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Communications Centre, Chelmsford (Dismissal)

Volume 527: debated on Friday 7 May 1954

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."— [ Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

4.1 p.m.

Our differences across the Floor of the House are political and not personal, so that it is a pleasure to cross swords with a young Minister whose politics I deplore, whose action I am going to criticise, but whose quality and ability in high office many of us on these benches have learned to like and respect. It is less pleasant, but very necessary, to defend, not a minority opinion, but the rights of those holding minority opinions to which one is bitterly opposed. It is also apparently necessary to defend the rights of even those who do not hold such minority views.

We pride ourselves on being a free country and boast that no man is prosecuted for his political opinions. It has taken a long time to win that position. People of my political faith have not known it for very long. Few Socialists of my generation cannot remember, in his own experience or that of his immediate associates, instances of persecution when the Tories had more power and were less tolerant than they claim to be today. Yet even now some social groups, among them civil servants, are still deprived of full civic rights.

On 30th July, 1949, the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury said:
"We are sent here above all to safeguard the political liberties of our constituents."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th July, 1949; Vol. 467, c. 3009.]
The same Minister has not used his power as a Minister to extend the political rights of civil servants, as I have asked him to do in other debates.

In March, 1948, we began to punish some British citizens for holding political opinions. The then Labour Government obtained the power to take away from Fascists or Communist their jobs, if their holding such jobs endangered the safety of the State. It was not a light thing for a free people to do, but the behaviour of certain notable Communist spies has shown how necessary it was. It was then, and still is, fitting that Communists who would pass on to the Soviet Union information vital to our security should not be left in places where they can get that information. There are some British Communists whose first loyalty, and possibly their only loyalty, is to the Soviet Union but I think that the Government overestimate the number of Communists who would betray this country to Russia, and mix up honest British working-class rebels with the cynical people who exploit them.

But, when the Government were given this exceptional power, every real democrat in the House was anxious. We should be even more anxious today. Since then, China has joined the part of the world where only one political opinion exists outside of gaol. In the United States, McCarthyism harasses and threatens the freedom of America. I believe that good Americans and good honest American opinion will soon shake off the shackles which that very distinguished international reporter-columnist Walter Lipmann has recently said are causing so much harm to the reputation of the United States in the free world.

At present, Britain stands, more than ever before, as one of the most important bastions of freedom. So we should watch carefully how far freedom is tampered with in this country. Yet at the present moment, in Middlesex, teachers are denied promotion if they are Communists or Fascists. I think that is a betrayal of the free way of life. I would punish any teacher who taught Fascism, Communism or even Primrose League party politics in the classroom. I would punish the disloyal civil servant. But no teacher or civil servant should be punished merely because, after he has done his day's work, he, as a free citizen, holds views with which we do not agree.

When the Labour Government took the power to dismiss Communists and Fascists, many profound statements were made in this House, in a debate on 25th March, 1948.

The late Mr. Oliver Stanley, for whom many of us had a warm affection, said:
"…justified as it may be, essential as it may be, we all desire to see that every possible safeguard is introduced to ensure that this right, so novel in peace-time, should not be ill-used, unwisely used, or unfairly used."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 25th March, 1948; Vol. 448, c. 3416.]
The present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence said:
"It is immensely important not only to act with moderation and good sense, but so that everybody shall know we have so acted."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th March, 1948; Vol. 448. c. 3390.]
Earlier in the same month my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Bing) asked for an assurance that when any person's reliability was in doubt that person would be told the charge against him and be given an opportunity to answer it. My right hon Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Attlee). the then Prime Minister, said:
"Yes, certainly. It is the invariable practice that where a person is charged he is given an opportunity to reply."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th March. 1948; Vol. 448. c. 1706.]
He also said that powers would be taken only on security grounds, and that so far as possible alternative employment would be found. Ministers would decide, but doubtful cases would be vetted by a committee of retired civil servants.

I think that everyone in the House would agree that we dare not take risks with highly secret information which might get to a possible enemy. But, having surrendered this much of the fortress of freedom, we should be all on guard to see that there is no seeping away of the whole edifice. We have given extraordinary powers to the Executive, and it is the job of Parliament to see that the Government do not misuse them.

It is no defence of tyranny to say—although it is true—that Communists would not give us the political freedom we give them if they were in power. Everyone knows that a Communist Government in this country would behave as such Governments behave elsewhere and that most of us would be in jail, although perhaps at different times—probably hon. Members representing the extreme Left before those representing the Right. We defend the free way, not for the sake of the Communist, but for the sake of freedom. Persecutions hurt most the persecutor.

There is always a speciously good reason for tampering with freedom at first, but it is the first step that counts. The Fascist first persecutes the extreme Left and then works along the line until Hitler murders his old comrades, and Mussolini shoots his son-in-law. The Communist first persecutes the extreme Right and then works along the line until he denounces Tito and kills Slansky and Beria. In the eyes of McCarthy a Communist finally becomes someone who disagrees with Mr. McCarthy. And so we have to see that even unpopular opinions are protected and free, and that the powers we have given to the Government are administered justly and within the limits we put upon them.

Against this background I give the simple facts about the dismissal of Mrs. Averil Luke, the 19-year-old wife of a Communist, from the position of cashier at a club. She was dismissed because the club membership was, apparently, mostly members of a Foreign Office Department and because she married a Communist. This is the letter she received on 4th March:
"Dear Mrs. Luke, it is with great regret that I have to inform you (hat, due to circumstances beyond the control of the club, it has been found necessary to terminate your employment there. I should like to take this opportunity of thanking you for all the efficient and conscientious work which you have given to us and of assuring you that we are extremely sorry that we are thus forced to act. Naturally, if on taking up employment elsewhere you wished to give us as references, we should be very pleased to provide testimonials on your excellent work here. Please accept my assurance that both the Committee and myself deeply regret that this course of action has been forced upon us."—signed, "the Chairman of the Club."
On this I would comment briefly. The club did not want to dismiss Mrs. Luke. It was made to do so by the Foreign Office. Mrs. Luke is not even a Communist. She, a 19-year-old girl, is punished for having recently married a young Communist. Women today form their own political opinions. I think it is an outrage to punish the wife for the political opinion of her husband. I think it foolish to assume that our own wives vote the way in which we do. Obviously she is not one holding any kind of high security job such as the Government had in mind when they began to tamper with freedom. If she had been in the Foreign Office, then one might have understood her being transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, but she is a cashier at a club.

This is indeed high, or low melodrama, worthy of commercial television, with Mrs. Luke sneaking away from the cashier's desk disguised, I suppose, as a waitress, to stand overhearing the careless talk of Foreign Office men between the soup and the savoury. In her work as a cashier she was shown to be excellent, but she was sacked at a minute's notice on the instructions of the Foreign Office. Really, this is the mighty sledgehammer of the British State used to crush a butterfly or to crack a nut.

The real, the high-powered and significant Communist in this country must laugh at this, not on moral grounds, because Communists have no scruples about the right to persecute, but because it is so ineffective. There is a touch of the "Russian wives married to British husbands" about it, though infinitely less harmful in degree, I admit; I admit, too, that in all this we have to keep a sense of proportion. If we do dismiss Communists from certain jobs we do not treat them as the Communist treats his political enemies when he is in power. We do not put them in gaol. We do not shoot the men we sack. We do not make them confess atrocious crimes that they have not committed.

But if we are neither totalitarian or McCarthian in the extent of our interference with liberty we can still be unjust. In this case I think that we are not only unjust but also ridiculous. I do not ask the hon. Gentleman who is to reply to give us secrets about security measures in the Foreign Office, but I ask a number of important questions. Are the Government carrying out what the last Government undertook to do—and did, when they were in office—in using the powers that the previous Government bequeathed to them? Is it for security reasons only that a man loses his post? Is he given an opportunity of knowing what are the charges against him and of defending himself as part of his birthright as a Briton? Is he given an opportunity to explain? Is he offered alternative employment?

And I wish to ask some questions specifically about Mrs. Luke. Why was not she told of the charges against her? Indeed, what were the charges? What wrong had she done? Why, if the club were satisfied with her work and character, could not the Foreign Office leave the club and Mrs. Luke alone? Was she given any chance to refute any charges of disloyalty? Was she given the offer of another post? Will she be given another post? In what way can the fact that Mrs. Luke's husband is a Communist make the employment of this young lady cashier in a social club so dangerous to the security and well-being of our country? How far must we extend the zone of security persecution to feel safe?

As long as Ministers are given extraordinary powers—and I admit and regret that they are necessary—so long is it of vital importance that Parliament should keep a keen eye on how they use them. I think that the Minister has slipped badly over this case and that he ought to make amends. The power of the Executive to dismiss a British subject, because his politics does not please the Government, must never be used except for the gravest of security reasons, and for no other reason. It should certainly not be used to dissuade young English girls from falling in love with young English Communists. I return to the speech of the late Mr. Oliver Stanley and, in his words, I say that in the case of Mrs. Luke this power, so novel in peace-time, has been ill-used, unwisely used and unfairly used

Donne might have said:
"Any man's persecution diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. Never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee."
He was speaking of death, but it is equally true when tampering with British liberty. Everyone, in this House of all places, is concerned with holding on to the political freedom that many people died to win for us.

4.15 p.m.

:I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) for the very kind and warm personal remarks he made about me at the beginning of his speech. I am also grateful to him for the opportunity he has given me to deal with this matter, which was very briefly dealt with at Question time. I can now deal with it at some greater length and put it briefly into perspective.

The House will probably agree with the general observations which the hon. Gentleman has addressed to it upon the subject of political liberties of civil servants and Government employees generally and, indeed, of every citizen of this country, but I must say, straight away, that when he asks me to make amends for what he considers to be a wrong decision, I am afraid I must disappoint him to the extent of saying that there can be no question of reinstating Mrs. Luke in this position.

In defence of that statement I want to deal with some of the specific questions and points which the hon. Member raised, and to thank him for giving me some advance notice of them. First, he made a certain amount of play of the statement that Mrs. Luke was not herself a Communist but was the wife of a Communist. I admit that she was not a Communist, and nobody, certainly in the Government, would suggest that it is an offence to be the wife of a Communist. But I feel that the House will agree that this must be a sufficient ground to bar a person from employment in certain cases where security risks are involved, and I maintain that Mrs. Luke's employment was just such a case.

Although I do not think he actually said it, the hon. Member implied that Mrs. Luke did not hold the kind of job which Parliament had in mind when it granted these very considerable and extended powers to the Labour Government in 1948. Technically speaking, the hon. Member is perhaps correct. She was certainly not an employee of the Government, and it was Government employees which Parliament had largely in mind when it passed these emergency powers, but I think the sense of that debate in 1948 was that where the persons concerned were actually employees of the Government or were in some association with others in Government employment, it was the duty of the State, in these very difficult circumstances, to take all reasonable action to protect itself against possible subversive dangers.

I am not saying for a moment that Mrs. Luke's work was not in every way exemplary, or that her conduct at this club was not perfectly satisfactory, but I submit to the hon. Member that that is hardly relevant to the question of the security risk involved. In her position as cashier she was working right within the confines of a highly confidential Government organisation. I do not think it is beyond the imagination of the hon. Member to believe that a woman placed in that position, however disconnected her employment may have been with the work of the people she was serving, was none the less able to pick up loose scraps of information resulting from members of the Government's communication headquarters not unnaturally talking shop amongst themselves in their club or canteen.

The hon. Member may say that employees of that organisation should not talk shop. He may say they should not talk about their jobs when they are eating or drinking, as he said, "in between the soup and the savoury." The fact remains, however, that they do, and they cannot be altogether expected not to say anything about their jobs for fear of being overheard by somebody who is not authorised to be in possession of what is called classified—that is. Secret—information.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Mrs. Luke would consciously or willingly wish to pass on items of secret information she may have overheard, but we know, and the hon. Gentleman knows, too, the lengths to which the Communist Party and Communist secret agents are ready to go. We have had so many confessions from so-called Soviet defectors, from ex-members of the Communist Party, that have profoundly shocked the conscience of the world, about the extent to which the Communist Party is prepared to go in extorting information on behalf of the Soviet intelligence service. The wife of a Communist offers a very dangerous target indeed for such unsavoury blackmail as, we know perfectly well, the Communist Party is capable of.

This is not, as the hon. Gentleman sought to put it, a question of a wife's having her own political views or of forming her own political views. Her views may have been quite exemplary. I am not in a position to say, and certainly would not inquire myself, what the views of Mrs. Luke were. But I put this point to the hon. Gentleman. It is because of this danger of people connected with Communists or connected with Russian nationals being exposed to blackmail that we have to indulge in the very unwelcome policy of bringing people out of our Embassy in Moscow and bringing them home when they marry Soviet citizens. It is because of the danger to which they would otherwise be exposed of blackmail being used on them to pass information to the Soviet Government.

I would quote some words that, I think, are good evidence on behalf of my case. They were words spoken by the present Leader of the Opposition when he was Prune Minister. In a statement on 15th March, 1948, the right hon. Gentleman said:
"The Government have, therefore, reached the conclusion that the only prudent course to adopt is to ensure that no one who is known to be a member of the Communist Party, or to be associated with it in such a way as to raise legitimate doubts about his or her reliability, is employed in connection with work, the nature of which is vital to the security of the State."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th March, 1948; Vol. 448, c. 1704.]
I would emphasise the word "reliability." The right hon. Gentleman did not refer to loyalty, but to reliability, and I submit that somebody placed in Mrs. Luke's position would be placed in a position where there could be serious doubts about his or her reliability, and ability to stand up to any blackmail to which he or she might be exposed. It was, therefore, I believe, in her own interests as well as of the State's 'that Mrs. Luke should have been removed from such delicate employment.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a further question about her, whether she was given an opportunity of meeting any charge, and what alternative employment was offered. As far as I am aware, Mrs. Luke made no immediate attempt to challenge her dismissal, but I am happy to be able to assure the hon. Gentleman that she has found alternative and satisfactory employment. It is not quite justifiable for the hon. Gentleman to say that the apparatus of the State was used to crush an innocent butterfly and a helpless citizen in this case. First of all, the Government communications headquarters was not obliged to find her alternative employment, because she was not the headquarters employee; she was the employee of the club. Another apparatus of the State, the local labour exchange, has helped her to find satisfactory alternative employment.

The Government may not have been technically obliged to find a job for someone who was not their employee but, having secured her dismissal, they were morally obliged to do so, and the fact that she has obtained employment in some other way does not absolve the hon. Gentleman from the moral responsibility from which he ran away.

I did not run away from any responsibility. I am telling the hon. Member—and I should have thought he would welcome the news—that another apparatus of the State has been instrumental in finding her satisfactory employment, and nobody is happier about that than I am.

The hon. Gentleman did not deal with the general question of political dismissals in the Foreign Office, but he gave that as the title of his Adjournment speech and perhaps I may use this opportunity to give the House some information about it, because I do not wish the impression to go out that political dismissals are a daily occurrence in the Foreign Office: that we are hourly and weekly purging people for their political views and that members of the Foreign Service live in perpetual dread of a kind of local M.V.D. Since the Leader of the Opposition, when Prime Minister, made his statement on 15th March, 1948, only four officers of the Foreign Service, and all of them of the junior clerical grade, have been subject to the purge procedure, and in each case alternative employment has been found for them.

In other Government Departments, but they have been removed from the secret work which they were doing in the Foreign Office.

I deplore, and I think we should all deplore, the kind of intolerance which has become known as McCarthyism, to which the hon. Member referred, but because we deplore this we must not say, every time an employee is removed from some delicate and secret job, either for his or her political views or because of a close relationship with people holding such views—and it happens only rarely—that the Government are witch-hunting and indulging in the kind of intolerance which has come to be known on the other side of the Atlantic as McCarthyism. We must keep a sense of proportion in these matters and strike the right balance. The late Government did so, and I acknowledge the fact; and I think we deserve credit for having maintained that sense of proportion and that balance.

The hon. Member asked me whether we were doing any more in this matter than the late Government did. I can assure him that we are following precisely the same principles and the same policy. We must not be led by our rightful abhorrence of witch-bunting or by fears of accusations of McCarthyism into doing less than is necessary for the security of the State.

Above all, I appeal to the House and to anyone who may read or hear my words to bear in mind that, because of these fears and because of these accusations which are so freely made—I am not accusing the hon. Member—by the Left wing, by the Communist Party, we must not be persuaded into leaning over backwards the other way and thereby countenancing a serious threat to the security of the State. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in all these matters we try to strike a fair and proper balance, bearing in mind the two things which must be borne in mind and which do not necessarily conflict with each other—first, the essential political liberties of the subject, and secondly, the essential security of the State.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Four o'Clock.