HC Deb 22 June 1961 vol 642 cc1683-8

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

42 and 43. Mr. Ginsburg

asked the Prime Minister (1) whether he or his predecessor was at any time informed by the security service that Houghton, a probable security risk, was employed at the Underwater Detection Establishment; and

(2) whether he will give an assurance that he has taken immediate action to remedy the shortcomings in the security service, commented on in the last sentence of paragraph 6 of the summary of the main findings of the Romer Committee.

49. Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux

asked the Prime Minister whether, as a result of the findings of the Romer Committee, the War Office and Air Ministry, in addition to the Admiralty, are taking immediate steps to review their internal security organisation and to impress on their staffs that in future security instructions must be obeyed.

49. Mr. W. Hamilton

asked the Prime Minister whether he is aware of the public anxiety and disquiet consequent on the publication of the summary of the main findings of the Romer Committee on aspects of naval security; and what disciplinary measures he intends to take against all those responsible for the negligence exposed by the Committee.

51. Dr. Johnson

asked the Prime Minister whether he will issue a special exhortation to all members of the security service with a view to counteracting the general want of security-mindedness commented upon in the Romer Report.

53. Mr. G. Brown

asked the Prime Minister what action he proposes to take in consequence of the facts set out in paragraph 8 of the summary of the Romer Report.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 42, 43, 49, 50, 51 and 53 together.

Before the Romer Committee reported, my noble Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty had set up a Committee to review the central organisation for security in the Admiralty. At the same time, he ordered an examination of the working of the security arrangements both at headquarters and in other establishments. These two examinations are still proceeding. The Admiralty is reviewing its arrangements for staff records in the light of the Romer Committee's criticism.

Disciplinary proceedings have been authorised in the case of the persons specifically blamed by the Romer Committee. But, in fairness to the House, I ought to say now that the Captain at the Underwater Detection Establishment at Portland retired from the Navy in 1958 and the former security officer at that establishment is a retired naval officer employed on contract. The security officer is at present suspended from duty. The junior civilian official was transferred to other employment under the Admiralty in May, 1960.

After the Lonsdale case, all the defence Departments reviewed their security arrangements. The findings of the Romer Committee are concerned with Admiralty organisation, but the other defence Departments will, of course, take them into account so far as they are relevant.

The Romer Committee did not make any general criticism of the security service. It criticised it for failing to press a particular inquiry to a positive conclusion. Action has been taken to reduce to a minimum the chance of such a failure occurring again.

The security service received no information until 1956 which cast doubt on Houghton's reliability. I was informed of the investigation into Houghton's activities carried out by the security service in 1960, shortly before its successful conclusion.

Mr. Ginsburg

Is not the Prime Minister aware that his reply still raises very big questions of Ministerial responsibility because, after all, he is the political head of the security service? Why was it that Houghton continued in employment at Portland when the security service had received some kind of report as to his lack of reliability? Why did not the security service inform the right hon. Gentleman?

The Prime Minister

I think that that matter is dealt with in the summary of the Romer Committee's Report.

Mr. G. Brown

Is the Prime Minister aware that in paragraph 8 of the summary which he has circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT, the Romer Committee considered that, apart altogether from the incident in 1956, the Admiralty is to blame for the manner in which it discharged its responsibilities for security? In the light of that very flat and frank criticism, I ask the Prime Minister, does it not make nonsense of Ministerial responsibility if no Minister accepts the corollary of that and resigns? Should not the First Lord of the Admiralty have done that? Is it not altogether indecent to keep telling us what has happened to a couple of junior officers when the Minister responsible for the Department stays in office?

The Prime Minister

I think that the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility is well known. It is the ultimate responsibility, but under modern conditions it must be recognised that the Minister's duty is to carry out his task as efficiently as possible. In this particular case, my noble Friend the First Lord came into it fairly recently. Since the matter has been raised, I think that all those who know him well will not be surprised to learn that he did offer his resignation to me, but I came to the conclusion, after going carefully into it, that I did not think this was a case in which I would be right to submit his resignation to the Queen.

Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux

While welcoming my right hon. Friend's review of the security arrangements in the other two defence Services, may I ask whether he could tell us that these reviews will also be pressed ahead as fast as possible, because it is not likely that the Navy is more inefficient in this respect than either the Army or the Air Force? Would he not agree that disclosures in the Portland case of laxity and inefficiency are so shocking that the general public is entitled to an assurance as soon as possible that the security arrangements have been tightened up and will be properly implemented in all circumstances?

The Prime Minister

The procedures have been tightened up and that is the whole object of the exercise which is going on. There are two separate points. First, whether the existing procedures, through a failure of organisation, have been properly carried out, and a quite separate question which the Radcliffe Committee is looking at, whether those procedures are in themselves sufficient.

Dr. Johnson

Is there not a general lesson in this Report that we English are a simple-minded people who are easily deceived, that we live in the past, when wars were fought according to conventions, rules and protocol? As one who, like him, has Scottish crofter ancestors, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he will bring an element of Scottish shrewdness to the consideration of this matter?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that it is true of the security services in their general form in this case. Great tribute is paid to them by the Romer Committee. One incident was criticised, an important one, but only one. A great number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have considerable knowledge of these arrangements. I should say, in respect of some of the criticism which has been made, that, on the whole, the security services were remarkably efficient.

Mr. G. Brown

To return to the question of Ministerial responsibility, does not the Prime Minister consider that what is happening here, and the refusal of his right hon. Friend's offer, marks a very considerable deterioration in the standards which applied, for example, in the case of Lord Crathorne, when he was Minister of Agriculture, over the Critchel Down affair, when administration broke down, but was much less serious than this case? Will not the Prime Minister reconsider this matter? Does he realise that to the public outside, although there is sophistication here, this cover-up at the top will seem to be an alibi for doing nothing about it?

The Prime Minister

That last point is not true, and is not a deduction which should be made. The Romer Committee Report has been sent to the Radcliffe Committee. When we get that, no doubt a considerable number of changes may have to be made. As I say, this has been a question not so much of a failure of procedures—that we do not know yet—but a failure to have a sufficiently good organisation, in some respects, to make them as good as they ought to have been.

I do not think that what I have said is a derogation from the customs carried out in the past. After thinking it over very carefully—and, of course, I knew that my noble Friend would act in this way—I have come to the conclusion, in view of the fact that many Boards of Admiralty were concerned because a long period has gone by, that it would not be wise to take out of his hands the tightening of the security arrangements. I think that he will do it well.

Captain Litchfield

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the First Lord has the fullest confidence of the Royal Navy?

The Prime Minister

I am quite sure that is so.

Mr. Gaitskell

Does not the Prime Minister agree that it is immensely important to preserve the political responsibility in matters of this kind? Would he not agree that here is a case where a Service Department is severely criticised by an impartial committee four want of security? Is it not clear that it is the responsibility of the political head of the Department, the First Lord, to prevent that kind of situation arising? In these circumstances, how can he defend his decision not to accept the resignation of the First Lord?

The Prime Minister

I think that the decision is right, and I hold by it. We recognise that we cannot avoid our responsibilities, but in modern conditions and this extremely complicated organisation it would not be reasonable to apply that principle in quite the same way. That was a special case. There is a general criticism of certain organisational methods employed in some of the Admiralty departments. I do not think that it would be right to visit that on the First Lord. Every Board of Admiralty for several years has been dealing with this. It is much more efficient to apply our minds to putting it right, as I am sure we can.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this subject now.