HC Deb 17 January 1989 vol 145 cc292-304
Mr. Maclennan

I beg to move amendment No. 80, in page 3, line 42, leave out subsection (4).

I move this amendment in search of information as well as to make a proposal that I hope may command itself to the Government. I am not fully clear about the impact of clause 5(4), which provides that The decisions of the Tribunal and the Commissioner…shall not be subject to appeal or liable to be questioned in any court. That appears to deprive the citizen of the right of judicial review enjoyed at present and appears to be the deliberate intention of the Bill. However, the proposal may go further than that. It may deprive the citizen of the right to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights. If that is the case, that should be explicit in the Bill. If it is the Government's intention to exclude the jurisdiction of the European Commission or the Court of Human Rights, it should be so provided in the Bill. Does the Minister intend to notify the Commission of an intention to derogate from the convention in any way so as to deprive the citizen of that right which is currently being exercised by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman)?

The Minister nods his head negatively and I am, therefore, living in hope that he does not intend to exclude the jurisdiction of the Court of Human Rights, but we better have that from the Minister's own lips.

Mr. Buchan

I cannot resist following that beautiful remark which appears to describe the conduct of Ministers over the past few days. They have either been nodding their heads negatively or shaking their heads positively on issue after issue. I understand the depth of feeling experienced by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). We have received the same negative approach from the Government on every issue. I cannot understand it. We suggest a judge and the Government say, "We cannot accept anything judicial." We suggest a commissioner and they say "We cannot accept a commissioner." The sole Government intention that has emerged has been to keep MI5 inviolable. I understand the difficulties of a junior Minister, but the Home Secretary shook and nodded his head with equal positivism and negativism.

Once upon a time, Ministers received their instructions from the Box, whose occupants said, "Resist", occasionally. "Accept". and often, "Resist, but agree to consider". There is no such middle ground here; there is only resistance. Ministers' instructions are not to listen to and consider the debate or even to obtain the best decisions for the security services.

A number of proposals have been put forward, not to criticise the operation of the Security Service, but to attempt to make it even more efficient. However when we complain about the infringement of liberty—from personal experience and other factors—and when other people—including the Conservative Back Bench element who are knowledgeable about MI5—and—two hon. Gentlemen who are concerned above all about the freedom of the individual, the liberty of the state and parliamentary democracy as well as the efficiency of the service support us, the Government do not listen.

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Why in heaven's name, when we are discussing an issue which is crucial to our freedom and our liberties, has a Minister been sent to this Committee—Parliament is supposed to be the sovereign authority in this country—with one instruction—to prevent a Report stage? Are the Government afraid that if the debate continues for another week or two more evidence and more case histories will be produced? I believe that Opposition Front Bench Members made an appalling error in agreeing to a two-day timetable. If the Bill had been considered in Committee under normal procedures, there would have been hours of discussion on issue after issue and amendment after amendment. I was pleased to learn that the Bill was to be debated on the Floor of the House. I considered that it was the proper place to examine our problems. Now, because of the Government's behaviour during the two-day slot that we accepted, mistakenly or with difficulty, the Bill has been shuffled through without ever touching the conscience or the consciousness of this country. We have witnessed shocking behaviour, especially as the Bill is linked with a number of other forthcoming measures.

What does the amendment seek that the Government find so difficult to accept? After the tribunal has made a decision, someone may wish to appeal. That will not reveal any issue of security. It will merely provide a little safety for some individuals who have been caught up in such issues. Is the Minister really saying that indviduals cannot appeal to the European Court of Human Rights? Under clause 1(3) foreign elements can be investigated by MI5, but because we have brought about such an appalling regime of lack of justice, lack of appeal and lack of openness in this country, it will be impossible even to appeal abroad. If that is the case, a new tyranny will be deployed throughout all the available courts in Europe and elsewhere. The Minister is shaming the nation.

The amendment is mild and does not shame our liberties. The Bill is pulling away the last strand to which someone can appeal. For God's sake, the Minister should respond or at least allow the matter to be discussed. He should consider it instead of being afraid of a Report stage. He should send for the Home Secretary—we shall discuss the matter until he returns. At this final stage he should allow that to happen.

I am appalled by what I have seen tonight and by the way in which the Minister has treated his Back Benchers. But I am more appalled at what he is doing to the freedoms of this country. We have seen the record of MI5. Points have been raised about the errors committed by most security services when they are under a dictatorship or when they are not sufficiently controlled. No methods of control have been allowed or considered. There is no measure of appeal. No man who has been burgled can find out whether he was subject to the actions of MI5 or the Security Service. Now the Government are saying that the decisions of the tribunal established to deal with those problems cannot be investigated. We are not all absolutely correct on all issues. Let us leave a loophole through which some errors can be rectified. We appeal to the Minister to do that. If he accepts the amendment, the matter can be considered on Report and the Home Office can consider it again.

I fear that the civil servants have listened with more openness than the Ministers. Perhaps the Prime Minister can be brought to her senses if she is causing this. Above all, the Minister might come back on Report with a paper which said, "Resist, but reconsider at a later stage if forced to." It is late, but we would love that to happen.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

In so far as I understood the speech of the former leader of the Social Democratic Party, he felt that there should be an appellate procedure involving the European Court.

Mr. Maclennan

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gow

I understood the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) to say that there should be an appellate procedure involving the European Court. I believe that he was not in his place when, earlier today, my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport told the House that the Government's excellent proposals for privatising BREL will require the European Commission's consent. I regard that statement as an affront to the House, and I am against the amendment that I thought was moved by the SDP's former leader.

If anything is clear about this country's security services, it is that we do not require a right of appeal using any apparatus involving Europe.

Mr. Buchan

The hon. Gentleman makes his analysis of what he thought was said, and states that he is not in favour of any appeal involving Europe. However, the Bill concerns itself also with this country's judiciary procedure. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he is against citizens of this country having access to an appellate procedure in this country? If not, he should support the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan).

Mr. Gow

I was confining my remarks only to the idea that a European tribunal should have jurisdiction over decisions taken under the Bill's provisions. It was at that aspect that I directed my remarks.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

We are signatories to a convention that already makes us liable, should the need arise, to appearances before the European Court. Unfortunately, the Government find themselves in some difficulties in respect of that court. It has found against us on a number of occasions, and that happened also to Labour Governments. The court's existence is a fact, and it is also a fact that we are signatories to the agreement. If my hon. Friend is saying we should tear up the agreement, that is not germane to the amendments before the Committee.

Mr. Gow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity he gives me to say that I deeply deplore the fact that we are a signatory to an agreement that gives to a foreign jurisdiction the right to impose its will on the decisions of the House of Commons and to superimpose its will on United Kingdom tribunals. Because some right hon. and hon. Members still believe that the ultimate tribunal in this land ought to be the House of Lords, and because the SDP's former leader seemed to assert the legal superiority of the European Court, I wanted to make that plain in this my first, my only, and—you will be glad to know, Sir Paul—my last intervention in Committee.

Mr. John Patten

I must disappoint the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan). I can say no more than that to him.

As to the remarks of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan)—and I acknowledge the pointed intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow)—clause 5(4) does not exclude the Strasbourg bodies, so the European convention on human rights will apply. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and myself are convinced that the Bill's apparatus for helping the aggrieved citizen—the tribunal and the commissioner—will guarantee that a successful application will never go before the European Court.

I have only one other thing to say. It does not surprise me that no other hon. Member in the Chamber—apart from one member of the Social, Liberal and Democratic party—has put his name to the amendment. I read a rather cruel article about the SLD in the Financial Times yesterday, which said of its Front Bench spokesmen: Performances in the Commons have rarely been inspiring, some barely competent, and there is thinly-disguised despair among certain Democrat MPs about the ability and commitment of some of their colleagues. I know that that did not refer to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), because he has been sitting here for the last two days paying close attention to the Bill and making some important points. I must tell him, however, that the net effect of amendment No. 80 is absolutely dotty. It would undermine the security of the state. It would allow an aggrieved citizen to bring before a court of law in this country all the details that would be necessary for the judicial review process, and whether that process took place in open court or in camera, the defence—including those acting for international terrorists—would have available to them all the information that they would simply love to have.

The intention behind the amendment may have been a fine one, but its effect—as I have said—is absolutely dotty, and I urge the Committee to reject it if it is forced to a Division.

The First Deputy Chairman

The Question is, That the amendment be made—

Mr. Maclennan


The First Deputy Chairman

As many as are of that opinion say Aye, to the contrary No. I think the Noes have it—

Mr. Buchan

On a point of order, Sir Paul. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was plainly on his feet with the intention of replying. With respect, this is a Committee stage.

The First Deputy Chairman

I do not think that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was seeking to catch my eye, but if he was, wholly exceptionally, I shall reverse engines and call him.

Mr. Maclennan

I am exceedingly grateful, Sir Paul, and regret that I may not have made my intentions clear.

I listened to the Minister with interest. These matters are at present subject to review in the courts. If it has been alleged that the security services have burgled or bungled their way into the homes of private citizens, they can appear before the courts. The suggestion that that should still be the case does not seem to me as dotty as the Minister has suggested, and to seek—as I did at the beginning of my remarks—an assurance that the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights would not be excluded by the clause is to introduce a matter of considerable importance.

I am bound to say that, in the light of some of the Minister's earlier assurances, given no authority at all, I find it difficult even to accept his assertion that the plain language of the Bill does not mean what it says—which is that any court may not consider these matters, and that the issues shall not be subject to appeal or liable to be questioned in any court. By what rubric of construction is the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg not "any court" within the meaning of the Bill? What provision of what statute makes this not apply to that court? I ask the Minister to address that question, and unless he does I feel bound to divide the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 66, Noes 139.

Division No. 37][1.14 am
Abbott, Ms Diane Buchan, Norman
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Aitken, Jonathan Cryer, Bob
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Darling, Alistair
Beith, A. J. Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I)
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Dewar, Donald
Bray, Dr Jeremy Dixon, Don
Doran, Frank McLeish, Henry
Douglas, Dick Maclennan, Robert
Dunnachie, Jimmy McTaggart, Bob
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Eadie, Alexander Maxton, John
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E) Meale, Alan
Foster, Derek Michael, Alun
Foulkes, George Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Fyfe, Maria Mowlam, Marjorie
Galbraith, Sam Nellist, Dave
George, Bruce Pike, Peter L.
Godman, Dr Norman A. Robertson, George
Golding, Mrs Llin Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Sheerman, Barry
Haynes, Frank Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Home Robertson, John Skinner, Dennis
Hood, Jimmy Spearing, Nigel
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Steel, Rt Hon David
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Ingram, Adam Wilson, Brian
Kennedy, Charles Winnick, David
McAllion, John Wise, Mrs Audrey
McAvoy, Thomas Wray, Jimmy
Macdonald, Calum A.
McFall, John Tellers for the Ayes:
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West) Mr. Archy Kirkwood and
McKelvey, William Mr. Malcolm Bruce.
Arbuthnot, James Heddle, John
Boswell, Tim Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Hill, James
Bowis, John Hind, Kenneth
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Holt, Richard
Burns, Simon Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Carrington, Matthew Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Cash, William Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Chapman, Sydney Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Chope, Christopher Hunter, Andrew
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Jack, Michael
Cope, Rt Hon John Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Cran, James Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Currie, Mrs Edwina King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Knapman, Roger
Devlin, Tim Lang, Ian
Dicks, Terry Latham, Michael
Dorrell, Stephen Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Lightbown, David
Dover, Den Lilley, Peter
Durant, Tony Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Favell, Tony Lord, Michael
Fenner, Dame Peggy Maclean, David
Fishburn, John Dudley McLoughlin, Patrick
Forman, Nigel Malins, Humfrey
Forth, Eric Mans, Keith
Franks, Cecil Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Freeman, Roger Meyer, Sir Anthony
French, Douglas Mills, Iain
Fry, Peter Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Gale, Roger Monro, Sir Hector
Garel-Jones, Tristan Morris, M (N'hampton S)
Gill, Christopher Moss, Malcolm
Goodhart, Sir Philip Neubert, Michael
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Nicholls, Patrick
Gow, Ian Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Gregory, Conal Norris, Steve
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Oppenheim, Phillip
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Page, Richard
Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom) Paice, James
Hanley, Jeremy Patten, John (Oxford W)
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr') Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Porter, David (Waveney)
Harris, David Portillo, Michael
Hayes, Jerry Powell, William (Corby)
Hayward, Robert Price, Sir David
Heathcoat-Amory, David Raffan, Keith
Redwood, John Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Tracey, Richard
Roe, Mrs Marion Trotter, Neville
Ryder, Richard Twinn, Dr Ian
Sayeed, Jonathan Waddington, Rt Hon David
Shaw, David (Dover) Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Warren, Kenneth
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW) Watts, John
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Wells, Bowen
Speed, Keith Wheeler, John
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Whitney, Ray
Squire, Robin Widdecombe, Ann
Stanbrook, Ivor Wilkinson, John
Stern, Michael Wilshire, David
Stevens, Lewis Wood, Timothy
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood) Yeo, Tim
Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Sumberg, David Tellers for the Noes:
Summerson, Hugo Mr. Michael Fallon and
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Mr. Tom Sackville.
Taylor, John M (Solihull)

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Aitken

I beg to move amendment No. 92, in page 3, line 44, at end add— '(5) Complaints from serving or former members of the Security Service may at the request of the complainant be dealt with informally by the Staff Counsellor of the Security Service. (6)The Staff Counsellor shall be appointed by the Prime Minister. (7) The Staff Counsellor shall be available to be consulted by any member or former member of the Security Service who has complaints or anxieties relating to the work of his or her past or present service. (8) The Staff Counsellor shall have access to all relevant documents and to any level of management in the Security Service. He will also have access to the Secretary of the Cabinet, the Secretary of State and to the Prime Minister. (9) The Staff Counsellor shall be available to give. guidance to members or former members of the Security Service who are seeking authorisation to publish information about their past or present service. (10) The Staff Counsellor shall make an annual report on his activities and on the working of the system to the Prime Minister. (11) The Prime Minister shall lay before each House of Parliament a copy of each annual report made by the Staff Counsellor under subsection (10) above together with a statement as to whether any matter has been excluded from that copy in pursuance of subsection (12) below. (12) If it appears to the Prime Minister, after consultation with the Staff Counsellor, that the publication of any matter in a report would be prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions of the Service, the Prime Minister may exclude that matter from the copy of the report as laid before each House of Parliament. (13) The Secretary of State may after consultation with the Staff Counsellor and with the approval of the Treasury as to numbers provide the Staff Counsellor with such staff as the Secretary of State thinks necessary for the discharge of his functions.'. I realise that the House is fibrillating at the prospect of three hours of Scottish business as soon as possible, so I shall not detain it unduly. However, the amendment is important and has a particular significance to our proceedings. Those hon. Members who have managed to endure this marathon will have noticed that the Government have had a wild determination at all costs not to give way to any amendment because, for some mysterious reason, they oppose a Report stage. No matter how bad the drafting and no matter how deep the hole they have got themselves into, they have not dreamed of accepting an amendment.

Here at last, however, I believe that I have managed to draft an amendment from which it will be impossible even for my hon. Friend the Minister of State—the great Houdini in this debate—to escape. My amendment has only two ingredients—the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and a promise given to the House by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. With those two elements, the amendment is almost inescapable and I wait with interest to see how Houdini can escape from it, as I know that he will endeavour to do.

The amendment seeks to write into the Bill the position, role and duties of the staff counsellor of the security services. A staff counsellor was, until recently, an unknown animal in the world of security, but was created in 1987 as a direct result of the activities of Mr. Michael Bettaney, of blessed memory, whose activities have already been discussed and whose treachery and subsequent story have been relayed already to the House.

What emerged from the Security Commission's report on the Bettaney case is that throughout the Security Service many officers had been deeply anxious about the conduct of Michael Bettaney, his possible treachery and his instability. I treasure the memory of the report by the Security Commission on a Mrs. X, an employee of the Security Service, who was cloaked in suitable anonymity. She had gone to a party with Mr. Michael Bettaney and a woman friend and Mr. Michael Bettaney had, in the course of the party, drunk two bottles of neat whisky, set fire to himself and announced that he would much rather be working for the Russians. Despite that, back at the office the following morning Mrs. X felt unable to tell anybody about this dimension of Bettaney's instability, insecurity and unworthiness to be a member of the Security Service because there was no one to tell. After a great deal of internal criticism and soul-searching, the Security Service said, "We really need to have someone to whom the troops can talk in confidence about their grievances, worries and fears about their desire to see a more efficient and effective Security Service."

Another incident confirmed the need for a staff counsellor of the Security Service. A distinguished committee investigated the case of Sir Roger Hollis. Rightly or wrongly, it concluded that the "preponderance of probability"—a good bureaucratic phrase—was that Sir Roger Hollis was a Soviet agent, but its members could not then tell anybody. They eventually found someone to tell because Mr. Stephen DeMowbray had a cousin at No. 10 Downing street. He was somewhat surprised when the doorbell rang, but asked for an appointment for Mr. DeMowbray, who managed to get in to see the Cabinet Secretary by that circuitous route to tell him that the head of MI5 was, in the view of a number of his colleagues, a Soviet agent.

1.30 am

The fact that the routes of communication were so unsatisfactory led even the Government—who, as we know, believe in the total efficiency and wizardry of the solo monitoring of the Security Service by the Home Secretary—to decide that it was time to do something. The appointment of the staff counsellor was announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 2 November 1987 in a written answer which described his functions and terms of reference. The words of the Prime Minister are encapsulated, more or less verbatim, in the amendment, which would write into the Bill the terms and conditions of the staff counsellor as announced by the Prime Minister. Some of us do not necessarily approve of government by written answer. If the staff counsellor is to play a pivotal role, let us not rely on a written answer given in 1987. If we are to restructure the legal basis of the Security Service, let us write into the Bill the appointment of the staff counsellor, because he fulfils an important role.

I have added one further function to the functions of the staff counsellor—a development that dates from 21 December, when the Official Secrets Bill had its Second Reading. I have forgotten which statesman said that he had caught the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes. [HON. MEMBERS: "Disraeli."] In that case, I have donned the mantle of Disraeli. I have caught my hon. Friend the Minister of State buying votes, walked away with his promise and sought to put it into the Bill.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery), who is unavoidably detained, travelling in the southern hemisphere, has authorised me to say that he supports my amendment. He expressed considerable concern about the impossibility even of innocuous and patriotic memoirs and comments by former members of the Security Service ever being authorised. In a very good speech on 21 December, my right hon. Friend argued that some members of the Security Service might from time to time wish to express their views on policy matters—while not revealing any operational secrets—and that there was no system of authorisation to allow for that. Even Mr. Anthony Cavendish, who dug up only innocuous old remains, received the message "Please delete eight chapters" when he sent his Christmas card in for authorisation.

Closer to home, one recalls that on the day when the BBC was to put out the first of an admirable but basically boring and anodyne series of programmes on the security services called "My Country, right or wrong" the Attorney-General rushed to the Dispatch Box, hurled out writs like confetti and banned the programme because some members of the Security Service had commented on it. When the dust settled—when the writs had stopped flowing and somebody had finally listened to the programmes and read the transcripts—not one sentence or comma was deleted. Several weeks later it transpired that the only comments made by the former members of the Security Service had been in the most responsible areas—suggesting, for example, views on whether it was desirable to have oversight which could not deserve a ban.

Clearly, there are situations in which, despite all the talk about absolute bans and life-long confidentiality, former members of the Security Service can make comments and express views that have no bearing on national security, which do not in any way jeopardise secrets, but which are just comments on policy. Therefore, it is desirable to have some means of authorisation.

In the debate on official secrets my right hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion pressed for a system whereby, if a former member of the Security Service were dissatisfied and found himself unreasonably blocked from saying anything and forced into the role of a Trappist monk, he would have somewhere to turn. My right hon. Friend said, "I am not prepared to vote for this Bill unless I can get an assurance on this subject." I suspect that my hon. Friend the Minister of State flew off on an excitable unpinioned wing to buy off my right hon. Friend's vote because he did not want a well-known patriotic Privy Councillor such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion to vote against the Government on official secrets legislation.

The Minister quickly cobbled together a formula to buy back the vote of my right hon. Friend. He did so with the following words: My right hen. Friend then asked where a member of the service would turn if he still felt dissatisfied. He will turn to the staff counsellor. At present our distinguished staff counsellor is Sir Philip Woodfield. That is a matter of public knowledge. This applies not just to present members but to former members of the services. If a member or former member is seeking to use publication to report anxieties that he or she may have about his or her work or former work, or if he or she is concerned about the reasons for a refusal of publication, he or she can go to the staff counsellor".—[Official Report, 21 December 1988; Vol. 144, c. 538.] In this vital area of free speech for former Security Service officials, the staff counsellor was suddenly shot into the role of arbiter, adviser, man of guidance and the man who would steer the former Security Service official wishing to publish his memoirs or say his piece on the radio on to the strait and narrow path of authorised disclosure. Subsection (9) of my amendment therefore simply adds to the staff counsellor's role the words: shall be available to give guidance to members or former members of the Security Service who are seeking authorisation to publish information about their past or present service. My right hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion has asked me to say that he strongly approves and supports that part of the amendment.

I think that I have made out my case, using the Prime Minister's words taken straight from a written answer, and the promise made by the Minister of State. The amendment is perfectly tailored to fit the Bill. It is an ideal amendment to the Bill. How will Houdini escape? Watch this space, Sir Paul.

Mr. Cryer

We should not allow this matter to pass without comment. I know that there is pressure of business, but this is an important measure and the Bill and amendments have been debated without wasting any time. During our debates important issues have been raised. I thought that the Minister proposed to remain immobile and would not answer the points that have been raised, so I should like to raise one or two more points so that he can give a reasoned reply. However, I have no doubt that the Minister will refuse to accept the amendment.

If we consider the work that spies undertake, we must recognise that they are under great pressure. They have to lie to people, often to their own families, and deceive other people in their close circles. Naturally, they will not want to do that. They cannot disclose by whom they are employed. They must say, "I am employed by Box 500", which would be a less than satisfactory explanation, or they must dream up a more conventional excuse. That naturally leaves them in a closed world in which their only understanding and relationship is with people who can share their secrets. Because of the nature of their occupation, they cannot chatter to friends and acquaintances, as most ordinary mortals can, about difficulties at work. The staff counsellor can, therefore, perform a useful function.

In addition, as the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) said, there is the question of writing memoirs as a means of divulging information. The staff counsellor will be able to point to a few useful alternatives. In the past, when the Government wanted to publish information about the spies, they did not allow the spies to write directly, but told them to get in touch with Chapman Pincher of theDaily Express, who would publish it as being from non-attributable sources, which is what they did with Peter Wright. The Government became hot and bothered about Peter Wright's revelations, but we should bear in mind that one of Peter Wright's grumbles was that Chapman Pincher did not do a very good job in ghosting his memoirs and did not include all the information. Those were memoirs that were approved by officers of the Government.

When the Government said that there was a life-time obligation of secrecy, that was not quite accurate. They were prepared to allow some information to dribble out as long as it did not appear to have the absolute authenticity of a real full-time working spy but just came from a hack. The staff counsellor will be able to give advice as to who to contact at the Daily Express and the ghosting cost for providing information on "My life as a spy". He will be able to take the heat off the difficult circumstances in which people, who, after all, are ordinary human beings following a somewhat extraordinary occupation, can find themselves.

The amendment contains a bit more parliamentary accountability. It takes one's breath away that people can sit on the Treasury Bench and talk about there being a parliamentary democracy, which these spies are working to protect, but in the next breath they can take away the essence of that accountability in a parliamentary democracy. Yet subsection (11) of the amendment provides The Prime Minister shall lay before each House of Parliament a copy of each annual report made by the Staff Counsellor", with the qualification that, if there is anything that prejudices the network, the information or the position, it can be deleted by the Prime Minister. It will assure people in this difficult occupation that the staff counsellor is doing his job. The spies, too, will be doing theirs without encountering any difficulty. The staff counsellor will have the information about pensions at his finger tips if a new Peter Wright comes along and says, "Look, my pension will be rotten; I need another earner. Can you give me some guidance?" He will be able to produce new figures for pensions. As everybody knows, that is the basis on which Mr. Wright wrote his book, and that is something which he reiterates again and again in the book.

An annual report by the staff counsellor laid before Parliament would be a bit more pressure to provide time in this House. As the Minister said in an earlier debate, it is not just a question of curiosity. This Parliament is the most important Chamber in the country. We all face elections, we are all accountable, and it is not just a question of vicarious enjoyment in some sort of Bond escapism.

We are talking about a serious section of Government work. Therefore, we should have the opportunity to have: debates on that work. I believe that subsection (11) provides that opportunity.

I hope—I do not have faith that it will happen—that the Minister will accept the amendment and, if there are deficiencies in its drafting, will suggest that it be moved in another place.

1.45 am
Mr. John Patten

As they used to say in the old days when the great escapologist broke free, "With one bound he was free."

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) used the excellent words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which he reported accurately. He also reported words when I replied to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) and I thought that they sounded rather good. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South has introduced the themes in his amendment, but he has not demonstrated the vital missing ingredient of need and, therefore, why the amendment is necessary. Hence my ability to escape, Houdini-like, from the dialectical trap of the well-honed words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and myself into which he attempted to encompass me.

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the appointment of the staff counsellor to a surprised House on 2 November 1987 she made his functions clear. I refer hon. Members to column 512 of the Official Report for that day, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South has already referred.

The system is in place and is working well. It does not need any legislation to underpin it. I understand that the staff are well aware of the staff counsellor's existence and of the arrangements for consulting him, which are simple and direct.

On 21 December, during Second Reading of the Official Secrets Bill—to to which my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South referred—I made clear the sort of circumstances in which the staff counsellor might be approached by a member of the security and intelligence services regarding a member's wish to publish information about his experiences in the services. That system had never been spelt out so fully before and I have nothing to add to what I then said.

I see no need for my hon. Friend's proposal to extend into statute law the life of an official who is successfully carrying out his role as staff counsellor.

Mr. Maclennan

The Minister said, as he might have said before the Bill was introduced, that the system is working well and that there is no need to put it on to a statutory basis. We do not think that the system is working well and certain admissions from Ministers during our deliberations tonight confirm our view. For that reason we want the system set on a statutory basis.

The reality is that what a Minister concedes under pressure from his Benches one day he can withdraw on another day. The statutory provision, along the lines outlined in the amendment, would provide a degree of permanence to an arrangement that, by its nature, is transitory. There is a need for permanency, at least until Parliament can think of a better way in which to provide for anxious members of the Security Service.

When the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) returns from the nether regions or from the Antipodes, I doubt whether he will be satisfied with what the Minister has said. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman will want to consider his stance on the Official Secrets Bill carefully once he has read this debate. The Minister has advanced no argument of substance against a statutory basis. Once again he has shown the Government's unwillingness to accept any amendment, however sound and however much support it enjoys.

Mr. Aitken

As they say in American show business, "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings." In this case she is played by Sir Philip Woodfield, the Security Service staff counsellor. We are solemnly told that there is no point in writing his role and functions into the Bill because there is no need to. Everything is working perfectly well. I do not know how much detail we have about Sir Philip's activities, or about how many members of the service have been to see him, or about what his functions have been. We shall have to take it on trust that everything is going perfectly.

But one part of the amendment cannot possibly be said to be working well or to be unnecessary. Here I return to the promise made by my hon. Friend the Minister to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery). How can there be no need for subsection (9), which writes into statute the promise my hon. Friend gave on 21 December? It was given only three weeks ago; there has not been a surge of people going to the staff counsellor asking for their memoirs to be authorised. I do not suppose those authors have all read the small print of Hansard closely. It cannot be true that there is no need for this to be written into the Bill. First, the staff counsellor's role needs to be put on a permanent basis, rather than depending on a written answer. Secondly, if only to get my right hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion to vote again on the Official Secrets Bill, there is a need to write the memoir and communication assisting parts into the Bill.

We have reached the comic opera finale: not one amendment will be accepted under any circumstances by the Government. There is a funny side to that, but a sad side, too, and on that note I close.

Amendment negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Cryer

Does the Minister intend to bring the clause into operation at the same time as the rest of the Bill, or does he intend to delay it, using his powers under clause 7?

Mr. John Patten

This subject will be discussed during consideration of the next amendment. But I can say now that we do not yet know the final shape of the Bill. This matter will require the usual consideration after we know that, which will enable us to make full use of the commencement provision.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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