HC Deb 18 March 1996 vol 274 cc16-9
28. Mr. Llew Smith

To ask the Attorney-General if he will place in the Library a copy of his submission on behalf of the Government to the consultation on public interest immunity law. [19404]

The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)

I have placed in the Library a copy of my announcement of 26 February on the consultation process, and a circular inviting those responding to take account of a number of specific issues. The consultation period remains open until 1 May.

Mr. Smith

Will the Secretary of State explain how his new proposals on public interest immunity will avoid circumstances such as those outlined by Lord Justice Scott on page 1240 of his report, where he states that Mr. Moses, the prosecution counsel in the Matrix Churchill trial, was not shown eight key documents by Government Departments and that Mr. Moses commented that, had he known about that information, he would not have gone on with the prosecution"?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman will understand that the point he is raising is separate from public interest immunity, on which I have gone out to consultation. It is a matter of discovering documents and bringing them forward. The Government have looked carefully at what Sir Richard Scott said in his report and there is a careful trawl around Departments to see that they understand what is required. Steps had already been taken prior to the report's publication to ensure that that aspect can be dealt with more effectively in future.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is still a lot of misunderstanding about the use of public interest immunity certificates? Is not the concept in wide and almost daily use in both civil and criminal law? What measures will my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure a better understanding of the concept of public interest immunity?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend raises an important point. One good effect of the Scott inquiry, and of the discussion about it, has been that the profile has been raised of something that criminal practitioners know is—month in, month out, week in, week out—an aspect of criminal law. There is a public interest in the confidentiality of certain documents, which need not necessarily be Government documents. They might concern child abuse cases and perhaps relate to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or the work of regulators. In the end, a decision is required by a judge, if necessary, as to whether such documents should be disclosed for the purposes of a trial. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the chance to elaborate on that point.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Does the Attorney-General agree, at least provisionally, with Sir Richard Scott's recommendation that, where public interest immunity arises in criminal cases, it is desirable wherever possible that the counsel who argues for PII should be different from the prosecuting counsel, to ensure no risk of a conflict of interest?

The Attorney-General

We shall give careful thought to that aspect. The hon. and learned Gentleman will know from his own experience that no conflict arises in a high proportion of cases. Public interest immunity is frequently and perfectly properly dealt with by the prosecuting counsel, but there are occasions when a conflict of interests can arise, when it is desirable to instruct separate counsel. We shall focus on those points as part of the consultation.

Mr. Batiste

Is not it clear that, in many cases in which serious drug dealers are prosecuted, the evidence is based on information from informants? Unless there is some system of public interest immunity, evidence from informants would dry up and many serious criminals would walk free. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that, whatever the outcome of the consultation, the evidence of informants in sensitive cases can be protected by immunity?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend echoes the important point made by the Master of the Rolls in an intervention in the debate a fortnight or so ago. The courts have been astute to concentrate on the protection of informants—not merely down the decades, but down the centuries—for precisely the reason that my hon. Friend gave. Otherwise, the supply of informants, which is essential to the bringing to justice of often the most serious criminals—not least those concerned with drug dealing—would dry up.

Mr. Hoon

Now that the Attorney-General has had the opportunity to read, and reflect on, the trenchant and detailed criticisms of his actions and advice in the Scott report's analysis of his handling of public interest immunity certificates, would he—if faced with similar circumstances—act the same way and give the same advice again?

The Attorney-General

As a lawyer himself, the hon. Gentleman will know that it is the duty of the Law Officers, including the Attorney-General, to give advice in accordance with the law as it is understood at the time. That is undoubtedly what I did. The hon. Gentleman will have read the debate in the House of Lords, where no fewer than five Law Lords endorsed the advice that I gave.

29. Ms Eagle

To ask the Attorney-General what representations he has received urging reform in the use of public interest immunity. [19405]

The Attorney-General

I refer the hon. Lady to the reply I gave a few moments ago to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith). The consultation period is still at a relatively early stage. It remains open until 1 May.

Ms Eagle

Can the Attorney-General explain why, if he accepts none of the criticisms in Lord Justice Scott's report, he is now going out to consultation to change a system that he claims he operated correctly and which is itself correct?

The Attorney-General

As I am sure the hon. Lady will realise, because I am sure she has read the report carefully—[Interruption.] I am not sure whether she is saying yes or no.

Ms Eagle

indicated assent.

The Attorney-General

So she will realise that the report makes a number of serious suggestions as to how the law might operate in future. That is what we are going out to consultation on, with particular focus on the points I have mentioned in the document which I have today placed in the Library.

Mr. Leigh

May I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to tread carefully when considering calls for reform of the law? After all, judges made this law, and trial judges decide whether to use the certificates, which can affect Government and non-Government alike. It is therefore far wiser to allow the judges to consider how the law should be reformed than to involve the Government at all.

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend reflects a point made by Sir Richard Scott in his report. He said that he did not think that the time was ripe at the moment for statutory intervention in this area. This is judge-made law; as the House will know, the law has already moved on, in that the House of Lords gave revised guidance in the case of ex parte Wiley in the summer of 1994. That is the law that we operate at the moment. It is against that judge-made legal background that we shall consider how the Government should approach the subject for the future.

Mr. Dalyell

Whereas judges may make speeches in the House of Lords and Ministers may trawl to their hearts' content around Government Departments, can the House of Commons be bluntly and candidly told why crucial information in the hands of Ministers was not passed on to Alan Moses?

The Attorney-General

That was one of the important matters for which the Scott report was set up—the hon. Gentleman will have read for himself the points about it made in the report. He mentions the trawl around Departments and the need to identify in proper time the most relevant documents. The lessons are there to be learnt about that aspect—that is one of the benefits of a very detailed report.

Forward to