§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
My Lords, I desire to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are aware that in moving the Second Reading of the Official Secrets Bill on December 2, 1920, the then Attorney-General stated that it did not deal with the Press; whether the present Attorney-General was aware of this when he directed the police to take action against the Press; whether the Government will state what was the information obtained by the police, and whether that information was obtained from or through indiscreet persons; and to move for Papers.
I do not wish to impute any blame to the police in this matter; they were only acting under instructions. Neither do I wish to suggest that, when an offence has been committed and the police are informed of that fact, the police should not take steps to ascertain from people who, they think, have same information upon the matter, whether or not they can give evidence on the question. But, of course, they should do it under the ordinary law and in the ordinary way. In this particular case they took action by the direction, I think, of the Prime Minister, who communicated with the Attorney-General, who then gave instructions to the police. They took action under the Official Secrets Act, 1920, which is an Act which gives special power of a very drastic nature to the police.
When this Bill was before the House of Commons in 1920 some remarks were made by the then Attorney-General, Sir Gordon Hewart. I need not say that he is a man whom we all know, and whom we all believe to be a man of exceptionally brilliant powers and qualities. He is certainly a very fine speaker. He said this:—May I add one word more upon a particular kind of objection which, oddly enough, has sometimes been taken to this 1332 Bill? It is said that this Bill deals with the Press. That seems to me to be an astonishing statement, and it is very strange that persons connected with the Press should say that this Bill deals with them.Well, the persons connected with the Press seem to have had more of the gift of prophecy than Sir Gordon Hewart. He went on:—How can it possibly be said that it is the function of a journalist to retain for some purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State an official document that he has no right to retain, or which it is contrary to his duty to retain? So far from asserting that that is something aimed at journalists, I should have thought that the first comment of a journalist reading that provision would be this: 'Whoever may be the persons referred to, they are certainly not journalists.' It is proposed to put in the Bill, as I understand at the suggestion of some gentlemen connected with the Press, certain words in Clause 1 (c). There the Bill refers to forging, altering, or tampering with any passport or any naval, military, Air Force, police or official pass, permit, certificate, licence, or other document'. It is said that that is too general, and it is desired that the words 'of a similar character' should be inserted. I am going to propose that in Committee, but may I pause to say this, that the criticism directed against those words seems to me entirely to ignore the fact that the governing words are, 'if any person for the purpose of gaining admission to a prohibited place' does these things, and that part of the Bill is not aimed at the alteration of a document as such. It is aimed at the alteration of a document of a certain kind for the purpose of gaining admission to a prohibited place for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State. Again, I should have thought with great respect, that that is a class of document and a kind of purpose with which the Press of this country has nothing, and will never have anything to do.Those words were inserted during the Committee stage or the Report stage—I forget which—but, as the then Attorney-General said, they had very little effect on the question as to whether or not the Press is affected; as he wound up by saying:this is a class of document and a kind of purpose with which the Press of this country has nothing, and will never have anything to do.I think we ought to learn a lesson from that. When noble Lords bring in Bills, and when we are told that it is not necessary to insert an Amendment because it is quite absurd to suppose that anything covered by the Amendment will ever be dealt with under the Bill, I 1333 think we must remember that, and have all these things put into the Bill, so as to make it quite clear that certain things shall not be done. It is no use trusting to the words of hon. and learned gentlemen or of noble and learned Lords that such-and-such things will not take place. New people come and old people go; the undertakings given in a speech in the House of Commons or in this place are forgotten.
The result is what we see—that powers which were never contemplated by the introducers of the Bill which became the Official Secrets Act of 1920 have been exercised against the Press. When this ease was brought forward in another place the present Attorney-General stated that the powers were very drastic. He said:—The House will observe that this offence differs fundamentally from an ordinary charge "—and so on. Then he went on to say:—This drastic power should, in my view, be used sparingly and only where serious issues are involved. On Thursday, 1st May, there appeared in three newspapers statements to the effect that Gandhi's immediate arrest had been decided on. The Prime Minister informed me that he took the view that … this was a gravely serious publication "—and that there must have been some leakage of confidential information, either in India or here. He then went on to say what steps were taken, and pointed out that three editors were seen and, finally, that the correspondent of one newspaper was seen. He was interviewed at his private house.
The Attorney-General then continued:The House would not desire me to make any statement as to the extent or nature of the information I have received, nor would it be proper to do so.Why not? Here is an offence which is supposed to have been committed. Here are drastic powers which the right hon. and learned Attorney-General said ought only to be used under very exceptional circumstances. Yet when those powers had been exercised we are not told what the result has been, whether there was any foundation for exercising them, and whether anybody is going to be proceeded against for the offence which undoubtedly was committed because information in some kind of way did leak out. It has been said that some person was indiscreet or was not so discreet as he might have 1334 been, and I think in the debate the name of the Home Secretary was mentioned. Whether the Home Secretary was discreet or indiscreet, I think we ought to have some explanation as to what really took place, why the police were instructed to exercise these extraordinary powers and, when they had exercised them, what they found out, and whether or not they are going to take action in the matter. The question of the liberty of the Press is a very important one, and I do not think that drastic powers which were granted to the Government under certain conditions should be used in contravention and contradiction of the understanding arrived at when those powers were granted. I beg to move.
§ LORD PARMOOR
My Lords, I certainly find no fault with the noble Lord for bringing this matter forward, and I should like to assure him again that I regret that the undertaking given about the arrangement of to-day's business was not fully kept to. It was no fault of mine and, as you see, his speech has not been long delayed.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
My Lords, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord was acting without knowing. I do not impute any motive.
§ Loan PARMOOR
A full explanation of this matter has already been given, I think, in another place by the Attorney-General and before replying to the specific matters to which the noble Lord has referred, I am sure he is aware that the putting into force of the powers of the Act of 1920 to which he has referred, founded on the Act of 1911, is a matter wholly within the responsibility of the Attorney-General and that in reference to those questions he acts really in a quasi-judicial character. The responsibility rests on him and on no one else. That I think was fully explained by the Attorney-General in another place and there can be no question about it.
There is one other point to which the noble Lord referred. I admit that I entirely agree with him and I am sure that every legal authority would. After an Act has been passed, on the question as to what it means, how it should he interpreted and how it should be used we are guided by the words of the Act itself and not by statements made by either one side or the other at the time 1335 the Bill was before your Lordships' House or another place. In addition to that, the Attorney-General explained, and I might add one or two words to the explanation, that in moving the Second Reading of the Official Secrets Bill on December 2, 1920, the then Attorney General did not state that it did not deal with the Press. I forget whether the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, was at that time a member of your Lordships' House.
§ LORD PARMOOR
The Bill was originally introduced in your Lordships' House by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, who was in charge of the Bill. The question was raised whether and to what extent it did or did not affect the Press. The Press on that occasion was represented by two noble Lords well able to look after the interests of the Press—the noble Viscount, Lord Burnham, and the noble Lord, Lord Riddell. After discussion the consideration of the Bill was adjourned in order to allow of discussion and an arrangement was made. The result of the arrangement was—the noble Lord has the Bill before him—that in subsection (2) of Clause 1 these words were inserted in order to safeguard the position of the Press:for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State …I dare say the noble Lord will see those words in Clause 1 (2). When those words were accepted no objections were raised on behalf of the Press, nor was Clause 6, as far as I can find, ever under discussion in any form in your Lordships' House at all.
Let me refer to what was said by the then Attorney-General, now Lord Hewart. I think it is quite clear that the only matter he was referring to when he used the somewhat general language, no doubt, to which the noble Lord has referred, was the operation of subsection (2) of Section 1. He pointed out that the Press would not be affected, as no one would think that they would act for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
I am sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Lord but may I say that what the then Attorney-General said was: "It is said that this Bill deals with the Press"—and not any particular portion of it.
§ LORD PARMOOR
It is always rather difficult to try to eliminate one phrase. If you look at what he was dealing with—I will read the words in a moment—it is clear that he was dealing, and dealing only, with subsection (2) of Clause 1. The words he used are as follows. I will read sufficient to show in what context he used the words to which the noble Lord has referred:—It is said that this Bill deals with the Press. That seems to me to be an astonishing statement, and it is very strange that persons connected with the Press should say that this Bill deals with them.Why does he say that?How can it possibly be said that it is the function of a journalist to retain "—these are the words which have been inserted so that it should not apply to the Press—for some purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State an official document that he has no right to retain, or which it is contrary to his duty to retain?I think it is quite clear that what he was referring to there was subsection (2) of Clause 1. By agreement, and after compromise in this House, the words "for some purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State" were included. It could not be said, so far as that subsection is concerned, that the Press were in any way interested.
Let me come to Clause 6, for it is only Clause 6 which is in question in the present matter. Clause 6, as was pointed out by the Attorney-General—I dare say your Lordships will not mind me reiterating what is practically his statement—is limited to the power of obtaining special information if there is ground for suspecting a breach of the Acts of 1911 and 1920. I recollect that when that clause was in this House I was one of the few Peers who then referred to it in the discussion. I certainly entirely agree with what the Attorney-General says, that this power ought to be used only in serious cases and not in any trivial case. The Attorney-General, in expressing that view, expressed the absolute truth in this case. It is not a trivial matter. It was a very serious matter. I think that was acknowledged on all sides. If I may use his own expression, he said that the power should be used sparingly and only where serious issues are involved. There is one other question that the noble Lord 1337 asked me in reference to that—namely, as regards the information on which the Attorney-General acted. The words of his Question are to ask whether the Government are aware of the statement made by the late Attorney-General, and whether the present Attorney-General was aware of this when he directed the police to take action. He was aware of what had been stated by a former Attorney-General. It is quite clear that the statement has not the wide meaning which the noble Lord has attached to the words.
The noble Lord's Notice further states:—whether the Government will state what was the information obtained by the police, and whether that information was obtained from or through indiscreet persons; and to move for Papers.Certainly information of that kind cannot be disclosed, and ought not to be disclosed. If I may take the case of the particular journalist—I certainly will not mention his name, nor do I know him—he asked that the matter should be dealt with in as private a way as possible and without undue publicity. There is no mystery here. The Attorney-General has a responsibility. He receives information which makes him think it is his duty to put into operation Clause 6 in order to obtain certain information. He is satisfied, and he takes no further proceedings. No crime has been perpetrated by any one. The only question is one about disclosure. He got the disclosure which he wanted, and so the matter ended. Are we to re-open it on a plea which the noble Lord has brought forward? Are we to re-open matters which from every point of view ought to be treated as private, and which, if they were tested by publicity—there is no question of any offence having been committed—might really create extreme hardship against individuals? That is the very thing which ought not to be done, and in my view the Attorney-General was absolutely right when he refused to give any further information of that kind. He did state that the method of his inquiry was in accordance with the desires and wishes of the person who might have been implicated. No one was implicated, as a matter of fact, and it was at that person's desire that the method which was adopted in this particular case was adopted.
I am rather sorry about one other matter which I had hoped the noble Lord 1338 would not refer to. He brought in the name of a Minister in a very high position. I think, after the explanation of the Attorney-General, it was admitted on every hand in the other place that no blame of any kind or sort could be attached to that Minister in regard to this particular matter. I was glad when I read the Question on the Paper that no suggestion of that kind was made. It was completely answered elsewhere, with the assent, as I understand, of every one who heard the explanation given by the Attorney-General. Therefore, I sincerely hope that no further suggestion will be made in connection with the Minister. I think that I have answered the Question and there is nothing left to say, except this. The procedure under Clause 6 has been utilised several times since the Act of 1920 was passed. I dare say noble Lords opposite know better than any one else that it has been utilised in various cases. The expression used by the Attorney-General was "a very proper procedure." It is a useful procedure to use in a serious case, after great care and consideration. Fortunately for every one, it was not found necessary to go further, because the explanation he received was, in his opinion, satisfactory. I hope the matter will end there. I am certain that is where it ought to end in a case of this kind.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has answered my Questions, but not, as it seems to me, in a very satisfactory manner. The noble and learned Lord has shown, with the great command of language which he has, that when a former Attorney-General said that this Bill did not apply to the Press, he did not mean this Bill but he meant something else.
§ LORD PARMOOR
No. It is important that you should read it in the context where you find it. You will then find that it is perfectly clear he referred to subsection (2) of Clause 1, and not to Clause 6.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
When any ordinary person takes up a debate and sees that a person in the position of the Attorney-General states in plain and simple English that a Bill does not apply to the Press the natural inference is that the Bill does not apply 1339 to the Press. He does not know that the phrase "this Bill" must be understood to mean some particular section of the Bill. The noble and learned Lord said that the present Attorney-General was aware of this when he directed the police to take action against the Press. That seems to me to be a very extraordinary admission—that one Attorney-General should go directly contrary to the statement of a preceding Attorney-General. It only emphasises the fact that I alluded to a short time ago, that it is very necessary to put into every Bill that comes before us words that can be understood by the people, and cannot be interpreted by lawyers into meaning something which the ordinary person on reading them thinks they would not mean. Then the noble and learned Lord says, in answer to my Question whether the Government will state what was the information obtained by the police, that he is not going to state it, that it would be quite wrong to do so. Why would it be wrong if an offence had been committed? This is not the day of the Star Chamber. When persons are tried for an offence to-day they are tried in open court and everyone knows what is going on. If there has been an offence, why on earth was not the person who committed the offence proceeded against?
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
If there was no offence, why on earth was action taken? There must have been some ground. It look to me as if the real facts were that some suspicion was aroused, and when those suspicions were found to be correct, it was thought advisable not to proceed any further. Being probably of a somewhat suspicious nature, I cannot conceive that anything else can be the case. I do not understand people in the position of the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General taking this very drastic step, and then finding out that they had no reason to take it, and no business to take it. Have they apologised to the correspondent of the Press whom they questioned for three or four hours at his private house and threatened with imprisonment and all sorts of penalties? They ought to have apologised and they 1340 may have done so, but I should like to know if they have apologised. I must say I am not at all satisfied with the answer of the noble and learned Lord and the only hope I have that some good may arise out of this debate, and out of the debate in another place, is that these powers will not be taken advantage of in the future unless there is really some ground for taking advantage of them, and that they will not be used against the Press. I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord has anything further to say.
§ On Question, Motion for Papers negatived.