HC Deb 25 January 1984 vol 52 cc917-24 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the Government communications headquarters and the Employment Protection Acts.

As the House knows, the Employment Protection Acts contain provisions that enable the Government to except Crown employees from the application of the Acts. These provisions can be used only for the purposes of safeguarding national security, and reflect the acknowledged need for particularly sensitive functions of Government to be protected so far as possible from the risk of exposure or disruption.

Government communications headquarters is responsible for intelligence work of crucial importance to our national security. To be effective, this work must be conducted secretly. Moreover, GCHQ must provide a service that can be relied on with confidence at all times. It is clear, therefore, that the conditions envisaged in the special provisions of the Employment Protection Acts exist in this case.

The House will wish to know that, for these reasons, I have today signed certificates under section 121(4) of the Employment Protection Act 1975 and section 138(4) of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, excepting GCHQ employees from the application of the relevant provision. The certificates have immediate effect and new conditions of service are at the same time being introduced at GCHQ. Under those new conditions, staff will be permitted in future to belong only to a departmental staff association approved by their director.

The very special nature of the work of GCHQ will be apparent from what I have said. The action I have taken stems directly from that. The Government fully respect the right of civil servants to be members of a trade union, and it is only the special nature of the work of GCHQ that has led us to take these measures. I can assure the House therefore that it is not our intention to introduce similar measures outside the field of security and intelligence.

GCHQ staff are being informed of these measures this afternoon. Those who decide to remain at GCHQ will each receive a payment of £1,000 in recognition of the fact that certain rights that they have hitherto enjoyed are being withdrawn from them in the interests of national security. Those who do not wish to continue to serve at GCHQ will be offered the opportunity of seeking a transfer to another part of the Civil Service.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

I found the Foreign Secretary's statement at once disturbing and perplexing. Government communications headquarters, of which I know something from the six years I spent as Secretary of State for Defence, has performed an indispensable service to the nation since the war by providing vital intelligence with an efficiency and dedication that is the envy of the world. It is not, like some other branches of the security services, a small body of professionals. It is a large industrial enterprise employing thousands of skilled technicians. Any of the very few offences against security that have been committed by members of GCHQ have been dealt with under the law, as in the Prime case not long ago. As far as I am aware, there has been no industrial action for the past three years since 1981 by members of GCHQ.

The House must be told by the Foreign Secretary why the Government have decided after all these years to deprive GCHQ employees of rights that are enjoyed by civil servants in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who are doing work of equal security and operational importance. Why is the Foreign Secretary depriving GCHQ employees of rights of industrial organisation that are enjoyed by employees of the royal ordnance factories and those in private firms such as Vickers and Plessey, who are doing work which is equally secret and equally central to the nation's security?

I wish to ask the Foreign Secretary two questions about how he took his decision. What consultations did he have, before taking his decision, with the elected representatives of GCHQ employees? Secondly, did he discuss his decision with the Security Commission which, although it was not set up specifically to deal with a broad question of this nature, comprises people with deep and long-standing knowledge of the work of GCHQ and whose impartiality would be accepted on both sides of the House?

I put it seriously to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he has announced a very grave decision. I appeal to him not to implement it before he has consulted the representatives of the employees concerned and put the matter to the Security Commission for an objective judgment.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Members of the Security Commission were not consulted. It is not a matter for them. They are normally involved only in cases where there has been a breach of security. Nor was there any consultation with the trade unions at GCHQ. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] It would not have been appropriate in such a matter to consult in that way. In parallel with my announcement, letters are being sent today to all GCHQ staff, and the non-industrial Civil Service trade unions are being informed this afternoon.

I appreciate the importance of the matter. That is why there has been long and careful consideration of the issue and, for example, of the need to avoid a repetition of the industrial action that took place in the three years from 1979 to 1981, which faced staff doing this work with a severe conflict of loyalties. Bearing in mind the need for confidence in the stability and reliability of the service, the Government have concluded that it is right to take these measures. It is right to remind the House that the provisions that I am invoking are already applied to other aspects of the security services and are contained in statutes passed by the Labour Government of whom the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) was a member.

Mr. Healey

I must press the Foreign Secretary on the questions that I put to him.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Would not it be more appropriate if the right hon. Gentleman did so at the end of questions on the Foreign Secretary's statement?

Mr. Healey

No, Mr. Speaker, with respect—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Very well, but this takes time from other hon. Members.

Mr. Healey

It is important that I put these points to the Foreign Secretary again. I understand that the two branches of the security services that are disallowed normal industrial activity under the Act are MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service, both of which are small bodies of professional men. The GCHQ is a different type of enterprise. In terms of its importance to national security, the secrecy of its work and its operational importance, it does not differ essentially from the Foreign Secretary's private office, the civil servants in the Ministry of Defence, the many industrial employees in the royal ordnance factories, and the private arms manufacturers, all of which are doing work that is vital to national security and intensely secret. All those employees are given the right of industrial organisation and they have not abused those rights, any more than have the staff of GCHQ.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The right hon. Member has moved on to different ground. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House last year, the functions of GCHQ include safeguarding the security of our military and official communications and the provision of signals intelligence in accordance with the requirements laid upon it by the Government in support of the Government's defence and foreign policies." — [Official Report, 12 May 1983; Vol. 42, c. 430.] That being so we believe that confidence in the freedom of that service from intervention or intrusion is of the highest importance. It was after considering that matter that we came to the conclusion that I have outlined.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

The Foreign Secretary owes it to the House to tell us what relevant provisions of the Employment Protection Acts he intends to invoke. The House is also entitled to some greater explanation of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's objectives. If his objective is to avoid strike action in GCHQ, it is thoroughly desirable, but could it not better be achieved by negotiating a no-strike agreement? There is the precedent of the gas and electricity workers, who were members of unions but were bound by no-strike agreements. If the Secretary of State wants to exclude people from the system of complaints to the industrial tribunal, because of anxiety over the giving of evidence relating to security information, that could be done by revoking section 24 of the 1978 Act. Section 23 and others are sections that affect trade unions, but surely the setting up of a staff association is not in itself a guarantee that there will not be industrial action. Industrial action has been taken in the past by staff associations.

I understand the motives of the Secretary of State, but I feel that he has not found a way of carrying conviction with the more than 5,000 people employed at GCHQ—to whom over £5 million is now to be paid out. A better approach would be for the Secretary of State to explain to the House and to the establishment in question what the objectives are, and to negotiate a satisfactory agreement.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The statutory background is provided by the two sections that I have already mentioned to the House, which enable a certificate to be granted under the 1975 and 1978 Acts to allow certain Crown employees to be excepted for the purpose of safeguarding national security".

Dr. Owen

From all the provisions?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

From the provisions of the Act —that is right. We are motivated, first, by the need to secure freedom from serious disruption and to remove the risk of strike action. I have been asked why that could not be achieved by a no-strike agreement. Such an agreement could not prevent exposure to industrial tribunals. 'The need to prevent such exposure is the second reason for wanting confidentiality. Experience has also shown that in an organisation whose activities include intelligence work there can be problems if staff are members of national trade unions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]. That is why GCHQ management and staff representatives will he looking for other ways to conduct industrial relations.

Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

On a matter of such fundamental importance to a very large number of my constituents, I really feel that it would have been reasonable for me to have been informed of the statement in advance so that I could have had a chance to study it. The timing of the statement could not have been worse. Staff at GCHQ are already reeling under the imposition for a trial period of the lie detector, which is renowned for its failure rate. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will tell the House whether, in undertaking the fundamental removal of a democratic right, and de-unionising a large group of people, he is setting a precedent. Roughly 7,000 people in my constituency are involved. I should like to know, firstly, whether it is the normal accepted practice in areas of sensitive security to take such steps without the fullest consultation. Are those people who feel offended by this introduction to be guaranteed — [AN HON. MEMBER: "Get on with it."] I do not speak as often as the hon. Member. If he shuts up, I will be quicker.

Are job transfers to be guaranteed for those who object to this imposition? How long will the offer of £1,000 be open to those who decide to accept? I hope that the Secretary of State will agree today that, if I should require it, a deputation led by me will be received by him.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a number of points that are important to his constituents. I shall certainly be willing to arrange to meet a deputation of the kind that he has in mind.

I assure my hon. Friend that the matter that I have announced today has no connection with the Government's acceptance of the Security Commission's recommendation that a pilot scheme should be carried out to test the feasibility of polygraph examinations. They will, of course, involve only a small proportion of staff in the security service at GCHQ.

In the first instance, the offer will be open until I March this year. It is important that GCHQ management should know as soon as possible which of their staff will be remaining and which will be leaving. We cannot say exactly how long it will take beyond that. Every effort will be made to transfer to other Departments staff who are unwilling to remain with GCHQ under the new conditions. GCHQ will continue to employ them while that is being done. Staff for whom it proves impossible to arrange a transfer to another Department will be eligible for premature retirement on redundancy terms.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

It is called a blacklist, you know.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Those who opt to leave, but for whom no alternative posting can be found, will be given a second chance to accept new conditions before they are considered for premature retirement.

Dr. John Gilbert (Dudley, East)

If there was no security leak worth reporting to the Security Commission three years ago, why is it necessary to do this? Why are the GCHQ staff being singled out? Can the Foreign Secretary give an undertaking to the House that such measures will not be extended to the many other staff that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) identified, who work in security intelligence?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I said in my statement, I can assure the House that it is not our intention to introduce similar measures outside security and intelligence. The step has been taken now only after careful consideration, to assure reliability, and freedom from disruption and intrusion which is of the utmost importance to retaining confidence in this organisation.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that while some of us may consider these measures to be an unfortunate necessity there is another side to the security coin? Will he give us an assurance that a close watch is being kept upon the size of certain diplomatic missions and organisations, and that where ceilings have been imposed they are being made to stick?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That raises a rather different question, but my hon. Friend's point is certainly kept in mind.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Governments do not usually act in this way unless something has happened. Has anything happened recently, or has any information been received, which makes it necessary to act in this way? All of us who are sympathetic to looking after this country's interests do not want to feel that the Government have acted just because something might happen.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I have already said, industrial action during disputes before 1981—[Interruption]—clearly showed the potential for serious disruption at this important Government organisation. It damaged confidence in the organisation's stability and reliability. We have taken this step after long and careful consideration of the matter. We should not be blamed for having thought long and hard before taking steps, but hon. Members do not seem to accept that.

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

Was there not widespread acceptance after the Prime case, not only in the House but among GCHQ staff as well, of the need for stronger security measures? Are not the staff bound to be worried when they see this step being taken, with no justification, at the same time as the experiment with the polygraph, which is based on extremely unreliable evidence, when what is needed is a great deal more money spent on employing people to carry out real and necessary security measures, such as positive vetting and perimeter security?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman refers to the polygraph "experiment", and must therefore remember that that is what it is. It is because of the anxieties that he and others have expressed that the Government have accepted the experimental use of the polygraph, which will affect a small number of people in the security service and at GCHQ. The reasons for taking this action are not connected with the experiment. They are reasons that we have considered for a long time and that we believe are the duty of Government to act upon in coming to the conclusion that we have.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the hon. Gentlemen who have been rising.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the House is at one in wanting to secure higher standards of security — that is not in question — but that his decision today has caused concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House? Will he accept that he must take this into consideration? Where will this decision stop? A precedent has been established. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure the House that this process will not go beyond the present decision?

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that in this country we are living under the conditions of a more secret society than any other democracy in the western world? Does he recognise that actions such as this will be counter productive and that there will be more leaks? As he has given a reason for taking this action that goes a considerable way back, will he tell the House, in reply to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) whether there is any other reason?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I have already said several times, there is no other reason for the decision than that which I have announced. The hon. Gentleman began his question by saying that the House was at one in wanting to ensure security and secrecy. That is what this measure is designed to do, by maintaining confidence in the organisation. The House is rightly concerned, as are the Government. It is for that reason that we have considered for the length of time we have whether this action should be taken. We have concluded that to avoid the impact on confidence that will arise from the risk of instability and intrusion, this step is necessary. I repeat the assurances that I have already given, that it is not our intention to introduce similar measures outside security intelligence. I repeat also that this is not a precedent. The precedent lies in the statute under which I am acting, and under which action was taken by the previous Government.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Is the Secretary of State aware that he has completely failed to justify this fundamental attack on the democratic rights of civil servants? Does that not suggest that the decision reflects the Government's hostility to British trade unionism rather than any need to protect our national interests?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It reflects nothing of the kind. I repeat what I said: The Government fully respect the right of civil servants to be members of a trade union, and it is only the special nature of the work of the GCHQ that has led us to take these measures. The hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong.

Mr. Nellist

Will the Secretary of State admit that this action begins a process of taking legislation on trade unions back to the 19th century, to the days of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, when gas and water workers—[AN HON. MEMBER: "Get back to Moscow."]—were banned from taking industrial action —[Interruption.] All right, all right.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has a right to be heard, as has every other hon. Member.

Mr. Nellist

Will the Secretary of State admit that one of two things must be true? Either in the past three years something must have happened which would prevent workers from joining a union and which he is trying to cover up, or his mental processes are even slower than we thought, so that he has taken three years to come to the decision? Which of those two things has happened?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Had I come to the House within days, weeks or months of the last industrial action and said that I intended to take this action, the hon. Gentleman would have been the first to denounce the Government for taking such a decision at impulsive speed. Because of the importance of the decision, we have considered it carefully and come to this conclusion.

When the hon. Gentleman says that the decision takes trade union legislation back to 1875, he would do well to reflect that the provision we are invoking has been invoked by previous Governments. It is contained in the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, passed by the last Labour Government, and in the Employment Protection Act 1975. That great charter of trade union freedom was meant to replace the Industrial Relations Act, and the powers under which we are acting today are to be found in that Act.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that his announcement is deeply disturbing to hon. Members on both sides of the House and that it will be seen by many devoted civil servants who are members of their appropriate trade union as an insult to them? In view of the significance of the important point of principle for which he has argued rather thinly, is not a full debate in the House the least that we have the right to demand?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I do not think that the decision will be seen by civil servants as an insult. We thought carefully about it, and several features were taken carefully into account before coming to our conclusion. I believe that the reason for taking the decision will be understood and welcomed by a number of civil servants who, when invited to take part in the previous industrial disruption, found the conflict of loyalties posed to them very uncomfortable indeed.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that throughout the ages all Fascists have used the cloak of national security and national interest to chip away at hard-won liberties and freedoms, especially those affecting the trade unions? What evidence is there that trade unionists are more likely to hinder national interests than those who come from Eton and Harrow—the belly of the establishment? How many shop stewards have betrayed their country? Almost without exception every person who has done so has come from the ranks represented by Conservative Members. Is it not time that this tawdry piece of propaganda was sent back to where it came, as it represents the march of Fascism in 1984?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is a measure designed to uphold the very freedoms that have been threatened by Fascism, not least by Fascism of a Socialist kind.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)


Sir Geoffrey Howe

The evidence justifying such a provision on the statute book is the same as that which convinced the last Labour Government of the need to include these measures in the employment protection legislation.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Will the Foreign Secretary state categorically whether the Government have received any request from the United States Government that such action should be taken in the light of the continuing close relationship between GCHQ and the National Security Agency?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

There has been no such request, and that is not the reason why this decision has been taken. It is important to all of us that there should be complete confidence in the freedom of this institution from the risk of disruption and intrusion. That is why, after careful consideration, the Government have taken this action.

Mr. Healey

The Foreign Secretary's attempt to justify his action has increased rather than allayed concern. It clearly emerged from what he said that the only reason for such a decision is that between three and five years ago certain industrial action was taken by some employees at GCHQ. Many of us feel that someone made this proposal for many years. They could not persuade Lord Carrington to accept it, and they could not persuade the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym) to accept it. However, they found the present Foreign Secretary a pushover.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman told us earlier that this measure was intended to avoid disruption, although he admitted that it could well lead to a large number of employees leaving the service and the Government sacking others. He said that the advantage of the measures that he announced to the House—not for consideration—is that the Government would be able to victimise employees of GCHQ without their right of appeal to an industrial tribunal. We regard it as a shabby affair. We shall watch very closely what happens in Cheltenham, and we shall ask for regular reports from the Foreign Secretary on the consequences of this imprudent action.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The right hon. Gentleman knows that victimisation is no part of the purpose of this measure. It is a measure that exercises the statutory provisions that exist for the purpose for which they are designed. Certainly the Government would not expect or wish a large number of people to leave their employment at GCHQ for that reason. The purpose of avoiding risk to confidence and of diminishing the threat of industrial disruption or intrusion into this institution is a legitimate purpose that we have considered carefully over a number of years, and I have no doubt that it is a sufficient and right justification for the steps that we have taken.