Skip to main content

Security Procedures And Practices (Committee)

Volume 640: debated on Thursday 11 May 1961

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

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now make a statement.

In accordance with what I told the House on Thursday, 4th May, I have been reviewing what further measures should be taken to protect the security of the realm. I made it clear then that I did not rule out the possibility of a further inquiry into our security system. I have now had an opportunity of considering the whole matter in some detail and I have discussed it with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and some of his colleagues. I have also taken account of the public anxiety which has been aroused by the case of George Blake and by other recent convictions under the Official Secrets Acts.

The Government have decided that a fresh review should be made of the security procedures and practices currently in force throughout the public service. I propose that this review should be undertaken by a body of independent persons of standing, who will, between them, be able to bring to bear on this problem a judgment based on wide and varied experience. The names of the Chairman and other members will be announced as soon as possible. The terms of reference will be as follows:
In the light of recent convictions for offences under the Official Secrets Acts, to review the security procedures and practices currently followed in the public service; and to consider what, if any, changes are required.
The House will recall that the Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Charles Romer which is already inquiring into the circumstances connected with the earlier case of espionage at an Admiralty establishment at Portland was required by its terms of reference to
"…draw attention to any failure in existing security procedures which may come to their notice in the course of its inquiry."
The findings of the Romer Committee will, of course, be made available to the new Committee, which will be able to take them into account in the wider inquiry which it is to undertake.

The new Committee will report to me as Prime Minister. Until I receive the Report I cannot say whether it will be possible to publish it in whole or in part. While the responsibility for any action lies with the Government, it is a longstanding tradition of this House that in these matters there should be consultation between the Government and the Opposition. I shall, therefore, consult the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition when I have the Report.

Is the Prime Minister aware that there will, I think, be much satisfaction with his statement that he has decided to appoint a Committee of the character he has described? Would he confirm that he will consult the members of the Opposition, with whom he has contact, on the membership of the Committee?

We have had some discussion of it. I hope that we wall be able to get a membership that will be generally agreeable.

I welcome the decision to have an independent Committee of inquiry, but will my right hon. Friend agree to put on that Committee one or two people who have had some experience of these matters; and that the Committee should not be composed entirely of people who are really on the Olympian heights? Would not my right hon. Friend agree that the country would prefer some down-to-earth people as well, who know something about what goes on in this direction?

Of course, I will bear that in mind, but my hon. Friend will know that some persons who may be called eventually to reach Olympian heights have gone up the steep road through the ravines, and some of those may be very valuable to us.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say what sort of person he is looking for as chairman of this Committee? We have had one inquiry into these procedures and, obviously, it has been ineffective. The Committee of Privy Councillors reported in 1956, and it was obviously ineffective in the Blake case. Is the Prime Minister looking for a mind with traditional experience, or one of experience in the foreign service, or the public service?

I will try to find for the Committee the people whom I think will do the work best, but I am bound to say that it is one thing to try to get people, and another to get them to serve on what will be a rather long and arduous undertaking. I hope that we shall be able, and I feel sure that we shall be able, to obtain a Committee that will command the general confidence of the House and the country.

Will my right hon. Friend consider whether it is possible or, indeed, desirable to extend the terms of reference so that this Committee may consider whether the penalties for treasonable acts are as strict as they ought to be?

That is a point, but these are very wide terms of reference, and I think that they cover everything that needs to be investigated.

The Committee will, of course, have to deal with whether, in the present situation, these procedures are adequate, or whether they will have to be altered. The Romer Committee is only inquiring whether the existing procedures were followed, but what this inquiry will be is something wider: to see whether new procedures will be required.

Will the Prime Minister consider whether, in addition to this very desirable inquiry into security procedures, the staff engaged in security work is of the highest calibre required for this purpose? Is he aware that there has been some criticism in this respect, and will he bear in mind that modern conditions really require the very highest type of brain to deal with these security problems? Will he either consider himself, or ask the Committee to consider, whether the terms of remuneration and the general grading of security staff, both at top level and in all departments, is adequate for the work involved?

Yes, Sir. I think that that would be relevant. I will certainly bear it in mind.

Following a report on this matter in my local newspaper, the Wolverhampton Express and Star, may I ask the Prime Minister three straight questions? Is he aware that French and American newspapers reported that George Blake had, in fact, acted in our services, and definitely paralysed the organisation for a number of years?

Secondly, may I ask him whether, during that time, the former Prime Minister and himself were solely responsible, and whether anybody, or a friendly Power, at any time approached him or his predecessor and suggested that, according to their information, this man was suspect? If so, what action was taken?

Thirdly, the reports in the Wolverhampton Express and Star say that the effect of casting a cloak of secrecy over the affair in Britain would be to protect those who have been proved incompetent. May the country, therefore, and the Commonwealth and our allies, know whether we can expect a resignation and, if so, when we shall have such an announcement?

None of those questions would it be right, I think, to answer, but all of those questions would be relevant for the Committee to consider.

Will the Prime Minister ask his Committee, as a matter of broad public policy, to consider the fairly well-founded suspicion, particularly among industrial workers who may have even a rather tenuous association with the Communist Party, that if they are suspect at all they are quietly got out through the gate, usually on a stratagem, and that this is usually considered in contradistinction to the closing up that takes place in a case in other walks of the Civil Service? In my union—and I have to deal with many such oases as that—we feel that there is a great deal of abruptness in the way they treat the suspicion of people on the factory floor compared with the protection afforded to people like Burgess and Maclean?

I am not aware of that. Of course, I understand what the hon. Gentleman has in mind. This is, as the House knows, a very serious matter. I do not know what will be the outcome of this Committee. Last time, I think that the Privy Councillors broadly felt that the procedures, if applied, were adequate to the situation. We have an inquiry as to whether they have been properly applied in a particular case. When we had the debate on Burgess and Maclean, I remember very well that we were all torn between the natural liberalism of our traditions and our desire not to treat men unfairly, and the demands of security in this new kind of battle we have come to.

Whether that applies right through our society, I do not know. If it does, it must be tightened up, but I think that it may well be that in all walks of life men who have anything to do with the public service or the secrets affected have a greater degree of responsibility, and that greater—what shall I call it?—curtailment of their thought and statements will have to be made.

While it is natural and proper to wish to dispel the great anxiety that has existed over what has happened, is it not also necessary to pay a tribute to the excellent work which has been done in bringing this man, and these people, to justice?

This is one of the strengths of the society which we are trying to protect. If these things happen in other societies one does not hear about them. In those societies there are no trials, or Questions in the House of Commons. Men of this kind, if they are found, are quietly "bumped off"—and that is the end of it. This is one of our strengths. We have this freedom which we are determined to defend and we have to see whether, in its defence, we shall have to make greater sacrifices of traditional concepts.

The Prime Minister has told the House that this inquiry will be a long and arduous business. Can he further tell hon. Members what will happen in the meantime, because it is clear that there has been a breakdown in the vetting arrangements? Are we to take it that nothing is to be done in the meantime? Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that he will look into these mistakes once again?

Although I used the phrase "long and arduous", perhaps I ought not necessarily to have said "long", but "arduous". The people I want to get are busy people who will have to give up a great deal of time. I appreciate that the quicker the job is done, probably the harder will be the work involved for the gentlemen who are asked to undertake it. It is not at all impossible that one could have some intervening reports, making suggestions which may be put into effect. I do not rule that out.

Order. We cannot pursue this matter any further without any Question before the House.