HC Deb 20 June 1974 vol 875 cc655-62
6. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will examine ways in which Special Branch activities can, in total, be made publicly accountable without damaging the security needs of individual operations.

10. Mrs. Colquhoun

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will examine ways in which Special Branch activities can, in total, be made publicly accountable without damaging the security needs of individual operations.

Mr. Roy Jenkins

Individual Special Branch officers are accountable for their actions in the same way as other police officers. I am ready to look into any general aspects which may concern hon. Members, although, as my hon. Friends recognise, individual operations must normally remain secret.

Mr. Bennett

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Most people are concerned that they have no idea of the range and scope of these activities, and they would like to know—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question.

Mr. Bennett

Will my right hon. Friend give us some idea how the public can tell what is the total expenditure on this sort of activity, year after year?

Mr. Jenkins

The Special Branch represents approximately 1 per cent. of the total size of the police force. Although figures are not kept of exactly what percentage of cost this represents, since the overwhelming proportion of the cost represents pay and allowances I would think that it was approximately the same proportion.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that with the increase in terrorism in this country it is essential to have a police intelligence organisation which can seek out terrorists before they strike? Does he not further agree that we rely heavily upon the Special Branch in this regard and that this is really no time for anyone to conduct a campaign against it?

Mr. Jenkins

I agree that the Special Branch performs a most valuable service—possibly as valuable as, or even more valuable and necessary than, at any time since its inception 90 years ago. I do not think this is a reason why my hon. Friend or others should not ask Questions which they think it appropriate to ask. I shall always endeavour to provide hon. Members and the House generally with such information as I think proper. At the same time, I certainly think that we owe a considerable debt to the Special Branch.

Mrs. Colquhoun

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply? Does he accept that there is considerable public disquiet about the erosion of democracy and public accountability today? Will he do all that he can to ensure that at least Members of this House are kept informed?

Mr. Jenkins

My hon. Friend's premise has possible interpretations in a number of different ways. As a broad statement, I accept it. I certainly accept that it is not only my desire but my duty to keep this House informed as far as I can.

Mr. Beith

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the two points raised in this Question are connected, namely, the importance of the Special Branch and the value of its work, and the desirability of opening it to public scrutiny, notwithstanding the need to protect individual operations? Does he recognise that in the past there has been a tendency to shroud it in secrecy, which is not in the interests of ensuring that there is public recognition of the work of the Special Branch?

Mr. Jenkins

What is desirable, and what I have always endeavoured to do, and will endeavour to do in future, is not to shroud a perfectly reputable and normal branch of the police organisation in any undesirable secrecy, which only arouses suspicion. At the same time, I recognise that there are bound to be certain operations which have to be conducted confidentially or not at all.

Mr. Robert Taylor

Bearing in mind the many activities of the Special Branch, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he has yet had the opportunity to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to posters which appeared in London in the early hours of this morning claiming that the police are responsible for the murder of the student who unfortunately died last week? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is a most important point? Is he aware that it is stated on the poster that there is to be another demonstration this weekend? Is he further aware that one of his hon. Friends is named in the Morning Star today as being the principal speaker at the demonstration planned for this coming Saturday? If the attention of the right hon. Gentleman has not been drawn to the poster may I rectify that omission herewith and show him it—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member may not do that at Question Time.

Mr. Jenkins

I do not think it requires the activities of the Special Branch, or even the hon. Gentleman's poster-waving activities, to inform me of this. I was informed of it this morning. I am aware of the circumstances and I take note of them. I am also aware that the hon. Gentleman wished to put a certain question to me this afternoon on which it would not have been appropriate for me to take action, because under Section 3 of the Public Order Act 1936, and any other powers, I have no power to initiate a ban, only to respond to such a request from the Commissioner of Police or the chief police officer in any other area. No such request has been received and it would certainly be inappropriate in such circumstances for me to take action such as the hon. Gentleman is suggesting.

8. Mr. Snape

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will give as much information as is consistent with security about the nature and scale of the work of the Special Branch.

3. Mrs. Wise

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what information he is prepared to give relating to the nature and scale of the activities of the Special Branch.

Mr. Roy Jenkins

The Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police developed out of the Irish Bureau, set up in 1883 to deal with Fenian activity. Other forces in England and Wales now have their own Special Branches. Special Branch officers are police officers and are under the control of their chief officers, who are responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the preservation of public order in their areas.

Special Branches are mainly concerned with offences against the security of the State, with terrorist or subversive organisations, with certain protection duties, with keeping watch on seaports and airports and with making inquiries about aliens.

Mr. Snape

Will my right hon. Friend tell us how he can possibly equate that reply with a report on the activities of the Special Branch concerning the taking of photographs of nurses demonstrating against their scandalously low pay? Will he also tell the House whether the Special Branch was sufficiently efficient last Saturday, in Red Lion Square, as to take the names and particulars of those members of the National Front who paraded in paramilitary uniform through the square, in direct contravention of the Public Order Act 1936?

Mr. Jenkins

I am informed by the Chief Constable of Kent that no photographs were taken of the nurses' demonstration to which my hon. Friend refers. It is true, as is known, that Special Branch officers were present and that one, or perhaps more of them, had cameras. It is not outside the experience of most of my hon. Friends and Members of the House generally that demonstrations organised by the most reputable organisations, and begun with the most estimable of intentions, may be joined by those whose purposes are less benign. On this occasion no photographs were taken at all. As for the details of what happened on Saturday, I have already answered a Private Notice Question about that. If my hon. Friend likes to put down a Question dealing with the particular point he has in mind I shall endeavour to reply to it.

Mr. Farr

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that where possible members of the Special Branch are equipped with British equipment? In particular, will he make sure that unless there is a very good reason to the contrary they use the very successful Webley and Scott police revolver, which is widely used by police forces throughout the world?

Mr. Jenkins

I congratulate the hon. Member upon having thought of a supplementary question which the Home Office—even with five Questions tabled dealing with the Special Branch—had not thought of. I cannot give him the specific assurance he asked for, but I will give him the general expression of my intention that whenever equipment is equally effective I hope that British equipment will be preferred.

Mrs. Wise

Reverting to the matters referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) about the nurses' demonstration, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what justification there was for the intervention of the Special Branch, which was widely reported in the Press, in the industrial dispute at Strachan's in Eastleigh?

Mr. Jenkins

The Special Branch has no interest in intervening—and no power to intervene—in trade disputes as such. It has no interest in trade unions as such. It is interested only in subversion and possible subversion. Subversion can come from a variety of quarters. I think that it is most important that the Special Branch should be neutral in its attitude to differences between trade unions and employers, between the members of different political parties, and others. The Chief Constable of Hampshire had reason to believe that public disorder might have resulted from the incident referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise). I can assure the House that this in no way detracts from the fact that the Special Branch will, as long as I have any general responsibility for it, maintain a general attitude of neutrality to those engaged in legitimate disputes. It is concerned solely with the activities of individuals who undermine the democratic party régime and not with intervening in any way between those who take different views as to how this power shall be exercised.

Sir K. Joseph

Although the Home Secretary is not responsible for the apparent campaign of some of his hon. Friends against both the police and the Special Branch—[Interruption.]—the right hon. Gentleman is not responsible—is he aware that most hon. Members and most members of the public will think it extremely odd that Members of this House at a demonstration on Saturday will give implicit support to people who practise provocation and violence against the democracy and peace of this country?

Mr. Jenkins

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is wrong to hold that point of view. I do not think that he or any other hon. Member will doubt my determination to uphold the legitimate powers of the police in all its aspects. The fact that these Questions have appeared together is not, in my view, part of a campaign. It is because there was a desire to put down certain other Questions which the Table Office, in its wisdom and without consultation with me—which would have been quite inappropriate—decided to regard as being out of order. That has resulted in their concentration on today's Order Paper. It is important that we preserve a balance, that we give the police our confidence and that we sustain them strongly in their proper activities, but that we do not say that hon. Members may not ask Questions which they think appropriate.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Does my right hon. Friend accept that although he is personally responsible for the activities of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police it is his judgment and decision alone which should determine whether information sought by hon. Members which by its nature is secret should be supplied? Is that not a decision for the Home Secretary of the day and for no other authority?

Mr. Jenkins

Clearly the House has to apply the established rules that have been developed. It is then for me to decide, when Questions are tabled, how much information I can give.

Mr. Wells

Is the Home Secretary aware that his reply to the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) about the episode in my constituency and about the non-photography will give considerable comfort and support to the Kent Police? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, further, that there are many elements fomenting trouble against the police and that we look to him to continue to give the police proper support?

Mr. Jenkins

Yes. Certainly I shall endeavour to continue my proper support—and I attach equal importance to the adjective and the noun.

9. Mr. Clemitson

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will take steps to ensure that the training of Special Branch officers is such as to ensure they do not encourage the collection of material on legitimate political groups.

Mr. Roy Jenkins

It is generally understood in the police service that Special Branch officers should not concern themselves with the political activities of individuals except to the extent required in connection with security and public order.

Mr. Clemitson

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he reiterate his belief in the good faith of hon. Members on the Government side of the House and stress that what we are concerned about is the defence of the freedom of individuals and legitimate organisations?

Mr. Jenkins

I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned, in their varying ways, with the freedom of the individual. I am sure that that applies to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Mather

Rather than holding public inquiries into the conduct of the police on such occasions as those that we have been discussing, does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be much more to the point to hold a public inquiry into Communist-backed subversive organisations in this country, whether paramilitary or otherwise?

Mr. Jenkins

I do not really know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Mr. Arthur Latham

Nor does the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Jenkins

The only suggestion that I have under consideration for a public inquiry into the activities which I think the hon. Gentleman is describing is about what happened last Saturday, which I told the House on Monday was proposed and welcomed by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and which would be concerned equally with the activities of all those concerned in this regrettable incident.

Mr. Loughlin

I accept my right hon. Friend's contention that we should do everything possible to support the police, Special Branch or otherwise, in ensuring the maintenance of law and order, but is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a great deal of concern in many quarters about some of the activities of the Special Branch? Cases have been enumerated of photographs being taken of innocent people who were simply going along a road where a meeting was taking place. Is my right hon. Friend aware, further, that the activities of the Special Branch in attending meetings and in taking photographs are giving a great deal of concern to people who are also concerned about the freedom of the individual?

Mr. Jenkins

I would have no intention of forbidding the Special Branch to take photographs, even if I had that power. It is extremely valuable that photographs were taken of what took place in Kilburn High Road two weeks ago, for instance. It is very difficult to know who exactly is included in a photograph. We all have photograpths taken of ourselves when we hope that we are innocent and when we do not necessarily ask for the photographs to be taken. I am against any unreasonable use of the power of the camera by the Special Branch, but I am unconvinced—and I have denied specifically in one case which has been put to me that the camera ever was used—that it is used inappropriately.

Mr. Goodhart

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that if the public and Parliament are to be protected from terrorism it will be necessary to take more photographs, to tap more telephones, to open more letters and to recruit more informers, however disagreeable those activities may be?

Mr. Jenkins

That is rather an extreme and general statement. My concern is that we should have as effective security as we can. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman will achieve it by his generalised statements that we should do more of everything.

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