HC Deb 04 May 1978 vol 949 cc430-2
7. Mr. Hugh Jenkins

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will adopt as his Department's administrative definition of subversion Lord Denning's definition as the attempt to overthrow the Government by unlawful means.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

In my view, the essence of any definition of subversion must be the intention to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy.

Mr. Jenkins

Does my right hon. Friend agree that parliamentary democracy cannot be upheld if lawful activities are subjected to surveillance by the secret police? Will he give instructions that his Department will not regard that which is lawful as subversive?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend makes assumptions and draws deductions from them, using terms such as "the secret police". The Special Branch is a part of the police in the normal sense of the term. I have a responsibility in another respect. We are not concerned with political opinions, even offbeat political opinions, which might upset a large number of people. What is subversive is another matter. If there is any slip-up from that, I shall want to know.

Mr. Lawrence

Does the Home Secretary therefore agree that his definition covers the behaviour of the four hon. Members below the Gangway on the Government side who raised the name of Colonel B before the House the week before last?

Mr. Rees

No, and, frankly, I would not take the hon. Gentleman's advice on matters of this kind.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

Does my hon. Friend recognise that, according to the definition that he has offered to the House, the Special Branch is indeed distinct from other parts of the police force in that he is inviting it to monitor activities that are lawful'? For the avoidance of doubt, will he give the House an illustration of what he regards as subversive whilst being a lawful political activity, which is clearly included in his definition?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) painted a picture of the role of the Special Branch which is one that I do not recognise after a certain amount of experience in this matter over the years. If anyone has any example of the Special Branch acting in this way, the matter should be brought to my notice. If there has been a slip-up, I shall see that the matter is dealt with. However, fairy stories about it do not help any investigation on my part.

Mr. Fairbairn

May I invite the Home Secretary, in making his definition, to have regard to the law of Scotland? After all, ours is a United Kingdom Parliament. The definition that he has given represents treason in the law of Scotland and not subversion. Could we in future have a little more regard paid to the law of part of the country when we have a United Kingdom Parliament?

Mr. Rees

I realise the expertise of the hon. and learned Gentleman. I understand that definitions are matters for the law. Judgments that I have to make are not legal judgments. They are broader than that. What is subversion and what is not subversion probably changes from time to time. In cases that reached the courts, people who acted in a subversive fashion to this country held political views that were rather different in practice from those that they expressed on the surface. We have to consider the types of school to which they went and all sorts of other aspects of the matter. I am not picking on any particular school. I am simply pointing out that people who have been subversive have come from the most curious stables.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that not all of us who have had experience of the workings of the Special Branch or of the security services are necessarily as sanguine about the use which is made of the information which they obtain? Does he recognise that when the South Australia Government asked for an investigation into the security service, which was headed by the former Chief Constable of the North Riding of Yorkshire, it found that there were many reasons to query the sort of investigations and the information that was held on file?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend was a Minister at the Home Office but—and I say this with no contempt for him—his knowledge of this matter was very small. This is a matter for the Home Secretary of the day. My hon. Friend was involved on the fringe, his involvement was extremely small and he should not draw conclusions on that basis. As Home Secretary—and this is true of my predecessors—I was and am concerned about this matter. Because of my responsibilities, I have made a firm investigation of what I am responsible for, and I am content with the way in which these matters are carried out in this country.

Mr. Whitelaw

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in his very difficult duty of maintaining the security of the State he will have the full support of this side of the House? Is he also aware that those of us who have some experience of these matters have the highest regard for the way in which our security services at all levels carry out their very difficult duties?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said, but I add to it because there is a serious discussion involved here. He agrees with what I said. If ever there is a departure by anybody from the strict rules governing matters of this kind, wherever it comes from, it will be dealt with firmly.