HL Deb 14 November 1962 vol 244 cc629-53

3.47 p.m.

VISCOUNT HAILSHAM rose to move to resolve, That it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, viz., the circumstances in which offences under the Official Secrets Acts were committed by William John Christopher Vassall, and in particular:

  1. (1) The allegations made that the presence of another spy inside the Admiralty was known to the First Lord and his Service chiefs after the Portland case eighteen months ago;
  2. (2) any other allegations which have been or may be brought to their attention, reflecting similarly on the honour and integrity of persons who, as Ministers, naval officers and civil servants, were concerned in the case;
  3. (3) any breaches of security arrangements which took place; and
  4. (4) any neglect of duty by persons directly or indirectly responsible for Vassall's employment and conduct, and for his being treated as suitable for employment on secret work.

The noble Viscount said

My Lords, I now rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. Your Lordships will, I think, have observed that the terms of reference contained in this Motion are apt to cover both the original terms of reference submitted to the three civil servants and certain other matters with which I will deal in more detail in due course. My Lords, in view of these terms of reference the House will wish to know—and I think probably at an early stage in my remarks will wish to know—the proposed composition of the Tribunal. This is not an easy matter, as there are now two broad types of question which are closely interlocked. The original subject-matter of the inquiry for the three civil servants is, at least in my judgment, and perhaps in that of the House, just as important as it ever was, but it cannot now be separated from the more sensational matter, which personally I regret but which has since supervened through, I think, no fault of our own.

The Tribunal has therefore got to be such as is competent to deal, both with the limited and highly technical subject-matter of security and with the broader inquiry which has now become necessary—and, quite obviously, this makes the choice of personnel both crucial and, I would say, difficult. Happily, we think we have succeeded. If the House passes the Motion, the new Tribunal will take over from the civil servants and also will embark upon the broader terms of reference. Two of the members have special experience and qualifications in addition to their legal qualifications: the remaining member has previous experience of a Tribunal of this type. My Lords, his special combination of qualifications and experience render, I would have thought, the noble Viscount, Lord Radcliffe, almost an inevitable Chairman. I am happy to say that he has agreed to act; and that Mr. Justice Barry and Sir Edward Milner Holland would also be willing, as they are in my judgment well qualified, to serve.

My Lords, since I do not anticipate that the Motion will be opposed, I could, of course, pass this moment off with a purely formal speech. Since, however, there has been a change in Government policy, and since there are certain matters upon which both I, as an individual, and my colleagues in the Government feel strongly, I feel that Parliament is entitled to an account of the reasons which have led us to our change of view, and I know that my right honourable friend in another place is taking the same view on the parallel Motion.

Your Lordships will not require to be told that this Motion—in identical terms with that in another place—constitutes the constitutional mechanism whereby is set up a Tribunal of Inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921. My Lords, this is, in my judgment, a formidable engine of (inquiry, with compulsory powers of inquisition, and, in my opinion, it should be set up very sparingly. It is within my recollection that on every occasion I can remember when it has been set up in my professional career or in my public life—for example, the "Thomas" Budget leak, the Lynskey Tribunal, the Parker Bank Rate Inquiry, and the Caithness Police Inquiry—the Press has, on every one of these occasions, rightly commented on the inquisitorial nature of the procedure and the hardship endured by witnesses and others submitted, without a charge being made, to searching examination on oath about their affairs and transactions originally, ordinarily and properly intended to remain private. I notice—I could not help noticing—that the same point was taken by Mr. Silverman in another place yesterday.

I was close enough to the centre of events—the House will forgive me—in the Bank Rate Inquiry to know that bitter feelings were aroused in persons wholly innocent of any offence who were perfectly properly submitted to impartial comment and examination by the then Attorney-General or by the members of the Tribunal itself. We should not overlook the fact that this is a formidable instrument of Government, and I should not like it to be thought that we have invoked it lightly here.

Your Lordships will be aware that the Act enables the Tribunal in its own discretion to hold the whole or any part of its hearings in private. It may be—it is not for me to say, but it may be—that the Tribunal here may decide to avail themselves to some extent at least, of this right. If so, the criterion in doing so would be, under the terms of the Statute, the public interest—and only the public interest—and not the feelings of any parties who may be interested.

Of course, if it were and to the extent that it were held in private some of the disadvantages to which I have referred would be overcome. But other and not less serious dangers would surely be incurred. A private inquisition of this kind would be—almost literally—a Star Chamber, with the solitary though vital difference that it has no powers of punishment and that its Report will be public in so far as it affects the integrity and honour of individuals. I should not like the House to think that I move this Resolution without a measure of reluctance. Yet I do so without doubting that in recommending it the Government have taken the right course.

My Lords, though we are at peace in matters of security we live in the penumbra of a ruthless and diabolical war, the like of which has scarcely been seen in Europe since the time of the Borgias. Of this war only the occasional episodes seem to be made public—or even known—outside a restricted circle. A Soviet agent defects and tells a sensational tale of murder by a cyanide pistol; an air pilot tens of miles above the earth is shot down by a device of exquisite sophistication and ingenuity; a prominent diplomat forgets his loyalty to his country; a scientist changes sides and flees abroad; vulnerable men are enticed into a net of blackmail by their sexual perversions; corrupt men are bribed to betray their country for money. In the main, however, the battle is fought in the dark. Neither side admits to its successes. Both are occasionally compelled to admit their failures. The whole story is a grim and horrible commentary on the predicament of the human family.

On the free side of the Iron Curtain we are faced with a terrible dilemma. In public life we must all be security minded, guard our own tongues, examine our own characters for weaknesses which are never wholly private but may make us vulnerable, be careful of our documents, ensure that security procedures are observed and that those procedures in operation are the right procedures for the purpose.

But it is important to emphasise that the nature of these security procedures is itself a highly professional job. This is no world for the amateur spy-catcher to blunder about in. Moreover, there is another reason why it should be kept professional. My Lords, we must be on our guard against McCarthyism. At the beginning of the First World War two great public servants, Prince Louis of Battenberg and the late Lord Haldane—innocent, loyal, and great patriots both—were hounded from public office by a combination of gutter journalism, second-rate politics and mass hysteria, and the general persecution of less prominent persons was thereby encouraged. My Lords, let us all resolve that this shall not be allowed to happen again.

One of the greatest weapons we hold against our enemies is the mutual confidence and trust of the members, one with another, of a free society. Let us keep fast bold of it or we lose the war—for that is what it is—by losing both what makes the war worth fighting and the best means of winning it.

My Lords, when the Vassall case emerged as the second serious security case within the Admiralty in recent months, and my noble friend made what I thought was his honourable and manly acceptance in this House of his departmental responsibility—though by far the worst breaches of security were before his term of office—(and after the resumption by Vassall of spying activities, one gratifying feature was the speed with which he was caught). I was myself hopeful that the matter would be left at that stage to a professional inquiry by senior civil servants. But whereas that inquiry was admirably suited in my judgment to investigate breaches of security by whomsoever committed, it would equally, in my opinion, not be suited to imputations affecting the honour or personal conduct either of Ministers or senior officials or naval officers.

No sooner had my noble friend made his statement in your Lordships' House than an announcement was made by a particular newspaper and by a Member of another place of the existence of letters indicating, as it was said, a degree of Ministerial responsibility which went far beyond the ordinary business of a Minister in charge of a Department. My Lords, it is not perhaps proper for me to inquire how those letters came into the possession either of the newspaper or of the Member, but as a man of the world I inferred—and no doubt I was not alone in that inference—that the deliberate insinuation was being made that the letters to Vassall, a known pervert, would be found to contain matters of improper familiarity or even eroticism.

I have no doubt whatever that it then became immediately imperative that those letters should be published, and I am myself delighted that they were published. It is not for me now to comment upon them. Your Lordships will have read them, and it is for your Lordships to say if you agree with Sir Charles Cunningham and his colleagues that they: do not in themselves appear to contain any implication of a relationship constituting a security risk or whether either they or any other of the known facts justified the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, in saying in your Lordships' House on October 31 [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 244 (No. 2), cols. 32–3]: the former Civil Lord …seemed to me to have social relationships with a minor official of the Admiralty which were quite inappropriate. At all events, Mr. Galbraith found life in office had been made intolerable for him and he resigned. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who has the public interest to consider, thought it right—and since he has been criticised, I should like to say that I agree with him—to accept the resignation. Whether, however, the nation or Parliament or the Opposition or the Press or his colleagues in the Government can feel particularly proud of the chain of events which has led to the interruption of an honourable and useful public career is something which, I think, we must leave until the result of the present Motion is known.

However that may be, in my own innocence, I had hoped that that would be the end of this side of the matter. Instead of this, with the generous comment "Exit, One Chump", the newspaper, which had presumably paid the traitor and criminal Vassall in hard cash for Mr. Galbraith's letters—rumour put the figure at something approaching £7,000—and shown them to its paid political or industrial adviser—and other newspapers went on with the attack. Incidentally, can I be the only one who deplores the practice of the Sunday Press of buying the confessions of criminals and thus, as it seems to me, perverting the public morals of the nation? And, if the sum mentioned is anything like right, one must infer either that the Russians got Vassall at half price or that the newspaper thought that his value was doubled as the result of his infamy. One may be pardoned for trembling for the future of this country when popular newspapers sink to such depths of degradation as this.

Later, on November 8, there was an article in another paper under the heading: "Don't forget they knew for eighteen months that there was a spy around". This, at any rate, I thought, clearly insinuated that not merely high and honourable officials, but perhaps even my noble friend himself, had stood by for eighteen months with knowledge about the traitor in their possession and had failed to inform the proper authorities or the Prime Minister—perhaps even had conspired with one another to suppress the truth. It is not for me to say whether such allegations would entitle the officer concerned or my noble friend to institute proceedings. What is material to this Motion is that it is clear that this allegation goes far beyond the competence of any committee of civil servants. The allegation was repeated in an aggravated form in the same newspaper the following day and reappeared again under various guises in the Sunday Press.


I should like you to name them.


I am informed that the Thursday article was based on a statement that a document was found in the house of Mr. Kröger, who was concerned in the Portland case, and this document somehow connected the Vassall case with the Portland case. This statement, according to the information in the possession of the Government, is incorrect. No doubt the Tribunal, if set up, will wish to inquire whether the newspaper concerned is prepared to support its allegation and with what evidence.


My Lords, may I ask the Lord President, if he is going to castigate the Sunday Press, whether he would state to which journal he refers? He is protected by privilege for that very purpose and it is only fair not to lump all the papers together.


My Lords, I think that if this is to be submitted to the Tribunal, the Tribunal will know what to say about what newspapers. But this is not the end and it is not the worst. On Friday night, a report came into the hands of the Government, perfectly properly, that an even uglier insinuation was being circulated in private. This was that the arrest of Vassall had been made on the date it was in order to forestall his escape with Mr. Galbraith, either for homosexual purposes or to defect behind the Iron Curtain. So horrible is this suggestion that I should like to give it more or less as my right honourable friend told it to me. What he told me was that on Friday morning a new sitaution had developed.

My right honourable friend the Patronage Secretary came to the Prime Minister early on Friday morning and told him this story, which I will describe in words as simple as I can. An honourable Member of the other House, acting in accordance with his public duty, had been to see the Patronage Secretary late on Thursday night with the following information. He had been dining that night with the political editor of a national newspaper. In the course of the dinner, this gentleman said that one of his staff had been told by a member either of the police or of the security service—he was not sure which—that had Vassall not been arrested on September 12, it had been his intention to join Mr. Galbraith in Italy and that Vassall then intended, in the words of the reporter of this story, to "do a Pontecorvo", with the clear implication that my honourable friend intended to defect to Russia and put his knowledge and information at the disposal of the Communists. It was also said that my honourable friend was believed to have spent holidays abroad with Vassall before. Again, I would only say that, according to the information of the Government, and we have sought to find the truth, this is not correct in any particular.

The Prime Minister was in this difficulty. This information had been brought to him. He was not sure whether it had been brought to him in good faith or as a trap, and he did not think that he could leave the matter there—and I do not think that he could. Things like this cannot be put about in private. Unfortunately, we came to know that this story in various forms and guises was being put about in private not only by the source which I have described but quite widely during the course of Friday. However preposterous, however wicked and however vile such a suggestion may be, if it comes to be passed about in the same kind of the way as the story about my honourable friend's letters passed about earlier last week, could anyone let it rest?

It was in these circumstances that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister read the Press later that morning and this Press contained the aggravated form of the Thursday article, to which I have already referred. It said: The First Lord's position is now very delicate. Yesterday on a sudden summons, he hurried across to Admiralty House to see Mr. Macmillan. The reason: the revelation by Percy Hoskins in yesterday's Daily Express that the presence of another spy inside the Admiralty was known to the First Lord and his Service chiefs when the Portland ring was exposed 18 months ago. Mr. Macmillan wanted to know from Lord Carrington why he had not been warned of this startling fact. What does this report mean? One possible construction, at least, is that it means that my noble friend the First Lord of the Admiralty, aided and abetted by the Service chiefs, by whom I understand could only be meant the other members of the Board and the Permanent Secretary, had conspired together to conceal, during eighteen months since the Portland case their knowledge of the existence of another spy in the Admiralty. I have already said that the statement upon which this allegation is founded is, according to the information in my possession, not correct. Nevertheless, upon this foundation has been built the allegation that my noble friend the First Lord and the Board of Admiralty and perhaps other senior civil servants have concealed the truth and in doing so have committed an act which can be described only as appalling disloyalty to the Service over which they preside and, I would add, to their country.

Now, this may be true—it may be true. It may be that my noble friend, after distinguished and gallant service as an infantry officer in the war, after being High Commissioner for Australia and serving in the Government as First Lord of the Admiralty for three years, has in effect betrayed his trust. But surely such an allegation cannot be allowed to rest uninvestigated? My noble friend must be entitled to have his character cleared if he is innocent and so are the other members of the Board of Admiralty, who it seems to me have been traduced in the same way.

My Lords, it is for these reasons that the Government now come before Parliament with this Motion. I feel sure that, with a view to investigating a security problem in the technical sense, the Committee of civil servants would have served us best, even though they might, in delivering their report, have cast aspersions on Ministers in their ordinary work of responsibility as departmental chiefs. But allegations like these are something altogether different, at least, in my submission. There is only one remedy for this, and that is a thorough investigation under the power of oath and subpœna; and for this purpose, at any rate, an inquiry by the civil servants is not enough. Their work must cease. We must have the Tribunal to find the truth, to explode calumny, if it be calumny; to convict the guilty, and to acquit the innocent. Painful as it is, this is what we must do.

The charges that have been made must be thrashed out under the full sanction and majesty of the law. They must be found to be true or false, and the public confidence must be restored either by the conviction of guilty men of by public proof that those who pose as the protectors of the public have been guilty without cause of trying to destroy the reputation of a fellow citizen. My Lords, this a question which, in my submission, can only be tried by a Tribunal set up under the Act of Parliament with power to put witnesses on oath, under the sanction of the law of perjury if they tell lies; a Tribunal at which the witnesses may be protected by counsel, and the evidence of accusers tested by cross-examination.

Those, my Lords, are the reasons which have led the Government to change their mind and to place this Motion upon the Order Paper. Of course one must learn in public life to ignore much that is said against one. If one were to answer every falsehood that was made one would spend one's whole lifetime in repudiation. Many things are best put aside, or overlooked, and many criticisms find their own level. But this, at least in my judgment, is not a case for that. I remember very well over the bank rate case that there was likewise a long period of vague innuendo, which could not be pinned down to any precise point. For as long as that persisted we ignored it. But finally a specific allegation in that case was made against my noble friend Lord Poole, and the very next day we asked the House to set up a Tribunal in the matter. In my opinion in that case many who were responsible for that allegation got off much more easily than they deserved. But I think now, whatever may be the case, the time has come for men of propriety and decency not to tolerate the growth of McCarthyism in our midst.

At any rate, let the judgment be made. If public servants are guilty of what it is said they are guilty of, in the old days they might have faced a trial for their lives; and even to-day they could never again lift up their heads amongst their fellows. But if those who have accused them have done so falsely or recklessly, or out of malice, or out of simply a desire for the commercial exploitation of sensationalism, then I would say that a formal condemnation by society, through the mouth of its appointed commissioners, and possibly through Parliament itself, is the proper remedy. My Lords, I ask the House to pass this Motion, the only machinery now open to us for the defence of innocent men, if they be innocent, or, for their condemnation if they be guilty. In any event, my Lords, let us discover the truth.

Moved, to resolve, That it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, viz., the circumstances in which offences under the Official Secrets Acts were committed by William John Christopher Vassall, and in particular:

  1. (1) the allegations made that the presence of another spy inside the Admiralty was known to the First Lord and his Service chiefs after the Portland case eighteen months ago;
  2. (2) any other allegations which have been or may be brought to their attention, reflecting similarly on the honour and integrity of persons who, as Ministers, naval officers and civil servants, were concerned in the case;
  3. (3) any breaches of security arrangements which took place; and
  4. (4) any neglect of duty by persons directly or indirectly responsible for Vassall's employment and conduct, and for his being treated as suitable for employment on secret work.—(Viscount Hailsham.)

4.14 p.m.


My Lords, we have listened to a speech which was remarkable for a number of different things. I am not myself aware of any comment having been made from this side of your Lordships' House in the course of the last two or three weeks which could have been in any way detrimental to the persons who have been referred to—not even the quotation made against my noble friend Lord Morrison of Lambeth put in his speech to-day by the noble and learned Viscount who leads the House.

I must say that I think the Government have had considerable difficulty to contend with to undo their constant refusal on more than one occasion to appoint a more effective tribunal to inquire into the particular case than was afforded by a Committee of three civil servants. While I am quite certain that the course now proposed, to have a Tribunal, composed as it is of the members whose names were given to your Lordships' House by the Leader of the House, with all the powers under the Tribunals Act, is the right thing to do, I am rather concerned about the detailed nature of the speech which has been made by the Leader of the House, and the references which have been produced, with, at the end of all, the kind of stuff which he has given—some of it from tittle-tattle—to the public at large. And then for him to feel that it was quite unholy for him to name anybody in the shape of an editor, or an actual newspaper against which the charges are to be brought, because there is a Tribunal to be set up, leaves us in a very, very doubtful state of mind as to what are the complete motives of the Government.

The position, as I see it, is this. I see it from the point of view of one who was a Service Minister for more than twelve years, of which almost nine years were spent as First Lord of the Admiralty. I am quite certain that there is nobody in this House more jealous than I am of the reputation of the First Lord and the Board of Admiralty or of the actual safety conditions required for that great Senior Service. Therefore, perhaps I can make one or two comments upon the matter.

I am quite certain of this: that if the First Lord of the Admiralty had had any information further than he was able to give to the House at the time the matter was raised here he would have given it. I have watched his career in this House for a good many years now, and I have found nothing in his personal aspect of controlling business and doing public service that is not to be commended. I want to make that perfectly clear. I said at the time that he addressed your Lordships that I thought he was doing quite the right thing in accepting departmental responsibility for anything which might be proved to have gone wrong under his leadership; I said then that he was to be congratulated on having made a public statement, and I say it again. I shall read the noble and learned Viscount's speech very closely, but as I feel at present, having listened especially to the middle part of it, I should feel happier about the Tribunal if the noble and learned Viscount had not said so much as if he were opening the case before the Tribunal. That was most extraordinary to me.


It is sub judice.


These are matters which, as my noble friend behind me reminds me, will in a day or two be sub judice. I hope the noble and learned Viscount, for whose ability I have great respect, when he has read his speech again and examined it, in the light of what are going to be the duties of this Tribunal and what are the full extent of the powers they will exercise, may feel that he could have left unsaid some of the things he said this afternoon and left it to the judgment of your Lordships' House on the simple question as to whether this was the right course—namely, to have a much more authoritative and powerful Inquiry into the whole question of the espionage in this place and what has arisen from it. I think that all noble Lords would have accepted that practically without question or comment, if it were not for the type of speech we have listened to.


My Lords, apart from endorsing the noble Viscount's tribute to the First Lord of the Admiralty, whom I hope I may claim as a friend of some standing, and in whose integrity I have complete faith, I personally think it quite out of place for me to add any further words from these Benches, which, after all, are a Party political forum. The best thing about this matter to me is that it is going sub judice from to-day, and I hope that when the matter is resolved there will be no sort of Party gain or loss in any sort of way from a political point of view, and that the matter will be completely finished.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, on Monday, December 2, 1957, the Tribunal to inquire into allegations that information about the raising of the bank rate was improperly disclosed, opened its proceedings. As I was the subject of that inquiry, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to-day to make certain observations about the proceedings of such tribunals which I hope will be helpful, and which I hope will commend themselves objectively to all sides of the House. Whether I was or was not the accused on that occasion is a matter of opinion, but it suffices to say that The Times, in its leading article after the tribunal had reported, headed its leader, "Not Guilty".

I know nothing, except the little I have read, about the circumstances leading the Government to institute this new inquiry, except what we have heard from the Leader of the House to-day. I am quite ready to accept that it is necessary and desirable that this inquiry should take place. In the case of the bank rate tribunal, I went to the Prime Minister myself, after months of the sort of innuendo which I understand has taken place now, and felt it necessary to ask him to institute proceedings. He was good enough to accept my wish and put the necessary Resolution to Parliament. I say that anybody who does that, either as an individual or as a leader of a political Party, bears a very heavy weight of responsibility and certainly one from which I am never likely to be wholly free. So I will hope that no one—and I put this to the noble Viscount—will criticise the Government for any delay in coming to the decision to institute a tribunal. As my noble friend the Leader of the House has said, this is a most dangerous and severe instrument of Government, and it offends in almost every respect the normal tenets and understandings of British justice.

I would concede at once that such inquiries may become necessary from time to time. It is necessary for public life in this country to be upheld, and the position of individuals has always been secondary to that. But let no one underestimate the far-reaching and searching effects of such a tribunal. In case there should be any misunderstanding, I wish to say at once that I have never, either then or since, allowed myself to doubt the sincerity of those whose actions or words may have been the cause of my asking the Prime Minister for such a Tribunal. I feel that this is extremely important in public life. They did, I am sure, what they thought was right. I have no recriminations, and I wish to make none. I do, however, wish to make certain suggestions for changes in the procedure, to which I hope the Government will give very careful consideration indeed, and which I believe would make the proceedings rather more acceptable to the general public as a whole. After each of these tribunals almost every newspaper and almost every responsible politician says, "You must never have anything quite like that again"—and yet nothing is done, and I am very much concerned that the procedure should be the same.

My first proposal is that the Attorney General in his opening statement, and in his examination of witnesses, will quite rightly deploy the "charges", if that is the right word, and will refer to the evidence of rumours. As in theory no one is charged with anything, then no one has the immediate right of reply. It may be that at the end of the tribunal, many weeks later, many of the charges will be proved unfounded and many of the rumours shown to be ridiculous or groundless. I would urge them, subject to the permission of the members of the tribunal, that any person involved must be allowed to make a statement of (his case either himself or through his counsel, immediately after the Attorney General so that he can immediately refute—and no doubt the Press will refute if necessary—many of the loose allegations that are made.

It really is not enough to say that someone should be subjected to the present procedure when there is no charge. I am a little concerned at the suggestion that it is sub judice. I seek advice. I am not a lawyer, but my understanding was that there was no such thing. There are no rules of evidence, and no rules of procedure. I do not think the witnesses—if that is the right word for them—have any protection at all. I think it right that they should have a statement made on their behalf as early in the proceedings as possible. It is also right that, if a tribunal is going to be set up—and here again I take issue with the noble Viscount—whatever the terms of reference are, it must have complete freedom to get any information from anybody who it thinks can lead it to come to a proper conclusion. This means that, whatever the terms of reference are, any witness can be called before it; every aspect of his private life can be examined. Indeed, Mr. Charles Russell—Lord Justice Russell, as he now is—who was my counsel at the time, at the end of the Tribunal, at page 288 of the proceedings, called attention to the fact that, whereas few witnesses had been called and few documents produced, every single conversation I had had for many weeks, every business transaction in which I had been involved, every social engagement at which I had been, had been investigated and the documents taken and, where necessary, people were seen. The President of the Tribunal immediately afterwards thanked him for calling attention to that.

This is my point. This is right, but in almost every tribunal that has taken place there has been at some time some political pressure. Members of another place have either made statements in another place or have received documents, as I understand it is suggested has been done for a newspaper or newspapers. Leaders of the political Parties have met to discuss what action should be taken. Leaders of the Opposition meet, and then go to the Leaders of the Government to present prima facie evidence which they think it their duty to disclose. I suggest, in all fairness to the ordinary people, that nothing that is said in Parliament or given to Members of Parliament should be subject to Parliamentary privilege; that if, in fact, Leaders of a political Party, whichever Party it is, feel it their duty to go and formally disclose rumours or evidence which they think they have received, then that information should be available to the tribunal just as much as information regarding the private lives of many hundreds of people who are concerned. I would strongly urge that something should be done in this case to see how this point can be met.


My Lords, may I say that, from the way the noble Lord's speech opened, it seems that he was at variance with myself on certain points. I must make it quite clear that I have received information from nobody, and I have not discussed it with anybody on any occasion, either in this House or outside.


May I please apologise to the noble Viscount. I have not completely made myself clear. I thought the noble Viscount said that he considered that the terms of reference of the Tribunal as put forward by my noble friend were too wide.


No, not at all.


I therefore withdraw. I am not in fact trying to refer either to the Tribunal in which I was involved or the present one; I am trying to make an objective statement. It is known that on many occasions in the past leaders of political Parties have met to discuss these things. I am not suggesting that either the noble Lord, anyone on the Government Bench or on any other Bench have done so this time. But there have been discussions, I understand, this time and I say that these should be made public so that the evidence of the people who are subjected to this inquisition, which is what it is, the whole evidence and the whole story, is disclosed. I am bound to say that I have very real feelings for wishing this were so.

The third and last point I wish to make is on the question of costs. We are told constantly that no one is accused. The Inquiry is not a legal proceeding and as a result of that no one can recover any part of the heavy costs involved. Is it really right that someone against whom vague charges, if that is the word, or vague suggestions of impropriety are made should be subjected to examination by a Tribunal of this sort without having to assist him all the help from learned counsel, juniors and solicitors?

These Tribunals go on for many days; there are days of preparation beforehand and seventeen, eighteen or twenty days of proceedings. The costs are very heavy indeed, and I think it quite wrong that some people can afford to ask for Tribunals and get what (help they need and others cannot. If the Government impose these Tribunals on people, I think the Government have a duty to defray the costs, whether the people are innocent or whether they are not. I very much hope that these three points will be looked into.

My Lords, these Tribunals are very serious matters. I cannot believe that anybody in public life can do anything but regret and deplore them. I would only end up by saying what I said in the beginning: that those who demand them and the Government who are prepared to ask Parliament to set one up carry a very heavy load of responsibility. I am grateful to your Lordships for allowing me to give these observations, as I think I have had some experience which may help to make the procedure more acceptable.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, we all understand, not entirely without sympathy, the personal feelings that the noble Lord, Lord Poole, has in the light of his own experience in connection with an earlier Tribunal of Inquiry. I understand that and I am not brutally unsympathetic about it. On the other hand, the possibility of a Tribunal of Inquiry under the Tribunal of Inquiries Act exists, and, as I understand it, it exists because in some cases the ordinary course of inquiry by a departmental committee, let alone a committee of civil servants, is not adequate to the situation, or because ordinary proceedings in the courts of law would not be suitable or adequate to the situation. It was in order that there could be a more thorough inquiry, and an inquiry of a certain type, that the Tribunal of Inquiries Act was passed. The noble Lord who has just sat down has come pretty near to challenging the right to use a Tribunal of Inquiry at all—pretty near to it.


My Lords, that is not what I said or, indeed, if I said it, it was not what I meant. What I meant was that it ought only to be very carefully thought about. I specifically said that I thought it was essential to have the power to bring in a tribunal instrument of this kind. I also said that I thought the personal feelings of the individual were quite secondary to the national interest.


My Lords, if I have misrepresented the noble Lord I withdraw, but I thought that the purport of his speech was that this was an inappropriate instrument in this case. That is what I thought. I have a right to think what I think. But there it is. I quite agree, if that is what the noble Lord meant, that this is an instrument which should be used only in appropriate and sufficiently serious cases, because it is a heavy-handed instrument and good thought must be given before it is utilised.

I rise to support the Motion which has been moved by the noble and learned Viscount, the Leader of the House, and in supporting the Motion which he has moved I cannot support the speech which he has made. I thought it was a wrong type of speech, when a Minister is moving that a Tribunal of a judicial character be set up for the purpose of making inquiries, for him to make a speech which almost completely prejudges the issues which are to be gone into by the Tribunal. I think that was quite wrong and I am surprised that the noble and learned Viscount, the Leader of the House, should go in for that kind of propaganda against proceedings which are almost pending, just because he does not like them. I do not think it was right. I think it was a speech which was wrong and calculated to prejudice the whole of the proceedings before they have started; and I consider it was quite in error on his part to do it.

The noble and learned Viscount the Leader of the House has quoted from my observations at the time when the First Lord was good enough to make his statement and I will just repeat what he quoted. I said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 244 (No. 2), cols. 32–33]: May I ask the noble Lord"— that is, the First Lord— whether he is aware that I personally am very worried about the position of the former Civil Lord, who seemed to me to have social relationships with a minor official of the Admiralty which were quite inappropriate? I was quite entitled to make that statement. It had no moral implication. I happen to have views about appropriate relationships between Ministers and civil servants, nationally and locally; between aldermen, councillors and chief officers and any officers of the local authority. They ought to be one of mutual respect for mutual work which has to be done; of encouraging frankness of observation; but they should not be a close relationship. It is not good for the spirit of the service; it is not good if the Minister is to be held in proper respect.

I still say—still more in the light of the correspondence—that the relationship established between the Civil Lord and Mr. Vassall was an inappropriate relationship in all the circumstances of the case. That is what I said and that is what I say again—and there is not to be read into it any implications of relationships of a moral or other character between the Civil Lord and Mr. Vassall. Indeed, I do not know what they were; and I have not said and would not say unless I knew. But I have views about these relationships which may not be shared by all noble Lords. It is not a question of snobbishness; it is a question that the Minister represents the nation, the State, and the civil servant the rest of the Service; and it is so also between the municipality and the chief officers of local authorities. I have known times when they have become "too thick", with the result that the business of the council and, in some cases, the business of the State has not been run as well as it might have been. There were the visits and there is the character of this correspondence. That, again, I say is inappropriate as between a Minister, even a junior Minister, and a civil servant not very high up in the Service, and I think that has all to be taken into account.

The Government at the beginning decided to appoint the committee of high civil servants. I said at the time that I had no personal objection to these three civil servants. They are men deserving of wide public respect, and I have no criticism to make of them. But we did think that it was inappropriate, in a case of this kind, that a committee of civil servants should be the instrument of the inquiry and to make the report. The Government would not listen. This Government do not listen enough, either to noble Lords in this place or honourable gentlemen in another place. The Government therefore make more mistakes than they ought to do.

The Government ought to have known when they set out on this course that there would be trouble about the appointment of the committee of civil servants for this purpose. The Prime Minister ought instinctively to have known, from his knowledge of the House of Commons; and the Leader of the House of Commons ought to have known, but he evidently does not know his House of Commons. Before his speech this afternoon I thought that possibly the Leader of this House would make a better Leader of the House of Commons than the present Leader there——


You have to be a Member first.


—but I am not so certain now, and I cannot promise the noble Viscount to back him for that position. He bag gone down in my estimation, because he brings forward a Motion for a judicial Inquiry and then proceeds to make one of the most injudicial speeches which could possibly be made; and he is a counsel learned in the law; he has appeared in the High Court; he is a lawyer of no mean distinction. He comes here and does a thing like that which I, not a lawyer, would not do—and which, indeed, an elementary schoolboy would not dream of doing. I think it was most improper to come and make that speech.

What has he done? He has retailed all these rumours, given them extended circulation. As my noble friend Lady Summerskill said to me on the Bench: "Good gracious ! he is spreading the allegations now wholesale". She is right. He has brought it out and spread all these things which could have been the subject of inquiry by the Tribunal, and anybody who has said any of these things of course can be called by the Tribunal—and I hope he will be. I suppose I could be called by the Tribunal, but my offence, the noble Viscount will agree, is not as bad as those he quoted earlier on. If they called me I would go and give them this modest lecture about the proper relationship between Ministers and civil servants. That is all I could do for them.

I do say to the noble Viscount—for whom I have high regard, as he knows; we are good friends—he has been naughty this afternoon and made the wrong speech in a situation which called for a judicious speech on the case for this Inquiry. Now the Government have scattered these three civil servants to the four winds. Having set them up they have knocked them down, which I think is a little rough, merely because the Government cannot judge public reactions and Parliamentary reactions. And that was particularly true of the House of Commons and the Leader of the House of Commons, who, I suppose, is so busy doing other silly things in connection with London government that he did not have time to think how the House would react. We support the Motion. I support what has been said by my noble friend Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, and I hope the House will approve the Motion and let the inquiry proceed, because after to-day everybody will have to be careful what he says before the Tribunal has reported.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble and learned Viscount could tell us this afternoon, arising out of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Poole, whether provision for legal aid will apply to impecunious people who may be represented at the Tribunal.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to embark upon a long reply. I would only say that I thank the noble Lords opposite for supporting the Motion, and that I remain somewhat impenitent about my speech. I should like to say at once that I have not, with one qualification, retailed any gossip. I read out charges which were made in newspapers. The one piece of information which I gave to the House is, I understand, being given to the House of Commons and was considered far too serious a rumour to be in private circulation and not to be brought out into the open and nailed firmly as one of the things the Tribunal will inquire into, whether it be true or false.

I thought it also right to say that the only information in the possession of the Government is that it is not correct. I made only one charge: I read out charges of others, which had been allowed to go unanswered. I said that I thought the practice of buying confessions from criminals and retailing them to the public was deplorable and perverted the morals of the nation. This is not prejudicing the hearings of the Tribunal, because, so far as I can see, it is not within the terms of reference of the Tribunal. I have not the smallest hesitation in saying that this was a perfectly proper sentiment to hold and to repeat.

As regards the speech of my noble friend Lord Poole (he and I were very closely associated), I should like to do the best I can with his questions, and with that of the noble Lord from the Liberal Benches. This Tribunal is set up under Statute, and we are limited in this House and in the Government by the terms of the Statute. The actual procedure is within the power of the Tribunal. I do not know what this Tribunal will say about my noble friend's proposal. I am sure they will read this debate, and I cannot say what they will do about it. I think anyone who has been present, as I have been, at three of these Tribunals—indeed anyone who has been present at all—will realise the force of what my noble friend says, even though the particular remedy he proposes may not be the right one.

As regards Parliamentary privilege, again I am speaking without my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack and without previous notice. As I understand it, the position is simply that of an ordinary witness. The Tribunal has the power to subpoena evidence and, in effect, to subpoena duces tecum documents. But the ordinary rules of privilege, I take it, would apply unless Parliament thought fit, for any reason, to suspend them, and we could not by any executive act of the Government suspend them. That, I think, would be the only answer I could give on that point. I appreciate very much what he says about costs, but there again, so far as I understand the Statute, which I read again last night, I do not find any provision in it for costs. It would, I think, require statutory provision—and that is the answer to the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches—for costs to be given; and it would not completely meet my noble friend's point if legal aid were made available, although even that could be done only by Statute, because legal aid does not apply to the kind of cost incurred in this kind of Tribunal, which may amount to thousands of pounds. So that people not qualified for ordinary legal aid may find it a considerable burden. Whether it is right, and in what circumstances, for Parliament to authorise money to be raised from the Consolidated Fund for this purpose is something I cannot answer this afternoon.

I accept entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, said about his own position the other day, and I quite accept that he had not the intention to say more than he did. I also as a matter of fact—although I find that opinions differ very much about this issue on both sides of the House—favour his view that there should be a degree of formality between officials and Ministers in order to safeguard the position of the State. This is not universally believed. I noticed that the practice differs, among both my friends and my political opponents. But this is the doctrine which I share with him.

All the same—and I say no more than I said to him on the occasion—I was sorry myself that, coupled with this serious security situation, in which a man had been convicted of, in effect, disloyalty to his country and of selling his country's secrets, was a horrible story which he brought in himself, of perversion. I wish this had not been confused in the public mind with whatever minor indiscretion—if it was an indiscretion; and that I am not accepting—took place between the Civil Lord and this criminal. I think myself—I quite accept what he says about it—that it was an error of judgment on his part, but I would certainly not say anything worse about him than that. The noble Lord and I have maintained, I think, as he says, regard for one another, notwithstanding that we have oft-times in the past accused one another of errors of judgment without impairing our fundamental affection or respect.

Having said that, I think I have answered everything that was raised in the debate. I am sorry that noble Lords opposite did not like my speech; but I remain, as I say, quite impenitent about it, and I hope the House will now accept the Resolution.

On Question, Resolution agreed to.