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Police (Special Branch)

Volume 931: debated on Saturday 5 March 1977

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Bates.]

11.12 p.m.

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the subject of inquiries by the Special Branch. I have sought this debate because I am disturbed by the number of instances brought to my attention in recent months.

Before I go into detail, it might be appropriate to inform the House about some developments involving the Special Branch. The Special Branch has been with us now for a long time. Indeed, it will shortly be celebrating its hundredth birthday. I do not know how it proposed to mark the occasion, but since it does not issue an annual report it might be appropriate to have a centennial report to show what it has been up to.

What is intriguing about the way in which the Special Branch has operated in the past hundred years is that for the first 70 years it showed considerable stability in the size and extent of its operations. As late as the 1950s it had fewer than 200 personnel. By the 1960s it was 500 to 600 strong. By June 1974, when Mr Roy Jenkins the former Home Secretary was in office, we were told in a parliamentary answer that the size of the Special Branch was about 1 per cent. of the total police force. That would be consistent with a figure of just over 1,000 police officers. It had risen from a figure of 200 in the 1950s to a figure of 1,000 in 1974. I note that the figure has now been revised to a figure of less than 1 per cent. But it is still consistent with a figure of 1,000, which would tally with what we know of Special Branch operations in Scotland Yard and the regional forces.

What should disturb the House is the fact that this substantial extension in Special Branch strength has taken place without a single scrap of public debate in the House or outside it. The House may be interested to have a quotation from Mr. Alderson, Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, as reported in yesterday's issue of The Times. He said:
"Police authority can be abused. It can become master, not servant. It can snuff out more freedom than it protects. The main problem lies in control."
The regular police forces are answerable to local authorities, and this provides a form of democratic check on their activities. But the only democratic control of the Special Branch is through the answerability of the Home Secretary in the House of Commons.

In view of the substantial increase in the Special Branch—an increase of five times since the late 1950s—it is vital that Parliament demands more open debate about its activities. At present we do not even have the information on which to base such a debate. We do not know, for instance, how large the staff is. We do not know its total budget or the nature of the inquiries it makes. Whenever questions are asked, the standard reply is that such matters cannot be answered without endangering the operations and effectiveness of the security service.

But every chief constable in every annual report reports to local authorities throughout the country. Those reports contain such information as to numbers of staff and budgets and the nature of inquiries, and nobody suggests that such information handicaps the fight of the police forces against crime in an area. Why should the Special Branch be treated differently?

Before I come to particular incidents that concern me, it is important to put on record that I am not opposing the case for a security service. Every nation has its security service. Britain, with its troubles in Ulster, necessarily has to have a security service. But it is worth remembering that we have a separate anti-terrorist section in Scotland Yard, which has 200 police officers specifically charged with coping with the activities of Irish terrorists, Arab terrorists, and anybody else interested in using violence for political ends.

What are the other 1,000 police officers in the Special Branch doing? Some of the things they are doing would disturb the public if they were better known, particularly because they concern ordinary citizens who have never been involved in any act of subversion or involved with any group which uses violence as a political means.

For example, there is the case of Mr. Christopher Hird, a London journalist, who recently put up bail for a friend. The editor of the paper for which he works, the Daily Mail, was subsequently approached by two officers of the Special Branch who inquired whether he was aware that Mr. Hird had offered bail in the case. The offering of bail is a perfectly legitimate legal right. One might say that in the case of a friend it is a perfectly legitimate legal duty. What possible right has the Special Branch to advise an employer of the perfectly proper exercise by Mr. Hird of his legal rights?

There is the intriguing case of Mr. Steven Wright, a postgraduate student pursuing a thesis on the social implications of police technology. He was recently visited by six officers of the Special Branch at Lancaster University. Three of them had come all the way from Scotland Yard. The six officers raided his home and office within the university premises. When his professor objected to their presence in the university precinct they replied that issues of national security were involved. They subsequently confiscated a large volume of Mr. Wright's research material, including—and I find this particularly sinister—the research proposal he had submitted to the university.

I heard today that Mr. Wright has been discharged from police bail and that no charges are to be laid against him. One could not have clearer evidence that there is no issue of national security involved. I should like to quote the statement issued this afternoon by Mr. Charles Carter, Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster, who said:
"Those who work in universities cannot expect to be exempted from the application of the law, but they can reasonably ask for sympathetic understanding of their duty to seek access to all evidence relevant to their studies. Truth is not something to be determined by the State."
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will agree with that. But I must also ask her whether we are to conclude from the investigations of the Special Branch, its presence in the university precinct and its continued retention of Mr. Wright's research proposal that it does not regard his legitimate thesis as a fit subject for academic inquiry.

Then there is the case of an officer of a nationalised industry who was recently visited by representatives of the security service of that industry, who told him that they had been informed by the Special Branch police that he was in contact with a certain journalist. As that officer is a public relations officer, I should not have thought that that was a particularly damaging charge. I should have thought that the nationalised industry in question would have more cause to complain if the information was that he was not in contact with any journalist.

But there is a serious point. What right has the Special Branch to be passing information to the security services of nationalised industries about the contacts, whether private or professional, of the officers and employees of those industries?

All those incidents have one thing in common: they are connected with a case before the courts. I am aware that, because of the practice of the House, I cannot refer to that case, but I think that you will permit me to say, Mr. Speaker, that there is a legitimate problem for the House as I have referred to exactly that case in an article in the New Statesman, which can be purchased on the streets of London today and tomorrow by any hon. Member who cares to buy it. It is very unsatisfactory that the practice of the House should be such that we can write about the case in the Press but cannot discuss it within the Chamber. It is perhaps a practice that we should examine on another occasion.

For tonight the point is whether all these incidents—odd, pointless and irrational though they may be when taken separately—have a certain relevance and make a certain pattern which adds up to sense when we connect them to one case. Are we witnessing a deliberate campaign to intimidate investigative journalism, which is also at stake in that case?

I hope that my hon. Friend will reflect on my points and the incidents I have described, and that, if she shares my unease, she will start inquiries in her Department until she has satisfied herself on these matters.

At least the incidents I have so far referred to have occurred in the open. I now want to turn to a number of curious incidents which have occurred to members in the defence committee of Agee and Hosenball and also to members of the defence committee in this other case to which I shall refer as the case of Messrs. X, Y and Z. On Monday 7th February the car of the treasurer of the Agee-Hosenball committee was broken into. A number of papers relevant to the committee were withdrawn. Her cheque book and cheque card were also withdrawn, but were subsequently returned to her via a branch of Barclays Bank. This is most eccentric behaviour for any thief.

On Friday 11th February the home of Phil Kelly was entered. Again no valuables were removed. On Monday 21st February the car of Phil Kelly was broken into. Several papers in the car had been scattered by someone obviously looking for a particular piece of information. On Wednesday 23rd February the address book of Mr. Nash, who is the solicitor of Messrs. X, Y and Z, went missing. On Saturday 26th February the car of Rodger Protz, who had visited Messrs. X, Y and Z at the police station the preceding weekend, was broken into. Again, a briefcase was removed but no valuables. On Wednesday 23rd March Graphic Design Workshop, which has done work for one of the defence committees, was visited at 10 p.m. by three men who purported to be plain-clothes policemen. They said that they had been summoned to the workshop by a call from an employee. There was no employee in the workshop at the time and no one in the workshop had called the police.

On Monday 25th April Mr. Aidan White, who has been a member of both defence committees and who is secretary of the East London NUJ branch, had his flat broken into while he was out. Again, his papers were rifled and drawers and files were ransacked. Again, there was the same curious lack of interest in any valuables. The prowler went so far as to open a bag of money containing£3 or£4 in small change but removed nothing from it—a truly eccentric act for a thief committing an act of burglary.

Nearly all of these incidents have been reported to the police. In none has any charge been brought. In each there is perhaps no cause to have wider suspicions. But, taken as a whole, there is a pattern which emerges. It is a pattern of some person or group of persons not interested in cash rewards, indeed, ostentatiously going out of their way to show that they are not interested in cash rewards, but prepared to break the law in search of information on the two defence committees.

I should like my hon. Friend to raise this matter with her right hon. Friend and to ask him whether he will consider using such powers as he has under the Police Act to act on the public concern which has been expressed on these incidents to launch an investigation into the series as a whole. I hope my hon. Friend will be in a position to give an assurance that neither of the security agencies has been involved in any of these incidents. Perhaps she is in a position to give that assurance since I gave her notice early this morning that I would be referring to each of these incidents. If she is not able to give that assurance to the House, I hope that she will launch the most vigorous investigation so that she can be satisfied, with her right hon. Friend, that neither of the security agencies is involved in any of these incidents.

I have no evidence to suggest that the security agencies are involved. But there is evidence to suggest that they were interested in surveillance of both the Agee-Hosenball defence committee and the XYZ defence committee. We know that from Sunday 20th February phone taps were placed on the lines to the offices of Time Out and the National Council for Civil Liberties. This information has been leaked by sympathetic Post Office engineers. Both these offices were heavily involved in the defence campaign and the use of phone taps in this case must suggest a deliberate act of surveillance on the campaign.

Perhaps I may say a word to the House about methods of covert surveillance. It is an extraordinary comment on how complacent we are about the activities of our security services that we have had no investigation of the use of these covert methods of surveillance, of phone tapping and opening of mail since the Birkett Report of 20 years ago. That report recommended that nothing more should be said on these matters, and every Administration since then has faithfully followed that recommendation and said nothing.

Although an article in The Times in 1975 suggested that Roy Jenkins felt that it was perhaps time we had more up-to-date figures on phone-tapping, the absence of new information and a new official report would not be so worrying if we could be confident that the situation was the same as it was in 1957. But since 1957 the Special Branch has increased five-fold. We also believe that MI 5 has doubled in size. We know that the number of lines from the central listening post has increased from 23 to 72. That means there has been a trebling of the number of lines from the central listening post.

The Birkett Report reassured the public because it said that phone-tapping should be done under the "close personal supervision" of the Home Secretary. That was credible at that time, but the number of warrants have trebled. It is difficult to believe that the personal supervision of the Home Secretary remains that close. Twenty years after Birkett it is surely time for another once-and-for-all investigation into whether the best ways of issuing warrants are being used.

I am conscious that I have referred to many details. I emphasise that I do not expect the Under-Secretary of State to reply under each heading tonight. I hope that she will reflect on the issues that I have raised when she leaves the Chamber. I hope that if she shares my anxieties and those of other hon. Members she will carry them to the Home Office.

We are fond of saying that we are proud of our tradition of civil liberty, the right to political expression and academic freedom. But it is difficult to preserve these traditions, given the centralising of modern society which drives us towards a corporate State. We have scant hope of defending these values and traditions if the security services show the type of contempt for them that some of these instances suggest.

11.27 p.m.

I appreciate that from time to time there may be some concern about the conduct and activities of police officers employed on Special Branch duties. I am glad, therefore, to have the opportunity to explain to the House that these officers, who perform a most valuable service particularly at the present time, are ordinary police officers who are accountable for their actions in the same way as other police officers.

The Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police developed out of the Irish Bureau, which was set up in 1883 to deal with Fenian activity. Other forces in England and Wales now have their own Special Branches. There is no national Special Branch. There could, therefore, be no annual report of the Special Branch. Only in the annual reports of each chief constable can there be annual reports of individual branches. Although it co-ordinates the collection of intelligence affecting the activities of the Irish Republican Army, Metropolitan Police Special Branch in no sense controls the Special Branches of other forces.

Special Branch work is a normal part of police duty. Officers employed on these duties are responsible through their senior officers to their chief officers of police, who are responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the preservation of public order in their areas. Police officers employed on Special Branch duties are concerned mainly with offences against the security of the State, with terrorist or subversive organisations, with certain protection duties, with keeping watch on seaports and airports and with making inquiries about aliens.

I should like to make it clear that chief officers of police recognise fully that the duties of Special Branch officers are such as to require the strictest control by senior officers. I have already said that they are accountable, in the same way as other police officers, to their chief officers of police. I should also emphasise that they are not in any way exempt from the provisions of the police discipline code or from the law. These provisions apply to police officers engaged in Special Branch duties as to all other police officers. It follows, therefore, that the police complaints procedure also applies to Special Branch officers. Complaints against them are investigated in the normal way and, in the Metropolitan Police for example, such complaints may be investigated by A10 Branch.

The fact that Special Branch officers are ordinary police officers means that, in the course of their careers, they are likely to be employed across the whole range of duties and responsibilities which police officers undertake. In the Metropolitan Police, Special Branch officers, together with the other police officers employed in the CID, are participants in the policy of interchangeability introduced by the former Commissioner of Police.

It is clearly important that police officers should receive appropriate training for their duties. Officers employed on Special Branch duties are given detailed instructions on the way they should carry out those duties and about the limits of their responsibilities. I hope it is clear, therefore, that there is no question in this country of the Special Branch being an independent force. The subject matter of its inquiries makes it difficult for its work to be as much in the open as the generality of police work, but its structure, training, discipline and organisation are all designed to place its work firmly within the normal police arrangements.

My hon. Friend referred to the activities of Special Branch officers in connection with the investigation of offences under the Official Secrets Act. He will appreciate, I am sure, that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on matters which have yet to be resolved by the courts.

The responsibility for enforcing the law rests with the police. It is for them, in consultation as appropriate with the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Attorney-General, to decide whether proceedings should be brought in any particular case. Proceedings under the Official Secrets Act require the consent of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

My hon. Friend referred previously, if he did not tonight, to the confiscation and retention by the police of certain documents from Mr. Duncan Campbell. I cannot discuss an individual case which is still before the courts. The House will appreciate that it would be difficult for me, therefore, to discuss why documents had not been returned in a particular case without becoming involved in the merits of the case itself. But I can say that the documents will be dealt with as quickly as possible and will be retained no longer than they are needed.

I want to say a little in general terms about inquiries under the Official Secrets Act with particular regard to documents. When information is received, from whatever source, that offences against the Official Secrets Acts have been or are suspected of having been committed, the investigation of these offences is normally undertaken by Special Branch. Where necessary—and this is almost invariably the case—a search warrant will be applied for under Section 9 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. Under the terms of this warrant, premises and persons found therein may be searched and any documents or other material which is evidence or gives reasonable grounds for suspicion that an offence has been committed under the Official Secrets Act may be seized by the police.

My hon. Friend referred to Special Branch strength. As I said, there is no single national establishment for the Special Branch, so there is no national Special Branch. Each police force has its own Special Branch. As police authority for the Metropolitan Police, the Home Office has more information about the Metropolitan Police Special Branch. This does not bear out the suggestion that the strength has grown five-fold in the past 20 years, which I have seen made recently in the Press. My information is that the increase has been of the order of 85 per cent. in the past 20 years, bearing in mind that one of the major responsibilities of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch is the co-ordination of information about IRA activity in Great Britain and that we are very understandably much more concerned about this topic now than we were 20 years ago. So this increase would not seem to me to be unreasonable or in any way sinister.

I appreciate the information that my hon. Friend is giving the House, which is very helpful, but she will appreciate that 20 years ago there were no regional branches of the Special Branch. I presume that the figure of 85 per cent. to which she referred represents an increase within the Metropolitan authority.

Yes. I was referring to that when I gave those figures.

We do not have readily available figures for Special Branches throughout the country, but I understand that the officers employed on Special Branch duties represent about 1 per cent. of the total strength of the police forces.

My hon. Friend referred to a case concerning Mr. Christopher Hird and the Daily Mail. We have had the allegation that he made looked into—the allegation that Special Branch officers visited the editor of the Daily Mail to ask whether he was aware that Mr. Hird, a reporter for the Daily Mail, had stood bail for Campbell or Aubrey, who are two of three people accused in the Official Secrets Act case. The inquiries that the police have been able to make about this allegation enable the Commissioner to say that at no time has any Special Branch officer spoken to the managing editor or any other employee of the Daily Mail concerning Mr. Hird and his connections with this case.

My hon. Friend has asked for an inquiry into a series of alleged thefts and break-ins involving members of the defence committees for Agee and Hosenball. He has insinuated, without a shred of evidence, that the Special Branch or the security services were responsible. I have no reason to suppose that there is any substance in these insinuations. If criminal offences are alleged to have been committed, they should be reported to the police for investigation. Those responsible for looking into security cases of this nature are under the same duty as the rest of us to operate within the law.

As far as I am aware, the alleged offences have not been reported to the police. If they have not, I invite my hon. Friend to arrange for them to be reported as soon as possible to the chief officer of the area concerned, with details of names, times, places, and so on. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked the Commissioner to ensure that any offences reported in this connection are as thoroughly investigated as possible.

As for Mr. Wright, if he wishes to make a complaint, it will be investigated. As the police inquiries were connected with another case that may come before the courts, it would not be correct for me to comment.

I must repeat that Special Branch officers have no special status and that they are subject to the same sort of control and accountability as are any other police officers. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary believes that their activities are entirely within acceptable rules. It is important that there should be high morale and confidence, accompanied by proper conduct, on the part of the body of police officers who are of great importance to our security.

The Special Branch was set up over 90 years ago to deal with certain terrorist activities. The need for protection today is at least as great as at any time during those 90 years.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Twelve o'clock.