HC Deb 23 November 1988 vol 142 cc218-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Howarth.]

10 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

We have discussed this afternoon the Security Service in general. I want to deal with a specific aspect of the same subject, the Prime Minister's statement on 6 May 1987 about the apparent inquiry within the Security Service into allegations made by Mr. Peter Wright. I shall try to demonstrate that the Prime Minister's statement was incorrect in every significant detail. It will provide us with an early opportunity to test the Prime Minister's assertion, made yesterday, that she and her right hon. Friend the Home Secretary are accountable to Parliament. I took the opportunity, in the hope of a substantive reply, of writing to the Prime Minister last week to tell her what specific subject I intended to address and of notifying the Minister's Office early this morning, in the hope of a substantive reply.

Two years ago Mr. Peter Wright, a former senior officer with MI5, published his memoirs. On page 369 he described what he claimed was a plan by himself and an unspecified number of other MI5 officers to discredit and perhaps bring down the Government of Harold Wilson in 1974. He wrote:

The plan was simple. In the run up to the election … MI5 would arrange for selective details of the intelligence about leading Labour Party figures, but especially Wilson, to be leaked to sympathetic pressmen. Using our contacts in the press and among union officials, word of the material contained in MI5 files, and the fact that Wilson was considered a security risk, would be passed round. Soundings in the office had already been taken and up to thirty officers had given their approval to the scheme. Facsimile copies of some files were to be made and distributed to overseas newspapers, and the matter was to be raised in Parliament for maximum effect. Had such allegations been made in any other Western democracy, the resulting outcry would have led to a public inquiry. Had they been made in the United States, a country much admired by the Prime Minister, Congress would have launched the most thorough investigation. Those alleged to have been involved, be they never so mighty, would have been summoned to account for their actions.

In this country, however, the Government reacted differently. The judges were asked to intervene, and instantly obliged by banning the book. Injunctions were also taken out against newspapers that dared to print extracts and against booksellers who dared to stock the book. Millions of pounds of public money were squandered in a worldwide attempt at suppression, the effect of which was to make our country a laughing stock and Mr. Wright a millionaire.

So great was the outcry, however, that even the Prime Minister was unable to resist demands that she should at least go through the motions of an inquiry. The result was that on 6 May last year she made a statement to the House, in which she said: I can … tell the House that the director-general"— who was at that time Sir Antony Duff— … has reported to me that, over the last four months, he has conducted a thorough investigation … There has been a comprehensive examination of all the papers relevant to that time. There have been interviews with officers in post in the relevant parts of the security service at that time, including officers whose names have been made public. The director-general has advised me that he has found no evidence of any truth in the allegations. He has given me his personal assurance that the stories are false. In particular, he has advised me that all the security service officers who have been interviewed have categorically denied that they were involved in, or were aware of, any activities or plans to undennine or discredit Lord Wilson and his Government when he was Prime Minister. The then director-general"— who I believe was Sir Michael Hanley— has categorically denied the allegation that he confirmed the existence within the security service of a disaffected faction with extreme Right-wing views. He has further stated that he had no reason to believe that any such faction existed. No evidence or indication has been found of any plot or conspiracy against Lord Wilson by or within the security service. Further, the director-general has also advised me that Lord Wilson has never been the subject of a security service investigation or of any form of electronic or other surveillance by the security service."—[Official Report, 6 May 1987; Vol. 115, c. 724.] You would have had to fall off a Christmas tree from a great height, Mr. Speaker, to believe that statement. It is incorrect in every significant detail, and that is what I propose to try to demonstrate.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mullin

Forgive me. I have prepared quite carefully and I want to try to get my speech on the record.

Happily, we are not obliged to rely on Peter Wright. There has recently been published an excellent book by The Observer journalist Mr. David Leigh entitled, "The Wilson Plot", based on interviews with five former members of the Security Service. It shows that there was, indeed, an attempt by the security services over many years to discredit the Government formed by Lord Wilson.

Furthermore, it appears that Mr. Leigh has had better luck than the Prime Minister in securing the co-operation of members of the security services with regard to this matter. That, if nothing else, ought to concern the Prime Minister as she is supposed to be in charge of the security services. Nor do we have to rely on Mr. Leigh. His findings are corroborated by the distinguished journalist, Mr. John Ware, in a recent "Panorama" programme. It is true that Mr. Ware demonstrated that Mr. Wright may have exaggerated the number of people involved in the project and understated his own involvement. Mr. Ware also had no difficulty demonstrating the utterly misleading nature of the Prime Minister's statement. He even went so far as to show that word of what was going on had reached the American intelligence services, although not, apparently, No. 10 Downing street.

In addition to the work of Messrs. Leigh and Ware, there are books by several others which to a greater or lesser degree confirm that the Prime Minister has been grossly misled by the security services. They are the collected works of Mr. Chapman Pincher, "The Pencourt File" by Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtier, and the memoirs of the former MI6 officer Mr. Anthony Cavendish, which were also banned.

I propose to examine the Prime Minister's statement of 6 May last year in the light of information which has become available since then. She told the House: There has been a comprehensive examination of all the papers relevant to that time. I do not think that any of us is naive enough to imagine that anyone involved in activities of the kind alleged would be foolish enough to write them all down and file the papers away in the MI5 registry for future generations of historians or leakers. I would like to know whether the papers examined included the "Henry Worthington" file. There are no prizes for guessing that "Henry Worthington" was MI5-speak for Harold Wilson.

The Prime Minister said: There have been interviews with officers in post in the relevant parts of the security service at that time, including officers whose names have been made public."—[Offieial Report, 6 May 1987; Vol. 115, c. 724.] Students of official statements will note the careful reference to "officers in post". The problem is that most of those who were alleged to have been involved in, or were aware of, what was going on departed the service of MI5 and MI6 before the commencement of this alleged inquiry.

To name but a few, Arthur Martin retired in or around 1970, Patrick Stewart retired not long after, Barry Russell-Jones left in 1981, Tony Brooks and Jeremy Wetherall left in 1978, Charles Elwell left in 1979, Harry Wharton left in 1980, Harold Doyne Ditmus, Michael McCaul, Ray Whitby and Robert Holden have also retired, James Speirs of MI6 left the service in 1986 and Peter Troughton left in or about 1978. The only one who to my knowledge is still serving is Mollie Sugden. All those people could have assisted with inquiries. It would be interesting to know from the Minister how many were interviewed. I suspect that the answer is none.

Incidentally, the obvious starting point for any serious inquiry would have been the one man who admits to being aware of and involved in the smearing of Harold Wilson. Peter Wright has made himself readily available to just about everyone who has knocked on his door in the past few years, but I understand that no attempt was made to interview him either during the 1987 inquiry or during the previous one carried out 10 years earlier at the request of the former Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan.

Mr. Aitken

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mullin

No. The Minister will have an opportunity to reply in a moment.

That fact alone speaks volumes.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a flagrant breach of the privileges of the House for the hon. Gentleman to be making all these unfounded and scurrilous accusations against named individuals who are not in a position to defend themselves? Would you call on him to withdraw his allegations?

Mr. Speaker

Every hon. Member must take responsibility for what he says in the House. We have freedom of speech here. However, I must say to the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he is very well aware of it—that I trust that he will not seek to mention names of serving officers whose work or lives may be in danger.

Mr. Mullin

With one possible exception, every one of those names has been published widely outside. I do not think that there is anything controversial in what I have said, and we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by those who attempt to make a controversy out of something that is not controversial and who, I suspect, have an interest in distracting us from the main burden of the debate tonight.

The Prime Minister said in her statement: all the security service officers who have been interviewed have categorically denied that they were involved in, or aware of, any activities or plans to undermine or discredit Lord Wilson and his Government".—[Official Report, 6 May 1987; Vol. 115, c. 724.] If that is so, one can only conclude that the wrong people were interviewed or that those interviewed were, as the saying goes, economical with the truth. I make no allegation as to who was involved, but most of the 30 or so MI5 and MI6 officers who served with Peter Wright in the K5 branch of the intelligence service at Gower street in the early 1970s must have at least been aware of what was going on. Indeed, some of them obviously talked frankly to David Leigh.

Many others also knew. It must have been common gossip in certain sections of the security services. Jeremy Wetherall and Harry Wharton are said to have had in their possession an entirely innocent picture of Harold Wilson, accompanied by a young woman, taken many years ago in Moscow. Apparently that photograph came from MI6. What were they doing with it, and why was it being circulated?

Anthony Cavendish, the former MI6 officer, had also heard stories about Wilson, even though at that time he was not employed by the intelligence services. Who told him? None other than the late head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield. In his banned memoirs, "Inside Intelligence", Cavendish says:

It was also very clear to me from the things he said that Maurice was somehow involved in the sudden departure of Harold Wilson from the premiership. In 1974 and 1975, someone in MI5 was clearly feeding Patrick Marnham of Private Eye very detailed material which seemed to have come from the "Harry Worthington" file which was kept locked in a safe in the office of the director-general. Sources in the intelligence service were also feeding to the journalist Chapman Pincher a stream of malicious gossip about Wilson, his Ministers and Labour Members of Parliament over a period of years. It is well known that one of Pincher's sources was Lord Rothschild; the identity of the others is unclear.

Other journalists, notably Mr. William Massie of Express Newspapers, were being fed from the same trough. It is still going on. As recently as February 14 this year, Mr. Massie published in the Sunday Express a 23-year-old picture that clearly came from intelligence sources under the banner headline "Labour MP and the Girl Reds". Who is doing that and why? Clearly it cannot be the work of a lone nut like Peter Wright, who has long retired. Clearly the leaks are sanctioned from a high level. Clearly those responsible do not feel in any way threatened by the furore that has surrounded the publication of Peter Wright's memoirs.

I should be grateful if the Minister would address himself specifically to the photograph in the Sunday Express on 14 February this year. Who leaked and why?

The Americans, it seems, were also well aware of the allegations being circulated about Wilson. As long ago as 1963, the head of the CIA, John McCone, reported to President Kennedy that there was concern about Harold Wilson. The source for this is McCone's staff officer Walter Elder, interviewed recently by John Ware. As early as 1963 Peter Wright and Arthur Martin of MI5 were peddling a ludicrous story that Gaitskell had been assassinated by the Russians in order to clear the way for Harold Wilson. It is surprising that no word of this came to the ears of Sir Antony Duff's inquiry, since it clearly reached many other ears.

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a continual stream of black propaganda, not only about Harold Wilson but about members of his Government, being fed by the intelligence services to tame journalists. There can scarcely be anyone in Fleet street or in Westminster who did not know where the propaganda was coming from. It is simply not credible for the Prime Minister to assert, as she did, that no one in the intelligence services was aware of a plot to discredit Harold Wilson and his Government.

In her statement of 6 May, the Prime Minister said: The then director-general"— presumably a reference to Sir Michael Hanley, Jumbo to his friends—

has categorically denied … that he confirmed the existence within the security service of a disaffected faction with extreme Right-wing views. He has further stated that he had no reason to believe that any such faction existed. I understand that in the summer of 1975 Harold Wilson called in the late head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield, and asked him about the widely rumoured plots by members of MI5 to discredit him. Oldfield said he knew of these. There was a section of MI5 which was unreliable. Sir Maurice, of course, is dead, but both Chapman Pincher and Anthony Cavendish have testified that Sir Maurice told them of this meeting with Wilson. Peter Wright says the same on page 371 of "Spycatcher". The journalist Barrie Penrose says he heard about it from Harold Wilson himself. That makes four good witnesses.

On the afternoon of 7 August 1975, Wilson is then said to have summoned Sir Michael Hanley and put to him what Oldfield had said. Wilson told the journalist Barrie Penrose that Hanley confirmed that there was a dissident group within MI5. Presumably this was a reference to Mr. Wright and his friends. Hanley is also said to have named a man in MI6 who had been part of this group. He is said to have claimed that the problem had by this time been cleared up. Chapman Pincher also says that Wilson told him about the conversation with Hanley.

Perhaps the Minister will address himself to one simple point: did such a meeting between Wilson and Hanley take place in 1975, or was it a figment of Harold Wilson's imagination? The House will note that the Prime Minister's statement was silent on this point. If such a conversation did take place, perhaps Sir Michael Hanley would care to place on record his version of it. I challenge him to do so.

Sir Michael has other questions to answer. What does he have to say about Peter Wright's account of a meeting Wright had with Hanley in the summer of 1975? According to Wright, he called on Hanley at the suggestion of Maurice Oldfield. Wright says:

When I saw Hanley the next morning he went as white as a sheet. He might have suspected that feelings against Wilson ran high in the office, but now he was learning that half of his staff were up to their necks in a plot to get rid of the Prime Minister … Ironically, his first reaction was anger with Maurice. 'Bloody Maurice', he raged. 'Poking his nose into our business.' When he calmed down he asked me for the names. I gave them. Having come so far I could not very well refuse. What is Hanley's version of this conversation that Wright says took place? Does he say that it never took place? If so, how does that square with the cryptic note that he sent to Wright shortly after Wright retired to Australia? That note says: The firm has passed its recent examinations and is doing rather well. Was that supposed to indicate that MI5 had bluffed, or lied, its way through the inquiry commissioned by Lord Callaghan in 1977? It simply is not credible for the Prime Minister to pretend that Sir Michael Hanley knew nothing.

Finally, and most outrageous of all, the Prime Minister said in her statement: the director-general has also advised me that Lord Wilson has never been the subject of a security service investigation".—[Official Report, 6 May 1987; Vol. 115, c. 724.] If that is so, how do we explain the "Henry Worthington" file—a file so sensitive that it was kept permanently in a safe in the director-general's office? The directors-general who had charge of this file were Sir Martin Furnival Jones and, later, our old friend Sir Michael Hanley. What is Sir Michael's position on this? That no such file existed? That he was unaware of the contents of his own safe?

I suspect that I can guess the answer. No doubt Sir Michael and his successor, Sir Antony Duff, would, if pressed, adopt the legalistic but incredible position that "Henry Worthington" was a subject and not a personal file and that its contents concerned not Harold Wilson but his friends. If that is so, perhaps they would care to explain the origin of the code name on the front cover and why, if it was about Harold Wilson's friends, its contents could not be filed according to normal practice in the main registry under the names of the individuals concerned.

Peter Wright said that the file had grown to four volumes by the time he retired. It had an index and minutes on the left-hand side and sheaves of source reports stapled together on the right. We do not have to rely on Peter Wright's word alone for the existence of that file. Another former member of MI5's K branch saw a volume of the file in the mid-1970s. It apparently contained material supplied by MI6 about Wilson's friends and his journeys to the Soviet Union.

I am not concerned with the contents of the file or with the fact that such a file was kept. It is a matter of record that Harold Wilson had some dubious associates, and there may well have been good reason for the Security Service to take an interest in some of their activities. I do not quarrel with that, although I note that nothing was ever proved against any of them. I am concerned that, over many years, the contents of that file and others have been systematically leaked for political purposes and that, when challenged, successive director-generals of the security services have chosen to pretend either that no such file existed or that, if it did, it did not constitute an investigation of Harold Wilson. Plainly that is a lie, and the Prime Minister, no doubt unwittingly, has been placed in the position of having to pass that lie on to the House of Commons.

10.21 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

To suggest that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was lying to the House of Commons was monstrous. If that was what the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said—

Mr. Mullin


Mr. Patten

I am relieved to hear that the hon. Gentleman did not say that.

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) had said that, I would certainly have intervened.

Mr. Patten

Very well, Mr. Speaker.

Much of the rest of the hon. Gentleman's speech was equally monstrous. In my more charitable moments, I simply reflect that the hon. Gentleman has a view of the world whereby he says, "It is all a plot." In my less charitable moments, I think other things which it is best not to bring before the House.

I would have enjoyed—

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)


Mr. Patten

I shall answer in my own way, and I am just about to do so.

I would have enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South more if he had found the time to acknowledge the difficult and sometimes dangerous task accepted by the members of the Security Service and the debt that we all owe to them for their skill, hard work and loyalty. I am happy to reaffirm Her Majesty's Government's support for and confidence in the services.

We have a number of debates ahead of us on our proposals for legislation, and I can predict, I think accurately, that the hon. Member for Sunderland, South will contribute to them. I hope that, before he raises the names of more people—all those names that came tumbling out under the cover of parliamentary privilege—perhaps smearing the reputations of the individuals who he has named, he will reflect on his behaviour before following the same course in the proceedings on the Security Service Bill.

There was nothing in what the hon. Gentleman said on these issues that invalidates in any way the statements by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Mr. Wright was cited. Mr. Wright has shown himself to be entirely unreliable as a witness to the truth. His only supporter in the Chamber was earlier this afternoon, characteristically, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). There was nothing in what the hon. Member for Sunderland, South said and there is certainly nothing that is contained in the book by Mr. David Leigh, to which he referred, that can seriously be regarded as any ground for introducing any special inquiry.

The contents of Mr. Leigh's book are not new. There is nothing in it that causes the Government to wish to modify the conclusions in the statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that there is no evidence to substantiate suggestions that members of the security services plotted against Lord Wilson when he was Prime Minister.

Mr. Aitken

The whole thesis put forward by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullen) was emphatically denied by Mr. Wright, who said on television that there was no plot consisting of 30 people; it was only himself and perhaps one other member of the Security Service. Therefore, from the lips of Mr. Peter Wright himself came the contradiction which negated the whole thrust of the argument made by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South today.

Mr. Patten

My hon. Friend has got the hon. Member for Sunderland, South with both barrels. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South believes that everything is a plot and simply makes up a whole set of unrelated issues, weaving them together into a great fabric to show that nameless persons are seeking to overthrow the stability of the state. It is a lot of unmitigated claptrap. I believe that I can prove that by going through the reporting functions which exist for the Security Service.

At the heart of the system is the principle, which I believe is well understood by most sensible Members on both sides, of ministerial responsibility. The director-general of the Security Service—whose responsibility we now propose to embody in legislation, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said today—is personally responsible to the Home Secretary for the work of the service and will remain so under the proposed legislation. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary exercises the responsibility that this entails for him with his customary care and vigour.

The Home Secretary, of course, has a very thorough knowledge of the priorities of the service. He is responsible for ensuring that it has the resources that it needs to carry out its work, and he must satisfy himself personally that those resources are used effectively. The Home Secretary is continually informed and consulted about matters concerning the management and work of the service. Those responsibilities are exercised through a regular series of meetings which can be supplemented by other meetings as required. The director-general is responsible for presenting an annual report covering the whole range of the service's activities and the report always produces a full discussion between the director-general and the Home Secretary.

Those who seek to criticise the procedures—it is that criticism which underlies so much of what the hon. Member for Sunderland, South has said—must first acknowledge that, when the Home Secretary asks the House to accept that he is satisfied that the service is proceeding properly with its difficult work in the interests of us all, he does so on the basis of a very full programme of activity and discussion between himself and the service. There is nothing new in that. It went on, of course, under the Labour Government.

I have started with the relationship between the Security Service and the Home Secretary, but that is not the whole picture. The Prime Minister is also personally involved and personally informed, because the Prime Minister remains responsible for the overall security policy to which the Security Service contributes. Under Governments of both political colours, the arrangements have traditionally recognised that the director-general may have access to the Prime Minister directly on major security issues affecting the safety of the country. Again, there are regular meetings, and the director-general knows that access to the Prime Minister is always available to him. The Prime Minister sees his annual report on the service. She, too, is consulted on the service's priorities and she must be satisfied that the work of the security and intelligence community as a whole is properly and effectively co-ordinated. She must also, of course, decide on the best use and allocation of resources among all those involved.

In discharging those responsibilities, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, other senior Secretaries of State, the Cabinet Secretary and other senior officials, as well as the heads of the security and intelligence services, are all involved. Again, no one can doubt the breadth and depth of the responsibility for the service that is shared by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South made a number of serious allegations, using—as, alas, he normally does—the cloak of parliamentary privilege to mention names. Let us pause to consider whether the evidence that he has adduced supports any general criticism of the arrangements for briefing the Prime Minister—the subject of his Adjournment debate. The House has a proper and necessary rule that questions about security matters relating to the security services are not in order, but the Government have been quick to come to the House with full statements on security matters, as I pointed out in today's debate on the Gracious Speech.

There is a full public record to which we can refer. Some hon. Members will recall that during the Anthony Blunt affair some years ago the Prime Minister gave an extremely full account, the fullest account ever, both of the background to the case and of the principles to be applied in dealing with the Security Service—

The Motion having been made at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.