HC Deb 02 February 1987 vol 109 cc691-7 3.30 pm
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the special branch raid on the premises of the BBC in Scotland and the seizure of material from those offices.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I am informed by the Crown Office that on Thursday 29 January 1987 the procurator fiscal at Glasgow was informed of a request by the Metropolitan police for assistance with a criminal investigation which they were making in connection with an article by the journalist Duncan Campbell in the New Statesman of 23 January 1987. The request was for a search for material relevant to that investigation to he made of the BBC premises at Queen Margaret Drive, Glasgow, where it was believed that Campbell had worked in the course of preparing a series of programmes entitled "The Secret Society"; a search was also requested of a flat at 27 Hamilton Drive, Glasgow which had been occupied by Campbell— [HON. MEMBERS: "M r. Campbell."]— while he had worked at the BBC.

I understand that on 30 January the procurator fiscal, with the authority of my noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate, presented petitions to a sheriff at Glasgow to take the oath of an officer of the Metropolitan police and to grant warrants to an officer of Strathclyde police with such assistance as would be necessary to search the premises occupied by the BBC at Queen Margaret Drive, Glasgow and the house at 27 Hamilton Drive, Glasgow. After hearing the Metropolitan police officer, the sheriff granted the warrants to search.

At 8 am on 31 January officers of Strathclyde police and other police officers visited the BBC premises to execute the warrant. The commencement of the search was delayed while senior management of the BBC obtained legal advice. As a consequence of that advice, a Bill of Suspension was presented to the High Court of Justiciary later that day on behalf of the BBC. The Bill was heard on Saturday evening by a High Court judge, Lord Clyde, who, after hearing counsel for the BBC, and Crown counsel, made an order suspending the warrant ad interim.

By the time the warrant was suspended, a quantity of material had been removed from the premises of the BBC and taken to a police office. This material was then returned to the BBC. A further warrant was obtained to search the premises of the BBC after an officer of the Metropolitan police had taken an oath before a sheriff. This warrant was then executed and a quantity of material removed from the premises of the BBC.

A report will be submitted to the procurator fiscal by the police regarding their examination of that material.

Mr. Dewar

Is it not clear from what the Secretary of State has said that this extraordinary and damaging chapter of accidents was stage-managed by the Crown Office, with ministerial authority? Why were all three warrants drafted in such a way as to allow what appears to have been a general trawl and the seizure of records and material relating to the specific programme about the spy satellite and to five other programmes that can have had only the most tenuous connection with any matter of national security?

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the overwhelming impression that is left is that the aim was intimidation, and that the police operation was meant as a warning and a form of intimidation, to inhibit and curtail the proper curiosity of journalists, on which a healthy press depends?

Does the Minister accept that the reputation of the police is an important public asset which has been damaged by this bizarre and incompetent performance? Does he accept also that warrants should not be used as a crude catch-all device, but should be precise, measured and drawn with a careful regard for civil liberties and essential freedoms? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept those criteria were not met on this occasion and that public opinion is properly outraged and wants the most complete assurance that this dangerous nonsense will not be repeated on any future occasion?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman has chosen to table his question for answer by the Secretary of State for Scotland. I have to inform him that neither I nor the Government have any responsibility for requests made by the Metropolitan police for search warrants. [Interruption]. The hon. Gentleman is responsible for the question tabled in his name. I have to say to him that neither I nor the Government are responsible for requests by the Metropolitan police for search warrants, nor am I responsible for the conduct of the fiscal service, nor am I or the Government in any way responsible for decisions taken by a sheriff in Glasgow as to the appropriateness of granting such a warrant.

The hon. Gentleman should be the first to appreciate, given his local background, that police inquiries and questions whether search warrants should be granted are not matters for me or for the Government as a whole.

Sir Alex Fletcher (Edinburgh, Central)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree, without prejudice to the outcome of this investigation, that the BBC Scotland staff are loyal and hard working? The worst outcome that I would expect is that we shall find that one or two of them have been badly led astray by someone who enjoys embarrassing the Government and the Opposition alike.

Mr. Rifkind

I do not wish to comment on the merits of this matter. Clearly, material has been removed from the BBC offices in Glasgow. If the information justifies any further action, it will be put before the procurator fiscal.

Mr. Roy Jenkins (Glasgow, Hillhead)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not understand that the Government must take responsibility for the investigation of a matter concerning Government secrets in which the Government have embroiled themselves deliberately and closely? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us who is politically responsible for this operation, which he has been put up to answer? Is it the Home Secretary? Is it the Attorney-General? Is it the Prime Minister? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a very serious matter. I ask the House to listen.

Mr. Jenkins

What is the supreme objective for which the Government are prepared to look as though they were running a second-rate police state, infused equally with illiberalism and incompetence?

Mr. Rifkind

I am answering this question because the spokesman for the Opposition chose to put a request to me. The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins), as a former distinguished Home Secretary, should be the last person to suggest that Ministers are responsible for requests by the Metropolitan police for search warrants or for decisions by sheriffs as to whether such applications should be granted.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the vast majority of honest and patriotic people who pay their licence dues to the BBC expect the Government—and, indeed this House—to support those whose duty it is to protect this country's national security? Does he agree that it would surprise many of those licence holders to find that the BBC, instead of doing its level best to discover whether treachery is within its organisation, is seeking to defend those whose trade is treachery?

Mr. Rifkind

Naturally, if the police had any reason to believe that criminal offences had been committed, the general public would expect them to take appropriate action to determine whether such a view was justified.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman that he has no responsibility in the matter. Is he saying that he has no interest in the way in which the police carry out their duties? Can he tell us whether, during the raid in Scotland, the police presumed that they could do what they did at the offices of the New Statesman, that is, not only to investigate the particular matter in which they were supposed to intervene, but generally to search through files?

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not care whether files in newspaper offices in Scotland are ransacked in this way? Does he not have any regard for protecting the freedom of the people of this country?

Mr. Rifkind

I have a general responsibility for the police service in Scotland. I do not have a responsibility, nor does my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, for the Metropolitan police, or, indeed, for the Scottish police, deciding that on the information they have it is appropriate to apply for a search warrant.

Opposition Members know perfectly well that they are embarking upon a wholly new constitutional path in suggesting that the Home Secretary or the Secretary of State for Scotland either has, or should have, any responsibility for whether the police should or should not decide that a search warrant is appropriate or whether a judge should grant such a warrant. If that is the view of the Opposition, they are behaving in an even more irresponsible way than I would have expected of them.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in matters involving national security it is the duty of everyone to put the national interest before their personal interests? Is he entirely satisfied that during the past weekend the BBC has put the national interest before its interests?

Mr. Rifkind

I prefer not to comment on the BBC. However, I certainly agree that the national interest clearly must be of supreme importance. I must emphasise that the decision of the police to apply for a search warrant, and the decision of a judge to grant it, was not initiated by any Minister.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the plea of national security has often been found to be an impudent bluff, intended to save the Government from embarrassment, and nothing else?

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the Prime Minister's satisfaction when answering a question last week, when she said that she had managed to stop the BBC programme, simply meant that it did not matter what the Russians knew, provided that the information was kept from the people of the United Kingdom?

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the raid in Scotland is regarded as a dangerous attack on free speech in this country?

Mr. Rifkind

The right hon. Gentleman should realise that the decision to search the BBC's premises was taken by the police and granted by a Scottish judge. If he has any criticisms, he knows perfectly well in what direction they should be made.

Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe)

While recognising my right hon. and learned Friend's jurisdiction, may I ask whether he agrees that this affair, with all its disturbing implications—which some Opposition Members are seeking to exploit—has arisen from the extraordinarily irresponsible decision of the BBC to entrust a television series about secrecy to a man with a record of breaches of national security, namely, Mr. Duncan Campbell? Is that not rather like entrusting Myra Hindley with charge of a children's home?

Mr. Rifkind

Those who have been involved in the matter in the way described by my hon. Friend will clearly have to answer for the exercise of their discretion.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that his statement today will not be believed by millions of people, because they know very well that it has nothing to do with law and order or national security, but with the fact that the Prime Minister thinks that she has a divine right to rule and that anybody, whether elected local authorities, trade unions, journalists, broadcasters or Members of Parliament, who stands in the way of the Prime Minister's wishes is to be denounced, intimidated and crushed, and that the Home Secretary, who is responsible for the police service, the prison service, MI5, the special branch and the BBC, is an agent for introducing a police state, which is the greatest threat to parliamentary democracy since Hitler's defeat in 1945?

Mr. Rifkind

The right hon. Gentleman is well known for his occasional fits of paranoia. However, I advise him that even if, under a system of which he approved, it was right and proper for Government Ministers to determine whether search warrants should be applied for or granted, under the system that exists in the United Kingdom today, as the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, these matters are not decided by Government Ministers, nor will they ever be so long as the present Government are in office.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

I should like to ask my right hon. and learned Friend a simple question. Can he tell the House when we will know the merit of the material that was discovered by the police, because until we know that we cannot decide whether the search was a great invasion of journalistic freedom or a proper security measure by the Secretary of State? Does he agree that the journalists of this country do not enjoy a unique benefit of clergy separate from the general law of the land?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend has asked a very wise question, and he is absolutely right to say that we should all await consideration of the material that was removed from the BBC's headquarters. In due course the wisdom, or lack of wisdom, of that action will become well perceived by the community as a whole.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

As the Home Secretary is the Minister responsible for the Metropolitan police and for broadcasting, will the Secretary of State find out from him when the five master tapes belonging to the BBC on programmes which have nothing to do with national security will be returned to the BBC? Will he also confirm that in the course of the raids the BBC technicians were brought from their beds in the middle of the night to help sort out the tapes? Is the knock on the door in the middle of the night to become a part of our society?

Mr. Rifkind

The right hon. Gentleman can put questions direct to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary if he so wishes. I understand that the BBC technicians were asked whether they would be willing to come in to assist those taking part, and that they voluntarily chose to do so because they were aware of their public responsibilities.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the consent of no Minister, either in the Scottish Office or elsewhere, was required before the search warrant was issued? Will he also confirm that there was no obligation whatsoever on those who applied for the warrant to inform any Minister? Is it not clear from the attitude of the Labour party that it would allow political interference with decisions of this kind?

Mr. Rifkind

As I said in my initial statement, the procurator fiscal acted with the authority of my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord-Advocate in presenting a petition to a sheriff to see whether a warrant could be obtained. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that the decision to apply for a search warrant was taken at the request of the Metropolitan police, who consulted the Strathclyde police, and that the decision to authorise the warrant was the responsibility of the sheriff.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As a fellow Scot, will the Secretary of State take it from me that some serious, decent, senior police officers in Scotland are absolutely appalled at what they and their colleagues were asked to do? Does he accept that those police officers would not initiate or undertake such an operation if it was not clear that they had serious ministerial authority, because they were being asked to cock a snook—in their view, cock the proverbial five fingers—at the High Court? The Secretary of State chose his words carefully when he said that no Minister initiated the search. Can he give us an undertaking that Mr. Bernard Ingham—[Interruption.]—and Mr. Bernard Sheldon—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman come to the point please?

Mr. Dalyell

Mr. Bernard Ingham gave a freely available press conference this morning. Are we sure that Mr. Bernard Ingham and Mr. Bernard Sheldon were in no way consulted about the operation?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman has grievously insulted both the Strathclyde police and the sheriff who granted the warrant by implying that they were acting in anything other than the normal, proper way in the exercise of their responsibilities. He has produced not one shred of evidence and seeks to create the maximum disturbance in the mind of the public in a grievously irresponsible way. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that when the Strathclyde police received a request from the Metropolitan police for their co-operation they were perfectly entitled, if they saw fit, to decline to provide that co-operation. They did not decline to provide it. They decided that they wished to assist the Metropolitan police and to seek a warrant from the sheriff. If the hon. Gentleman has the slightest iota of evidence to the contrary, he should provide it. If he has not, he should remain totally and unambiguously silent.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is an. extension of Question Time. I shall allow one more question from each side.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Does my right hon and learned Friend agree that the over-hasty condemnation of police action, taken in the national interest, by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), both from the stage of the Barbican yesterday and on Radio 4 this morning, demonstrates his party's low priority for defence and security and its complete unfitness to hold any form of power?

Mr. Rifkind

No one will have been surprised at the attempts of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) to seek party political advantage at the expense of the police and court officials carrying out their proper public responsibilities.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Eric Heffer.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

What about us?

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

What about us?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I again call Mr. Heffer.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Is the Secretary of State aware that over the years many Members of the House of Commons have been critical of what happened in Nazi Germany and have attacked what has happened in eastern Europe, Chile, South Africa and many other countries—[Interruption.] It is your responsibility, Mr. Speaker, to keep hon. Members quiet.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have regard to the business that follows. Come to the point please.

Mr. Heffer

I shall raise it afterwards on a point of order.

It is clear that if we genuinely believe in the democratic principles of free speech, free institutions and free discussion, it is also clear that what has happened in Scotland, at the BBC and to Mr. Campbell is an outrage. Is it not time that the people of this country understood the situation that has been created by the Government and the disgraceful attitude adopted—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I called the hon. Gentleman to ask a question, not to make a speech. [Interruption.] Order. I appreciate that this matter raises high passions in the House, but we have an obligation to set an example.

Mr. Heffer

Tell that to Conservative Members.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman, if he is devoted to free speech, democracy and the rule of law, should appreciate that it is crucial and essential that Ministers, such as myself, are not involved, and should not be deemed to be involved, in decisions by the police in pursuit of their responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman should make up his mind. If he wishes to preserve the rule of law, he should acknowledge that Government Ministers do not involve themselves in police decisions regarding the accumulation of evidence, nor via court decisions as to whether warrants should be granted.


Mr. Heffer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I have been very generous to the hon. Gentleman, but I will take it.

Mr. Heffer

I am not asking for generosity. I have been an hon. Member for 22 years and in all those years I have seen successive Speakers protect the rights of Back Benchers when they are making points in the House. Of late, we have seen exhibitions, primarily from Conservative Members. Whenever there is something that they do not like, they act like a bunch of lunatics. [Interruption.] It is happening now and no effort is being made to keep them quiet.

I am asking you, M r. Speaker, to use your authority so that when hon. Members raise matters of the greatest importance, in the interests of the democratic processes, they are protected and not shouted down by Conservative Members. It is time that that stopped and that we got back to the situation that existed when I was first elected, when hon. Members could make statements and were heard out, even if other hon. Members disagreed with what was said.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that it would be true to say that noise comes only from one side of the House. The hon. Gentleman might see, when he looks at Hansard tomorrow, that perhaps the cause of the noise was the length of his question.

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