HC Deb 07 November 1979 vol 973 cc569-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

11.59 pm
Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)

It is entirely fitting that having debated the matter of Members' interests the House should now turn to consider the matter of the Special Branch, which undoubtedly has a fuller knowledge of the background and interests of the Members of the House than anything that has yet been filed with the Select Committee.

As I think some of my hon. Friends are aware, this is my third time over this field. I welcome the Minister of State, Home Office to what I believe is his first time over the course. I also welcome the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees).

As my right hon. Friend is present, I should like to begin by saying that it is only fair to congratulate him on the very positive response that he made to our debate on the subject last year. I then drew his attention to the fact that only one chief constable in the length and breadth of Great Britain had included in his annual report a paragraph on the work and functions of the Special Branch. Since then a further 22 chief constables have done so. I am a modest man and I think it is reasonable to assume that it was not my comments that led to this development. It is reasonable to assume that it was some action on the part of my colleague that produced this expansion in the reports on the Special Branch, which I very much welcome.

The situation that the Minister has inherited is that 50 per cent. of all chief constables are now including a report on the Special Branch in their annual reports. I urge him to ensure that the practice of some chief constables becomes the practice of all. In doing so, I hope that he will look in particular at the release of information on the numbers in each Special Branch unit. If the Metropolitan Police, which has by far the largest Special Branch unit, can release the figures, I see no reason why any of the provincial forces should hesitate to do so.

Most of the paragraphs relating to the Special Branch in these reports raise more questions than they answer. The principal explanation advanced for the function of the Special Branch is to monitor subversion, or to monitor subversive activity. The most vacuous was the report from Merseyside, which stated that the function of a Special Branch unit was to keep in touch with the current climate in respect of subversive activities. The unsatisfactory part about this is that there is no crime of subversion on the statute book of this country. There is no authority from Parliament for this extensive programme of surveillance of subversive activities. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to comment on this issue and make plain to the House his understanding of the word "subversion". Does he accept the definition of Lord Denning, in 1963, that subversives are those who would contemplate the overthrow of the Government by unlawful means or does he adhere to the definition pronounced by the last Government that subversion consists of activities intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means? There is a vast difference between these two definitions. The first is a definition of illegal activity. It is precise and clear, and I have no difficulty in supporting it. The latter is worrying, because it can bring within the scope of its umbrella any form of legitimate political activity. If the Minister intends to adhere to that definition, which was adhered to throughout the period of the last Government, he has a further duty to the House to explain which political activities he considers subversive. We endanger our democracy if we leave to the discretion of the police the decision of defining a subversive political activity.

In this connection, I am not reassured by the nature of the occasions on which the Special Branch has been spotted at work in the past 12 months. I do not conclude, as a result, that shares the concept of subversion that this House would be prepared to support in the foreseeable future.

It has been known for a long time that section 49 of the general orders of the Metropolitan Police obliges local police stations to report on any political meeting on their beat. It would appear from a couple of incidents in the past year that this system has been further formalised by the issue of a printed form, which must be filled in by the local officers. In March last year one such officer, in seeking help to fill in the form, approached the organisers of a demonstration against the closure of the Battersea law centre. This was a demonstration organised by NALGO—a union of such impeccable respectability that it has been unable to bring itself to affiliate with the Labour Party.

If it is the case that the Special Branch regard demonstrations against the effects of the cuts in public expenditure as subversive it is only fair to warn the Government that it will have a very busy winter ahead of it.

Then there was the case of the student at Hull who was recruited in February to inform on the political activities of his fellow students. I must be careful what I say in this case, because it is the subject of an official complaint. I am well aware that hon. Members from Hull propose to raise the matter when the report on that complaint is available. Tonight I shall merely emphasise that when the student was interviewed—it happened on two or three occasions—the information that was sought from him was information about perfectly lawful, legal, political activity. He was asked which students took part in the campaign for disinvestment of university funds in South Africa. He was asked which students were likely to take part in a demonstration on the level of grants. He was asked to recognise from photographs which students had attended an Anti-Nazi League demonstration. He was even asked, apparently without any sense of irony on the part of the police officers, to identify from photographs those students who were demonstrating outside the same police station at his own continued detention.

The significant feature about all these activities is that they were all perfectly legal, legitimate, political activities. Although none could reasonably be described as "subversive", it would nevertheless appear that a large number of students had become known to the Special Branch for no reason other than that they had participated in those activities and had thereby had files opened on them. The question to which the House must address itself is: what happens to those files?

Here we come to one of the key developments since we last debated this issue—the Lindop committee report on data protection. As the Minister will be aware, that committee sought information on the computer "C" division of the Metropolitan Police, the greatest bulk of which is dedicated to the files of the Special Branch. As he will also be aware, it was defeated in its request for information. But it was able to discover that the bulk of the information stored in that computer was criminal intelligence, which it said was necessarily speculative, suppositional, hearsay and unverified", or as the Police Review put it rather more bluntly, "unchecked bunkum'.

As the committee properly pointed out, there are very real dangers of taking wrong and unreliable data such as this and feeding it into the most sophisticated and advanced computer systems. As the committee observed, that conjunction of unreliable data and sophisticated computer technology introduced what it described as a new dimension of unease so much so that it recommended that this House should approve a code of practice for the operation of that specific computer use and that that code of practice should be more stringent, because the information stored on the computer is by its very nature unverifiable. I believe that there is an urgent case for some check on the use of computer technology in this regard.

I have seen the tender document issued by the Metropolitan Police in 1974, when it sought this computer. That document specified that 1.1 million places would be required on that computer for personal files held by the Special Branch in 1974. That number is to expand to 1.4 million by 1985. I am tempted to ask "Why not 1984?", because after all, 1984 is 10 years on from 1974 and it is most unusual to use an 11-year review period. I cannot escape the conclusion that someone within the Metropolitan Police has a literary background and realises that the forecasting of 1984 might invite invidious comparisons and comment.

Whatever the date, or the number between 1.1 million and 1.4 million that has now been reached, that is an apallingly large slice of the adult population of this country. It certainly wildly exceeds the combined membership of the National Front and the Workers' Revolutionary Party. [HON. MEMBERS: "And the Labour Party".] Certainly the NEC of the Labour Party. There is a very real danger that if one creates and gives that capacity to any organisation, it will seek to fill that capacity, and that it will seek to open 1.4 million files.

Of course, each time a new file is opened, the person named in that file will become subject to even more extensive surveillance by the very fact that a file has been opened upon him. I therefore believe that we need a check on this. It is a check that has been introduced in Sweden for some years. As I mentioned last year, it has now been introduced in New South Wales, and since last year it has also been introduced by New York State. I believe that we should follow their lead.

One or two of my hon. Friends wish to make brief comments, so I shall close now. I would not wish the Minister to think that this subject is my own King Charles's head.

I have pursued the matter for three years. In that time I have learnt a lot about the Special Branch, and no doubt it has learnt a lot about me. I appreciate that the bulk of its work is legitimate police activity, which poses no threat to our society. It is also plain that much of its work involves monitoring political activity, and that is also perfectly legitimate and poses no threat to our society.

The time has come, however, for us urgently to impose a proper independent safeguard on the work and records of the Special Branch. Unless we do that, this mighty engine of surveillance, which we have set in motion in order to protect democracy, may come to represent a greater threat to privacy and democracy than most of the organisations that it watches.

12.10 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) has done a service to the House. It may in one sense be his cause, because he has taken the lead, but he is speaking for many other hon. Members.

I ask only one question of the Home Office. What work is being done on information that is put on a computer for reason X and is not used for different reason Y? I shall leave it at that.

12.11 am
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) does the House a service in raising these matters. When first he drew them to the attention of the House I know that some hon. Members did not agree.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend say, at the end of his speech, that as he has looked into the matter more and more he has discovered that the greater part of the work of the Special Branch is perfectly reputable and a service to the public. I shall not argue about the other part of its work at the moment.

For five and a half years I have not moved outside this House without a member of the Special Branch with me. I personally know a number of members of the Special Branch and they will be grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. The work that the Special Branch does in respect of terrorists such as the Arab groups who come into the country is of the greatest value. It is not usually talked about, but I am glad for the sake of the people of this country that the Special Branch performs that service.

No Home Secretary has control over chief constables, and that is a good thing. I have changed whatever views I may have held in the past about a national police force. Chief constables are their own men. There is a certain control through the inspectorate—although "control" is the wrong word. "Contact" would perhaps be a better word. Numbers are now published for the Metropolitan Police and certain provincial forces, but I believe that far more information could be given, and I hope that the process continues.

Three men are now required to protect one person, and that means that to protect 30 more people 90 more officers are required. Each conference that occurs in London makes a large demand on numbers. That ought to be understood, because by itself the numbers game gives the wrong impression. My hon. Friend prompted me a year ago to realise that, and he did a great service.

12.15 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) said, this is the third time that he has initiated a debate of this sort. It has become an annual event. I welcome the opportunity of making my debut on this annual event. It is especially appropriate that the subject should be raised this year because of the particular burdens that have been imposed upon the Special Branch.

I know that those concerned will welcome the fact that this year the hon. Gentleman has felt able to say that most of the work of the Special Branch is of an entirely non-controversial character. It needs stressing that the role of the Special Branch is less dramatic than its critics seek to make out. It is concerned with offences against the security of the State, with terrorist or subversive organisations, with assisting the uniformed police in the maintenance of order, with certain protection duties, with keeping watch on airports and seaports and with making inquiries about aliens.

In the year since the last debate on this subject there have been the deaths through terrorist activity of our late colleague Airey Neave and Earl Mountbatten of Burma, as well as three IRA car bombs and a spate of letter bombs, the murder of a former Prime Minister of Iraq, and a machine gun and grenade attack on an E1 A1 coach. In these circumstances, there can surely be no questioning the importance of the work of the Special Branch. Much of its work is painstaking and time consuming. To take an even more topical example, the burden imposed by the security arrangements associated with the current Lancaster House conference, or with the recent visit by the Prime Minister of the People's Republic of China, is considerable. I am glad to be able to pay tribute to the way in which these burdens have been shouldered.

There has been one other comparatively topical matter referred to in the debate—namely, the data protection committee chaired by Sir Norman Lindop, and the recommendations made in the report. An interim position has been reached. Wide-ranging consultations on the report were initiated by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) when he was Home Secretary. The consultations are still proceeding. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to consider the committee's report in the light of the wide-ranging consultations that were initiated by his predecessor, which have not yet concluded. I am sure that the House will agree that that is the right course to adopt.

I must remind the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central that the committee recognised that special consideration must apply to computer data involving national security. How one relates that to the whole is something to which we may have to return on a future occasion.

Mr. Dalyell

A feature that is worrying many in the consideration of the Lindop report—incidentally, when are conclusions likely to be reached?—is what consideration is being given to the use of information collected for one purpose and used for another.

Mr. Brittan

That is bound to be one of the matters that is being considered When conclusions have been reached, they will be made public.

The brunt of the remarks of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central was directed to the activities of the Special Branch concerned with subversion. The hon. Gentleman sought to ask whether we as the incoming Government continued to accept the definition of subversion that the previous Labour Government stated when asked about these matters. I think that the answer is "Yes." The definition that I shall quote is slightly different in wording from the one referred to by the hon. Gentleman, but it comes to much the same and it derives from a former Minister of State, Home Office, Lord Harris of Greenwich. The noble lord defined subversion as activities … which threaten the safety or wellbeing of the State, and which are intended to undermine or overthrow Parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 February 1975; Vol. 357, c. 947.] That suffices to show that even if what has been described as subversion does not, at least in its early stages, amount to criminal activity in itself, it is not just a question of taking an interest in activities of a political character for which one does not care, labelling them with an unattractive label and enabling scrutiny and surveillance to be exercised over them.

I do not think that it is fair or right to suggest that the Special Branch is interested in legitimate political or industrial activity. Let us consider the example that was given concerning demonstrations against the Government's proposals for stabilising public expenditure. Whatever one's views about the proposals, one would not question a person's entitlement to express doubts about the wisdom of those proposals. Engaging in such demonstrations is not subversive.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Does not the definition that the Minister has quoted extend to the man who stands for Parliament, quite properly and legitimately, on a platform that would involve the ultimate closure of Parliament?

Mr. Brittan

I do not think so, because of the first limb of the definition. The definition is such that both limbs must apply before an activity can properly be regarded as subversive. That first limb is that the activities must be those which threaten the safety or wellbeing of the State". I do not think that that limb would apply in the circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I wish now to take up the reference to the Hull university student. I note the point of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central. The chief constable of Humberside appointed a senior officer from another force to look into the matter. That officer's report was submitted in the usual way to the Police Complaints Board. The fact that that happened shows that the Special Branch is accountable to the public in the broadest sense of the word. That procedure illustrates that it is accountable in the same way as are the operations of any other members of the police.

I understand that the Board has recently found that the student's specific complaints were not substantiated and that no disciplinary proceedings against the officers concerned were called for.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) raised more general points about the case with the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). These more general matters are still being looked into, and we shall shortly be contacting the hon. Gentleman on these points.

It was suggested that more information should be available about the Special Branch than has been the case hitherto. There was reference to the degree of information about Special Branch activities contained in the annual reports of chief constables. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central was good enough to say that half of these reports now included references to the Special Branch. The right hon. Member for Leeds, South also indicated that for his part there need be no coyness about that. As the right hon. Gentleman readily made clear, however, what is or is not included in a chief constable's annual report is a matter for the chief constable. That is right.

It would be wrong for a Home Secretary to direct that particular information should be contained in a report. If that happened, the concept of the special position of the police would disappear. None the less, those concerned with producing these reports have clearly heeded what has been said in the House on previous occasions. The dramatic increase of information has made that point clear. I do not doubt that today's debate will be similarly heeded, and I have no wish to dissuade those responsible for these matters from listening to the observations.

We should face the fact that much of the work of the Special Branches precludes it from being conducted in the full glare of public scrutiny. It would be idle to pretend the contrary. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central speculated about the numbers of files and other matters. Little credence can be given to such figures. Those who seek to undermine our democratic institutions or put the public to fear often operate covertly and by stealth. Police action to counter that cannot be effective if it is conducted in public. It would not be in the public interest for detailed accounts of Special Branch operations to be given, as these are often bound to be concerned with matters affecting security. The sort of information that is contained increasingly in chief constables' reports falls into a different category.

The nature of the handling of complaints about the Special Branch shows that the complaint of lack of accountability is unfair. Indeed, there is no such things as the Special Branch. It is not a national organisation. The Metropolitan Police has traditional responsibility for co-ordinating the collection of information on certain activities but each of the 43 police forces in England and Wales has its own Special Branch. Postings to the branch are a normal part of ordinary police duty. Special Branch officers have no special powers but are subject to the police discipline code and the law of the land in exactly the same way as is any other officer. The complaints procedure, set up by the House, provides a measure of accountability for them in exactly the same way as it applies to other members of police forces.

The work being carried out by members of Special Branches is of vital national importance. That importance has been highlighted by the events of the last year. Although the opportunity to examine the extent and accountability that can be provided for these matters is welcomed, it should be recognised that in the nature of the work it is not possible to submit it to the full glare of publicity.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the Minister clarify the time scale of action on Lindop? What will the Government do? Is it a question of "one of these days" or "none of these days"?

Mr. Brittan

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter is being looked at with the normal and proper degree of urgency. It is a complex matter, and it is not easy to arrive at the right solution in response—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half the House without Question put, pur-an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned suant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.