Skip to main content

Telephone Tapping

Volume 977: debated on Thursday 31 January 1980

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


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will introduce legislation to provide statutory provision for telephone tapping.

I shall deal with this matter when I report to the House—I hope before very long—the outcome of the study of the issues raised in the case of Malone v. Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.

Has the Home Secretary had drawn to his attention the report in New Statesman today? If so, does he appreciate that the report of widespread phone tapping will cause a real sense of outrage in that the Government should be mounting such an operation without statutory authority and with no safeguards approved by Parliament? Can the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House why the Post Office requires equipment simultaneously to monitor 1,000 private lines when the Birkett report said that there were only 200 phone taps in any one year? Does he not appreciate that with technical development of this nature, a quarter of a century after Birkett, it is time that we had a further public inquiry into the nature of phone tapping and a report to this House?

I have, as the hon. Gentleman knows, undertaken to make a report to this House very shortly. On the other point, I must say to the House that the interception of postal and telephone communications is a vital weapon in combating serious crime, including drug smuggling and terrorism. It is carried out by the Post Office on behalf of the police, Customs and Excise and the security service, only on the authority of individual warrants signed personally by the Secretary of State.

I would like to make it clear that the Government, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest, are carrying out exactly the same procedures, in exactly the same way, as their predecessors.

I may add to that that I have seen suggestions that the Secretary of State of the day does not take this duty seriously and is not involved seriously.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) asked if I had had my attention drawn to the article in New Statesman. Of course I have and of course I have read it. I am quoting from some of the things contained in that article which, as Secretary of State, I think that I am entitled to rebut. I know how seriously my predecessor took this matter and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I take it seriously, too. It is a responsibility which no Member of this House would particularly like to bear. It is in the national interest that the Home Secretary should have that responsibility and he must conduct it personally and with very great care.

Does the Home Secretary accept that many people are dreadfully worried about surveillance techniques, be they bugging, telephone tapping or interference with the Royal Mail? Will he also concede that there are many Members in this House who feel that the Birkett Report is now inadequate and needs revision? Will the Home Secretary consider a possible Bill of Rights to protect individuals in this country if more information comes forward within the next three weeks in addition to what has already been revealed?

I take most careful note of what my hon. Friend says. Every Government, over a long period of time must strike a proper balance between two considerations which are sometimes in conflict. The first is the national interest and the protection of our citizens in every way. The second is the need to protect individual rights. That balance must be kept. Over a period of time Governments have given that responsibility, in the national interest, to the Home Secretary of the day. I repeat that it is a major responsibility to carry out, but I shall certainly do my best.

Is the Home Secretary aware that the Post Office Engineering Union would welcome a fullinquiry into the allegations of phone tapping, in the firm belief that such an inquiry would clear Post Office engineers of any charges of acting improperly?

In view of his position of responsibility I must take note of what the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) has said.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the majority of people regard these operations as an essential element in the broad spectrum of law enforcement; that they welcome the fact that they are, evidently, being carried out so efficiently and that they would deplore anything which led to any impairment?

Naturally, successive Governments have believed that in the modern world—in the face of terrorism and many other sophisticated crimes—this action is necessary in the national interest. That is why they have stuck to the principles. I believe that these principles are in the national interest. I can only repeat firmly what I have said. It is the job of the Home Secretary and this House has placed that responsibility on me.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I can confirm the basic point, which is that all telephone tapping is for the personal decision of the Home Secretary? Decisions are not taken nominally, as was suggested in today's report. Since the right hon. Gentleman has said that he was coming to the end of his consideration of the legal implications of the Malone judgment—and in accord with the judgment I gave to the House of Commons last year that the time had come for another Birkett type report—may I ask him to report orally to the House when he has come to a conclusion?

Does the Home Secretary understand that the need for this kind of surveillance is not being challenged? Nor is his diligence. Is he aware that what concerns the House, I believe, is that it appears that there has been a dramatic increase in the need for this kind of surveillance in the last 20 years? If that is so I think that the House is entitled to know the scale of that activity.

In the national interest successive Governments have never given any figures on this matter. We have always stuck within the terms of the Birkett report. However, I shall certainly note what the right hon. Gentleman has said.