HC Deb 11 November 1982 vol 31 cc669-78 3.31 pm
The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

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

In my statement on 20 July I informed the House that Mr. G. A. Prime had been charged with offences under section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. He was tried yesterday. He pleaded guilty to the charges under the Official Secrets Act and to charges relating to certain sexual offences. He was convicted and was sentenced to a total of 35 years' imprisonment in respect of the Official Secrets Act offences and a further three years in respect of the sexual offences.

Prime joined the Royal Air Force in 1956, when he was 18. After service in Africa, he took a Russian language course and qualified in May 1964. In June 1964 he was posted to RAF Gatow in West Berlin where his work was of a classified nature. His engagement with the Royal Air Force terminated on 31 July 1968. Earlier that year he applied from Berlin to join Government Communications Headquarters.

Although Prime had been positively vetted while in the Royal Air Force he was positively vetted again by GCHQ. He was certified for access to classified information and joined GCHQ in September 1968 as a Russian translator in the grade of Linguist Specialist—that is broadly equivalent to Executive Officer. The highest grade he ever reached was the next grade up—broadly equivalent to Higher Executive Officer. He was positively vetted again in 1973, and that vetting was reviewed again in 1974 following the break-up of his first marriage. Nothing arose on either occasion to put in doubt his fitness for access to classified information and his certificate was renewed.

In the course of his employment both in the Royal Air Force and in GCHQ, Prime came to have access to information ranging from the sensitive to matters of the utmost secrecy. He resigned from the Government service for personal reasons in September 1977 and has not since then been employed in the public service or in any other position which would give him access to classified information.

Prime first came under suspicion ealier this year following an investigation by West Mercia police into a case of indecent assault on a young girl. He was charged with this and two other similar sexual offences on 28 April 1982. While he was in cusody, Mrs. Prime told the police that she thought that he might also have been engaged in espionage. His home was searched and a quantity of espionage material was discovered. Though at first he denied having been a spy, he eventually made a confession in which he gave an account of his espionage activities.

In his confession, Prime claimed to have embarked on these activities, to use his own words, partly as a result of a misplaced idealistic view of Soviet Socialism which was compounded by basic psychological problems". He said that he initiated a contact with the Russian Intelligence service while he was in the Royal Air Force in West Berlin in January 1968. He told them the nature of his work and said that he wished to give them any information they wanted. During the remainder of his service with the Royal Air Force in Berlin he passed information to the Russians.

In August 1968, after leaving the Royal Air Force and before taking up employment in GCHQ, Prime visited East Berlin to be given training and equipment for espionage activities. During his period of service in GCHQ he made two visits to Vienna for meetings with his Russian controller at which he handed over material and received money, instructions and further equipment. After he resigned from GCHQ in September 1977, there were two further contacts. He went to Vienna two and a half years later, in May 1980, taking with him photographic material and handwritten notes derived from the last period of his Government service. Then he was summoned to East Berlin in November 1981 and was closely questioned. He was urged to seek further employment in Government service but did not do so. On one or other of these occasions he was given further espionage equipment but he did not use it.

What I have just said summarises Prime's own account of his activities. Over a period of 13 years to 1977, during which he was engaged on highly classified work, Prime had access to information of the utmost secrecy. On his own admission, from the beginning of 1968 at least until 1980 he passed a lot of that information to the Russians. That information must have alerted them to the state of our knowledge of certain important aspects of Russian defence arrangements and to the ways in which that knowledge was obtained.

It is not only British interests that have been damaged. The damage extends to the interests of the United States Government; and, of course, the damage to our own and United States interests is damage to the Atlantic Alliance as a whole.

There is, however, no evidence that Prime had access to any classified information about our own or allied military dispositions or intentions, about nuclear weapons, or to any information which could have endangered the lives of agents.

This case raises three major questions. The first is how Prime was able to be engaged and retained upon highly classified work and to escape notice as a spy for so long and whether this was due to some defect in procedures which remains to be corrected. The second is to ascertain precisely how much and what information Prime passed to the Russians and what damage was done. The third is whether Prime knows of any others in the public service who were or who may have been involved in espionage. Investigations so far have yielded no evidence to contradict Prime's own statement that no others were involved in his activities. Now that the trial proceedings are complete, all these questions must be further and exhaustively investigated.

I told the House on 20 July that any security issues that arose would be referred to the Security Commission in accordance with the arrangements described to the House on 23 January 1964 and on 10 May 1965. As the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition is aware, it was not possible to proceed with a reference while the trial proceedings were pending.

Now, after consulting the chairman of the Security Commission and the right hon. Gentleman, I have decided to refer these matters to the Security Commission. The terms of reference will be To investigate the circumstances in which breaches of security have, or may have, occurred arising out of the case of Geoffrey Arthur Prime, who was convicted on 10 November 1982 of offences under the Official Secrets Act 1911; and to advise in the light of that investigation whether any change in security arrangements is necessary or desirable. Those terms of reference will enable the commission to inquire into all the questions which this case raises. The commission's findings will be laid before the House to the fullest extent compatible with national security.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

The right hon. Lady's statement has underlined the seriousness of this case, as did the statement of the Attorney-General to the court. Naturally, therefore, when the right hon. Lady requested my concurrence in the reference of the matter to the Security Commission, I agreed. That is the normal practice that has prevailed in the House since 1964 and I am sure that it is the right course in such a far-reaching case. It is the established practice but, as I shall explain, I believe that there may be a case for going beyond that and adopting further methods of seeking to guard the security of the country in these matters. I hope that even while these investigations are being conducted there will be the utmost vigilance at the Cheltenham heaquarters to ensure that all security procedures are being vigorously carried out. I note the right hon. Lady's wish that the maximum information should be published at the end of the inquiry. I am sure that the House would insist upon that and that the Government would also wish it.

In view of what has happened and the long discussions that have taken place on these matters over a number of years, many hon. Members—certainly Opposition Members and, I should have thought, many Back-Bench Conservative Members—believe that there should be some parliamentary control over this, one of the few aspects of our national life over which there is at present no direct parliamentary control at all. The exact form that that control should take must be a matter for discussion, but I hope that the right hon. Lady will consider the proposition as many of us believe that that is the right way to proceed. If any hon. Members disagree, I suggest that they consider what happens in the United States, where there is indeed some congressional control of these matters.

I therefore ask the Prime Minister not merely to refer the matter to the Security Commission, as she has already announced, and to ensure that the fullest possible report is presented to the House, but to see whether some genuine parliamentary control can be established over our security services.

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his co-operation in the reference of this matter to the Security Commission. With regard to his comments about greater parliamentary control, at present Ministers are answerable to Parliament when such cases occur—

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Come off it.

The Prime Minister

When one is dealing with matters of secrecy, there is inevitably a conflict between the desire to know and the need to keep the matter to as few people as possible. Otherwise, one could never have these intelligence services at all. As soon as the report has been submitted, we shall place as much as we can before the House, when doubtless we shall need to debate the matter.

Mr. Foot

Is the right hon. Lady aware of the contradiction in what she has just said? She says that Ministers are answerable to the House for their duties in these respects, but they almost always refuse to answer any such questions. I recall that the right hon. Lady herself was unable to answer questions in July, although I believe that that was due more to the sub judice rule than to any other aspect of the matter, and I fully understand that. Nevertheless, it is absurd for the House to think that it cannot devise methods perfectly compatible with our security requirements which would nevertheless give some independent control over the security services.

I do not expect the Prime Minister to agree to my proposition at this moment, but I hope that she and the House will be prepared to consider it as I believe that the House will wish to exercise its rightful authority over this aspect of our national life as well.

The Prime Minister

It is inevitable that we must retain a substantial element of secrecy in these matters. Therefore, I believe that the present arrangements are most appropriate. If we went further, I believe that we should finish up undermining the efficiency of the intelligence services in this country, which is the last thing that most of us would wish to do.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Will the Prime Minister re-think her answer on parliamentary accountability? We all understand that there must he secrecy in these matters and that the investigation must he undertaken by only some Members of Parliament, preferably from both Houses. Nevertheless, it is essential to examine the secret votes and to secure greater parliamentary accountability.

Will the right hon. Lady also explain why the Security Commission has not already been investigating this complaint? She referred to the statement of the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), reported at column 34 of Hansard of 10 May 1965, which changed the procedure to allow the Prime Miniter to make a reference to the Security Commission even though the matter was sub judice, but not to announce it. Anyone reading the Prime Minister's statement to the House on 20 July 1982, reported at columns 211–12 of the Official Report, which included a reference to the former Prime Minister's statement in 1965, would assume that she had already made a reference to the Security Commission but could not say so because of the sub judice rule. Indeed, I believe that that is why she was not pressed strongly on the matter at that time.

Many months have passed since then and many of us hoped that the Prime Minister would by now have been able to give an interim report on the recommendations of the Security Commission. She must be aware that there is great concern in the United States about the fact that nothing has been done during that period. I hope that she will satisfy us by explaining why she did not act as the former Prime Minister in May 1965 envisaged that future Prime Ministers would act.

The Prime Minister

It was because, while the case was sub judice, the most important thing was to secure a conviction—

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Not a fair trial?

The Prime Minister

The most important thing was to secure a conviction, should the trial before the court warrant it.

Mr. McNamara

That is better.

The Prime Minister

We all have the right to a free trial before a court. The most important thing was to enable that process to go ahead, and the advice was that it was not possible to interrogate Prime until he had been before the court.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

Does the Prime Minister agree that an important element in this unfortunate episode and the various similar incidents on which she and her right hon. Friends have had to make statements to the House in previous years is the utter failure of the positive vetting process? Is it not obvious that people trained by the Russian intelligence services are well able to resist the rather amiable interrogation which is apparently all that the process of positive vetting involves? Does she agree that it is high time the Security Commission looked closely at ways of drastically improving the techniques?

The Prime Minister

One inevitably comes to that conclusion when a case as serious as this occurs. As my hon. Friend will recall, the matter of positive vetting was referred to the Security Commission and was dealt with in its last report, which was laid before the House. Clearly, it will have to consider the matter yet again in investigating this case. At the same time, however, it must be understood that it is extremely difficult to devise an absolute vetting process that will be proof against someone who is both skilful and determined to continue his work in absolute secrecy without adopting methods of surveillance and following so close as to be almost repugnant to many people in this country. Indeed, were we to adopt such methods, I am sure that Members of Parliament would be the first to challenge their use.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I intend to allow questions on the statement to continue until 4 o'clock, and then move on to the next statement.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Does the Prime Minister recognise that the House and the country will not think that her statement measures up to the gravity of the occasion? Is she not relying on a system of reference to the wise and the good that has massively failed on numerous occasions? Does she envisage no role for Parliament? Is not her example of the question marks around positive vetting—for example the possibility of the use of lie detectors and so on—precisely the questions that should be measured by a Committee of the House?

The Prime Minister

I cannot add anything to my previous remarks about the parliamentary aspect. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be gracious enough to recognise that I have probably given more details about such cases than any previous Prime Minister. The Attorney-General, in opening before the court yesterday, also gave as full information as was possible. The question of lie detectors has been considered, and there are various views about them.

The Security Commission investigated positive vetting procedures and reported to the House in its last report. It will have to examine the matter again. I repeat that it is not easy to obtain a system that is absolute—indeed, it is well nigh impossible—without using methods on which the hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members would challenge me.

Mr. Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)

I wish to underline the concern aroused by this appalling case about the effectiveness of positive vetting procedures. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that those who accept employment in sensitive areas must be prepared to accept degrees of disclosure that would be repugnant to ordinary members of the public? Will she comment on reports circulating in the American press that one of the major objections to the introduction of levels of security procedures that obtain in other democracies is that there has been serious resistance from staff associations and trade unions?

The Prime Minister

Those who work with classified information accept that they must go through stiffer recruiting procedures than those who do not. There is no difficulty in accepting that general principle. However, when it comes to the regular surveillance and random procedures, and the thoroughness with which they are carried out, it is difficult to know exactly where to draw the line. Obviously, we shall ask the Security Commission to consider the matter again. Procedures will have to be agreed with those who work in sensitive establishments.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

Will the Prime Minister consider the disastrous shambles at Cheltenham, where there has been more than three decades of treachery and betrayal in our intelligence services? Is she aware that the Soviet penetration may not have disappeared with Mr. Prime, and that more positive action is needed? Indeed, there should be a purge as well as an inquiry. Should not there be more scrutiny and accountability, especially to Parliament, to bring to an end a long and unhappy period when Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries have not been fully informed about such matters—and, in some cases, have been ignored?

The Prime Minister

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider—

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

No. The right hon. Lady must answer the question.

The Prime Minister

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the effect of his remarks on hundreds of people working at Cheltenham, who carry out their work faithfully, loyally and well. So far one person has been convicted. Obviously, those in charge of GCHQ are conscious of the need to have more exacting security procedures. No one is more anxious than they to ensure that such an occurence does not happen again.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

What does the right hon. Lady mean when she says that the Security Commission will consider whether there needs to be any tightening of procedures? In the light of the facts that she has given the House, is it not manifest that the procedures need to be tightened and that far greater surveillance over such staff needs to be exercised? Otherwise, we will continue with these events year after year after year.

The Prime Minister

I have tried to give the Security Commission terms of reference that are as wide as possible. I stress that it is easy to make a general proposition, and when we have to decide precisely what procedures should be instituted, it becomes much more difficult. Many of the questions put to me relate to restricting and limiting the use of such procedures against citizens of Britain.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend carefully investigate the methods of recruiting to GCHQ? Is she aware that in the appointments page of today's Guardian, there is an advertisement headed An intellectual challenge for honours graduates", which invites people to apply for jobs in the area of communications security, and is designed so that the successful candidate is fit for individual research? Will she consider the methods of recruitment to that organisation as a matter of urgency?

The Prime Minister

I know of the advertisement. It gives precisely the grade and the salary for those whom we are considering. Recruitment is a matter that the commission must further consider.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth)

The Prime Minister has mentioned security vetting on four different occasions when discussing Mr. Prime. Does not she find it astonishing that the man was not vetted when he left the security service to become a taxi driver, and, apparently, had not been positively vetted since? Does the Prime Minister gain the impression that had the man not committed another offence he would never have been detected?

The Prime Minister

The latter part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is factually correct. Prime's record was considered, and also the circumstances of his resignation, but there was no evidence whatsoever that reflected upon him. Some people can get through almost any positive vetting procedure if they are determined and skilled. We must consider how we can tighten the procedures to minimise the chance of anyone else getting through.

Sir Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)

While I appreciate the Prime Minister's difficulty on the moral questions of security vetting, does she not agree that, having considered the proposals of the Security Commission—which are wholly inadequate—the time has come for a small committee of the House, drawn from senior Privy Councillors—

Mr. Cryer


Sir Hugh Fraser

I am a junior Privy Councillor. I am referring to senior and distinguished Privy Councillors who could make political recommendations to the Prime Minister on how to deal with such matters. Does not the Prime Minister agree that, so far, the reports from the Security Commission have been wholly inadequate to deal with the risks being faced by Britain?

The Prime Minister

I cannot add any more to my remarks about the parliamentary aspect. Most senior Privy Councillors and, indeed, some junior Privy Councillors, are Privy Councillors by virtue of having been members of previous Governments.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call two hon. Members—

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

Geoffrey Dickens.

Mr. Speaker

—from each side of the House before we move on.

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

Is the Prime Minister saying that it would have required an unacceptable amount of internal surveillance at GCHQ to detect that Prime paid visits behind the Iron Curtain and that some of his colleagues regarded his ideas and attitudes as strange? Does the Prime Minister not agree that it is not simply procedures but the determination to carry them out that matter, and that the determination to carry them out often depends on scrutiny from above, which in turn may depend on parliamentary scrutiny?

The Prime Minister

I have no reason to believe that Prime went behind the lron Curtain while he was employed at GCHQ. He went behind the Iron Curtain before he took up his position at GCHQ. He went behind the lron Curtain after he left GCHQ. It is, of course, forbidden for members of GCHQ to go behind the Iron Curtain. How that is monitored is a matter that will have to be considered. I accept that the Security Commission must look more closely not only at positive vetting but at surveillance. However, a considerable number of people work there, and one has to think of the practical consequences of any measures which it proposes.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that quite a number of us feel that she should not be too tender about positive vetting in national security? Is she aware that it is more than a coincidence that the majority of traitors in this country since the war have been loners, perverts or drunkards—[Interruption]—and that there is something gravely wrong—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must be allowed to continue.

Sir Bernard Braine

—with a system of vetting that does not turn up quirks of character that should not exist in people entrusted with jobs in National security?

The Prime Minister

I am the first to recognise that we must tighten up positive vetting, but I am equally the first to recognise that, no matter how much we tighten it, there will be cases in which it is very difficult to discover everything that goes on. That is inevitable. After all, not even Mrs. Prime knew about the sexual proclivities of her husband.

Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North)

Is the Prime Minister aware that in July 1980 I submitted to the Foreign Secretary a great deal of detailed and very damaging information about the GCHQ lax security measures? Inquiries took place, and I was then assured that everything was all right and that there were no troubles. I have that in writing. Is it not true that the inquiries that have been carried out have been carried out by GCHQ itself? Is there not a serious danger that GCHQ has been covering up activities within its own organisation? May there not be other traitors, apart from Prime, still to be detected?

The Prime Minister

The GCHQ security was also inquired into by the Security Commission on the last occasion, so the inquiries have not been carried out purely by GCHQ.

Mr. Michael Mates (Petersfield)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important now to try to limit the damage that has been done by Prime's treachery, and that that must mean not disclosing any more details of his treachery than have been disclosed—that would be likely to assist the enemy—and to take the most stringent steps to ensure that procedures do not allow this to happen again? Does she further agree that, since parliamentarians outside the Government, by the very nature of their role in our democracy, have to operate in the public domain, to bring them into a process of interrogation and inquiry into the security services is likely to do more harm than good?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend that the first thing is to get on with an investigation of the matters arising from this case, and that is what we have asked the Security Commission to do. I also agree that it is necessary to keep these matters limited to a few people; otherwise we tend to open up the very sphere that we want to stay secret.

Mr. Foot

Is it not evident that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to put questions, and many would wish to hear? I am not thinking only of the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens). Is it not evident that the House of Commons must have another chance to discuss some of these questions? I fully appreciate what the right hon. Lady said earlier about the necessity, while preserving our security, to protect our liberties. I understand that that balance should always be kept. However, in my opinion, right hon. and hon. Members are as capable of judging that as anyone else in the country. The time is coming when the House of Commons will not be satisfied with this form of abbreviated question and answer on such matters. We must debate them, and in my opinion the House of Commons is perfectly capable of establishing a body which could help to survey these matters without in any way interfering with security.

The Prime Minister

I did say that when we receive the report of the Security Commission we shall make as full a report as possible to the House. Then I believe it will be right to have a debate on that report. It is true that a considerable number of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have been in charge of these matters during the past few years. I personally believe that the present arrangements are the most appropriate, and that it would be unwise to open them up further.

Mr. A.E.P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in the public interest to restrict to 25 minutes questions on a subject of such—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows better than to ask a question of that nature.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm something for the House and the public, because it concerns a matter of great importance? Will you confirm that the Home Affairs Select Committee already has jurisdiction over one of its associated public bodies, the security service of the State? Will you also confirm that the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee has jurisdiction over one of the Treasury's and Prime Minister's associated public bodies, the Security Commission? Is it not within your knowledge, Mr. Speaker, that, when the latter Committee recently endeavoured to exercise its jurisdiction, the right hon. Lady gave it a dusty answer, because she did not want the commission's peace disturbed?

Mr. Speaker

It is not for me to define the boundaries of the work of Select Committees. They look at their terms of reference, and the House has to be satisfied with that.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it possible for an hon. Member to refer to you his disappointment at your decision? This is not to disagree with your decision. I should like to register disappointment that we have not had more time. Clearly, the Prime Minister was prepared to extend her answers today, and we have had a useful exchange of question and answer, but I suggest that it has not gone on long enough.

Mr. Speaker

Order. If I had called the hon. Gentleman, no doubt I would not have had the point of order from that source. I never get the point of order from those whom I have called. I get the point of order from hon. Members who have not been called. The House has given me discretion, and I have exercised it to the best of my judgment.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

On a further point of order, Mr. Speaker. Since I have made no effort to rise to my feet—a rare occurrence on these occasions—I think that I may be entitled to comment on this matter.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I was not inviting points of order. That was not the purpose of my earlier remark and I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises it. I am not looking for those who agree with what someone else said. Hon. Members who wish to speak on immigration will be in great difficulty. I must hold the balance for the long list of hon. Members who wish to speak on immigration.

Mr. Faulds

In completion of my further point of order, Mr. Speaker. Many months ago I raised with you the advisability of your setting a term to questions after such statements before you can assess the demand of hon. Members who wish to ask questions. This afternoon simply confirms my suspicions of your earlier decision.

Mr. Michael McGuire (Ince)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As one who also did not rise to ask the Prime Minister a question, may I say that you have the authority to limit the time allowed for questions on statements such as the Prime Minister presented to us today. However—I say it with the greatest respect—you must be more sensitive to—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not going to sit here and listen to that sort of comment.

Mr. Duffy


Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman has a point of order I shall listen to him and rule upon it.

Mr. Duffy

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Without disagreeing with what you said to me earlier this afternoon, I did not have the opportunity to ask whether, as it is a subject on which hon. Members are not allowed to table questions, we might not have been allowed to raise questions with the Prime Minister during a period longer than 25 minutes.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The entire statement and questions took up 35 minutes, which is longer than has been allowed on security matters for many years. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look up the record, and I hope that I am right!