HL Deb 20 July 1982 vol 433 cc770-2

3.53 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a brief Statement on a security matter.

"On 15th July Geoffrey Arthur Prime was charged with an offence under Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. Mr. Prime joined the staff of Government Communications Headquarters in 1968 after service in the Royal Air Force, and resigned in September 1977. He has not been employed in the public service since that time.

Any charge under Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act is of course serious and must give rise to concern. The House will understand, however, that until trial proceedings are completed I cannot, for obvious reasons, make any Statement or answer questions on this case or on related matters.

"Any Security issues that arise will be referred as necessary to the Security Commission in accordance with the arrangements described to the House by my predecessors on 23rd January 1964 (col. 1271) and on 10th May 1965 (col. 33).

"The House will naturally be concerned to know whether any other persons are likely to be charged in this connection. Absolute certainty is never possible in these flatters. I can only say that, if evidence against other persons were to emerge, it would be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions who, after consultation with my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General, would consider whether to bring charges.

"Until the outcome of the proceedings is known, there is nothing that I can add to what I have said". My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal for repeating to us the Prime Minister's Statement. While I fully understand that matters relating to, or impinging upon, the proceedings against the man named in the Prime Minister's Statement cannot be pursued before the proceedings have been concluded, may I ask whether the noble Baroness is able to make a statement on the considerable reports which appeared in the Sunday Times, and other newspapers, last weekend relating to the alleged concern among current and former employees at Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham about security conditions there? There is, I believe, considerable concern about this matter in the country.

Of course it may be that the reports have no foundation. However, does the noble Baroness agree with what was said in the document issued by the Government in May? It was entitled, Statement on the Recommendations of the Security Commission, and stated: any vulnerability to access by hostile intelligence services of material stored in computers or word processors could be a major disaster to this country, and in particular to the efficacy of those involved in secret intelligence work".

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. Clearly this is a serious matter, perhaps a very serious matter, and it is obvious that unless it is satisfactorily cleared up—and fairly soon—it might seriously affect our relations with the United States. However, it is now sub judice, and I quite understand that the Government cannot say anything more about it at the present stage. There is only one question that I should like to ask. I gather that until the trial proceedings have been completed, no further statements can be made or questions answered, but can the noble Baroness tell us when the trial proceedings are likely to be completed? Can she say in particular whether they are likely to be completed before the beginning of the Summer Recess?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for the way that they have received the Statement. With regard to the two questions that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, asked me, I would say that I think it is not wise to comment on newspaper reports that have appeared on this case. But I should like to say that if any former employee has specific evidence of inadequate security, he should of course draw it to the attention of GCHQ.

With regard to the noble and learned Lord's second point, about computer security, the fact is that in its recent report, The Security Procedures and Practices in the Public Service, the Security Commission stated that it was impressed by the thoroughness of the physical security precautions taken to deny unauthorised access to computer installations and to prevent the use of terminals by unauthorised persons. The commission nonetheless considered that the potential threat to security posed by electronic information processing needed evaluating at a senior level. That recommendation has been implemented.

I cannot answer the second question of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn. At this point I do not have any information about it.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, will not the noble Baroness agree that there is a great danger of this country becoming extremely complacent about its security? I have in mind, for example, the fact that not long ago investigative journalists were prosecuted at the Old Bailey—I am referring to the New Statesman case—for revealing the insecurity and the unsatisfactory nature of some of our security services. It seems to me that investigative journalists in this country are in far greater danger of being prosecuted than are people engaged in espionage.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to assure the whole House that the Government are in no way complacent about security matters. Indeed, it is only last May that the White Paper on the Security Commission was published, and the Government have accepted all its recommendations.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, are the Government aware that this extremely delicate institution has been the subject of considerable investigation by the BBC, in particular by "Panorama" and that many people, including myself, were really scandalised by a "Panorama" broadcast some months ago which gave a great deal of information about the institution, its whereabouts and the people who worked there? Will the Government also recall that a book was written by Phillip Agee, an American communist, who has since been expelled from this country, who came over here especially in order to throw light—very desirable from the Soviet point of view—upon the workings of these institutions? And would it not be desirable to pass legislation to prevent books and other publications, including those by organisations other than the media, going into this sort of thing in real detail, to the detriment of national security?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think this is a matter upon which I would not wish to comment at all at this stage. I think that what is important is that we have recently had the White Paper on the Security Commission. Other matters, and other publications by private individuals, or indeed programmes from the BBC, are not matters on which I should like to comment at this time.