My Lords, on
Sixteen thousand of those men are still alive, and under the terms of the Protection of Freedoms Act which we passed last year, they can all now apply to have their convictions disregarded. This will provide real comfort for them, their families, their relatives and their loved ones and will help to put right a little a serious historical injustice. As the Protection of Freedoms Bill went through this House, I tried to amend it to extend this disregard posthumously to the 49,000 men similarly convicted but now dead. I felt strongly that we should provide the same comfort and partial rehabilitation to the families, friends and loved ones of those convicted but now dead as we have to those convicted but still alive.
The Government did not agree with us. They pointed out that, among other things, it would not always be possible in very old cases to know when sexual activity was non-consensual or under age. I think that the Government were wrong then and I think that they are wrong now. I think that it would be simple to grant a posthumous disregard only when the applicants can provide compelling evidence that there was consensual, age-of-consent sexual activity involved, but the Government were firm.
I then turned to the issue of a pardon for Alan Turing. It seemed to me that if we could persuade the Government that this was the right thing to do, it would be a symbolic first step towards a disregard for the 49,000 others convicted and now dead, and perhaps a step forward towards successfully amending the Protection of Freedoms Act to that effect when the opportunity arises. I knew about Turing. Turing only ever had one doctoral student. This was a man called Robin Gandy, who was Turing's closest friend and the executor of his will. Robin Gandy taught me mathematics when I was an undergraduate at Manchester University in the 1960s, and I was familiar with the Turing story from an early age. However, the Government were not to be persuaded about a pardon for Turing. The Government, like their predecessor, acknowledged Turing's contribution to the war effort at Bletchley Park, they acknowledged his contribution to computing and they acknowledged the injustice and terrible cruelty of what was done to him. They were absolutely right to acknowledge all these things. They are all true.
Turing led the way in cracking the Enigma code. This alone probably turned the Battle of the Atlantic. Respected commentators estimate that this shortened the war by two years, saving many, many thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of lives. This was Turing's work. Turing is also one of the fathers, if not the father, of computer science. Every time anyone, anywhere, uses a computer for any purpose there is a kind of debt to Turing. And Turing was treated with terrible cruelty, as were all convicted under the Labouchère amendment.
My noble friend Lord McNally said in February last year:
“It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence which now seems both cruel and absurd—particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort”.—[Official Report, 2/2/12; col. WA341.].
However, the Government could not be persuaded to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy in Turing's case. They argued that a posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence. He would have known, they argued, that his offence was against the law and would be prosecuted. This is not a strong argument. The royal prerogative of mercy has been exercised quite recently in exactly these conditions.
As part of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, 18 convicted terrorists, some of them murderers, were granted pardons. These people were presumably aware that their offences were against the law and would be prosecuted. And everyone acknowledges that the previous Government had bravely and rightly granted a statutory pardon to all those British soldiers—304 of them—executed in the First World War for what were then seen as military crimes. So it was suggested that it would be better trying to pursue a parliamentary pardon, a statutory pardon, rather than pressing the Government to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy. That is what this Bill sets out to do.
People recognise that Turing was a hero and a very great man. As long ago as 1999, Time magazine named Turing as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. In 2002, Turing was ranked 21st in the BBC’s poll of the 100 greatest Britons. Last year, in the centenary of Turing’s birth, there were a very large number of events all over the world celebrating Turing's life and his achievements. More than 40 countries were involved in those celebrations.
Here in the UK, there were a large number of events, including an exhibition on his work and times at the Science Museum, now extended by popular demand until October this year. The Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp and in March, Turing's universal machine—the theoretical basis for all computers everywhere—was voted the greatest British invention of the 20th century. The head of GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobban, said publicly that,
“we should remember that the cost of intolerance towards Alan Turing was his loss to the nation”.
Last September, the Information Commissioner's Office inaugurated the Alan Turing lecture series. The first lecture was delivered by Professor Christopher Andrew, the official historian of M15, who spoke of Turing's greatness and his inexcusable persecution. Last year, Turing's papers were saved for the nation by a last-minute intervention by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which made a donation of £200,000.
There is now a statue of Turing in Manchester, where he lived, worked and died. There is now a statue of Turing in Paddington, where he lived for a while. The statue stands alongside statues of Mary Seacole and Paddington Bear. All three statues were voted for by the residents and it strikes me as a peculiarly and encouragingly British set of choices.
At the end of last year a group of very distinguished scientists and mathematicians and Members of this House wrote to the Telegraph asking the Prime Minister to pardon Alan Turing. This letter was signed by Professor Stephen Hawking, Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, Dr Douglas Gurr, chair of the Science Museum Group and Sir Timothy Gowers, the Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. The letter was also signed by, among other Peers, the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner and Lord Rees of Ludlow and the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. I am very glad to see them in their places today and very much look forward to hearing them speak in a few moments.
There has also been a successful musical of Turing's life, and next year at the Barbican there will be the world premiere of a new choral work celebrating his life, composed by James McCarthy and commissioned by the Hertfordshire Chorus. Soon there is to be a new film of Turing's life. Benedict Cumberbatch is to play Turing and Keira Knightley is to play his girlfriend—which might seem a little odd, because of course, Turing was gay, and it was because he was gay that he was treated so appalling by the Government of the day.
As I think everybody knows, he was convicted in 1952 of gross indecency and sentenced to chemical castration. He committed suicide two years later.
The Government know that Turing was a hero and a very great man. They acknowledge that he was cruelly treated. They must have seen the esteem in which he is held here and around the world.
There are two quotations which, for me, sum up Turing's greatness and establish him as a British hero. The first is from Professor Jack Good, who was at Bletchley Park with Turing and who died last year at the age of 91. Professor Good said that,
“it was a good thing the authorities hadn’t known Turing was a homosexual during the war, because if they had, they would have fired him .... and we would have lost”.
“It would be an exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing explained the nature of logical and mathematical reasoning, invented the digital computer, solved the mind-body problem and saved Western Civilization. But it would not be much of an exaggeration”.
It is not too late for the Government to pardon Alan Turing. It is not too late for the Government to grant a disregard for all those gay men convicted under the dreadful Labouchère amendment and similar Acts. I hope that the Government are thinking very hard about doing both those things. But while they are thinking, Parliament can act. We can start by granting a pardon to Turing, and we can continue by finding a way to amend the Protection of Freedoms Act to extend the disregard to all who were treated as cruelly as Turing was simply for being gay. We can start that process today with this Bill, and I beg to move.
My Lords, my mother had a friend called Lady Winifred Renshaw, who looked and sounded like the late Queen Mary. I well remember her saying: “Mr Asquith was a man I would never have travelled alone with in a taxi”. I tell this vignette to remind people that it was not Mr Asquith’s possible taxi behaviour which is remembered but what he actually achieved for this country.
I wish to make it clear that I support the noble Lord’s Bill to grant a pardon to Alan Turing. Although in 2009, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, issued an apology for Turing’s treatment, this Government should do more. This is not about legal issues but about recognising the debt that this country owes to Alan Turing. There are many ways in which one could compensate for the time that has gone by without that being done.
Alan Turing followed a distinguished degree with a fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge, and the Smith’s Prize for work in pure mathematics. His life and work were exceptional even before he went to Bletchley. The University of Surrey has already honoured Turing, by creating a road and having a statue named after him. If the university can do it, why can we not?
When I arrived at Bletchley in 1941, there were about 400 people. When I left, there were 6,000, including the Americans. The mansion, known to us as “the other place”, and never gone into, stood bare. None of the white buildings or other Nissen huts existed. Only the Nissen hut known as Hut 4 remained—and still does, although it is now a small bar. One did not wander around the buildings. One went to the room one worked in on shifts and, apart from a visit to the canteen, one did one’s work and was then transported to one’s billet. Thus one really met new or different people only in one’s transport to and from work. Unless asked by a senior member of the section to deliver a message, one remained in the same room year after year. The block I worked in was devoted to German naval codes. Only once was I asked to deliver a paper to Alan Turing, so although I knew that he had invented “Colossus”, which turned the war around in our favour, I cannot claim that I knew him. However, I am certain that but for his work we would have lost the war through starvation.
I commend to your Lordships a small exhibition of Alan Turing’s work, about which you will probably hear a great deal more and which is presently on show at the Science Museum. I will make one small extra point, if I may: in my section, we were all employed by the Foreign Office. Next door, Wrens worked on shifts, like us. At the end of the war, the Wrens all received the service medal commonly known as the EOBGO. We got nothing. After a lot of arguing and annoyance we were graciously issued with a slightly ridiculous badge which simply said: “I also served”.
My Lords, it is indeed a wonderful pleasure and delight to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. It is one of the unique benefits of this House that we have the noble Baroness, who worked as part of that team at Bletchley which was, for us, part of our saving in the Second World War.
I support this Bill and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, not only for introducing it but for the detail and content that he went into. We owe a huge debt to Alan Turing, and debts have to be paid. Ours has been too long in the paying and now is the time to do it. It is important that we do it.
The code of practice at Bletchley was utmost secrecy and such were the standards in those days that people actually followed it. It does not happen today but it did in those days and the many people who worked at Bletchley never told anyone in their families, even to their dying day. When Alan Turing was charged in 1952, the public had very little idea of the work he had done at Bletchley. They had very little idea about Bletchley at all; it was only in the 1960s that it started to seep out just what our debt was to the people who worked there. He was given the choice between going to jail and having chemical castration. He chose the latter, which meant treatment for a year. The year after that, he took his own life. He was 42 years of age. One cannot but help wonder, had he lived his full term of life, just what benefits we and the rest of the world would have seen from this man. After working on the Enigma code at Bletchley, he went on to Manchester and the first computers in this country, which matched anything that they had in the States. He has been compared with Crick, Einstein and many others.
I feel very strongly that the apology in 2009 by Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, who so rightly called Alan Turing’s treatment appalling, is not enough. We need to take this Private Member’s Bill that the noble Lord has put forward and pass it. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, did in a previous debate, on the basis of what he had from the civil servants, no doubt the Minister will give a whole host of reasons, including legal ones, why it cannot be done. This place is full of legal expertise and I am sure there are ways in which we can meet the requirements of the Bill without causing the huge problems that may well have been pointed out to the Minister. We are certainly not hoping today to hear him say, “We will go back and have a meeting”.
Now is the time to act on this: 37,000 people signed a petition that this be reviewed and that Alan Turing be given a pardon. Manchester and Bletchley have recognised him. As we have heard just now, what he did for this country has been recognised throughout the areas of work that he carried out. Law is important, yes, but doing the right thing is as important. It is the right thing to give this pardon to Alan Turing. There are many ways in which it can be done that I am sure would not cause added difficulties. As we found after many years of campaigning for those people executed in the First World War, when your nose is to the grindstone you can find a way. I believe that the noble Lord has presented us with a way of recognising
Alan Turing and that there is unanimity that we should do so. If barriers are in the way, perhaps a way needs to be found around them.
I support the Bill. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government will give it the necessary time. I have little doubt that if it goes down the Corridor, it will get the support in another place that it has had here.
My Lords, I join other speakers in complimenting the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, on his determined advocacy, which has led, despite setbacks, to this Bill. The fact that 37,000 people signed the petition seeking a pardon for Turing testifies to the public interest in this cause. The petition triggered an apology from Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which was welcome, but supporters of the Bill feel that it would be appropriate for Parliament itself to make a gesture on behalf of the country as a whole, to recognise formally that we deplore the way in which our legal system in the 1950s treated a man who not only was one of the country’s greatest scientists but did the state great service during World War Two.
Many of us—including the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, I think—regard this Bill as in some sense a second- best or interim option, in that we would have preferred a measure that offered the same comfort and recompense to the families and admirers of any of the many thousands of other individuals, now deceased, who were convicted under the same law. Still, we are where we are, and in Turing’s case the facts and his character are well documented. I would hazard a guess that others whose family members were victims of the same obsolete law and cruel sentence would, albeit as second best, welcome a gesture towards an especially prominent but symbolically representative individual.
We are privileged to have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, bearing direct witness to Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. I will therefore say nothing about that except to reiterate that one of the especially tragic consequences of Turing’s premature demise is that he was no longer alive when the veil of secrecy was lifted and the public could express belated gratitude for the achievement of the code-breakers, and particularly to him as a leading participant.
What about his other scientific work, both before and after the war? He never received enough credit for that either, but that was for a different reason: because his greatest insight, in a paper published back in 1936—his study of the scope and limits of a general purpose computer—was so far ahead of its time that its implications took decades to be fully appreciated. His visionary contributions to computer science, along with those to artificial intelligence and developmental biology, have crescendoed in their impact as computers have become ever more pervasive in our lives. Indeed, there would now be a consensus that Turing belongs in the pantheon of the very greatest 20th-century scientists. It would be easy to expand on these achievements and speak at length, but I am not going to do that. The important point is that there is a consensus today that he is a major figure in the history of 20th-century science, something quite apart from his very special key role at Bletchley Park.
Turing’s code-breaking work makes him a specifically British hero but his scientific contributions are acclaimed throughout the rest of the world just as much as they are here. Anyone who has done a course in computer science, be it in the US, Japan, Brazil or anywhere else, will know his name. They will know about the Turing machine and perhaps the Turing test. It is likely that many will have been curious enough about him to have learnt the main facts of his biography. Even educated people in Asia and the Americas know little about the English penal system, but if they know of any individual cases then Turing’s is likely to be among them. It has, after all, featured in plays, best-selling books and will soon feature, as we have heard, in musicals and films. He has become an icon of gay rights as well as among scientists. Millions around the world know how he was treated, how he was convicted and the bizarre and cruel penalty that he suffered. Gordon Brown’s apology was welcome but, although it registered in this country, it did not register internationally in the way that a declaration by Parliament would. That is why a formal pardon redressing the damaging perception would be widely received and welcomed internationally.
I note that the president of the Royal Society and others in similar roles have lent their support to this cause. Turing is one of those who laid the foundations of the modern world, and the global interest in his centenary testified to that. We cannot undo the wrong done to him by the cruel operation of the pre-1967 law—he is perhaps the best known victim of it. A pardon would be acclaimed not only by those in Britain who deplore his shameful treatment but worldwide. Turing’s own reputation is assured but, as British citizens, surely we should do all that we can to erase the stain on the reputation of our own criminal justice system. That is why I support the Bill.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, on the way in which he has introduced his Bill today and his persistence in pursuing this very good cause. It is particularly appropriate that we should be debating this Second Reading just two days after the announcement of Royal Assent to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act—as it were, the ending of a particular chapter of which the Labouchère Act, to which the noble Lord referred, was the shameful beginning. The case that he made for granting a statutory pardon to Alan Turing is compelling, and I wholeheartedly support the Bill.
I am pleased to declare an interest as a trustee of the Science Museum Group, which, as the noble Lord said, has staged an astonishingly successful exhibition called “Codebreaker—Alan Turing’s Life and Legacy”, which has already won first prize in the British Society for the History of Science’s Great Exhibitions competition. It opened on
Turing’s first major contribution to science had been a paper written in 1936, when he was just 24, on an abstruse theoretical problem in the philosophy of mathematics. That work brought Turing to the attention of a small group of mathematicians and philosophers, but it was its theoretical description of a universal computing machine, capable of carrying out any computable task, which was later seen as the conceptual basis of today’s stored-program computers.
For Turing, his 1936 universal machines were simply thought experiments, but for others they signalled the future of computing—and the beginning of computing. Turing himself wrote one of the first practical designs for a stored-program computer, later realised as the Pilot ACE, which is on display in the Science Museum exhibition.
Apart from describing Turing’s astonishing achievements in Cambridge, Manchester and Bletchley Park, there is, obviously, some very poignant material about his private life and his shameful treatment at the hands of the state, which, instead of honouring him as a war hero, subjected him to judicial punishment so appalling that it is hard to comprehend, and which indeed is the reason for this Private Member’s Bill today.
Being gay at Cambridge in the 1930s and, indeed, at wartime Bletchley Park, did not seem to be too much of a problem for Turing, but the mood changed in post-war Britain and a new repressive morality emerged. Homosexual people, both men and women, were increasingly characterised as deviant and harmful to the fitness of the race, and their presence in society became a matter of national concern. The Cold War intensified these concerns as gay people were assumed to be at risk of blackmail, thus endangering the security of the nation.
In 1952, following what was then an unlawful sexual relationship, Turing was tried and convicted of gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885—the same statute, of course, that was used against Oscar Wilde. Turing was stripped of his security clearance and his post-war consultancy to the successor of Bletchley Park, GCHQ, was brought to a sudden end. He was offered the choice of imprisonment or a one-year course of hormone treatment to suppress his libido, and he took the latter. As has been said, it amounted to chemical castration.
Among the more than three-quarters of a million people who have been to see the Codebreaker exhibition at the Science Museum was a group of Members of your Lordships’ House, who made a special visit on
It is marvellous to see the noble Baroness here today.
The noble Lord, Lord Starkey, referred to the letter from some very distinguished people—and some less distinguished people, such as myself—published in the Daily Telegraph on
“We write in support of a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the modern era. He led the team of Enigma codebreakers at Bletchley Park, which most historians agree shortened the Second World War. Yet successive governments seem incapable of forgiving his conviction for the then crime of being a homosexual, which led to his suicide, aged 41 … It is time his reputation was unblemished”.
Since then, the Government have been presented with an online petition with tens of thousands of signatures, but they have still not pardoned Turing. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will be able to say that they have changed their mind, and that they will accept this Bill which is in front of us today.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, on his determined commitment in introducing this Bill. I have been involved in the university and research world for a good part of my working life, and one of the jewels in the crown of UK research is information technology and artificial intelligence, in which we are now a world leader. Alan Turing is rightly regarded as the father of modern computing. Without Turing’s seminal, innovative work we would almost certainly have been overtaken in this field by scientists from other countries who were on the same track.
He was based in Manchester University, in the heart of the industrial and commercial north of England, over the Pennines from Yorkshire, where I was born. It was at school there—surprisingly, I guess—that I first came across the names of MHA Newman and the Colossus electronic machine, Pat Blackett and positrons, and Turing’s universal machine concept. I suspect that it was unusual, but we had a very dynamic maths teacher who must have been interested in the early days of computing, or maybe just had a maths friend at Manchester.
It was only later that I learnt of Turing’s involvement at Bletchley Park, and later again that I realised just how significant his work was for the war effort when my husband, a mathematician and engineer, became very engaged with Enigma and the codes and codebreaking efforts of the war years at Bletchley Park, and I suspect that he has one of the more comprehensive collections on the subject outside specialist libraries. He explained to me the seminal role played by the team at Bletchley Park in developing the ideas that would produce the computer I used every day. He also tried to help me to understand the genesis of the internet, but that is a very different story.
I am so happy to be speaking in the same debate as the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, who has given the House, not just today but on other occasions as well, such rich memories of those times at Bletchley Park, having been there at the same time as Alan Turing. She has set his legacy in such a vivid context.
From the work he started at Bletchley Park, and continued later at the National Physical Laboratory and Manchester University, Turing laid the foundation for modern academic computer science, an area where over the years British universities have made an outstanding contribution, and which has led, additionally, to a great deal of effective technology transfer which has contributed significantly to the UK economy.
It is worth saying that neither Turing himself, nor indeed anyone else at the time, would have been able to predict the eventual outcomes of his work, and I cannot think of a better argument for continued public funding and national support for blue skies research, where outstanding scientists and thinkers are given free rein to pursue fascinating and compelling ideas. But for his criminal prosecution, which it seems certain led to his untimely death, it is reasonable to assume that Alan Turing would have made even greater contributions to mathematical science and advanced our understanding of human ingenuity yet further. Others have described the circumstances of his death, but in the week where this House has agreed legislation on same-sex marriage, it is tragic to reflect that only 60 years ago, and in my lifetime, it was possible, indeed legal, to prosecute and criminalise a man for having consensual sex with another man.
Anyone who saw Hugh Whitemore’s play “Breaking the Code”—I was fortunate to see Derek Jacobi as Turing—which thematically linked Turing’s cryptographic work with his homosexuality, could not fail to be moved by the poignancy and horror of his story.
Alan Turing was a wartime hero. He was credited with breaking the German Enigma code and with an astonishing number of insights which changed our world and inspired scientists and mathematicians to explore ideas which led to the explosion of technological developments we benefit from today; yet his life and further work were destroyed by the anti-homosexuality laws at the time, laws which the previous Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned as “horrifying”, “inhumane” and “unfair”. In 2009, he gave an unequivocal apology on behalf of the Government for the way in which Turing had been treated.
So my instinctive reaction when I saw this Bill was to assume that it was uncontroversial. However, when the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, introduced a similar Bill last year, the centenary of Turing’s birth, the Ministry of Justice called Turing’s fate,
“a sad indictment of the attitudes prevailing at the time”, but rejected the proposal of a pardon. I thought this extraordinary and pusillanimous. I want to support the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Rees, the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and others in their efforts to gain a positive sign of redress.
The issue was raised last June in a Commons debate, so I looked at the ministerial statement in last year’s Commons debate and at other government statements made over the past few years to understand how it was that someone who had received an official apology from the Government could be denied a pardon. It seems that the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which enables those convicted of consensual homosexual activity to have their convictions disregarded, applies only to the living—so if Alan Turing were alive today, he would have redress. A pardon can be given by Her Majesty under the royal prerogative of justice, but the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has said that it is government policy that this should be used only where someone is innocent of the offence and not to undo the effects of legislation which we now recognise as wrong. So there is at least one remedy available, but the Government are unwilling to use it, perhaps to avoid creating a precedent.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, has said that he is seeking a statutory pardon, not a royal pardon, something that was quite common historically. In fact, a recent example was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, and drawn to our attention in the Library briefing—the Armed Forces Act 2006, which pardoned servicemen convicted and executed for cowardice or desertion. So, far from being impossible or unconstitutional, there is a remedy which has been used quite recently and could be applied in the case of Alan Turing. However, there has been no movement from the Government here either. Horror of horrors, were this to be done for one man, Alan Turing, it might encourage the relatives or friends of others who were treated just as appallingly to seek the same redress. As a matter of fairness and justice, that seems a pretty cowardly argument and one for a petty jobsworth rather than an honourable Government.
The Government described the statutory pardon given under the Armed Forces Act 2006 as a recognition that execution was not a fate that the individual deserved, irrespective of the fact that it was lawful at the time. The conviction and awful punishment was not deserved either by Alan Turing, and that included the humiliation of being categorised as a security risk after everything he had done during the Second World War. Let us at least put this case right, and if in doing so we can offer a means of redress to others who have suffered a similar fate, I personally would be happy to see that happen.
My Lords, I am proud to speak in support of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, and glad, too, of the chance it gives me to add my tribute to a man who had long been accepted as a genius of rare character and quality long before his dreadful death at the age of 42. As a past president of the British Academy, I am further glad to join my noble friend Lord Rees of Ludlow, a past president of the Royal Society, who has spoken of Turing with far greater authority than I could ever muster. Both of us might well have hoped that Alan would have graced either of these great learned bodies for many triumphal years. Indeed, he might have become one of the microscopic number to be elected, like the noble Lord, Lord Rees, himself, to both bodies. By 1951, as a newly elected FRS, Turing was already well on track.
In a very different Second Reading debate on
Turing’s parents both belonged to families of some importance in Raj-era India, and this meant that their two sons, Alan and John, faced years of separation from them so that they could be educated in the UK. English boarding schools were not the best incubators of scientific talent, but Alan seems to have thrived at Sherborne, and in 1931 he entered the prized embrace of King’s College, Cambridge, becoming a fellow in 1935. By then he was a polymath in areas bordering both the British Academy and the Royal Society. How could he not, with such luminaries as Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes at hand? He was familiar with the work of two Austro-Hungarian thinkers, Johann von Neumann and Kurt Gödel. My noble friend Lord Rees has told us of the significance of the 1936 paper on the Entscheidungsproblem and the enormous influence that that was to have for many years. Incidentally, it led to the first quote used by the Oxford English Dictionary for its long entry on the Turing machine, a concept, as we have heard from the experts, which became not merely the foundation for computational science and theory, but for generative linguistics. Noam Chomsky, for example, made much of the Turing machine in his Syntactic Structures of 1957. By then, sadly, Turing was dead. However, the years between included lengthy, successful war years at Bletchley, about which we have heard from none other than the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, who knows more about the Bletchley days and Turing’s contribution there than anybody else in this House. None of us in this debate can do more than merely outline the vast amount which the world at large owes to this young man. No one can remotely guess how much more we would have owed to him if he had become an old man.
I end by noting something surely perverse, if constitutionally sound enough, about this Bill. It would grant Alan a pardon, when surely all of us would far prefer to receive a pardon from him.
My Lords, this campaign has been going on a long time. I remember at Cambridge, from 1957 to 1961—1957 being the year of the Wolfenden report—that we had a campaign for the rehabilitation of Alan Turing. As somebody said to me just the other day, some campaigns take longer than others.
We are familiar with that in the trade union movement. I am quite sure this one will come to fruition very soon.
As my noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe has pointed out, the government line seems to be at once technical and legal but, in practice, an objection to “opening the floodgates”. The logic is clear that the law which we have at the moment does not apply posthumously and there are many thousands of people involved. If the Government wish to press that argument, the one thing which must be borne in mind is that under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 there is no equivalent legal provision in other fields. The floodgates argument is to do with this field.
Allowing deceased persons to apply under the disregarding procedure would somehow be the equivalent in reverse of what the Russians seem to have as a reasonable statute at the moment. Something like that might be the best long-term solution. I ask the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, to respond to a parallel method of achieving what we all want. That is to give national recognition in a quite dramatic way, which would be a pardon in practice and a huge change in people’s perception to his having been a national hero. That would constitute a collective and representative pardon.
I have considered over the past few days how, as my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde put it in a striking way, this is a debt of honour. Michael Foot wrote rather a good book called Debts of Honour, and he was the sort of person who would immediately think in these long, historic terms about his great heroes—Shelley, Hazlitt and people like that. You could say the same in the field of science. If you look up Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and so on, you will see our national heroes; and even outside here, there is Marochetti’s statue of Richard I, the Lionheart, at the start of the first crusade. Well, that is fair enough—or not, as you might say. However, we could make our debt of honour to Alan Turing somehow representative of the need to put our heroes of science and creativity—Newton and so on—on the national plinth. Of course, there is a plinth going spare at the moment in Trafalgar Square. I add to this campaign one which I am sure Whitehall will take a bit of time to get used to. Nevertheless, it would be a striking gesture, and I put that forward in relation to the Bill.
My Lords, I will speak briefly in the gap. I declare a sort of interest, which is that Naval Section VI, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, was such a distinguished member, was run by my father, Geoffrey Tandy, and my mother was one of those WRNS in the next-door hut. I did not know that they were treated in a discriminatory way—or rather that the noble Baroness herself was treated in discriminatory a way—but I have learnt something today on which I shall ponder. However, that is not my point.
Will the Minister, in considering his answer, take into account something that has struck me as this debate has gone on? The late Lord Britten, who was a Member of this House although I do not believe he ever took his seat—I refer, of course, to Benjamin Britten —is being celebrated this year. Born in 1913, he was almost an exact contemporary of Alan Turing and lived his entire adult life in a homosexual relationship with the distinguished tenor Sir Peter Pears. Everybody who knew them knew that that was the relationship of both their lives. They were accepted—perhaps without it being declared explicitly, but accepted all the same—as distinguished members of this society.
The recognition that Benjamin Britten had when he was elevated to your Lordships’ House very shortly before his death was in despite of that knowledge. It is particularly important, as we think about what we do about Alan Turing now, that we recollect that. It is at least possible, is it not, that had he not suffered the gross and undignified punishment he endured, as a consequence of which he took his own life, he, too, might have ended up on these red Benches? Had he been so elevated, it would have been no less than his due. I hope that when the Minister comes to reply he will bear in mind that comparison in thinking about how he responds to the Bill.
My Lords, what a morning. What a privilege to be here today to debate the Bill. There are many reasons for supporting this Bill, so ably and movingly introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, but I will suggest three good ones. However, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, is right, and we should seek a pardon from, rather than for, Alan Turing.
Of my three reasons on which I will comment, the first is the belated recognition, which all noble Lords have described, of the extraordinary contribution made by Alan Turing during the Second World War. As other noble Lords have said, it has been a privilege today to hear something of that direct from the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, who also served, and whose presence in this debate is a fitting tribute to all those Bletchley Park warriors who fought there throughout the war.
In relation to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, I will make two short comments. One is to acknowledge the role that she and her many colleagues played during the war, in ways that at the time were kept very secret. The other is to acknowledge the role that she still plays in your Lordships’ House and has done for some 33 years. When I entered your Lordships’ House, I was given lots of very good advice. One of those pieces of advice was—as with actors, who are told never to appear with children or animals—not to appear in a debate with the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, as I would be outclassed and out-performed. Clearly, it was good advice. Her renowned sense of fun must have been much on display during those war years and I am sure that it added to the pleasure and reduced the strain caused by the nature of the work there.
It is very fitting that today’s debate, as we have been reminded by my noble friends Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lady Warwick, follows so closely that on the Third Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill here on Monday. The irony that Alan Turing was prosecuted for his sexuality when he had helped fight Hitler, who had prosecuted and gassed homosexuals, was surely not lost on him. How he might have smiled to find us in the same week legalising same-sex marriage and seeking to pardon him. It is to be hoped that both will come into effect by 2014, 60 years after his untimely death.
Secondly, this gives an opportunity for those noble Lords who have yet to visit the special exhibition in the Science Museum, described by my noble friend Lord Faulkner, which commemorates Alan Turing, to acknowledge that he was a brilliant young mathematician —a genius in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Quirk —whose revolutionary pre-war concept of a “universal computing machine” underpins computers as we know them, as was described by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow. The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, called him the father of computing sciences. That is why Scientists for Labour and many other scientists have written to urge support for the Bill.
Sadly, as we have heard, Turing’s post-war research was constrained by his prosecution and then curtailed by his untimely death, as my noble friend Lady Dean said. The Bill also allows us to make good the sadly ignored 2011 recommendation of the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee that the network of technology and innovation centres should be called Turing Centres, after the founder of computer science. The committee stated:
“We consider that this country owes him a debt of obligation for the way in which he was treated”.
There is a third reason, which goes beyond this single case. Rectifying the discrimination and intolerance of the past—I understand why some feel that we should not concentrate on just one victim when there were so many others—not only enables us to try to redress that wrong but may give hope to others, here and around the world, who today suffer from intolerance, injustice and prejudice, whether for their religious, social, racial, artistic, cultural or other way of life.
Society moves on—whether over slavery, women’s rights, sexual mores, child labour and exploitation or the denial of human rights—but before it does, there are individuals who suffer, sometimes from the prejudice itself and sometimes for their courage in speaking out. We are picking out just one person today, but it may give hope to others that one day the injustice of their suffering will similarly be recognised. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said, it is perhaps symbolically representative.
The distinguished professor, Graham Zellick, with whom I often agree, advised against the Bill as he thinks that a pardon would be misconceived. He wrote:
“History should not be rewritten but allowed to speak of the misuse of the criminal sanction, the intolerance and cruelty of earlier times and the evolution in cultural and moral norms”.
I draw a different conclusion. The acknowledgement by today’s decision-makers, and the persistence of new norms and acceptance, are surely a beacon to those who continue to suffer today. Even though we cannot right the wrong to Alan Turing, we can acknowledge that while our society has not always trumpeted human rights and equality, we can all learn and can improve society for the benefit of all. We support the Bill and wish the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, every speed as he takes it though its coming stages.
My Lords, first, on behalf of the Government, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Sharkey on bringing forward the Bill and securing its Second Reading. I also formally acknowledge the incredible contributions we have heard today, which I will come to in a moment and which give us cause to reflect and contemplate. In preparing to answer the debate on Alan Turing, I reflected that when I joined your Lordships’ House, I was not far from his age when he died. I said in my speech at the time that I looked on the House as a place of great learning, and also a place of great wit and wisdom. I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that today’s debate demonstrated all those attributes.
Alan Turing’s achievements were immense. As many noble Lords have acknowledged, he was a brilliant mathematician and one of the world’s most original thinkers about the possibilities offered by computing. How casually we take our iPhones, iPads and BlackBerrys as a means of communication. Perhaps we do not spend time contemplating and reflecting on how these things arrived in our pockets and purses. It was Alan Turing who talked at that time about a concept that many found inconceivable, that of artificial intelligence. In what were to prove his last few years, he developed new thinking on morphogenesis, the study of growth and form in biology. In a 1951 paper, he posited the theory that sunflower seeds conformed to the Fibonacci sequence and, rightly, in honour of the centenary of his birth last year, scientists at Manchester University decided to test this theory. With the help of volunteers around the world, they were able to study 557 sunflowers, and—you know what—found that the Turing theory appears to have been correct, which I am sure is not a surprise to us in your Lordships’ House.
To me, this demonstrates three things: first, Turing’s remarkable and original mind, capable not only of understanding highly complex concepts, but of making connections between them which illuminate both; secondly, it is yet another instance of Turing being well ahead of his time, as in the example of the Turing’s test of artificial intelligence, which requires a machine to pass for a human in conversation, and despite annual contests has not yet been won; thirdly, and finally, the sunflower research is testimony to the huge respect in which Alan Turing is rightly still held by scientists and those with an interest in science throughout the world.
As has been widely illustrated in today’s debate, Turing was not only a great scientist. When his country needed him, he stepped forward to play his part in ensuring the democracies and freedoms that we all enjoy today. During the Second World War, Alan Turing put his intelligence and understanding of computers at the service of his country, leading one of the code-breaking teams at Bletchley Park. It is therefore particularly poignant, for me as a Minister in government, to have the great honour of participating in this debate with my noble friend Lady Trumpington, who has once again not only informed and educated the House but entertained it with her usual insight and expertise.
In her intervention, she said that she had laid many an egg. She has also provided great pearls of wisdom, and today is no exception.
It is no exaggeration to say that, without the fantastic work done by Alan Turing and his team, including that of my noble friend Lady Trumpington, the war would have lasted significantly longer and many more lives would have been lost. After the war, Turing continued to work for the intelligence services at what was to become GCHQ, doing nationally important work. However, his conviction for gross indecency resulted in his categorisation as a security risk, and his exclusion from GCHQ and from the work where his brilliance could have continued to benefit these nations.
All these achievements contrast starkly with the appalling punishment which Alan Turing suffered, of chemical castration, as a result of his conviction for homosexual conduct, and which may well have led to his suicide at the age of only 42. This is something that we now, rightly, regard as totally and utterly abhorrent. As has been said before, what he did was a crime, and he was convicted as a result of due process at that time. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, spoke of the petition. I pay tribute to other noble Lords who have been involved in this campaign for a long time, and others outside your Lordships' House, including eminent scientists such as Stephen Hawking, and who have called for Alan Turing to be pardoned for the offence for which he was convicted. Understandably, as we have seen today—and rightly so—this matter raises strong and passionate feelings, as the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, demonstrated in drafting his Bill.
I commend the work of the noble Lord, Lord Rees, on this campaign. Many will have read the article in yesterday’s Times by my noble friend Lord Ridley, who said that this is not just about pardons but about recognising the achievements of someone who was not only a code-breaking hero but truly one of the greatest scientists our country has ever seen.
No pardon can undo what was done to Alan Turing or, indeed, wipe out the facts of his appalling treatment. As several noble Lords have pointed out, were Alan Turing still alive today—I believe that he would be about 101—he would be entitled to have his conviction disregarded under the provisions in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. As several noble Lords have noted, the effect of those provisions is to remove from the public record any reference to a conviction for certain homosexual activity which would not be deemed criminal today. As noble Lords have also pointed out, these provisions are available only to the living. However, the fact is that the disregard is there in the 2012 Act. I think we all recognise that the world in which we live today is a very different place. Our world has changed and our laws have changed. Indeed, as was acknowledged by several noble Lords, events earlier in the week demonstrated just that. We have talked about appropriateness and I think it is particularly apt that I am joined on the Front Bench by my noble friend Lady Stowell, who was central to those events.
Alan Turing himself believed that homosexual activity would be made legal by a royal commission. In fact, appropriately, it was Parliament which decriminalised the activity for which he was convicted. The Government are very aware of the calls to pardon Turing, given his outstanding achievements, and have great sympathy with this objective, and with the objectives of my noble friend’s Bill. That is why the Government believe it is right that Parliament should be free to respond to this Bill in whatever way its conscience dictates and in whatever way it so wills.
If I may seek noble Lords’ indulgence, I speak not only as a Minister but as a Whip. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said she hoped I would say that I would not take this away. I am taking away a great deal but I am not taking away what we will be doing next. If nobody tables an amendment to this Bill, its supporters can be assured that it will have speedy passage to the House of Commons. If no amendments are tabled for Committee, there does not need to be a Report stage, so the Government can table Third Reading by the end of October. This will take place on the Floor of the House. If no amendments are tabled for Third Reading, it is formal and the Bill immediately goes to the Commons.
I end how I began by saying that your Lordships’ House is a place of great learning and wisdom. Today’s debate is testament to that quality.
My Lords, this has been a very interesting and stimulating debate. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken for their knowledgeable and thoughtful contributions. I particularly thank my noble friend Lady Trumpington for her contribution. I know that the whole House listened, as I did, with rapt attention to everything she had to say. I am sure that the whole House joins me in thanking her for being here today and speaking to us. My own link to Turing is only at one remove and I found it very moving to listen to direct contemporary experience.
Many points were made in today’s debate and there is no need for me to try to recapitulate them. However, I have taken note of them all, including, of course, the comments about a plinth in Trafalgar square. I wish to make a few remarks about the Government’s response, although they are not the ones I was expecting to make. Before I do so, there is one other person to whom I owe a debt of gratitude and that is my noble friend Lord McNally. He has consistently encouraged me, in the face of difficult odds, to press ahead with my request for a pardon for Turing and for a disregard for all those convicted, as Turing was. The noble Lord is in Lithuania today on government business. I am sorry that he could not be with us to respond to the debate and I am sure that we would have all enjoyed hearing him carrying out his ministerial duties. However, there is no loss in him not being with us today, and I want briefly to turn to the Government’s response.
I am encouraged by the response, which is generous and timely, and I am very grateful. I am sure that I speak for most people in the House when I say that. I thank the Minister for his words in the closing part of his speech. This seems to be a situation in which the merits of the argument are slowly permeating government attitudes and thinking. Perhaps they will resolve into a clear and decisive outcome before too long. I very much hope that the Government will continue to think carefully about Turing and others who were similarly convicted, and that the merits of a pardon and disregard will seem to the Government to be increasingly compelling. I hope that when the Bill reaches the Commons, the Government will be, at the very worst, sympathetically neutral to it.
As a noble Lord mentioned, the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, pointed out in an article in yesterday’s Times that Turing’s first major contribution to mathematics was a solution to the so-called “halting problem”—in other words, knowing when to stop, which is a problem occasionally seen in your Lordships’ House as well. Therefore, in the spirit of Turing, this is where I now stop, and I urge your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.