HC Deb 26 January 1984 vol 52 cc1047-52
Q2. Mr. Dubs

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 26 January.

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. Shortly after Questions I shall be departing for Rome for talks with the Italian Prime Minister.

Mr. Dubs

In the light of yesterday's announcement about GCHQ, can the Prime Minister explain why a civil servant automatically ceases to be a security risk if he or she accepts £1,000 in return for giving up a trade union membership card?

The Prime Minister

The question is much deeper than that. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, it has been the practice under all Governments to exempt those who work in intelligence agencies from the privilege of joining a union. Legislation has provided for it. Until 1983 the work of GCHQ was never acknowledged as that of an intelligence agency. No previous Government had acknowledged it as such. For reasons of which the hon. Gentleman will be aware, it became necessary to acknowledge it in the middle of 1983. After that it seemed reasonable and right to bring the practice at GCHQ into line with that at other intelligence agencies.

Mr. Kinnock

As someone who completely shares the Prime Minister's commitment to national security, may I tell her that civil servants at GCHQ have civil rights and that there is no justification for the removal of those civil rights because of anything that occurred in 1983, or before or since? As the Minister responsible for security matters, will she confirm now that she will belatedly meet the trade unions? Can she tell us how she will justify to them action that can only be described as dictatorial and not to be expected of a British Prime Minister? Was it not shameful and shamefaced—[Interruption.] It is a matter of basic civil rights for the people of this country. Loyal and patriotic civil servants are being abused by the Government. Is the shameful and shamefaced decision on GCHQ not just another pathetic example of the way in which the right hon. Lady is willing to surrender British interest to American pressure?

The Prime Minister

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. There was no American intervention of any kind in this decision. The reasons were as I have given. They were heightened by the fact that in national Civil Service strikes in 1979 and 1981 there was a strike by certain services at GCHQ. It is absolutely vital that, where we are dealing with that kind of intelligence, the operation is continuous 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That is a heightened reason for taking the action we took. There is no new point of principle. It is bringing practice at GCHQ into line with that at other intelligence agencies.

Mr. Kinnock

On the subject of American pressure, I wish that we had a polygraph here, no matter how unreliable they are. If there was no American pressure, does that not make the Government's decision even less easy to defend? For 40 years these highly trained and highly dependable civil servants have given continuous service. Where is the evidence that the withdrawal of the right to belong to a trade union can secure or guarantee continuity without strike or disruption if workers in a democracy have a justifiable grievance at their place of work?

The Prime Minister

I find what the right hon. Gentleman said about my comments about the United States very offensive. There was no intervention of any sort. The action that we have taken was reasonable once the intelligence agency was avowed. It was even more necessary because of the fact that GCHQ was selected — it has many computers — for special action by a national Civil Service union. That will not occur again when one has an association of people who work at GCHQ. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman places great importance on the security of the United Kingdom. I cannot stress too much that it is vital that this operational agency be kept going 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.

Mr. Kinnock

Does the right hon. Lady agree that this country is worth defending, and that one of the most important reasons for so doing is the range of liberties that are exercised by its citizens? Why is she slurring civil servants, if she is so easily offended herself, by making the accusation that they cannot be depended upon to give the continuity of work upon which Britain's security depends?

The Prime Minister

I am not slurring civil servants. The previous Labour Government did not slur the other intelligence services by denying those who worked in them the right to belong to a trade union. The denial of that right has always been accepted. It was through the circumstances of a security commission report that I avowed the work of the intelligence agency at GCHQ. All Governments have accepted that members of the security force should not belong to national trade unions. I believe that that has been a correct decision and it is one which we have now followed. The workers at GCHQ will still have rights of representation by a staff association. They will be able to appeal to the Civil Service appeals procedure, which many civil servants already use in preference to industrial tribunals.

Dr. Owen

The Prime Minister must be more aware than most in the House that it is quite unrealistic to compare MI5 and MI6 with the establishment at Cheltenham. Does she agree that one can have a certificate of exception under the employment protection legislation and retain membership of a trade union? Is she aware that the objection to her proposal is that she has exempted trade unionists? It would be possible to achieve a no-strike agreement. Membership of a staff association does not prevent striking. Does the right hon. Lady accept that, in the national interest, it would have been far better to concentrate on achieving a no-strike agreement, which is a legitimate security demand?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, it is vital that the agency is kept going at all times if we are to have the secure intelligence that we need. That is vital for Britain's security. If the civil servants were able to join a national trade union, that union could draw them out on strike even if there were no dispute between the employers at GCHQ and the workers. That is what happened in 1979 and 1981, when some 10,000 working days were lost. That may happen again if the civil servants belong to a national trade union. As I have said, that did happen. A no-strike agreement for a particular section would not deal with the problem of union officers outside GCHQ having to negotiate on behalf of staff about whose detailed work they could not be fully informed.

Mr. Charles Morrison

In view of the Prime Minister's anxiety about trends in welfare spending, as reflected in her interview with the New York Times, will she say what long-term consideration is being given to the future of the welfare state and, in particular, whether there is a possibility of the introduction of a tax credit scheme?

The Prime Minister

The trends in welfare spending are affecting all OECD countries. The OECD has put out useful papers, one of which, this year, is a summary of a much longer one issued last year. It will be discussed at the next OECD meeting in Paris. The real problem in this country will come when the earnings-related pensions begin to mature. Hon. Members will remember that the scheme was started in 1978 and that it matures in 1998. We run a scheme which is pay-as-you-go, so the money is being paid in and paid out in the same year, and a capital fund is not accruing. We must look at it in good time.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

If, as the Prime Minister implied a few moments ago, apparatus of the utmost national security and importance at Cheltenham has been either not operated continuously or disconnected, would it not be wholly inappropriate to describe such action as industrial action, and much more appropriate to describe it as treason? In those circumstances, is not my right hon. Friend's action wholly justifiable?

The Prime Minister

It is part of my task to see that this country obtains the necessary intelligence for security purposes. I believe that the action we have taken will help to achieve that objective.

Mr. Hordern

Is it not clear that those employed—[Interruption]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have been dealing very fairly with the House. I called a great many hon. Members from the Opposition Benches, and I am now balancing up.

Mr. Hordern

Is it not clear that those employed at the Government communication headquarters at Cheltenham are just as much in the front line as our armed forces? Is it not true that the Foreign Secretary, who put forward these measures, is acting under the Employment Protection Act introduced by the Labour Government for precisely this purpose? Is it not clear that Labour Members have not a leg to stand on in this regard?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. My hon. Friend is correct. The action was taken under certain sections of the Employment Protection Act which exist for that purpose.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Is the Prime Minister aware that I agree that it is absolutely necessary to keep GCHQ going but that I believe that the action Government took is wrong? The right hon. Lady calls in aid what happened in 1981. I have checked Hansard for those years, and I find that the former Secretary of State, Sir John Nott, made it absolutely clear that the strike had not in any way affected the operational capability in any area. He went on to praise the loyalty of the Civil Service. [Interruption.] What evidence is there that, in 1981, the GCHQ was made inoperable by this trade union?

The Prime Minister

The evidence is that some 10,000 working days were lost in intelligence signals operations, where it is absolutely vital to have continuity. As the right hon. Gentleman will recall, a number of people were out on strike then and we do not know what information we lost.

Q3. Mr. Beith

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 26 January.

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Beith

When the Prime Minister talks, rightly, about the need to maintain operations at GCHQ, why does she not think about the morale of the staff who have been affected by this decision—the thousands of loyal civil servants? Does she realise that this comes on top of the attempt to impose the notoriously inaccurate polygraph system in the pilot scheme at GCHQ, instead of spending money on the employment of sufficient people to carry out the security measures that are really needed?

The Prime Minister

The polygraph experiment was advocated by the Security Commission and its recommendation of a pilot experiment was accepted. Some of the employees found other methods of searching even more offensive and did not take to them. Moreover, due to the numbers employed, it was not possible to carry out the type of searches that the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Mr. Viggers

Is my right hon. Friend aware that when a group of Members of Parliament visited Greenham common earlier this week, Labour Members chose to posture outside in front of television cameras rather than attend briefings on the facts?

Is she further aware that hon. Members who studied the systems and the safeguards were impressed by them? Does she think that there are persuasive arguments for promoting more knowledge of the systems and safeguards, perhaps by allowing television camera and newspaper access to Greenham common, so that more people can be made aware of the facts, thus counteracting the wildly misleading statements of people who have a view of defence which is different from ours?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that after the visit he and other Conservative Members who attended the briefing will be able to help to get the facts out. All of our people realise that this is part of the deterrent which defends Britain's freedoms.