HC Deb 21 October 1987 vol 120 cc757-65 5.28 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise what I consider to be a serious point of order concerning the vetting procedures operating in this House for staff employed by hon. Members.

In August of this year I appointed Mr. Ronan Bennett as a temporary research assistant and, after application, a pass was issued to him to enable him to enter this building. One week later a disgraceful story appeared in the News of the World which attacked Mr. Bennett and me. After that, a story appeared in the Sunday Times claiming that his pass had been suspended and that he would no longer be admitted to this building. On the following day I received a letter from you, Mr. Speaker, saying that his security pass had, indeed, been suspended and that it should be returned to the office.

I understand that, on security advice, Mr. Bennett has been declared unacceptable to be issued with a pass to enter this House. I wish to make it clear that Mr. Bennett had one conviction against him quashed in 1975 and, following a three months trial in 1978, a case against him was dismissed and he was acquitted. There are no convictions against Mr. Bennett — he is an innocent man.

Mr. Bennett is employed by me to investigate miscarriages of justice in this country. I wish to know under what powers his pass to enter this building has been withdrawn. His character has been smeared and his employment prospects damaged through statements by the security services. None of those statements has been made public. No evidence against Mr. Bennett has been offered to him, to me, or, as far as I am aware, to many other people. Therefore, there is no way that he can rebut the allegations; he knows only that there are such allegations and that there is no appeal against them. A basic miscarriage of justice is taking place in front of our very eyes. There is no appeal against an accusation made against Mr. Bennett, which is obviously very damaging to him.

It is a transgression of democracy to allow security services to decide, on the basis of unpublished information or opinion, who should or should not enter this building. Do you agree, Mr. Speaker, that if we allow such a proceedure for the vetting of hon. Members' staff to proceed it removes from this House and hands to unelected, unaccountable security services the power to decide what should happen in this House? Hon. Members are elected to represent their constituents; they are not elected to be prevented from carrying out their work by the security services acting in secret and smearing someone's character in this way.

I would like you, Mr. Speaker, to state now under what powers you have ordered the withdrawal of Mr. Bennett's pass and what action can be taken now to protect the rights of constituents who elect Members of Parliament to represent them and to employ those whom they think fit to carry out their duties on their behalf.

Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that an all-party Committee of this House as recently as 1984–85 considered very carefully the problem of large numbers of research assistants gaining access to the Palace? Is it not also the case that that Committee, on which distinguished hon. Members from both sides sat, reached the conclusion that the onus of ensuring that the rare, undesirable appointees should not come here rested with the hon. Member himself, and further and precisely that the hon. Member should not pursue the application in the face of an adverse (and confidential) report on the security status of the applicant"? Am I not right in saying that those were the views of an all-party Committee of this House? Although its report has yet to be debated, I am sure that you wished to bear those conclusions in mind in reaching your decision.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Of course, the recommendation referred to by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) has not come before the House and no authority has been granted by a Select Committee, whose report has not been discussed, giving such powers to you, Mr. Speaker. This is not the moment to debate the matter, but it is important that certain facts should come out, and I wish to put some questions to you. When was the request made to you, and by whom? Who carries out the vetting? Under what authority did you act? Those are the central questions, rather like the Zircon case that went to the Committee of Privileges.

In addition, does the vetting apply to the staff of the House of Commons? I believe that it does. Does it apply to journalists? Is every Lobby correspondent vetted before being allowed to come into the House? Does it apply to visitors? I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) that there is no objection to the gentleman in question attending the House as a visitor, although evidently he cannot come here to work. Does it apply to Members of Parliament? One hon. Member who has not taken his seat — the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) — would certainly incur the displeasure of the security services, even though he has been elected to this House.

The point that I wish to draw to your attention, Mr. Speaker, is that your decision has enormous constitutional importance, far beyond the question whether a person has been badly used. However, anyone in such a position would find it impossible to obtain employment because it would be said, "Mr. Speaker has said he is a security risk, because by withdrawing his pass he has tried and convicted the man"—[Interruption.] I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that that is how any employer would regard your decision. That man has not been tried in this matter and he has been acquitted of all other charges, yet he has been told that he is not regarded as a safe person to advise an elected Member of Parliament. In the end, the rights involved are not those of a research assistant—no one has the right to be a research assistant — but those of an elected Member to employ whom he wishes to advise him in serving the constituents who elected him.

I cannot imagine a graver case than this. I ask whether you, Mr. Speaker, would be so kind, at an appropriate moment, to answer my questions and to arrange for a debate so that the House can consider whether it wants to reverse the decision of Speaker Lenthall when the five Members were demanded by the King on the ground that they were a security risk. I believe that exactly the same principles apply in this case.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It might be helpful to the House if we did not spread this point of order further than the point on which it was raised. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has put to you a proposition that was not part of the original point of order. Whatever the original complaint may be, it is not about who hon. Members may or may not employ as research assistants. The question is confined to access to this House, for whose security you are responsible, Mr. Speaker. It is the protection not just of hon. Members, but of everyone in the Gallery, the staff of the House and children visiting the House in the mornings with either hon. Members or guides should explosive devices go off. The question that should not be subsumed is who hon. Members may employ as research assistants, because that is not the issue. The point at issue is access to the House.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I believe that everyone recognises that you acted on the advice of the appropriate authorities. The intervention by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) does not help. He said that it was a question not of employing research assistants but of access to the House. Obviously, if an hon. Member employs someone to work for him it is expected that that person will work in the House of Commons. I imagine that there are few, if any, research assistants who do not work in some part of the House.

The matter is important because who is to decide whether we can employ a particular person? Will the security authorities decide whether a person has their approval? As I understand the position outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), the person concerned was charged but not convicted. Therefore, in law we are dealing with an innocent person. It would be inappropriate to allow this matter to go by on the nod because other such cases would come before us in due course. I beg of you, Mr. Speaker, to appreciate that the matter of great importance, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said, is that we have the right to employ whom we wish, and that we should try to establish and confirm that right. We should not be at the mercy of the security authorities to decide, on information unknown to us, whether Mr. X or Mr. Y should be employed in this House.

My understanding is that this is the first such case, so I believe it to be necessary that a statement be made at the earliest opportunity. No one has ever accused me of having the least sympathy with any terrorist group. I have only contempt for those who wage terrorism, whether in Northern Ireland or anywhere else. However, an important constitutional issue has been raised and the House is entitled to a statement on it.

Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder what all the fuss is about. Had the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) bothered to read the unanimous recommendations of the House of Commons Services Committee, published on 31 January 1985, which state clearly in paragraph 23——

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

No resolution of the House.

Sir Fergus Montgomery

Not a resolution of the House, but a recommendation by an all-party Select Committee. Paragraph 23 states: We therefore recommend that a Member who applies for a pass for a secretary or a research assistant … shall be required (i) to provide reasonable details on the background of appointee; (ii) to allow a short period to elapse between the making of the application and the issue of a photo-identify pass; and (iii) not to pursue the application in the face of an adverse (and confidential) report on the security status of the applicant. A Member dissatisfied with an explanation of a refusal to issue a pass is at liberty to make representations to the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee. I wonder why the hon. Member for Islington, North did not do that instead of making an attack on you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will agree that if every recommendation made by a Select Committee, especially the Select Committee on Social Services, was acted upon automatically before it was debated, a few hundred thousand people might he substantially better off. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said, the recommendation has not been debated, and Tory Members are simply raising a blue herring.

In addition to the questions posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, I ask one simple question. In the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), there is a question mark over the employment of a research assistant because of lack of a security clearance. Have you, Mr. Speaker, or any other competent body within the House, refused the employment of any other research assistant? Are there any other current investigations? For example, is there an investigation into the research assistant employed by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) — a certain Mr. Hoyle — who, apart from being a senior official of the late, unlamented Federation of Conservative Students, has been on patrol with the Contras in Nicaragua and paraded himself round the country supporting a terrorist organisation? Are those grounds for investigation or are investigations conducted only as a result of smear tactics against Labour Members?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that you will be making a statement after this series of questions——

Mr. Speaker

indicated dissent.

Mr. Skinner

You are not? If not, I think it would be advisable for you to reconsider the matter. There are many problems with vetting the people employed here. For instance, let us consider a Tory Member of Parliament who may employ someone who is or was a member of the National Front. Are you prepared to take upon yourself the task of vetting all applications from the Tory party? Are you aware that it was reported in The Guardian the other day that during the election campaign a former member of the National Front, Mr. Peter Shipley, was working in No. 10 Downing street to help with the election? Once you start down this road, Mr. Speaker, you will set a hare running that you will never be able to catch.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps I may deal with the matter in relation to the points of order that have been made to me. I ask the House to accept that this was an extremely difficult decision for me. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has drawn our attention to Speaker Lenthall, and I assure him and the whole House that I bear constantly in mind the freedoms that we have achieved in this place over the centuries. However, I had to face the fact that, in 1965, control of this part of the Palace was vested in me. Against the background of the information which I received, I had no option but to suspend the pass. I do not propose to discuss the matter in the House, but if hon. Members wish to change the rules they should ask for a debate on them or ask the Select Committee on Services, which has not yet been set up, to consider all the issues involved.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Many hon. Members will have great sympathy with you in the difficult position in which you were placed by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), who might have dealt with the matter differently. It would have been to the great advantage of us all if he had. I hope that the Leader of the House has noted your comments about a possible debate, because plenty of hon. Members would wish to support what you have done and the decision that has been reached.

Mr. Corbyn

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. What redress is now open to Mr. Bennett to clear his name, which has been smeared over every newspaper and on television and radio? He has been effectively prevented from carrying out his work in this building. What redress is open to me, if I employ someone to work with me in my duties representing the people of Islington, North and I am frustrated in doing that by an opinion offered in secret by the secret service? Is that not a negation of the democracy for which the House stands, which is meant to allow a constituency to elect a Member of Parliament to carry out his duties to the best of his ability? On this occasion, I have deliberately been frustrated by secret evidence that is not made available to me or, publicly, to anyone.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman knows that his research assistant is not denied employment with him. What has happened is that his pass to enter this building unattended has been suspended. Until that matter is resolved, he can continue to work for the hon. Gentleman, as I believe he has been doing for some time.

Mr. Benn

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate the fact that you did not want to make a long statement, but several factual questions were put to you and it would be helpful if, before we had a debate—on whatever motion it may arise—we had answers to those questions which will be recorded in Hansard. No one criticises you, Mr. Speaker, but we elected you to protect us from the Executive, whose agents the security services are. I am sure that you reflected on this matter, Mr. Speaker, but once you gave permission to the security services to vet research assistants, you necessarily gave them authority to intercept telephone calls between Members and their research assistants. No one could vet a research assistant unless he had listened to telephone calls and opened correspondence between that research assistant and the Member.

I return to the point that I made earlier: this constitutes a licence to an unaccountable security service to vet Members of Parliament and their correspondence and contact with the people whom they employ. I ask you to answer the factual questions, and then we shall take up the matter in the proper way through parliamentary debate and decision.

Mr. Speaker

It is my undoubted responsibility to protect Members of this House, and that was the basis on which I took this decision. The House should remember that we have had one hon. Member murdered on the premises. We have had an attempt to blow up Westminster Hall. We have had one Member murdered in his constituency, and on two occasions we have had things thrown from the Gallery into the Chamber. I must tell the House that, against the information which I received, I could have made no other decision in the interests of the Members of this House. It is for the House to resolve whether that decision was right.

Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

That is a disgraceful statement.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Members for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) have already drawn attention to the fact that this matter was dealt with fully in the Select Committee report. The proper course for the House would be to debate that part of the report.

Mr. Benn

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The answer that you have just given makes the position infinitely worse, because the only interpretation of your explanation is that my hon. Friend's research assistant might have been a person who would have murdered—

Mr. Speaker

I shall stop the right hon. Gentleman there. He has totally misinterpreted my remarks and represented them quite unfairly. I said that I had to take this decision against a certain background. I made absolutely no allegations about any individual, research assistant or anyone else. I had to take the decision against that background, because it is my duty to protect the Members of this House and all who work in the Palace.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm that your ruling has been to say that that particular person is not allowed to visit certain parts of the Palace unattended? Is it not true also that even hon. Members cannot visit certain parts of this House?

Mr. Winnick

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there not here a matter of natural justice? Time and time again, when we have debated individual cases that do not affect hon. Members, the point has been made that people who consider that they have been unjustly treated should have some right of redress or appeal. Clearly, serious allegations have been made against this person. The hon. Member for whom he wishes to work states that there is no substance to those allegations.

The person concerned clearly believes that he is innocent and that he has no desire to kill or to carry out an act of terrorism. However, the implication of the report that obviously went to you, Mr. Speaker, is that he is not a person who could be safely allowed on the premises—otherwise, his pass would not have been taken away. I am, and everyone must be, concerned about the safety of the building, not only for ourselves but for all who work here.

We are not selfishly concerned only about our safety in the Chamber but about that of all those who are employed here, be they Officers or staff.

You, Mr. Speaker, have stated that the pass has been suspended; that means, as I understand it, that there is a possibility that it will, at some stage, be returned to the person concerned. Will this gentleman be given any opportunity to put his case, either to you or to a Committee? Surely, Mr. Speaker, we cannot leave the matter on this basis. Conservative Members are not interested; they believe that it is all perfectly in order. However, those of us who are concerned with justice, for our own constituents or anyone else, simply ask you whether we can pursue the matter beyond today and whether the person can be interviewed so that he may put his case and we can have another statement to the House. It would be wholly unfair and a denial of justice if we left the matter as it is.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I realise that you are in a difficult position, hut there may have been some misunderstanding of your reference to the tragic murder that took place in this building. I believe that it is important that you clarify exactly what you meant, one way or the other, whatever the implications of what was mentioned.

Will you accept, Mr. Speaker, that some of us are alarmed that we have to take the say-so of the security services on this matter? While I would not dismiss it, I would have been happier if the information from the security services had at least been made available to one or two of my right hon. Friends who are Privy Councillors. [Interruption.] My point of view may be different from that of some of my hon. Friends. I should like the information to be made available, for example, to former Home Secretaries or others who have had similar responsibilities and who are Opposition Privy Councillors.

Mr. Speaker

We have a heavy day before us, and I am not certain whether we can take this matter further today. Patently, the issue must be resolved, and it is for the House to resolve it. The machinery for that exists, and many, if not all, of the points that have been canvassed with me today can legitimately be raised in that debate.

Mr. Nellist

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You state that no implication was to be drawn from the catalogue of events that you mentioned some 10 minutes ago — they were merely a backcloth to the decision that has been taken. Presumably, however, those who drew up the report given to you, verbally or in writing, regarded the employment of Mr. Bennett by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) against the implications of that catalogue of events. Has that report been given to my hon. Friend or to the person he is employing? Has a report been drawn up such that the person who has been accused has no right even of seeing the charges against him, let alone of defending himself against them?

Mr. Speaker

Let me make the point absolutely clear. I took this decision against the background that I have mentioned. I mentioned it because I, with the former right hon. Member for Wakefield, Mr. Harrison, happened to be first on the scene at that time, and it affected me deeply. I was also present in the House when the other episodes took place. I make no accusation or allegation against anyone—it was simply background.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Rather than having a debate, as you suggested, and a full-blown confrontation on this issue, I suggest that, in view of the way in which the representations have been made, you will probably accept that there is a strong body of feeling in the House that there should be intervention in the employment of research assistants and their use of the facilities of this House only in the most dire circumstances, which have not, by any means, been demonstrated. I therefore suggest that, rather than persisting with the idea of a debate, you review the position in the light of the representations that have been made, with a view to restoring the pass in the near future. That would be the best method of resolving the dispute. In this way, you, Mr. Speaker, can give full weight to the serious concerns that have been expressed about hon. Members' assistants.

I recall that when there was a flood of American assistants who were offered free of charge to Members of this House, some people raised the question of a CIA presence in the House and the possible subversion that that might entail. The view of the House at that time was that there should be no interference in the matter because an important right of hon. Members was that of being able to choose assistants. It therefore followed that permission should be given to allow those Americans to assist hon. Members in the House. In view of that background of tolerance, I hope that you will review the position sympathetically in the light of the evidence that has been put forward.

Mr. Corbyn

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You must be aware that there is considerable disquiet in the House about the decision that you have taken, whose effect is this: an innocent man has been found guilty on evidence that we know not for offences that we know not, and he is prevented from gaining employment in the future because his character has effectively been smeared by this House.

I was brought up to understand that the court of Star Chamber was the opposite of justice in this country. We are now witnessing a system of justice under which someone is condemned with no right of hearing or appeal. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, must be aware that the matter cannot be allowed to lie here. Hon. Members have suggested that it be referred to the Services Committee, which does not exist. They have referred to the Select Committee report which, in any case, is out of print and was never debated in the House. I ask that you seriously consider the points put to you by hon. Members this afternoon about this fundamental denial of justice, arid, perhaps, on reflection, make a statement that you are prepared to restore Mr. Bennett's pass and that you are prepared to allow hon. Members to debate the serious and important issue of how they go about their business as elected Members of the House, free from the frustrations of secret evidence given by the security services.

Mr. Speaker

It would not be appropriate for me to make any statements other than what I have already been able to say today in answer to the points of order. I think that the matter should be debated, and I hope that it will be.

  1. STATUTORY INSTRUMENTS, &c. 42 words