HL Deb 21 October 1999 vol 605 cc1294-305
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary on Mitrokhin and related matters. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the Mitrokhin archive and other related issues.

"On 13th September, when the House was in Recess, I issued a Written Statement concerning the activities of the KGB and its agents which had been brought to light by the Mitrokhin archive. A copy of this Statement has been placed in the Library.

"The archive material relates to activities spanning several decades from 1917 up to the mid 1980s. A book by Mr Mitrokhin and Professor Christopher Andrew drawing on the archive was published in September prompting extensive media coverage. This in turn raised questions about how the archive had been used.

"In the light of these questions, I announced on 13th September, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, that the Intelligence and Security Committee had been asked to conduct an inquiry into the policies and procedures used by the intelligence and security agencies in the handling of the Mitrokhin material. I am very grateful to the right honourable Member for Bridgwater, the chairman of the committee, and his colleagues for taking on this work. My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I will carefully consider the committee's report and ensure that as much as possible of it is made public. It may, however, be helpful to the House if I set out today some of the essential background.

"Vasili Mitrokhin worked for almost 30 years in the foreign intelligence archives of the KGB, where, at great risk to himself, he made notes of the contents of the highly secret files which passed through his hands. Over many years, he assembled a huge collection of material, some in manuscript, some typed.

"In 1992, after Mr Mitrokhin approached the UK for help, the Secret Intelligence Service made arrangements to bring Mr Mitrokhin and his family to this country, together with his archive.

"As there were no original KGB documents or copies of original documents, the material itself was of no direct evidential value. But it was of huge value for intelligence and investigative purposes.

"Thousands of leads from Mr Mitrokhin's material have been followed up world-wide. As a result, our intelligence and security agencies, in cooperation with allied governments, have been able to put a stop to many security threats. Many unsolved investigations have been closed; many earlier suspicions confirmed; some names and reputations have been cleared.

"Our intelligence and security agencies have assessed the value of Mr Mitrokhin's material world-wide as immense.

"Much of the media coverage in September concerned Mrs Melita Norwood. My Statement of 13th September summarised the history of the Security Service's knowledge of Mrs Norwood spanning over half a century, and the decisions that were taken in her case. The handling of her case will plainly form part of the inquiry that is now under way by the Intelligence and Security Committee. For the convenience of the House, however, I will briefly summarise what I spelt out in September.

"Mrs Norwood was first vetted for access to government secrets in 1945 when she worked for the British Non-Ferrous Metal Research Association. Although there were concerns about her in 1945, there were insufficient grounds at that time to warrant withholding her clearance for access to sensitive documents. Further investigation, however, led to her vetting clearance being revoked in 1951. She had not in practice had authorised access to government secrets after 1949.

"An extensive investigation of Mrs Norwood in the 1960s led the Security Service to conclude that Mrs Norwood had been a spy in the 1940s. But the service also concluded that there was no usable evidence which could be used in court to support a prosecution

"When Mr Mitroklin's notes of the KGB archive material became available to British intelligence in 1992, those notes further confirmed the suspicions already held about Mrs Norwood's role as a spy. However, the Security Service again concluded that this material did not on its own constitute evidence which could be put to a UK court. Moreover, a judgment was made at that time that material needed to remain secret for a period. There were many leads to more recent espionage to be followed up, particularly in the countries of a number of our close allies, which could be jeopardised by premature disclosure. In summary, the key decisions in this case were made in 1945, in 1951, in 1966 and in 1992–93.

"Questions on prosecutions for espionage or for any other alleged crime are a matter for the prosecuting authorities and the law officers, not for the Home Secretary of the day.

"As I made clear in my 13th September Statement, the papers relating to Mrs Norwood were submitted to the Attorney-General in the spring of this year. But he concluded that 1992 had represented the last opportunity for the authorities to proceed by way of a criminal investigation/possible prosecution, and that there was therefore no decision for him to take. I can, however, tell the House that, in the light of Mrs Norwood's recent statements, the papers in this case are currently being studied again by the prosecuting authorities. I understand that four other cases covering the Mitrokhin archive and other related matters are also being considered.

"Let me now turn to the decision which was taken to make publicly available information from the Mitrokhin archive. Although the material has been in the custody of the Secret Intelligence Service since 1992, it was and remains the property of Mr Mitrokhin. It was always his intention that the material should be published but Mr Mitrokhin agreed to co-operate with the major operation by the security and intelligence agencies, which I have outlined, to use the information first for investigative purposes.

"I understand that by 1996 investigations in the UK and elsewhere had reached a stage where it was possible to agree to start the process to meet Mr Mitrokhin's wish to see the story revealed. Given the nature of his notes, it was concluded that this could best be done through an historical analysis.

"In March 1996 the right honourable Sir Malcolm Rifkind QC, the then Foreign Secretary, agreed in principle that Professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge University should be invited to coauthor, with Mr Mitrokhin, an historical study of those aspects of the archive which cover KGB activities against the principal Western states. I understand that Sir Malcolm agreed with the recommendation that an inter-departmental committee of officials should consider whether any of the information in the material needed to be withheld from publication. I also understand that Sir Malcolm imposed a condition that any allegations of criminal behaviour against individual persons should not be made public unless those individuals agreed or they had been prosecuted and convicted.

"This Government were informed in late 1997 of the plan to publish the archive, and concurred. In 1998 the Secret Intelligence Service entered into confidentiality agreements with Professor Andrew and the publishers, Penguin. These were intended to ensure that still sensitive material was not published.

"In the interests of national security, the Security Service has over the years carried out many investigations into allegations of espionage based on intelligence which it has acquired. But allegations or even good intelligence are not proof of criminal activity. They are instead the basis for investigative work designed to prevent further damage to the interests of the country. They may in turn help in the end unearth evidence solid enough to put before a court.

"The publication of news articles and television programmes about the Mitrokhin archive and East German Stasi records has led some people to ask that the Government should publish a list of all those against whom allegations of spying and complicity with the KGB and Stasi have been made. There are, however, compelling arguments against doing so which have been accepted by successive Governments.

"First, it would be wrong to compromise the effectiveness of the intelligence and security agencies by revealing the cases on which they may be working. Above and beyond that consideration, it is a long established rule of law that people are innocent until convicted in a court of law. We must not slide into trial by denunciation.

"The Mitrokhin archive has raised some important issues which we are pursuing through an inquiry by the ISC and we wait for its report to see what lessons can be learned. That must not obscure the important value of Mr Mitrokhin's work to this country and to our allies. His archive is a unique testimony to a brave individual who worked alone against tyranny. It is also a reminder, if one were needed, of the continuing value of the work of our security and intelligence services".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.42 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the consequences of the traitorous actions described in the Mitrokhin archive were exceptionally damaging to this country and to some individuals and were, of course, designed to be absolutely catastrophic. The whole House will be appalled by the behaviour of the spies, which has been revealed by the archive. But, equally, the whole House will endorse the Home Secretary's commendation of the bravery of Mr Mitrokhin and also his praise for the security and intelligence services. We also look forward to reading the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee on this matter.

I note that the Statement said that the archive did not contain original evidence and so was itself of no direct evidential value. No doubt this influenced the decisions of the Security Service about prosecutions in 1992. However, in the past few weeks there have been some confessions which obviously affect the considerations of possible prosecutions. I am glad that prosecution is being reconsidered. If I may express a personal view, I hope that the noble and learned Lord the new Attorney-General will find it legally possible to approve prosecutions following the confessions. But I do not ask for a comment on that this afternoon from the Home Office. My only regret is that a punishment of banishment to the former Soviet Union will not, in any case, be available to the courts.

Can the Minister confirm that the length of time since the crimes and the age of those concerned will not be limiting factors, particularly in the light of the recent World War II prosecution, which was also for very serious crimes, and, for that matter, the treatment of Senator Pinochet? Can the noble Lord tell the House whether the conditions on publication, which were laid down by the right honourable Sir Malcolm Rifkind—that no allegations of criminal behaviour should be made public unless either the individuals had been convicted, or they had agreed—have been adhered to? If so, how has it come about that some individuals were featured in television programmes and in newspaper articles at the time of publication last month? This has been a most serious affair. We look forward to seeing the committee's report on the details of how it has evolved over a long period of years.

3.45 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, it may be slightly mind-boggling to read that these documents cover the period from 1917 to the 1980s. Therefore, this is one of those rare occasions that allows me to say that these Benches take ministerial responsibility, as do the Opposition and the Government. We also endorse what the Minister said about the continuing value of the work of our security and intelligence services. But that should not make us hold those services in awe. I think that our first base should be that we want security services which catch spies when they are active and alive, not when they are dead or old.

In many ways, the areas covered here belong to another world. I was international secretary of the Labour Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I fully believe that I must have talked to the KGB, the Stasi, MI6, the CIA, BOSS and MOSAD. It was a Cold War world. It is important to get into perspective the things that have changed since then. Indeed, if we go back to some of the hysteria of those days and some of the assumptions that were made by informed commentators—and we now look back with the information of hindsight—the TUC General Council actually comes out better than the University of Cambridge, if we are measuring patriotism.

When looking at such archives, it is also important to point out, as has been emphasised, that they are notes and jottings; they are not prime sources. It is important to bear that in mind when using words like "criminal" and "offences" as regards people who are named. It is also important to understand the difference between actions by Crown servants who have signed the Official Secrets Act and individual citizens who may be opinionated and freely give their opinions hither and thither but who, in fact, have no disposable secrets to give.

The cases revealed fall into both those categories. In the case of the Crown servants, one has to ask whether a prosecution would succeed on this evidence and whether such prosecutions would be in the public interest. I freely admit—and these Benches admit it—that this is a judgment call. If the Cold War were still at its height, one might say, "prosecute"; but it is over and won. We are dealing with events which took place a long time ago. The following words come to mind: Let the dead Past bury its dead! So what about the future? Treason is still treason and it is important that we have efficient, effective and accountable security forces. But we must face the fact that if we look at "efficient, effective and accountable" in terms of our security forces, we cannot give them 100 per cent on any of those categories over the period of consideration.

There is still genuine concern about political and parliamentary control of our security forces. As regards the case at hand, from 1992 to 1997 the security forces in many ways acted as judge and jury in terms of what they should reveal, when they should reveal it and to whom they should reveal it. Too often in the past, the security forces have chosen to reveal not to political masters, but to Chapman Pincher, Rupert Allason or Brian Crozier.

We believe that the key is accountability. I must say that in my experience Prime Ministers, Home Secretaries and Foreign Secretaries sometimes get sucked into the security services' "club". The security services committee was always seen as a halfway house. I realise this question is premature but we shall continue to ask it. What is the Government's response to the suggestion of the Home Affairs Select Committee that the security services should now be fully accountable to Parliament? In the mean time, what measures will be put in place to ensure that the ISC is fully informed? It is extremely worrying, and indeed extraordinary, that Mr Tom King and his committee were kept totally ignorant of these matters over the long period that they were in the hands of the security forces.

What is the Government's response to the suggestion made by my colleague Simon Hughes in another place that prosecution of present and former spies should not be the accountable prerogative of security services' officers or Ministers of the day but should be done on the advice of some special counsel who would be independent of both political pressures and security service influence? There is schizophrenia as regards spies. Mata Hari and the life of Riley, James Bond and Smiley's People all convey glamour and entertainment. Whenever these matters come before Parliament, there is a retreat on the part of politicians because the security services marshal their considerable skills to imply that anyone who questions them is somehow being unpatriotic.

We on these Benches believe that our security services have an important job to perform. Rogue states, drugs, organised crime and international terrorism should all be on their agenda. However, I repeat that to combat those threats we need effective, efficient and accountable security services. We on these Benches believe that if we obtain parliamentary accountability in this regard, effectiveness and efficiency will flow from that.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Government are most grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord McNally, for their confident support of our security forces and security agencies and for their continued commitment to support the national interest through the national security services. There are, of course, many important questions relating to accountability on which many Members of your Lordships' House will no doubt have different and differing views. That is, of course, an important area of public debate.

I shall try to answer some of the points that have been raised by your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about the length of time since crimes occurred and whether the age of those concerned might be a limiting factor. Of course that is an important consideration, but we take the view that whether or not anyone faces prosecution is very much a matter for the prosecuting authorities. It is a matter of public record that those authorities take into account the strength of evidence and the public interest; those must be paramount. Age may, no doubt, enter into the equation, but it can be only a part of that consideration. It must not be the determining factor. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, also asked whether the conditions of publication had been properly adhered to. So far as I am aware, the conditions of publication have been properly adhered to and that must continue to be the case. I am grateful to the noble Lord for asking that question.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, asked a couple of questions about the role of the Home Affairs Select Committee and its views, and about the role to be played by the Intelligence and Security Committee. It is the Government's intention that we co-operate fully with the Intelligence and Security Committee, but we cannot anticipate the committee's conclusions or commit ourselves now to accepting all of its conclusions. We expect that the committee's investigation will be a thorough one; we should expect no less. We shall look carefully at the committee's findings and at the recommendations that it makes.

There may well be lessons to be learnt for the future. We look forward to the contribution which the ISC is able to make in this process. We recognise that there is a debate to be had as regards the ISC's conclusions, our view and the views of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

We hold strongly to the view that no one should be judged as guilty without full evidence being made available. It is entirely a matter for the prosecuting authorities as to who should be prosecuted, where and when. I stick firmly by the point that we must not have trial by denunciation. I believe that to be utterly wrong. The previous government held that to be an important principle, as do Her Majesty's Government today. We need to proceed with great care when following up revelations.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I ask about the trial by denunciation dimension. As I am sure everyone will accept, this is not the first time that selective leaks to by and large Right-wing newspapers by government—as happened in the Gordievsky affair and now—have named a number of people who are thought to have been involved in matters but against whom a prosecution has not been brought. A number of these are my friends and colleagues. I declare an interest. As a professional in a policy studies institute in the 1980s I was involved in conversations with Russians. I recall a Sunday Telegraph half-page article which suggested that the then Christopher Tugendhat and I were dangerously close to being agents of influence in going to meet Yakoulev and Primakov in Moscow.

We have to be concerned about the relationship between the security services and newspapers of a conspiratorial bent. Nowadays The Times and the Telegraph see conspiracy as often in Brussels as in Moscow, but I refer to allowing the security services to give lists of names, many of whom are professionals who have to be engaged—as are all professionals in international relations—in discussions with governments of whom we do not in arty sense approve and with experts working with those governments whom we often suspect of being engaged in intelligence activities. Can we have an assurance that part of the role of the inquiry will be to ensure that the relationship between the security services and such newspapers will be properly investigated in future because a great deal of damage has been done to innocent people, not just on this occasion but even more in the Gordievsky affair and on earlier occasions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I join other Members of your Lordships' House in repudiating trial by denunciation. I think that it is quite wrong and I have made that clear. The Government hold firmly to that view. Of course, it must be for the ISC to draw its own conclusions. Those conclusions will be shaped and framed by input from Members in another place and no doubt from Members of your Lordships' House and from elsewhere. Clearly, the committee will draw on a wide range of material in coming to its conclusions and its views with regard to these matters. It must be unfettered in that exercise. It will then quite properly be for the Government to consider our response. Clearly, accountability is an important issue. We shall have to consider those matters carefully. I can say no more than that on that point.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, is the Mitrokhin/Andrew book the only material to be considered by the Intelligence and Security Committee? Will the Minister ensure that that is made freely available in the Library in order that we may read it? I am particularly interested in the Agee and Hosenbal case, for which I was responsible when I was the Home Secretary. It was the first matter to appear on my desk on the day I took up my appointment. Parliament was heavily involved in that material. I am advised that the Agee and Hosenbal case is dealt with in this book—or at least in the material. The case was discussed in Parliament and the material should now be made freely available.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments. I return to the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place. With the agreement of the Prime Minister, he announced on 13th September that the Intelligence and Security Committee was to be asked to conduct an inquiry into the policies and procedures used by the intelligence and security agencies in the handling of the Mitrokhin material. That provides sufficient scope for a wide-ranging consideration of all the issues the noble Lord raised in his earlier comments.

As to The Mitrokhin Archive, I can reveal—it is no great secret—that I have a copy. It consists of 1,000 pages and there are but six references in it to Meli ta Norwood. In my humble opinion, it is not the best of bedtime reading. I would far prefer to cuddle up in bed with a cup of cocoa and a Ruth Rendell. The Mitrokhin Archive is not at the top of my Christmas book list.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I wish to make three points. First, I have the impression from the Statement—I was very pleased to hear it—that there had been perfectly accountable behaviour by both services in terms of keeping the relevant Ministers informed. Secondly—I think that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will agree—it is not very likely that Mitrokhin would have come to us, as Penkovsky did at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, if he had not felt that he would be given total protection and total secrecy. That is where, unfortunately, the need for professional services comes in. It has nothing to do with the honour and integrity of members of Select Committees; it is to do with training and the t rust that needs to exist in the mind of a potential source who is about to risk his life. That is one reason why I fear it will always be difficult to be very much more open than the services are at present.

That said, I greatly welcome the existence of the Intelligence and Security Committee. It seems to be doing an admirable job. I am sure it will properly investigate whatever needs to be investigated. However, we should remember that many of the unfortunate events of the past few weeks—and the events earlier which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNally—were inspired by the media, not the services. Finally, we should remember, alas, that anything that is said in public in the House of Commons is as available to our enemies as to our friends. It is a hard fact.

Lord Bassam

My Lords, the noble Baroness speaks with great experience and wisdom. She spent her career dealing with these matters and she speaks with a great deal of sense.

The noble Baroness is quite right to say that we must treat Mr Mitrokhin with care. We should be very grateful to him for the work that he carried out. As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said, he was very brave and we owe him a great deal. The noble Baroness is also right that anything we say in public may well be used by our enemies elsewhere. We need to be careful and mindful of that.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for repeating the Statement. I listened to it with great interest. I thought it curious that the original Mitrokhin archive appears to remain the private property of Mr Mitrokhin. A number of questions arise from that, although I readily accept that the Minister may not be able to answer them directly.

First, what other resources of the secret services are effectively the private property of individuals who are not under the control of the Official Secrets Act? Secondly, why did not the secret services simply buy the Mitrokhin archive from him, thereby ensuring that it was their property, to deal with as they saw fit? Thirdly, was the reason that the secret services did not have enough money to buy it? I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to answer my questions directly, but they should be considered.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord asked an interesting question and raised an interesting point. The fact remains, however, that the Mitrokhin archive is the Mitrokhin archive; it is his property. It is for Mr Mitrokhin to use or dispose of the Mitrokhin archive as he wishes. He created the archive; it his personal property. I can assure the noble Lord with honesty and integrity that, as far as I am aware, no other material has been made available to Mr Mitrokhin or Professor Andrew in the creation of the book.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord two questions. First, following on from what was said by my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, both security organisations have had the habit of leaking information to a handful of journalists. This has gone on for many years. In many cases it has had a most destructive effect on relations with other organisations within the criminal justice area. Will the Minister draw the comments of my noble friend to the attention of the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee so that the matter can be looked into?

Secondly, it would be unwise for us to become involved in exposing particular individuals as alleged spies by name. Were we to do so, if criminal proceedings were to be considered it would be very difficult to ensure that relevant matters came before a court because of the amount of pre-trial damage which might be caused to an individual's reputation.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the final point of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is obviously very important. He is quite right; I agree completely with his comments. The noble Lord asked that I pass on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, to the ISC. Those comments are of course publicly recorded in Hansard and I am sure that he will not hesitate to draw them to the attention of the ISC. It would be quite in order and quite proper to do so. His comments were wisely made.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, does my noble friend disagree with one point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally; namely, that, because the ideological war against Soviet Communism is past and has been won, that in some way should be a significant point in determining against any prosecution? If there is usable evidence—whether it be from the archive or from admissions and confessions made by individuals subsequent to the publication of the archive—which reveals what may be very serious consequences following on betrayal, that should be a reason for prosecution rather than the opposite, which was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally.

Lord Bassam

My Lords I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, for his comments. However, I must decline to comment one way or the other on whether it is right or proper to prosecute. As I said, prosecutions are a matter for the prosecuting authorities. It is their responsibility alone. It cannot be for others to urge or encourage prosecutions. The prosecuting authorities are properly charged with that responsibility

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am provoked by some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to say a word on the question of the responsibility and supervision of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I have served on four Select Committees in the other place; I was intimately concerned with the legislation drawn up to establish the Intelligence and Security Committee; and I served on the committee for the whole of the last Parliament. I started out as something of a sceptic in regard to those arrangements. There are clear distinctions between the powers of a Select Committee and the powers of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

I should also like to say that, having served on that committee for some two-and-a-half years, I was totally converted to the powers and functions of that committee as it exists, and it was certainly my impression that that view was shared by every member of the committee. It comprised distinguished representatives of the Conservative Party who had served in the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Northern Ireland Office and the Foreign Office. I hope that my noble friend can confirm that the present membership of that committee is equally satisfied with its powers.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Gilbert for that point. I can confirm that the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are entirely happy with their range of powers, duties and responsibilities in this matter. I thank my noble friend for his observations.

Lord McNally

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, the point that I made, and which was followed up by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, was not mine alone. The conclusion of the Home Affairs Select Committee is as follows, In our view, it is inevitable that the intelligence services will one day become accountable to Parliament. That is the logical outcome of the process of reform embarked upon by the previous Government". We agree with that statement.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his further point. We are all familiar with that line of argument. It is an important part of the debate and we fully recognise that.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, will the House allow me to add that if that should ever come to pass, the Government would have a lovely, peaceful life because there would be no intelligence?