HL Deb 04 March 1987 vol 485 cc621-3
Lord Paget of Northampton

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any statement to make about the actions of the Home Secretary, the Lord Advocate and the BBC (Scotland) on 29th and 30th January and thereafter.

The Lord Advocate (Lord Cameron of Lochbroom)

No, my Lords, the events of 29th and 30th January and thereafter, and the actions of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department and myself, in relation to the search of the BBC Scotland premises in Glasgow have already been explained and discussed in considerable detail in this House or in another place.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, has nothing happened since then? What was seized from the offices? What has happened to it? Has it all been returned to the BBC?

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

No, my Lords, the inquiry still continues. I have to remind your Lordships that the material which was removed was so interwoven that it was not possible immediately to disentangle one kind of material from another. Indeed, that was the information given by the BBC to the police and reported to the Procurator Fiscal. It was confirmed by the police on examination of the material. Much of the material relating to the five programmes other than that on Zircon has since been returned to the BBC as a result of a sifting out operation carried out by the police. The police investigations continue and at the conclusion of the investigations the police will make a report to the Procurator Fiscal.

Lord Wilson of Langside

My Lords, may I ask the Lord Advocate whether, when he authorised the petition to the sheriff in terms of Section 9 of the Official Secrets Act, he had regard to the provisions of Section 11 of the District Courts (Scotland) Act 1975? As the noble and learned Lord knows, that Act abolished the role of the sheriff as an ex-officio justice of the peace. Accordingly, on the basis of what authority in law was the petition presented to the sheriff?

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, I am satisfied that the proper procedure for obtaining a search warrant was followed in this case, involving as it did an application by the Procurator Fiscal to a sheriff, who, as noble Lords will know, is not only legally qualified but is also the holder of a judicial office senior to that of a justice of the peace. He also possesses magisterial powers under common law and statute in relation to the granting of warrants.

The power of a sheriff to grant a search warrant on the application of the Procurator Fiscal has never depended on him being an ex-officio justice of the peace. I am satisfied that the involvement of the Procurator Fiscal and the sheriff in this case was in accordance with established law in Scotland.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not clear that, quite apart from the legalities which confused many of us and certainly confused me, the Government are entirely mistaken on this whole operation, which has brought them nothing but discredit? Should not they admit that and withdraw the whole thing right away?

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, I made it quite clear when I made a Statement to the House that this is a matter for the law officers and not for the Government. In this they act independently of government, and that was also the case in this instance.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord confirm that most of the papers removed by the police from the BBC in Glasgow were sifted through quickly and returned to the BBC? The balance of the papers, so I am informed, was apparently in no way as large in volume as those removed. Therefore, why is it taking so long to sift through those? When will the recommendation be made to the Procurator Fiscal?

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, it is true that the police, at the request of myself, sifted through material as quickly as they could in order to be certain of what could be returned properly to the BBC as not being relevant to the investigation they were making and continue to make. The police examination continues, but obviously at this stage I cannot give any indication to the House when it will be completed and when a report will be made to my Procurator Fiscal.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord hazard a guess as to what would have been the reaction of his noble friends on the Government Benches had a trawl of this kind been carried out when a Labour Government were in power? Bearing in mind that we are governed in this country largely by precedent, should we not regard new precedents with grave suspicion?

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, I hesitate to answer hypothetical questions of the kind which the noble Lord has just asked. However, I am bound to say that this case is only a precedent for showing what is perfectly ordinary procedure; namely, that where a report has been received of an offence of a serious nature having been committed which the prosecuting authorities are bound to take up and investigate, the use of search warrant procedure is a due process of law which it is perfectly appropriate to use, as it was used in this case.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, following the last hypothetical question, may I ask my noble and learned friend whether it would be true to say that whatever government were in power and whatever their political persuasion it would still be a decision of the judiciary and the legal representatives, who are completely impartial and independent of any government of whatever party?

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend. He is absolutely right. I should have expected a law officer of any government to have taken the same independent outlook that I have taken. Such has been the case in the past, and the outlook is one that any holder of my office takes in this kind of matter.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, in his original Answer to my Question the noble and learned Lord said nothing had happened, but since then he has told us that lots of things have happened. Is he surprised to find that my curiosity is unsatisfied? Does he remember the last time we had something of this sort, when a predecessor of his honourable and learned friend—I think it was the Lord Halifax of the day—took out a general warrant to seize the "North Britain" from Mr. Wilkes? He got into a great deal of trouble and received a good many writs and formidable judgments. Have the Government yet received any writ from the BBC, which I know is a soft touch? Surely by now they have received writs from Mr. Campbell.

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, the warrant that was issued was not a general warrant and no writ has been received from the BBC by any party so far as I am aware. As regards the warrant, noble Lords will be aware that the BBC took action in the English courts in relation to the showing of the Zircon film, but that was a civil action relating to an injunction. I think that the noble Lord will be aware of that.

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