§ Motion made, and Question proposed, that this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]10.27 pm
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
I wish to draw the attention of the House to ministerial responsibility for disinformation about Members issued by civil servants with official authority and to urge the House to look at the constitutional issues of ministerial responsibility and the rights of Parliament which are raised by a number of cases of alleged disinformation against Members.
I shall not deal with the dismissal of Colin Wallace, which is a matter for the Calcutt inquiry, or with some of the other associated issues, such as the Kincora boys home or security policy in Northern Ireland. The issue I am raising is not a party matter. What has happened has been a problem under all Governments, and my concern goes back to 1978, when I tabled a motion for the Labour party on the conduct of the security services while still a Secretary of State. The Members about whom disinformation has been spread come from all parties, and I have notified all those Members to whom I might refer.
We must accept that tonight we are considering a House of Commons matter. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces has no departmental responsibility for the issues that I am raising, so he is in some difficulty. I have written a note to him saying that I do not expect a reply from him tonight. I ask only that he ensures that my remarks are considered by his colleagues.
I shall start with what the House already knows. I assure hon. Members that there will be no new revelations from me. Our task is to link what we know and to understand its importance. Disinformation has been authorised and used in the past and, to that extent, what Cohn Wallace and Peter Wright have said has been confirmed. I refer to the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence on 1 February:There were practices of using disinformation to malign organisations and individuals." —[Official Report, 1 February 1990; Vol. 166, c. 455.]The right hon. Gentleman admitted that, and also said that the Army was entitled to use disinformation. There is no argument about that.
Secondly, it has also been established that the Prime Minister, by writing letters, has made it clear that she could not discover the truth from the security services for which she is uniquely responsible to the House of Commons.
Thirdly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), who was severally Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and then Home Secretary, in one or two moving and impressive interventions, made it clear that he did not know what was happening when he was responsible, under a previous Government, in either capacity.
We know that the allegations by Wallace have, in the past, been denied and that the reaction to the allegations by Peter Wright was not to have them investigated but, at great public expense, to try to have them banned so that the British public could not read them. The Cabinet Secretary was sent to Australia with the rather unfortunate task of having to explain to the court that he was using the truth economically.
862 It is worth considering the basis of and the reasons for the allegations made by the security services. I am not, for the moment, concerned with whether they did so with or without ministerial authority. The real constitutional importance of what they did is that they made their own decision about which individuals and which organisations were the enemy. They decided who the enemy was and then took action to deal with that enemy, whereas in every other aspect of defence policy—and the security services are a part of our defence organisation—the House decides who is the enemy.
The Chief of Staff does not announce that he is going to war with someone because he has decided who that enemy might be. The policy of the security services should be determined by Parliament, not by Ministers without telling Parliament—if that is what they did—or by people lower down the line. We also know that false and damaging allegations were fabricated and distributed about those whom the security services, or Ministers—if they knew—regarded as the enemy.
I shall now cite some examples, and deal first with Colin Wallace. The Minister and I have received 39 pages of forgeries. Indeed, I sent the Speaker a similar package. They were issued on the admission of Colin Wallace, and a large number of Members of Parliament were named in them. I shall mention some to show the legitimate interest of those Members. Harold Wilson, no longer in this House, was described as vulnerable on financial, moral and political grounds; the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) on moral and political grounds; Jim Callaghan, then an hon. Member, on financial grounds; the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. I. Paisley) on financial and moral grounds; the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) on moral grounds; myself on political grounds; my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) on political grounds.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South was to discover a forgery asserting that he was supporting the IRA. My right hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), and for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) and I were alleged to have written a pamphlet about world revolution—not something that could have been written by anyone who understood some of the interesting ideological discussions that go on in the party of which I am proud to be a member. But one of the characteristics of the intelligence service is its very low level of knowledge.
I remember once being refused permission by one of my civil servants to visit the Socialist International—a very distinguished body, including Willy Brandt, Francois Mitterrand and so on—because he had muddled it up with the International Socialists, an indication of the enormously low intellectual level of the intelligence service. I myself am associated, according to Colin Wallace in his earlier work, with Czech intelligence.
It is only fair to say about Colin Wallace himself—I quote from Paul Foot's book—that in 1975, 1 think, he saw a man from MI5. 1 quote Colin Wallace as quoted in Paul Foot's book:I told him I didn't want to go any further with Clockwork Orange"—the disinformation campaign—without political clearance. He seemed surprised and suggested that I already had clearance. But I made it clear I wanted some proof that the whole programme had been seen and approved by a minister. Of course I was pretty certain 863 that [the man] couldn't get ministerial clearance for Clockwork Orange. I was pretty sure that no minister had a clue that Clockwork Orange even existed. But I knew I couldn't go on doing it, and I wanted to get on with other things.That is at least a comment by a man of some integrity who wishes not to be used by anybody to blacken the reputation of hon. Members.
We come to Peter Wright—and we must never forget that he is still on the agenda, never discussed by the House. I quote from page 369 of his hook Spycatcher where he wrote about the year 1974, at about the same time that this was happening:The plan was simple. In the run-up to the election which, given the level of instability in Parliament, must be due within a matter of months, 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 around…'We'll have him out' said one of [the MI5 people], 'this time we'll have him out.' Shortly afterwards Wilson resigned. As we always used to say in the office 'Politicians may come and go, but the security service goes onThen we have the case of Cathy Massiter—and I have notified the right hon. Gentleman who was Secretary of State for Defence at the time. She worked in MI5. She alleged that she was told to intercept the telephone calls at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and she felt that that was wrong. Hon. Members, some of whom. including myself, are members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—the former Labour leader, the present Labour leader—would feel that for the security services—or, in this case, as far as I can make out, the Secretary of State—to determine that CND, for example, was an enemy and could be treated like any other foreign enemy or terrorist, was well beyond what the House could accept.
Clive Ponting and Sarah Tisdall, who suffered imprisonment, were principled civil servants who were not prepared to do what they were asked to do.
Ministers' response to all this has been to tighten security. We now have new legislation which speaks of a lifelong obligation of confidentiality to the Crown. Who is the Crown? Did the Queen tell Peter Wright to destabilise Harold Wilson? No. Did Harold Wilson, the Queen's first Minister, tell Peter Wright to destabilise him? No. The Crown is a constitutional fiction, a state within a state, concreted in the heart of Government, surrounded with barbed wire, which has its own policies, its own enemies, and its own methods of dealing with them, and which is to be protected for ever.
I said that this was not a party matter, and it is not. Look at what Harold Wilson said about the security services. I shall quote from the shortest chapter of his book "The Government of Britain"—a chapter that is 210 words long:The Prime Minister has the ultimate responsibility for the National Security Authority at home and abroad…The Prime Minister is occasionally questioned on matters arising out of his responsibilities. His answers may be regarded as uniformly uninformative.
That is the view that Harold Wilson took as Prime Minister, and the problem has been faced with all Prime Ministers.
How did the present Prime Minister react to questions of security that arose when Callaghan was Prime Minister and she was Leader of the Opposition? I remembered the occasion very well, and I looked it up. On 28 July 1977, there were rumours going round that Harold Wilson had 864 been telling the press that he thought that he had been bugged at No. 10. So what did the Leader of the Opposition do? At 1.30 pm, after the all-night debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, she rose and said to Mr. Godman Irvine, who was in the Chair:May I seek your guidance? Has any request been received from the Government to make a statement on the matters which have previously been raised concerning allegations made against the security services? We think it vital that such a statement should be made before the Summer Recess, for the confidence and morale of the security services".The very Prime Minister who will not make a statement demanded a statement when she was Leader of the Opposition. She went on to say something which, I must admit, is more consistent:It would appear that there may, on the face of it, be some infringements of the Official Secrets Act"—[Official Report, 28 July 1977; Vol. 936, c. 1372–3.] —and that the Attorney-General should make a statement.She wanted Wilson to be prosecuted for saying what had happened to him when he was Prime Minister.
We should contrast all this with the American system. There are parallels. If the House will bear with me. I shall quote Senator Mondale, who later became Vice-President and who was a member of the Church committee at the time of Watergate. In a lecture at Kansas City law school in 1976, he said:Our investigation showed that many of the abuses of the Nixon years could be traced back to the attitudes of the Cold War. Fastened on us was the fearful myth that America could not be defended without more deceit and illegality than democracy permits—and without more cynicism and hypocrisy than our beliefs would allow. For years, the assumption was used to justify actions abroad—from subversion of freely elected governments, to assassination attempts aimed at foreign leaders. And inevitably, in Macbeth's words, the invention returned home 'to plague the inventor'.Remember: those are not the words of a left-wing critic of the British MI5.
Mondale went on—this is perhaps more relevant still—Perhaps the most terrifying abuse of power during this period was what the FBI called Cointelpro. That ugly little acronym would have been at home in any police state in Eastern Europe or Latin America. It meant illegal investigations targeted against American law abiding individuals in groups—and punishment administered not by a court but by a government agency—through harassment and tactics designed to break up marriages, destroy reputations, terminate employment, sabotage political campaigns and even encourage violent retribution by falsely and anonymously labelling intended victims as Government informers.
There are lessons to be learned from the way in which the United States has handled this question. When I think that Colonel Oliver North was brought to the Congress and investigated and that ex-President Reagan has now received a subpoena to appear before a court and to have his papers examined at the trial of Admiral Poindexter, and when I contrast that with the charges made by Wallace, Wright and others, I do not think that we come out well.
The House itself must inquire into this matter, either by the privilege route or in some other way. I know that you, Mr. Speaker, are examining the matter and that therefore it is not for me to put a point to you at this stage. However, I want to examine privilege as a route open to the House.
First, when an hon. Member is elected Speaker of this House, he goes to another place and, by humble petition to Her Majesty, asks for all the
865 "ancient and undoubted rights and privileges of the Commons."
Erskine May says:any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any member or officer of such House in the discharge of his duty, or which has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results, may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence.
The Bill of Rights, which we celebrated 18 months ago, says, in its first provision:the pretended Power of Suspending of Laws or the Execution of Laws by Regall Authoritie without Consent of Parlyament is illegall".What could have been a greater suspension of rights than suspension of the right and obligation to tell the truth and to tell Parliament about matters that concerned it? One might look also at Sessional Orders and so on, but I will not go into that.
But I will make one comparison with this case. On 29 June 1938, Duncan Sandys complained that the War Office, as it then was, or the Army, had summoned him to give evidence at a court of inquiry. He raised the matter in the House on that date, and immediately the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, moved the motion to refer it to the Committee of Privileges. The Committee met that very afternoon under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. Mr. Attlee was there, as was Mr. Churchill. The Committee met the next day also, and on that following day—the 30th—it reported that a breach of privilege had occurred. The report was published a day after that. Contrast that with what has happened now. We do not have to look across the Atlantic for precedents, for we are being invited to betray our own duty to our electors.
The other way to look into the matter is by Select Committee, but that could be done only by decision of the House, with all-party support. I have argued that this is not a matter that, in the normal sense, lies across party lines, and there is no reason why the House should not for a moment remember that it is a legislative body and not just a gathering of parties clashing about current politics. There are some issues—and this is one of them—in respect of which the legislature has a duty to rise against an Executive that will not allow Members to know what it has done in their name. If we had such a Select Committee or, for that matter, a Privileges Committee, we should want evidence from Wallace and Taylor and Broderick and Wright. We should want to have former Prime Ministers and other Ministers before us so that we might find out what they knew and what they had authorised.
There is another group we should need—the journalists who had been briefed by these men. It should not be forgotten that every bit of disinformation required a journalist to pick it up and distribute it. In the last few days, I have talked to journalists who recall very clearly what Colin Wallace says he did: called them in, told them a bit of truth, and mixed it with malicious gossip, in the hope that they would use it. If their proprietors were so inclined, they had a juicy bit to add to the political prejudice against those they wished to harm. All those against whom the disinformation was circulated should be allowed to come forward.
What we must establish quite clearly is that Ministers are in charge and are answerable; that security policy—that is, who is the enemy—is decided by Parliament, and 866 not by officials; that the security services are there to protect us, and not to control us; that it is the truth, and not lies, that defends democracy—a consideration that we cannot ignore.
The central question facing us today is this: are the Government and their servants answerable to the House of Commons or not—not on the detailed operations, but on the basic principles on which they work? Can the electors, through their Members of Parliament, gain protection from arbitrary acts of state power? Do the elaborate safeguards that Parliament has won for itself from the Crown mean anything at all in Mr. Speaker's plea for privilege? Do the Sessional Orders mean anything, or are they rituals to mislead school children and amuse the tourists?
I say that having been brought up for 40 years to believe in this place. But when we try to test it, it does not actually work. That is what we have got to decide. When the people in eastern Europe and South Africa are struggling for democracy against state power, is our answer to them that Parliament is going to do another cover-up? Is that to be a model for their aspirations?
I cannot recall so basic a constitutional choice as the one that faces the House. I hope that we do not let down the people who elected us to this place to defend their rights.
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) on getting the Adjournment debate and raising this important matter. He has raised a number of serious allegations about the conduct of civil servants, members of the security and intelligence services and others, suggesting that they have been, or may have been, involved in the dissemination of false information about Members of Parliament and, indeed, other elected representatives.
I should like to make it quite clear at the outset that it is no part of the official duties of any Crown servant to disseminate false information about Members of Parliament in order to denigrate them in any way. This Government and, I am sure, previous Governments, as well as Members of both sides of the House, would regard any such action as unacceptable. I believe that it is clearly understood by all Government servants who are well aware of the conduct expected of them. Anyone found to have breached such codes of conduct would face severe disciplinary action and, in appropriate cases, criminal charges.
Let me draw yet again the distinction already clearly drawn. It is clear that there was in the early 1970s some disinformation which sought to denigrate the Provisional IRA by the use of disinformation in a way that would not now be allowed. The Government judge that no useful purpose would be served by an inquiry now into those matters, given that they took place many years ago, under previous Administrations, in a policy framework long since changed, and amid all the operational stresses of the early and peak years of a very difficult emergency. The Government fully accept, however, that disinformation aimed at Ministers or former Ministers would be a different and special matter. But that matter was dealt with
867 by the Prime Minister's 1987 statement; and no new evidence of any substance has emerged since then to put that statement in question.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I will not give way. I have a number of points to cover. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield talked at great length.
In the exchanges after the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last Thursday, a number of hon. Members indicated that they had documents or other information to support allegations of serious wrongdoing by Government servants. If they consider that they have evidence that demonstrates that Government servants have issued disinformation about. Members of Parliament, I urge them to let me see it. At present, I am aware of no substantive evidence to support allegations of that nature. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that he has fresh evidence that documents of this kind did indeed come from Government sources, he had better send it to me to be looked at on its merits.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), whose experience and integrity we all respect, though I have to say to him that I am puzzled by his apparent readiness to assume that the forged 1971 letter, thanking him for a non-existent donation, must have come from a Government source. If he has evidence for that assumption, I hope that he will make it available forthwith. No trace of such a letter has been found in departmental records.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield mentioned Mr. Taylor. I am aware of recent newspaper reports that Mr. Taylor would be willing to give evidence in support of allegations that Government servants issued disinformation against Members of Parliament. If Mr. Taylor believes that he has evidence of serious wrongdoing of the kind now in question by Government servants, he had better make it available direct to my Department, as his former employer. But I note that in Mr. Paul Foot's book he is quoted as saying that the contents of the Clockwork Orange file had always been removed before he inspected it. I also note that one of the documents which he is now quoting as claiming to have seen is a letter which the right 868 hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) has said was dated 1971. Seeing a copy of such document is one thing; having evidence that the document was produced in Headquarters Northern Ireland is another. In any case the date on that letter is some three years earlier than the date on which Mr. Wallace has said that he began work in Headquarters Northern Ireland on material designed to denigrate Members of Parliament.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Mr. Broderick, who is reported in Sunday's newspapers to have said that he never saw anything about Clockwork Orange. What he is now reported as knowing relates entirely to the circumstances in which Mr. Wallace left the employment of the Ministry of Defence, and that is a matter bearing upon the inquiry by Mr. Calcutt.
Mr. Wallace has claimed that he was involved in the preparation of a campaign designed to discredit Members of Parliament while he was working for the Army information service in 1974, and that his activities were part of a project called Clockwork Orange. He has stated that initially this was planned as an exercise to undermine the credibility of the Provisional IRA by exposing the personal vulnerabilities of its leaders. The papers that have recently been retrieved confirm that a plan of that name was considered at that time, but never cleared. I must emphasise that that plan related to the Provisional IRA and, most definitely, not to any Members of Parliament.
I should perhaps say a general word about disinformation. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence explained to the House last Thursday, there are times when the use of disinformation is necessary for sound security reasons. He gave a personal example. He might also have mentioned the necessity of misleading terrorists to prevent them from committing yet another atrocity.
I see no grounds for denying ourselves that option, and I make no apology to anyone for expressing the view that it is legitimate to attempt, by prudent and proper use of disinformation, to prevent terrorists from murdering and maiming. Indeed, I would hope that, in the context of attempts to prevent terrorist murders—
§ The motion having been made after 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 three minutes to Eleven o'clock.