Orders of the Day — Security Services

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th July 1977.

Alert me about debates like this

5.2 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

When I asked for the opportunity to debate the security services, I intended to refer only to two newspaper reports—those in. The Observer newspaper of 17th and 24th July. Any hon. Member who has read those reports will have found them profoundly disturbing. I felt that, unless something were done, public confidence in the security services would be shaken, as would the morale of the services themselves. Since then—indeed, this morning—another report which has appeared in another newspaper has reinforced that view. I think it necessary to put on record what is contained in these three reports, or at least the gist of it, before I go on to draw some conclusions.

The first article in the Observer reports allegations made by the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) that MI 5 was both incompetent and politically biased against himself, his entourage and Labour Ministers. He is reported as saying that in 1969 the head of MI 5 met the right hon. Gentleman to report to him information obtained from a Czech defector and that at that meeting the head of MI 5 muddled the present Foreign Secretary with Will Owen, a former Member of this House, who was acquitted at the Old Bailey of passing State secrets to the Czechoslovak authorities, although he admitted receiving about £2,300 from them.

The right hon. Gentleman is also reported as saying that in July 1974 MI 5 told him that it had documentary evidence that the right hon. Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart) had attended a Communist meeting in an East European capital. According to the right hon. Gentleman, MI 5 had confused the right hon. Lady with a Mrs. Tudor Hart, the wife of a member of the British Communist Party. Therefore, we have two allegations of confusion on the part of MI 5.

The report continued that, according to the right hon. Member for Huyton, the head of MI 5 confirmed the existence within his service of a disaffected faction with extreme Right-wing views. It reports the right hon. Gentleman as having said that the service contained a faction sympathetic to the South African and Rhodesian authorities.

The report goes on to quote the right hon. Gentleman as declaring, first, that MI 5 was saying that he was tied tip with the Communists, and that MI 5 knew this; secondly, that for the last eight months when he was Prime Minister he was not certain that he knew what was happening, fully, in security; and, thirdly, that he was worried at reports reaching him through Lady Falkender that the CIA might be involved in attempts to infiltrate No. 10 Downing Street, and that he checked on this through the Americans, evidently because he did not trust the British security services.

In a passage which I can only describe as surrealist, the right hon. Gentleman is reported as describing himself to journalists as a spider, sitting at the centre of a web of information, who could give them some valuable leads. The passage continues: Occasionally when we meet", he said cryptically, I might tell you to go to Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man sitting on the corner. That blind man may tell you something, lead you somewhere. In The Observer of 24th July it was reported that there was an even more serious event of which account should be taken—that important information about British counter-intelligence services was feared to have been lost to the KGB in the mid-1960s through a former high-ranking MI 5 officer who worked for the Russians while remaining at his job in the West. It is not entirely clear from the article that this information, too, came from the right hon. Member for Huyton, though, as I read the report, that is the implication.

I turn now to the third of the reports that I mentioned earlier. That is a report in today's Daily Express, which I have with me. I should like to read an extract from that newspaper. This is described as a "Chapman Pincher Exclusive". The extract reads:

The suspicion of Sir Harold Wilson that he was 'bugged' by British security men when Prime Minister has turned out to be fully justified.Inquiries have established that he was under electronic surveillance in No. 10 Downing Street on several occasions during his eight years there.Sir Harold has revealed that he believes certain officials in MI5, the counter-espionage organisation, suspected the existence of a Communist 'cell' in his Government.He has even said that a small number of MI 5 men suspected that he and his secretary, Lady Falkender, were part of it. We have here some astonishing, grave and alarming allegations.

Before I go any further I must say something about the choice of Minister who is to reply to the debate, if she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill), and I came into the House at the same time, and I have great respect for her. But I am surprised that she, not the Home Secretary, has been chosen to answer this debate. She is not yet a Privy Councillor, and therefore she cannot be informed of the secret information that I would expect to be necessary for any Minister who replies to this debate. The Home Secretary himself should have come here to deal with such an important subject.

I telephoned the Home Secretary's private office yesterday morning to say that I proposed to raise this matter, and I referred expressly to the articles in The Observer. Of course, I could not refer to the article in the Daily Express, as that had not appeared at that stage. It must have been perfectly clear to the Home Secretary that I would be raising a very delicate matter.

What can we make of this astounding story? When I read the first story in The Observer I thought that the right hon. Member for Huyton must have been misquoted. But 11 days have passed since the story appeared, and four days have passed since the second story, and there has been no denial from the right hon. Member. Therefore, we must assume that he was correctly quoted. He has not disowned the remarks attributed to him. It is a pity that he is not here this morning, despite the lateness of the hour. I sent him a message on Wednesday telling him that I proposed to raise the matters referred to in the two articles.

The House and the country will want time to consider the implications of the latest report in the Daily Express, but my views on the three stories are these. I believe that it is imperative that the Prime Minister should come to the House today—the last opportunity before we rise for three months' recess—and make a statement about these very grave reports. I gave notice to the Home Secretary's office that I would make such a suggestion, so the Prime Minister has had 24 hours in which to take a decision to come here, brief himself, and make a statement. I hope that he will do so.

The House and the country will want to know the truth about these allegations, and how it is that an ex-Prime Minister, who was responsible for the security services in that capacity, came to make a public attack through the Press on the competence and impartiality of the services. It simply cannot be right for allegations against the security services to be made publicly by an ex-Prime Minister, whatever the merits of the case or the truth about the' allegations. The security services are the most sensitive arms of Government, and on them our safety literally depends. I hope that the Minister will comment on the fact that it seems clear that a breach of the Official Secrets Act by the former Prime Minister is involved, if not also a breach of his oath as a Privy Councillor.

It is not enough for the security services to he efficient—and we want reassurance from the Prime Minister on that point; they must also be impartial between parties that support the interests of the nation, and the public should have confidence in them. It is the duty of the security services to safeguard the interests of the nation and to follow up any significant information—to whomever that information may relate. The services cannot defend themselves in public, and that reinforces the case for a parliamentary statement from the Prime Minister.

Anyone who knows the high reputation of the services will be surprised at the allegations of incompetence and bias. The House hopes that it may be reassured by the Prime Minister of his confidence in the security services. If the right hon. Member for Huyton, when he was Prime Minister, honestly held the opinion of them that has been attributed to him in The Observer article, it is surprising that he did not seek to remedy the position when he had the authority and was able to take the necessary steps. It is also surprising that he apparently waited until after he had left office and then gave his story to the Press. That is just the sort of action that the right hon. Gentleman roundly condemned in his own recently published comments to the Royal Commission on the Press.

Indeed, in his book entitled "The Governance of Britain", which was published not long ago, the right hon. Gentleman made clear in his chapter on the security services the importance that he attaches to treating with discretion all matters relating to those services. The right hon. Gentleman reinforced that view with a quotation from Harold Macmillan to the effect that public discussion of the security services risked destroying the services, which are of the utmost value to the country.

When he made these accusations against the security services, the right hon. Gentleman must have been fully aware of the serious implications for the functioning of the services and public confidence in them. It is also clear that once the right hon. Gentleman ceased to be Prime Minister, his duty, when he had allegations to make, was not to air them through the Press but to speak to the present Prime Minister. I should like the Minister to tell us whether the right hon. Gentleman did that. Did he cover the ground that is contained in the report in The Observer, and what was the result?

It is imperative that the Prime Minister should come to the House later today to deal with this matter, because he is responsible for all the security services and all of them are involved in these accusations. I believe in the importance of national security, but I also believe that Parliament and the people have the right to know whether it is in safe hands.

5.20 a.m.

Photo of Mr Stephen Hastings Mr Stephen Hastings , Mid Bedfordshire

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) on raising this matter. It will not be lost on the Minister that five of my hon. Friend and myself think that the subject is of sufficient importance for us to be here at 5.30 a.m.—and small wonder when we have heard what my hon. Friend has told us.

We have all read the two articles in The Observer and the story in today's Daily Express. My impression of the articles in The Observer was that they were an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to confuse public reaction and to discredit the security services. No other interpretation can be put upon them. They are grossly misleading about the Frolik defection revelations. If the Minister has not already read it, I commend Frolik's book to her. It is interesting, but it has certain omissions. I understand that a version of the book is soon to be published in the United States and that the information that it contains will be fuller than was allowed by our libel laws. Could it be—and it would be consistent with the known tactics of the KGB—that it was worried about the publication of such a work and that an attempt to counter its effect by confusing the issue in the manner that I have described was behind the articles in The Observer?

It is strange that the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) is not here to listen to the debate and to reply to it. I hope that he will explain to us why he is not here. His connection with this affair has been positively paranoic. In The Observer articles, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the security service in terms such as: a faction of MI5 was putting it about that there was a Communist cell in the Cabinet and, 'They (MI5) would naturally be brought up to believe that socialist leaders were another form of Communism'. If the right hon. Gentleman does not deny that, he should see a psychiatrist. It is the most extraordinary attitude for anyone with the slightest familiarity with the administration in Whitehall, let alone an ex-Prime Minister. The only time that I had anything to do with the security service was during the Cyprus troubles, and I know that they are professionals, trained to examine information many times before passing it on to Ministers. Yet this is the way that they are referred to by the last Prime Minister of this country.

It is the most extraordinary picture. Threatened, he conceives, by the security service, the right hon. Gentleman does not come to the House and make a public statement, but rather complains about it over a period of 14 months to two young journalists, Mr. Penrose and Mr. Courtiour. All this began in May last year. It beggars description as a course of action by a responsible person, let alone an ex-Prime Minister.

Finally, the articles in The Observer conclude that surveillance by the security service of the enemies of this country should enjoy the support of informed public opinion. What a marvellous picture that conjures up. Presumably when it thinks it necessary to keep an eye on the latest identified agent of the KGB it has to telephone The Observer to ask whether informed public opinion is behind the service. It is a childish series of articles in many ways. If it did not have such grave implications for the security services and if it were not for its connection with an ex-Prime Minister, it would be a matter for laughter.

Unfortunately, for the reasons that my hon. Friend has already so capably adduced, it has those implications and it cannot be left there. At the very least we have an ex-Prime Minister and a Member of the House of Commons who is lending his authority to these extraordinary assertions and accusations. We have, it seems, a campaign already orchestrated in such publications as that organ of Soviet friendship "Time Out", referred to in one of The Observer articles.

There was a parallel campaign with which I expect the hon. Lady is familiar, as certainly are my hon. Friends, in the United States that lasted for months during the Watergate revelations, which was designed to denigrate and weaken the effectiveness of the CIA and to destroy public confidence in its work. It may have done untold damage to the free world. I am sure that the KGB was behind it. Now we have the beginning of the same sort of thing in this country. That is something of which the hon. Lady must take account. The Home Secretary should be here to give us his view.

I should be grateful if the hon. Lady would address herself to certain questions. They will continue to be asked if she does not give satisfactory answers. First, is it possible that these articles could have appeared without the knowledge of the right hon. Member for Huyton? It is conceivable that it is some fabrication, or that it represents a twisting of the words that the right hon. Gentleman used at some stage. Can anyone seriously believe that? Secondly, why has he chosen this moment and method? If the answer to the first question be that he must have known about it, why has he chosen this moment and method to aid and abet such extraordinary revelations in the newspapers? Why has he not come to the House or gone to the Prime Minister to explain the background to the whole matter?

Thirdly, what lies behind Mr. Chapman Pincher's assertions in this morning's Daily Express that, first, the right hon. Gentleman was under suspicion by the security services; secondly, that the matter might be connected with the Gunther Guillaume case in Germany, with which I am sure the hon. Lady is familiar; and, thirdly, that the whole series of articles is part of a campaign to damage the security service, in which by implication the right hon. Gentleman is involved?

These matters will not go away. Let me finally make that clear to the hon. Lady. We are here at half-past five in the morning, and I suppose that it might be hoped by the Government that in a week's time when the House has gone into recess it will all be forgotten. It will not. If we do not receive a satisfactory answer between now and when the House reassembles, it will still not be forgotten. It would be much wiser for the Prime Minister to accept my hon. Friend's advice and to make a statement in the House this day about a matter that is as grave as anything that I can remember emerging in public life from a figure such as the right hon. Member for Huyton in all the time that I have been in this place. Let the Government take account of it and let them satisfy the House forthwith.

5.30 a.m.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexley Bexleyheath

I need not detain the House for long this morning because my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) and for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) have covered the ground very adequately.

I start by saying how well qualified is my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South to inform the House of these matters. After all, he has had experience at both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. I thought that he put his case today in a responsible and impressive manner.

I support my hon. Friend's basic theme. I regret the fact that at present this is a one-sided debate. Surely Labour Members have some interest in national security. Indeed, from time to time the Liberals might show a little interest in such matters. Why should it be that it is only Conservative Members who seem to find this matter of such serious import this morning? I should be delighted to give way to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) if he wishes to take part in the debate.

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott , Kingston upon Hull East

I would lose my chance on the next debate.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexley Bexleyheath

It appears that the recent spate of Press articles has been sparked off by a series of meetings between the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) and two freelance reporters, and until such time as that right hon. Gentleman denies that he gave those interviews, I feel that the House has no alternative but to take the matter seriously. In my view, it was the height of irresponsibility for a former Prime Minister to discuss our counter-intelligence services with two journalists so soon after giving up office. As we all know, from time to time former very junior Service men are taken to court for giving away what they learned during their time in the Services. Yet here we have a former Prime Minister apparently spilling the beans, and, of course, he would have far more vital information to disclose.

The right hon. Gentleman was, after all, passing on official secrets with a view to obtaining public discussion on a number of highly sensitive matters. One is bound to ask what he thought he would achieve. What possible revelations prompted his actions? Did he want to go on record before further aspects of life at No. 10 were made public? Did he know that the fascinating story in the Daily Express today was about to break? Is there something else about which the House has yet to learn?

One is bound to ask what actions the right hon. Gentleman took as Prime Minister, with ultimate responsibility for our national security, to put right what he considered to be wrong with our security services. What warnings did he pass on to his successors in 1970 and in 1976 about the state of those services? Surely it would be monstrous if as Prime Minister the right hon. Gentleman did not take every possible step open to him to make sure that these services were staffed by people of the highest integrity and intellectual calibre and that the services were working with the utmost discretion and efficiency.

Leaving aside the more lurid and bizarre aspects of the Press stories and the ridiculous mistakes in identities, and the right hon. Gentleman's well-known persecution complex, we are left with a number of serious allegations against our counter-intelligence services by the man who was responsible for them. It would be quite wrong if the Government and Parliament attempted to walk away from them because it is embarrassing for the Government and because Parliament is going on holiday.

After all, when one analyses the matter, one realises that we are talking about the defence of Britain. That is the responsibility of the security services. In this country we still have—although the present Government have run down the Services—a number of extremely important things to conceal from our potential enemies. We have a lot of vital NATO equipment, and there are special relationships with the United States, a knowledge of which would be of great use to a hostile Power. It is ultimately the job of the security services to keep our secrets secret. It is no exaggeration to say that at the end of the day men's lives could be at stake if our security services prove to be deficient.

Therefore, I strongly support the demands that we have just heard for an urgent statement to be made to the House this morning, preferably by the Prime Minister. Our intelligence and security services have a vital role to play and it is essential that they enjoy the respect of the public they serve. Their life is often portrayed as glamorous. I do not think that is true at all. It is a tedious job of collecting and collating a lot of minor stories which may add up to something of importance.

The allegations suggest that not only is our intelligence service staffed by fools at a junior level but that those who report direct to No. 10 are equally foolish. One would suspect that both propositions are without foundation and that Britain still has one of the finest, if not the finest, intelligence service in the world.

I would add that I believe that the Prime Minister should tell the House that he will appoint a top level inquiry to investigate the allegations put forward by the former Prime Minister the right hon. Member for Huyton. I believe that we owe such an inquiry to those whose task it is to protect us from those powers which wish to destroy our liberties and our way of life.

5.36 a.m.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher

We are all aware, even at this time of the morning and even with so few hon. Members present, of the very grave matter that we are now discussing. The gravity of it has been brought out adequately by my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker), Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) and Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend).

It has been pointed out that the hon. Lady is in an unfortunate position. It should not be her who answers this debate. The only person who can really answer such a debate is the Prime Minister himself. He is the person responsible for the security service, and no one else.

Various questions arise out of the information which we have so far in the three articles that have been published, the last of which is not yet even known to the public at large. That is the article in the Daily Express this morning. I do not expect the hon. Lady to answer the questions that I am about to ask, but I would expect the Prime Minister to answer them as soon as he can.

How did the BBC hire two freelance journalists for private counter-espionage purposes? How was it that the Director-General of the BBC gave his authority for those activities?

Secondly, is it true that the initial approach was made by the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) himself and not by the two journalists concerned? Thirdly, how is it that a former Prime Minister who had left that office only a few months previously is alleged to have broken the Official Secrets Act and to have attacked the very service for which he was solely responsible?

As we all know, any matter concerning the secret service, which is what we are now discussing, is Top Secret. If one looks at the Franks Report for a definition of Top Secret, the criteria that one is given include Any disclosure which would do exceptionally grave damage to the nation". The next question I should like to ask is, how was it that these two articles came to be published by The Observer? Did the right hon. Member for Huyton give his approval for publication? If he did not give his approval, why does he remain silent? Why did not the D Notice procedure operate to safeguard the security service from attacks to discredit it? Did the present Prime Minister know what was going on? If not, when did he become aware of it? We expect to be told the extent of his knowledge on this matter.

Is it true that bugs were planted in No. 10, as we read in Mr. Chapman Pincher's article in this morning's Daily Express? What were the reasons for their being planted, if the allegation is true? What is the truth in the suggestion by Mr. Chapman Pincher that the security service was anxious about "certain Ministers with whom the former Prime Minister had to deal"? Why has none of the stories been denied?

The upshot is that accusations of gross incompetence have been made against the Security Service. These allegations are alleged to have been made by the former Prime Minister. Counter-stories, supposed to have emanated from MI5, suggest that the former Prime Minister was involved with Communists and that there was a Communist cell in the Cabinet.

This is gravely damaging to the security service. One can imagine what effect these public attacks will have on the morale of those who work in it. The reports are gravely damaging to the reputation of the former Prime Minister, to national security, to international relations, to the Government of this country and to us all.

Why has no one spoken up? Why has the Prime Minister not leapt to the defence of the security service? Why has the Attorney-General not come to the House to say whether the Official Secrets Act has been breached? Why does the Home Secretary remain silent on matters of internal security? Why is Parliament allowed to go into recess without a statement?

These rumours are allowed to circulate, reputations are allowed to be smeared and tarnished, and our national security services are discredited. We must have the truth before the recess. We require a statement by the Prime Minister today.

5.43 a.m.

Photo of Dr Shirley Summerskill Dr Shirley Summerskill , Halifax

The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) and others have made a number of observations about the allegations against the security service and about the source of those allegations.

The allegations are said to be derived from notes made by two journalists of meetings in May last year with my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) and with his political secretary. That was, of course, after my right hon. Friend ceased to hold ministerial office. Clearly, I am not in a position to tell the House whether and in which circumstances the alleged meetings took place, and whether the published accounts are a true record of what was said. Only my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton could answer the hon. Gentleman's question on those aspects of the matter.

I am inhibited from commenting on the allegations in any detail by the longstanding and well-established convention that these matters are not discussed across the Floor of the House. It may be argued that the publication of these allegations justifies a breach of that convention on this occasion. I cannot agree. There are good reasons for the convention, arising out of the nature of the duties of the service. The force of those reasons is not diminished by what has occurred, and the fact that a newspaper has published material of this kind does not justify a departure from the traditional practice of the House in these matters. I shall only say, therefore, in very general terms that the House should not assume from what I have said that the Government accept that the journalists' allegations are well founded.

The allegations all relate to periods many years ago—in one case more than a quarter of a century ago. Our concern here should be with the state of the security service today.

Whatever may be the inhibitions upon our discussion of these matters in this House, hon. Members are entirely justified in seeking to be assured that Ministers are satisfied of the competence, integrity and loyalty of the service. That, more than the accuracy or otherwise of allegations of what happened or did not happen on particular occasions in the past, is the serious point in all this. The House is entitled to look to the Ministers to whom the security service is answerable and accountable—that is, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and in the last resort my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—to accept responsibility that all is well in this respect.

As to that, the tradition in this country is that the service is accountable to Ministers. Parliament accepts that the accountability must be to Ministers rather than to Parliament, and trusts Ministers to discharge that responsibility faithfully. There are arrangements—reviewed and further improved only last year—for giving effect to this accountability to Ministers. I am authorised to assure the House that on the basis of those arrangements my right hon. Friends are confident that the service concerned is carrying out its duties within the limits laid down in the directive to the Director-General issued by the then Home Secretary in September 1952 and which remains in force.

My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary will continue to undertake a close oversight of the work of the security service and will take any further action that may be required, from time to time, to assure themselves that it is staffed by persons who are competent professionally and who can be relied upon to serve the national interest with the same integrity and impartiality as we expect from all the public services, and who have constantly in their minds the importance of individual liberties. They have no reason to doubt that this is the case.

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

I do not wish the Minister to finish her speech without dealing precisely with this question: has my request made yesterday—that the Prime Minister should come to the House today and make a statement on this matter—been transmitted to the Prime Minister, and does he intend to come?

Photo of Dr Shirley Summerskill Dr Shirley Summerskill , Halifax

I can assure the House and hon. Members who have spoken that everything they have said in this debate will be made clear to my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and Prime Minister as soon as possible after the debate is over, but I do not wish to add to what I said.

Photo of Mr Stephen Hastings Mr Stephen Hastings , Mid Bedfordshire

Before the hon. Lady sits down—

Photo of Sir Arthur Irvine Sir Arthur Irvine , Liverpool Edge Hill

I was under the impression that the hon. Lady had sat down.