HC Deb 16 March 1987 vol 112 cc693-7 3.32 pm

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

To ask the Attorney-General if he is now in a position to make a statement on the Wright court case in Australia.

The Attorney-General (Sir Michael Havers)

The principle which the Government are seeking to uphold is clear. Having considered Mr. Justice Powell's judgment and the advice of Australian counsel, the Government have decided to appeal against it. A notice of appeal will be lodged as soon as practicable.

Mr. Winnick

Is the Attorney-General aware that many people believe that it is simply a further waste of taxpayers' money to pursue the appeal in Australia? Is he aware also that the Opposition are concerned not about the tittle tattle of the memoirs—we all know that Wright is a very embittered individual—but about the need to ensure that there is adequate parliamentary scrutiny of the security services? In view of the allegations that a Labour Government were destabilised—at least at certain stages—by the Security Service, will there be a clear promise that there will be a full judicial inquiry into those allegations?

The Attorney-General

I have no power to give any such undertaking. That is not a matter for me. I remind the House of what the Prime Minister of the day said. He said that, after conducting detailed inquiries, he was satisfied that the allegations about the Security Service did not constitute grounds for lack of condifence in the competence and impartiality of the Security Service or for instituting a special inquiry.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if the Government had done nothing to try to stop those who are entrusted with the nation's secrets from betraying those secrets for money they would have been subject to the accusation of having shown the grossest irresponsibility? Do we in this country not have reason to believe that a system of justice founded upon our system will uphold the principle of confidentiality?

The Attorney-General

Those are certainly matters that the Ministers concerned took very much into consideration when reaching the decision to start the proceedings in Australia.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

May I refer the Attorney-General to the answers that he has given twice today about the inquiry that took place in the summer of 1977, in which I played a part? The statement to which he referred, of which I have a copy, reads: The Home Secretary, as the Minister to whom the Security Service is responsible, has been closely involved in the enquiries". We were not inquiring into the allegations that are now made by Wright and by others. We were inquiring into alleged electronic devices at No. 10, and it was on that issue that the then Prime Minister issued his statement, in which I played a part.

None of that information would be provided to the Attorney-General. None of that information would be provided to the Home Secretary of today. None of that would be provided to the Prime Minister. It is a convention—I note that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is nodding in agreement—that none of that information is provided to a later Government. I am satisfied that the information about the Wright allegations and other allegations is not referred to in the inquiry. When Ministers, including the Attorney-General, say that the Prime Minister of the day dealt with it in his statement, I can say that he did not, and neither did I. They are different allegations, and unless an inquiry is set up—this is an exercise by dissident members of MI5 and not a question of national security—I shall get at the root of it whatever happens. The Government had better remember that.

The Attorney-General

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not suggest for a moment, as he has made clear, that the Government are seeking to mislead in any way.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

indicated assent

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Misleading! Come clean to the House.

The Attorney-General

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgement—

Mr. Skinner

Come clean.

Mr. Christopher Soames (Crawley)

Shut up.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) must not interrupt like that.

Mr. Skinner

Why do you not mention Bunter, Mr. Speaker? Why do you not get stuck into Bunter, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker


The Attorney-General

As the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) has said, we do not have access to any of the papers that were considered by him and the then Prime Minister. I shall, however, ensure that what he has said is drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

I warmly welcome the statement that the Government are to appeal in the Wright case. Many in the House believe that the Government are right so to do and that there is no alternative but to take that course. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if the operations of the secret service must remain secret, the means by which it is controlled must remain the responsibility of the Government of the day and cannot be delegated to any other body?

The Attorney-General

That has been the convention for a very long time. That is why questions about security are usually not allowed by the Table Office. I agree with everything that my right hon. and learned Friend has said.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Is the Attorney-General aware that I am sure that both sides of the House agree with the principle that no one who has worked in MI5, either present or retired, should be free to publish what he wishes? The question of accountability of MI5, however, and what appear to be fairly widespread illegal practices are causing great concern. Will the Attorney-General, who is answerable on this issue to the House, explain why he was not involved in the decision not to prosecute Mr. Chapman Pincher six weeks before the book was published? Did that decision relate to the fact that the book had been stolen? Will the Attorney-General tell the House also why no action was taken against Mr. Peter Wright when he appeared on television?

Both those events occurred in Britain, and surely it is better to proceed on that basis than to go on digging a deeper hole, when one is deep enough in it already, down in Australia. Surely we should deal with the issues for which we are responsible and for which the Attorney-General is responsible, which preceded what happened in Australia by a couple of years.

The Attorney-General

I well understand the anxieties that have been expressed by the right hon. Gentleman. I was not consulted, and therefore I am unable to comment on why I was not, and that is clear.

As to the rest of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I am still bound by the obligation that was imposed on me earlier, because this morning I consulted counsel in Australia and was told that I cannot make any full or detailed statement until the appeal is over.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

As the confusion over the Wright case seems to be deepening with all these announcements, will my right hon. and learned Friend take note of the view that, by his announcement today, he may be pursuing a good principle, but by the wrong method? Instead of spending the best part of £1 million of taxpayers' money on what I fear will be a vain attempt to persuade the Australian courts to uphold Britain's narrow view of the Official Secrets Act, will my right hon. and learned Friend and his advisers concentrate on the higher priority, which is to ensure that all present and future members of the security services are given binding and enforceable contracts of employment, the breach of which makes them clearly liable to damages and loss of their pension rights if they dishonour their obligations of confidentiality?

The Attorney-General

One of the decisions of the learned judge, Mr. Justice Powell, was whether there was an enforceable contract, which almost certainly will be one of the grounds of appeal.

Is this a vain attempt? No, Sir. We do not accept that it is a vain attempt. I would not agree to any appeal unless I felt confident that there was a proper chance of success. That is why we have taken this decision.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Why does the Attorney-General not take up the offer that was repeatedly made by Mr. Turnbull last week, that he was willing to do a deal with the Attorney-General on the content of the book and exclude any material which the Attorney-General felt breached national security, with one proviso, that the material that Wright has produced on the destabilisation of Labour be published? Surely it is in the public interest that that be made available?

Why did the Attorney-General go through his agent, on bended knee, to the judge in the Australian court, insisting that the affidavit of Mr. Wright which dealt with the destabilisation of Labour be taken in secret behind closed doors? Why was that area of his affidavit not made available in the public domain so that the whole world could learn what happened during the mid-1970s?

The Attorney-General

A great deal of the book remains, in the view of Her Majesty's Government, a matter of confidence. On those occasions there was no question of going on bended knee to the judge. On the occasions that it was clear to anybody looking at a passage that it was a matter of confidence, the proceedings were heard in camera. There was no question of having to go on bended knee. I am sorry, but I have forgotten the first point.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

The deal with Turnbull.

The Attorney-General

Again, the hon. Gentleman has failed to understand the principle, which I thought we had repeated so many times that it would be clear to anybody. The principle is that we need to uphold a promise that is made by those employed in the intelligence services that they will not, at any time, disclose anything that they have learnt in confidence. We cannot have a settlement, because if we achieve a settlement we shall be in breach of that principle.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend considered that the reason why the Australian courts take a different view of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act is that they have a Freedom of Information Act, which effectively has replaced the Official Secrets Act? Is that not the direction that we should be taking? Should we not get rid of section 2 and replace it with a Freedom of Information Act that will say what can and cannot be published.

The Attorney-General

Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act played no part in our conduct of this case in Australia. As to the second matter, my hon. Friend will know that in 1979 we sought to improve section 2 but that that proposal did not meet with favour. Ultimately, that must be a question for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Is the Attorney-General aware that a large number of people inside and outside the House will regard the Government's decision to appeal as little more than a delaying mechanism to prevent any further discussion of the matter this side of the general election?

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that taxpayers' interests are at stake? Can he tell the House the total estimated cost to the taxpayer of this farce? In the light of what has happened to the Liverpool councillors, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that he and the Prime Minister should be surcharged if the appeal fails?

The Attorney-General

The councillors would have been in a much stronger position if they had acted on, instead of against, legal advice.

The hon. Gentleman talks about people outside. For the third time at Question Time I must tell the House that I have received not a single letter from any member of the British public about our taking action in Australia. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman reads something into the issue in which the British public do not believe. I think that they believe in the principle that we accept.

What the hon. Gentleman said about a delaying mechanism is nonsense. I am confident that we have a better than even chance of success. As I said to the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) on the last occasion when I was able to attend Question Time, I am longing for the opportunity to make that statement, and I still am.

Sir Ian Percival (Southport)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the majority of people in this country understand and support his desire to uphold the principle that, in the interests of national security, secrets are secrets and should not be sold for money by those to whom they are entrusted in the course of their duties?

The Attorney-General

I do not wish to comment myself, but I believe that to be the view of the British public.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

Which is the weightiest principle in the Government's mind—failing to recognise inconsistency delaying other cases, or kicking the ball for touch until after the next election?

Who takes the decisions—the Law Officers or the Prime Minister? Alternatively, was it on the Attorney-General's advice that it was decided to sue in Australia as well as in relation to Miss Miller's book in Ireland? Why was the Attorney-General not consulted about the decision not to act in Pincher's case? Was it because the book's proofs were obtained illegally? Having failed to ban such books in Australia and in Ireland, has the right hon. and learned Gentleman considered that even if he were to win in Australia he would fail to ban publication in Ireland or America?

The Attorney-General

The right hon. and learned Gentleman listens too much to gossip. He talks about weighty principles and kicking the ball for touch. That is one way to put it, but I have now told the House not once, but three times, that I am satisfied that our chances of success are sufficient to justify an appeal. There is no question of taking a deliberate political decision in order to get past the next election. This is a ministerial, collective decision on which the Attorney-General advises.