HC Deb 02 December 1959 vol 614 cc1182-4
48. Mr. Lipton

asked the Postmaster-General when he received the signed authority of a Secretary of State to permit interception of a telephone conversation at Reading on 20th April last.

Mr. Bevins

This is not a case in which the Post Office or a Secretary of State was involved because the party concerned gave permission to the police to listen-in to a conversation on her own installation.

Mr. Lipton

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that whether this was a complete or only a partial interception, in the opinion of many people it violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the findings of the Privy Councillors on the subject of telephone tappings? Cannot we bring this beastly business of telephone tapping to an end in cases where the national security is not involved?

Mr. Bevins

Without expressing an opinion on the general question, I think I ought to say that this particular Question refers solely to the Reading incident and, quite clearly, in the nature of the case, I could not have had any control whatever over what happened.

Mr. Gordon Walker

When the Minister refers to the Home Secretary he is begging the question. Is he not aware that in the view of the Privy Councillors all forms of telephone tapping ought to be strictly limited and that to achieve this all of them should need a warrant? Although the Post Office is not involved, the right hon. Gentleman is not right in saying that the Home Secretary is not involved.

Mr. Bevins

With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I think he will find, if he re-reads the Birkett Report, that its recommendations do not cover the circumstances of the Reading case.

Mr. W. Griffiths

Did not the Prime Minister tell the House that he accepted completely on behalf of the Government the findings of the Birkett Committee? Did not the Birkett Committee say that under no circumstances should an intercepted communication or telephone call be communicated to anybody outside the public service? Did not the Postmaster-General inquire under what circumstance this intercept was to be taken and by whom and against whom it would be used?

Mr. Bevins

I do not think that the hon. Member has quite appreciated the circumstances of the Reading case. They are not covered by the recommendations of the Birkett Committee and, as Postmaster-General, I have no control whatever over what happened in that case.

Mr. Griffiths

Is the Minister telling the House that he will agree at any time, without a warrant from the Secretary of State, to intercept any communication or telephone call without inquiring about the circumstances under which it will be used?

Mr. Bevins

I am saying nothing of the kind. What I am saying is that in this case it would have been quite impracticable for the Postmaster-General to have taken any action whatever.

Mr. Paget

Is not there perhaps a reason for trying to think of some way in which the Postmaster-General could make his feelings effective on a future occasion? Is not the real evil here that information obtained by the police or by the Post Office or by the two together in a criminal inquiry should never be made available to outside bodies? If this is the hole in the system, will the right hon. Gentleman see what he can do about it?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have not the Questions before me but I believe that Questions on that point are to be addressed to the Home Secretary tomorrow. I must not allow the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) to anticipate them. I speak subject to correction, as I have not the Questions before me.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Is the Postmaster-General aware that we on this side of the House do not accept his view that the facts in this case were not covered by the general recommendation of the Privy Councillors' Report?

Mr. Bevins

I do not think that there can be the smallest doubt that the circumstances in this case were not covered by the Birkett Report. Even if that were wrong—and it is not wrong—it would have been quite impracticable for me as Postmaster-General to have taken any effective action in the Reading case.

Mr. S. Silverman

On the much narrower point, arising out of the Minister's original Answer as to whether this was not a breach because consent was given, will he say why he regards the consent of only one party to a telephone conversation as being binding on both parties? Is it not equally a breach of the understanding upon which these conversations take place if one of them is being overheard without his knowledge and then a record of the conversation is made and handed to a non-official body outside?

Mr. Bevins

Whether the hon. Member is right or wrong in that view, it is certainly not a matter for me.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Is it not a fact that this conversation was not tapped or intercepted in any normal meaning of the word and that the position is exactly the same as though the subscriber who initiated the call had had two extensions in her house on one of which somebody else listened by arrangement?