HC Deb 28 January 1988 vol 126 cc481-4 3.32 pm
Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on Government policy on changes to the Official Secrets Act.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

I gave the House an account of the Government's intentions in this respect, and of the issues which we are considering, in the debate on the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on 15 January. In my interview for the BBC "Analysis" programme to be broadcast tonight — during which I discuss in general terms the balance to be struck between the obligations of civil servants and the public's right to know—I set out again some of the ground which we are covering in our review of these matters. In particular, I gave examples of different types of information which might or might not require the protection of the criminal law. The analysis I offer is in accordance with the Franks report and has been common ground since 1972.

As the House knows, we hope to publish our proposals in a White Paper in June, and the House will have an opportunity to debate those proposals before the summer recess. My interview tonight—a full transcript of which I propose to place in the Library of the House—gives no details of our proposals.

Mr. Hattersley

Does the Home Secretary recall that during the dabate on official secrets 13 days ago he claimed that the Government had not yet decided on a new policy? He then went on to dismiss and deride as silly the idea that he or the Government should describe their interim conclusions. Why has he now agreed to say in a broadcast what he refused to say in the House? Does he not realise that by announcing on the BBC, rather than in the House, that the Government do not support the parliamentary oversight of the security services he is guilty of arrogance, which amounts to contempt or to bone-headed stupidity? Will the right hon. Gentleman begin by telling us which it was?

Does the Secretary of State also understand that the central theme of his broadcast — the division of Government information into different categories of sensitivity—is so near to the principle of the Shepherd Bill, the Protection of Official Information Bill, that, had he made his position clear a week last Friday rather than last night, the passage of the Bill through the House would have been absolutely irresistible? We assume that that is why he chose to say it on the radio rather than in the proper place, which is the House.

How many of the ideas that the Home Secretary advanced in his broadcast were canvassed in those parts of his Commons speech which he first circulated to the press and then cut out or had cut out of his speech before it was delivered?

Finally, why does the Home Secretary demean himself in all these ways to pander to the Prime Minister's obsession that the security services are her personal and private property?

Mr. Hurd

In the interview tonight I simply repeat the arguments that I used in the House when we debated the supervision of the security forces a year ago when the right hon. Gentleman had different responsibilities — [Interruption.] On Friday 15 January we were discussing the Official Secrets Act. The right hon. Gentleman is talking about the supervision of the security services. If he looks up what I said in the debate when we discussed that particular matter, he will see that the two are the same.

In our debate on 15 January I sketched out the areas that the Government, and then the House, would need to define for protection from the criminal law. That is exactly what I shall do again in the broadcast tonight. I am not defining Government proposals in any detail. If the right hon. Gentleman and the House were able to establish that I was doing that, I would indeed be guilty of discourtesy to the House. When he, or any hon. Member who is interested, looks at the full transcript of the interview, he will see that I did not do that.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

How will my right hon. Friend canvass the views of the House in respect of ministerial certificate and public interest defence?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend has written to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister putting forward one suggestion. I am anxious, in the interval that exists now, before we publish the White Paper, when we are completing our own review and thereafter when the House will debate the White Paper, to obtain the views of as many right hon. and hon. Members as possible. I do not think that they will be particularly slow in putting them forward.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

The Home Secretary says that he is anxious to discover the views of a wide variety of people on the various issues with which I understand he did not deal in the broadcast, about methods of classification, going to the courts and so on. Why not formalise that before the White Paper so that people can perhaps appear before a Select Committee on very difficult issues? That would save time and enable the Government to act with all-party support.

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman put forward that suggestion in our debate. My feeling, which has been reinforced since then, is that the sensible and logical way to proceed is for the Government to set out their proposals in the White Paper and then for the House to debate it. But in the background to that there will be a continuous exchange of views and ideas, such as the right hon. Gentleman favours. Anyone who looks at the transcript of the "Analysis" broadcast will see the stress that I constantly put on the responsibility of the House in deciding these matters.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Does my right hon. Friend expect that the Committee stage of any legislation which might result from the White Paper and the subsequent debate will be taken on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Hurd

We have not got as far as that, but I take account of the implication of my right hon. Friend's question.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Are the presss reports correct that the Home Secretary proposes to divide official information into roughly three categories? If so, is that not exactly the same as the principle of the Shepherd Bill which he was so determined to defeat?

Mr. Hurd

In the interview tonight I draw on the basic analysis which stems from the Franks report. I do not put forward detailed proposals; I set out an analysis which has been common ground for a long time. It was not on those grounds that we disagreed with the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the accuracy of the statements made in the BBC news release yesterday, which has been widely reported in one leading national newspaper of record?

Mr. Hurd

It may be that which has led the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) astray. I was somewhat surprised to read, when I was told of this yesterday, that, according to the BBC handout, I was tonight going to talk for the first time in detail about the forthcoming White Paper. Any listener who tunes in tonight in that expectation may well ask for his licence fee back.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

Will my right hon. Friend go further than that and completely ignore the vapourings of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley)? Will he roundly condemn the double-handed attitude of the BBC in so disgracefully releasing a false prospectus about his performance tonight?

Mr. Hurd

I have commented on the BBC. The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook has to bestir himself; we understand that. The immediate threat may have passed but he has to keep agile and on his pins. I do not blame him for that. I just think that it would be sensible if he were to establish all the facts and looked at the transcript before preparing his adjectives on the matter.

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

Is there not a strange inconsistency in the Government's position in that they can ban a programme, "My Country, Right or Wrong", which contains contributions from a number of hon. Members, including myself—[Interruption.] Yes, our contributions were banned — while, on the other hand, the Home Secretary can take part in this programme, and all this information, which is probably very little different from the areas that I was discussing, can be included and transmitted?

Furthermore, can we have an assurance that when the Minister finally publishes his proposals for reform of the law it will enable us to find out whether it is true that Britain's security services worked with the American security services to undermine the position of Gough Whitlam in Australia?

Mr. Hurd

I have no intention of answering the second point.

On the first point, I do not want to humiliate the hon. Member, but I do not think that it was because of his contribution that action was taken against the programme that he mentioned.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his spirited public interest defence of the leaks in tonight's programme, but will he not understand that there is at least an appearance of illogicality between the position that he took up at the Dispatch Box in the debate of 15 January, which resembled that of a Trappist monk unable to say a single word about the Government's plans on official secrets law reform, and the apparent revelations in tonight's broadcast? If my right hon. Friend goes on like this, he may be up on a charge under section 2.

Mr. Hurd

No. My hon. Friend has laboured that a little, as he did on the wireless this morning. I will simply ask him, when he has the time, to look at the transcript in the Library and to compare it with my speech at columns 585–86 of Hansard on 15 January. He will see similar thoughts there, a description of the area that must be defined and the terrain which must be covered.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have regard to the fact that we have business questions, a statement, a ballot for notices of motions and other business before the Merchant Shipping Bill.