HL Deb 23 April 1963 vol 248 cc1109-14

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, it might be convenient if, instead of replying now to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, I were to reply to the noble Earl who leads the Opposition, by repeating the statement which has now been made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place relating to the subject matter of the noble Earl's Question on the Order Paper. My right honourable friend's Answer is as follows:

"The document to which publicity has been given is concerned with what it described as regional seats of government. There is nothing sinister or mysterious about their existence. In the last war we had Regional Commissioners, each with an appropriate staff, whose function was to co-ordinate Government activity in the region and take charge on behalf of the central Government if communications between London and the region broke down at any time. It is widely known that our defensive plans for any future war, whether nuclear or conventional, include provision for a similar, essentially civilian, organisation. What have been referred to as regional seats of government are, in fact, the headquarters from which the Regional Commissioners would operate in a war emergency, and considerable progress has been made in their provision. To prepare them and to link them with the headquarters of the local authorities is an obviously essential precaution.

"Although the existence of these headquarters has long been widely known, their exact location and the details of their organisation have not been publicised. The information on these matters in the document referred to seems clearly to have come from papers issued to the large number of persons who took part in the Fallex Exercise last September. This exercise, in which all NATO countries took part, was designed to test the NATO mobilisation and command organisation; and we used it as an opportunity of testing also our own warning organisation and our system of regional headquarters.

"The Government would be failing in its duty if it did not take steps from time to time to carry out such tests and to ensure that these headquarters could operate if the need arose.

"Nevertheless, the deliberate breach of security is in itself both serious and strongly to be condemned. The disclosure of the particular information involved is not seriously damaging to the national interest. Nevertheless, vigorous steps are being taken to try to identify the person or persons responsible.

"A Home Defence exercise of this character requires the services of large numbers of people from a wide variety of occupations. This must give rise to some security risk.

"There is little resemblance between this affair and cases of espionage where vital secrets have been involved."

My Lords, that is the text of my right honourable friend's Answer.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble and learned Viscount for giving us the text of the Answer of the Prime Minister in another place. I must confess, just thinking it over now, not having had an opportunity on this occasion, for reasons I understand, of seeing in advance, a draft of the Answer to be given, that it is exceedingly disappointing. I should like to say at once that of course I thoroughly agree with the statement that the breach in our security by those who describe themselves as "Spies for Peace" is something wholly to be condemned. I cannot imagine that those who say that they are gathered together in order to do something for the security of their country with regard to a particular weapon are thereby justified in placing at greater risk the whole of the interest of their nation.

I want to say to the Government that I recognise 100 per cent. that they would be the guilty parties if they had not taken proper precautions for setting up an organisation, based perhaps upon our war-time experience but mow actually dealing with the sort of conditions, so far as they can ascertain them, that would have to be faced involving either the number or the dispositions of the R.S.G. stations. Therefore, I should like to say that any breach of the security side of those arrangements is a crime against the State. That is my view.

However, it is quite clear that we may have to come back to this on another day when we are not so fully occupied with Parliamentary business as we are with discussion of the Second Reading of such an important Bill as is before us. But I am bound to say that the continual breaches in security in the last few years, in the last two or three years especially, are bringing grave anxiety to the whole of the population. And we are not at present satisfied by the kind of reply we have had upon this particular question that adequate steps have yet been taken by the Government to discover what changes should be made in (shall I say?) the strata, the levels, of distribution of very highly confidential and secret documents; or, if you are going into a wide exercise such as that of last September described by the noble and learned Leader of the House, as to what special steps should be taken to safeguard it in such circumstances. These are questions of very great importance indeed.

It is true we are hoping to get, within hours I take it, the Report of the Tribunal set up to inquire into the Vassall case. We have had the Portland case; we have had the Blake case. I must say that, even in this particular instance" I have been rather astonished at the lack of activity to try to discover the source of this very serious breach or to prevent a more widespread distribution of a document whose distribution is most clearly a breach of security in this kind of function of the Government. I do not wish to say more at present, but I hope the noble and learned Viscount may perhaps come into conference with us on another day to see how we can better discuss this great and important question of improving the maintenance of our security.


My Lords, if I may deal first with the last observation of the noble Earl, of course I shall be very happy, through the usual channels, to enter into any discussion with him, as always, about appropriate subjects and matters for debate in this House, and I am sure the House would wish me to do so. I would also welcome, if I may, his clear condemnation of the divulgation of this material, and I agree with his description of it as a crime against the State. I do not think I should pursue all the matters which he raised, because, quite clearly, although he complained of lack of activity, my right honourable friend's statement makes it perfectly plain that appropriate authorities are making inquiries which may possibly result in criminal proceedings, and think it would be inappropriate, at any rate for a Minister of the Crown, to say anything which would prejudice those proceedings one way or another by divulging information about them.

I would, with respect, differ from the noble Earl's sense of disappointment in this case at my right honourable friend's statement, and also from his lumping it together—perhaps understandably, because he is not the only person to do it—with other security cases of the kind with which, alas! since the cold war began, we have been only too familiar. I do not want to enter into a wide discussion of this case, but I think the clue to answering the noble Earl was really contained in that part of his comment with which I agree. Our security service, as he knows, has been built up over fifty years or so, I think from 1909 onwards, designed to deal with subversion by a foreign enemy. It has no executive powers. Unlike, I think, the security service in almost every other country in the world, it is an advisory service in character; and it has performed its task, in my judgment, extremely well for a long period of time. Whether or not a free country can use this kind of service indefinitely in modern conditions depends, I think, upon the spirit of patriotism of the people of the country.

The whole point about this question to my mind, is this. Some people—certainly the last thing I would do would be to associate them with noble Lords opposite, because it would not only be manifestly unjust to do so but contrary to the public interest even to make the suggestion—have succeeded in engendering a frame of mind among a less responsible section of the community which has made it easy to pass the point where protest against policy can move over the boundary which separates it from what in popular language can be legitimately called treason. Whether it is a matter for criticism of the security service or other people is indeed a matter for debate which I will not pursue further. But, in my judgment, those who have succeeded in engendering this state of mind and climate of opinion cannot dissociate themselves from the consequences which have been caused among the less responsible of even their irresponsible members.


My Lords, I am a little disturbed at the latter part of the speech made by the noble and learned Viscount the Leader of the House. Of course I shall be content to deal with that kind of suggestion when we come to a more detailed debate. But I shall not mince words on that point when we come to it. What we have is a movement dealing with the so-called abolition of the nuclear weapon, the deterrent, and it was shown on the television as containing people marching in its ranks shouting phrases such as, "M.I.5 is after me". That is not a kind of thing which has been created in this country by any political philosophy of ours or by any political Party in this country that we recognise as a thing of British origin. There is a spirit which is set up which has got to be dealt with. But, in the meantime, I think the Government should make haste about it.


My Lords, I think I am entirely in agreement with the noble Earl. I do not think there is any difference between him and me about that. I hope I conveyed no other impression. But I agree with him we cannot take the matter further this afternoon.


My Lords, while accepting entirely that any divulging of information that is a danger to the State must be deprecated, may I ask the noble and learned Viscount whether the Government's own record in this particular has been above board? Has his attention been drawn to the letter by Dr. Geoffrey Taylor in the Guardian yesterday, in which Dr. Taylor says that in Somerset the regional seat of Government was officially opened by a local Member of Parliament in the presence of the B.B.C. and the Press? If this is so, does it not seem rather an extraordinary position for the Government to take now?


My Lords, I had not had that particular instance brought to my attention, but I think that, on reflection, the noble Lord will see that that is not the only kind of matter which is dealt with in this piece of disclosure of information.