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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.