HL Deb 12 May 1983 vol 442 cc699-702WA
Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have received the report of the Security Commission on the case of Geoffrey Arthur Prime, and whether they will make a statement.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Young)

In my right honourable friend the Prime Minister's Statement on 11th November 1982 she announced that, after consultation with the right honourable gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, she had asked the Security Commission to investigate the circumstances in which breaches of security had, or might have, occurred arising out of the case of Geoffrey Arthur Prime, who was convicted on 10th November 1982 of offences under the Official Secrets Act 1911, and to advise in the light of that investigation whether any change in security arrangements was necessary or desirable.

The commission have completed their task and submitted their report. The Government are most grateful to Lord Bridge of Harwich, Lord Justice Griffiths, Lord Allen of Abbeydale and General Sir Hugh Beach for their work. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister gave assurances in another place on 11 th November that the commission's findings would be laid before Parliament to the fullest extent compatible with national security. A Command Paper is being published this afternoon. It contains the full text of the commission's report, but not the appendices to the report which contain classified information which it would not be in the public interest to publish.

Prime was employed in the public service from 1956 to 1977, first in the Royal Air Force and subsequently, from 1968 to 1977, in Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). The functions of GCHQ, which are carried out under the ministerial responsibility of my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, are to ensure the security of the United Kingdom's military and official communications, and to provide signals intelligence in accordance with requirements laid upon it by the Government in support of the Government's defence and foreign policies. From 1968 to 1977, Prime worked on signals intelligence in GCHQ, and during that time and until November 1981 he passed a great deal of his knowledge of this most sensitive area to the Russians. There is no doubt that his disclosures caused exceptionally grave damage to the interests of this country and its allies.

The commission say that there is no positive evidence to contradict Prime's statement that he acted alone. There have been intensive and extensive investigations, but no evidence has so far come to light to suggest that Prime had an accomplice or that the Soviet Union has, or had, another source of information within GCHQ. Nevertheless, investigations are continuing with a view to being as certain as possible on this point.

Prime was first given positive vetting clearance by the RAF in 1966. During the time that Prime was spying for the Russians, his positive vetting status was reviewed four times, in 1968, 1973, 1974 and 1976, but on no occasion was any doubt cast on his reliability. The commission examined closely all these vetting clearances. They concluded that the fact that Prime's espionage activities were not discovered was not attributable to any failure to operate the positive vetting procedures properly.

In the course of the investigations that have taken place since Prime's trial, his first wife has disclosed that Prime confessed to her in 1973 that he was a spy. Her close friend, Miss Barsby, has admitted that the then Mrs. Prime reported this confession to her at that time. Neither woman came forward to denounce Prime. The then Mrs. Prime was not seen in the course of the subsequent PV investigations, but Miss Barsby was; indeed. Prime nominated her as one of his referees. Not only did she not volunteer her knowledge of Prime's confession, but she took the positive step of telling the investigator who interviewed her that she had no reason to think Prime should not be entrusted with secret Government work. Had she acted differently, Prime's spying could have been brought to an end in 1973.

The commission say that they can attach no blame to the investigation officer who carried out the 1973 review. The officer concerned is no longer living, but he seems from the records to have put all the relevant questions to Miss Barsby, and there appears to have been no reason why he should have suspected that Miss Barsby was deliberately lying to him, or should not have accepted her assurances as to Prime's character and reliability.

One other matter which, if it had emerged during the PV review, might have resulted in Prime's clearance being withdrawn, was the fact that he had consulted a psychiatrist in November 1972. The psychiatrist's report cast doubt on Prime's stability. Prime should have reported this visit under staff regulations but he did not do so, and GCHQ had no other means of finding out.

The commission also identified weaknesses in physical and document security at GCHQ. In particular they criticise the control of photocopying facilities at one period in the past and refer to infrequency of spot musters of particular documents. Tighter controls in this area would have been unlikely to lead to Prime being detected, but they might have restricted his activities.

The commission recognise that personnel security measures, no matter how rigorous, can never provide an absolute guarantee against disloyalty. They have nevertheless recommended a number of measures to improve our defences. The Government accept the commission's recommendations, and will implement them as quickly as possible.

Some of these recommendations fall within the framework of the existing security system. These cover:

  • the wider use of random searches of staff leaving Government buildings where staff handle highly classified material in substantial quantities;
  • more emphasis on the responsibility of managers for security supervision; and
  • procedures for access, with the individual's consent, to medical records.

These recommendations are of general application to all Government departments and staff with access to highly classified information. The commission recommend that more radical screening procedures should be applied to staff in intelligence and security agencies with access to the most sensitive categories of information. These recommendations include:

  • more rigorous standards for PV in those agencies;
  • consideration of the introduction of psychological testing in security screening of applicants for employment in these agencies who would have access to information of the highest classification;
  • the extension of PV investigations in relation to such applicants to include interviews with independent witnesses other than the referees named by the person to be vetted; and
  • a pilot scheme to test the feasibility of polygraph security screening in the intelligence and security agencies.

The commission conclude that the polygraph is the only measure of which it could be said with any confidence that it would have protected GCHQ from Prime's treachery, because it would either have deterred him from applying to join or could have exposed him in the course of examination. In view of this and of the extreme gravity of the damage caused by Prime, the Government accept the commission's recommendation that a full and thorough pilot scheme should be carried out. The commission recognise that a polygraph examination is generally regarded as a disagreeable experience and would be seen by some as an unwarranted invasion of their privacy. But we are dealing with matters of the highest national security, and those who have access to the nation's most sensitive secrets must expect to be subject to the most rigorous vetting procedures. Moreover, the commission propose that questioning under the polygraph should be limited to counterintelligence examination—such as exposure to approaches by hostile intelligence services—and should not extend to questions of life-style, such as criminality, drug taking, sexual matters and financial affairs. They also recommend that in no case should a supposedly adverse polygraph indication be treated by itself as a ground to withhold clearance without independent confirmation from some other source. The Government are in full agreement with the commission that safeguards of this nature must be incorporated in the pilot scheme.

All security procedures imply some degree of encroachment upon the rights and freedom of the individual. We have to decide how to strike the balance between those considerations and the need to protect national security, in laying down security procedures that will be as effective as possible within the limits of what is acceptable in a free and democratic society. In doing so we have to bear in mind that no system of security can be guaranteed to confer absolute protection. I believe that the commission's recommendations are reasonable, and I commend them to the House as necessary to strengthen the security arrangements which exist to protect our free and democratic society.