HC Deb 27 May 1957 vol 571 cc175-86

Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

11.3 p.m.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I am raising tonight the question of the alarming growth of the practice of making secret reports on British citizens in the name of security. In doing so I labour under a severe disability, because this practice has now spread over so many fields, and so many new methods are being employed to obtain the information on which the secret reports are made, that I have difficulty in covering the subject adequately in the space of an Adjournment debate.

Therefore, I have limited my discussion of this subject to the practice of making secret reports on British citizens who want to travel in the Commonwealth, to emigrate to the Commonwealth, or to obtain jobs in other member countries of the Commonwealth. I am raising this matter as a result of the case of Keith John Miller, which I first ventilated in the House a fortnight ago—a case in which a young engineer wanted to go mountaineering in Pakistan, and was told by the Pakistan Government that he was personally not acceptable. As a result of the matter being raised in this House, the Pakistan Government's objection was withdrawn.

In the course of our questioning on this case, we elicited some important facts. The first of these was the admission by the Under-Secretary himself, on 9th May, that Information is, in certain circumstances, exchanged between Commonwealth Governments about persons proposing to travel from one part of the Commonwealth to another. He went on: But it is not the practice to disclose whether or not such information has been furnished to any other Government in regard to named individuals. When we pressed to know what the source of information was we were told that that could not be revealed—the source of the information about the character of a British citizen on whom an adverse report had been made. We were told that that was confidential. When we asked that any British citizen on whom an adverse report had been made, perhaps to the serious jeopardy of his whole future, should have the right to know the nature of the report, the source of the allegations against him, and the nature of the allegations against him, and that he should have a chance to answer the charges and a right of appeal, we were told that … it is the duty of the Secretary of State to satisfy himself as to the reliability of an!, information which may be passed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th May. 1957; Vol. 569. c. 1164 and 1168] We were told that there could be no appeal against the judgment of the Secretary of State.

Certain important information emerged from the answers given in the case of Keith John Miller. First and foremost the Under-Secretary of State abandoned any attempt to ride away from his Department's responsibility in this matter by saying that the refusal of entry of a British citizen to a Commonwealth country was entirely a matter for the Commonwealth Government concerned. I give him credit for that, that he did not try to ride away from his responsibility. He did not pretend that it was entirely within the jurisdiction of the Pakistan Government, the Canadian Government, or whatever Commonwealth Government might be involved, because he admitted that information is exchanged, and that that information is supplied entirely on the responsibility of the Secretary of State, who satisfies himself as to its reliability.

The second thing that we established in the case of Keith John Miller was that quite obviously the Secretary of State is not infallible. It is quite clear that he was highly fallible in the case of Mr. Keith John Miller. I first took up the case with the Secretary of State personally before I raised it on the Floor of the House, and he told me that he had made the fullest inquiries into the case and was not prepared to intervene. In other words, he had satisfied himself that the information—whatever it was—which was against Mr. Keith John Miller was adequate to justify the Pakistan Government in refusing to him entry into Pakistan.

Nobody was more surprised than I, in view of that assurance from the Secretary of State himself, when the Under-Secretary of State told us that the objections of the Pakistan Government had been withdrawn. I was all the more surprised because the High Commissioner's Office had told me, only an hour earlier, that the objections were still sustained.

There is a very great mystery about the case of Mr. Keith John Miller. We do not know what was the reason for the adverse report in the first place, though we are fairly satisfied that the objections were political and that they stemmed from the fact that for one year in his freshman days at the City and Guilds College this young man had been a member of the Students' Labour Federation, a body with Communist associations. The fact that since then he had engaged in no political activities, was a student who took a first-class degree in engineering, and had the reputable hobby of mountaineering, did not weigh in the balance.

My theory is that automatic reports are presented by the British Secret Service to Commonwealth Governments on which they act without themselves checking the information, and that in this case, when the Pakistan Government heard that there was an outcry in the British House of Commons, then for the first time the Pakistan Government themselves began to examine the source of the information instead of accepting automatically the black list presented by M.I.5, and concluded that the case was ludicrous and certainly not worth the risk of causing bad blood between Pakistan and this country. I congratulate them on that.

This case, however, raises wider implications. These are terrifying to the citizens of this country, because another interesting admission was made by the Under-Secretary on 16th May, when we followed this matter up. The hon. Gentleman let us know that in many of these cases it is not a question of a Commonwealth Government coming to the Commonwealth Relations Office and saying, "We have an application from a young man or woman who wants to come to our country, either as an immigrant or a visitor. Can you tell us anything about the applicant?" Sometimes the information is volunteered by the British Government.

The hon. Gentleman said: Such exchanges sometimes take place at the initiative of the Government which is in possession of Information.…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 16th May, 1957; Vol. 570, c. 548–9.] That can only mean that there is a permanent pool of information about thousands of British citizens which is being collected at some source in the British Government machine, from which adverse information can be drawn from time to time and secretly used against a British citizen.

That has quite far-reaching implications. Not everybody wants to go mountaineering, but since I raised the case of Mr. Keith John Miller I have been absolutely inundated with letters from people who say, "Now I will tell you my story". I only wish that I had time to read to the House details of a fraction of these cases. It is only in a few cases that people dare allow their names to be used, for obvious reasons. Some say, "I cannot let my name be brought up, but here are the facts for use in support of your very wise campaign against this practice."

Occasionally a writer is prepared to allow his name to be used, such as Mr. Robert Gorely, whose case I was able to have published in theSunday Pictorialten days ago. He was prepared to take the risk and, like Mr. Miller, was prepared to have his case investigated. He wanted to go to Canada. His firm had confidence in him and offered him a first-class job in Canada, with excellent prospects for his family. He thought that everything was clear but, at the last minute, he was told that he was not a desirable immigrant. When he asked the reasons he was told, All information on our file is strictly confidential and I am unable to advise you of the contents thereof. Mr. Gorely said to me, I have searched my mind. The only thing that I can conclude is that, from 1944, for 18 months I was a member of Unity Theatre, because I was keen on amateur dramatics and I thought it excellent experience to take part in a Unity Theatre production. It was pretty strong Left-wing stuff but I have never been a member of the Communist Party. I am not a member of any political party, not even a trade union. The trouble about these cases is that if Canada or any other Commonwealth Government refuse entry to a would-be immigrant no reason is ever given.

Ontario is a particularly popular part of Canada for emigrants, many of whom want to go to Toronto. Ontario has an immigration office which is separate from the Federal Office. I challenge the Under-Secretary to deny that if I wanted to emigrate to Ontario my name would be sent by Ontario House to Scotland Yard for political screening. An attempt has been made to hide the fact that political screening takes place.

There is treble checking. There is a medical check, a criminal record check and political screening, and if a man is turned down no reason is ever given. I know that the Under-Secretary will say that in most of these cases the reasons are medical. That is probably true, but about 200 to 300 inquiries about emigration to Canada are made every day and about 10 per cent. are rejected. Even if only a small fraction of that 10 per cent. were political in origin, it means that there may be hundreds of cases in which would-be emigrants have been damned on a secret report which is forwarded by the British Government to the Commonwealth Government.

I have here another case. I am not allowed to quote the name, but I think it is very interesting in substantiation of what I am saying. A young Post Office engineer in Glasgow saw an advertisement for a job in Canada, in the radar network of the United States Army, and as that fitted in with all the work he had done in the Civil Service, he applied. He knew that it was a security job, but he never had any doubts about his eligibility. He thought that it was "in the bag".

Then he was told he was not a suitable immigrant. What were the grounds? He had no criminal record. Were they health grounds? He had done his National Service in the Royal Marines a year or two earlier, so he was not likely to be exactly a physical crock. But he knew that he had something in his past—and it was this: he was a keen amateur player of the bagpipes, and one year he had been given an invitation to attend a youth festival on the other side of the Iron Curtain, because he could add to the entertainment by playing the bagpipes. It cost him only£18, and he went, for the fun and experience. Now, suddenly, this man. who has no political association—nor have his family or his girl friend—finds that he is turned down as "not a suitable immigrant" to Canada.

I suggest that not only in emigration cases, but in cases of visits to the Commonwealth and of jobs in our Colonies in particular, this kind of secret reporting goes on. Where does this information come from? What is happening is that we have now a security service on two levels. On the one hand, there is the level that Mr. Attlee, as he then was, was referring to in March, 1948, when he said that for certain top-secret jobs there must be open checks on would-be applicants for the jobs, or occupants of the posts. This House accepted that under safeguards. That procedure goes on at a fairly open level.

Underneath that, however, in addition to it, there takes place regularly, under the operations of the military intelligence divisions of the War Office and the Special Branch of Scotland Yard, a perpetual checking-up by spying and informing on thousands of British citizens, with secret informers being used in offices, factories, universities, trade union branches, societies of all kinds. Those checks are going on. Information is collected, it is entered in the dossier, and then, at an appropriate moment, a secret report is written in to an employer, or to a Commonwealth or foreign Government.

There are lots of cases about which I could tell the House, one in relation to the United States, but I have not the time to do so tonight. But this is the situation to which we have come, and that is why I asked the Prime Minister if he would re-convene the Privy Councillors' Conference on Security, so that they could go into the working of these two levels of security check, a matter which Lord Chorley ventilated in another place so effectively, and give us a chance to work out proper safeguards against this abuse of security which has been taking place.

11.19 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. C. J. M. Alport)

The hon. Lady has, during the last 15 minutes, built up a tremendous case on the flimsiest evidence which I have ever heard in the House, a great deal of which has been based on answers which were given in this House by myself in my capacity as Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations. I notice that in an article which she wrote on this subject, one of many which she has contributed to the newspapers, she gibed at me for being unexpectedly forthcoming on this matter. The reason why is that we have nothing to hide, and nothing of which to be ashamed.

She has been lavish in her accusations, both in the Press and in this House, about McCarthyism. Apparently a smear of that sort is something that is perfectly justified—

Mrs, Castle

At least it is true.

Mr. Alport

—but she has done so without any evidence whatever to support her accusation that there has been an alarming growth of this procedure over the last few months and years; indeed, she knows as well as I do that as far as my Department is concerned the practice to which she has referred and to which I referred in my answers to Questions, has been going on for thirty years or more. It has been going on under all Governments, and it has been regarded by Labour Governments, just as by Conservative Governments, as an essential practice in maintaining security against subversion.

For the hon. Lady to accuse my noble Friend and others who carry these very heavy responsibilities of a lack of responsibility in this matter is evidence of the way in which she has approached the matter. Indeed, one can see this from the articles that she has written upon this extremely difficult subject. I can assure the hon. Lady and the House that I speak not only for a Conservative Government but a Labour Government in saying that we are primarily concerned to ensure that the interests of individuals are safeguarded.

In the type of case to which the hon. Lady has drawn attention the responsibility rests upon the Secretary of State. My noble Friend, like his predecessors—Conservative and Labour alike—is fully aware of the responsibilities which fall upon him, and carries them out with the scrupulous attention to the interests of the individual concerned which we would expect from a high officer in our Government. I take the strongest exception to the way in which the hon. Lady has treated an interview which she had with the Secretary of State in an article that she wrote recently for theNew Statesman and Nation.It places Ministers in an extremely difficult position if, when they have had a confidential discussion with a Member of Parliament in his or her capacity as a Member, they then find themselves pilloried in the Press, as my noble Friend did in this case.

Mrs. Castle

I asked to see the Secretary of State in the normal way in pursuit of this matter before raising it on the Floor of the House, and at no stage did he ask that our discussion should he treated as confidential; nor would I have agreed to meet him on that basis if he had asked me to do so, because that would only have led to muzzling Members of Parliament still more in the performance of their duties.

Mr. Alport

I cannot allow the innuendoes in the article to go without some mention, in defence of my noble Friend.

There are three things to which I wish to draw the hon. Lady's attention, which she is apparently inclined to forget. The countries of the Commonwealth are independent of the United Kingdom, and I can assure her that it is not for the Commonwealth Relations Office to decide whom the Governments of Pakistan or Canada should allow to pass their frontiers. Nor can we compel those countries to open their doors to people whom they do not think desirable.

In all the cases to which the hon. Lady has referred the reason for exclusion appears to be attributed to a political motive, but, as she knows perfectly well, the Canadian Immigration Officer quite recently said that no political questions are asked. He said: The only reasons for rejection are medical or conviction for a criminal offence, or if we do not think the person would make a good Canadian citizen. Surely these Governments have the right and the responsibility to decide themselves, in the interests of their own populations, whom they think will make good citizens. It is an elementary right of any Government to exercise control in this way.

Further, the Governments concerned are under no obligation to give reasons why they decide to exclude any individual from their territories, but I will say that it is, as the hon. Lady knows, practically always on health grounds or grounds of character. But why does she decide that in the cases which she has raised tonight the reasons are political? It is not the Commonwealth Relations Office or the Government of the United Kingdom who set these standards of entry to the territories of the various independent members of the Commonwealth; it is the Commonwealth Governments themselves. We have neither the power nor the right to interfere. If the Pakistani Government decide to alter a decision made with regard to the entry of a United Kingdom citizen, they are perfectly within their rights to do so.

The second thing which the hon. Lady should remember is that communications between different parts of the Commonwealth on this subject have always been, and must continue to be, treated as matters of confidence. In none of the cases to which the hon. Lady has referred am I prepared to say whether anything has passed between the respective Governments. I refuse to do so not only because it is in the interests of this country—and as a Government we are concerned with the interests of the United Kingdom—but also in the interests of the Commonwealth countries as well, that these confidential relations, which have existed for so many years, should be maintained and safeguarded.

Those who are refused entry into Commonwealth countries from the United Kingdom should not jump to the conclusion that the reason is a political one. I would go further, and say to the hon. Lady that she should not assume that all the stories that she has been told about the reason why entry has been refused, or the assumptions accepted by her correspondents, are necessarily correct.

Mrs. Castle

Of course not.

Mr. Alport

The hon. Lady should not therefore base a case upon evidence which she has no possibility whatever of proving to be correct.

Mrs. Castle

Then let the hon. Gentleman prove it.

Mr. Alport

The hon. Lady referred to the protest made by Lord Chorley in another place recently with regard to the universities. I remember, when the questioning took place over this case of Mr. Miller, the hon. Member for Deptford (Sir L. Plummer) asked me whether there had been any communication with the Dean of the City and Guilds College. I should prefer to leave controversy on this matter to the noble lord and the hon. Member for Deptford—and no doubt the hon. Lady—as to what is the right procedure in this matter.

Mrs. Castle

This is important. Surely there is a difference between going behind the back of a student to a professor and asking for a secret report and, on the other hand, allowing the student to quote the professor as a reference of his own choice?

Mr. Alport

That was not—

Mrs. Castle

Certainly it was.

Mr. Alport

—what the hon. Member appeared to have in mind when he asked the question. The third point which the hon. Lady should bear in mind is that all Governments have the right and duty to protect their interests from subversion from within and without. If I accepted the hon. Lady's challenge and her case, who, in fact, would benefit? The people who would benefit are precisely those from whom it is the duty of the Government to protect the country.

Mrs. Castle

Nonsense, of course not.

Mr. Alport

Let me remind the hon. Lady of the report made not long ago in the Statement on the Findings of the Conference of Privy Councillors on Security. It is Cmd. 9715. The Conference which included some of the most distinguished members of the hon. Lady's party stated: The Conference is of the opinion that in deciding these difficult and often borderline cases, it is right to continue the practice of tilting the balance in favour of offering greater protection to the security of the State rather than in the direction of safeguarding the rights of the individual. That is a statement made by some of the most experienced statesmen whom we have in this House, including representatives of the hon. Lady's party. Surely she will accept that their views are of importance in this matter.

There is nothing that the Government are more determined to do than to pre- vent any abuse of these security measures. Equally, we are determined to ensure that where necessary effective security measures will be taken. There have been plenty of examples in recent history, under Governments of both complexions, of the dangers which arise from laxity in this respect. The hon. Lady should have a recent memory of events behind the Iron Curtain, in Hungary and elsewhere. Surely that is a lesson to us all that vigilance by the Government in these matters is of continuing importance.

I am glad that Mr. Miller is now able to join this expedition, which I hope will be a great success, and that he will play an effective and proper part. Regarding that case, and all the other cases to which the hon. Lady has alluded, in the interests of this country and the Commonwealth as a whole I cannot go further than I have gone. The hon. Lady has gibed and chided me for being as frank as I have been. I have given my reasons. In judging cases of this sort which come to him from time to time—they are very rare—my noble Friend will act with great responsibility and with a proper concern for the interests not only of the United Kingdom but of individuals affected.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.