HC Deb 27 June 1957 vol 572 cc411-22

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

54, 55 and 56. Viscount HINCHINGBROOKE

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department (1) whether he will list the alleged offences for which permission is given to tap telephone calls;

(2) how many times in the last 12 months permission has been given to the police to tap telephones; and what was the average annual incidence in the interwar years; and

(3) what steps he takes to ensure that no police tapping of telephone calls takes place without his express permission; and whether such permission is given in categories or only in individual cases.

59. Mr. LEWIS

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will give the dates since 1945 when the telephone at the National Trade Union Club, 12, Great Newport Street, was tapped, and details of other trade union organisations which have had their telephones tapped since 1945.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department the number of occasions, since 1st January, 1956, when the police have been authorised to tap telephones, and, of these, the number of such authorisations which were made, respectively, on grounds of security and to assist in the detection or prevention of crime.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department at whose request or suggestion the results of the tapping of Mr. Marrinan's conversations were handed over to the Bar Council.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will advise an exercise of powers under Section 4 of the Judicial Committee Act, 1833, for hearing and advice by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on the extent of the prerogative rights of the Crown to intercept telephone conversations between private persons and to convey a record of them to third parties.

64. Mr. LEE

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department on what occasions telephone conversations involving trade union officials have been tapped by State security organisations.

65 and 66. Mr. LANGFORD-HOLT

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, (1) on how many occasions in each calendar year since 1945 his authority has been sought for the tapping of telephone lines, firstly, in cases involving national security, and secondly, in cases involving serious crime;

(2) what categories of crime are covered by the definition of serious crime in cases where his authority may be sought for the tapping of telephone lines.

71. Mr. LIPTON

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department for what offences other than treason or espionage permission is granted to tap telephones.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

As the Questions on the Order Paper dealing with telephone intercepts have not been reached, I will, with your permission, and, perhaps, for the convenience of the House, answer these Questions now in the form of this general statement.

First, as regards the manner in which the power of interception is exercised. Interception is carried out not by the police but by the Post Office, acting on the authority of a warrant of a Secretary of State addressed to the Postmaster-General. The police and the Post Office are well aware that this authority is required; and I am informed that if a Post Office servant intercepts a telephone line and discloses the information obtained contrary to his duty he commits an offence.

The Secretary of State considers each application to intercept a telephone line individually; permission is not given in relation to categories of offence or in relation to all offences of a given description. Each application is considered in relation to the circumstances of the particular case. No list of categories or offences can, therefore, be given.

The answer to a further series of Questions is that, as I informed the House on 25th June, I should not be justified in the public interest in disclosing either the number of interceptions authorised or whether a warrant has been issued in any particular case or in relation to any particular class of persons.

I have also been asked at whose request or suggestion the results of intercepting were handed over to the Bar Council in a particular case. The answer is as follows:

On 26th October, 1956, the Attorney-General, as Head of the Bar, referred to the Bar Council a complaint of alleged unprofessional conduct by Mr. Marrinan, in a matter about which evidence had been given in a trial at the Central Criminal Court. The Secretary of the Council asked the police whether any further information was available about Mr. Marrinan's conduct. The only further information in the possession of the police was information obtained in June and July, 1956, as the result of an interception of the telephone line not of the barrister but of a Mr. Hill.

The Secretary of State authorised disclosure of this information to the Chairman of the Bar Council, the right hon. and learned Member for St. Helens (Sir H. Shawcross), who subsequently asked that he might have a copy of it and for permission to disclose its existence to the Bar Council, to the Benchers of Mr. Marrinan's Inn, and to Mr. Marrinan, so that, if necessary, it might be used in connection with any investigation into the conduct of Mr. Marrinan. This permission was given.

As regards the suggestion that this matter should be referred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, my present view is that this procedure is neither necessary or appropriate.

Finally, the House would like to know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I are meeting the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party this evening to discuss how certain aspects of this matter could best be handled in future.

Mr. Gaitskell

On the last sentence of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, I should like, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, to make it clear that, while I am very glad to meet the Prime Minister and the right hon. Gentleman to discuss this question, there can be no question, as far as we are concerned, of ignoring either the past or the present situation, nor could there be any question of our regarding such a meeting as a substitute for a debate in this House.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, as I asked him just before the Whitsun Recess, whether there is any precedent for disclosure of information obtained in this way to any outside body, and, if there is no such precedent, why did the then Home Secretary make this disclosure?

Mr. Butler

I quite understand the reservations made by the right hon. Gentleman about the meeting this evening. No terms and conditions have been laid down for the meeting, and, no doubt, we may have reservations of our own on our side. But I hope that the meeting will be successful in making some progress with this matter and seeing how this sort of question could best be handled in the future. That is all we can hope, and that the meeting will be successful.

On the question of precedent, it is not easy to discover a case similar to this, so far as my researches have gone up to date. As I said, we do not intend that this shall be a precedent.

As regards the reference to my predecessor, I should simply like to say that, from studying the papers, I am quite satisfied that he acted with the highest motives in handing this information over, because he felt that he was doing something which might help to retain the highest standards of the Bar. I am satisfied as to his motives in so doing.

Mr. Gaitskell

There is, of course, no question of impugning the motives of the noble Lord who then held the office of Home Secretary, but there is very grave doubt as to the appropriateness of his action. Will the right hon. Gentleman make it plain that on no future occasion will any information obtained in this way be disclosed to the Bar Council?

Mr. Butler

I think we might even take the matter further than that. I certainly do not propose that this matter should be treated as a precedent, and I hope that, partly out of our meeting this evening and out of further developments, we may be able to form some procedure which gives satisfaction to the House in this matter. I think that that would be more satisfactory to all concerned.

Mr. Grimond

If, as I understand, the then Home Secretary actually volunteered the information that this tapping had taken place, does the present Home Secretary hold that that could possibly have been covered by the prerogative in any form?

Mr. Butler

The prerogative covers only the question of the Secretary of State of the day authorising interceptions, and the rest is a matter of judgment on the part of the Secretary of State of the day in regard to the action he took. He responded, in fact, to a request from the secretary of the Bar Council to the police, asking whether any further information was available about Mr. Marrinan's conduct. When it was discovered that this further information was available, he decided, in his discretion, to make it available, for the reasons I have given.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

On the general issue, is my right hon. Friend aware that so much public anxiety has been aroused that it is unlikely to be resolved by a debate, because my right hon. Friend will feel himself just as restricted in that debate as he has been in his considered answers to Questions which have been put down. In those circumstances, would it be possible to consider, with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, the appointment of a Select Committee of this House to take evidence and report, with discretion, to the House and the country?

Mr. Butler

I myself feel that something rather more than a debate may be necessary, although, of course, I do not exclude a debate in our ordinary constitutional procedure. It is precisely that sort of matter which I should like to discuss with right hon. Gentlemen and my right hon. Friend this evening, when we have an opportunity. We will take into account what my noble Friend suggests. I am not quite certain that the solution would be exactly on those lines, but I think that it may be necessary to reassure the House in some way on the sort of lines he suggests.

Mr. H. Morrison

The Home Secretary, I thought, suggested earlier that this information was given at the request of the chairman of the Bar Council specifically—[HON. MEMBERS: "The secretary."]—or the secretary; I thought it was then the chairman. In view of his later statement, may I ask the Home Secretary now whether it is the case that the Bar Council asked the police whether they had any further information on the case, which may have been quite legitimate, but that then the then Home Secretary voluntarily offered the record which was the result of the interceptions? In those circumstances, would not the Home Secretary agree that the major responsibility for this exceptional action was not on the Bar Council, but on the then Secretary of State?

Mr. Butler

It is a little difficult exactly to apportion responsibility. The right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that the original request as to whether there was any information came from the secretary of the Bar Council to the police. The further, subsequent, development was that the Secretary of State, as I said in my statement today, authorised the disclosure of this information to the chairman of the Bar Council. I think that hon. Members must, therefore, make up their own minds where they think responsibility lies.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is it not the case that the Home Secretary authorised the disclosure of this information in the first place to the secretary of the Bar Council and that only subsequently did the chairman of the Bar Council ask for a copy of the transcript?

Mr. Butler

Exactly what happened was this. The information was, as I have ascertained from the papers, made available to the secretary of the Bar Council. It so happened that the chairman was away at the time and the information was made available to the secretary. When the chairman returned, he gained this information and subsequently contact was made between the chairman of the Bar Council and the Secretary of State of the day. The right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that, in the first place, the information was given to the secretary.

Mr. Doughty

As members of the Bar have to take part in the public administration of public law, is it not vital that their conduct, if criticised, should be inquired into from every angle and that all information, from whatever source, should be available to that inquiry?

My right hon. Friend referred to the tapping of the telephone conversations of a Mr. Hill. Is that the same gentleman who, I have read in the papers, describes himself as the "King of the underworld?"

Mr. Butler

The answer to the latter part of my hon. and learned Friend's supplementary question is, "Yes, Sir." He does describe himself by that title, which, I think, he seems to have deserved.

The answer to the first question is that I would rather make no further observations, because, as everybody knows, this case is being considered by the Benchers today, tomorrow and the next day.

Mr. Fletcher

In view of the very wide anxiety that this case has aroused, and the grave doubts concerning the extent of the prerogative claimed by the Home Secretary, will the Government not reconsider the desirability, to ally public anxiety, of referring this whole question to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, so that there may be an authoritative pronouncement not only on the extent of the prerogative to tap telephone conversations, but on whether such prerogative exists and covers in any circumstances the conveying of such information to outside bodies?

Mr. Butler

I am satisfied that my predecessors have exercised this power from the very earliest time, not only in respect of letters but also telegrams and, after the Edison case, in relation to telephones—that is, for many years. I am satisfied that they have been right in doing so. I would rather not give a final opinion on the legal position in question and answer, because it is extremely complicated. Therefore, I would rather reserve that for another occasion when a decision can be taken with the advice of our own Law Officers.

Mr. Langford-Holt

Is my right hon. Friend aware that everyone appreciates that he has a very difficult job in holding the balance between the freedom of the individual and the security of the State? If, however, this House is to maintain its control over such matters, will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of some form of return to this House, directly or indirectly, as to how this power has been used previously?

Mr. Butler

If we did that, we should have to do it with some regard to the question of security and the obvious question of secrecy, but I will certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend suggests.

Mr. Shinwell

In view of allegations that have been made that the telephone communications of hon. Members have been tapped, can the Home Secretary give an assurance that that is not so and that hon. Members will be protected against infiltrations of this kind?

Mr. Butler

I am not prepared to depart from the general line taken by myself and, I notice, also by Sir William Harcourt and some of my more distinguished predecessors, by naming any category of persons who may be covered by this power. That does not mean that by taking a line of that sort I am implying that any hon. Member's telephone has, in fact, been interfered with. I am simply saying that I am not prepared to make any exception in regard to the categories mentioned.

Mr. Shinwell

Are we to understand from that astonishing reply that at present, or in the past, and in the future—

Mr. F. Harris

The right hon. Gentleman was in power too.

Mr. Shinwell

—telephone communications of hon. Members can be—[An HON. MEMBER: "Are being."]—intercepted? If hon. Members opposite prefer to have that situation, they can have it. Can we be assured that the communications of hon. Members on this side are not being intercepted? In the absence of a definite assurance of that kind, can we have a response to the quite legitimate request of the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke), that a Select Committee of this House be set up to inquire into the whole matter?

Mr. Butler

The only assurance I can give to the right hon. Gentleman on this important matter, which, I quite understand, affects the feelings of all hon. Members and may, indeed, arouse a feeling of Privilege, is that I am quite prepared to consider that tonight with the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party, but I am not prepared to issue statements about categories of persons, including Members of Parliament.

In this connection, I go back to a precedent, although telephones were not invented at that time, on the subject of interception of communications in 1735, from which date the House has always resolved that the Secretary of State of the day has special powers by warrant. I am not prepared to go back on the tradition, nor am I prepared to make any statement of categories.

Mr. Bellenger

Is not the question of the interception of telephone calls of Members of Parliament a matter that might raise a question of Privilege, in which you, Mr. Speaker, would have to be concerned? Although I do not ask for any Ruling at the moment, might it not be a question that you should consider and upon which you, as the guardian of the rights of hon. Members of this House, should guide us?

Mr. Speaker

The House is the guardian of its own privileges. My duties, as I have frequently explained, are procedural, if a case is brought before me, to say whether a prima facie case has been made out. There is, however, no sort of case before me at the moment and I could not express an opinion without such a case and its relevant facts.

Mr. Fort

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us in this House want to be treated in this matter like our fellow citizens and that that is only fair?

Mr. Lee

If the right hon. Gentleman will not mention categories of people, can he give the House any assurance on the number of occasions on which this practice is now happening? In other words, is it happening more frequently now than at any other period?

Mr. Butler

I do not think that I should be out of order in saying that, having looked at the records very carefully, I see really no difference in practice under the present Administration and that which was carried out under my predecessors. I certainly see no increase of the power used, which, as I have said before, is a distasteful power and must be used with great care by the Secretary of State of the day.

Mr. Lipton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that everything he has said today still leaves the position most unsatisfactory from the point of view of both hon. Members and the general public, and that we are justified in believing that we are living in a police State? In view of the fact that it is, I think, generally agreed that there should never be any disclosure of police intercepts to outside bodies, why did the Home Secretary reject the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to recall the transcripts that had been wrongly sent to the Bar Council? Why did he reject that legitimate suggestion and not show that at least to that extent he regretted the very grave blunder that had been made in disclosing these intercepts to an outside body?

Mr. Butler

I did not take any further action on the transcripts because I thought they seemed to have got quite enough publicity already—in fact, many people, in the Press and elsewhere, say that they have seen them—and I did not think that it would do any good to withdraw the transcripts from the Bar Council. Nor do I think it would have been right to do so in view of the motives which animated my predecessor in sending them to the Bar Council.

Mr. Collins

Although the right hon. Gentleman refuses to give any information about categories, will he say whether this power of interception of telephone conversations has been used in any type of case other than security or the detection of crime? If so, what are the criteria which would govern the right hon. Gentleman in his decision on these matters?

Mr. Butler

I am not aware of cases which would not fall within the categories I have mentioned in my previous statement, namely, national security or the detection of crime, and those should be the criteria in dealing with these matters.

Mr. Shinwell

The right hon. Gentleman referred to a meeting which is to take place tonight with the Leader of the Opposition 'and some of his right hon. Friends and, I think, the Leader of the Liberal Party. Are we to understand that a report of the proceedings will be made to the House, or is there any possibility of interception of some kind? Quite seriously, are we to understand that the House will be informed of the deliberations?

Mr. Butler

That is a matter for agreement between those who are meeting this evening. What is quite clear is that owing to the great interest naturally aroused in this matter in the House and in the country we certainly have, to use a House of Commons expression, to report progress in due course to the House.

As Leader of the House, I should like to say that, although these discussions are taking place officially with the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party, I do not exclude contact with any other right hon. or hon. Member who is keenly interested in the subject. If I can be of service to them I shall be at their disposal.


Mr. Short

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When the Home Secretary was answering Questions on telephone tapping, I stood on my feet each time and tried to catch your eye. One Privy Councillor asked these supplementary questions, and on each occasion when he was called I was on my feet. In fact, I think I was the only hon. Member who stood up and was not called. May I ask whether there is any limit to the precedence given to Privy Councillors on these occasions?

Mr. Speaker

There is no limit to the discretion which may be exercised by a Privy Councillors, if that is what the hon. Member is asking, but that is another matter. I fear I could only find time for Privy Councillors and those who took the trouble to put Questions, on the Order Paper, and I do not recollect that the hon. Member did so.

Mr. Short

Further to that point of order, Sir. The point I am putting is not that at all. The point I am putting is whether or not the Chair is bound to call a Privy Councillor on every occasion when he stands up, especially in a series of Questions like this, when he has already had one supplementary question.

Mr. Speaker

I think I must say that there are limits to the patience of the Chair. I have to exercise my duties bearing in mind the long-continued practice of the House.