Security Commission

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th May 1965.

Alert me about debates like this

3.31 p.m.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

As the House will know, there have been two recent breaches of security and today, Mr. F. C. Bossard, of the Ministry of Aviation, and Staff Sergeant P. S. Allen, of the Army Department, pleaded guilty at the Central Criminal Court to offences under Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act. I have accordingly asked the Security Commission to investigate the circumstances in which these breaches of security have occurred in the public service, and to advise in the light of their investigation whether any change in security arrangements is necessary or desirable. Lord Justice Winn and his colleagues will begin their work forthwith.

I must, however, tell the House that these two cases have revealed a difficulty about the working of the Security Commission which was not foreseen when its establishment and terms of reference were announced by my predecessor in two statements on 16th December, 1963 and 23rd January, 1964. It was then envisaged that an announcement in this House would be made as soon as a reference was made to the Commission. But the House will recognise that where court proceedings are pending an announcement of this kind, involving an assertion that a breach of security has occurred, might in certain circumstances be thought capable of prejudicing a fair trial of the accused. But to delay the activation of the Commission until the matter was no longer sub judice might involve months of delay and seriously prejudice the effectiveness of the Commission's inquiries.

I have told the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition about this problem, and I propose to alter the procedure so that a reference can be made to the Commission as soon as the Government are satisfied, or have good reason to think, that a breach of security has occurred in the public service. In each case I propose that the Leader of the Opposition be informed before a reference is made. But when a reference to the Commission relates to a matter which is the subject of criminal proceedings before the courts, then, for the reason I have explained, no public announcement of the reference to the Commission would be made until it is appropriate to make a statement.

On the present occasion, because he Security Commission could not begin its investigation while the cases were still sub judice, and because it seemed to me that there might be apparent weaknesses requiring immediate remedy, I had to take other action. I decided, therefore, as soon as the arrests were made and there was a prima facie breach of security, that there should be a preliminary inquiry within the Government Service. I therefore appointed a committee of senior officials under the chairmanship of the Head of the Home Civil Service, Sir Laurence Helsby, to examine the circumstances in which these two men had been charged with offences under the Official Secrets Act and to consider whether, and if so what, weaknesses in the security arrangements of the two Departments were indicated by the circumstances. This Committee has now reported to me and its report, which includes a statement of certain action already taken, will be made available immediately to the Security Commission.

It is already clear that in certain respects affecting the investigations necessary before an individual public servant is put on to work involving access to highly sensitive material, and also in the variations in the procedure of individual Departments on matters affecting Departmental security immediate action needed to be taken, and has been taken. The Commission will, of course, be completely free to comment on all these matters and to advise on the adequacy of the measures which are now being put into effect. The House will understand that pending the Report of the Commission it is difficult for me to say more about these individual cases. When the Report is received, and following precedent, seen by the Leader of the Opposition, I will make a further statement to the House.

But there is one thing I want to say now. The Security Service operates far removed from public gaze. When public attention does fall on them it is through breaches of security which, whatever their nature, are bound to lead to criticism of security arrangements in the public service. It is plain that the Service deserves the thanks of us all for a job well done.

Hon. Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Sir Alec Douglas-Home Sir Alec Douglas-Home , Kinross and West Perthshire

The House will be grateful to the Prime Minister for the statement he has made. In the last Parliament we agreed upon a procedure, I think with the assent of the whole House, to try to take these matters of national security out of party conflict so that they would no longer be a matter of party dispute. As we all understand, spying cases do come up from time to time, whatever Government are in power. I think this is enormously important and in the public interest, and therefore I would say at once that I will co-operate with the right hon. Gentleman in examining any proposals which he wants to put forward for the modification of the procedure on which we decided.

The immediate question which the Prime Minister's statement raises is this: whether it is desirable to put into operation some kind of investigation between the arrest of an individual and the operation of the Security Commission. As the Prime Minister said, the trail, so to speak, may get cold and thus the Security Service may be at a disadvantage.

If the Commission were to take evidence outside Her Majesty's Services, I must say that I think it creates a presumption of guilt. I should therefore like to ask the Prime Minister whether the action which he is considering in setting up the Commission, so to speak, after the arrest but before the judgment of the court, will be solely within Her Majesty's Services.

Lastly, may I say that the balance in these matters is very fine and has to be considered by us all with the most careful judgment. We must certainly satisfy the needs for establishing the security of the nation—that is beyond dispute—but we must not begin to establish machinery which would in any way prejudice the individual or lead to the establishment of any kind of police State. I am not suggesting in the slightest bit that any of us on either side of the House has this in our minds, but it is this against which we must guard and it is this, therefore, on which I concentrate the one question that I have to ask.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I think we are all agreed that the security of the State must be of the deepest concern of whatever Government should be in power and whatever Opposition is co-operating with them in these matters. I agree, however, that it must be carried out in such a way that there can never be any suspicion that the right of any individual to a free trial is prejudiced in any way.

When, as the right hon. Gentleman says, the previous Government announced the establishment of the Security Commission after consultation with myself, we laid down machinery for the activation of the Commission. But this weakness has already come to light in the first case in which the Commission came to be activated. I am sure the House will agree that it would have been wrong to have announced the setting up of the Commission and activated it because one of the defences that any individual might want to raise is that there has been no breach of security. To activate the Commission involves a decision by the Government that there has been a breach of security. This has now been looked after in the way I have suggested, namely, that the Commission can be activated but that, apart from telling the Leader of the Opposition, there is no announcement until after the case is no longer sub judice.

I have suggested also that the terms of reference should be widened not only where the Government know that a breach of security has occurred but where there may be reason to think that it may have occurred. There may be other less clear cases than those involving decisions of the courts. This will, I think, meet the point that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.

I certainly agree that where the Commission is activated it should not be free during the period when the case is sub judice to take evidence from people outside the public service because of the reason be gives. I fully agree with that, and I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should keep in touch on the future procedures while these are being worked out, because this is not a matter which is really suitable for full public exchange across the Floor of the House.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

I should like to ask the Prime Minister two questions. First, will any part of the Helsby Report be made available to this House? Secondly, on 23rd January last year the right hon. Gentleman particularly stressed that if there was no prosecution, an announcement of the setting up of the Commission should be made to this House. His statement today seemed only to cover the case in which there has been a prosecution and in which, therefore, no announcement will be made. But a trial might well be prejudiced by the prior setting up of the Commission, which itself might uncover evidence leading to a prosecution. Do we take it, therefore, that no announcement will be made to this House until such time as it is clear that no prosecution in any circumstances may be launched? This is rather different from what the Prime Minister has said this afternoon.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

The Report from Sir Laurence Helsby must be regarded as an internal document. It contains a considerable amount of highly sensitive material on the operation of the security services. Just as in the past, by agreement between the then Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, reports such as the Radcliffe Report were not published in full, I must take the view that the Report of Sir Laurence Helsby is not appropriate for publication.

With regard to what I said on 23rd January last year, what I had in mind then was a case, which was in all our minds, in which perhaps, a person responsible for a breach of security, or a presumed breach, had fled the country. That should not prevent the establishment of the Security Commission. I asked then that if that happened, there should be an announcement of the establishment of the Commission. I still take this view.

My own view is that while what I am now suggesting makes things slightly more flexible concerning the defence of security, in every case at the earliest appropriate moment there should be an announcement in this House that the Security Commission has been set to work.

In those obvious cases such as I have mentioned where the matter is sub judice, I am sure that the whole House will agree that it would be wrong to announce that the Commission had been set to work. In the case of a man who had absconded abroad leaving a pretty clear trail behind him, I think that the House could be told immediately or soon after activation of the Commission. There may be some doubtful cases. In those cases, the announcement would have to depend upon when the Government felt that the announcement could be made without prejudicing the right of anyone to a fair trial.

Photo of Mr Emanuel Shinwell Mr Emanuel Shinwell , Easington

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the man Bossard to whom he referred in his original reply, and who, I understand, has today been convicted on a charge of espionage, was charged in a court at the end of March last year with dishonesty and admitted nine additional charges and that in the course of the proceedings in court he admitted having previous associations with the Nazis? Is it within my right hon. Friend's knowledge whether this man, who was still retained in the service of the Crown after the charges were preferred against him, was vetted by the authorities, and, if so, with what result?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

One point made by my right hon. Friend needs immediate correction. There was no court case last year or in recent times. But there is reason to think that in this man's case there was a charge in 1934 and that it was stated in court, and not denied, that he was associated with Nazi activities.

One of the points which I have mentioned today as causing disturbance is the whole system of inquiry before individual members of the public are given access to sensitive material. All the facts, including those mentioned by my right hon. Friend, will be available to the Security Commission. It would be well to wait for the Commission to produce its report and to see whether, in its view, having regard to all the facts, the arrangements for individual examination in this case were adequate.

As I have already made clear, the Government took the view that there were certain loopholes, which have already been closed as a result of this particular case. It is for the Security Commission to say whether we have gone far enough in closing those loopholes.

Photo of Sir Alec Douglas-Home Sir Alec Douglas-Home , Kinross and West Perthshire

I understand very well what the Prime Minister is getting at, and, indeed, there may be loopholes which ought to be closed. When we are considering matters, for instance, of positive vetting, this is a procedure which should be looked at with a fresh eye to see whether this is achieving the national security which the nation has a right to expect.

I would, however, say—the Prime Minister will understand this—that enormous consideration has been given to this matter over recent years, and we must be careful that we do not prejudice the rights of the individual to a fair trial in these cases. This must be a counterbalancing factor when we are considering these matters in relation to the security of the nation.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

It is for that reason that no public reference was made by the Government in this case until the trial was over. With regard to what the right hon. Gentleman has called positive vetting—I did not use the phrase myself—this is a matter of supreme importance in these cases, and the kind of consideration which my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) has mentioned is obviously relevant.

In case there is any doubt on the matter, I want to make it clear that since there has been a reference to possible political affiliations of this man many years ago, it is absolutely the policy of the authorities that Communist and Nazi affiliations equally are regarded as anathema from the point of view of reliability for access to sensitive documents.

Photo of Mr Frederick Bellenger Mr Frederick Bellenger , Bassetlaw

From what my right hon. Friend has said, it looks very much as if a great deal of investigation into individual cases will be undertaken in secret and not disclosed either to the House or to a wider public. My right hon. Friend will recollect that an hon. Member of this House was involved for a time in the Vassall case. May I ask him, therefore, whether he has any further proposals for dealing with cases like this, which affect the individual and affect a wider public than my right hon. Friend may be thinking of? Has he any proposals for altering the procedure under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921, in that connection?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Of course, this matter is not being conducted, at least so far, under the 1921 Act. This was one of the purposes of the previous Government in setting up the Security Commission. The usual procedure with all inquiries that have been held on security matters—whether departmental inquiries, tribunal inquiries as in the case of Lord Radcliffe's tribunal or the individual inquiry conducted by Lord Denning—is that when the Report is available, the Prime Minister of the day shows it to the Leader of the Opposition in full. The Prime Minister then indicates to the Leader of the Opposition certain passages which he feels, on security grounds—for example, on the methods of operation of the security services—should be deleted before publication, if the document is being published. It is for the Leader of the Opposition then to say whether he agrees. If he did not agree, no doubt he would say so in this House. But on all the occasions of which I have experience, in the days of Mr. Macmillan as Prime Minister and subsequently, there was never any disagreement about excisions. Indeed, in the case of the Denning Report it was published in full.

With regard to the Security Commission, it was announced by the present Leader of the Opposition that the Commission would have full power to carry on with its work and to ask questions of members of the public service, but that if at any time the Commission felt that it needed more powers, particularly if there was a question of getting evidence from persons outside, the Commission would be free to report to the Government and ask to be duly constituted a tribunal and clothed with all the powers of a tribunal.

If that were to occur, we would, of course, have to consider such a proposal and come to the House about it. In the present case, however, all I can say at present is that the Commission has been set up as a Security Commission and will have full access to all departmental evidence bearing on its work.

As to the general question of the future of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921, this is a matter which, I have explained to the House, the Government are considering urgently. I hope that there will be a statement very soon.

Photo of Miss Irene Ward Miss Irene Ward , Tynemouth

The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned once or twice the word "Government". Am I to understand that the decisions really go further than the responsibility of the Prime Minister and what he shows to the Leader of the Opposition? Am I not right in understanding that although the Prime Minister is the head of the Security Services he really does not keep this matter within his own person, so to speak, and those who are connected with the Security Services? Or does this matter run right throughout the length and breadth of all the members of the Government, from the Cabinet to Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries and all the whole gamut? I want to know who knows when all these matters are being discussed?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

In the first place, as the hon. Lady with her long experience of the House will remember, Parliamentary Private Secretaries are not members of the Government.

Photo of Miss Irene Ward Miss Irene Ward , Tynemouth

Well, they nearly are.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

But they are not and they never were.

In regard to the general responsibility for security matters, there has been no change in the situation as was announced in the debate following the Denning Report. Every Minister, every head of a Department, is responsible for security within his own Department and must satisfy himself about it. That is the first point.

Secondly, responsibility for operation of the Security Services together with responsibility for the police is in the hands of the Home Secretary. That became clear during the Denning inquiry. Perhaps not many people realised it before that that was the fact.

In addition to this, the Prime Minister has a very special responsibility as head of the Security Services. I have taken certain dispositions, certain action, to make sure I am kept fully informed of everything that I feel can possibly involve any security risk, and perhaps I may say that in this particular case, because of the dispositions I took, it was possible to get on very quickly indeed with certain points which needed dealing with immediately—because it is not enough once the horse has bolted to have a high-level inquiry six months after to see what was wrong. It is the duty of the Prime Minister to see that he is so informed about these matters that he can take immediate action and close that door and any other doors which may be open. This we have had to do in this particular case through the machinery I have described.

Photo of Mr Derek Page Mr Derek Page , King's Lynn

The man Bossard was convicted and sentenced to six months' goal at King's Lynn court in 1934 for a cheque fraud and during the proceedings it was not merely stated that he was a member of the Nazi Party but that he had been actively employed by it in a paid position on the Continent. Will my right hon. Friend assure himself that these facts were known to the Security Services? If not, why not, and if they were known, why was this decision of the King's Lynn court dis. regarded?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Yes, I am well aware that the facts stated by my hon. Friend have been alleged in this particular case and that there is a certain amount of material evidence in support of it. The question whether the Security Services or others concerned should have been aware of them, or, if they were aware of them, took sufficient account of them is a matter of judgment on which I think it is better to await the report of the Security Commission, but everything bearing on this particular aspect of the case, including the sentence—for dud cheques, I think it was—and including the political affiliations, then known to the Government and presumably known and on the court's records, will be available to the Security Commission.