HL Deb 10 December 1984 vol 458 cc21-3

3.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat an Answer to a Private Notice Question concerning the institution of an inquiry into allegations of telephone tapping and interference with the mail of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which has just been given in another place. The Answer which was given by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is as follows:

"No, Sir. I am satisfied that the arrangements set out in the White Paper, The Interception of Communications in Great Britain, are strictly applied to all concerned.

"The complaints about the provision of postal and telephone services are matters for the Post Office and British Telecom, whose duty it is, in the first instance, to investigate any allegations of improper conduct on the part of their staff".

That completes the reply which was given by my right honourable friend.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, while I thank the noble Lord the Minister for repeating the reply to that Private Notice Question given in another place, I should like to ask him if he would accept that in all quarters of the House the question of the rights of privacy of our citizens is regarded as very precious. Does he remember that from these Benches an amendment was moved to the Telecommunications Bill which—I was going to use the word "extracted": that is not very courteous—resulted in a commitment from the Government that there would be legislation following upon the lines of that amendment and especially following upon what was held by the European Court to be the breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights? Has the noble Lord the Minister seen the evidence that has so far been adduced by the CND, which has at least now resulted, as the press reports, in a cheque for £100 being sent by the Post Office as a gesture of apology for irregularities that have apparently occurred in the opening of correspondence? Is he at least agreed that it is not the habit of authorities like the Post Office to waste public money by giving cheques for £100, or any sum, to people who do not definitely deserve them?

Has the noble Lord the Minister as yet seen the evidence which is to be adduced this week to the Select Committee on the Special Branch? Lastly, in view of the reply which he was good enough to repeat given by his right honourable friend in another place to this Private Notice Question, may I ask him whether he has seen the article in the Observer of 5th August of this year, which followed on the finding of the European Court and which contained these words: Equally sensitive is the issue of whether the official warrants system is being abused. The most recent official figures record that in 1979 the Home Secretary authorised 411 telephone taps, but members of the intelligence community say the system is easily manipulated. Warrants can be transferred from one target to another. A warrant for an individual can be used to tap the offices of his organisation. A warrant for an organisation's headquarters can be used to tap all of its members". Will the noble Lord the Minister assure the House that the apprehensions that have been created by this article are not in fact justified, and will he tell the House that there is strict accountability and that the reputation of this country for freedom is not being impaired by those who are indulging in telephone tapping and interference with mail, so that we take on the guise of the very governments we are prone to criticise?

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, I have three questions. First, does the noble Lord agree with the observations by the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, in col. 1032 of Hansard of 19th March of this year, when the noble Viscount said: I fully appreciate the importance of interception as a weapon to be used—but used sparingly—in the fight against terrorism, drug smuggling and organised crime and for the safeguarding of our national security"? In particular, do the Government stand by the words of the noble Viscount, "but used sparingly"?

Secondly, has the noble Lord seen the categorical assertion in the Guardian this morning that the Special Branch surveillance of peace activists is recognised as a legitimate activity of the security service? Is that an accurate statement of fact and, if so, is there not some danger that it will drift into being the improper harrying of the Government's political opponents? Thirdly, in view of the clear evidence that has been produced that there has been a substantial amount of tampering with CND mail by the Post Office, can the noble Lord reassure us, in relation to such complaints, that there have been similar complaints by, let us say, the Institute of Directors or the Policy Studies Institute?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I can of course readily record that the Government share the importance attached by Members of this House, in all quarters, to the matter of preserving the privacy of private individuals in our society. To answer the other specific questions of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, I would say that I have not yet seen the evidence which is to be adduced to the Select Committee of another place, and therefore I cannot comment on that. I am aware that what he referred to as the evidence produced by the CND has so far emerged in the press as amounting to a pattern of allegations. I can also say that I am aware that a cheque for £100 has been given, and I understand that it is normal practice for the Post Office to make a payment as a goodwill gesture where they feel that their clients have not been properly served or may have grounds for complaint. But the basis of payment, as I understand it, was not that the mail had been opened but that it had been damaged.

The noble Lord referred to the legislation promised on an earlier occasion by my noble friend. I can confirm that we shall shortly be publishing a White Paper indicating the scope of the legislation which we shall be introducing in the course of this Session of Parliament. In the meantime, there is indeed strict accountability for the use of this power, and I can reassure the noble Lord that when a warrant is issued it specifies one person or organisation and cannot be transferred, as was implied in the article to which he referred.

I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that I almost invariably agree with what is said by my noble Leader, particularly when he is sitting next to me; and I can in this case confirm that the power is used sparingly. As to the question of whether a particular organisation might be the subject of this sort of investigation or surveillance, I have to say exactly what members of every Government have always said in these cases, which is that it is their unvarying policy never to confirm or to deny the existence of authorised interception in particular cases, whatever the circumstances. The reasons for that are well established and agreed by all parties.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, before the noble Lord the Minister sits down, I should like to thank him for his courtesy in dealing with the questions that I raised. However, I should also like to express my astonishment at him having been briefed that this may be a case where the Post Office admitted no liability and were merely dealing with a case of possible inconvenience to a customer. May I tell the noble Lord that reported in this morning's issue of the Guardian is the following quotation from Sir Roland Dearing, the Chairman of the Post Office, in a letter to the CND: It is evident that something is going badly wrong within our system and I want to assure you that we view this extremely seriously".

Lord Elton

My Lords. I readily accept that, and I did not wish to imply otherwise. What I wished to imply was that the payment did not confirm a deliberate opening of the mail; as I said. what was thought to be going wrong was damage to the mail.