HC Deb 19 February 1996 vol 272 cc16-8
31. Mr. Hain

To ask the Attorney-General what plans he has to reform the procedure in respect of public interest immunity certificates. [14188]

The Attorney-General

The recommendations in the Scott report with respect to public interest immunity will receive careful and detailed consideration. Sir Richard Scott has made it clear that there was no conspiracy and no cover-up. He casts not the slightest doubt on my integrity. The advice that I gave was fully in accordance with the law as it then stood.

Mr. Hain

The issue is the Attorney-General's competence. Does he accept the verdict of section G of the Scott report that he was personally at fault in the advice that he gave in relation to public interest immunity certificates? As the first Law Officer of the Crown and the Government's chief legal adviser, how can the Attorney-General possibly stay in office after Scott's savage condemnation of his incompetence and the subsequent public collapse in confidence in his role? Surely the only course—

Madam Speaker

Order. That is much too long. The hon. Gentleman has already put a question.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman is continuing what seems to be the Labour party policy of distortion on that issue. My integrity is unquestioned. I took the most careful legal advice. My view of the law is endorsed by a succession of legal decisions, by the express views of a number of top Queen's counsel and today by the view—expressed in trenchant terms—of Lord Lloyd of Berwick, a current Law Lord.

The one instance in which the report says that I was personally at fault rests on Sir Richard Scott's different view of the law, with which all those others respectfully disagree. I took specific steps to ensure, through my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister's special public interest immunity certificate, that the judge was alerted to the need for special care. He was. After proper argument, all necessary documents were disclosed. There was a completely fair trial, as three defence counsel have publicly confirmed.

Sir Ivan Lawrence

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the immense anger that many of us feel at the bogus and ill-informed attacks by the Opposition? Is he aware that the allegations against him are no worse than when a High Court judge's decision is reversed on a point of law by the Court of Appeal, which decision may itself in due course be reversed by the House of Lords?

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that our anger is the greater because we know that he took the best advice in the Temple before he gave his advice, and that that advice has been upheld not only by the best lawyers in the Temple but by the best lawyers in the Court of Appeal? Those lawyers say that in those matters of law the Attorney-General was right and Sir Richard Scott was plainly wrong.

The Attorney-General

I am indeed so aware, and the House will join me in anticipating that the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), who may be about to ask me a question, will make it his very first task to withdraw the statement that he made in 1992, when he accused Ministers of being prepared to connive at the sacrifice of accused men. The Scott report has made it clear that that was wholly unfounded.

Mr. John Morris

Whatever else there is in the Scott report about conniving—which I accept—should not the Attorney-General accept the guilty verdicts that Scott returned upon him: that he had a major responsibility for the inadequacy of the prosecutor's instructions, and that he was personally at fault in not ensuring that the Deputy Prime Minister's reservations were conveyed? Mr. Moses asserted that his attitude was no different from that of other Ministers.

Is it not bizarre that the Attorney-General had still, many months later, not read the documents on which he had advised Ministers, and that the Deputy Prime Minister's letter about a difficult matter was unread for a period of three to seven weeks? Is that not a finding of breathtaking incompetence? Where does the buck stop? Should not the Attorney-General go?

The Attorney-General

The letter was not unread, and that point—contrary to the inquiry's own procedures—was never put to me. I remind the House that, after I had been alerted by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I took specific steps to ensure—through my right hon. Friend's specially drafted public interest immunity certificate, which was recognised by everyone in court—that the judge should look at every document.

The case could not have been more fairly prosecuted by prosecuting counsel. He invited the judge to look at every document. The judge did so, and he decided, in accordance with the law as understood at the time, what documents should and should not be made available. The trial then started the following week and, as three defence counsel themselves have said, was completely fair.

Sir Peter Hordern

In regard to the public interest immunity certificates, is it not the case that defence counsel appearing for Matrix Churchill not only made no criticism of my right hon. and learned Friend, but wrote to The Times commending him and the way in which the certificates had been handled? If that is the case, what justification have the Opposition for making such a fuss?

The Attorney-General

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The House and the country should know that the trial was conducted with scrupulous fairness. I welcome the Scott report, because those who read it carefully will see that for themselves.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Will the Attorney-General—who advises Ministers on legal matters—explain to the House now what he understands to be the meaning of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility for departmental actions? If it does not apply to him now, when does it apply, and why?

The Attorney-General

The hon. and learned Gentleman should read the report carefully. I repeat for his benefit that I had two involvements in the matter. The first was to advise on the law. I did so carefully and conscientiously, not only in accordance with the top legal advice that I obtained, but in a way which, since the report's publication on Thursday, has been endorsed by the great majority of senior members of the Bar—who understand these matters—as well as the higher judiciary, as the hon. and learned Gentleman will have read today.

On the question of communicating the views of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I have made it clear that I did so in a specially designed certificate which brought all relevant matters to the court. All relevant documents were before the court when the trial began, and there was a completely fair trial. In those circumstances, I submit that no one could have acted more fairly.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether judges created each part of the disclosure system for such documents? Can he say whether he is minded to propose to the House that the system should now be frozen on a statutory basis, or that we should continue to rely on judges to develop the process?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend is quite right. This is judge-made law. It has been very carefully considered by Sir Richard Scott, and the Government have made it clear that they will look at his recommendations for the future with great care. That is just what we shall do.

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