GCHQ (Disciplinary Action)

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 10:59 am on 20th June 1986.

Alert me about debates like this

11 am

Photo of Dr Oonagh McDonald Dr Oonagh McDonald , Thurrock

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on disciplinary action at GCHQ.

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, in his statement to the House on 19 March, reported what he had told representatives of the Council of Civil Service Unions concerning the action that would be taken in respect of the few members of the staff of GCHQ who had accepted the revised conditions of service but had then gone back on their undertakings and had rejoined unions. My right hon. and learned Friend said that those staff had been asked to honour their original commitment by resigning from the unions they had rejoined and that if they failed to do so they would be subject to disciplinary procedures. I understand from the director, GCHQ, that disciplinary action has now been taken against 13 such employees of GCHQ and that letters have been sent to them informing them of the penalties that are to be imposed.

Three other members of the staff at GCHQ who have informed management that they have rejoined a national trade union will also be subject to disciplinary action in the next few weeks.

GCHQ has also warned those concerned that so long as they remain in membership of a national trade union they will be in breach of the conditions of service which apply to them in GCHQ and may be subject to further disciplinary action in accordance with the procedures and penalties prescribed in the Civil Service code. GCHQ therefore proposes to seek suitable alternative posts for them elsewhere in the home Civil Service, in which they can continue in national trade union membership if they wish. In the meantime, for so long as they remain in GCHQ, if they should become eligible for promotion their conduct will have to be taken into account, they will not be considered for an overseas posting, and they will continue to be ineligible for inclusion in the proposed restructuring.

I wish to stress to the House that we are talking here of a very small number of people. More than 99 per cent. of GCHQ staff members have accepted and comply with the revised conditions of service, morale is high, and restructuring is going ahead in consultation with the staff federation.

Photo of Dr Oonagh McDonald Dr Oonagh McDonald , Thurrock

Is the Minister aware that the methods of informing the civil servants concerned are quite inadequate, that only five of the 13 have received the letters and that the information has been given to there indirectly, through the general secretaries of their trade unions? Is he aware that the penalties are much more severe than the Government pretend and that for the senior civil servants involved the fine imposed will be between £3,000 and £4,500? Is he further aware that they will suffer from continuing pressure to take alternative jobs in the Civil Service and from continuing threats of further disciplinary action, which will make it difficult For them to perform their duties?

Is the Minister aware that the terms of the letters sent to the five civil servants are extremely harsh? He referred to the meeting between the Foreign Secretary and the Civil Service unions on 18 March, but is he aware that the threat of continuing action amounts to reneging on the Foreign Secretary's assurance on that occasion that this would be the only piece of disciplinary action against trade union members? Is he aware that the Opposition believe that disciplinary action of this kind should not be used against civil servants on the sole ground that they are trade union members and that we find it entirely objectionable?

The Minister is aware that the whole question of trade union membership at GCHQ is before the European Court of Human Rights, which will make a judgment on the admissibility of the case later this year. Is it not wrong for the Government to pursue action of this kind while the case is still pending?

Is the Minister aware that, far from morale at GCHQ being high, as he claims, this action will damage morale still further not just at GCHQ but throughout the Civil Service, and that the reaction received by the trade unions this morning has been one of deep anger and resentment by civil servants throughout the country?

Finally, is the Minister aware that, to take action of this kind against trade union membership in the Civil Service when the whole question of human rights is very much to the fore in our consideration of South Africa, is deeply insensitive? In a democracy, trade union membership is a basic human right. By taking this action, the Government show that they have no understanding of that fact.

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

To answer some of the points raised by the hon. Lady, so far as I understand it all the letters to the few people involved were posted at the same time. The details of the penalties are, of course, a matter for the director and management of GCHQ. I should point out that all the employees concerned were given proper notice of the date of the boards convened to consider their behaviour and of their right, in accordance with established procedures, to attend the disciplinary board and to be accompanied, if they wished, by a friend or colleague who could have been a member of a union, but none of those charged chose to attend. It is incorrect to say that the penalties in any way constitute a reneging on what my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary said to the House on 19 March.

The European Commission of Human Rights still has to decide on the admissibility of the case, which could be a very lengthy process. So far as I am aware, there is no general practice in this or any other country for Governments to refrain from taking action pending court decisions.

Finally, I repeat that morale at GCHQ is high. The hon. Lady and her friends would do far better to put their weight behind encouraging the 99 per cent. of GCHQ staff who have accepted the new conditions of service and encouraging the staff federation.

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

Am I right in believing that one very simple way for the staff affected to have avoided this situation would have been not to go back on their word?

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

Yes, that is absolutely correct.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Is there any justification in the unions' claim that the Government action now anounced flies directly in the face of the assurances given by the Foreign Secretary just a few months ago? Secondly, does the Minister accept that, whatever the ultimate decision, if there is one, by the European Commission or the European Court, it is extremely tactless for the Government to seek yet again to interfere in GCHQ in this fashion, given that the courts have made it clear that the original Government action was unjustified?

Lastly, does the Minister understand that, even if only a small minority of people are involved, those people have civil rights? Are not the Government yet again flying not only in the face of the courts but in the face of the rights of minorities? Does the Minister accept that minorities, in trade unions or anywhere else, deserve to be protected and not bulldozed by Government? That is what we object to.

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

To take the last point first, I fully accept that all employees at GCHQ are individuals whose position must be very carefully examined, but so must the position of national security in which GCHQ is involved. I submit that the management of GCHQ and the Ministers involved have taken a great deal of time and patience to consider this case, particularly the position of those who originally said that they would leave their union and accepted the A option but then rejoined. A lot of patience has been exercised.

No undertaking was given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary that no further disciplinary action would be taken following the present round. As my right hon. and learned Friend told the House on 19 March, the A option rejoiners were asked to honour their commitment — we are talking about them today— by resigning from the unions which they had rejoined. As long as they fail to do that they are in breach of their conditions of service and must remain subject to disciplinary procedure.

Photo of Mr John Biggs-Davison Mr John Biggs-Davison , Epping Forest

Is my hon. Friend aware that many of us who are trade unionists believe that trade unionism with no guarantee against industrial action is inappropriate in establishments which are vital to the national security? As for civil rights, to which the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) referred from the Liberal Benches, what civil rights will there be if this country is unable to defend itself against the enemies of freedom?

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. This goes to the heart of why it was considered that national union membership was unacceptable at GCHQ, in the light of the long periods of disruption there. What we have now done at GCHQ brings that communications headquarters into line with other security and intelligence agencies in France, the United States and Italy where there are similar policies of no union membership in intelligence agencies.

Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams , Swansea West

Does the Minister realise that his announcement is petty, vindictive, spiteful and, above all, stupid? It is stupid in that it will provoke the very industrial action that the Government say they want to avoid and will destroy the morale of which the Minister boasted this morning.

Is the Minister aware that his statement is vindictive in that, despite the assurances by the Foreign Secretary, it is clear that, in addition to the fines of up to £4,000, those involved will face a continuing campaign of punishment and persecution under this Government?

Is he aware that the statement is petty and spiteful because the Minister is trying to enforce an agreement which clearly was entered into under duress? In that context, will the Minister confirm that some of the members have tried to return the £1,000 Judas money to the management, and that GCHQ management has returned the cheques and refused to accept the money?

Will the Minister give a categorical assurance that at least he precludes dismissal and loss of job from this continuing programme of persecution?

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

I listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the money being returned, and I shall check that with GCHQ management. I totally disagree that my statement is petty, vindictive and spiteful. It is the opposite. GCHQ management has shown much patience in considering how to deal with the few who have rejoined their union. It would be entirely inappropriate for disciplinary procedures not to be taken against those who remain in breach of their conditions of service. It would also let down the more than 99 per cent. who have accepted the conditions of service.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about further penalties. It is impossible to forecast whether or when further disciplinary procedures might be thought appropriate. It would be still less appropriate to say what, if any, penalties might then he imposed.

Mr. Ian Cow:

Is it not clear that in the case of the small number of civil servants who have been disciplined, the proper disciplinary procedures were followed meticulously? Is it not also clear that those who have already been disciplined could have avoided that disciplinary action by abiding by the terms of their contracts and that all future cases of this kind could be avoided if only those who enter into an agreement with their employer abide by that agreement?

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

My hon. Friend is correct on all three matters. The proper procedures were followed exactly. What is more, those to whom the letters have been sent are — I stress this — to be found appropriate jobs in the home Civil Service and they can retain trade union membership. Furthermore, they could still deal with the problem and remain at GCHQ by resigning their trade union membership and accepting the conditions of service, as the vast majority of their fellow workers have already done.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

Is the Minister aware that the people of this country fought for years to establish free trade unionism and that it is the mark of Fascism to try to eliminate the right to belong to a trade union?

Is the story on the front page of today's Guardian true? Is it correct that the rejoiners have been told that incremental salary increases due to them will be docked for two years and that in most cases this will mean a loss of between £1,600 and £2,000? If the Minister manages to force out those people who wish to remain in a union and they have to go elsewhere in the home Civil Service, can he give an assurance from the Dispatch Box that they will not be victimised by this most vindictive Government?

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

It is a great pity that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) does not bend some of his passion and eloquence to putting his weight behind the 99 per cent. who have accepted the conditions of service and who are doing their hardest to build up GCHQ into an even more effective national security unit than it is already. The details of the penalties are for the director and management of GCHQ. I understand that in the letters those concerned have been told that they will not he entitled to either one or two increments for up to two years. I repeat that the vast majority have accepted the new terms of service, as can the handful about whom we are talking by resigning from their union membership now.

Photo of Mr Michael Marshall Mr Michael Marshall , Arundel

Does my hon. Friend accept that the problem highlighted today is merely an extension of the problem that arose when disruptive action put our national security at risk? Does he agree that, with the revised arrangements, people must now feel that they no longer have divided loyalty to external organisations?

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

My hon. Friend is right. Morale is high, not least because of the restructuring which has simplified the employment structure at GCHQ, which is much welcomed because it recognises the unique contribution to national security made by the staff at GCHQ.

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

On what day was the last warning given to the individuals concerned and what contact has taken place since then? What will he the last day at work at Cheltenham for those involved?

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

I cannot give my hon. Friend the precise details, but I can assure him that the precise procedure for such cases laid down by the Civil Service code was followed exactly. None of those involved bothered to attend the meetings to which I referred earlier.