HL Deb 25 May 2000 vol 613 cc876-8

11.27 a.m.

Baroness Trumpington

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will agree to the publication of the memoirs of Dame Stella Rimington, the former Head of MI5.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, Dame Stella Rimington, who retired as Director-General of the Security Service in 1996, has submitted a manuscript of an autobiography to the Government and requested clearance for publication. This is fully in accordance with the normal rules applying to someone in her position. Those rules require that any serving or former member of the security and intelligence agencies obtains clearance before publishing anything relating to the work of the agencies.

The manuscript is being looked at very carefully. It is too early to say what the outcome of consideration of the text will be. Dame Stella shares the Government's overriding concern that nothing should appear which is damaging to national security.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, is the noble Lord aware that at Bletchley Park I signed the Official Secrets Act, as I did again as a Minister? That implies a lifetime of confidentiality. Is the Minister not amazed that this lady should even think of breaching that Act? What happens if Dame Stella goes abroad, like Peter Wright, and publishes?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. Those who work in the security services have that lifetime obligation. It would be inappropriate for me to speculate as to whether Dame Stella might wish to travel abroad and publish her memoirs abroad. That would be quite wrong. She has acted fully in accordance with the procedures that are currently in place. As I said earlier, we are carefully considering the manuscript, which was submitted in February of this year. Consideration of that text will take some considerable time. We cannot at this stage comment on the likely outcome of our considerations, but of course we will be actively considering these matters in due course.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, am I right in recalling that the decision on matters of this nature is not one for government or for the Cabinet but is ultimately a matter for the Attorney-General, acting in his independent role and taking into account the public interest?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with greater experience than I do and he also speaks with great wisdom. Yes, such issues must be carefully considered. The lifetime obligation is extremely important and ultimately such acts must be fully in accordance with the law.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, as the resident "spook" in this House, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to speak. Perhaps I may say at the outset that I came out of the service at the request of the Government, the Cabinet Office and my own service, and not at my own wish.

I understand that one consideration is that under the human rights legislation it may be difficult to oppose the publication of such a book. If so, will the Government give the strongest consideration to the human rights of the men and women who work for our services and who risk their lives, and have always done so, on the assumption that they will be protected for life? They have a right to that. The publication of such a book, particularly by someone as distinguished and senior as Dame Stella, will open the gates to other people. It will then be impossible to ensure that the floodgates will not open and that many more things will be said.

That is unacceptable. There are still evil regimes on which we need intelligence. There is still terrorism on which we need intelligence. It takes courage to penetrate those. The men and women of our services must be able to rely on absolute protection throughout their lives. Will the Government take strong account of that and remember that, if they do not, we shall have no more Gordievskys?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Baroness made many comments with which I entirely agree. Her knowledge of the matter is great and she is right. However, it is worth reminding your Lordships that agency staff have that lifelong duty of confidentiality and that they cannot legally publish anything about the agency without approval. Furthermore, one must respectfully put on record that Dame Stella Rimington has properly followed all the procedures which are in place to ensure that that course of action is abided by.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Human Rights Convention and the Human Rights Act ensure that a fair balance is maintained between, on the one hand, the fundamental right to free speech and, on the other, the necessity to protect national security and confidentiality? That is done in this country by the Cabinet Secretary and his advisers, by the Attorney-General and ultimately by the courts, in all of whom Members of this House have great confidence.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord is no small expert on human rights matters and he is right in all that he said. The overriding concern must be national security and the national interest. That is precisely the way in which we are approaching this delicate matter and I am sure that all Members of your Lordships' House will appreciate that and support the Government in the action which they take.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, from what my noble friend has said, I gather that, rightly, for security reasons the published memoirs will not be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Therefore, what is the point of publication?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that is an amusing and novel response. All I can accurately and fairly say is that whatever is published, national security and the national interest must come first and foremost. No doubt Dame Stella, with her distinguished record of service, will follow that clear rubric.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, when considering this matter, will the Government bear in mind the unfortunate precedent of the SAS, when the floodgates did indeed open?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his supportive observation. He is right.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, is it not a fact that one of the weaknesses, whether we are talking about the security services or the special forces, is that the Official Secrets Act no longer stands up in court? Is it not vital that the Government bring forward new official secrets legislation or a new form of contract which lasts for the lifetime of a member of the security services or special forces?

The weakness is that signing the Act does not seem to matter. Is the Minister aware that in a recent case we as a nation lost business because the friendly country with which we dealt said that it would rather employ the services of another government because they do not write books?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am interested in what the noble Viscount has said. I am duty bound to say that we have no plans to revisit and revise the Official Secrets Act and that we believe that the measures and steps we have taken with regard to the possible publication of memoirs are measured and effective. Obviously, only time will tell, but I have the greatest confidence in the standing of Dame Stella Rimington and her approach to these matters. I also have the greatest confidence in our officials who are carefully considering all the issues that the publication of those memoirs might raise.

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