HC Deb 17 July 1995 vol 263 cc1305-6
31. Mr. Gordon Prentice

To ask the Attorney-General what plans he has to reform the system of public interest immunity certificates. [32755]

The Attorney-General

The law on public interest immunity has been developed primarily by the courts. Public interest immunity certificates are one of the subjects under consideration by Sir Richard Scott. The Government will take careful note of any conclusions and recommendations in his report.

Mr. Prentice

Can the Attorney-General tell the House why Customs and Excise has refused on three occasions to hand over copies of public interest immunity certificates to Sir Richard Scott, which he considers necessary for the completion of his inquiry? Is not it as plain as a pikestaff that the Government are strewing with obstacles the path that Sir Richard Scott is treading in trying to get some truth from the arms to Iraq inquiry?

The Attorney-General

I am sure that the answer to the latter question is a flat no. I confess that I do not know exactly what the hon. Gentleman is referring to in the question about certificates going to Sir Richard Scott. If he is referring to the three public interest immunity certificates which are before the Court of Appeal today, I am given to understand that the court has indicated that it has no objection to those certificates going to Sir Richard, and they will go to Sir Richard. May I just add this: a big lie, a wholly false notion, that the signing by Ministers of public interest immunity certificates somehow involves sleaze or impropriety, has been spinning around the globe for three years.

Mr. MacShane

I wonder why.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman says that he wonders why. It is because people like him have not bothered to look into the system. The hon. Gentleman and the House should know that, in a criminal case, when there is a public interest immunity certificate, every document covered by that certificate is shown to the judge before he makes a decision. That happened in the Matrix Churchill case and it is happening in the Ordtech case which is before the Court of Appeal today. The big lie should be laid to rest now.

Mr. Garnier

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm, both as a matter of fact and as a matter of law, that the public interest immunity certificate system cannot, under any circumstances, operate as a gagging order? As my right hon. and learned Friend has just said, does not the criminal trial judge look at every document covered by the certificate?

The Attorney-General

My hon. and learned Friend is quite right. The expression "gagging order" is part of that big lie. The system is created by the courts, and has been approved and modified by the courts. I can confirm what my hon. and learned Friend said: in a criminal case every document covered by a PII certificate is shown to the judge so that he or she can decide whether or not the document should be disclosed to the defence for use in the trial.