HC Deb 04 April 1985 vol 76 cc1375-82 12.21 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Yesterday's announcement by the Prime Minister of a large extension of ministerial powers in suspending public servants—and not only civil servants—on the ground of being subversive is bound to cause further anxiety about security matters.

We must be very careful not to allow a climate of intolerance to grow. We know what happened in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the tremendous damage that McCarthyism and the like did there. I think that we can say with some justification that even at the height of the cold war hysteria, we did not, under either Labour or Conservative Governments, allow ourselves to follow quite that path in the 1950s. When the Prime Minister returns to the House after the Easter break, she will be expected to make an announcement. She should have made an oral statement to the House instead of using the device of a written reply.

The security services are rarely debated in the House. They might be touched on, as happened, for example, in the debates held only this week during the Committee stage of the Interception of Communications Bill, but that is about all. It is not possible for me or any other hon. Member to table questions about the security services, because the Table Office will tell us that such questions are not allowed. I accept straight away that the same argument has been put by Ministers in successive Governments, and no doubt we shall hear the same argument from the Minister today. It is argued that it is necessary to protect the work undertaken by bodies such as MI5, and so it would not be in the public interest for such state agencies to be the subject of parliamentary questions and scrutiny.

However, there is a growing feeling in the House, and even among some Conservative Members I understand that that attitude is no longer acceptable. The allegations that have been made, particularly in the film shown on Channel 4, "MI5's Official Secrets", have strengthened the case for saying that some degree of parliamentary accountability on the part of the security services is now more than justified. Indeed, I do not accept that such accountability would endanger the safety of the country. I shall illustrate that by reference to the Select Committee of which I am a member.

When the Home Affairs Committee decided to look into the special branch of the police force, one or two Conservative Members and some people outside expressed the fear that we would endanger the safety of the state. What happened? We agreed to inquire into the special branch and that all our sessions would be held in public. The inquiry has now come to an end. Does the Minister or any Conservative Member suggest that as a result of that inquiry, with public sessions—just as there should be—the country has been in any way endangered? Have secrets been revealed? The answer is perfectly clear. Therefore, the fears expressed at the time about the Select Committee's inquiry were not justified. The leak that occurred was about a draft report, and I hope that that will not be used as ammunition in arguing against parliamentary scrutiny.

In a recent answer, the Prime Minister informed me that she would not agree to the Director General of MI5 appearing before the Select Committee if at any time he was invited to do so. When I put another question to the Home Secretary, I was informed that it would not be possible for the newly appointed Director General of MI5 to meet hon. Members in this House, say, once a year. But what would be wrong with that? Indeed, what would be wrong with the Director General of MI5, who is a public servant, paid out of public funds, appearing, if so requested, before the Home Affairs Committee?

I cannot for the life of me see how the state would be endangered if the Director General came before the Select Committee. Nowadays, everyone knows who he is. Only two or three weeks ago a profile appeared in The Observer. So the nonsense that the public are not supposed to know the identity of such people has fortunately ended. Before the film, "MI5's Official Secrets", was shown, disturbing reports had appeared in the press about the way in which MI5 collects information on people.

There is, apparently, an F Branch of MI5, which is very important. It is sub-divided: F2 investigates not the stock exchange, the City or the Conservative party but trade unions, while F7 looks at various other political groups. In an article that appeared in The Guardian in April 1984 we were told that F7 also looks at Members of Parliament, teachers, lawyers and journalists. If that is so, how many people are the subject of investigation? How many files are open on Members of Parliament, teachers, lawyers and journalists, and perhaps others as well? Who decides who should be investigated by F branch of MI5? Since the publicity over F branch, the title might have changed.

It is perhaps surprising—although I do not know—that those Conservative Members who are always on about state interference and the need to cut the number of civil servants do not seem to be particularly worried about state surveillance activities. The article also mentions FX. Apparently, it is responsible for long-term infiltration. Moreover, F4 puts agents into political parties and organisations. We are told that F6 puts agents into trade unions. If I had mentioned all this at the time, or shortly afterwards, the ministerial response might have been—and might still be today—that we should not believe all that we read in the press. Of course when an organisation such as MI5 has such immense powers, and there is no parliamentary scrutiny, there is bound to be unease about whether abuses occur.

In the film "MI5's Official Secrets", a former employee of MI5, Miss Cathy Massiter, claimed that the late Mr. Harry Newton was an agent of MI5 and had been put by MI5 into CND and other organisations. This point may not be covered by the Minister's brief, but I hope that he will take note of it. Would it not be right to clear up this allegation? Mr. Newton is dead, and the allegation has caused considerable distress to his family and friends.

If the allegation made by Miss Massiter is correct, what justification would there be for the security service to plant agents in organisations that no reasonable person could consider to be subversive? I do not know whether Mr. Newton was an agent—I am trying to seek information through this debate. If he was not an agent, what possible reason could there be for Miss Massiter to claim that he was? What would be her motive? Many of us believe that she is an honourable woman, who has done the country good by revealing what has been happening in MI5.

Is CND subversive in the eyes of security service? The Home Secretary told us in the House and in the Select Committee when it was examining the special branch that the CND is perfectly legal. Therefore, why is it subject to all these investigations?

In March this year, I read in The Observer that the former editor of the CND newspaper, a journalist of some 30 years experience, a Mr. Bonnett, fell out with CND. When he left the organisation, he was asked all sorts of questions by the special branch, about gossip, such as who lives with whom, and about the leadership style of the general secretary of CND. What justification is there for asking such questions? He is quoted as saying that the special branch was interested in everybody. There is understandable and justifiable concern over this matter.

Is the Institute for Workers' Control, of which Mr. Newton was treasurer, considered subversive? If it is not, why was Mr. Newton, if he was an agent, planted in that organisation, and no doubt encouraged to become its treasurer? Are MI5's planted agents instructed to act in the most provocative way possible, carrying out the traditional role of agents provacateurs? Is putting agents into such organisations the right way to spend taxpayer's money?

Yesterday in Committee on the Interception of Communications Bill, I was asked by a Conservative member whether I believed that a security service was necessary. Obviously, I answered in the affirmative. I went on to say that much of the work undertaken by the security service is no doubt justified, but if the feeling continues to grow that some part of the security service is out of control, and many people fully committed to the parliamentary and democratic system are or have been the subject of unjustified surveillance by MI5, then confidence in the impartiality of the service will become eroded. Why should CND, the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Institute for Workers' Control be targeted by the security service and the special branch?

Miss Massiter said about the NCCL: Anyone who was on the National Executive of NCCL, who worked for NCCL, who was an active member to the degree of being, say, a branch secretary of NCCL, would be placed on permanent record and the routine enquiries were instituted to identify such people and police inquiries were sought. I am sure that the Minister will say that he is not in a position to talk about such matters, but is it not a matter of concern to the House that an organisation that no one could reasonably consider to be subversive should be subject to such detailed and unjustified inquiries? How far does this extend to other organisations?

Why was my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman), before she came to the House, the subject of such surveillance? Is she a subversive? Is it argued that she wanted somehow to overthrow parliamentary democracy? Taxpayers' money was used to carry out investigations into her and many like her. I should have thought that every hon. Member should be concerned about such abuses being practised by the security service. What kind of intelligence officer in MI5 could have been so stupid or prejudiced as to believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham was some kind of danger or threat to the state?

Are there some people in MI5—if there are, I trust that there are not many—who are so partial in their own political views that they would find it difficult to carry out objectively the directive given to the security service in 1952?

The matters that I raise will continue to be raised, certainly by Labour Members. The feeling grows that it is wrong for the security service not to be subject to any form of control by Parliament. The definition of subversive, which anyway is far too wide and needs changing, refers to those who want to overthrow parliamentary democracy by various means. The irony is that Parliament itself has no say in these matters. We can have the occasional debate, but we are not likely to get much information. The director-general of MI5 is banned from appearing before the Select Committee and questions are banned in the House. The announcement by the Prime Minister yesterday means that anxiety is bound to grow, as is the feeling that some changes are necessary.

Yesterday, in Committee on the Interception of Communications Bill, one or two Conservative Members argued for an ombudsman for telephone tapping, but more is required. If we are to have confidence in the security service we have to be persuaded that it carries out its function in a proper manner and not by such practices as targeting organisations such as the NCCL and the CND, and carrying out inquiries into my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham. We have to be persuaded that the security service will carry out its functions in a proper manner. It should not do so in a way that many of us would consider, in the light of the allegations made by Miss Massiter, to be near-subversive in themselves.

12.37 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Waddington)

The subject of this debate reflects the close interest that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) takes in security matters, and that has been demonstrated by his contributions, among other things, to the recent inquiry of the Home Affairs Select Committee into special branches, and to debates on the Interception of Communications Bill. There is no dispute that questions of national security, touching as they do both on the most vital interests of the nation and upon the rights and freedoms of the individual citizen, are ones which need to be taken very seriously by the House, and I have no quarrel with the hon. Gentleman for raising these matters. However, I am sorry that he did not pay tribute to the vital work that the security service carries out in protecting the community as a whole from threats such as espionage and terrorism.

Mr. Winnick

I said that much of the work was justified.

Mr. Waddington

The hon. Gentleman referred to yesterday's announcement, which he said represented a large extension of ministerial power to suspend people in the public service who are security risks. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree with the basic proposition that when the reliability of an individual in public service is in doubt it may be necessary to remove him from work the nature of which is vital to the security of the state, or to bar him from moving to such work. When there is doubt because of alleged subversive tendencies or associations a formal procedure is used which has existed since 1948. Under it the individual has the right of appeal to an independent panel of three advisers.

Last night the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) engaged in his usual extravagant language and made a statement to the press which was reported this morning. If the right hon. Gentleman works himself into a lather like that over such a non-event he is likely to be well and truly dead before he is deselected for Gorton.

I must go into some detail to put into perspective the substance of the reply given yesterday.

Mr. Winnick

I appreciate that it is right for the Minister to refer to such matters, because I referred to them, but does he intend to find time to refer to other matters that I raised?

Mr. Waddington

I have every intention of referring to a number of other matters raised by the hon. Gentleman.

The terms of reference of the three advisers were last published by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1957. The Security Commission, in its report on security procedures and practices in the public service in 1982 observed that these had become out of date in the light of the changes in the nature of the threat to security. I am advised that my right hon. and learned Friend has decided, in the light of that, that the Government, in consultation with the three advisers—Lord Justice Lloyd, Sir Patrick Nairne and Mr. Edward Hewlett — should revise the terms of reference and the statement of procedures to be followed. That decision, which was announced yesterday, does not alter the definition of subversion from that given by Lord Harris of Greenwich, a Labour Minister, in 1975.

The new terms of reference now include membership of subversive groups, other than Communists, which are acknowledged by the Minister concerned to fall within the definition of activities which threaten the safety or wellbeing of the state and which are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means. The only other changes in the terms of reference of the three advisers are concerned with procedure. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for Walsall, North will recognise that this really is "much ado about nothing". It would have been highly irresponsible if the terms of reference had not been brought up to date in the light of the report by the Security Commission.

Safeguarding national security is in a real sense the highest trust which parliament places upon Ministers and, in the area which we are now discussing, particularly upon the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary of the day. If that trust is neglected, the nation's safety is imperilled.

However, two things are particularly worth noting about the debates which have recently taken place on the Interception of Communications Bill. Nobody anywhere in the House, with the possible exception of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who on 12 March at column 215 had some rather extraordinary things to say about his former Prime Minister Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, has suggested that Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries of successive Administrations, of whichever political party, have not discharged the trust confided in them in these matters with all the care and integrity that Parliament has rightly expected and demanded of them. No one has suggested that questions of national security can be discussed in public in any detail.

Those who threaten society with terrorism, espionage and subversion use stealth and secrecy as their weapons. Those who have to counter these threats must be able to operate with similar secrecy and their operations cannot be put at risk by public disclosure of their methods and tactics. It is this consideration, and this consideration alone, which has led successive Governments over a very long period to adhere to the policy of not commenting on security matters.

This means that false or misleading reports and allegations have to go unanswered. Far better that, than to give those who threaten our society clues as to the nature of the security service's operations against them by comparing the answer which is given to one allegation with that which is given to another. It is for that reason that I shall not comment on any of the particular allegations that have recently been made.

I cannot possibly oblige the hon. Gentleman in his request about Mr. Harry Newton. However, I shall indulge myself in a comment upon it. I am aware that the allegations about Mr. Newton have caused distress and anxiety to him, his family and those who knew him. My right hon. and learned Friend has said how irresponsible it is for such allegations to be made about someone who cannot respond to them himself. However, responsibility for the allegations rests with those who made them. I cannot depart from the usual policy of not confirming or denying allegations about the operations of the security service. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises fully why that is so.

I remind the House that the Home Secretary covered all aspects of the allegations made in the programme. First, the allegations of improperly authorised interception were examined by Lord Bridge, who found that no warrant relevant to those named in the programme had been issued in contravention of the appropriate criteria. Secondly, my right hon. and learned Friend indicated that he had taken steps to examine the allegations that the security service had acted improperly in carrying out investigations and surveillance in relation to subversive activity, and had concluded, in the light of the allegations and of his inquiries into them, that the security service had carried out no operation, investigation, surveillance or action against any individual other than for the purposes laid down in its directive and with the propriety which successive Governments have rightly demanded of it.

My right hon. and learned Friend also said that he was satisfied that members of the security service had not carried out any interception without the authority of the Secretary of State, and that the Director of Public Prosecutions had asked the Metropolitan police to look into the allegations in the film which suggested that criminal offences may have been committed. This was a complete and conclusive answer to that set of allegations.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North made some remarks about CND. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made it abundantly plain that political campaigning to change the mind of the Government or of people generally about political issues cannot constitute subversion under the definition given by Lord Harris in 1975. Similar considerations apply to trade unions and their members.

No individual need fear that he is the subject of investigation by the security authorities on the ground of subversion unless his actions and intentions bring him within the strict criteria set out in the definition. That definition was discussed at length in evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in its recent inquiry. My right hon. and learned Friend explained its effect fully and carefully. He also explained the reasons for the Government's belief that this definition — which was applied by the previous Labour Government—sets the right boundaries for investigations into subversion without transgressing into interference with legitimate political or trade union activity.

On ministerial control of the security service, we must take as our starting point the directive issued to the director general by the then Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, in 1952, and referred to in paragraph 238 of Lord Denning's Report Cmnd. 2152.

This directive makes the director general personally responsible directly to the Home Secretary for the proper and efficient implementation of the tasks set out in the directive. It is through this relationship that ministerial control is exercised. The Government appoint the director general, and he holds office only so long as he has the confidence of the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister.

The director general is expected to seek direction and guidance from the Home Secretary as to the way the service goes about its business. With but one exception, the Home Secretary does not concern himself with particular operations. That one exception is when an interception warrant is sought, when of course the Home Secretary must be given sufficient supporting information for him to judge whether the application comes within the established criteria. But in general the Home Secretary is not concerned with particular cases, as paragraph 6 of the directive makes clear when it states: Ministers do not concern themselves with the detailed information which may be obtained by the Security Service in particular cases, but are furnished with such information only as may be necessary for the determination of any issue on which guidance is sought. There are good reasons for that policy. The security service is not—as some have alleged—in the business of obtaining information on behalf of the Government. It is there to protect all of us and the state against external and internal dangers, and must, as the directive makes clear, do that in a way that avoids any suggestion that it is concerned with any matter other than the defence of the realm as a whole or that there is any political bias or influence in its work. The operational judgments must be for the director general to make. If he gets them wrong, and the safety of the state is jeopardised or civil liberties unjustifiably infringed, he must answer to the Home Secretary.

In that way the chain of responsibility and control is clear and unequivocal. It enables Ministers to discharge their responsibility to Parliament for security matters without involving themselves in the detailed operations of the security service.

Mr. Winnick

I appreciate that the Minister does not intend to respond to any of the allegations made by Miss Massiter. If it is true that my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman), when she was the legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties, was the subject of surveillance, and if it is true that many other people involved in that one organisation had files on them for no other reason than that they were active in that organisation, would not the Minister agree that that was indeed a serious erosion of civil liberties and in itself to be deplored?

Mr. Waddington

The hon. Gentleman knows better than that. It has been the custom for years and years never to comment on national security matters. It has certainly been the practice never to answer hypothetical questions.

The hon. Gentleman needs to think for only a moment to realise that if Ministers were actually to answer questions framed in that way, over a period of time there could be questions so framed and answers so given that eventually obvious damage would be done to the security services.

I am not, therefore, impugning anybody. It is nothing except common sense to say that it is nonsense to put questions framed in that way and ask Ministers of the Crown to answer them. I am not departing from the practice that has been followed by Governments for as long as I can remember, and certainly the practice followed by the last Labour Government.

The hon. Gentleman, who is so ready to make all these criticisms, never mentions one of the most salient factors in the "20:20 Vision" film, which was that the bulk of the allegations related to matters that were alleged to have happened during the period of the Labour Government. All the hon. Gentleman's attacks are directed as though somehow under this Government the prison gates are closing and practices are being changed. He knows the position perfectly well and he should make that plain if he wants to make a fair speech to the House—which it is obvious he does not.

I am sure that the House would not want the position to arise where any Home Secretary was directing particular operations against subversives or others who might threaten our society. However great was the honour and integrity of the Home Secretary of the day, the suspicion would always exist that political influence might be brought to bear on the conduct of these operations, and it is therefore right that through the structure of responsibility established by the directive, the service should be under the operational control of its director general, and that he should account to the Home Secretary for its proper and efficient working.

So the Home Secretary is necessarily distanced from the detailed workings of the security service, but that does not mean that there is any lack of ministerial control. As my right hon. and learned Friend has made clear, he and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister take very seriously their responsibility for satisfying themselves that the service operates within the letter and spirit of its directive. They take the utmost care to ensure that the person appointed as director general has the necessary qualities of ability and judgment to guide the service properly and effectively in the performance of the tasks set for it. My right hon. and learned Friend maintains regular contact with the director general, though the House will not expect me to go into details about the nature of those contacts or the matters discussed.

However, the House can be assured that my right hon. and learned Friend takes great care—as I am sure did his predecessors—to inform himself of the matters of which he must be aware in order to satisfy his responsibility to Parliament for the maintenance of a security service that is efficient in the protection of our national security and vigilant in its upholding of the civil liberties of the citizens of this country. This is an effective exercise of ministerial control in a difficult and sensitive area. I believe that the balance is right, as indeed have all the Governments of both parties who have exercised these responsibilities since 1952 when the directive was issued.

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