Alan Turing — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
Julian Huppert (Cambridge, Liberal Democrat)
It is a pleasure, Mr Betts, to serve under your chairmanship today. It is also a pleasure to see so many hon. Members from all parties and backgrounds here to speak in this important debate. I hope that, unlike many debates in this place, this will not be a party political debate, and that we can work together to commemorate an important event. Unfortunately, due to the parliamentary timetable, the House was not sitting on
Last week, Iain Stewart—it is a pleasure to see him here—made an application, which I and others supported, to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate in the House to commemorate that centenary. It was a pleasure to support that application, but the Backbench Business Committee, in its wisdom, decided that that route was not the best one, and proposed this one instead. I am delighted to have secured this debate to discuss Alan Turing, and the things he did, and the things we did to him.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Labour)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important and excellent debate. Does he agree that although this is an excellent forum for discussing the achievements of Alan Turing, it would be good to see more great scientists celebrated on the Floor of the House?
Julian Huppert (Cambridge, Liberal Democrat)
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. She is, of course, right. She and I both work to try to promote science, technology and engineering in the broader sense. It is a shame that in this country we do not always recognise scientists—the Clerk Maxwells as much as the Alan Turings. There have been a few links with the House: I have previously spoken to the hon. Lady about one of my predecessors, Isaac Newton, who was the Member of Parliament for Cambridge university. His contributions in the scientific field were perhaps greater than his political contributions. I hope that we will be able to mark the contributions of people in the academic and scientific fields in the years to come.
We have now the opportunity to debate a truly remarkable man and, sadly, a truly depressing chapter in British history. Before doing so, I want to mention Professor S. Barry Cooper of the Turing centenary advisory committee. He has worked tirelessly to spur this debate, and to run a number of events throughout the country to commemorate the life of Alan Turing.
I also want to thank the library of King’s college, Cambridge, which has been a fantastic resource. Alan Turing was a fellow there, as well as a student, and it continues to preserve and promote the life and times of that exceptional man, and his contribution to the modern world. We will not have time today to cover everything that he did, and I invite hon. Members to come and visit the wonderful library at King’s if they wish to know more.
Last Saturday, people throughout the world, including the good people at Google who changed their doodle for the day to a Turing machine, celebrated the centenary
of Alan Turing’s birth. The purpose of today’s debate is to contribute to those celebrations, to mark them with our parliamentary brand, and to draw the Government’s attention to the need for us to remember and to commemorate his life in further ways.
In Turing’s famous 1950 article, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, which set out the famous Turing test—the test of a machine’s ability to exhibit human behaviour, he concluded that we could see only a short distance ahead, but that we could see plenty there that needs to be done. I suspect that politicians of all colours agree with that statement. If one phrase encapsulates his thinking, his brilliance, and the tragic circumstances in which he was forced to live and die, it is that. He looked at the world around him, exposed what was in front of him, and set a generation of scientists and mathematicians down paths that have changed our world. The tragedy is that no amount of intelligence or foresight could insulate him from a society that was determined to suppress him, and a country that so cruelly mistreated him. Today, we have an opportunity to honour his life and his achievements. One hundred years after his birth, we have a chance to try to put right what the country got so badly wrong.
A citizen of the world from an early age, Turing was born in India before boarding in England. His intellect was recognised very early, and by 16 he was reading Albert Einstein and extrapolating from his work. In 1931, he matriculated at King’s college, Cambridge, having won an open scholarship to study mathematics. By 1935, he had a first-class degree and a fellowship there. He was just 22. In the following year, he published his first seminal article.
I am sure that many hon. Members would like a complete run-down of how the Turing machine revolutionised the theory of computation, and the understanding of mathematical proof through hypothetical computing machines. We are limited by time, and other hon. Members want to speak, so I will refrain from referring to everything that Turing tried to do, but his contribution to human knowledge before reaching his 25th birthday was profound.
After the publication of Turing’s article, he was awarded a visiting fellowship at Princeton, and obtained his PhD. But it was during the war that he first began to have a tangible effect on our country and the world around him. The day after the UK declared war on Germany, he reported to Bletchley Park. He had previously worked for a year part-time for the Government’s code and cipher school, the predecessor to GCHQ. When war broke out, he dedicated himself to the defence of a country that took him for granted.
Turing was immediately assigned to the cryptanalysis of Enigma, the most crucial code-breaking programme of the war effort. So valuable was his contribution to the security services that the papers remained secret and were released only in April this year. They show just how many breakthroughs Turing made in the race to break Enigma. A fascinating question is whether any other human could have made the contributions he made at that time. He was awarded an OBE for that work, but his work remained top secret.
Turing’s contribution to cryptography had a profound impact on the war, but perhaps his most lasting contribution was to computing as a result of his work on cryptography, and the articles he wrote in peacetime. Phrases such as the Turingery technique, the electro-mechanical bombe, and the Banburismus process are hardly commonplace, but they revolutionised our understanding of computers and what they could make possible. Turing’s work directly influenced the creation of the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer. Another fascinating example of which we should take heed is how hard it is to work out what the results of research will be when it starts.
After the war, Turing began work on the automatic computing engine, the pilot of which influenced the construction of the first commercially available computers: English Electric’s DEUCE and the American Bendix G-15. For those achievements, we owe him a huge debt
In the late 1940s, Turing moved to Manchester, and turned his attention to more abstract work in mathematics. Having revolutionised cryptanalysis and modern computing, he then turned to the philosophy of computing and came up with ideas for problems that are still unsolved today. Part of his 1950 paper, to which I referred earlier, created the Turing test. It was designed to ask how to tell the difference between a computer and a human. The test is, essentially, whether someone can reliably tell, without seeing what is happening, whether they are communicating with a computer or a human. Online communications provide a number of examples of it sometimes being hard to tell what is responding but, so far, no artificial intelligence can reliably pass the Turing test.
A version of the test is used daily by millions of people around the world. CAPTCHA—the completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart—is the catchy name for those words that are typed on websites to show that someone is a human and not a computer program. The theory behind that—it is used to secure things across the web every day—is directly influenced by his article 62 years ago.
Turing’s contribution to our understanding of artificial intelligence is no less significant. His idea about how to tell whether a computer can “think” is vital to the modern theory of artificial intelligence. That is not all. In his later years, he worked in mathematical biology—a field that I used to dabble in when I was doing research—and particularly morphogenesis, which is how embryos develop into the organisms they eventually become. He also worked on Fibonacci numbers in plant structures, and his general contribution to the concept of pattern formation is still considered central to the field and has applications in how zebra patterning occurs and many other fields. Again, no one could have foreseen from Turing’s early work where it would lead today, and what would come out of it.
We could spend hours of parliamentary time talking about every one of Turing’s achievements, and I freely admit that I have missed out a huge number of them. Perhaps a full six-hour debate, and many volumes of Hansard, would be enough to list everything that he did, but I hope that the brief summary that I have given provides some tribute to him. But we are not here just to mark Turing’s scientific achievements, or his contribution to the defence effort during the war. Whenever we talk
about him, we must discuss how he was treated towards the end of his life, and how he was forced out of the world to which he had contributed so much.
In 1952, Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. His crime was admitting to a relationship with another man. The way it came about is particularly sad—it should never have come about in any way—in that the relationship with the man was, in fact, with somebody who tried to burgle his house. When he reported it, the police became interested in the crime that he had committed by having a relationship with a man in the first place.
When he was convicted, under the laws of the time, he was given a choice of imprisonment or a “cure”—the rather barbaric cure of chemical castration. Faced with two awful choices, he chose the latter, perhaps in the hope that he could continue to live a meaningful life with his liberty at least intact. None the less, he lost his security clearance—essential to all the work that he was doing—his work and even the freedom to discuss his work with colleagues. He lost his right to live his life.
Two years later, in 1954, he died from cyanide poisoning at the age of 41. We have no idea what he could have achieved if he had lived a fuller life. One of the great tragedies is that we did not even give him the honour of a conclusive inquest to understand exactly what went on. We still debate, including in the past week, the circumstances of his death and whether it was suicide or an accident. Some suggest that he created a deliberately ambiguous scenario in which to die. We do not know; we did not check at the time.
A number of tributes commemorate him. His code-breaking machine was commemorated on a stamp. Last week a new plaque was unveiled in my constituency at King’s college, and there are others, which I did not have the chance to look at, in Manchester and on his childhood home. There are academic conferences, symposiums and colloquiums galore, as well as workshops, public lectures, films, art, opera, plays, books, concerts and poetry. The Olympic torch bearer in Manchester ran past his statue to mark it. There has been some interesting discussion about the coming Olympics; I mentioned Turing in the parliamentary links day on the link between science and sport, but I had not realised then that he had entered the Olympic marathon trials in 1948 and come fifth. That would be a challenge for most scientists, computer scientists or engineers today, and one which I will certainly not try to replicate. Nature ran a full issue about Turing. Overseas, Obama has spoken about him and how important he was.
In 2009, the previous Government issued an official apology. I pay tribute to that and am grateful that it happened, but there is still a lack of official recognition for one of the greatest Britons who ever lived, whom Time magazine selected as one of the hundred most important people of the 20th century. That lack of recognition is particularly apparent when we think that it was our Government who so cruelly mistreated Turing and who failed to treat him correctly. We owe it to him to do something further on the centenary.
I accept that the way he was treated as a homosexual was not unusual to him. There is a long history in this country of treating homosexuals in a way that we would now consider completely and utterly unacceptable. I am pleased that the Government have taken steps on the broader issues, with, for example, the Protection of
Freedoms Act 2012, which allows the Secretary of State to disregard criminal convictions for homosexual acts by consenting adults. I am pleased that that will now happen to ensure that a person will not be considered as having committed, been charged with, prosecuted for or convicted of a criminal act for such activities. It is important because there are people still alive who bear comments on their Criminal Records Bureau checks about activities that we would certainly not consider criminal now.
There is a lot that we should be doing. The centenary is a good opportunity to mark our debt to Alan Turing and the errors we made as a country. I am sure that hon. Members will talk in more detail about the need to do that. There is a call, supported by a very large petition, for him to be granted a full pardon. It would not change his death or the way that we stopped his work from continuing, but it would be an important sign that the Government accept that Governments made a mistake in the past. It is important to many people who are still affected by the historical decisions that we made.
It is also suggested that Turing be commemorated on a banknote. I accept that banknotes are not the responsibility of the Minister, but I hope that he will listen to that proposal and pass it on to those who print the banknotes. Those two simple acts would make amends for the way in which British society treated such a great man, and embed his story and work into our national consciousness. I hope that the Minister will agree to those suggestions.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Labour)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way a second time. I agree with the points he makes so eloquently and movingly. Does he agree that Alan Turing, given his life and achievements, would be a much better name, and indeed brand, for technology and innovation centres, which have been named “catapult centres”? Catapults are rather sloppy bits of engineering that have the habit of destroying what they project. I will be writing to the Secretary of State to make that suggestion. Will the hon. Gentleman support it?
Julian Huppert (Cambridge, Liberal Democrat)
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I share the concern about catapults. The idea of a catapult satellite centre seems particularly odd. That is not how I would choose to launch a satellite into orbit. It is worth saying that from an energy efficiency perspective, trebuchets—a slight variant on catapults—are extremely impressive, so there is some interesting technology in that area.
I share her concerns about the name. There is an issue with technology and innovation centres. We could talk about them for about 10 minutes, I suspect. Hermann Hauser, the constituent of mine who came up with the proposal for technology and innovation centres, suggested “Clerk Maxwell centres”. I know that the Select Committee on Science and Technology suggested “Turing centres”. I do not mind which it is. There is a strong case for both and I hope that we can honour both. Either would, in my view, be better names than “catapult centres”. I suspect that renaming scientific research centres is not part of the Minister’s purview, but I hope that he will look carefully at the other suggestions made and, whatever hon. Members suggest, I hope that he will pass them on to the appropriate Ministers for consideration.
Whatever the response, I hope that the Government will take the chance to recognise that in the centenary of Turing’s birth we have the opportunity to celebrate someone whose contribution to our society and world has hitherto not been sufficiently marked. He showed the world the infinite potential of human ingenuity and the machines that that ingenuity could make possible. He changed our world and our society. He showed the world how machines could help humans, and we treated him in the most inhuman way. I look forward to a full debate from hon. Members, who I thank for coming to mark such a great man, and to a full response from the Government. We owe him no less than our full discussion.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton, Labour)
I congratulate Dr Huppert on securing the debate and making such an excellent and rounded speech about Alan Turing. I suspect that the Hansard reporters are greatly relieved that the hon. Gentleman did not go into more technical detail on some of his papers.
Before I move on to the main body of what I want to say, may I say that the hon. Gentleman is right? The Science and Technology Committee is disappointed that the catapult centres were so named, rather than “Turing centres”. “Catapult centre” is a ludicrous name. If there is anything that this debate should do, it is to integrate the story and memory of Turing more into our national consciousness. The name would be one way to do that. I have certainly tried to do it in Manchester.
I am not usually given to hagiography and apologies or pardons to dead people; they have their place, but I do not see the point. Such is the extraordinary story and tragedy of Turing, however, given both the distinction of his mathematical and scientific mind and the tragic end he came to, that almost anything we can do to commemorate him is worth doing. People may disagree, but of all British scientists, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Alan Turing are probably the most distinguished. There is tough competition. In Manchester alone, we have John Dalton, Joule and Thomson. One can go round the country to see what a fantastic scientific pedigree it has. In my reading of Turing, what he did and the depth in which he thought about problems puts him in that league of the most distinguished.
I really want to make some personal comments about Turing. Although I came from Manchester, I had never heard of him until I was reading a popular book on science and mathematics; it was really more about Gödel and Hilbert. I looked up Turing’s name and found his story, which was so devastating that I set about doing two things.
At the time I was leader of Manchester city council, which was at the centre of the campaign against clause 28 and of anti-discrimination policies across the board. In almost every speech I made, whether it was about the age of consent or clause 28, I told the story of Turing. It was one way of bringing him into evidence. In doing that, I came across a number of people who had worked with him. I was privileged to talk to them about his work and how they had been affected by the man himself and the quality of his work.
I will tell one anecdote about Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, who was one of those people. Hon. Members may not have heard of her, but she was a distinguished mathematician who led the Conservative group on Manchester city council for a period in the 1970s—which, I am pleased to say, was a pretty thankless task. She had chosen not to go to Bletchley Park during the war because she was having children, but she worked with Turing at Manchester university after that.
What happened to Turing had a huge impact on the 1970s. In the mid-1970s, there was a free vote on Manchester city council to set up the first gay centre in the country. The Liberals, as they were then, were not represented, but the Conservative party and Labour were and both had their bigots. Dame Kathleen’s experience of knowing Turing meant that she was one of the leading Conservatives who voted for the centre, which was not a popular position in the party at the time. There is a straight line running back to that vote in respect of some of the progressive policies that we followed in Manchester.
I did what I could. I supported the raising of funds for the statue of Alan Turing in Sackville park, and we held a moving commemoration there last winter with the author of the main biography of Turing. At one stage, I was also given the delegated power to name the road that now runs past the Etihad stadium in east Manchester. I took the opportunity, against competition from a lot of other names, to call it Alan Turing way. That was in line with every other great scientist who has worked in Manchester, and some who have not, who have had roads, streets and buildings named after them. I was proud to have done that.
I want to finish by saying that the brutality of what happened to Turing at the end—it was more typical of what happened in the 1950s—makes us realise that, although there is little progress in some parts of our society, we have moved on in other areas; we have become much more humane than we were then. I recently spoke at a memorial service in Manchester for a gay activist who, sadly, had died. After the campaigning he had been through in the 1970s and 1980s, he was astonished to find that as he was dying the Cabinet had a policy in favour of gay marriage. It was an extraordinary transition in British society.
I have mentioned a number of great British scientists with whom Turing is comparable, but there is another scientist of a much older vintage who reminds me of him. Archimedes used his profound scientific knowledge to invent a number of instruments with which to defend his city in exactly the way that Turing helped this country to survive and win the second world war. Estimates vary on how much impact Turing’s work had, but he could have saved many hundreds of thousands of lives and shortened the war by two years. When we have a very great scientist who is comparable with Archimedes, we should all work hard to commemorate him, whether it is on bank notes, buildings or roads. His is a profound and sad story.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Huppert on securing this debate and on his full and eloquent tribute to a man whom I regard as a
national hero. I am glad that we have this opportunity to pay a tribute to his life and work and to debate the controversial issue about his crime. It is significant that we have this 100-year anniversary in which we can talk about what he contributed both in terms of his work in the war and his ongoing academic work at Cambridge and Manchester. I am glad that Members from those cities are attending this debate.
In the latter part of my speech, I will talk about the issue of a pardon. However, I want to begin by highlighting Alan Turing’s great achievements. My own connection and interest in him and his work is through Bletchley Park, which I am lucky to have in my Milton Keynes South constituency. The comment of Graham Stringer—that he did not know about Alan Turing’s work until relatively recently—is significant, because it mirrors what has happened to Bletchley Park itself.
After the war, very few people knew what went on at Bletchley Park. I have met some of the code breakers who worked there, including a husband and wife team who did not know what the other was doing, such was the secrecy of the work. No one is to blame for the fact that for many years after the conclusion of the war, there was no recognition of the work that went on there. The code breakers all signed the Official Secrets Act. Much of the work that they were doing was still of significance at the advent of the cold war. It is not surprising, therefore, that not much was known about it.
Only relatively recently has there been rightful publicity and commemoration of the importance of the work at Bletchley Park. I want to put it on the record that I am full of praise for the current chief executive of Bletchley Park Trust, Iain Standen, and his predecessor, Simon Greenish, who have done an enormous amount of work to save the site in the first place, because it is literally falling to bits in places, and also to turn it into a major heritage site on the computing and wartime code-breaking side where people locally, nationally and internationally can come and learn about the work that was done there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge mentioned that for many years, Turing’s work was not known outside very narrow academic circles. Last summer, I had the pleasure of bringing a family friend, a professor of artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon university in Pittsburgh, to Bletchley Park. For him, it was like coming to see the holy grail; the first academic paper on artificial intelligence was there. It is, in academic communities, a significant exhibition.
The fight to get the Turing papers at Bletchley Park is an interesting story. “Big society” is a phrase that is much debated and much maligned, but the story of the Turing papers is an interesting example of how different parts of the community can come together. The papers were being put up for auction at Christie’s and there was a real risk that they would be lost overseas. But through a combination of a grant from the national lottery, a generous donation made privately by Google and thousands and thousands of individuals making small contributions, the money was raised to save the papers.
There is a splendid exhibition of the papers and about Turing more generally at Bletchley Park. Putting on my “tourist information” hat, I encourage Members to visit. If they go to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge to look at the King’s
college library, they can quickly pop over to Milton Keynes to visit Bletchley Park. When we get our east-west rail link, they will be able to do so in double-quick time, but that is another matter.
I want to remind the House about the significance of the work that Turing did at Bletchley Park with his code-breaking team. The German Enigma codes were the backbone of the German military intelligence system. It was thought that they were unbreakable. The odds against anyone who did not know the settings for the Enigma machines cracking the codes were 150 million million million to one, but Turing managed it through his own brilliance, that of his team and his construction of the Turing bombe, the machine that helped to speed up the deciphering process and that substantially reduced the odds against breaking the codes.
It is well documented and argued by historians that Turing’s work in cracking the Enigma codes, and thus understanding German military movements, certainly shortened the war by up to two years. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the outcome of the war might have been very different if that information had not been gathered. How many lives did that information save, both among the armed forces—Army, Air Force and Navy people in combat—and among the citizens in British cities that were being bombed? For all the people who were butchered in the Nazi extermination camps, how many more hundreds of thousands of people would have perished if the war had been lengthened or the Germans had won? That is the significance of Alan Turing’s work. He was a hero and it is absolutely right that we pay tribute to his work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge has said that there are conferences up and down the country in honour of Turing; there is one at Bletchley Park this weekend. There are statues and parks named after him, and scientific buildings may be renamed after him. All these things can be done.
I also want to echo the campaign to have Turing recognised on the new £10 note. I know that it is not quite within the Minister’s gift to do that, but I want to put my support for that campaign on the record. There is an e-petition in support of the campaign and I understand that it has more than 16,000 signatures at the moment; even more may have been added since I last looked, but 16,000 is itself a substantial number.
As well as being a very visual commemoration of Turing and his achievements, putting his image on a bank note would be quite a neat way to pay tribute to him. That is because modern bank notes are designed in such a way that they cannot be forged; their code has to be unbreakable. It would be very neat that a code-breaker should lend his face to a bank note. It might be a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, but it would be a neat way of paying tribute.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge also mentioned, the biggest thing that we can do as a country to honour Turing’s name and his achievements is to clear his name of the so-called “crime” for which he was convicted. I echo the praise for the former Prime Minister, Mr Brown, for giving an apology to Turing; that was absolutely the right thing to do. But it was only a step in the right direction. There is certainly an appetite among
the public to do more. There is another e-petition to clear Turing’s name, which at the last count had more than 35,000 signatures.
Since raising this matter in the House on a number of occasions, I have received many letters and e-mails, from people locally and across the country, expressing support for clearing Turing’s name. I have not received one letter or representation saying that his name should not be cleared. If the House will indulge me for a minute, I will read out a small paragraph from one of the letters that I received, from a couple—Mary and Alan Preen. They wrote:
“At one of the most difficult times in this country’s history, Alan Turing did not shirk or fail his country when asked to serve. However, the same cannot be said of his country, for at the hour of Turing’s need we failed him totally. We are utterly ashamed of the attitude and actions of our country to hound a hero of the free world to his death.”
That is very profound and absolutely right, and most of the other letters that I have received about Turing have expressed similar sentiments.
I have raised the issue of a pardon for Turing or clearing his name in some way in the House on a number of occasions. Thus far, it has been resisted by the Government, on two grounds: first, that it would create a precedent in law; and secondly, that however much we now dislike the reason for which he was convicted, it was according to the law of the land at the time, he was fairly tried and there was no accusation of a mistrial or anything like that. I understand those arguments, but I do not accept them. I will make three points briefly to explain why.
First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge mentioned, the Government have made welcome steps in this area, through the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, whereby a person who has been convicted of or received a caution for an offence under section 22 or section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, or earlier corresponding Acts, can apply to have that conviction or caution disregarded. That is absolutely right, and I would argue that it is a logical step to extend that legislation and allow it to be applied posthumously.
Secondly, there is precedent for taking steps to clear the names of people who have been convicted in the past. In 2006, more than 300 soldiers who were shot for military offences in world war one received a group pardon. I do not want to debate today whether the proposed pardon for Turing should apply to all people posthumously who were convicted of a similar crime; that is a debate for another occasion. But the fact that a wrong done to those who were serving their country has been righted surely creates a precedent for pardoning Alan Turing.
Thirdly and finally, and I hope the House will forgive me for making this point, even if there is a fear about setting a legal precedent, surely it is not beyond our ingenuity to create some law that clears Alan Turing’s name, and his only. If the fear of setting a legal precedent is a real and genuine one, surely our collective wisdom can overcome it. I am not a lawyer, but there are many lawyers in Parliament; my hon. Friend Mr Buckland, who is sitting very close by in Westminster Hall today, is a lawyer. Surely he and his legal colleagues could devise some wording in law to clear Alan Turing’s name.
I also want to point out that in the other place Lord Sharkey is preparing a Bill on this issue. I wish him every success in getting it through and if it proceeds to the Commons, I will certainly heartily support it. I urge the Government at least to find the time so that his Bill may be fully debated in both Houses. That is within the Government’s gift, and it would give Parliament a chance to express its view on this matter.
The debate about clearing Alan Turing’s name will go on, but for now I will conclude by remembering and paying tribute to his life and work. He was a national hero; he saved thousands, if not millions, of lives; and he pioneered the computing age, on which we all now rely.
John Leech (Manchester, Withington, Liberal Democrat)
I begin by adding my congratulations to my hon. Friend Dr Huppert on securing this important debate at this particular time, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth. The level of detail about Alan Turing’s life that he went into suggests to me that schools could do worse than look at today’s Hansard and use it as a history lesson on the life of one of our greatest ever scientists.
I also pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Sharkey, for his work in the other place, and to my colleague on the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend Iain Stewart, who has done an awful lot and was trying to push the debate as well. I should pay tribute, too, to Graham Stringer, who did an awful lot in his time as leader of Manchester city council to push the case of Alan Turing.
Interestingly, at a 100th birthday celebration at the weekend, the lord mayor, who lives close to the road that was renamed Alan Turing way when the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton was council leader, recalled that, when it was renamed, many people in the area asked, “Who is Alan Turing?” Over time, however, the simple fact of renaming it meant people got to know about him. We may think that something is trivial and does not matter; but just renaming a road led to many Mancunians getting to know much more about Alan Turing and his life.
My final tribute is to Andy, in my office, who has done hours of work on the subject of pushing for a pardon or disregarded conviction. Often we do not give credit to the people who work for us and do research behind the scenes, in this place or our constituency offices.
I first got involved in the campaign in the previous Session, when I was contacted to support the e-petition calling for a pardon for Alan Turing, submitted by William Jones in Manchester in November. In the first two months, the petition got more than 20,000 signatures, and I agreed to take up the issue in Parliament, tabling an early-day motion. In February the campaign went to the Lords, when Lord Sharkey questioned the Minister about whether Alan Turing would be pardoned. He was informed that it would be inappropriate, because Alan Turing was fairly convicted under the laws of the time. Further parliamentary questions uncovered the fact that more than 75,000 people were convicted under the same laws between 1894 and 2004.
A pardon is the forgiveness of a crime and the cancellation of the relevant penalty. It does not mean that the conviction is quashed. I understand that two conditions are needed for a pardon: moral innocence and legal innocence. The view of the Government has been that since Turing was fairly convicted of what was a crime at the time, legal innocence cannot be justified.
Having failed to persuade the Government to issue a pardon, we considered the possibility of getting justice for Alan Turing through a disregarded conviction. That is probably what most people think of as a pardon, because it wipes the slate clean. It means that the records are changed, so that it is as though the person did not commit the offence, and was not charged, prosecuted or sentenced.
The original campaign was for a pardon, but actually a disregarded conviction would be better. That might have been possible—and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South talked about this—through amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. However, it proved impossible, partly because the slow workings of Government meant that we were unable to get agreement, with i’s dotted and t’s crossed, to including it in existing measures.
We have not given up. There are plans, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South mentioned, to introduce a private Member’s Bill in the Lords. I understand that that is due to be presented in the next few days, and we hope to get Government support for it. In the meantime, in the Commons, I have submitted a further early-day motion in this Session, to commemorate Turing’s birth 100 years ago:
“That this House commemorates Alan Turing on his birthday,
I hope that colleagues on both sides of the House will support the motion—in spirit if not by signing it, if they do not or cannot sign EDMs. I hope that the motion will help to ensure that in 2012 we can put right the wrong that was done. That is very long overdue.
Jonathan Lord (Woking, Conservative)
I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Huppert on securing this important debate, which provides us with a forum in which to consider the past, draw lessons for the future, and, most importantly, pay tribute to one of the world’s finest minds.
For eight years, I served as a councillor for the ward of Little Venice in the city of Westminster. In that capacity, albeit in a small way, I was first able to pay tribute to the remarkable work and life of Alan Turing. On
of a blue plaque on the Colonnade hotel in London, just off Warwick avenue, which denotes the house where Turing was born.
That day, appropriately, marked the 50th anniversary of the world’s first working computer, which ran in Manchester on
On the day after the ceremony,
In his maiden speech in June 2010, my hon. Friend Iain Stewart rightly paid tribute to the extraordinary work of Turing and the teams of code breakers at Bletchley Park, in his constituency. He did so again today, with great eloquence. It is not an overstatement to assert that the efforts and expertise engaged in cracking the German Enigma code fundamentally changed the duration, and possibly even the outcome, of the second world war.
“right the wrong against the brilliant code breaker and mathematician”. —[Hansard, 17 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 1082.]
In 1952, as we all know, Turing was convicted of gross indecency. The courts presented him with a terrible choice: imprisonment or probation with awful conditions attached. The conviction was also to bring about a lifetime restriction on Turing. Post-war, he had an extremely high level of security clearance, as he continued to work for the Government and their agencies. The conviction was to prohibit him from working for the Government—effectively, for our country—ever again.
To avoid prison, and no doubt with the desire to continue some of his work, Turing chose probation. The probation was, however, conditional on his subjection to a course of hormonal treatments that were designed to reduce libido. He underwent a chemical castration via oestrogen hormone injections, and within two years he was dead. On
We have had a fitting debate to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, godfather of computer science and pioneer of artificial intelligence, whose wartime efforts at Bletchley Park were responsible for saving countless lives. He is a national hero. He
deserves to be in the pantheon of national heroes. I regard it a great honour to add my voice, again, to the tributes that we have all paid him.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South, Labour)
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate Dr Huppert on securing the debate. I hope that Members will bear with my voice; I am a little croaky this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Cambridge gave a very good overview of the life and work of Alan Turing, including the infamous and famous Turing test, which we all love when we log on to websites and have to type the characters. It is a nice testimony to Alan Turing that every part of our lives these days is touched by his influence. We also heard very good contributions from my hon. Friend Graham Stringer and the hon. Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and for Woking (Jonathan Lord).
The word “genius” is overused—it is a little clichéd, as is “hero”. Nevertheless, it is correct to use them when talking about Alan Turing, and the millions of lives that have been saved as a result of his work. Sadly, the state’s behaviour towards him is, to say the least, shameful and needs to be put right.
I first came across Alan Turing’s work when, many years ago, I moved to a place called Milton Keynes—more specifically, to Bletchley—to take up a job with the Inland Revenue. Every morning, I walked past this huge expanse of an estate, with a high fence around it. It all seemed very strange. Curiosity being what it is, I started to inquire about what the place, Bletchley Park, was and, as Members will know, once one starts to inquire about such places, one soon develops a bookshelf lined with every book going on the subject—code breakers, Enigma and so on. It is a fascinating story, and a testimony to the incredible work done by many people, but especially by Alan Turing.
We have heard that the mission to decrypt the coded messages from the Enigma—the German military typewriter-like cipher machine—was hugely important. Turing had the ability to pit machine against machine. He produced the prototype anti-Enigma bombe, which he called Victory—I think that began in the spring of 1940—and the bombe machines effectively turned Bletchley Park into a cipher-breaking factory.
As early as 1943, Turing’s machines were cracking an estimated 84,000 Enigma messages each month—two a minute. No wonder the Prime Minister of the day called the information that came from them, “ultra”. It was ultra-important and, as I shall explain, ultra-significant.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North, Labour)
I apologise for joining the debate late. I want to mention Alan Turing’s partner, Tommy Flowers, who made a massive contribution to the Enigma work. He was a General Post Office engineer, who put electronics into telephone exchanges. I had the privilege of meeting him in the last year of his life. We were trying to get him an honour, but he died too soon. He was the person who used the electronics
and the valves. I give all credit to Alan Turing, genius that he was, but the beginning of computing would not have happened without Tommy Flowers either.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South, Labour)
I was going to mention the Colossus machine that Tommy Flowers worked on, and I will come on to it in a moment.
Turing personally broke the form of Enigma used by the U-boats that were preying on the crucial north Atlantic merchant convoys, which were full of essential supplies for Britain. Churchill’s analysts stated that Britain would soon be starving if the supplies could not get through. Turing also searched for a way to break into the torrent of messages suddenly emanating from a new, and much more sophisticated, German cipher machine. The British code-named the new machine “Tunny”, and many people have said that the Tunny teleprinter was the forerunner of the mobile phone networks that we all enjoy today.
It is probably worth pausing here. The computing power of the mobile phones that many of us have on silent in our pockets or squirreled away somewhere, is much more advanced than that of the machinery that Alan Turing, and indeed Tommy Flowers, were putting together. Even more remarkable is the fact that the likes of Tommy Flowers used GPO telephony valves, wiring and systems deliberately because they did not want to draw attention to the fact that they were building the code-breaking machines. They were constrained, therefore, because they had to base their work on the sort of equipment that was available in any telephone operating system, and that is testimony to the importance of what they did.
Turing’s breakthrough in 1942 yielded the first systematic method for cracking the “Tunny” messages, which enabled the allies to get detailed knowledge of the German strategy—and that, without doubt, changed the course of the war. It was also the seed for the sophisticated Tunny-cracking algorithms that were incorporated into Tommy Flowers’s Colossus, which was the first large-scale electronic computer. With the installation of 10 Colossus machines by the end of the war, Bletchley Park became the world’s first electronic computer facility.
Turing’s work on Tunny was the third of three strokes of genius that he contributed to the attack on Germany’s codes, along with designing the bombe and unravelling the U-boat Enigma. It has been argued that his work shortened the war by not up to two years, but anything up to four. If Turing and his group had not weakened the U-boats’ hold on the north Atlantic, the D-day landings could have been delayed by a year or longer, because the north Atlantic was the route that ammunition, fuel, food and troops had to travel to reach Britain from America.
Any such delay, of course, would have put Hitler in a stronger position to withstand the allied assault. Fortifications along the French coastline would no doubt have been stronger, Panzer armies would have been moved into place, more V2 missiles would have rained down on southern England, and on the ports and airfields, thereby supporting the invading troops. Each year of fighting in Europe is estimated to have cost an average of 7 million lives, so it would not be far off the mark to quantify Turing’s contribution as 21 million lives saved. That gives an indication of the magnitude of his work.
The hon. Member for Cambridge helpfully detailed the post-war work that Alan Turing did, and I will not delay Members by rehearsing it, but it does bring me on to the appalling circumstances of his arrest, prosecution and sentencing. One has to take stock and question why a man who had done so much to save lives—possibly 21 million, perhaps more—was treated in such a way. When one reads the books, it feels like an underhand way of investigating Alan’s life. Reading them, despite the benefit of history, I started to wonder why he was treated in such a way.
As has been mentioned, the former Prime Minister officially apologised in 2009 for how Alan Turing had been treated—I draw right hon. and hon. Members’ attention to that apology; it is worth looking at—but the campaign has rightly continued since then. Numerous commemorations and international events have been held throughout the centenary year. The Google doodle was mentioned, Royal Mail has issued a commemorative stamp and my hon. Friend Graham Stringer drew attention to the work done with Manchester city council involving the Olympic torch and so on. Many events have taken place to recognise the fantastic work done by Alan Turing.
However, we are always brought back to the cul-de-sac that is the 1952 conviction. Hon. Members have given it a lot of thought, and work is going on in the other place on a private Member’s Bill. On legal precedent, are we as a Parliament not about setting legal precedent? Is that not our job? Is it not what we do every day in this place? We come up with new laws, improve laws, change laws and, where they are wrong, correct them. The posthumous conditional pardon in November 2006 of the soldiers shot at dawn was the right thing to do. It was absolutely correct. I am sure that even if that does not set a precedent, it might give us a clue about how to get around the issue.
I hope that Lord Sharkey’s Bill in the other place will find its way through Government time to be considered. I also hope that when the Minister replies, he will confirm that when a private Member’s Bill comes forward in this House, it will be looked on favourably by the Government. I certainly hope so. Whatever we do after this debate, one thing is certain: we must find a way to recognise and in some way pardon Alan Turing for what happened, so that we can hold him up as the hero he was.
Crispin Blunt (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Prisons and Probation), Justice; Reigate, Conservative)
I congratulate Dr Huppert on securing this wholly appropriate debate during the centenary of one of the greatest Britons. I apologise if I cover a little of the same ground about Turing’s achievements. Such is their scale that, like the hon. Member for Cambridge, I will be giving only headlines in the time available. I am also grateful to Alan Turing’s biographer, Andrew Hodges, for helping my officials and me to get it right. Any mistakes will be entirely mine.
The perspective of history can be a wonderful thing. Decades later, the profound legacy of a brilliant and original mind largely unknown to his contemporaries can be referenced by the President of the United States
in Westminster Hall, as Alan Turing was by President Obama last year. Year by year, our understanding grows of how important his contribution has been to our society. It is an astonishing legacy of global importance. One can only feel awe at the brilliance of his intellect and admiration for the magnitude of his achievements. They throw into the sharpest relief the appalling way he was treated by his own contemporary society, a fate he shared with tens of thousands of other gay men of his era. However, the shame, anger and embarrassment properly felt by today’s society at the extreme contrast between his service and his oppression, recorded in the previous Prime Minister’s unprecedented formal apology, still leaves us wanting to find ways to atone and to recognise his awesome achievements. A number of hon. Members have expressed their desire to do so in different ways. I was delighted to learn that Graham Stringer has been able to do so by naming Alan Turing way. I am delighted that when the opportunity presented itself, it was Alan Turing whom he chose to honour.
Turing was one of the top mathematical minds of all time. He successfully applied his mathematical genius to numerous other scientific disciplines while throwing in the unique ability to combine successful practical application with brilliant theoretical understanding. Turing was a fellow of King’s college, Cambridge in 1935, and his time at Princeton from 1936 to 1938 has been appreciated properly by our American cousins. His 1936 paper invented the concept of the universal machine, which underpins the computing revolution. Turing’s success in America makes all the more impressive his decision to return to England in 1938. He understood the threat that his country faced and, critically, the contribution that he could make to our defence through encryption and code-breaking.
From 1939 to 1944, Turing was almost totally engaged in the mastery of the German enciphering machine Enigma and other cryptological investigations at Bletchley Park. Turing made a unique logical contribution to the decryption of Enigma and became the chief scientific figure, with a particular responsibility for reading U-boat communications. Turing’s contribution was undoubtedly crucial. I endorse the analysis of his importance made by my hon. Friend Iain Stewart; Robert Flello made similar points. I do not demur from any of them.
In March 1944, Turing’s principal focus moved to encryption and voice scrambling with the Foreign Office at Hanslope Park, enabling secure communications between the Heads of Government directing the war. That work contributed directly to his development of electronic computing at the National Physical Laboratory and the university of Manchester, including the design of the Pilot ACE, the first modern computer in this country, delivered in parallel with computer development in the United States.
In his free time, Turing became a notable marathon runner, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge mentioned. But for an injury, he would probably have been invited to be a member of the British team for the London-based Olympics in 1948. His personal time of two hours and 46 minutes was barely 11 minutes slower than that of that year’s gold medallist. That rather lesser-known achievement is particularly apposite, as
we are holding this debate in a year when the Olympics return to London for the first time since 1948.
Alan Turing continued to serve his country at what had become GCHQ, but after his conviction for gross indecency, he was categorised as a security risk and excluded from doing the nationally important work that must have given him great satisfaction. It is difficult to imagine the devastation that he would have experienced as his country switched from seeing him as a profound national asset to seeing him as a serious liability. By today’s standards, the security policy applied to Alan Turing seems criminally stupid, but in the atmosphere of the time—there was the defection of Maclean and Burgess, and the McCarthy witch hunts in the United States of America—it was tragically unexceptional. The atmosphere in both countries is relevant, as Turing had been an emissary to the United States in November 1942, possibly charged with assisting the Americans to address their cipher challenges and the U-boat menace then threatening their coastline. He was probably also involved in the security of transatlantic communications between Roosevelt and Churchill. That Britain possessed such impressive skills was due not least to Turing’s own efforts. Given that such extraordinary abilities existed in one man, one can but imagine the hysterics of the security apparat on both sides of the Atlantic, reinforced by the profound, ignorant and accepted commonplace prejudice of the time.
In what were to prove the final years of his life, Alan Turing used his understanding of mathematics and interest in process to develop a new and ground-breaking theory, the mathematical theory of morphogenesis: the theory of growth and form in biology. His writing on this, published in 1951, is regarded as the founding paper of modern non-linear dynamical theory. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge might have been able to elucidate that if he had the time, but I am certainly not able to do so. Some of the theories the publication contained about the occurrence of the Fibonacci sequence in sunflowers are now being tested on a huge scale in the Manchester Turing sunflower project.
Alan Turing’s achievements have rightly earned him the description of the father of computing and artificial intelligence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South and others have said, we have no way of knowing what further advances he might have made had his life not been cut short. His achievements make him utterly unique and, as such, he warrants singling out in the way that we are doing in this debate.
That his exceptional public service should have been rewarded with what appears to us to be a grotesquely unjust conviction for gross indecency has led to the question of whether our sympathy should take the form of a retrospective, posthumous pardon. I will discuss that in more detail in a moment.
That the then offence was in private, consensual and revealed to the police by Turing himself, who had been a victim of real crime, reinforces the appalling unfairness he suffered. The only victim of Turing’s “crime” was Turing himself. The first point is that the law has been changed—indeed, it was first changed 45 years ago—but the conduct that led to Alan Turing’s conviction was only deemed to no longer be an offence after Edwina
Currie’s amendment became law in 1994. When Alan Turing was arrested, he is said to have stated that he expected a
“Royal Commission to legalise it”.
It has taken a very long time. Progress over the past two decades has been immense, but more remains to be done.
In fulfilment of our coalition agreement, the Government introduced the disregard provisions in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. They are designed to let individuals get on with their lives, free from having to disclose convictions for homosexual activity where it was consensual and the other person was over 16. There are certain other circumstances in which convictions for those offences have to be disclosed under vetting checks, even though the activity is no longer a criminal offence. The Act allows individuals who have such convictions or cautions to apply to the Home Office for them to be disregarded, thus removing their practical effects from their lives and allowing them to move forward without the burden that the records currently impose.
The provisions are specifically designed to give practical assistance to the living, whose daily lives and, indeed, employment prospects may be affected by the record of a conviction on the police national computer. Extending them to the deceased would be impractical and serve no purpose. In truth, we could be looking for records going back to the 1800s. In many cases, those records may not be held, or may not provide enough information to make sure that the person in question would qualify for a disregard. There is also the question of the impact that disregarding posthumous convictions would have. It would be an attempt to rewrite history. Would it involve changing officially held records? Should we destroy historical evidence of the unjust suffering that many underwent, which would hinder academic research? Those concerns apply to a general pardon of all those, living and dead, who have such convictions. That is why the Government followed the path of a disregard in the Protection of Freedoms Act.
That brings us to the question of a pardon, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge and addressed in detail by my hon. Friend Mr Leech. Free pardons under the royal prerogative of mercy were formerly the usual means of recognising that there had been a miscarriage of justice and that the convicted person was innocent. Over the past century, however, developments in legislative avenues of appeal have significantly reduced the need to resort to the royal prerogative. Generally, applicants or, in the case of the deceased, their families, have the right to appeal to the relevant appeal court and can also ask the Criminal Cases Review Commission to review their case. The grant of pardons under the royal prerogative is now extremely rare.
It is the long-standing policy not to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy where a person was correctly convicted under the laws that existed at the time. The applicant must be technically and morally innocent, as my hon. Friend has said. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South has said that we should clear Alan Turing’s name. A pardon under the royal prerogative of mercy would not actually affect Alan Turing’s conviction; only a court can quash a conviction and, in that sense, clear someone’s name.
Much as we now feel it outrageous that Alan Turing’s behaviour was treated as a criminal offence, he was guilty of the contemporary offence. To grant him a pardon under the royal prerogative would change the basis on which such pardons are normally given.
If Alan Turing were pardoned, there would be tens of thousands of other people in respect of whom demands for like treatment could be made. Those persons could include about 16,000 living individuals with convictions for homosexuality, and many times that number of deceased victims. The living can benefit from the Home Office’s recent disregard provisions, but both they and the families of those who are deceased, or others on their behalf, could seek a pardon, too.
Crispin Blunt (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Prisons and Probation), Justice; Reigate, Conservative)
The Department’s problem is that it is extremely difficult to make a sensible analysis that could be relied on. The living can apply to have their convictions disregarded, but I would think that more than 100,000 people have been convicted of these crimes over two centuries, so the potential scale of applications is enormous.
There is also the question of justice. The sex offences of which Alan Turing was convicted are still capable of being offences in certain circumstances where the other party was under age or the sex was non-consensual. In such circumstances, a pardon would be not only inappropriate, but wrong. The records for some older cases would no longer be available, and the way such offences were recorded would make it difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether a pardon was in fact justified. It is to avoid that problem that the Government have gone down the route of a disregard by application.
It is also worth noting that the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy has changed over time. Centuries ago it was exercised by the monarch in an unfettered way. In modern times, however, the exercise of the prerogative is not exercised by Her Majesty personally but on the advice and recommendation of a Secretary of State, and it is therefore subject to judicial oversight. Whenever someone makes qualitative judgments on such issues, the prospect of review of the reasonableness of a decision is opened up.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South, Labour)
I appreciate that the Minister is in a difficult position. The advice he received from his officials will have gone through the reasons why it is difficult to follow the routes proposed, but I wonder—I put this to the Minister in a genuine spirit of finding a way through—whether he could instruct his officials to find an alternative way to reach the same conclusion. Turning the issue on
its head, perhaps the Minister will consider, at a later date, talking to his officials to ask them to find an alternative route.
Crispin Blunt (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Prisons and Probation), Justice; Reigate, Conservative)
It may come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman, but Ministers in the Ministry of Justice and a number of other senior Ministers in the Government have given their personal attention to the issue. We share exactly the same desire of every hon. Member present to find a way of making atonement and recognising the unique and singular achievements of Alan Turing. The formula that the previous Administration alighted on was the formal apology from the Prime Minister. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South himself remarked, it is for Parliament to set legal precedent, and opportunities for Members of Parliament in either House to take their own measures were alluded to.
I am trying to make clear to the House the issues that every Administration have had to wrestle with, and the possible consequences of different courses of action. I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members present that the matter has received the closest possible attention from Ministers and officials; it continues to do so and will continue to do so in the light of the debate today and the contributions of hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South drew the parallel with the Armed Forces Act 2006, which pardoned a group of first world war servicemen, but that was itself a carefully considered response to an unusual situation. The legislation expressly leaves conviction and sentence unaffected, and specifically states that the prerogative of mercy is not affected.
It has been a privilege for me to reply on behalf of the Government in the debate. It has been of particular importance to me, because my mother served at Bletchley Park during the war. When she finally felt able to speak of her work—like everyone else of her generation, she took her duty of secrecy seriously, and it was only when watching documentaries on Bletchley Park on television that she felt that she might be able to share with her family some of her own experiences—she bore first-hand testimony to me and other members of my family of Alan Turing’s importance. The truth is, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South made clear, that everyone in the Chamber and in this country owes Alan Turing a profound debt of gratitude for our political freedom. In my case, that debt is personal, albeit indirectly.
The debate has been an excellent way in which to pay tribute to the great Alan Turing on his centenary. All of us want to find more ways of marking his enormous achievement and service to our country and of continuing to atone for the disgraceful way in which the society of the time treated him.