HC Deb 07 June 1957 vol 571 cc1572-86

11.20 a.m.

Mr. H. A. Marquand (Middlesbrough, East)

Already this morning, the House has shown its traditional great concern for the liberty of the subject. I am conscious that I must try to curtail some of my remarks upon another aspect of this important subject. I shall do my best, but, nevertheless, I hope that hon. Members will realise that I also propose to raise a matter concerning the liberty of the subject, and that it must be discussed thoroughly if the discussion is to be of any value.

Considerable uneasiness has been aroused recently by reports in the Press of increased activity by agents of security services in seeking information from teachers in universities. It has raised in the public mind two questions; how far, if at all, it is right and proper that activities of the security services should endanger the relations between the university teacher and his pupil, and how far—indeed, I doubt whether anyone can rightly say it ought to be at all—any activities by the security services can conceivably justify endangering the relations between university teachers themselves, one university teacher with another.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State and the Home Secretary are both graduates of the University of Cambridge. I am sure they would agree with me that, if it should be proved true that fellows of Cambridge colleges had been asked to report upon one another by security agents, surely the cry would go up, Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee; Milton was a graduate of Cambridge University, like the hon. and learned Gentleman, and that university has a magnificent tradition of defence of liberty of thought and liberty of speech. It is not the only university, but I am addressing myself particularly to the Joint Under-Secretary of State who comes from that university.

It is a university with a tradition in this respect which is second to none. Milton wrote his Areopagitica at a time of social strife, war and revolution, when the security of the State was daily threatened, and he did it to proclaim the right to speak and to write as one pleased without fear of persecution if authority was offended. It is to defend those same rights that we are opposed to Fascism and Communism, and none more strongly than I. It is the totalitarian nature of those creeds that we chiefly detest, but it would be a tragedy indeed if, in defending ourselves from Fascism or Communism, we were to lose the most precious thing we possess, our liberty to think, speak, discuss, argue, read and write as we please.

An eminent man, as it happened a Cambridge man, expressed these views on the radio some days ago. Mr. David Thompson, Master-elect of Sidney Sussex College, said: The university is the last place in which free play of ideas and arguments should be inhibited. There should be in any and every university complete liberty to pursue any idea wherever it may lead and to challenge fearlessly any belief. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will say that he approves every one of those words; that he feels, as we do, that there is something especially important and sacred in the relationship between the tutor and the taught, and between the tutors themselves within their colleges, which is peculiarly precious, and we should ensure that it be not destroyed.

I am not in the slightest degree attempting to underrate the importance of freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of activity in other spheres. I am speaking particularly of the universities this morning, because this question has been raised lately in connection with the universities. I need hardly say that my references to Cambridge are not meant to suggest that this is exclusively a problem of the older universities—very far from it. I have gained all my experience in the newer universities and in universities in the United States of America. I realise that this problem affects them quite as vitally as—possibly, since in some cases they are not so old and their traditions may not be so deeply rooted, even more than—it does the older universities.

There is, of course, another side to the question, and I recognise that we should not, through our zeal for freedom, permit the enemies of democracy to destroy it. I accept that. I have not heard any com- ment on this matter by anyone at all who does not accept the necessity to take all reasonable precautions to ensure that only reliable persons shall be employed in posts where access to secret information is possible. It is obvious that persons with defects of character may sell secrets or betray them under the threat of blackmail. Experience during and since the war has shown that Fascists and Communists will betray secrets to other Governments in the interests of what they conceive to be a higher loyalty. Because that is so, we are bound to ensure that such persons do not have access to the secrets of defence and foreign policy.

University teachers are accustomed to being asked by prospective employers to give their confidential opinion on the suitability of their former pupils for employment by that employer. They do not object to that. They are accustomed to it. I have done it myself scores of times. They do not object to being asked a similar question in this connection, "Do you think that Mr. So-and-so is a person who, in your judgment, is suitable to be employed on work of a highly confidential or secret nature?" That is not an unreasonable question to ask. It is a question which, I believe, university teachers are quite prepared to answer.

Mr. Thomson went so far as to say: I believe it is a don's duty to help to keep any potential traitor out of what you might call security risk jobs. I have no doubt that opinion would be agreed by most university teachers. But he went on to say: I do not think he should be asked to divulge to security officers or to anybody else the knowledge or considerations that have led him to this verdict. Nothing should be done to extract from him details about his pupil's beliefs and opinions, political or any other. That, I think, expresses very succinctly and fairly the line which should be drawn.

It is right, reasonable and proper to ask teachers for their confidential opinion, which they can give freely; but there is no reason to go further and to ask what they know about the activities and the opinions of the young men in their charge. They are in a far better position to judge the extent to which one should give weight, in youth, to political activities and expressions of opinion and the extent to which these things can be discounted and disregarded as due to immaturity and the like. If university teachers are treated in this way, as responsible individuals, they will respond as responsible individuals, and they should be so approached. As Mr. Thomson put it: … it would be more to the point to ask teachers whether a man is discreet or not than whether he is a Communist or not. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will say that he realises the force of this argument.

We are not dealing with ignorant people, with no ability to distinguish the chaff from the wheat, the essential from the inessential. We are dealing with people who spend their whole lives doing precisely that, people whose advice can be of much more value to the Home Secretary if it can be given in confidence, and freely, than if attempts are made to ask a whole list of questions which the conscience of the teacher will make him refuse to answer. As Mr. Thomson says: A don can teach successfully only through a personal relationship based on confidence. If we destroy that personal relationship based upon confidence, we attack university life at its roots, and we deprive it of its ability to do the very thing which it is supposed to do.

It may be said. "Well what are you talking about? We agree with all this. Everybody can subscribe to what you have said. We are not lost to the danger." I am convinced that there is a danger. Mr. Thomson himself referred to … these absurdities and these pernicious distrusts will grow unless security officers are forbidden to ask in universities the detailed political questions they have sometimes been asking. He knew before he said that that questions had been put of a detailed nature of that kind which are objectionable.

The Council of the Association of University Teachers, meeting recently in Cardiff, made it quite clear, in the discussion on this question, which was reported at fair length in the Press, that there had been an extension of the inquiries recently and that they were going altogether beyond the bounds of what is tolerable and reasonable in the interests, indeed, of the Government themselves.

The Home Secretary said in the House yesterday: I can say that no significant changes or extensions have been made in the last twelve months."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th June, 1957; Vol. 571. c. 1465.] He said that in reply to Questions asking what changes or what new inquiries had been made to ascertain the political views and activities of university students. Of course, I accept that when the right hon. Gentleman said that he could say that no significant changes or extensions had been made in the last twelve months he was saying what he thought, from his experience, to be true.

I want the Under-Secretary to ask his right hon. Friend, when he reports to him on this topic, whether he will inquire further into the matter and satisfy himself whether, in fact, there have been no changes and no extensions recently. I suggest that it is possible for security services, full of zeal to do their job, as all good civil servants are, to go further than their instructions really warrant in their anxiety to be sure that they are fully seized of all the information they ought to have and that the information they have is reliable. They carry their investigations and inquiries beyond the bounds that the Home Secretary himself would approve.

I ask the Home Secretary to take the profession more closely into his confidence than the Government seem to have done so far. The profession to which I belong, or to which I belonged until I became a Member of Parliament, no more wants our free institutions destroyed than does the right hon. Gentleman or the Under-Secretary; but the profession has its professional honour to safeguard, and the relations-hip between the university teacher and his pupil, though it may be somewhat different, is not very greatly different in character from the relation between the doctor and his patient or the priest and the penitent.

Their exchanges of views and confidence ought not to be interfered with to any greater degree than those other confidences are interfered with. They have as much right to safeguard their special relationship as the profession of medicine or the profession of religion. They may have to consider drawing up a code of conduct, as other professions have done, but I am sure that before they do that they would welcome the opportunity to talk to the right hon. Gentleman and the Under-Secretary.

I pass from the question of relations between staff and students to the other question of whether or not university teachers have been invited to watch one another and to report the actions, behaviour and opinions of other university teachers to the security authorities. I believe that this is what may have happened. The security authorities or agents, having asked a university don for an opinion upon one or more of his students, may then have said to themselves, or perhaps some other wing of the security organisation may have said, "This opinion is all very well, but what do we know of the person who gave it?", and they may then have started a check upon the person from whom they asked the opinion.

That kind of thing can go on and on and never end. Espionage leads to counter-espionage and to counter-counter-espionage until a whole tangle of people can be involved in this sort of inquiry and nobody can know whether liberty is being preserved or not. The high probability of it is that at the end of the day false information is given to the Government.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

Who investigates the policeman?

Mr. Marquand

I believe quite seriously that, in the desire to check upon those who have given opinions, the security authorities have asked teachers in universities to give opinions on their fellow teachers. That is a serious statement to make. I think it is true. I do not believe that that could have been done with the personal authority of the Home Secretary.

The right hon. Gentleman told us earlier today that something had been done by his predecessor which he would now not regard as a precedent. We were very glad indeed to hear that. Possibly, in this case, something of that kind may have occurred. If so, I hope we shall get the same answer—that what may have been done in the past was due either to an action for which the Home Secretary was not personally responsible or was due to excess of zeal on the part of agents of the Crown and that it will not be regarded as a precedent, and will be stopped.

I have taken steps to check the accuracy of the story that at least one university teacher has been asked to report on the activities of his fellow teachers in his university institution. I have prima facie evidence that the story is true. I will say no more. I have no intention of mentioning names. The name, I shall, of course, give freely to the right hon. Gentleman and to the hon. and learned Gentleman; indeed, the person who gave me the information has asked me to do so.

All I ask is that the hon. and learned Gentleman shall investigate that evidence. Then we shall know that he appreciates the gravity of a charge of this nature. I do not believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman could deny the truth and the high value of what Professor Montrose said at the last meeting of the A.U.T. Conference, which was: We ought to make it clear that this Association is quite convinced that no person can with honour remain a university teacher and, at the same time, agree to be a secret agent for the Government in this work. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that this is a proper professional view to take? Would he disagree with what Mr. Thompson also said, which was: To entice or expect dons to reveal the views of their colleagues in the common room or at the high table must always be pernicious and impermissible. Is it impermissible? If it takes place, and if the hon. and learned Gentleman, after looking at the evidence which this person is prepared to give him, will accept that it is true, will he ensure that it is in future impermissible?

I would also ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to request the Home Secretary to go further than the individual case to which I will give him access. If there were reason to believe that an approach of this kind had been made to one university teacher, alarm would spread throughout the university world, and the relationship between teacher and taught would be in jeopardy throughout our land. Therefore, it should be necessary to go further than merely to investigate the one case, and to set on foot some kind of inquiry into how far the security services really carry out the wishes of Ministers. Have they gone beyond the bounds of reason? Have they been engaging in something which the Government did not wish to happen and would not approve of, and can Parliament be informed that the requisite measures have been taken to stop it?

The right hon. Gentleman might perhaps approach the Conference of the Privy Councillors which looked into this matter a short time ago. It then reported that it was satisfied that reasonable precautions were being taken which did not go unnecessarily far in restricting the liberty of the subject. The right hon. Gentleman might ask it to look at it again and report to him, so that its report can, in part, be published to satisfy Parliament and the country whether or not there has been any extension of this practice, since it last reported, and whether the right hon. Gentleman is satisfied.

I am asking the hon. and learned Gentleman three questions today to which I would like an answer. The first is whether he will consult the profession. By that I mean not merely consult the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals—though I certainly agree and think that it ought to be consulted. Knowing so many of the Committee as I do as personal friends, I am sure that it would take the same kind of view as I have taken this morning. But the Association of University Teachers—will they be consulted about this matter and taken, to some permissible degree, into the confidence of the Government and their views expressed?

Secondly, will the hon. and learned Gentleman consider—I am sure that he must say "Yes" to this—the evidence that university teachers have been asked to report on their fellows?

Thirdly, will he invite a group of Privy Councillors to look into the matter? If the hon. and learned Gentleman does not think that is appropriate, would he invite an eminent person whose impartiality and high standing will give confidence to the public to do so? This was done in wartime, when Sir Norman Birkett was invited to report on the 18B procedure. Would he ask such a person, who would be as anxious to protect the liberties of the public as to protect the due interests of the State, to make some inquiry into this matter, if it is inappropriate to refer the matter to Privy Councillors?

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to answer all three questions in the affirmative.

11.46 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

I am sure that the whole House will be grateful for the way in which the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) has raised this important issue, not only for the spirit in which he has approached it, but —I hope it will not be thought an impertinence if I say this—for the very impressive way in which he phrased the case that he made. The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, a Privy Councillor himself, and he is entitled to be heard with particular authority on this matter in that his own academic record both as student and as teacher was one of singular brilliance.

The question that the right hon. Gentleman has raised today is one of very grave importance. It is an aspect of the age-long relationship between security and freedom. Without security there can be no freedom. The problem on the one hand, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, is to prevent freedom from being used to destroy freedom; but equally, on the other hand, we must take care that the measures we take for the preservation of freedom do not themselves result in its impairment.

The problem first arose in its modern form in the 1930s, when the menace was primarily a Fascist one. A strongly organised Fascist Party abused such simple, traditional liberties as to dress as we please, to parade in procession and to criticise other classes of the community. It abused such freedoms in such a way, we believed, as to threaten to destroy the very liberty on which such freedoms depended. Therefore, it was felt necessary, reluctantly and distastefully, to limit to some degree the freedoms which the community generally had enjoyed so that the greater freedom should be retained.

Today, it is another alien, extremist and subversive movement which generally threatens our liberty. The cold war may vary in temperature and may even flare up, as in Hungary and Korea, into armed conflict, but the aim of the subjugation of the free world to Communism remains constant. It would be as great a mistake to exaggerate the menace so far as it relates to the internal security of this country as to pretend that it does not exist. The Canadian spy ring, Nunn May, Fuchs, Burgess and Maclean, are too recent in our memory.

The statement of the Conference of Privy Councillors, of which the right hon. Gentleman for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) was a member, really gives the authoritative analysis of the general nature of the security risks with which this country is faced today. I will quote from the words of the Report: The Conference point out that whereas once the main risk to be guarded against was espionage by foreign Powers carried out by professional agents, today the chief risks are presented by Communists and by other persons who, for one reason or another, are subject to Communist influence. The Communist faith overrides a man's normal loyalties to his country and induces the belief that it is justifiable to hand over secret information to the Communist Party or to the Communist foreign Power. This risk from Communists is not, however, confined to party members, either open or underground, but it extends to sympathisers with Communism. That is a summary of the findings of the Privy Councillors. It is the task of the security authorities to deal with that problem.

The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East was, of course, quite right in pointing out that that Conference was not dealing specifically with the question of security in the universities, but with regard to security arrangements generally the Conference concluded that there was nothing organically wrong and unsound about that. In fact, it made some recommendations for strengthening the arrangements in some respects.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

I should point out, particularly in view of the false quotation by the Home Secretary yesterday of that same passage, that our conclusion there was really the answer to the question the Conference was asked: "Are the existing security arrangements adequate or should they be fortified and strengthened?" Our reply was, "No, they should not be fortified and strengthened. They are adequate to deal with the problem."

That does not mean that we went into every detail to see whether it offended against civil liberty. We did not do that. The quotation the Joint Under-Secretary has just made was in reply to the question whether more powers were necessary.

Mr. Simon

Of course, I entirely accept what the right hon. Member for Vauxhall said. The actual quotation was: Their main conclusion is that there is nothing organically wrong or unsound about those arrangements. The Conference, however, made certain recommendations the purpose of which was to strengthen the system in some respects. Looking at the very distinguished names of the gentlemen who constituted that Conference, I cannot believe that if there were a real menace to civil liberties in the arrangements made they would not have said so. I am quite sure the right hon. Member for Vauxhall himself would have said so.

Before I deal specifically with the position of the universities, I will say this. The activities of the security services fall under two heads. First, there are general inquiries to guard against subversion of our freedom and, secondly, there are specific inquiries to ensure that anyone taken into certain work of great secrecy is reliable. With regard to the second, the specific inquiries, I accept what the right hon. Member for Middlesborough. East said, that it is necessary to make that sort of inquiry and that is well understood by the persons who are asked —who, in certain cases, are university teachers—and that the university teachers accept that it is necessary and that there is nothing undesirable about it.

I shall certainly draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend what the right hon. Member suggested as to the method of approach to university teachers. Indeed, I do not see that that should necessarily be limited to university people. The fact that an individual may have been associated with a Communist organisation in his student days does not automatically bar him from access to secret information.

Secondly, it is the aim of the Government to obtain a complete picture. All the information about such a person which can assist in the assessment of his reliability—and the testimony of university teachers is, as the right hon. Member suggested, of great assistance in making that assessment—

Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas (Leicester, North-East)

Are the university teachers asked about the opinions expressed by students in the course of their education? That, to my mind, is the central vice of all this. It poisons the relationship between the student and his teacher in the course of the student's education. I do hope that questions on those lines, at any rate, are not asked, but if they are asked, that consideration is given to that.

Mr. S. Silverman

Before the Under-Secretary answers that, I wonder whether he would mind if I add a short appendix to it? If a university teacher is asked, in respect of a particular student, whether he holds Communist opinions, is a member of a Communist Party, has Communist associations, or has shown signs of Communist sympathies, the university teacher cannot know that unless he knows what the actual political opinions of the student are. Therefore, once we admit the question we widen the range inevitably so as to cover what everyone regards as undesirable, namely, an assessment of character on the basis of political opinions or ideas.

Mr. Simon

I was going to deal later with the aspect of the matter which was raised by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas). The question asked by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) is, I think, a corollary of the point made by the hon. and learned Member. As I said, as to the method of approach, I will draw what has been said to the attention of my right hon. Friend and I will indicate later what the repercussions there might be.

I wanted to add another matter, which, I hope, may be some reassurance to the House. No adverse recommendation would be made on the basis of the unsupported evidence of one witness— nothing like that. As I have said, I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to what has been said as to the method of approach and what sort of question could be asked. The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East suggested that the fundamental question is: is he reliable? I think that that would meet the point made by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne.

The right hon. Member also asked whether the Home Secretary will make a personal inquiry into these matters. I think I can say, without referring the matter to him, that he will do so, that he will make this his personal responsibility to look into the case to which the right hon. Member referred, and I shall myself gladly look at any evidence or meet any person the right hon. Member desires. My right hon. Friend will look personally into that case and, as the right hon. Member suggested, into the matter generally as well.

Mr. Marquand

Does that mean with the A.U.T. and the vice-chancellors and principals of universities?

Mr. Simon

That is a different matter. All I can say about that is that I will draw that suggestion to the attention of my right hon. Friend. With regard to the specific case, my right hon. Friend will look into that and, if it is so desired, I will meet personally the gentleman concerned.

With regard to the general matter, I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the suggestion that he should not only look into it himself, but take the university authorities into consultation.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

When the Home Secretary has made his inquiry, will he make a report to the House of Commons on the outcome of it?

Mr. Simon

That I cannot answer specifically; I think it depends very much on the nature of the inquiries. I hope that the hon. Lady will not press me on that because, obviously, it is not a matter on which I can commit my right hon. Friend, but I shall draw to his attention further what is obviously the desire of the hon. Lady, and it might well be that of the House generally, that, if possible, a report should be made to the House.

I have dealt so far with the specific inquiries relating to individuals, and, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, provided that those inquiries are reasonably circumscribed, there is no objection on the part of university dons to answering references from Government Departments any more than to their answering references by, say, commercial undertakings.

There is, however, the second question, which is the general inquiry into subversive activities. It may be espionage activities; it may be subversive activities. I cannot, of course, say what those arrangements are. That would obviously be contrary to the public interest. Indeed, it would be destroying the whole purpose of the security investigations. However, I want to say one or two things—I will do so briefly, because I have exceeded my time—about the position of the universities.

I recognise that the universities are, to some extent, in an especial position. In the first place, there is the fact which the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) mentioned yesterday. He said that … the political activities of students should be taken very much less seriously than the political activities of more adult people …." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th June, 1957; Vol. 571, c. 1466–7.] I think that university students themselves take their own political activities quite seriously, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman's sentence was not fortunately phrased, but I think we understood very well what he meant, which is that a student's political activities must be viewed in relation to the other activities of a man or girl of that age. I can well remember while at school writing an essay on the French Revolution, in red ink, in protest against the views of my brilliant instructor, who is now Professor of History at the R.M.C., whose political views I now hold.

The second and, I think, more important thing is the point which was adverted to by the right hon. Gentleman, and that is that free speculation is the essence of university life and it would be a very great loss if anything occurred to impair that freedom.

Thirdly, I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it would also be a severe loss if the confidential relationship between tutor and student were destroyed, and that academic life as we know it could hardly continue to exist if it were thought that a spy was planted in every common room. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that there is no justification for any such apprehension, no justification for the belief that university teachers are encouraged to spy upon their colleagues or their students.

As I have said, I will investigate any case which is—[Interruption.] I used the word "encouraged".

Mrs. Castle

That is the whole allegation.

Mr. Simon

That is the allegation which I hope I have met. I hope I have made clear the spirit in which the Government approach the matter. I will investigate any case which is brought to my notice. I can only conclude as I began, by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he approached the matter.

Sir L. Ungoed-Thomas

The hon. and learned Gentleman said that he would deal with the question raised about opinions expressed. Are questions asked of tutors about opinions expressed by students in the course of their education by the tutors?

Mrs. Castle

Yes, they are.

Mr. Simon

I cannot answer that categorically, but I will go into the matter and ascertain the extent of the inquiries that are made.