HC Deb 06 December 1995 vol 268 cc420-4
Mr. Cohen

I beg to move amendment No. 4, page 18, line 24, at end insert—

'(d) knowingly makes a false or misleading statement to any member of the inspection team or of the in-country escort, or the observer, in the conduct of that inspection in accordance with the verification annex.'. I am quite keen on this amendment, which is about offences in connection with inspections. At the moment, there are three main categories of offence—refusing to comply; interfering with any object, for example a container; or wilfully obstructing. There should be a fourth category, to deal with someone who knowingly makes a false or misleading statement to any member of the inspection team or to the in-country escort or the observer during the conduct of that inspection in accordance with the verification annex.

During an inspection, it is vital that the correct information is presented to the inspection team. The Bill would not make the giving of false or misleading statements an offence, and that is wrong. Clause 26(1)(c) covers only physical obstruction, and does not cover false or misleading statements.

I have looked up a couple of Acts in which this issue is raised. Section 33(1)(a) of the Food Safety Act 1990 refers to a person who

intentionally obstructs any person acting in the execution of this Act;". That covers wilful obstruction. Section 33(2)(a) of that same Act refers to someone who

furnishes information which he knows to be false or misleading in a material particular;". Plainly, earlier legislation drew the distinction between wilful obstruction and the furnishing of false information. That means that the distinction has been recognised by the Government.

Section 35(1)(a) of the Radioactive Substances Act 1993 refers to any person who

intentionally obstructs an inspector or other person in the exercise of any powers conferred by section 31,". That again relates to wilful obstruction, but section 35(1)(b) says that a person who

refuses or without reasonable excuse fails to provide facilities or assistance or any information or to permit any inspection reasonably required by an inspector or other person under that section, shall be guilty of an offence. That again shows that we need to go beyond wilful obstruction in which false and misleading information is a factor. Clause 23 of the Bill would make it an offence for anybody knowingly to make a false or misleading statement to the Government. The same should apply to the inspection team. I was too late in suggesting that when the Act which implemented the treaty on conventional forces in Europe was going through the House. It did not appear in the Act, although the Minister responsible for the legislation said that he would look at it. It should have been incorporated. It is not right that anyone should be able to lie to an inspector from wherever he comes, or mislead him, and not be committing an offence. We should make it clear that such conduct is an offence, and if the amendment is accepted, that can be shown. I hope that the Minister will accept the logic of that, and the logic of previous legislation, and accept the amendment.

Mr. Dalyell

I am concerned about the role of the organisation at The Hague in all this, and about what is said to the central body. That issue among others was raised by the Royal Society of Chemistry. For the convenience of the Minister and his officials, I shall read from page 9 of the briefing of 28 November which I know has been sent to the Department. It states:

The regular returns of industrial data on Schedule-2 and Schedule-3 chemicals will take their place alongside various other declarations of data to the OPCW Technical Secretariat which the Convention requires of States Parties. Gathering the data and then transmitting appropriate aggregations to The Hague will be one of the two main occupations of the National Authorities. (The other main occupation will be preparing for, and liaising with, visiting OPCW inspectors who have been asked either to validate declared data by routine on-site inspection or to perform challenge inspections.) Some of the declarations are needed only once, for example the declarations of historical information on past chemical weapons activities. Other types of declaration, including the industrial data, are to be submitted each year … HMG informed Parliament as follows, in a written Defence Ministry answer on 22 November 1995: 'Details of UK's declarations required under the chemical weapons convention will be made available to the public when they are passed to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) has rightly asked about the national situation I am sure also apply to the international situation. One wonders what powers, if any, the organisation of The Hague has to ensure that it is not being deceived or lied to.

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Mr. Oppenheim

That really resides with national Governments, who have an obligation under the convention to ensure that there is full and open reporting.

I agree with the logic of the argument of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). I think, however, that it is a matter of degree. I shall try to explain the different situations that might arise.

For example, it would be extreme to penalise a person who might just be a plant worker who knows little about the chemical weapons convention, and who may not have been warned formally not to make a misleading or false statement, especially bearing in mind that the inspectors may well be international and not UK citizens, which might lead to some confusion.

Also, given that the chemical industry competes internationally, plant workers might be keen not to breach commercial confidentiality, which is understandable. When genuine mistakes are made and they are not significant, we must have the scope and flexibility not to prosecute, especially where people will be making statements without being either under oath or under caution.

I emphasise that we would leave ourselves scope to prosecute any significant breach of faith, misleading information or covering up. We just do not want to be obliged to prosecute for every little technical offence, which might well be non-malicious.

In serious cases, the Bill clearly makes it an offence to give false information in response to a notice served under clause 22. In that case, it is quite proper that there should he a penalty, as the recipient will have been clearly warned that it is an offence to give false information in response to the notice. Where the provision of false information amounts to obstruction, an offence may also be committed under clause 26.

We do not want to have to prosecute every tiny, technical, insignificant offence. Quite clearly, we will prosecute major offences and instances in which misleading information has been given in order to mislead and is significant.

Mr. Cohen

I hear what the Minister says. I do not want to prosecute every minor matter, either, but that would not be the consequence of my amendment. Omitting the point about false and misleading information would open up quite a serious loophole. I am not going to press the amendment to a vote. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) is going to intervene.

I certainly think that the Minister should look at the matter, because it relates to inspections. He has taken the power for himself in an earlier clause about the provision of information about chemical weapons, and it is important that that same power should be given to the inspection teams, so that they can be assured that they are receiving information in good faith. They have a limited time under the convention to carry out their inspections. Any misleading information could point them in the wrong direction and take up that time. That would be very serious, in my view.

Although I shall not press the amendment, I will not withdraw it yet, either, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride is about to comment. I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter. Perhaps, when he brings forward the regulations under clause 23, he will consider tightening up those covering inspections, while obviously granting himself the power not to have to prosecute in every case. I do not want that—nobody in the House wants that.

Mr. Ingram

Obviously the amendment has provoked a little interest. I was neutral on the matter, and waited to hear the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton has made a very strong case in support of his amendment, and has accepted some of the Minister's points about being careful to avoid punishing every slight indiscretion. But we should remember that that is not what is being sought.

The amendment says that a person is guilty if he

knowingly makes a false or misleading statement. When someone knowingly does that, they have clearly done something wrong, and should not be allowed to do so, as the Minister was suggesting, because they were acting in the interests of their company's commercial confidentiality. That is a very dangerous route to go down.

Is the Minister arguing that, because commercial confidentiality is involved, people can tell lies on behalf of their company? I hope that that is not what he is saying in the context of the Bill, because it would have wide-ranging implications. I certainly hope that he is not saying, in the case of any Government legislation, that people can knowingly mislead or give false information which is tantamount to the perpetration of a crime. If the Minister is advancing that principle, it is totally wrong.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for not yet withdrawing his amendment, and for the fact that he has asked the Minister the right question. I suggest that the Minister take the amendment away and look at it. There will be time during consideration in the other place to take account of all the points made. But if the Government still feel strongly at that stage that they not do want to accept the amendment, they could argue their case if the matter is raised.

Clearly there is merit in my hon. Friend's arguments. I do not, however, think that the Minister's arguments are wholly satisfactory. The best solution is to put the matter on the back burner; let us consider it further. That would help the understanding and progress of the Bill in another place.

Mr. Dalyell

It may well be that the Minister is being only realistic when he says that it is a matter for the nation states. Do we then take it that, in fact, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has virtually no powers at all? If so, how does it set about trying to impose what it believes to be right? I think that it is very difficult.

Mr. Oppenhiem

There will be scope for the House of Lords to reconsider the matter if it proves to be a problem. The feeling that we have, though, is that the Bill has sufficient powers. It is a matter of degree. I think that I have made it clear that we would expect prosecutions to occur when significant misleading statements are made.

The hon. Member for Leyton should consider the scenario of a foreign inspection team visiting a factory, where someone at that factory is not under oath, is not given a warning, is asked a question that may not be very significant, and, yes, may, eve knowingly give a wrong answer without really considering the implications. We want the scope to allow people to do that, because people are fallible.

Someone who does not necessarily speak the best English may visit a factory and ask a plant worker questions. The worker may be a little concerned, not know the implications and not be totally au fait with every aspect of the Bill. Questions may even be asked about chemicals which the plant worker does not necessarily know are dangerous. Some of the chemicals in the lower schedules are not obviously dangerous. We want to allow scope not to prosecute under those circumstances.

I should, however, like to make it clear that, when people are under oath and have been warned, and then make knowingly misleading statements, they will be prosecuted. Even if a warning had not been issued, there would be scope to prosecute people who knowingly make misleading statements which are significant and detrimental to the working of the convention. Although I would like to leave it like that, there will be an opportunity in the other place, should there be genuine concern, to amend the Bill.

Mr. Cohen

I again appreciate what the Minister has said. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride for reminding me that the amendment refers to people knowingly making misleading statements. Nobody wants to punish genuine mistakes to which the Minister has referred. But quite a dangerous loophole is opening up, which could undermine the inspection process. I do not think that we should let that come about.

I hope that the matter will be reconsidered in the other place and that, in the interim, the Government will think about it and agree to a suitable amendment—with wording of their own choice—that would protect those who have made genuine mistakes but deal with those who have made a deliberate attempt to mislead. If the inspection team or the management of the chemical factory explains the law under the Bill, matters could be further clarified.

Mr. Dalyell

It would be a good idea to have some sort of statement on the leverage that is available to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. I am afraid that I am not very clear about what it could do if it found that it was being deceived or if it faced other difficulties.

Mr. Cohen

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Dalyell

The Minister nodded when I asked about some sort of statement on the OPCW. Nods are not recorded in Hansard

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I do not usually work by nods or by interruptions when I am putting the Question. Is the hon. Gentleman referring to a matter that arises under clause 26 stand part?

Mr. Dalyell

Under clause stand part, I am simply asking that the Minister's nod be interpreted in Hansard as a yes. These things happen by alchemy. I hope that there will be some statement in the other place about the powers or otherwise of the OPCW. It is an important matter.

Mr. Oppenheim

It is nice to be thought of as an alchemist, although a nuclear weapons Bill would be more appropriate if we wanted to change one substance into another. I was nodding to show that I was listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman was saying. The international body has quite clear sanctions when a country is in breach of the convention. It may help the hon. Gentleman if I write to him outlining all the sanctions. Then, if he wants to speak further about it, I shall happily arrange that.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 27 to 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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