HC Deb 21 October 1999 vol 336 cc587-99 1.14 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Mitrokhin archive and other related issues.

On 13 September, when the House was in recess, I issued a written statement concerning the activities of the KGB and its agents which had been brought to light by the Mitrokhin archive. A copy of the statement has been placed in the Library of the House.

The archive material relates to activities spanning several decades, from 1917 up to the mid-1980s. A book by Mr. Mitrokhin and Professor Christopher Andrew drawing on the archive was published in September, prompting extensive media coverage. That in turn raised questions about how the archive had been used.

In the light of those questions, I announced on 13 September, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, that the Intelligence and Security Committee had been asked to conduct an inquiry into the policies and procedures used by the intelligence and security agencies in the handling of the Mitrokhin material. I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), the chairman of the committee, and his colleagues for taking on that important work.

My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I will carefully consider the committee's report and ensure that as much as possible of it is made public. It may, however, be helpful to the House if I set out today some of the essential background.

Vasili Mitrokhin worked for almost 30 years in the foreign intelligence archive of the KGB where, at great risk to himself, he made notes of the contents of the highly secret files that passed through his hands. Over many years, he thus assembled a huge collection of material, some in manuscript and some typed.

In 1992, after Mr. Mitrokhin had approached the UK for help, our Secret Intelligence Service made arrangements to bring Mr. Mitrokhin and his family to this country, together with his archive. As there were no original KGB documents or copies of original documents, the material itself was of no direct evidential value, but it was of huge value for intelligence and investigative purposes.

Thousands of leads from Mr. Mitrokhin's material have been followed up worldwide. As a result, our intelligence and security agencies, in co-operation with allied Governments, have been able to put a stop to many security threats. Many unsolved investigations have been closed; many earlier suspicions confirmed; and some names and reputations have been cleared. Our intelligence and security agencies have assessed the value of Mr. Mitrokhin's material worldwide as immense.

Much of the media coverage in September concerned Mrs. Melita Norwood. My statement of 13 September summarised the history of the Security Service's knowledge of Mrs. Norwood spanning half a century, and the decisions that were taken in her case. The handling of her case will plainly form part of the inquiry that is now under way by the Intelligence and Security Committee. For the convenience of the House, however, I shall briefly summarise what I spelled out in September.

Mrs. Norwood was first vetted for access to Government secrets in 1945, when she worked for the British Non-Ferrous Metal Research Association. Although there were concerns about her in 1945, there were insufficient grounds at that time to warrant withholding her clearance for access to sensitive documents. Further investigation, however, led to her vetting clearance being revoked in 1951. She had not in practice had authorised access to Government secrets after 1949.

An extensive investigation of Mrs. Norwood in the 1960s led the Security Service to conclude that Mrs. Norwood had been a spy in the 1940s, but the service also concluded that there was no usable evidence that could be used in court to support a prosecution against her.

When Mr. Mitrokhin's notes of the KGB archive material became available to British intelligence in 1992, those notes further confirmed the suspicions already held about Mrs. Norwood's role as a spy. However, the Security Service again concluded that that material did not on its own constitute evidence that could be put to a UK court. Moreover, a judgment was made at that time that the material needed to remain secret for a period. There were many leads to more recent espionage to be followed up, particularly in the countries of a number of our close allies, which could have been jeopardised by premature disclosure. In summary, the key decisions in the Norwood case were made in 1945, 1951, 1966 and 1992–93.

The House will be aware that questions on prosecutions for espionage, as for any other alleged crime, are a matter for the prosecuting authorities and the Law Officers, not for the Home Secretary of the day.

As I made clear in my 13 September statement, the papers relating to Mrs. Norwood were submitted to the Attorney-General in the spring of this year, but he concluded that 1992 had represented the last opportunity for the authorities to proceed by way of a criminal investigation and possible prosecution, and that there was therefore no decision for him to take. I can, however, tell the House that, in the light of Mrs. Norwood's recent statements, the papers in this case are currently being studied again by the prosecuting authorities. I understand that four other cases, covering the Mitrokhin archive and related matters, are also being considered.

Let me now turn to the decision which was taken to make publicly available information from the Mitrokhin archive. Although the material has been in the custody of the Secret Intelligence Service since 1992, it was and remains the property of Mr. Mitrokhin. It was always his intention that the material should be published, but Mr. Mitrokhin agreed to co-operate with the major operation by our security and intelligence agencies, which I have outlined, to use the information first for investigative purposes.

I understand that, by 1996, investigations in the UK and elsewhere had reached a stage where it was possible to agree to start the process to meet Mr. Mitrokhin's wish to see the story revealed. Given the nature of his notes, it was concluded that this could best be done through an historical analysis.

In March 1996, the right hon. Sir Malcolm Rifkind QC, the then Foreign Secretary, agreed in principle that Professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge university should be invited to co-author, with Mr. Mitrokhin, an historical study of those aspects of the archive which cover KGB activities against the principal western states. I understand that Sir Malcolm agreed with the recommendation that an interdepartmental committee of officials should consider whether any of the information in the material needed to be withheld from publication. I also understand that Sir Malcolm imposed a condition that any allegations of criminal behaviour against individual persons should not be made public unless those individuals agreed or they had been prosecuted and convicted.

The Government were informed in late 1997 of the plan to publish the archive, and concurred. In 1998, the Secret Intelligence Service entered into confidentiality agreements with Professor Andrew and the publishers, Penguin. These were intended to ensure that still sensitive material was not published.

In the interests of national security, the Security Service has, over the years, carried out many investigations into allegations of espionage, based on intelligence which it has acquired. But allegations, or even good intelligence, are not proof of criminal activity. They are instead the basis for investigative work designed to prevent further damage to the interests of the country. They may in turn help in the end unearth evidence solid enough to put before a court.

The publication of news articles and television programmes about the Mitrokhin archive and the East German Stasi records has led some people to ask that the Government should publish a list of all those against whom allegations of spying and complicity with the KGB and the Stasi have been made. There are, however, compelling arguments against doing so which have been accepted by successive Governments.

First, it would be wrong to compromise the effectiveness of the intelligence and security agencies by revealing the cases on which they may be working. Above and beyond that consideration, it is a long-established rule of law that people are innocent until convicted in a court of law. We must not slide into trial by denunciation.

The Mitrokhin archive has raised some important issues which we are pursuing through the inquiry by the ISC, and we wait for its report to see what lessons can be learned. That must not obscure the important value of Mr. Mitrokhin's work to this country and to our allies. His archive is a unique testimony to a brave individual who worked alone against tyranny. It is also a reminder, if one were needed, of the continuing value of the work of our security and intelligence services.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I thank the Home Secretary, both for that statement and for his customary courtesy in letting me have an early sight of his remarks. However, I hope that he will kick the habit of revealing the full facts to the House only when the press and media have obliged him to do so.

Did the Home Secretary first know of the allegations against Melita Norwood in December 1998? If so, was he made aware of them in the context of likely publication? If he knew that those facts were to become public, why did he then not decide to inform Parliament rather than waiting for the press to do so? At what stage did he first inform the Prime Minister of what he knew about Melita Norwood? When he was told about Melita Norwood in December 1998, did he then ask whether there would be other revelations? If not, why not? If he did, was any indication given to him then of revelations against any other persons, including Dr. Pearson and Mr. Symonds?

The Home Secretary referred to the condition imposed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind. He said that Sir Malcolm imposed a condition that any allegations of criminal behaviour against individual persons should not be made public unless those individuals agreed"— which I would have thought was rather unlikely— or they had been prosecuted and convicted. In view of that condition, how does that square with what happened? Without going into details, can he tell me as a matter of fact whether the civil servant codenamed Hunt has been identified and, if so, what action is being considered, has been considered or has been ruled out?

We welcome the decision for the prosecuting authorities to look again at the case for prosecution in the light of the recent admissions, but can the Home Secretary explain how the decision not to prosecute, so far, squares with the decision to prosecute Shayler? What is the comparable basis? Can he confirm that age was not a factor in deciding whether to prosecute Mrs. Norwood, as that would stack up rather oddly with his decisions in the case of General Pinochet? Can he also confirm that one of those being considered for prosecution is Dr. Pearson? Is he aware of the serious allegation made by Dr. Gosling that he was drugged and robbed in Warsaw in the late 1970s at an academic conference apparently as a direct result of the activities of Dr. Pearson? Those are extremely serious allegations and I should be grateful for the Home Secretary's observations on them.

Although we also welcome the reference to an inquiry into the activities of the security services, will the Home Secretary now acknowledge that there was one activity that it got absolutely right—the decision to put the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament under surveillance? Among the revelations there are established links between CND and the Stasi. In that context, given the links between CND and members of the Government, will he reassure the House that no currently serving Minister had any contact with any of the persons named in the Mitrokhin archive?

Mr. Straw

When this matter first became public, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), in a commentary in the newspapers, demanded that we publish all the names of any more traitors living, like this one, without being prosecuted. She then said that we should be told the reasons why they had not been brought to justice unless there were clear security reasons for not doing so. What the right hon. Lady was seeking was for us to adopt a practice that would be wholly improper and which successive Governments have refused to follow: the denunciation of people against whom allegations had been made, without evidence being put before a court of law, and for their conviction to follow.

All the key decisions concerning the prosecution of people in relation to material in the Mitrokhin archive—key decisions concerning whether Mrs. Norwood should be prosecuted—were made under the right hon. Lady's Administration, not under this one. I am not privy to the decisions and considerations that they made, except that Sir Malcolm Rifkind authorised me to disclose that, in 1996, he agreed with the recommendation that that material should be placed in the public domain by way of a book co-authored by Mr. Mitrokhin and Professor Christopher Andrew; that he agreed that an interdepartmental committee of officials should consider whether any of the material should be withheld from publication; and, above all, that he personally had imposed a condition that any allegations of criminal behaviour against individuals should not be made public unless those individuals agreed—I agree with the right hon. Lady that that is an unlikely prospect, but that was the condition that her right hon. and learned Friend imposed—or they had been prosecuted and convicted.

That is the appropriate way to proceed in this matter, as in any other. On individual questions about prosecution, I have already made clear what the right hon. Lady knows anyway: that decisions about the prosecution of any individual are not a matter for the Home Secretary of the day; they are a matter for the Law Officers and prosecuting authorities.

One important issue that arose in respect of the Mitrokhin case, particularly concerning Mrs. Norwood, was the fact that the decision not to prosecute Mrs. Norwood in 1992–93 was made within the Security Service, and the papers never went to the Law Officers. I believe that an important issue is raised there and I am certain that the right hon. Member for Bridgwater and his colleagues will want to follow that up in detail.

Mr. Hunt was identified by the Security Service. Investigations showed that he had no access to classified information and could not damage Britain's interest. If the right hon. Lady now asks me why he is not being considered for prosecution, the answer is simple: he is dead.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

May I say, on behalf of my committee, that we welcome the invitation from the Prime Minister to carry out this inquiry? It is no secret that the committee would have wanted to carry out the inquiry anyway, with or without the invitation, because of the security and intelligence implications.

This is, however, a new approach to the handling of a security inquiry of this kind, made possible by the existence of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The committee believes that it is appropriate for it to accept this direct request from the Government to conduct such an inquiry, but it would also be proper to make clear to the House and the Government, as I have already sought to do to the Home Secretary, the basis on which the committee feels able to conduct this inquiry.

We shall look for the fullest co-operation from the Government, Ministers, Departments, agencies, members of previous Governments and the predecessor officials. We shall look for prompt responses to the requests that we shall make. In particular, we shall require access to all relevant papers that the committee may need, recognising that, in respect of this inquiry, it will be particularly germane to see advice to Ministers if the committee is to be able to make objective judgments on this matter.

We take note of the announcement that the possibility of prosecuting Mrs. Norwood is being considered, as are four other cases. That was not known to the committee when the original request was made. The committee has not had a chance to discuss that matter, and we shall need to consider its implications for our inquiry.

We welcome this invitation, and shall submit our report the Prime Minister. He will lay it before the House in the usual way, subject to any necessary deletions, after consultation, for national security reasons.

Mr. Straw

We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Intelligence and Security Committee for agreeing to undertake this work. I appreciate that, if his committee had not been asked by me, with the Prime Minister's agreement, to undertake this inquiry, it would have properly decided of its own volition to do so. That is why the Intelligence and Security Committee was established. I welcome its work and the fact that it strengthens the role that Ministers exercise in holding the agencies properly to account.

The right hon. Gentleman said that he hopes that this and previous Administrations will co-operate fully with the work of the committee. I can give him that undertaking in respect of this Administration, but he will appreciate that undertakings from the previous Administration are a matter for the former Prime Minister, his right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major).

The right hon. Gentleman will know that we are doing our best to ensure that there is a prompt response to the understandably long list of questions that the committee has already posed to my Department, the Foreign Office and the agencies.

The right hon. Gentleman gave me notice of his intention to raise the issue of access to all relevant papers. He will be aware that until now the usual arrangement for evidence to be given to his committee is by way of memorandum of evidence rather than by access to original papers. However, I take his point, particularly in relation to advice to Ministers. I am sympathetic to his view, and I am discussing the matter with my relevant right hon. Friends. I hope to provide a positive response to the committee as soon as possible.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. I also pay tribute to the security services and to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and his colleagues on the committee.

There is widespread revulsion about people in this country who spied either for the East German Stasi or for the Soviet Union's communists. However, I hope that the Home Secretary agrees with me that that does not mean that this country should have a policy of prosecuting all who spied, regardless of how long ago it happened, of the seriousness of what they did or of the public interest in whether a prosecution should go ahead. I shall therefore ask him not about individuals but about the more important issue of how decisions were made, as opposed to what those decisions were.

First, will the Home Secretary confirm that it is not right for decisions to prosecute to be taken either by officers of the security services or by Ministers of the day alone, acting on their own judgment? Does he accept that they should be made by someone who is independent of the security services and of government, and who can enjoy the confidence of the services, the Government, Parliament and the public?

Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the test must always be whether a prosecution is likely to succeed and whether it is in the public interest now—rather than in the past—for a prosecution to go ahead?

Thirdly, given the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs in June about the processes of Parliament, will the Government undertake to consider seriously making the security services' relationship with Parliament as democratically accountable as possible? They have a relationship with the Prime Minister and the Government: the Prime Minister appoints the committee. I think that the mood of the country is that they should come under the normal scrutiny of Parliament, as far as that is possible, by a Select Committee reporting to the House.

Finally, does the Home Secretary not agree that the current system is quaint, old-fashioned, clearly out of date and in need of reform? Three years ago, whatever his good intentions may have been, the Foreign Secretary of the day was able to decide that the first person to be entrusted with important information about espionage over several decades should be a Cambridge academic. Speaking as a Cambridge graduate, I might say that the history of Cambridge and spying made that even more incongruous. In any event, the first person to be entrusted with that information was a Cambridge academic, not Ministers, Government, Parliament or, indeed, the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister of the day.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said in general terms, and I congratulate him on his elevation to the post of Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about decisions on whether or not to prosecute. As I have explained a number of times today, and will continue to explain, those are matters for the Law Officers rather than for Ministers, including the Home Secretary of the day. When the Solicitor-General, the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions—whose status is independent in this context—make decisions about prosecution, they follow the criteria laid down in the CPS code, which takes into account above all the evidence as to whether a prosecution is likely to succeed, but also takes into account other relevant material and questions, including the question of the public interest.

In this country, there is no age bar on prosecution per se. The House will recall that not long ago someone who had allegedly committed crimes during the war was subject to a prosecution, although by the time he was prosecuted he was at an advanced age.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the democratic accountability of the security and intelligence agencies. It has been suggested from time to time, in the House and elsewhere, that those agencies should be subject to a Select Committee, rather than to the Intelligence and Security Committee—which, by the way, was established by the House of Commons and the other place under an Act of Parliament. I am openminded about the arguments, but I feel—perhaps we should debate the issue in due course—that we should take the advice of those who have the important job of ensuring the accountability of the agencies on behalf of Parliament, namely members of the ISC. When the original proposals were made, there was no oversight committee of any kind. Let me add that I find it difficult to work out how, in practice, a Select Committee could operate any differently from the way in which the ISC is operating. [HON. MEMBERS: "It would be appointed by the House."] Let us be clear about this. Members of the ISC are appointed in exactly the same way as members of Select Committees: they are appointed as a result of discussions between the forces of darkness in the usual channels.

The hon. Gentleman ended by suggesting that it was quaint and old-fashioned that the first people who knew about the activities of Mitrokhin knew about them as a result of the publication of a volume co-authored by Mr. Mitrokhin and Professor Andrew. I make no reference to whether Professor Andrew is an academic.

Let me say two things. First, this is an issue on which the House, as well as Ministers, will wish to hear the considered judgment of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and I am certainly not going to prejudge its conclusions. Secondly, as I said in my statement, it should be borne in mind that the Mitrokhin archives are the property of Mr. Mitrokhin. The idea that has been floating around that somehow Ministers, or the agencies, could of their own volition have made their own decisions about whether the material should have surfaced, and about the form in which it should have surfaced, is wholly unreal.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald raised a question with me. I apologise to her for the fact that I did not answer it at the time. She asked why, given the condition that Sir Malcolm Rifkind had imposed on the non-publication of names where people had not been the subject of prosecution and conviction, the name none the less came out. My understanding—it will be the subject, I hope, of consideration by the ISC—is that the publishers were not going to name Mrs. Norwood either until she had given what amounted to a confession statement to the BBC and to other reporters. It was only at that stage that her name was made public.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I answer the Home Secretary's question by saying that a parliamentary Select Committee has all the protection of parliamentary privilege, which the ISC does not have?

As a member of that committee, may I say that we all take our duties very seriously? We want the inquiry to work. Committee members must have access to all the papers that we believe are relevant to our inquiry. My right hon. Friend said that he would "look sympathetically" at the question that was asked by the chairman of the committee, but we need a bit more than that. We need a guarantee that we will have access to every document that we believe is necessary for the inquiry's success.

Mr. Straw

I thank my hon. Friend for seeking to answer the question that was raised. As I have said, I am openminded on the question of a Select Committee, but I return to the point: what practical difference would it make, given the specific nature of the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which by definition inquires not into matters that are in the public domain but into matters that necessarily have to remain secret?

On my hon. Friend's question about access to all papers, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater spoke of all relevant papers. That is the key phrase that we will look at. My hon. Friend will be aware that the arrangements are that the committee itself does not have direct access to some operational files, but that there is an investigator to work on behalf of the committee, if it so wishes—access can be granted in that way.

As I understand it, the principal concern of committee members is that they should have access to the advice to Ministers and to relevant material in that area. I have already said that I fully understand the case that my hon. Friend makes. I hope to give a positive answer as soon as possible. I am also fully aware that, if I fail to give an answer that is satisfactory to committee members, they will make their dissatisfaction known publicly.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

Will the Home Secretary please try to clarify several unclear matters in relation to the question of prosecution, or possible prosecution, of Mrs. Melita Norwood? He will recall that the book describes Mrs. Norwood as the most important KGB spy ever and alleges that she passed on very valuable atomic secrets at a highly sensitive time. On 13 September, he said in his statement that the Security Service were then currently considering whether to recommend the prosecution of Mrs. Norwood"— that was in December 1998. Was any detailed evaluation of the case for prosecution carried out; if so, by whom, who took decisions on the matter, and when and what were they?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

What was the right hon. and learned Gentleman doing in 1992?

Mr. Straw

As I made clear in my statement on 13 September and have made clear again today, the principal decision not to proceed to prosecute Mrs. Norwood was made in 1992–93. I can answer the sotto voce question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). The answer is that the papers never went to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the former Attorney-General, because the decision not to prosecute was made within the Security Service. As I said, that raises important questions about who should or should not make decisions on prosecution in such cases.

I look forward to the advice and conclusions of the Intelligence and Security Committee on that matter, for which there is no hard and fast rule. In some cases, there is no evidence to put before anyone, so that it would simply be a waste of time to attempt to bring a prosecution. However, in cases such as this one, the ISC may well conclude that, when such great suspicions have been held over many years, decisions should be made by the Law Officers and the prosecuting authorities, not by officials within the Security Service—who have great skills in one sphere, but are not the ones who should make the final decision on such cases.

As for what followed in 1998, I merely refer the former Attorney-General to the next paragraph of my statement of 13 September 1999, which states that the Attorney-General had decided that, on the basis of the evidence that was then before him, 1992 represented the last opportunity for the authorities to proceed by way of a criminal investigation/possible prosecution". In spring 1999, the Attorney-General therefore concluded that there was no decision for him to make.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Does the Home Secretary agree that a person is not necessarily guilty of something simply because his or her name appears in a handwritten document? In recent months, has not particularly The Sunday Times attempted to use the issue in a general smear against perfectly innocent Labour politicians and advisers? Is it not about time we heard the names of some Conservatives who—in the past 20, 30 or 40 years—happened to meet Soviet diplomats?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that simply because a Soviet diplomat or agent chooses to write a report that is sent to Moscow and includes the name of a perfectly innocent person, that person is not necessarily a KGB agent? Is it not time we stopped the witch hunting by the shadow Home Secretary, who is trying to use the issue in a general attack on all those who fought for democracy and freedom in central and eastern Europe and opposed the tyranny of Stalinism?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which is whether we go in for trial by denunciation.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mr. Straw

The right hon. Gentleman scoffs. However, in September, the shadow Home Secretary proposed that I should come to the House and reveal all the names of those who were traitors living freely who had not been prosecuted—not those who had been prosecuted—unless there were clear security reasons for not doing so. To do that would be wholly improper, and would amount to conviction by denunciation. Moreover, I tell the shadow Home Secretary—who has made a great virtue of the fact that she would never say anything in the House that she would not say outside it—that if anyone, from the Home Secretary downwards, were to go outside the House and utter a list of those who were to be denounced as traitors without any evidence to convict them in a court of law, he or she would be subject to huge damages for defamation in our courts, and quite rightly so.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

May I endorse, on behalf of Liberal Democrat Members, something that the Home Secretary said in his statement—that Mr. Mitrokhin was a very courageous man, who, over many years, did what he did because he was increasingly disgusted by what, from his unique vantage point, he saw going on in that evil regime? That fact should not be forgotten in these discussions. Does the Home Secretary also recognise that, were the ISC a Select Committee, it would have to be given the same additional power that the committee has explicitly asked him for—namely, of seeing advice to Ministers, which is central to the matter of what Ministers knew and when they knew it?

Mr. Straw

I entirely endorse what the right hon. Gentleman says about Mr. Mitrokhin's courage. It required huge courage to do what he did. I do not doubt that a great many other people working in the KGB during that long period were pretty disgusted with the work that they were asked to engage in, but very few of them had the courage and tenacity to work, as Mr. Mitrokhin did, to record a huge amount of what was passing across his desk and then to make himself known to intelligence agents in Moscow and have himself and his family brought out at considerable risk. I pay tribute again to his courage and acknowledge the benefits that the whole of the west has received as a result of his disclosures.

As I told the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, I fully understand the point about advice to Ministers and have great sympathy with it. I hope to give the committee an answer that is satisfactory to it as soon as possible. I am sure that if I give the committee an unsatisfactory answer we shall hear all about it.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

The Intelligence and Security Committee—on which I serve—will be breaking new ground by taking on the investigation, as will Parliament. As I understand it, such issues of national security have normally been dealt with by the security commissioners, who have met in secret from time to time and have been able to have all papers in front of them so that they can see everything that has taken place and report whatever is relevant. Without access to all the relevant papers, I do not know how Parliament or my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary can ask our committee to do justice to such an inquiry.

Mr. Straw

Of course I understand that point. Were we to offer a paraphrase and memorandum of advice to Ministers rather than the plain text, questions would inevitably be raised about what we had to hide. I am sure that the same applies to Ministers in the previous Administration. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have nothing to hide. The gravamen of the memorandums has already been made public. However, I understand my hon. Friend's point and I shall do my best to ensure that there is a positive response to the committee.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Is there not a slight contradiction in the Home Secretary paying tribute to the courage and tenacity of Mr. Mitrokhin in one breath and his hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) then saying that Mr. Mitrokhin's mere handwritten notes of what he saw in the files are not to be believed? Will the Home Secretary join me in acknowledging not only the bravery of Mr. Mitrokhin, but the resourcefulness of the Secret Intelligence Service in having recognised the value of what he was offering and having safely removed it and him from the Soviet Union?

Does the Home Secretary accept that handwritten notes are not the only factor in deciding whether the lady spy should be prosecuted, because she was mentioned in the Venona intercepts in telegram 1413 from Moscow to London on 16 September 1945? Will he answer the point put to him by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary: is it not clear that at least one senior elected member of the national council of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Professor Vic Allen, was a Stasi agent? His name has been widely published and he has not resorted to the libel action that he would have undertaken were he innocent.

Is there not a danger that the Government will seem to have a special interest in covering up issues of subversion in CND, given that 133 Labour Members of Parliament were members of parliamentary Labour CND at its height, including the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary?

Finally, does the Home Secretary now acknowledge that MI5 was right to keep an eye on CND in the 1980s, because at least one Stasi spy was operating within it? Was not the only failure of MI5 that it did not spot him when everybody knew that Vic Allen was a Stalinist?

Mr. Straw

There is no contradiction in information being contained in the Mitrokhin archive which may assert one thing and a decision then being made not to prosecute. The Mitrokhin archive contains a summary—in some cases a complete, if secondary, account—of what was in the archives that may or may not have been accurate, and that must be assessed.

It is well known that, in some cases, KGB agents and informers were more concerned with justifying their expense accounts than with providing accurate information. Such works of fiction could not in any sense form the basis of a prosecution, still less a denunciation.

Of course I applaud the resourcefulness of the Secret Intelligence Service. Without that resourcefulness—and without the courage of the SIS and its agents—the Mitrokhin archive would not have been made public.

I was asked about the alleged naming of Mrs. Norwood in the Venona book, published earlier this year under the pseudonym Nigel West—better known to this House as Rupert Allason, the former Member of Parliament for Torbay. As a result of information in that book, and in another called "The Haunted Wood"—both of which had fairly small sales, I believe—BBC researchers, working alongside those who were putting together what became the Mitrokhin archive book, worked out who Mrs. Norwood was.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) referred to CND. I am not privy, by definition, to the decisions made by previous Administrations—Labour and Conservative—in respect of work covering subversion by the security services. However, I understand that it was never the practice of the security services to study a trade union or an organisation. Their concern was to study people who they believed represented a threat to national security, whether or not they were in particular organisations.

As for Mr. Vic Allen, I am astonished that people are now getting excited about him. I happened to be at Leeds university at the same time as Mr. Vic Allen, who was, I believe, a lecturer. It was obvious beyond peradventure that he was an apologist for the East German regime and all its works, and we did not need the Stasi to tell us that 30 years later.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) knows about spying because he spied on the Labour party in the 1970s during the Reg Prentice affair.

As far as Mrs. Norwood is concerned, would not the most appropriate punishment for her—since she has reiterated her commitment to communism—be to invite her to live in one of the four remaining communist countries so that she could see the wonders of the system on whose behalf she was willing to spy against her own country and our democracy?

Should not we be very careful indeed about certain names, bearing in mind the fact that only four years ago Michael Foot was described as a Soviet spy? Michael Foot has been a lifelong anti-communist and resigned from Tribune when it went through a brief period of fellow travelling just before the second world war. So ludicrous was the claim against him that the matter was settled out of court and he received, as I understand it, substantial damages. Is not that a lesson, showing that while we should certainly expose genuine spies—whether they spied for Nazi Germany or for the Soviet Union—we should be very careful indeed not to have a witch hunt against people such as Michael Foot who have exposed communism and its tyranny at every opportunity?

Mr. Straw

I entirely agree. The shadow Home Secretary wrote a piece in the Sunday Express on 25 July, headlined "MPs' privilege not a coward's charter". We would all agree with that. It is crucial that we should not abuse our privilege to make unsubstantiated allegations against individuals, against which they can have no redress in court. I am glad that the allegations against Michael Foot were made outside the House and were the subject of a successful action for defamation. Whether the allegations come from the left or the right, resorting to smears—unsubstantiated allegations against individuals—simply demeans our political debate.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

The Home Secretary referred to the positive vetting of Mrs. Norwood in the late 1940s when she worked for the British Non-Ferrous Metal Research Association. As someone who used to work for the Chemical Industries Association—whose initials are peculiarly appropriate in this context—I am confused, because I think he said that the security services positively vet only people whom they suspect. He seems to be shaking his head, which makes it even more interesting. Can he please assure me that nobody who works for a trade association now is routinely positively vetted? If such people are vetted, to which categories of trade associations and to which level of staff does that apply?

Mr. Straw

It has been a practice of long standing that people who have access to Government secrets, whether they work within Government or in the private sector, are subject to positive vetting. As someone with experience of positive vetting under the previous Government, I can tell the hon. Lady that it is not a process of which the subject is unaware. Quite rightly, the person concerned is interviewed thoroughly.

Mrs. Norwood was first vetted in 1945 because she was working for the British Non-Ferrous Metal Research Association which, despite its rather prosaic title and its cover as a trade association, was at the time undertaking secret work for the then Government's department of scientific and industrial research. For her to have any access to the secrets on which she would be working she had first to be positively vetted. Even in 1945, the Security Service, which had information relating to her that went back some years before that, raised doubts about her communist associations. It was very concerned about those associations, but further investigation by the service and the police together did not substantiate the doubts and she was given clearance for access to sensitive documents.

As I have already reminded the House, Mrs. Norwood did not in practice have further access from 1949—although it is accepted that a good deal of damage was done before that—and her clearance was withdrawn in 1951.