HC Deb 17 December 1974 vol 883 cc1353-7
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on a security matter.

Publicity has recently been given to allegations that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stone-house) was spying for the Czechoslovak Intelligence Service at the time he held ministerial office. These allegations were first made by a Czechoslovak defector in 1969. With my approval, the Security Service investigated these allegations fully at the time. In the course of its inquiries it interviewed the defector, and it questioned my right hon. Friend about his contacts. Following its investigations, the Security Service advised me at that time that there was no evidence to support the allegations. I am today advised that no evidence to support these allegations has come to light at any time since then. There is no truth whatever in reports that my right hon. Friend was being kept under investigation or surveillance by the Security Service at the time of his disappearance.

Mr. Heath

Will not the Prime Minister agree that to make a statement of this kind is an unusual procedure? From time to time Press stories occur about intelligence activities. It has been a firmly held rule in the past that Prime Ministers and members of Governments do not make statements about allegations of this kind for the very sound reason that it now opens up a situation in which all sorts of stories can circulate in the Press and allegations can be made, and if they are not then denied in Parliament credence is given to them. Therefore I hope that the Prime Minister will assure the House that this is not to be taken as a precedent, and that when allegations about security matters are made in the Press a statement has not immediately to be made in the House.

The Prime Minister has dealt with one allegation made in the course of Press stories. Of course, other allegations have been made on which the right hon. Gentleman has not touched. Therefore, it is still open to the Press to emphasise these allegations in the stories circulating which concern the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse). I hope that further consideration will be given to that matter.

Could the Prime Minister also say what inquiries have now been made by the Government into the disappearance of his right hon. Friend?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman to this extent, and to this extent only. It is always a difficult problem for anyone holding responsibilities such as he has held, and which I now hold, to know when to make a statement on these matters, and when not. Indeed, I think that in a previous case involving the right hon. Member for Sid-cup (Mr. Heath) considerable surprise was caused when he volunteered the statement that Philby was the third man involved on a famous occasion. I did not criticise the right hon. Gentleman for saying so, because he obviously was speaking with a full sense of responsibility. I believe that in this case there has been a serious Press campaign based on stories going back to 1969 when I had the responsibility for these matters. I caused the allegations to be fully investigated at the time, and found there was no substance in them.

One must always face the possibility that defectors, when leaving a country where they previously were and finding their capital—intellectual capital, of course—diminishing, try to revive their memories of these matters. However, nothing has been said this week that was not said in 1969, when the most rigorous inquiries were made. It was proved at that time not only that there was no evidence that my right hon. Friend was a Czechoslovak spy—indeed, that was not the suggestion—but that he was not in any sense a security risk.

I think it is only fair and right to my right hon. Friend, since so many newspapers have published top front-page headlines on this matter, for me to say what I know about it, and to say that I have been into the matter. It does not follow that I shall comment in all future cases. Both the right hon. Gentleman and I agree that this is a difficult matter for discretion. I was also asked to comment on another aspect of the allegations. I have no information whatsoever about the disappearance of my right hon. Friend. This matter is being investigated by the United States police authorities, which are in touch with our own authorities. However, I have no information whatsoever. I only wish I had, but I have not.

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman had in mind another issue circulated in the public Press with great confidence and certainty, that my right hon. Friend was an agent of the CIA. He was not an agent of the CIA.

Mr. Molloy

Notwithstanding the comments of the Leader of the Opposition, the majority of hon. Members of the House of Commons, the British people, and, indeed, the family and children of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wal- sall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) will be grateful to the Prime Minister for the statement he has made. Would the Prime Minister agree that the media should respond to his statement, in that the tarnishing rumours and innuendoes should cease and that the Stonehouse family should now be released from the distressing pressures causing unnecessary pain and anguish to them?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend. I made this statement be-cause of the publicity, which was not in the form of innuendo but as statements of alleged fact. Since I know the facts, I thought it right in the interests particularly of the family of my right hon. Friend that this should be said. Great distress has been caused. I understand that the mother of my right hon. Friend has suffered a serious heart attack because of the anxiety and pressure. Some members of the Press are hounding them in their homes—the children, their domestic staff and other persons connected with the family—to ask them far-fetched questions about matters which at the end of the day must be settled by the police authorities in another country. It is time for these people to be given a little decent privacy and understanding and that some reticence should be shown by the Press. If it is of any help that I have given this statement this afternoon, considering the yards of newsprint devoted to the lie, which I have now disproved, I hope that perhaps the Press will use its newsprint to print the truth in place of the lie.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that we are grateful for his statement? Is he also aware that the security procedures to which he alluded are well established and generally accepted by all sides of the House? Is he aware further that if the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) were here, he would be in a position to choose whether to make a personal statement or to take other advice? However, as he is not here, does not the Prime Minister accept that when allegations of this sort are made against an hon. Member of this House, if any of his colleagues, or indeed the Government of the day, of whatever complexion are able to rebut them, this is generally welcomed out of loyalty to a colleague in the House?

Does the Prime Minister agree, finally, that, whilst there are still matters of grave doubt which have to be resolved, the less speculative conjecture there is the better it will be all round.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has expressed the views of the whole House. There is one point which he recognised in what he said. The allegations, which have not been added to by any evidence, were made as long ago as 1969. I was satisfied by the thorough investigations, in which my right hon. Friend gave all possible help, that there was no truth in those allegations. It would have been obvious to the House that had there been a scintilla of evidence in 1969, my right hon. Friend would not have remained a member of the Government.



That the Arbitration Bill [Lords] be referred to a Second Reading Committee.— [Mr. Pavitt.]



That the Biological Standards Bill [Lords] be referred to a Second Reading Committee. —[Mr. Pavitt.]