HC Deb 24 April 1998 vol 310 cc1140-2
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 8, line 29, leave out from beginning to end of line 32 and insert— '"(4) Part IVA and sections 47B and 103A do not have effect in relation to categories of employment and certain employees employed in the security service, the Secret Intelligence Service or the Government Communications Headquarters, in respect of which there is in force a certificate issued by or on behalf of a Minister of the Crown certifying that employment of a description specified in the certificate, or the employment of a particular person so specified, is (or at a time specified in the certificate, was) required to be excepted from those provisions for the purpose of safeguarding national security.".'.

I suspect that, in the time available, we shall not be able to do justice either to this important amendment or to amendment No. 3, which concerns the police service. The Government would be wise to accept the amendments when they are given more attention in another place—the Minister should not believe everything that his Department is told by other Whitehall Departments about the absolute need to give the security services everything for which they ask.

The amendment would bring some security service employees in from the cold and in to the warmth and shelter of the Bill. It would cover the non-operational employees of the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and Government communications headquarters. It would not cover operational members, but I want to ensure that office cleaners or messengers, for example, in the security services, who do not deal with sensitive matters of national security, can pop up and blow the whistle—without affecting national security—on appalling waste, maladministration or a member of the service who buys a desk as expensive as that of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

When blanket official secrets coverage is given to every person working in the security services, some non-operational failures are covered up—the price of the privilege is also that the security services cannot talk about their successes. There is no reason in the world why failures of office management and resource management in the secret services should not be aired. They have survived public revelations, decades ago, that they were thoroughly penetrated by Soviet agents, and I expect the services to survive some public and semi-public whistleblowing on day-to-day, routine blundering.

It is not good enough for the secret services to argue, "It is national security; we do a terribly important job; we must have carte blanche coverage." That argument has not been accepted by the House in recent years, and I suggest to the Minister that the Department of Trade and Industry should not accept that argument now that it is being used by the Foreign Office and the Home Office to persuade the DTI that their secret service agencies and everyone in them—not just some categories of employee—should be exempt.

2.15 pm

I could say much more, but I shall curtail my remarks. I simply point out to the Minister that the Official Secrets Act 1911 already ring-fences the vital topics that are properly within the scope of national security. In 1989, to produce the latest revision of the Official Secrets Act, the House did much work on and debated at length what is and what is not, in essence, a state secret. The purpose of that work was to determine who should, and who should not, be prosecuted under the Act. I believe that we can capitalise on that work and apply it to the Bill.

The Official Secrets Act 1989 defines as secret any official information to do with security and intelligence, defence or international relations and information obtained in confidence from other states, or from international organisations. It also includes information likely to result in the commission of an offence or likely to impede the prevention or detection of offences and special investigations under statutory warrant such as interception of communications.

Those categories are widely drawn—some would say so widely drawn that they almost restore the catch-all nature of previous versions of the Act. In any case, we can confidently say that everything important to national security is protected and that the Bill does not protect anyone who breaks the Official Secrets Act because it is part of the criminal law. I argue that any revelations that are not caught by the Official Secrets Act are fit and proper to come under legislation to shelter legitimate whistleblowers.

I do not blame the Minister, because probably he was not anticipating this in Committee, but I am afraid that we did not hear an adequate explanation from the Government, in Committee, of why every person in the Security Service, the SIS and GCHQ, whether or not they were dealing with state secrets, should be protected.

I understand perfectly why those services are protected. It is usual for them to say to the Home Office and the Foreign Office, "Get us exemption from the Bill: we are the Security Service; we should be exempt," and most Departments believe it.

The Minister should tell the Cabinet Committee about today's debate and say that if there is to be any hope of the Bill passing through the other place, the Home Office and the Foreign Office must get back to the SIS, the Security Service and GCHQ and tell them, "Give us genuine reasons for exempting your whole service—or rely on the certification procedure suggested by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)."

Mr. Ian McCartney

I hope that my response to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) will be positive and proactive. We must wait and see whether it is adequate to enable him to withdraw his amendment—or to withdraw it so that he may fight another day.

The amendment is unnecessary and would have no practical effect. I am sure that hon. Members agree that national security cannot be compromised. The agencies to which clause 11 and amendment No. 2 relate deal with highly sensitive information, the disclosure of which would greatly damage national security. The Government have recognised the special position of those agencies in our proposals for a freedom of information Bill, from which they are to be excluded. Anyone who works in them could have access to sensitive information, even when that is not part of their main duties. The ethos of these agencies is secrecy, and blowing the whistle to an outsider is contrary to that ethos.

I agree that it would be unacceptable if employees of the agencies enjoyed lesser protection than other employees where there was no good reason for it. That is why one of the first steps the Government took after coming to office was to restore the right of trade union membership to employees of GCHQ, which was withdrawn by the previous Government—of which the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border was a prominent member for many years. The right hon. Gentleman was a Minister of State at the Home Office and other Departments with sensitive information.

The previous Government prosecuted and tried to gaol civil servants who blew the whistle—remember Clive Ponting and Sarah Tisdall? The previous Government tried at every opportunity to gag members of the civil service and trade unionists to prevent their putting into the public domain on occasions legitimate information. I take with a large bag of salt the case put by the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon in respect of his conversion to openness in government and the protection of employment rights in the civil service, or for those who work for the Government at various levels outside the civil service.

It is not the case that workers in the agencies will have no means of expressing legitimate concerns. They will be able to raise them under well-established internal procedures. If an intelligence agency employee believes that his or her concerns are not being adequately dealt with, they can raise the matter with the staff counsellor, who has a broad remit across the three security agencies—GCHQ, the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service—and can act quickly and effectively to resolve any concerns that may be raised. In addition, there are internal disciplinary, security and audit procedures that can be used to investigate possible illegalities and problems.

Furthermore, all Crown servants are subject to the Crown Office guidance document "Giving Evidence or Information about Suspected Crimes". Taken together, these procedures provide the type of safeguard that will encourage people in the security services to raise matters of concern in a responsible manner, consistent with the aims of the Bill. I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman if he will be kind enough to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Maclean

I am disappointed that the Minister has not satisfied me on this. I recognise some of the arguments—I used them repeatedly over the years when I was arguing measures in the Home Office. His argument will be successful today as I shall not push the amendment to a vote and risk losing an important Bill, but the answer he has given today—that the security services must be exempt from everything—will not satisfy the other place. Nevertheless, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to