HC Deb 10 December 1984 vol 69 cc737-40 3.35 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will institute an inquiry into allegations of telephone tapping and interference with the mail of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Leon Brittan)

No, Sir. I am satisfied that the arrangements set out in the White Paper "The Interception of Communications in Great Britain" are strictly applied by all concerned.

The complaints about the provision of postal and telephone services are matters for the Post Office and British Telecom whose duty it is, in the first instance, to investigate any allegations of improper conduct on the part of their staff.

Mr. Kaufman

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman been in contact with Sir Ronald Dearing following the disclosure that Sir Ronald has established that Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament correspondence has been tampered with substantially? Will he join me in paying tribute to Sir Ronald Dearing for acting so promptly and for taking these inquiries with appropriate seriousness?

The Home Secretary says that he is satisfied that no surveillance or interference has taken place. Will he categorically assure the House that he himself has approved no warrant authorising the telephone tapping of CND members and will he tell us how he is so sure that covert action, unknown to himself, has not been taken? Will he condemn and repudiate any possibility of interference with or surveillance of the CND? Will he state clearly that the CND, whatever he may think of its views, is a legitimate organisation, openly pursuing legitimate objectives, and will he make it utterly clear that the CND is not being pried into or listened into by Big Brother, or, for that matter, by Big Sister either?

Mr. Brittan

I join the right hon. Gentleman in complimenting Sir Ronald Dearing on dealing, as one would have expected, in a responsible way with the complaints made about the Post Office services. With regard to interception, I shall follow exactly the practice followed by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), and by previous Governments, irrespective of party, in neither confirming nor denying the existence of authorised interception in a particular case, whatever the circumstances. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I would authorise interception only in those cases where the criteria set out in the White Paper were clearly met. I have no evidence or reason to believe that unauthorised interception was carried out. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is a matter which would not be said lightly.

So far as the legitimacy or otherwise of CND is concerned, I do not think it is for me to legitimise it or otherwise. There is no doubt that peaceful political campaigning to change the mind of the Government and of people generally about the validity of nuclear disarmament, whether unilateral or otherwise, is an entirely legitimate activity which does not fall within the very strict criteria of the 1980 White Paper.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

In view of the sensitivity of the CND over illegal interference, has my right hon. and learned Friend received any assurance or undertaking from CND that it will not itself indulge in any illegal interference with the rights of the people at the Molesworth cruise missile site which is near to my constituency? If not, is this not another example of double standards by this increasingly hypocritical body?

Mr. Brittan

I have received no such assurance.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Home Secretary aware that there is hardly anyone in the country who believes that what occurred over the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's mail was due to some kind of administrative mistake? Is it not time for the Home Secretary to become far less complacent over this issue and to recognise his duty to defend and not undermine civil liberties? What has occurred over the mail to CND members and other kinds of operations which have taken place demonstrate how justified is the current inquiry into the special branch by the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

Mr. Brittan

I do not know that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to speak for the overwhelming majority of the country in the way that he purports. I would have reservations about accepting him as a spokesman to quite that extent. The inquiry into the special branch is a matter for the Select Committee and is proceeding in the normal way.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the general secretary of the CND earlier this year, in a speech at Malvern, called upon soldiers to refuse to obey orders which, on the face of it, would appear to be an offence under the Incitement to Disaffection Act 1934? Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that Mr. Kent was meant to be taken seriously on that occasion, or was it more of a publicity exercise? Should we view today's private notice question and demands in the same vein?

Mr. Brittan

I shall not seek to penetrate motives. but I shall try to answer the questions, as I have done.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

As the Secretary of State has said clearly that what has gone on is outside the guidelines, will he confirm also that it is outside any permission given by the European Court? If that is right, will he accept the responsibility of investigating what has clearly gone on because the investigation carried out by the Post Office has not got to the bottom of the matter?

Mr. Brittan

As I understand it, the Post Office inquiries have not been completed. Some test postings have taken place. I have said what I have had to say about the criteria and I cannot usefully add to it in any way.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

As CND appears to pursue policies which, in some respects, are indistinguishable from the objectives of the Kremlin, can my right hon. and learned Friend think of any organisation that could better be kept under surveillance?

Mr. Brittan

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his views and comparisons.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bow and Poplar)

Since it is known that the number of people engaged in the phone-tapping operation is not much smaller than the number of taps authorised by the Home Secretary, are we to conclude that each of those persons carries out only one phone-tap per annum? If they carry out more than that, who is authorising the others? If they are not carrying out more than that, should not the right hon. and learned Gentleman do something about increasing the productivity of the operation?

Mr. Brittan

The hon. Gentleman has shown his customary ingenuity and speculative qualities in asking that question, but it does not arise from the question asked by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that it is most unwise to leap to conclusions before the Post Office has completed its inquiry? When that inquiry is complete, will my right hon. and learned Friend at least recommend to Sir Ronald Dearing that he should publish its findings so that the full facts, and not the travesties that have been put about, are made clear?

Mr. Brittan

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that the Post Office would wish to make the position clear. It has been entirely candid about it up to now as far as it goes. When its inquiries are completed, I am sure that the same will continue to be the case.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I accept what the Home Secretary has said, but is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that nothing has changed my belief over the years, and certainly nothing said today, that CND is not a subversive organisation? The fact that an organisation says things with which many disagree does not make it a subversive organisation. But something did go wrong and to clear up the matter there is to be a report by the Post Office. That should be presented to the House of Commons. Compensation has been paid. As long as the aura of what went wrong is around, people will not agree with the Home Secretary or with me. Let us clear up the matter.

Mr. Brittan

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for confirming that I put accurately the position when he was Home Secretary and under successive Governments. I entirely agree that, plainly, something went wrong. The Post Office would not have paid money if it had not. Therefore, I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the inquiries that the Post Office is completing into what went wrong are worthwhile and important. It is clear already that two of the things that went wrong were a Post Office machine and the CND's quality of packing.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend invite Opposition Members to come forward with all the details of times, places, and so on, for the allegations so that a proper inquiry can take place rather than broad-brush smears which are too regularly becoming the tactics of the Opposition parties?

Mr. Brittan

I am sure that the right hon. Member for Gorton will decide in his own inimitable way whether and how to pursue the matter further.

Mr. D. E. Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Will the Home Secretary give an assurance, if she can, that no hon. Members who are members of CND have their mail interfered with or their telephone calls intercepted.

Mr. Brittan

I do not think that I can add to what I have already said.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Home Secretary tell the House how many phone taps or mail interceptions he has authorised for supporters or members of CND? What comfort can I offer to the people in the N4 district of London, which contains the head office of CND and where both I and my constituents reside, that their phones are not also being tapped and their mail interfered with because they may or may not be CND supporters? Do any of the authorised phone taps on supporters of CND include Members of this House or any other House?

Mr. Brittan

I do not think that I can take the matter much further forward other than to repeat — which I welcome the opportunity to do — that it is not the practice of Governments—as the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South confirmed, to disclose whether interceptions have taken place, for reasons that are perfectly clear to anyone seriously concerned with these matters.

I also welcome the opportunity to make it perfectly clear that peaceful political campaigning to change the mind of the Government and the people generally about nuclear disarmament is a legitimate activity and does not fall within the strict criteria.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Will the Home Secretary confirm that it is not within the current guidelines that he operates in respect of telephone tapping to authorise the tapping of individuals' telephones merely because of their membership of an organisation?

Mr. Brittan

That would depend on the organisation and its activities.


Mr. Corbyn

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like a ruling on a reply by the Home Secretary to a question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). When asked whether hon. Members' phones were tapped or their mail intercepted because they were supporters of CND or of the peace movement in general, the Home Secretary declined to give a categorical answer one way or the other. Will you, Mr. Speaker, rule on whether it is in order for the Government to interfere with the private correspondence of Members of Parliament and their constituents—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is not a matter for me. The hon. Gentleman put a question to the Home Secretary and received an answer.