HC Deb 13 February 1917 vol 90 cc534-8

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £120,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1917, for His Majesty's Foreign and other Secret Services."


I naturally do not ask for information as to how the Secret Service money is used, for the very simple reason that I should not get any reply, and quite rightly so. Whatever one might do in time of peace, it is obvious in time of war that Secret Service money must be secret from everybody except the heads of Departments who have to disburse the expenses of the Secret Service agents; but I do think it is a perfectly legitimate question to put to the Government as to what check is imposed upon the expenditure of this very large sum. We are not told, and quite rightly, as to how this money is being spent, but I think we are at least entitled to know that every check is put upon wasteful expenditure of this very large sum. It is obvious that it is an expenditure which lends itself to extravagance. An agent is sent abroad, or someone is being watched, or a hundred and one things, and the agent sends in his bill for expenses. What I would ask the Government is, what steps are being taken, now that this Secret Service is not confined to the Foreign Office, as in the past, but goes into the War Office, Admiralty, and other Departments, to see that the money is being properly spent? Will the accounts be brought before the Comptroller and Auditor-General? Will they be passed by him? Will the Public Accounts Committee have any opportunity of investigating those accounts? In each of these big Departments is there an officer one of whose special duties is to check the expenditure, and see that it is properly disbursed? I ask that point of the Government because I do not think on the Vote of Credit last year we received any explanation.


I would like to support the view put forward by the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken. I think we are entitled to the information he has asked. I should like to emphasise that our Secret Service is not at all as efficient as it might be, and it might be stirred up a little.


There is another aspect of this question to which I should like to direct the attention of the hon. Gentleman. I have never taken any part in any discussion before on the Secret Service, but under present conditions I think there is the best right to believe there has been a considerable extension of the duties of the Secret Service. In the past the Secret Service, so far as war is concerned, has been totally devoted to our enemies abroad, in order to find out what can be found oat about them, and to counteract their efforts in this country, and, of course, everybody was anxious that the most ample funds should be at the disposal of our secret agents for these purposes. But now the scope of the Secret Service has been very much widened. We find there are spies spying upon people in this country, and it may be necessary to do so. At the same time I think it very desirable that this House should know to what extent money is being expended for that purpose. It is not only the spy but also the agent-provocateur. I know that an agent-provocateur has been on the Clyde, and I know that a strike occurred on the Clyde owing to the influence of two men who have disappeared, nobody knows where. These instances are occurring. We find that a week ago a new Regulation under the Defence of the Realm Act appeared in the "Gazette," stating that a policeman would be entitled to be present at any private meeting. Are the costs of the policemen or detectives atttending those meetings to come out of the Secret Service Fund? I think we are entitled to some information on these points.

The reason I ask is, that the original entry this year was £200,000. The amount that was found in 1915–16 was £150,000. On the original Estimate there was an increase of £50,000, which made it £200,000. Then we had a Supplementary Estimate on 17th July, 1916, which brought it up to £500,000, and now we have a further revised Estimate bringing it up to £620,000, which more than trebles the original Estimate. Four times the amount actually spent last year is now being spent. Personally I have no objections to everything being done to counteract the machinations of the enemy. I think everybody will agree about that, but it is a very different question when you set your secret agents to spy upon your own people in this country. It may be that there are misguided men, and I believe there are misguided men in this country who have taken a perverse view of the War, who have held meetings to discuss the War from their point of view, and who have made foolish speeches. But why on earth should we spend Secret Service money on spying out these people and ascertaining the silly and absurd things they have said? After all, everybody knows that the actual influence which these people exert is negligible—absolutely negligible. I desire, in view of this large increase in the amount voted, to ascertain whether any proportion is being expended upon this absolutely new service of spying upon the people of this country.


The question is, "That——


Surely we are to have an answer?


I would first of all answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool in regard to the accounts—a point which I think is quite a legitimate one. Excessive expenditure is guarded against by the responsible Minister signing a voucher for the amount, as was recommended some time ago by the Public Accounts Committee. In regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for Lanarkshire, it was a little beside the mark, which is somewhat unusual for him. This is the Secret Service Vote, and, as has been said in previous years by those who have stood before me in this place, it might have been taken from the Vote of Credit or brought up in some other way. Whichever Government has been in power, however, the policy, ever since the War began, has been to keep the matter before the eyes of the Committee by putting down comparatively small Votes and asking for them at frequent intervals. Although the Committee, by the mere fact of voting money for secret service, abrogates any right to inquire what that service is, yet it is just as well that attention should be called to the fact whenever the Vote for this particular service is being sanctioned. For instance, in 1915–16, there was an original Estimate of £150,000, a Supplementary Estimate of £200,000, and a third Supplementary Estimate of £50,000, making a total for the year of £400,000. In the same way in the current financial year we have made three bites at the cherry, and the total is £620,000. It is inevitable as the War goes on that this figure should rise, as it has risen during the last twelve months. In respect of the latter part of the speech of the hon. Member, I am sorry I am unable to give him any more definite reply. I have, as he has doubtless, carefully read the previous Debates and the addresses of previous occupants of the position I now hold. They have always resolutely refused to give an answer at the time to any specific question as to whether or not a given purpose is paid for out of this Vote. I would suggest to my hon. Friend that he should note police action or service in his own constituency or anywhere else, and bring up the question in some form or other on the Home Office Vote.


We cannot do that.


The question of the administration of the police, outside London at any rate, could not be discussed in this House because the administration of the local or provincial police is not in the hands of the Home Office at all. It is not responsible for the action of the police. There is only one point I wish to raise, and it is the same point raised by my hon. Friend opposite, the Member for Lanarkshire. Whether or not it can be discussed now, it is a matter of very great importance, and takes in the whole conception that we have hitherto had of the civic freedom of this country. The question is as to whether there is at present going on a gradual extension of the powers of Government agents and Government spies in regard, not to grave matters of international policy, but in regard to home matters. There has been a constant anxiety in regard to recent troubles on the Clyde. One has felt as if in these troubles there were Government agents—that Govern- ment agents were amongst those who made some of the most ridiculous speeches inside the meetings. If that were so it would become a very serious matter indeed. We have very strongly resented in every country the idea of the agent-provocateur being used to incite people to wrong ways. I am quite sure this is a matter which will be very greatly and very strongly resented and resisted so far as our own country is concerned. I do not know how much you have included in this Vote. I suppose one can get no-information. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Certainly I have no desire to-ask any questions which would be against public interest or public policy. Matters have come up and have been openly discussed, such as subsidies that are paid to demonstrations. I have never been quite sure where the money, such as the £3,000 that was paid in connection with the demonstration on the Embankment, conies from—out of which particular fund it comes. All that we are concerned about now is that there shall not be an undue extension of the powers of spying at home. I believe there is some danger of that. It is a matter which will have to be kept before the House.

Question put, and agreed to.