecutions, or lack of action relating to prosecutions, should be, and should be seen to be, wholly on the legal side of their functions?

The Attorney-General

I entirely agree with that. I assure the House that there is no question of a political basis for any decision that I or my right hon. and learned Friend have taken in any case under the Official Secrets Act.

Mr. Janner

Has the Attorney-General considered himself, or discussed with the Director of Public Prosecutions, the workings of this archaic and terrible old Act? For example, has he considered whether or not it would be a breach of the Act for information to be given to the public concerning the horrific dangers arising from the crashes of military convoys, such as that which occurred this weekend, about which public-spirited citizens saw fit to tell the public? Had they not done so, the public would not have known about the crash

The Attorney-General

The basis upon which I operate was given in an oral answer to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) as far back as 9 April 1984. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that in appropriate circumstances Ministers themselves can authorise disclosure.

Mr. Aitken

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Attorney-General of the day is frequently put in a virtually impossible position by the Act? On the one hand the Law Officers have a clear duty to enforce the law, while on the other, the law is so widely drafted that it is virtually unenforceable without bizarre selectivity in the exercise of the prosecutor's discretion. When my right hon. and learned Friend makes his statement, will he therefore place himself firmly on the side of the reformers of the Official Secrets Act?

The Attorney-General

Inevitably the decisions that I, the Director of Public Prosecutions and my right hon. and learned Friend have to take are sometimes described as political decisions. However, I assure the House that we look at each case entirely wearing our quasi-judicial hats. We are not influenced in any way by the political consequences. Sometimes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) said, one is put in an impossible position. However, we use our discretion and our best judgment.

Mr. Stanbrook

Despite the comparatively wide terms in which the Official Secrets Act is drafted, do not the figures revealed by my right hon. and learned Friend's original reply show that because the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions is required there is a proper balance between the public interest and the enforcement of the law in every case and that, given the discretion that can be exercised by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and in the absence of any serious suggestions for reform of the Act, the present system is working much better than one might have expected?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend must appreciate that it is primarily my decision, but always I am advised by the DPP, and in many cases I am also advised by counsel.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

And by the Prime Minister.

The Attorney-General

Certainly not. There is no question——

Mr. Skinner

The Prime Minister's dish cloth.

Mr. Speaker


The Attorney-General

Now that I have a moment to reply, there is no question, ever, in any single case under the Official Secrets Act or, indeed, in any case involving a criminal prosecution, of my having been ordered or directed in any way by the Prime Minister.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

I have no sympathy at all with those who reveal real state secrets, but the ludicrous Australian trial and the Official Secrets Act combined have not even preserved the Government's dignity in the Wright case. Will the Attorney-General confirm that if Wright were to decide to publish in Ireland, following the Miller case, the chances of successfully preventing publication would be very slight? In the light of that, is the House not entitled to a Government statement on the future of the Official Secrets Act? Once Mr. Justice Powell has announced his decision, will the Attorney-General make a full statement to the House about the Government's handling of the Wright case?

The Attorney-General

On the Australian case, I should have thought that it would be absolutely apparent to the hon. Gentleman that it involves a very important principle, namely, that those who promise to keep quiet for the rest of their lives should keep that promise. It is very interesting that I cannot find a single hon. Member, on either side of the House, who has received a letter complaining about that.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Can the Attorney-General tell the House if any useful purpose is served by prosecuting people who reveal matters of ancient history which can do no possible damage to the state and who, by reason of the threat of prosecution, feel driven to leave the United Kingdom?

The Attorney-General

Let us get the procedure clear. I am surprised that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not appreciate the position. The case in Australia is not a prosecution—it is civil proceedings for an injunction. Whether the person concerned left to go to Tasmania because of the book or for other reasons, I simply do not know. The principle remains, and it is one that we are determined to uphold.

53. Mr. Greenway

asked the Attorney-General what is the cost to date to public funds of the case being brought against publication of Mr. Wright's book in Australia; and if he will make a statement.

56. Mr. Teddy Taylor

asked the Attorney-General what has been the cost to public funds of the action taken against Mr. Peter Wright in the Australian courts; and if he will make a statement.

The Attorney-General

The total cost to public funds to date of the court action in Australia concerning the publication of a book by Mr. Peter Wright, including legal fees paid to date, and fares and subsistence for civil servants, is estimated to be of the order of £170,000.

Mr. Greenway

Even if counsel's fees considerably increased that figure, is not money spent in this way on proceedings against Mr. Wright necessary in order to deter ill-motivated ex-MI5 employees from damaging the security of the nation? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in future every ex-MI5 employee who breaks the Official Secrets Act should have all pension and emoluments ended forthwith?

The Attorney-General

I agree entirely with the first part of my hon. Friend's question, but the latter part of his question is not a matter for me.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

As there is now quite a lot of public money involved, will the Attorney-General tell us whether the action was taken because Mr. Wright broke the rules of confidentiality, or because the material in his proposed publication was considered damaging to national security?

The Attorney-General

The principal purpose of those proceedings is to preserve the principle that those who have promised to keep the secrets do so.