HL Deb 23 March 1961 vol 229 cc1251-5

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, I think it may be for the convenience of the House if I repeat a statement which has been made by the Prime Minister in another place. These are his words:

"With permission I will now make a statement about the recent case of espionage in the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment at Portland.

"This case obviously raises two questions. First, whether security procedures were properly applied. Secondly, whether those security procedures are the best that can be devised and applied in practice.

"Immediately after the arrests on the 7th of January, security experts made a thorough investigation into the working of the security system at that Establishment. As the Lord Chief Justice said: Ultimate security depends and must depend on the honesty of those who are put in a position of trust, and if a person suddenly and for gain becomes dishonest, no security measures can prevent it and its prevention becomes a matter of great difficulty. "All Admiralty Establishments have been directed to review immediately the operation of security systems in their Establishments.

"My noble friend the First Lord of the Admiralty will set up a Committee of Inquiry, to be presided over by an independent person of high standing, to ascertain what security weaknesses existed at the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment and to determine where responsibility lies for such breaches of security as occurred, in order that the First Lord may then consider the disciplinary aspects of the whole matter.

"As regards the second question, whether the existing security procedures which apply to the Government Services generally are satisfactory, these were comprehensively reviewed by a Committee of Privy Counsellors in 1956. Parliament accepted these procedures as appropriate and adequate for their purposes. They are kept continually under review by the appropriate authorities.

"I think I should add, in view of statements that have been made, that while it is clearly not in the public interest to reveal the amount of the damage done, there is no evidence to suggest that the information compromised covered more than a relatively limited sector of the whole field of British naval weapons. There is no ground to suppose that any information belonging to the United States of America or other N.A.T.O. countries was compromised. There is no possibility of information connected with nuclear research and development, or information concerning nuclear weapons or nuclear propulsion having been betrayed by these spies."

4.14 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful for this statement, and I am sure the whole House will be comforted by the last part of it, to the effect that relatively little damage has been done. However, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he is really satisfied that all steps are now being taken to prevent the occurrence of such a thing. I observe that he is setting up a Committee to investigate the situation at the Admiralty. But if the noble Lord had been asked three months ago whether such a Committee was necessary, I am sure he would have answered in the negative: he would have referred to the Committee of Privy Counsellors which reported in 1956 and would have given the answer that all steps were being taken to carry out the recommendations made by that Committee. That is what he is saying about the other Departments. I suggest that the Government think again as to the need for a thorough review of the security arrangements over the whole of our Defence organisations, and not confine it merely to the Admiralty simply because the trouble has arisen there. I think this event has disclosed weaknesses generally, and I would respectfully suggest—this is not a Party matter—that, this having arisen, it is time for a review of our security arrangements in all our Defence departments.


My Lords, I share with the noble Lord opposite concern about this case. I think there are two issues. The first is whether or not the security measures which we have at Portland and elsewhere were complied with properly—and that is the purpose of the inquiry which I am setting up.


One of the purposes.


Yes; that is one of the purposes. Secondly, there is the question of whether or not the security measures which we have altogether are adequate. As I have said, there was this Committee of Privy Coun-sellors in 1956; this subject was discussed in Parliament, and it was agreed at that time that those measures were adequate. The purpose of security procedures is to reduce the sort of danger we are talking about as much as possible, but we can never achieve certainty. What we have to try to do, I think, is to hold the balance between the needs of national security and the needs of the freedom of the individual in this society from a perpetual surveillance. I think I the balance at the present time is about right, and that the security procedure is both practical and fair. But, as the noble Lord knows, this matter is the responsibility of the Prime Minister, who has made the statement in another place. I will bring what the noble Lord has said to my right honourable friend's attention, and I have no doubt that he will consider it.


My Lords, it is difficult to discuss these matters in public, and the more one has had to do with them the more one realises that; but there are just two points I should like to put to my noble friend in the way of a question. First of all, should we not congratulate those who were concerned in investigating this matter on the very remarkable success they have achieved in what must have been one of the most difficult inquiries it was possible to conduct, and in which if there had been the fraction of a leak at any moment, the whole investigation would have failed? The other is this. As my noble friend knows, it was invaluable to us in the war that all the Departments which were concerned with these matters, both within the Services and outside of them, were in the closest possible contact and were under one broad—not executive, but directional control. Would my noble friend not agree that it is vital that that should happen, so that there is no possible leak; and would he give us an assurance that that aspect will be closely followed up?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, and I will most certainly draw my right honourable friend's attention to what he has said in his last supplementary. As regards his first supplementary, I think: it is a perfectly fair point, and we should congratulate those who were concerned in catching the spies. And perhaps it might be fair to point out that not only did we catch those who were actually spying in this case, but we caught the organisers.


My Lords, perhaps I might ask one question of the noble Lord. While fully accepting that it is virtually impossible to impose complete security if the country's business is to be carried on—anyone connected with intelligence or security will admit that—the country will want to know how it came about that one individual, who has been convicted, to whom any ordinary employer in civilian life would hesitate to give a job, was enabled to be taken into work in which he had these opportunities.


My Lords, if your Lordships will agree, I do not want at the moment to say anything about the individuals in this case, because I understand there is still time for appeal. But what the noble Lord has said is one of the purposes of the inquiry I have set up.


My Lords, may I ask the First Lord, with great respect, whether we can now get on with the very important debate that we are in the middle of?


My Lords, this also is important.