HC Deb 04 July 1956 vol 555 cc1305-7
18. Mr. Grimond

asked the Postmaster-General how many individuals, or bodies, had their mail opened, under instructions from the Home Office, during the last twelve months.

11. Mr. Hale

asked the Postmaster-General what authority exists for the interception of letters addressed to persons regarded as doubtful security risks; how far such authority extends to the families and associates of such persons; and on what occasions these powers have been recently exercised.

Mr. Alport

Mail is opened only under the authority of an express warrant in writing signed by a Secretary of State. In the public interest it is not the practice to disclose information about such warrants.

Mr. Grimond

While fully appreciating that it may be held not to be in the public interest to disclose details of particular cases, may I ask whether we really ought not to be told how often this very alarming power is exercised during a year? What possible harm could there be in giving the number of cases?

Mr. Alport

It is not the practice under this Government, as it was not under any previous Government, to give details of this sort.

Mr. Ness Edwards

Is it not important that the volume of this sort of work should be known to the House, even if not individual cases? Here is an alarming exercise of power over which the House has no control at all. Ought not the Postmaster-General himself to seek authority from his colleagues to publish the volume of cases in which this power is used?

Mr. Alport

When the right hon. Gentleman was Postmaster-General he would not, I am sure, in any circumstances have given the information for which he is now asking.

Mr. Shinwell

Can the Minister say whether there is any truth in the rumour that letters addressed to Mrs. Lang, the wife of the gentleman who was recently dismissed from his employment, under Government instructions, were opened? If so, what was the reason for it?

Mr. Alport

No particular case is included in the Question on the Order Paper.

Mr. Stokes

Did the Minister's first reply mean that letters may be opened on the authority, or "signed warrant" as he calls it, of any Secretary of State? Does it mean that any Secretary of State of the Government can demand that a letter shall be opened?

Mr. Speir

On a point of order. Is it not contrary to Standing Orders for secret matters to be discussed by the House?

Mr. Speaker

It is in order to ask questions about them, but it is also in order to refuse information about them.

Mr. Alport

The position is set out quite clearly in Section 58 (1) of the Post Office Act, 1953, which reproduces the similar provisions of previous Acts stretching back a considerable period of time.

Mr. H. Morrison

Would I not be right if I asserted that there has been no material change in practice since the great days of the Liberal Government of 1906?

Mr. Alport

The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct in saying that the same provision was included in the Post Office Act, 1908.

Mr. Stokes

Will the Minister be a little more courteous, instead of hiding behind the mumbo-jumbo in the reply which he gave me? Will he tell me whether in fact this means that any Secretary of State can demand that letters shall be opened?

Mr. Alport

The right hon. Gentleman will see the situation set out perfectly clearly in the Answer which I gave to the original Question.

Mr. Ede

Is it not a fact that there is only one Secretary of State?

Mr. Speaker

That seems to be a legal question.