HC Deb 20 July 1987 vol 120 cc15-6
58. Mr. Campbell-Savours

asked the Attorney-General how many prosecutions under the Official Secrets Acts he has instituted in 1987.

The Attorney-General

Since becoming Attorney-General I have not consented to any such prosecution.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

If Wright's allegations have damaged the security service, which was part of Sir Robert Armstrong's case in the Australian courts, why have no prosecutions under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act been brought against The Observer, The Guardian, the Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times, the Daily Mirror, the London Daily News and The London Evening Standard? Could the answer be that the Attorney-General knows that when he brings proceedings for criminal contempt and injunctions there are no juries to adjudicate and examine those matters, whereas if he brings the case under the Official Secrets Act there will be a jury and he knows well that the courts and the juries would simply reject his whole case?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman is very ingenious at constructing any number of potential reasons for the exercise of the discretion of the Law Officers. These are matters for discretion and, at present, I take responsibility for them.

Mr. Aitken

Given the tidal wave of legal actions that are now going on around the world on such issues as what is and is not an official secret, or what the press may or may not publish, does it not worry my right hon. and learned Friend that these issues are being resolved and new law being made ostensibly by the judges while Parliament declines to reform the now discredited Official Secrets Act? Surely it is time for Parliament to make the rules and draw the lines in clear places.

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend is aware that responsibility for any reform of the Official Secrets Act lies with my hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Equally, he knows that the predecessor Conservative Government attempted that reform, but it did not find favour in the House of Lords. Meanwhile, the Attorney-General, as first Law Officer of the Crown, has a duty to ensure that the due administration of justice is not interfered with. The Government, collectively, have the responsibility to take such steps as seem appropriate to protect the duty of confidentiality owed by former members of the secret service.

Mr. Beith

When are the Government going to cut their losses on the Peter Wright case and recognise that the amount of material already available and the significance of the issues raised totally outweigh the Government's capacity, now virtually non-existent, to strengthen the issue of confidentiality by further legal proceedings?

The Attorney-General

I am criticised for losing in the courts—as I was by the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) on "Newsnight" last Tuesday —and I am criticised for winning, as I did in the Court of Appeal on Wednesday. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's question can be answered until we see whether, and if so to what extent, the Government have lost.

Mr. Favell

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Mr. Peter Wright is regarded by many people in this country as a squalid little man who has betrayed his oath and now will betray his country, and that others should be deterred from doing exactly the same thing?

The Attorney-General

I must hold to the practice of myself and my immediate predecessor of not commenting on matters that remain in issue in the Australian proceedings.

Mr. John Morris

While I would expect the Attorney-General to say that the Prime Minister has no hand in prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act, can he give the same assurance regarding the inference that, had the Court of Appeal ruled against the Government last week the Prime Minister would have instructed him to obtain an injunction against The Sunday Times, and the further inference that could be drawn from the Treasury solicitor's call to Theodore Goddard, The Sunday Times solicitor? Do the inferences that the Prime Minister was involved have no basis?

The Attorney-General

I can answer that question clearly by referring the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the written answer given to him on 8 December last year by my immediate predecessor. In matters that relate to proceedings of a criminal nature, which embraces criminal contempt, proceedings and the question whether to take them are entirely a matter for the Attorney-General. The proceedings that I took on Sunday last and Thursday last week fell into that category. They were taken by me without reference to the Prime Minister or any other Minister. Civil proceedings to protect by injunction the duty of confidentiality, to which I referred this afternoon, are a matter for the Government collectively. The Prime Minister, other Ministers and myself properly have a say in those matters.