HL Deb 31 October 1962 vol 244 cc29-36

2.35 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise for being apparently about a minute late; your Lordships' Prayers must have been quite expeditious. May I ask a Question of which I have given Private Notice—namely, to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement with regard to the Vassall spying case.


Lords, the facts of the Vassall case history are now fairly familiar, but it might be convenient if I repeated the salient points. He joined the Admiralty, at the age of seventeen, as a temporary clerk in 1941. Two years later, he was called up to the R.A.F. and demobilised in 1947. After a short interval he applied to be reemployed by the Admiralty, and returned. He was appointed as clerk to the Naval Attaché, Moscow, in March, 1954, and returned to the Admiralty headquarters in July, 1956. Vassall's subsequent service was in three departments; first in the Naval Intelligence Division from July, 1956, to May, 1957; then as clerk in the Civil Lord's office until October, 1959, and finally in the Military Branch from October, 1959, to his arrest on September 12, 1962. Throughout his career, Vassall was given all the security clearances appropriate to his work.

There is no doubt at all that from the time he was suborned in Moscow to the time of Hougihton's arrest in January, 1961, and again for a short period this year, he removed, photographed and disclosed certain classified documents which passed through his hands in the course of his duties. It is worth while recalling that in the Civil Lord's office as it was constituted at that time the principal official business dealt with was the Admiralty works programme; although as a junior Minister and a member of the Board of Admiralty, the Civil Lord would deal with a certain amount of secret material, the volume of this coming into his office in the ordinary way was relatively small. Vassall himself has said that he conducted no espionage from the date of Houghton's arrest in January, 1961, until May, 1962. He was arrested four months later.

I now turn to the question of the working of the security system in the Admiralty, and in particular to my ministerial responsibility for the Department. No blame can be attached to anybody for the existence in my Department of an individual who was willing to become a spy. Nor is it blameworthy to have caught the spy. The real issue of Warne, if there is to be blame, is whether he should have been caught sooner; that is to say, were there or were there not faults in the application of the Government security system in the Admiralty?

These are precisely the matters which the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister are investigating. In the first instance, their task will consist of gathering all the relevant facts, many of which of course are not confined to the Admiralty. The report of this Committee will not itself toe published, but as has already been announced, a statement on their findings will he made in due course. It has been said that a committee of officials will not have the necessary authority when it comes to dealing with the matter of ministerial responsibility for the actions of a Department The argument seems to me fallacious. I do not imagine that anyone could question the competence of these senior officials to sift the facts thoroughly and to form a completely objective judgment on the part played by the Admiralty in this case.

What is more, the Committee are expressly charged to have regard to the recommendations of the Radcliffe Report, which dealt very fully with the question of how we ought to run our security. If the Committee should find that there was culpable negligence in the application of the Government's security system within my Department during my period of office as First Lord, and particularly since the Romer and Radcliffe Committees reported, then I shall naturally accept full ministerial responsibility.


Lords, I am quite sure the First Lord of the Admiralty is right in taking this opportunity of making the Statement he has made this afternoon. It was a very serious case, from the point of view of our nation, and public opinion was rather upset about it; and I think the actual results in the Court were such as to lend a good deal of support to the idea that it was a veny serious matter. Therefore, there has continued to be public interest in the matter My Leader in the other place yesterday put certain points. To start with, I would congratulate the First Lord upon the fact that he ended his statement as he did. It is the proper thing to do, and I congratulate him upon having done it.

What perhaps is more particularly in the minds of members of my Party, who are not without experience in these matters on the other side of the fence, and who also have experience of the reactions which come from the Conservative Opposition in such matters when we are in office, is that the particular Committee set up hardly seems to be adequate to meet the situation. Here we have, as was said yesterday, the Reports of both the Radcliffe Committee and the Romer Committee. It is quite possible, in the circumstances, that even this civil-servants committee might find some reason to consider ministerial responsibility, and we do not consider that that is their job. In that case, I think it would be better to have a committee nearer the constitution of either the Romer Committee or the Radcliffe Committee, or even to bring one or other of those Committees back to consider the matter. I will say no more on that at present.


Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for what he has said. On the question of the composition of the Committee, there have on the matter of security been a number of committees in recent years. There was the Committee of Privy Counsellors as the result of the Burgess and Maclean case; there was the Romer Committee, as a result of the Houghton and Gee case; and the Radcliffe Committee, as a result of both the Houghton and Gee case and the Black case. I think that what the Prime Minister feels is that the whole question of what it is possible to do in Government security has been investigated very fully and what is needed in this case is an inquiry as to whether or not the recommendations of the Radcliffe and Romer Committees were carried out, and whether or not any breach was found in the security arrangements in the Admiralty. As I have already said, the ministerial responsibility for what goes on in the Admiralty is mine, and when the facts are established I shall naturally accept that responsibility.


My Lords, I agree entirely with what my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition has said. I think the House would be wise to take this matter very seriously, as I am sure the First Lord himself does. I must say that I am not happy about the situation. This is at least the second case affecting the Admiralty, and they are both very serious cases.

What I should like to ask the First Lord is whether he really thinks that a committee of high civil servants is the appropriate body to investigate what is undoubtedly a very serious matter. If they come to the conclusion that the civil servants in the Admiralty, or high-ranking Naval officers, are to blame, it is a little difficult for them to be as clear-cut in censure as they might otherwise be, particularly as regards civil servants. It is not easy because it will be a public document which they will produce. I have no doubt that the head of the Civil Service can be critical of Departments behind the scenes, but it is a little difficult for him to be critical above the scenes. If it turns out that things happen from which the Minister cannot absolve himself of responsibility—and, of course, a Minister cannot absolve himself of responsibility for anything that happens in the Department—then the civil servants are in a still greater position of difficulty.

May I ask the noble 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? Therefore, we take the view that the Civil Service Committee, estimable as these gentlemen are, was a wrong channel of investigation. We think that there may well be questions arising for Ministers themselves in their own positions, and I agree with my noble friend that it is to the good that the First Lord has recognised that situation. The security matters are important. They are not only important for the security of our own country; they are important for our relations with other Powers with whom we have confidential relationships and from whom, from time to time, we receive confidential information. Therefore, I hope that nobody will underestimate the gravity of this, at least the second trouble which has affected my Lords of the Admiralty.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, may I say that while I agree that nobody will underrate the gravity of this matter, there are some of us on this side of the House who are not quite so convinced that this is a suitable time to pursue the matter much further. The matter is more or less sub judice, and I think it might have been left to develop itself, were it not for some quite unjustified attacks on the First Lord personally, attacks with which I am sure none of us would agree. I should like to thank him for his very full and frank statement to-day.


My Lords, may I intervene to say this? I agree with what has fallen from the noble Lord who sits on the Liberal Benches. I think we must distinguish between the very serious issues of security which are being investigated, and for which my noble friend has accepted full ministerial responsibility, and any criticisms, which I myself hold to be quite unjustified, about the personal conduct of a junior Minister, which we are perfectly prepared to debate at the proper time. I deplore these criticisms, and I think they should be separated from the issues of security, which are quite distinct.


My Lords, may I ask whether the routine security checks include submission to a lie detector test, and, if not, whether the noble Lord will consider it and investigate it very carefully?


My Lords, I think this is the sort of question I ought not to answer before this inquiry takes place, but I will note what my noble friend has said.


My Lords, in his statement the First Lord said that this man was subject to the security tests appropriate to his work. But from one who has seen Civil Service work from the inside I would say that it would appear that the work being performed was outside the grade in which the man was. He was a clerical officer. Will that come within the scope of the Committee of Inquiry?


My Lords, the work this man was doing was within his sphere, and that is why he got all the security clearances necessary for the work he was doing. He was doing nothing outside the scope of what he was supposed to do.


My Lords, may I ask whether the investigation by the Committee will include the Moscow Embassy and particularly the Department of the Naval Attaché, because clearly there is a great responsibility there for What happened. This man went astray, apparently without their knowledge, for quite a long time.


Yes, my Lords, it will.


My Lords, may I say that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rea, that we do not want to continue this discussion too long to-day. All I am anxious about is that perhaps the Leader of the House in another place will take note of what has been said here to-day. There is to be a full debate there on Friday, and I ask that the matters raised here should be still further considered.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Viscount. If I may say so, he has been very considerate about this matter. I will certainly take note of What he has said, and I am sure that my right honourable friend in another place also will take notice of it.


My Lords, I should be interested to have a reply to the point made by my noble friend on the nature of the inquiry—that is, whether the body of civil servants is, in fact, the most appropriate body to carry out an inquiry of this sort. A reply was not given to that, and I should be grateful to have one.


My Lords, with great respect I thought I had replied to it twice. The point is this. We have had inquiries about the whole of our security set-up. What went wrong in this case—if anything went wrong—was whether or not the security procedures were properly carried out. This is what this Committee is going to inquire into. That is the whole purpose of the Committee. As I have said, as the Minister in charge in Parliament I am naturally responsible for what goes on in my Department.


I did understand that quite fully, but the point was that, even as an inquiry into what went wrong, is the Committee of civil servants the most appropriate body?


I beg the noble Lord's pardon: I misunderstood him. I think the answer is, yes; we thought that the right sort of people to inquire into this were civil servants, with their very great experience of administration and a great knowledge of security, as all permanent heads of department must have. I think that these were three excellent people to inquire into it.


My Lords, as there is some disquiet about the composition of this Committee of Inquiry, if it is the Government's view that civil servants are perhaps the right people to inquire, could the Minister meet our disquiet by the appointment of an independent chairman?


My Lords, I really thought that I had answered this question before. As regards the latter part, this Committee has been set up by the Prime Minister, not by me; but I will certainly bring to his attention the question raised by the noble Lord.

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