HC Deb 28 March 1984 vol 57 cc307-8 4.28 pm
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a polygraph registration and calibration organisation with powers to license all polygraphs used in both the public and private sectors subject to certain exceptions; to establish a Commission of Members of the House of Commons serviced by an Office of Technology Assessment to oversee the use of such polygraphs in the public sector; and for connected purposes. I raise the issue of the so-called lie detector now for two reasons. First, an experiment is about to take place at GCHQ Cheltenham with the use of a lie detector "for counter-intelligence examinations only," according to the Security Commission, and machines have been imported for that purpose.

Secondly, the use of the lie detector in the private sector is growing, with the setting up of a company or companies—I understand that one has been set up with a former chief constable on the board—to detect not spies but possible thieves in retailing, catering, jewellery and security companies, and that machines are being imported for that purpose. The growing use of the polygraph in the private and public sectors has implications for the individual citizen, especially if its use moves into the criminal justice system. This is an important issue on which Parliament should deliberate, give its view and legislate.

The machines attempt to detect anxiety, fear and anger by measuring blood pressure and skin conductivity. The measurements produce lines on a chart, as the polygrapher asks questions. The machines may have a use in measuring those items, but I have grave doubts about using pseudoscientific techniques to detect past, present or future criminals.

As a start, Parliament, through a Select Committee, should take evidence and assess the worth of these machines. I use the word "Commission" in the Bill because I was advised that it was not correct to use the words 'Select Committee". I use the phrase "Office of Technology Assessment" simply because I took it from the name of the unit that works for a congressional committee. Its research has been valuable in my work in the past two or three weeks. The name is not appropriate here, but a similar professional organisation will be necessary.

I have never argued, and I do not argue now, that Parliament should govern, but a judgment on the polygraph following evaluation is a proper exercise of our parliamentary functions. Our view is better than that of Government Departments or agencies, especially as our job is to protect the rights of the individual. Because these machines may be used in the private sector, I have included a section that sets up a polygraph registration and calibration organisation. Frankly, this is a cockshy approach to find a suitable method of control, but we certainly need further discussion. The machines are being used in the private sector in a most important area, and there should he a means of checking their accuracy.

I shall refer to security. Research shows that it is easy to train a subject to cover the fact that he is lying—for example, a pen held in the palm of the hand and pressed into the skin at an appropriate moment will cause the machine not to work properly. The machine's purpose will also be defeated if a person focuses his thoughts elsewhere in a yoga-type meditation. One piece of research said, on the same theme, that the machine's role would be defeated if a person concentrated his thoughts on sex. That leads me to observe that, if an antidote is not provided, some newspaper editors will be immune for life.

The danger of receiving a pass mark from the machine is that it could lead positive vetters away from a present or future spy. Of course, mistakes in positive vetting are made, but polygraphs are not a way out.

The machines could be used to frighten. The Oval Office tape of 14 July 1971 reveals that President Nixon, when advised that these machines were inaccurate, answered, Listen, I don't know how accurate they are but I know they will scare the hell out of people. There will be exceptions. I understand—provision is made for this in the Bill — that valuable medical research is done, for example, in Edinburgh, on the use of this machine to measure stress, and so on, but not to detect lies. Pressure has been put on me to arrange for a schedule that will exempt from being investigated by a lie detector anyone who has served in a Whip's office, and I have promised to do that.

My overall view of the polygraph is expressed in the words of David Lykken of the University of Minnesota, who advises Congress. He said: The polygraph ('lie-detector') test is wrong one-third of the time overall, biased against innocent and conscientious persons. and can be 'beaten' by sophisticated liars. Increasing use of this technique, in the United States and soon in Britain, is a cause for alarm. For that reason alone, Parliament must be involved. I hope that my Bill will be approved, although it does not go very far. I hope that at least I have initiated a discussion that will continue and, in the short run, ensure that the results of the GCHQ experiment, which is about to begin, are reported to the House. The growing use of the polygraph is a matter for the Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Merlyn Rees, Mr. Tam Dalyell, Mr. John Gorst, Mr. Charles Irving, Mr. Brynmor John and Mr. Ron Leighton.