HC Deb 11 May 1971 vol 817 cc198-201
Q2. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Prime Minister what steps he is taking to improve security within all Departments.

The Prime Minister

Security arrangements within all Departments are kept under continuous review, and a special review of arrangements for safeguarding confidential commercial information within those Departments concerned has been put in hand.

Mr. Hamilton

Does the Prime Minister agree that if the information and allegations contained in the article on the front page of The Guardian today have any truth in them, they reveal an extremely disquieting situation of the gross inadequacy of Government security concerning both private individuals and affairs of State? Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake that the inquiry which has been initiated will be independent and will go into all matters ranging from the V. & G. scandal to the matters indicated in The Guardian article this morning?

The Prime Minister

The affairs of the Vehicle & General Insurance Co. are being dealt with by the tribunal set up under the Tribunal of Inquiries Act, 1921.

The allegations in The Guardian today are obviously extremely serious, and we are treating them as such. They go wider than Government. They include banks, insurance companies, private industrial companies, and the gaining of information from all these sources. We have been in touch with The Guardian, and I am glad to say that it has agreed to help as far as it possibly can, in the investigations which we are making, in following up the cases mentioned in the article. I am sure that the first thing for us to do is to pursue this information as speedily as we can and then to decide what action should be taken to remedy it.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that some of the allegations in that article, referring to non-governmental organisations in particular, appear to fall within the remit of the Committee of inquiry into the privacy of the individual? Will he make sure that it is given all the information required to investigate these allegations? As some of the more serious allegations appear to refer to Government Departments, when he has completed his own inquiries—they must be for him—will he undertake to make a statement to the House.

The Prime Minister

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I believe that it is the case that these matters can be dealt with by that Committee. I have no doubt that it will take note of these points.

I will, of course, make a statement to the House as soon as possible. The right hon. Gentleman knows that it is not always in the interests of maintaining security to divulge the particular methods by which we shall do it. Departments already have very specific rules, which existed under the right hon. Gentleman's Administration, for dealing with confidential information, whether of a personal or of a commercial kind. If it is found that these rules have been broken, action can be taken. If it is found that the rules themselves are inadequate, we can make fresh rules to deal with some of the circumstances with which the allegations in The Guardian are concerned.

Mr. Thorpe

While obviously the right hon. Gentleman must have time to consider these matters, would he not agree that one of the serious allegations in The Guardian was about the ease with which commercial organisations can obtain information by telephoning Government Departments? Is there not a case for saying either that no information should be given by telephone or that the inquirer should leave his number and be telephoned back?

The Prime Minister

Yes; that is a perfectly valid point, with which we are dealing immediately.

Sir F. Bennett

In regard to the question of political security, do the same rules about security background apply to Ministers as to civil servants?

The Prime Minister

I think that exactly the same rules apply as applied under the previous Administration.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

This is still a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. Is the Prime Minister aware that Minister after Minister on that Front Bench has assured me, in answer to questions, that there is nothing to worry about on the question of confidentiality of information? Would he not admit that there is, therefore, a need for my Control of Personal Information Bill, and would he also extend the terms of reference of the Younger Committee so that it can also consider the public sector?

The Prime Minister

What I told the hon. Gentleman in answer to a Question was that it was not just a matter of confidentiality of information stored on computers, but that exactly the same high standards should apply to all information in Government Departments, both personal and commercial. This is the aim of this Administration, and if, as a result of the statements in The Guardian today, we find means by which the rules are either being broken or being evaded, we can take immediate action, and The Guardian will have performed a valuable public service.

Mr. Onslovv

On the particular question of national security, would my right hon. Friend agree that this might be partly reinforced if some way could be found of reducing the number of Communist intelligence officers operating in London under diplomatic cover?

The Prime Minister

That is a separate problem, but it is well known that it is under consideration by the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Hamling

Would the Prime Minister particularly consider the allegation about information being supplied to foreign embassies, bearing in mind what the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) said?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir; this is, of course, a major point of importance which is being examined.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Although the Prime Minister must be free and have adequate time to conduct these inquiries, would he pay particular attention to the allegations that ex-officers of certain Departments, with knowledge of telephone numbers and the necessary procedures and the kind of questions to ask, are telephoning from outside? Would he try to cut down any private, secret or confidential information being given on the telephone, and require it, even at some delay and some cost, to be put in writing?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. As I have said, The Guardian has undertaken to help us in this matter so far as possible and has also agreed that I should make that fact public.