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Black Market Inquiry (Newcastle District)

Volume 465: debated on Monday 23 May 1949

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asked the Minister of Food if he will make a statement on the result of his inquiry into "Operation Octopus."

Yes, Sir. The purpose of this operation was to follow up information which purported to show that there was a highly organised black market in the Newcastle district with ramificacations all over the North of England. The people concerned were alleged to be dealing extensively in a large variety of foodstuffs both imported and home-produced.

The principal source of this information was a recently appointed intelligence officer attached to my Northern Divisional Food Office. This officer was furnished with sums amounting in all to £2,333 in order to make purchases with a view to securing intelligence which would lead to the prosecution of the principals said to be in the background.

The inquiry has shown that insufficient care was taken to check the original, information furnished by the intelligence officer and that there was inadequate control of that officer by his superiors in the expenditure of the sums advanced to him. There was also undue delay in calling in the police. When Scotland Yard investigators were brought in to carry on with the investigation it was found that there was no reliable evidence to confirm the original suspicions of a big black market in the area and that the intelligence officer had, owing to his inexperience and in spite of warning, made purchases which were open to serious criticism on the ground that they were encouraging the commission of offences. The operation was called off and subsequently the intelligence officer resigned from the Ministry.

The administration of enforcement, both at the Ministry's headquarters and in the divisions, is being reorganised so that divisional food officers shall have a tighter control on the work of enforcement staff and that there shall be the strictest supervision of any officer who is exceptionally authorised to make purchases outside the normal test purchase procedure. I am confident that this reorganisation will prevent a similar occurrence in the future.

From the evidence at the inquiry, did it not appear that most of the goods which were coming into the black market came from depôts and not from small dealers? Has Mr. Collins received the salary or wages due to him?

In reply to the first part of the supplementary question, I believe they came from both sources, though I could not say the proportion. As to the second part of the supplementary question, Mr. Collins was not an employee of the Ministry at the time.

In view of the fact that the Minister has used the expression "owing to his inexperience," about the intelligence officer, will he say what steps were taken to see that the man was suitable before he was appointed?

He was an officer with a very fine military record, but he did not prove suitable for this work.

Was not nearly £2,500 an immense sum for which to have given authority, even if it had been properly spent? Surely, it must have meant acquiescing in very large purchases indeed in the black market in order to get evidence?

No, Sir. I do not think that the size of the sum was necessarily undue, because it was spread over quite a long period, but I think its use was injudicious and, in fact, wrong, and that was why the operation was called off.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the employment of agents provocateurs is not only inimical to the British way of life, but has also been found by long police experience to be generally ineffective, and will he consider that very carefully before making experiments such as the one he made in this case?

Can the right hon. Gentleman say why Scotland Yard was not informed and called in at first, instead of the intelligence officer?

In reply to the first supplementary question, I think that on this occasion the methods used went dangerously near agent provocateur methods and that is why we have taken in this respect the steps which I have outlined. As to the second supplementary question, as I said, I think Scotland Yard should have been called in earlier.

The right hon. Gentleman speaks of the operation going on a long time. Can he tell the House what was the length of the period?

Have we not been frequently assured by the Minister that agents of the Minister would not be used in the way in which this man was used?

No, Sir. I have repeatedly defended the test purchase procedure, and there is a difference of degree between that and what was done here. However, I repeat that I think this officer went too far in the methods he used on this occasion.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I have evidence that Mr. Collins has a letter from the Ministry saying that his wages were being held up until the inquiry was completed, and does he still say that Mr. Collins was not employed by the Ministry?

Mr. Collins was undoubtedly employed as an agent of the Ministry. The hon. and gallant Gentleman used the word "wages." Undoubtedly there were sums due to Mr. Collins out of the amount I have mentioned, but I should not have described them as wages.

I beg to give notice that I shall raise this matter on the Adjournment.