Orders of the Day — Interception of Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:19 pm on 12th March 1985.

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Photo of Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas Mr Dafydd Elis Thomas , Meirionnydd Nant Conwy 9:19 pm, 12th March 1985

One of the most remarkable features of the debate has been that we have heard parts of the memoirs of at least three Cabinet Ministers. It is important for us to have those clear statements in the House of what goes on in the procedures of Government.

Surely the major problem that we have to face in the Bill is the expected failure of the Government to produce what they intended to produce, as set out in their White Paper. In paragraph 7 of the White Paper the Government say that their aim in introducing legislation is to provide a clear statutory framework within which the interception of communications on public systems will be authorised and controlled in a manner commanding public confidence. It is clear from what we have heard in the debate—I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has just said — that the Government have totally failed to produce legislation that provides anything like a clear statutory framework. I shall go into a little detail on some of the wording in a moment.

The Government have also failed to produce anything that can command public confidence. This has been admitted on the Conservative Benches. It is clear that the security services themselves are in a crisis of confidence. We have not seen—certainly not in recent years—such criticism of the security services from a broad spread of the media as we have seen in the past three or four weeks. When the Bill was originally published, most of the leading papers were extremely critical of its failure to produce the safeguards that it set out to produce. I endorse those criticisms of the contents of the Bill.

The Bill fails completely from its inception in dealing with the issues at stake. It is called the Interception of Communications Bill. In reality, as we have heard from many Opposition Members, only certain communications are covered. There is coverage of only one form of interception—in the telephone system. The broad area of invasion through bugging devices, directional microphones and all the other forms of surveillance is not covered.

There was a famous incident in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) at Talysarn when a whole community was bugged by the security services because a bug was placed in the telephone kiosk. It was only through people in the community surveying the activity of the security services that the bug was discovered. No explanation, adequate or otherwise, has been forthcoming from the chief constable of north Wales or the Home Secretary about the intention of that bugging. That incident gave rise to a popular song in the Welsh language, which I shall not quote tonight.

Such incidents show the way in which the community has been sensitised to the surveillance upon it. Such sensitising of the community to surveillance, as in the famous Talysarn incident, has happened throughout Britain in recent weeks, as the "20:20 Vision" programme, on which I congratulate the producers and all those who appeared on it, reminded us. It reminded us of the reality of control of dissent in our society. The Bill is part of the control of dissent. It deals with a limited attempt to intervene with a small aspect of the communications network, but by doing that and not dealing within a statutory framework with the rest of the surveillance of communications it fails to put the surveillance of communications on a democratic basis. There is no new accountability in the form of surveillance.

In clause 2(2) we are given the three reasons for the issue of a warrant for surveillance by the Secretary of State. They are the interests of national security, preventing or detecting serious crime, and safeguarding the economic well-being of the United Kingdom. Nowhere in the Bill or the debate have we had a definition of what those terms mean. At the end of some of the longer Bills that we have discussed, detailed schedules have contained definitions of precisely what the wording meant.

There has been no attempt in the Bill or the White Paper to define exactly what the interests of national security are. However, in the White Paper there have been some attempts in paragraphs 20 and 21 to define what serious offences are. As we have already heard from successive Home Secretaries, national security is defined by each Home Secretary. The right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said that it should be for the Home Secretary of the day to produce a definition of subversion. In my 11 years in the House, the category of subversion has been extended gradually.

There is no definition of serious crime or of national security in the Bill. However, paragraph 20 of the White Paper says: Interception will be authorised only if the offence is one for which a person with no previous criminal record could reasonably be expected to be sentenced to three years' imprisonment; or is an offence of lesser gravity in which either a large number of people is involved, or there is good reason to apprehend the use of violence, or in which the financial rewards of success are very large. In regard to a serious offence and the involvement of large numbers of people, I want to compare the form of words used with what is in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. It categorises criminal offences into offences involving arrests with a warrant, arrests without a warrant, which are arrestable offences, and serious arrestable offences. The gravest of these is a "serious arrestable offence" which includes offences which cause serious harm to the security of the State or to public order". In the context of the White Paper and the Bill, will serious offences include the same kinds of serious offences as are defined in that section of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act? If so, and if the involvement of a large number of people in an offence of lesser gravity is a category which would authorise interception, any mass demonstration organised by anyone in the United Kingdom becomes immediately a subject of surveillance.

I go further. In one of his most revealing answers, the Secretary of State for Defence, who has made many revealing answers in the House not so much by what he has said but by the style in which he has said it, told those of us who questioned him about the successful battle of Molesworth that the reason that the police, the military police and the Royal Engineers were used against the peace movement was to anticipate and prevent mass civil disobedience.

No doubt it is part of the Government's strategy in preventing dissent to prevent those who disagree with their policies from gathering together and organising themselves in dissent. As we have seen throughout the mining dispute, demonstrations, picketing and the movement of demonstrators and trade unionists were all subject to various forms of surveillance. At the beginning of the dispute in south Wales there was a celebrated case in which buses which had been hired by the National Union of Mineworkers were followed. This could have happened only as a result of the tapping of telephones of private bus operators in south Wales. All forms of demonstration against the Government could be categorised as serious offences which would be subject to surveillance.

Another category concerns me. There has been reference in the debate to warrants issued by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. We have heard a little about warrants issued by the Home Secretary. Under the Bill, a warrant can be issued on grounds of national security in support of the Government's defence and foreign policies. We should be told more about the use of warrants in this category. As the Bill proceeds, we shall ask further questions on that. Does it refer merely to warrants issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary in respect of the activities of MI6, or are we talking of the use of warrants against people who do not support the Government's defence and foreign policies? It is important for us to understand what that category is. Here again, the self-definition of national security by the state is being broadened in a way that undermines democracy.

The Bill does not cover the reality of the surveillance that is going on. It pretends to give us a structure of accountability, whereas in reality it gives us no such structure. This has been true of the history of the argument about telecommunications surveillance in Britain. We have always been given inadequate figures. For example, last year 354 warrants were issued by the Home Secretary. We are never told how many of these warrants apply to individuals and how many to organisations.

Clearly the House would accept that paramilitary organisations dedicated to political violence should have blanket surveillance. However, there is no argument for a blanket warrant for surveillance of people who are members of legal, democratic organisations whose objectives are open and whose activities and forms of action are open just because certain individuals in the organisation are members of political parties that are apparently subversive.