HC Deb 17 November 1966 vol 736 cc634-41

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Prime Minister on how many occasions warrants have been issued for the tapping of hon. Members' private telephones; and if he will give an assurance that no such warrants will be issued.


To ask the Prime Minister whether he will state the criteria upon which he has issued his warrant for the tapping of hon. Members' telephones.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will bring up to date the statistics of warrants authorising telephone-tapping given to the Committee of Privy Councillors; and whether he will issue an annual return, showing the number of permissions that have been given, the number that have been withdrawn, and the number outstanding at the date of making the return.


To ask the Prime Minister whether he will give an assurance that the issue of warrants giving authority to tap telephone conversations remains under the Home Secretary's sole authority; and in what respects the criteria governing the issue of such warrants have been changed since October, 1964.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. Q13, Q14, Q15 and Q16.

The House will know that, since the publication of the Report of the "Committee of Privy Councillors appointed to Inquire into the Interception of Communications" in October, 1957, it has been the established practice not to give information on this subject.

Nevertheless, on this one occasion, and exceptionally because these Questions on the Order Paper may be thought to touch the rights and privileges of this House, I feel it right to inform the House that there is no tapping of the telephones of hon. Members, nor has there been since this Government came into office.

The House will, I know, understand that the fact that I have felt it right to answer these Questions today in no way detracts from the normal practice whereby my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and myself are unable to answer Questions relating to these matters.

Mr. Russell Kerr

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply? However, is he aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House believe, rightly or wrongly, that their telephones have been tapped? While the whole House would acquit my right hon. Friend of any knowledge or complicity in such a perversion of the nation's security arrangements, will he consult with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Paymaster-General—[Laughter.]—to make sure that some of our security people are not undertaking free enterprise of a rather smelly kind on this issue?

The Prime Minister

On the issue of the belief of certain hon. Members that their telephones are being tapped, I would point out that my postbag and those of many other right hon. and hon. Members suggest that a very high proportion of the electorate generally are under the delusion that their telephones are being tapped. This delusion spreads to hon. Members and I should say that I used to suffer from it myself at one time.

As for the general position, I hope that my statement will be an answer to some of the scurrilous comment in the Press during the last three or four days about the attitude of the Government to this question and will also answer, I hope, some questions put by hon. Members on Monday and the usual Pavlovian titter which occurred when the name of my right hon. Friend the Paymaster-General was mentioned—not least because the only connection that he has had with this question was when I sought his advice on reviewing the practice about tapping Members' telephones when we came into office. He therefore shares such responsibility as I can take for the present arrangements.

Mr. Donnelly

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this is an extremely serious matter and that three questions arise? The first is the criteria on which any telephones belonging to anyone are ever tapped. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that there has been absolutely no change in the circumstances listed in the Report of the Privy Councillors?

The second point concerns who is entitled to authorise such tappings. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that these people are known and identifiable, because it is a very important matter?

Thirdly, when the matter goes outside national security and the whole question of detection of crime, will my right hon. Friend give instructions that any extraneous information which may be discovered as a result of tapping will not go beyond the security authorities to anyone who is not a member of the security services?

The Prime Minister

My answer referred to the tapping of telephones of hon. Members. As regards any other person or group of persons, the position is exactly as stated by the then Prime Minister to the House after the publication of the Privy Councillors' Report and I have nothing to add to or subtract from what was said then. Authority for tapping rests with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, as the Report made clear.

So far as the special case of Members of Parliament is concerned, as I have said, following the discussion I had, shortly after we took office, with the then Home Secretary, the policy has been laid down in the terms which I have again stated today.

Mr. Jackson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members believe that both authorised and unauthorised tapping is increasing? Is he further aware that paragraph 130 of the Report of the Privy Councillors stated that … there can be no certainty that the unauthorised tapping of telephones does not occur and it might even be done without the commission of a trespass on private or Crown property."? and that paragraph 131 states—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Questions even on telephone tapping must be concise.

The Prime Minister

The position regarding unauthorised tapping—and this also relates to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Russell Kerr)—is as follows: any tapping that, in accordance with the rules of the Report, becomes necessary by any Crown servant concerned with the things covered in that Report, can only be done with the individual authority of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary under very strict conditions.

If the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) relates to a practice which one understands has developed in other countries, and is causing concern here—tapping by private persons to steal industrial secrets, for example—that is a separate matter and does not come within the remit of Question and Answer in this House.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) did not get his question over. Would he like to put it now?

Mr. Jackson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that paragraph 131 of the Report states that Parliament might consider whether legislation should be passed to make unauthorised telephone tapping illegal?

The Prime Minister

That is an entirely different matter from the subject raised in the Questions on the Order Paper today. It has, however, been raised at Question Time with the Postmaster-General on past occasions.

Sir T. Beamish

May I press the right hon. Gentleman on this point? Since the tapping and taping of private telephone conversations without the knowledge of the Post Office and without authority is much easier than many people imagine—and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am not suffering from delusions and would gladly give him confidential evidence—will the Prime Minister consider the question in paragraph 131 that the unauthorised tapping of private telephone conversations might be made an offence?

The Prime Minister

I would be glad to consider any evidence the hon. and gallant Gentleman sends me. I know that my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General would also want to consider it to see whether there was a case fully made out for dealing with "private enterprise" telephone tapping of the kind that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has in mind. I hope, however, that the answer I have given to his and other questions will put into perspective some of the monstrous accusations made in certain newspapers over the past four days about the Government's attitude towards tapping of Members' telephones.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the Prime Minister aware that one of the reasons for the widespread delusion which he has mentioned is the grossly unsatisfactory state of the telephone system as a whole? To give one example, when I tried to telephone someone yesterday, I burst in on another private conversation between two individuals on three consecutive occasions. Will the Prime Minister therefore ask his right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General to get a move on with improving the telephone system so that these allegations are not made?

The Prime Minister

That is a separate question, which has been raised many times with the Postmaster-General. I notice that the level of the supplementary questions now is very different from the dramatic build-up given to this subject by some of the Conservative Press over the past three days.

Mr. Driberg

Is my right hon. Friend aware that at least two of his answers have implied quite clearly that there was tapping of hon. Members' telephones before the present Government came to power in 1964? Would he say anything more about that?

The Prime Minister

I hold no responsibility for what was done in this matter before the present Government came to power, but it is fair to point out that the Privy Councillors' Report itself said that Members of Parliament should not be treated differently from members of the public. It is always a difficult problem. As Mr. Macmillan once said, there can only be complete security with a police State, and perhaps not even then, and there is always a difficult balance between the requirements of democracy in a free society and the requirements of security.

With my right hon. Friends, I reviewed the practice when we came to office and decided on balance—and the arguments were very fine—that the balance should be tipped the other way and that I should give this instruction that there was to be no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament. That was our decision and that is our policy. But if there was any development of a kind which required a change in the general policy, I would, at such moment as seemed compatible with the security of the country, on my own initiative make a statement in the House about it. I am aware of all the considerations which I had to take into account and I felt that it was right to lay down the policy of no tapping of the telephones of Members of Parliament.

Mr. Frederic Harris

Can the Prime Minister tell me why any Labour Members should imagine that their conversations on the telephone are interesting enough for them to be tapped?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that this matter, which raises very deep concern about the privileges and rights of hon. Members, is in any sense a party question. My decision that hon. Members' telephones should not be tapped was, of course, unrelated to the tapping of telephones of hon. Members of any particular party; and I am sure that the attitude of the previous Government was also completely unrelated to the party affiliations of any hon. Members concerned.

Mr. Gordon Walker

I am very glad to hear the Prime Minister's decision that no hon. Members' telephones should be tapped, but would he agree that, in principle, there is a distinction between the privilege of a Member concerned in some proceedings in Parliament and the similarity of all Members with ordinary citizens in all other respects, and that it is important that this principle should be maintained and asserted?

The Prime Minister

I certainly agree about that and I do not myself believe that this involves a question of privilege, as we understand it in the narrow sense in this House. My original Answer was drafted to make that clear. Someone has to take the decision one side or the other of this very, very difficult balance. With my concept of responsibilities to the House, I feel that, although the arguments are finely argued in the Report of the Privy Councillors, it has been right to alter the practice and to say that there should be no tapping whatsoever.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Is the Prime Minister aware that during the nine years which have elapsed since the Privy Councillors' Report was published, unauthorised tapping of telephones has become both much easier and much more ingenious and that, therefore, the recommendation of the Privy Councillors in paragraph 131 has now become urgent? As it is easy to make an unauthorised tapping of a telephone cable, will the Government give serious consideration to making it illegal?

The Prime Minister

I agree about the seriousness, particularly if tapping comes to be developed in this country on the scale on which it has developed in other countries for use by one industrial company against another industrial company. This matter has been raised in the House before and it will be further considered. My answers have related not to unauthorised, but to authorised tapping, and I have stated the practice which we are following.

Mr. Fitt

Would the Prime Minister agree to extend the assurances which he has given to the House to cover Members of Parliament in Northern Ireland? Is he aware that it is very well known that the Government of Northern Ireland indulge in telephone tapping for party political purposes?

The Prime Minister

If my hon. Friend wants to send me any evidence which he has on that subject—

Mr. Fitt

Will my right hon. Friend ask Captain O'Neill next time he sees him?

The Prime Minister

—it will be studied with very great care. I can assure him that the answers which I have given this afternoon have related to all questions and practices connected with authorised tapping under the coverage of the White Paper and for which my right hon. Friend and I are responsible.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Is the Prime Minister aware that the question of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) was the gross terminological inexactitude which he knows it to be and which he has never been able to substantiate in this House and which should not have been made?

The Prime Minister

I asked for evidence, but this afternoon I was dealing with areas within the jurisdiction of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Fitt

On a point of order. Is my right hon. Friend aware that telephone tapping was admitted in the Northern Ireland Parliament?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member must know that that was not a point of order.