HC Deb 23 January 1964 vol 687 cc1271-5
Mr. H. Wilson (by Private Notice)

asked the Prime Minister whether he is in a position to make a further statement about the machinery for dealing with inquiries on security?

The Prime Minister (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

I apologise to the House for the fact that this is a rather long statement, but it is important.

In the debate on 16th December I described in outline the Government's proposals for a Standing Security Commission and proposed further consultation with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman and I have had further discussions about this and in the light of them the Government have decided to set up a Security Commission with the following terms of reference: If so requested by the Prime Minister, to investigate and report upon the circumstances in which a breach of security is known to have occurred in the public service, and upon any related failure of departmental security arrangements or neglect of duty; and, in the light of any such investigation, to advise whether any change in security arrangements is necessary or desirable. Mr. Justice Winn has agreed to serve as Chairman and the other members will be Lord Normanbrook and Sir Caspar John. The Cabinet Office would provide the Secretary of the Commission.

Before asking the Commission to investigate a particular case, the Prime Minister will consult with the Leader of the Opposition.

Under the terms of reference, the Commission could be called upon to act if there had been a breach of security even though there had been no conviction—perhaps because the individual had fled the country. Normally, the Commission would sit in private and would examine the witnesses themselves.

Usually, it would be unnecessary for any of the witnesses to be legally represented. But it is impossible to foresee all the circumstances, and the Commission would be authorised to permit a witness to be accompanied by his legal adviser if satisfied that his interests required such protection.

Exceptionally, the Commission might find that they were unable to make progress without powers to compel evidence. In such a case, Parliament would be asked to pass the necessary Resolutions under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921, to vest the Commission with the powers of that Act for that particular inquiry. The Commission would then proceed in all respects as a Tribunal of Inquiry.

The decision whether to sit in private or in public would be governed by the relevant statutory provision, and the normal procedure for having the case presented by counsel and for allowing legal representation would apply. When legal representation was allowed the Commission would be asked to advise whether an ex gratia contribution to the cost of such representation should be made from public funds.

In the ordinary case the Commission would report direct to the Prime Minister. When the Commission had been constituted a Tribunal of Inquiry, the report would formally be submitted to the Home Secretary, as required by the 1921 Act. But in either case the Leader of the Opposition would be consulted by

the Prime Minister when the report was received. The report would be made public to the extent that this was consistent with security considerations.

Mr. Wilson

Is the Prime Minister aware that although his answer was a little long, it was undoubtedly for the convenience of the House that he should give a full statement on what has been discussed between us?

I have only one supplementary question. Since the right hon. Gentleman has referred, in circumstances with which I fully agree—and I agree with the whole statement—to the possibility that where further action is necessary to compel witnesses to come forward and to speak the truth it will be necessary to clothe the Commission with the powers of the 1921 Act, will he bear in mind—I have given him notice of this supplementary question—that there is grave concern on both sides of the House about the working of the 1921 Act?

Will the Prime Minister therefore consider the proposal, which we have put forward on a number of occasions, that there should be a Select Committee of the House to review the working of the 1921 Act?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I believe that there is a lot of anxiety and concern. I do not think that the debate in another place produced any new proposal, but nevertheless these matters should be considered; and I will certainly consider them. I should not like to give a firm undertaking today, but I will consider what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Cole

Would not my right hon. Friend think that in the terms of reference the words a breach of security is believed to have occurred rather than "is known to have occurred" would cover a wider compass and would seem to be justified by the remainder of his statement?

The Prime Minister

I should like to look further at the statement and at what my hon. Friend has said, but I think that the wording covers every possibility.

Mr. Grimond

Can the Prime Minister make clear what will be the position of the House, the Press and the broadcast- ing authorities when a case is referred to the Commission? It will, presumably, be impossible to discuss it in the House or to ask Questions about it. Will it also be impossible for any comment to be made either on the air or through the Press?

The Prime Minister

I do not see why the statement which I have made should set any limitation on discussion in this House. I should, however, like to consider the point made by the right hon. Gentleman and give him a considered reply, although I do not see prima facie any reason why the statement imposes a limitation.

Mr. H. Wilson

I agree with what the Prime Minister has said. Is it not clear that a reference to the Commission, which will not be a judicial tribunal until it is clothed with powers given by this House, would have no effect on the freedom of this House, the Press or broadcasting authorities or anyone else? Could it not be made clear that this body is an administrative Commission and not a judicial tribunal?

Will the Prime Minister, however, consider the point, which bears on the question raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond)—it is a point which I have raised with the right hon. Gentleman—that it should be understood that whenever a reference is made to the Commission there will be an announcement of the fact even if it refers to a case which has not become public through prosecution or court proceedings?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir; there should be an announcement. There is nothing in what I have said today to curtail the rights of Parliament and the Press.

Mr. Bellenger

The Prime Minister will be aware of the circumstances of the Vassall case. If matters arise which are not entirely security matters which would be kept secret, will the House have access to any comments or reports by the Commission and be in a position to discuss them, if necessary?

The Prime Minister

I would rather that hon. Members read the statement which I have made. On another day we will return to any questions that may interest them. I should not like to pursue the matter with supplementary questions just at this moment.

Mr. Hale

What would happen if the Commission came to a conclusion at some stage of its inquiry that a criminal offence had been committed? Would it proceed to report or would it refer to the Director of Public Prosecutions the papers, including the voluntary evidence, or what will happen in these circumstances?

The Prime Minister

Again, I should like to consider the question and return to it later.

Mr. Wigg

In his further consideration of this excellent proposal, will the Prime Minister consider the advisability of drawing upon the experience of the board of inquiry set up under the Army and Naval Discipline Acts and give to the Commission in discharging its administrative functions power to take evidence on oath? This is quite apart from any powers for which the Commission might ask under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act.

The Prime Minister

indicated assent.