HL Deb 25 January 1984 vol 447 cc252-7

3.48 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a Statement on Government Communications Headquarters and the Employment Protection Acts.

"As the House knows, the Employment Protection Acts contain provisions which enable the Government to except Crown employees from the application of the Acts. These provisions can be used only for the purposes of safeguarding national security, and reflect the acknowledged need for particularly sensitive functions of Government to be protected so far as possible from the risk of exposure or disruption.

"Government Communications Headquarters is responsible for intelligence work of crucial importance to our national security. To be effective this work must be conducted secretly. Moreover, GCHQ must provide a service which can be relied on with confidence at all times. It is clear, therefore, that the conditions envisaged in the special provisions of the Employment Protection Acts exist in this case.

"The House will wish to know that, for these reasons. I have today signed certificates under Section 121(4) of the Employment Protection Act 1975 and Section 138(4) of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, excepting GCHQ employees from the application of the relevant provision.

"The certificates have immediate effect and new conditions of service are at the same time being introduced at GCHQ. Under these new conditions, staff will be permitted in future to belong only to a departmental staff association approved by their director.

"The very special nature of the work of GCHQ will be apparent from what I have said. The action which I have taken stems directly from that. The Government fully respect the right of civil servants to be members of a trade union, and it is only the special nature of the work of the GCHQ which has led us to take these measures. I can assure the House therefore that it is not our intention to introduce similar measures outside the field of security and intelligence.

"GCHQ staff are being informed of these measures this afternoon. Those who decide to remain at GCHQ will each receive a payment of £1,000 in recognition of the fact that certain rights which they have hitherto enjoyed are being withdrawn from them in the interests of national security. Those who do not wish to continue to serve at GCHQ will be offered the opportunity of seeking a transfer to another part of the Civil Service."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. We recognise the crucial importance of national security, but as this Statement has been presented without notice, clearly we shall need more time to consider the full implications of the proposals which the noble Baroness has just read out, and to consider especially whether or not there are adequate grounds to justify them.

We should be told why this serious step is being taken now. Is there some special reason to make this necessary at this stage? If there is, that should be made known. Can the noble Baroness comment on the industrial record of this group of employees? What is their record on industrial disputes? Have there been any industrial disputes over the last few years and, if so, can the noble Baroness say how many and what was their nature? May I assume, as would normally be the case, that there has been full consultation with the parties concerned, and will the noble Baroness tell us their reaction? For example, was the £1,000 compensation an agreed sum with the parties in question? Finally, are the Government proposing to invite the Security Commission to consider the matter?—as the commission seems to me to be ideally suited to inquire into it.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, from these Benches we should like to join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for having repeated this Statement. Clearly the Government are taking a very serious step this afternoon and, like the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, we shall need to give it further consideration.

Our first reaction—perhaps somewhat like the noble Lord's—is that, although we can understand that there may be considerations of security which justify the Government withholding from employees engaged on work as sensitive as that referred to in this Statement the right to withdraw their labour, in the absence of more information than we have been given we are indeed reluctant to concur in a step which has the effect of denying the employees concerned the right to belong to a trade union. Indeed, the process under which the people concerned are, it seems, to be "bought out", if I may use that expression, at £1,000 a time merely serves to increase our qualms.

The only other point that I can usefully raise at this short notice, in support of what the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has said in this House, is also to inquire of the noble Baroness whether, in what we must acknowledge is a very delicate field, nevertheless there is any further information that she can now give us which may help to resolve our doubts as to the wisdom of the course which the Government have decided to take.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am grateful that both the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn and Lord Rochester, recognise that this is a particulary delicate situation. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked the reason for this decision. Of course, it is a decision which puts the employees of GCHQ in exactly the same position as other employees in security services in the Government and the armed services.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me about industrial disputes at GCHQ. Since 1979 there have been industrial disputes, and strikes took place between 1979 and 1981. On the question whether or not there was discussion about the compensation of £1,000 for those who decide to remain at GCHQ, I confirm that it would not have been appropriate to engage in extensive consulations with the staff on this matter, and the unions represented at GCHQ were not consulted. But, in parallel with the announcement, letters are being sent to GCHQ staff, and the non-industrial civil service trade unions are being informed this afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me about the Security Commission. The Security Commission has not been consulted. This is not a matter for the Security Commission itself. The commission is normally involved only when there has been a breach of security.

I hope that the answers that I have given to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, cover the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, because I believe that they were of a similar nature.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that many noble Peers will be disturbed at receiving such an important announcement at such short notice, and that they would have preferred more notice in order to understand the implications of the Government's action? Is the noble Baroness aware that the way in which trade unionists have been ignored on this matter carries undertones which suggest that to be a member of a trade union could indicate some disloyalty to the Crown?—in spite of the fact that past efforts in this country, certainly as recent as the Falklands affair, have shown that that is not the case and that trade unionists are as loyal to the Crown, the Government and the people of this country as any other sector. I am amazed that the Government have become involved in such action without discussing the matter. I am not suggesting that they are not entitled to take the decision—that is their prerogative. But I am amazed that they have taken such a far-reaching decision without consulting the responsible trade unionists who have represented these people over a number of years. I hope that I shall not be proved right if I say that in some respects they may regret the decision they have taken.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I note the point that the noble Lord, Lord Dean, has made. I should like to make it quite clear that this in no way implies disloyalty among trade unionists. As I said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, the purpose of the decision which the Government have taken in this matter is to bring GCHQ into line with other security services.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that those of us who in the past have had responsibility in the field of Civil Service administration realise better than most what a difficult step this must have been to take, and are therefore the more reassured by the firmness and determination of the Government to preserve national security by resolute action?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for what he has said, and I entirely agree with the points that he has made.

4 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness would be good enough to deal with one of my questions, which she inadvertently overlooked; namely, was there any specific reason for taking this step now, given that, clearly, there has been no unusual difficulty, and especially given her assurance that there is no doubt about the loyalty of trade unionists in this country? Indeed, given the history of the last 50 years, the trade unions stand out as about the most loyal section of the community.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should be glad to confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, that this is in no sense an attack on trade unions or on their members. I should like to repeat the assurance that I have already given in answer to a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dean. The Government believe that special conditions apply in security and intelligence work, and that, in the case of GCHQ, they are bringing the employees in line with the same conditions as apply to those employed at the present time in other security establishments.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness whether she would be kind enough to dwell a little more closely on the question troubling the noble Lord who asked the previous question and, I am sure, many others of your Lordships? Although we well understand the view of the Government that this particular department should be brought in line with other intelligence departments, what is difficult to understand, in the absence of anything which has triggered this off, is why a decision should be made so precipitately and so unusually without consultation with the parties involved.

Baroness Young

My Lords, the decision was taken for the reasons that I have already given to the House. The Government, because of the difficult nature of the decision and the particular circumstances, felt that it was not a matter that could be discussed before the final decision was taken.

Lord Drumalbyn

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend to believe that some of us feel some doubt about this but at the same time we realise that if there was a particular reason for taking this decision at this moment—and I do not say whether there was or there was not—it would not have been appropriate for us, in the nature of security circumstances, to demand to be told what that reason was. It seems to me quite obvious that in this field, when you have to take a decision of this kind, you do not reveal the reason at the time for taking that decision. I find this consideration completely overriding, and I hope that noble Lords will agree with me in this case.

I do not know whether my noble friend could tell the House how many members of trade unions are involved in this. I do not know that it would do more than put the matter in perspective; but, for my part, I am quite satisfied that it is not appropriate to demand to know the reason why this decision has been taken at this moment.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn for his understanding of the particular circumstances and of the answers which I must, of necessity, give under these circumstances. My noble friend asked how many staff are affected. I should like to confirm that all staff at GCHQ are affected by the Statement.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am sorry to come back so soon, and I thank the noble Baroness for her courtesy and the way she has answered the probing questions that have been put. However, there will be no doubt in my mind—I may be wrong, but I have an idea that I will not be—that it will be taken by outsiders that somebody's loyalty was in question. I do not think you can draw any inference other than the fact that the Government have taken a decision that people in certain places, in certain jobs, cannot be totally trusted.

I have to cast noble Lords' minds back to the last war, when I was employed as an apprentice and when the trade unions, at the request of Winston Churchill, literally tore up their own rule books in order to defend this country and what it stood for. It is sad if the Government have taken this precipitate action. It may have been necessary at the end of the day, but to have done it without discussion of the full implications with the people representing those responsible is a disaster. It will be a disaster for the Government in their industrial relations with people in sensitive jobs.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I can appreciate the strong feelings of the noble Lord, Lord Dean, because he has only just heard the Statement. But I hope he will reflect upon what has been said this afternoon and no doubt read Hansard. I hope that he will consider first what I have said, that this is in no sense an attack on trade unions or trade unionists, whose loyalty is not in doubt; and, secondly, that the arrangements that are being made in GCHQ are precisely those that apply now, and have applied, to other security establishments—no more, no less—and that no one is being singled out in this way.