Public Immunity Certificates

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th November 1992.

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Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie , Sheffield, Heeley 12:00 am, 25th November 1992

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on his Department's signing of public immunity certificates.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has made clear, public interest immunity must be claimed for departmental papers if they fall within a recognised class or contain material which it would in principle be contrary to the public interest to disclose. A Minister will only sign a certificate after he has personally considered whether papers fall within the claim. It is for the court to determine whether the claim is valid and, if so, to balance the public interest in confidentiality against the interest of justice in the particular case.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie , Sheffield, Heeley

In this intriguing "Who dun it?"—the inquiry taking place which has fairly serious consequences —does it not seem strange that the signing of the immunity certificates was left to what one could describe as a junior Minister, and that they were not signed by the Secretary of State or the Minister of State? We have to assume that either the Secretary of State and his side-kick were not very au fait with what was happening, that they did not want to know about it, or that they wanted a scapegoat if something went wrong. Those certificates were signed and could have sent innocent people to prison.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

What the hon. Gentleman might assume is that I was abroad at the relevant time.

Photo of Mr Rupert Allason Mr Rupert Allason , Torbay

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how many times he has signed public interest immunity certificates in criminal and civil cases and how many have been overturned, as in the example of Mr. Justice Smedley?

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

Not without notice. I signed some as Home Secretary and some in my present position. I signed one relevant to my hon. Friend about which he has written to me over the years and I have explained to him that the basis on which I signed it, as Home Secretary, was similar to, and after taking similar advice, the action taken by my right hon. Friends in the present case.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble , Upper Bann

The Foreign Secretary is in danger of misleading the House by his reply to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) that Ministers must sign certificates. The Foreign Secretary is not an automaton and is under no obligation to sign automatically a certificate the minute that someone tells him that it comes within an area that might be covered by public interest immunity. Surely, he has to exercise his judgment as to whether he should claim public interest immunity in the circumstances of each case. There is a particular obligation on him to exercise his discretion when the people involved are in danger of being sent to prison for carrying out the Government's wishes.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney

That is not the position as explained by the Attorney-General. Of course, Ministers have to read personally and carefully the papers involved in the proposal that they should sign a certificate. They do so in order that they can certify whether, in their judgment, the papers fall within a recognised class or contain material which it would be contrary to the public interest to disclose.