HL Deb 12 April 1978 vol 390 cc617-9

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the Commissioners of Inland Revenue, or the police, made any statement to the Press before or after the entry of Inland Revenue officials into the premises of William Press Limited, under a warrant to obtain documents issued under Schedule 6 to the Finance Act 1976 and, if so, what was the nature of such statement or statements and on what authority the disclosure of matters relating to the tax affairs of any person or persons was made.


My Lords, neither the Inland Revenue nor the Metropolitan Police had any contact with the Press before the entry into the company's premises. In response to Press inquiries after the entry the Revenue confirmed that entry had been made into the company's premises under warrants issued under the Finance Act 1976 and the Metropolitan Police confirmed that Fraud Squad officers had supported the Inland Revenue officials in the execution of these warrants. There has been no disclosure to the Press of the tax affairs of the company or of any person connected with it.


My Lords, has my noble friend looked at the newspapers for Tuesday, 7th March? If so, she would have discovered a great deal of detailed information about the nature of this raid, the number of persons employed in it, where it took place and a great deal else about it. Where did that information come from and under what authority was it disclosed? Does my noble friend understand that this case raises issues of considerable importance regarding the liberty of the subject? Is she aware that these powers are exercised under authority of Parliament given as recently as the summer of 1976? Does she understand how important it is to have rules as to how these exercises are to be undertaken? Otherwise, does she understand—

Several noble Lords

Order! Speech!


My Lords, otherwise does she understand that people in this position may suffer grave harm from the length of time taken to settle the matter?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I do not believe that my noble friend has a monopoly regarding concern for the civil liberty of the subject. It is true that the entry was carried out on 6th March at five o'clock in the morning. The reports to which my noble friend has referred appeared in the evening newspapers. Therefore, there was plenty of time for the information to have been obtained or observed by the newspapers without anything being given to the newspapers in advance. At the time when people were going in and out of the premises an Inland Revenue official was asked for information and he said, "No comment". It is also true that at the Essex Street, Strand, head offices of the firm a detective chief superintendent of Scotland Yard's Fraud Squad when asked about the matter said: I am here with a detective constable assisting some 40 or so Inland Revenue officers who arc searching the premises to establish whether or not any evidence exists of any tax evasion. There was nothing incorrect about that. It took place during the process of the entry. I have also ascertained that both the Inland Revenue and the police carried out their own inquiries into this matter to make absolutely sure that there had not been any misconduct on the part of a police officer or an Inland Revenue official, and they were quite satisfied that, in fact, there had not.


My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that those of us who objected to this power being given under a Finance Bill are very disturbed indeed that the system is being used in order to make statements or allow statements to be reported in the Press which are bound to prejudice any defence that anyone involved may have to put forward? This is an extension of the powers that were given under the Finance Bill and it ought to be looked at again.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I am sorry, but the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, can argue—and it was argued during the passage of the Bill in the Commons and it was also raised in this House—about whether one agrees or not with this particular Schedule in the Finance Act, but that is not the subject of the Question today. The subject of the Question is whether any improper information was given to the Press. It is incorrect to say that anything improper was given to the Press. What I have said in answer to the Question of my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby answers that point. It does not in any way take the powers any further. A great number of officials were involved; the offices were very near Fleet Street and it was natural that questions would be asked during the process. The answers that were given were full of no information.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in view of the unsatisfactory nature of her reply, I propose to raise the matter at a suitable opportunity in an Unstarred Question?

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