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Security Service

Volume 975: debated on Tuesday 11 December 1979

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4.2 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give legal authority for the creation of a security service, and to provide for the appointment of its Director-General and for his accountability to Parliament; and for connected purposes.
I am conscious that the House and the country have been subjected to a welter of information and comment on the Anthony Blunt affair. It reached a new height of absurdity last week when the Evening News splashed on its front page an exclusive story that Mr. Blunt is now working on a book on architecture. I hasten to assure the House that I do not propose to weary it with yet another speech about the Blunt affair. However, it would be remiss of the House to allow the Security Service to sink from sight for another decade until the next spy scandal gives us another opportunity to probe what it does in our name. Instead, we should provide a proper legal framework for the Security Service and a proper system of accountability.

It is a remarkable fact that there is no Act on the statute book that provides the Government with the legal authority to raise and maintain a Security Service. I can go further than that. I have had the Library check through the statute book and it has come up with only one statute that even acknowledges the existence of the Security Service—namely, the Civil List and Secret Service Money Act 1782. Section 24 of that far-seeing piece of legislation provides:
"for preventing as much as may be all abuses…it shall not be lawful to issue for the purpose of secret service within this kingdom, any sums of money which in the whole shall exceed ten thousand pounds in any one year."
That prompts the unhappy thought that not only is there no legal authority for the existence of the Security Service but that for the best part of the past 200 years the funds released to it from the Treasury have been wholly illegal. The statute to which I have referred was not repealed until 1977,when the funds released for the Security Service exceeded not only £10,000 but £10 million. The effect of repeal was to expunge from the statute book the one solitary recognition that the Security Service exists. That is plainly unsatisfactory.

We should set the Security Service on a proper legal footing. We should leave the Government in no doubt that they have the power to raise and maintain such a service. It follows that any measure that provides for the maintaining of a Security Service must also set out the functions of that service.

Fortunately, we have to hand the directive that was issued by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe when he was Home Secretary in 1952. That directive gives us a reasonable basis on which to erect a framework, another directive, or a remit for our Security Service. However, there is one important respect in which the directive has proved too elastic with the passage of time. In his directive to the Security Service Sir David charged it with, among other tasks, the duty of defence of the realm against
"persons and organizations…which may be judged subversive."
We have no way of knowing what persons or organisations the Security Service may regard as subversive. We know that the search for persons whom the Security Service suspects of being subversives has been the main reason for its expansion during the past two or three decades. One of the problems about the debate involving Mr. Anthony Blunt is that it has left the public with the impression—it has reinforced the view—that the Security Service is about catching foreign spies. Regrettably that is so far from the truth that it is now approaching pure myth. The greater part of the activity of the Security Service is the domestic surveillance of the British population in its search of those that it suspects are secret subversives.

Moreover, that surveillance is accompanied by methods such as phone tapping and mail opening, which are lacking in explicit statutory authority and are devoid of any vestige of accountability to the House. These matters are crying out for legislation.

The terms "subversion" and "subversive" are subjective. They are highly elastic. It may be that there are hon. Members who regard such an august and respectable body as the national executive committee of the Labour Party as a subversive organisation. We do not know whether it comes within the definition of "subversive" that is used by the Security Service. That is because we have furnished it with no such definition.

There is the definition that was supplied to me by the Minister of State, Home Office. It is a free definition, which provides plenty of room for subjective judgment to roam at will. It pro-ides as a definition of "subversive"
"activities which are intended to undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means."
That provides carte blanche for the Security Service to stick its nose into any political organisation or any form of industrial action. We should give it a clear remit that restricts its surveillance to citizens who may be judged to be undermining parliamentary democracy by violent means or by any other unlawful means. Parliament has not created a wider crime of subversion and Government have no power to maintain a secret police force to police the political organisations whose views may be held by that police force to be subversive.

The debate on Mr. Blunt concentrated on the question whether the Security Service is properly accountable to Ministers. That missed the point. It does not seem to matter very much whether the Security Services are answerable to a Minister when that Minister is not answerable to the House. At present the Minister cannot be made answerable to this House. He is not even obliged to answer questions on matters that are known to every journalist in Fleet Street, such as the name of the Director-General of the Security Service.

I am greeted with incredulity when I explain to outsiders that I am allowed to ask only one question a year about the Security Service. That one question is invariably replied to with a refusal to answer any further question for the next 12 months. Other democracies manage affairs differently. Both America and Germany arguably have a greater awareness of security than Britain. Both those countries find it compatible to have a committee of Congress or a committee of the Bundestag with broad responsibility for the security services. There is no reason not to have a Select Committee, made up of senior Members, that could meet in private to discuss the principles, policy and resources of the Security Service.

I emphasise that during the past two decades we have seen a major expansion of the Security Service. The number of its agents is believed to have doubled. The latest computer technology has been made available to the security services, making it possible for them to store and retrieve information on a number of individuals. That technology exceeds the wildest dreams of the pre-war secret service.

Perhaps the security services carry out a necessary task effectively, but the House has no means of assuring itself, or the public that it represents, that that is the case. It is not prudent to let the situation continue, and I ask leave of the House to introduce a Bill to remedy that state of affairs.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Robin F. Cook, Mr. Jonathan Aitken, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. Clement Freud, Mr. Michael Meacher, Mr. Christopher Price, Mr. Phillip Whitehead and Mr. James Wellbeloved.

Security Service

Mr. Robin F. Cook accordingly presented a Bill to give legal authority for the creation of a security service, and to provide for the appointment of its Director-General and for his accountability to Parliament; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 8 February and to be printed. [Bill 103.]