House Of Commons
Tuesday 10 November 1987
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]
Dyfed Bill Lords
Order for consideration read.
Amendment agreed to.
To he read the Third time.
Oral Answers To Questions
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to strengthen United Kingdom air defences.
A major modernisation of the United Kingdom's air defences is now well advanced, including the build-up of the Tornado ADV force, the commissioning of improved United Kingdom air defence ground environment systems, and the purchase of Boeing E-3 airborne early warning aircraft.I am pleased to announce that an order for a seventh E-3 aircraft has now been placed with the Boeing aircraft company. This will provide a significant enhancement over the six-aircraft fleet ordered earlier this year and a robust capability to mount continuous airborne early warning patrols. The cost of this aircraft will be accommodated within the provision for the defence budget announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 3 November.
Has the Secretary of State seen recent press reports and the "World in Action" programme describing the appalling state of our air defences? Does he agree that that is the real cost of Trident?
In the first place, the state of our air defences is not only very good, but considerably better than it has been for many years. Secondly, the Trident programme has been in our costings for a very long time and that is coining down in cost, not increasing. Neither part of the hon. Lady's question holds any water.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the Government came into office in 1979 we found to our horror that no provision had been made in the finances for the air defence part of the Tornado programme or for making the Hawk aircraft capable for local defence, and we inherited the Nimrod project?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The current dramatic improvement in the RAF's capability has been achieved although no funding had been laid ahead when we came into office in 1979. That position has been put right by the Government.
Following the tragic deaths of two pilots in my constituency just over a week ago, is the Secretary of State prepared to consider a major review of the low-flying programme, as its contribution to the effectiveness of our air defences must be reduced by the enormous loss of life and expensive equipment that has been sustained?
We believe that any loss of life is too much; the loss of even one pilot a year is one too many. We try to keep those distressing accidents to an absolute minimum. However, this year's accidents, however tragic, are no worse in number than last year's accident figures, which were the best for a very long time. We keep the position carefully under review and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not take any of those events lightly.
All Conservative Members will endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend about the skill and determination of the Royal Air Force. What progress has been made in sorting out the electronic difficulties relating to the Tornado—the Foxhunter system?
My hon. Friend is right to state that there were some difficulties about that. After prolonged negotiations with the company we have agreed a way to go ahead with the Foxhunter radar, which I am convinced will produce an effective instrument for the aircraft when it comes into service.
In view of the recent news that the Americans are to cancel their order for the Harrier aircraft — that will obviously increase the unit costs of the production of the Harrier — and in view of the substantial cuts in that part of the Government's Estimates, how will that affect our purchases of the Harrier and our air defences in the near future?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. The Harrier AV8B, which is the American version, is an important Anglo-US collaborative project. The RAF is firmly committed to its side of it, the Harrier GR5, which will enter service next year.During my recent visit to Washington I made it clear that it would be a serious blow to Anglo-US collaboration if the United States cut orders. I was assured, however, that no decision to do so had yet been made, and I understand that that is still the position.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what estimates his Department has made of Soviet chemical weapons capabilities.
The Soviet Union commands the world's largest and most sophisticated chemical warfare capability. It has produced and stockpiled a wide variety of chemical agents and munitions, and has a massive tonnage of nerve agent alone. It also has specialist troops dedicated to the chemical warfare role. Soviet servicemen are trained in the doctrine and tactics of chemical warfare, and Soviet land, sea and air forces maintain a variety of modern systems for delivering chemical attack.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the efforts by the British Government and their leadership in the Geneva talks are widely welcomed? Will he confirm that, as the process of nuclear and chemical weapon disarmament continues, the Soviets' attitude to the elimination of all chemical weapons will be a crucial touchstone in relation to how we judge their general attitude to disarmament?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The United Kingdom is playing a very active role in the 40-nation conference on disarmament in Geneva. We chaired the ad hoc committee responsible for negotiations in 1986, when considerable progress was made on the difficult subject of verification.The subject of negotiations provides a good example of what happens when one side unilaterally renounces a type of armament. We have done that since the 1950s. However, so far there is no sign that the Soviet Union has, as a result, lessened any of its efforts on the chemical warfare front.
Have not the Soviet Government offered a treaty banning all chemical weapons, and also offered to open up their manufacturing capability to inspection, while, at the same time, the President of the United States is still demanding additional funds for the deadly chemical binary weapon?
The hon. Gentleman has a very distorted view. The Soviet Union did not admit until six months ago that it had any chemical weapons. The United States has not made any chemical weapons, until now, for 17 years. During that time the Soviet Union has built up its capability vastly. While saying that they would like a worldwide ban—as we would—the Soviets have done exactly the reverse. We want a worldwide ban on all chemical and biological weapons. If the Soviet Union wants that, it can have it, as far as we are concerned.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is rather alarming that the Soviet Union has behaved in such a Machiavellian way?Is it not some consolation, however, that the BAOR is probably better equipped to counter chemical weapons than are any of the other NATO allies?
My right hon. and learned Friend is correct. While it is extremely difficult to equip troops to survive chemical weapon attacks, our efforts are generally admired and considered pretty effective. However, the general, overriding impression is that the West wishes a total ban on all chemical weapons, and, as soon as the Soviet Union is prepared to agree to that, we can have it.
As Soviet and Warsaw pact representatives are viewing Operation Purple Warrior, is it possible for the Secretary of State to ask for some reciprocity, so that we can see how Soviet troops are trained in chemical warfare? Could he also give us some further information on how well our troops are protected against it?
Our troops have the capability to protect themselves against chemical weapons, and most of our new equipment is devised with that in mind.I understand that Operation Purple Warrior is proceeding very well and that the observers from the Warsaw pact countries are receiving every possible help to observe the exercises. We are entitled to observe their exercises when they are of a sufficient size to merit it, and we shall, of course, be glad to do so.
Nato Nuclear Planning Group
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation nuclear planning group meeting in Monterey.
At the nuclear planning group meeting in Monterey on 3 and 4 November Ministers discussed a variety of security matters pertaining to NATO's nuclear forces.In particular, we welcomed and fully supported the agreement in principle between the United States and the Soviet Union for the global elimination of land-based INF missiles above the range of 500 km and looked forward to an INF treaty being signed and ratified in the near future. We also reaffirmed that the strategy of flexible response would remain the basis of the Alliance's security and stated our determination to take whatever measures might be required to safeguard the effectiveness, responsiveness and survivability of NATO's nuclear forces, while maintaining only the minimum forces necessary for credible deterrence. A copy of the official communiqué for the Monterey meeting has been placed in the Library of the House.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the impending INF deal represents a triumph for NATO's dual-track approach? Does he also agree that it would not have been possible if the approaches that were advocated by the Labour party had been pursued?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct on both points. This represents a triumph for the dual-track approach which was devised by NATO and put into effect against tremendous opposition from many circles, particularly the Opposition. If it had not been for that stand, we should not now have the agreement. It is an absolute vindication of the policy that we have been following since 1979.
Does the Secretary of State accept that there is very little point in negotiating away ground-launched cruise missiles, only to bring them back again in an air-launched or sea-launched form? Does he also accept that there is a powerful case for improving the effectiveness of NATO's manned aircraft by providing them with a stand-off weapon that would ensure greater penetrability against Soviet air defences?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's second point. As for his first question, the objective of all the negotiations and of the agreement that we very much hope is about to be signed is to reduce the number of nuclear warheads in Europe. I am convinced that the agreement will achieve that aim. When that has happened we shall have to make sure that our remaining armaments are credible and that they hold together as a coherent weapons system.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the presence in Europe of 326,000 American servicemen is the best guarantee that we shall not become decoupled from the United States? Does not this extraordinary agreement, which changes the defence landscape of Europe, make it even more important to start to address the imbalance between the Warsaw pact and NATO forces—in particular, its 2:1 preponderance of tanks and its 3:1 preponderance of artillery?
My hon. Friend is correct on both points. The presence of American forces in many guises in western Europe is not only a guarantee of United States solidity with its European and free world allies against any threat, but shows that the United States takes the view that the first line of defence of the United States is in western Europe. The Government fully support what we hope will he the next stage—a START agreement on a reduction of up to 50 per cent. in strategic systems. During that period we hope that a major start will be made on dealing with the conventional imbalance and our long-standing demand for a worldwide ban on chemical and bilogical weapons.
The Government have consistently maintained that the reason for the deployment of cruise missiles was the Soviet Union's deployment of SS20s. Under the INF agreement the Soviet Union will give up three times as much nuclear weaponry as the West. May we now take it, therefore, that we shall hear no more nonsense about compensatory adjustments in the wake of an INF' agreement? I hope that the Secretary of State will make it absolutely clear that there will be no gap in NATO's defences.
There has been no so-called nonsense from me about compensatory adjustments. There are two separate strands here. One is the implementation of the decisions that were taken four years ago at Montebello for the modernisation and bringing up to date of the existing nuclear weapons that are part of the West's armoury against attack. That process is only half completed. It must be completed as soon as possible.We fully support the INF deal. and once it is concluded it will be normal and natural for NATO to review its weapons systems to ensure that they make sense, are coherent and hold together. Any necessary changes will have to be put forward as proposals to the allies before they are agreed.
I welcome the present negotiations, but will my right hon. Friend remind the House of Sir Winston Churchill's words in his last speech to Congress in, I think, 1951, in which he said that we should never abandon our atomic weapons until we were certain — indeed, more than certain — that we had other methods of defending ourselves?
My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. The object of the arms reduction process is to reduce the number of atomic weapons and warheads on the ground in Europe on both sides. At all times we must ensure that our security is preserved. For that reason we must ensure that we have a credible, flexible response to offer to any attack at low or high level, and that is our objective.
Norway And Denmark
To ask the Secretary for Defence what British forces are currently committed to the reinforcement of Norway and Denmark.
The 3 Commando Brigade, as part of the United Kingdom-Netherlands amphibious force and the United Kingdom mobile force, has the reinforcement of the northern region as its principal role. The United Kingdom also makes a sgnificant contribution to the ACE mobile force, which has options to deploy there. In addition, RAF Jaguars are specifically assigned to the northern region and a number of other RAF aircraft could also be deployed there.
Will the Minister say whether he plans any cuts in that United Kingdom mobile force? Is he aware that if he does the Danes' response may be that NATO is no longer worth the effort?
I do not think that that is a necessary conclusion. We welcome the contribution of the Danes, and we should welcome a greater contribution from them. With regard to the United Kingdom mobile force, it is generally accepted that the current use is not the best one. That point was explained fully a few months ago by my predecessor in answer to the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies). That matter is presently under assessment at SHAPE, but no decisions have been taken.
Were the British Government consulted before the Canadians decided to withdraw from their commitment to deploy a brigade to northern Norway? Will my hon. Friend say whether he will consider the possibility of compensating for that deficiency by deploying British troops on the northern flank? Paradoxically, the Canandians seem about to augment their presence on the central front.
As my hon. Friend knows, these matters are extensively discussed among allied Governments. As to Britain being required to fill the role of the Canadians if they withdraw their CAST force, we have received no request from them or NATO to do that. As I said with regard to the United Kingdom mobile force, these matters are currently under consideration within NATO.
As the Norwegians can no longer depend on the CAST brigade, will the Minister say whether the Government will formally commit the Royal Marines to the defence of Norway? If not, who will be responsible?
It would be unwise for me to prejudge the consideration that these questions are being given within NATO. It is in that context that our force is part of SACEUR's strategic reserve.
My hon. Friend is well aware of the activities of the Royal Marines in Norway, but will he continually hear in mind the need to increase its airborne assault capability for use not only in the northern sector but in other parts of the world?
Like my hon. Friend, I have the highest regard for the Royal Marines and their capability for amphibious operations. The Purple Warrior exercise that is currently under way has demonstrated their professionalism. My hon. Friend should not underestimate the scale of equipment and ships that are available, but we are anxious to ensure that we maintain our capabilities.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what point defence the Royal Navy's frigates and destroyer currently on Armilla patrol have against sea-skimming missiles.
The ships serving on the Armilla patrol are provided with self-defence equipment relevant to the range of threats in the region.
Is the Minister saying that the three ships do not have the last-ditch point defence system that is needed for them to defend themselves against sea-skimming missiles? Why were the Phalanx-equipped type-42s or batch 3 type-22s not sent out?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we rotate the ships on the Armilla patrol. They have a variety of layers of air defence, including long-range surveillance radar, medium-range Sea Dart missiles and point defence Sea Wolf missiles, close-in weapons systems such as Phalanx and Goalkeeper, and also soft-kill measures such as jammers and decoys. [Interruption.] It may be a matter of amusement to Opposition Members, but the protection of our ships in the Gulf is a matter that we take seriously.None of our ships is likely to have the whole range of all the available weapons systems. I should like to add a final point—[Interruption.]—if I am allowed to do so. It is not in the interests of the safety of our ships in the Gulf for us to comment on the likely form of response to particular kinds of attack.
Were not there recommendations, arising out of the Falklands war, that type-22s and type-23s should urgently be fitted with vertical-launch Sea Wolf defence systems? Are such programmes somewhat behind schedule? In the interests of the Royal Navy, could they be brought forward?
I appreciate the importance of Sea Wolf, as does my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement who is pursuing the matter. We hope that the systems will be available and operative as soon as possible.
Where does the Minister get terminology such as "soft-kill"? How many perverters of the English language are employed in the Ministry of Defence to dream up such expressions? How much is the Armilla patrol costing the British taxpayer? What contribution is he asking for from multinational oil companies such as Shell and Esso for protecting their ships?
The Armilla patrol is part of the Royal Navy's operations. We do not separately cost individual aspects of it. I should have thought that taxpayers — individuals and companies — would be perfectly willing that part of the revenue that they pay to the Government for income tax, corporation tax and other taxes should go to maintain freedom of British shipping in the Gulf.
French Minister Of Defence
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he next plans to meet the French Minister of Defence.
I next expect to meet M. Giraud in December.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the inter-service co-operation that has flowed from the talks is warmly to be welcomed? What are the ultimate objectives of his talks with the French?
Certainly, co-operation on the level of exercising and liaison between British and French forces is developing well and is increasing every year. The ultimate objective is to have closer defence relations with our friends across the Channel, in the hope that we can have mutual equipment collaboration with them and, of course, have close liaison with their forces.
Now that President Reagan has called for a more equal relationship between the United States and Europe within NATO, is it clear that the United States would welcome greater Anglo-French co-operation on nuclear matters and, in particular, would not impair our entering into a joint collaborative project to extend the range of the ASMP—air sol moyenne portée—to 400 km or beyond?
Certainly our friends in the United States would greatly welcome closer relations between ourselves and the French and between ourselves and other NATO allies. We should be glad to discuss a French air-launch missile in case there is any way in which we and France can collaborate in this important matter.
When my right hon. Friend meets the French Minister, will he point out to him that there is still a chance for France to join in our plans for the European fighter aircraft? Will he bear in mind also the fact that, years ago, the French not only refused to join in plans for this modern aircraft, which is the most advanced in the world, but did their best to torpedo the scheme?
The French fighter aircraft Rafale is a matter for the French Government to deal with as they consider best from their point of view. As we have made clear, the European fighter aircraft is being considered by ourselves and our partners—not including the French—and I am glad to say that discussions of the next stage are proceeding well.
While on the subject of collaborative projects, will the Minister confirm that his discussions with the French have included the NFR-90? Will he confirm that the project, which seems to be the best hope for the warship building industry in this country, will go ahead and that yesterday's report in the Daily Mail, maintaining that Britain is about to back out of the project, is wrong?
I have seen the reports and I confirm that at my next meeting with the French Minister—as at my last meeting with him—I expect the NFR-90 to be one of the matters for discussion. The Government's concern about the programme has been related to the method by which to address the next stage, and we are still negotiating with our allies about that. There is no truth in any suggestion that we have pulled out of the project.
In his discussions with Mr. Giraud, will my right hon. Friend resist the blandishments of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) in suggesting that there should be co-operation over nuclear deterrence? Does he agree that if that happened it would mean that the Trident submarine deterrent was deployed at a much later date, with the result that the United Kingdom would be undefended once Polaris became obsolete?
I should make it clear that although I have discussed a whole range of defence subjects with my French colleague, there is no proposal for any joining together of the French and British deterrents, which operate separately. At the moment I cannot envisage circumstances in which it would make sense for only one deterrent to be operated or for the other to be expected to operate on our behalf. Further co-operation is a very good idea, but it falls short of amalgamating the two systems.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what use is currently being made of the Nimrod airframes.
We are considering a number of possible uses for the Nimrod airborne early warning aircraft. In the meantime they are being held in storage.
Instead of leaving the 11 Nimrod airframes to rot, why does the Secretary of State not convert them for use as maritime surveillance aircraft or, indeed, use them to supplement the five aging and antiquated Shackleton aircraft and so recoup some of the taxpayers' money that has been spent?
We are considering a wide range of possibilities for the aircraft's use. We are anxious to make the right decisions and we are taking time to ensure that we do.
Will my hon. Friend consider much more seriously and urgently the need for more maritime patrol aeroplanes? Is not the greatest threat facing the Supreme Command Atlantic the submarine threat? Is not that threat becoming more sophisticated, with boats that are ever quieter and deeper-diving? Is there not an imperative need to enhance the maritime patrol aircraft availability of our Alliance?
My hon. Friend has made some valid observations about Warsaw pact submarines. The points that he has made will be among those taken into account when we reach our decision on the future of the airframes.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to what precise extent the operational efficiency and viability of the Trident missile is dependent on United States maintenance and supplies.
As said during the defence debate on 27 October. arrangements were made in 1982 for United Kingdom-owned missiles to be processed at the United States facility in Kings Bay, Georgia. This processing will take place at the same time as the missile-carrying submarine is undergoing major refit. The arrangement with the United States is, of course, intended to maintain the operational efficiency of the missiles and thus of the United Kingdom deterrent. I am fully satisfied that this aim will be achieved and that the return of the missiles to the United States in no way affects the continuous deployment of the United Kingdom deterrent force, which is at all times under the operational control of Her Majesty's Government.
Has the Secretary of State read the Ministry of Defence papers from the 1940s when the United Kingdom was last involved in a lend-lease arrangement with the United States? Will he admit to the House that we are in a position of complete dependency on the United States for maintenance and that the independent nuclear deterrent is a charade?
I would have thought that there was every evidence that, during the last war, in the 1940s the United States lend-lease arrangement was a lifeline for this country. However, there is no connection between that arrangement and the Trident system where, at all times, Britain owns all the missiles that it needs for its system.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that while Trident is on station, and between the major refits on the submarines, the remaining submarines will be serviced in Scotland and that that will be good for Scotland and for jobs in Scotland, because the missiles can be serviced in the tubes?
That is correct. At present the Polaris submarines are refitted at Rosyth in Scotland and the Trident submarine will also be refitted at Rosyth. The only difference is that the missiles will be refurbished in Georgia and not Britain.
Is it not an indictment of the Government that, while billions of pounds can be found to pay for Trident, the National Health Service relies on charities to buy the equipment that it needs to keep people alive? Is that not something that the Government have to face up to and explain?
Fortunately, under this Government not only are we able to find enough money to keep our defences in good shape, our security safe and peace in our time, but we are able to increase substantially the funding for the National Health Service, which is to be seen in falling waiting lists and better service generally throughout the country.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the progress of the Trident programme.
The Trident programme continues to make good progress. It is on time and within budget and planned to enter service in the mid-1990s.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the cost of the purchase of Trident has fallen dramatically since the first decisions to go ahead were announced? Will he inform the House of the contractual commitments of the Trident programme, for example up to the year 1992? Does he agree that the Labour party's plans to scrap it and spend more money on conventional defence will look even less sensible in 1992 than in 1987?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I was able to announce earlier this year, when I announced the annual recosting of the Trident programme, that not only had there been a substantial reduction in its cost because of favourable exchange rates, but that there had been a real reduction in its cost because of economies of about £546 million. Therefore, the cost of the Trident programme is going down, not up. Fortunately, the Labour party's plans are unlikely ever to come into effect. Any idea that the Labour party had, however unrealistic, of cancelling Trident and using the money on something else is now completely impossible because by the earliest time the Labour party could form a Government, the Trident programme would be substantially completed.
Is it not a fact that the whole world is how hoping that the scaling down of intermediate nuclear missiles will take place and that following that there will be a scaling down of the strategic missiles owned by the Soviet Union and the United States? Is it not also a fact that in those circumstances the Trident missile would be just a status symbol in the hands of this country, costing at least £10 billion, and that it will not mean anything if the great missiles of the other two nations are not scaled down?
I share entirely the hon. Gentleman's aims and views on the reduction of nuclear missiles in the world, both intermediate and strategic. It is the hon. Gentleman's sadness that he is having to rely on a Conservative Government to achieve the reductions, rather than just talk about them. Of course, it is the case that the reductions in nuclear weapons are designed to lessen tension in the world, but we get no further forward by pretending that in some way we can do without any defence or security for ourselves. That is simply unrealistic.
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proportion of defence contracts in the latest year for which figures are available were subject to competition; and how this compares with 1979–80.
The proportion of defence contracts placed by competitive tender or otherwise by reference to market forces in 1986–87 was 53 per cent. The comparable figure for 1979–80 was 30 per cent.
Has my hon. Friend made any assessment of the impact of the competition initiative in reducing defence costs, and has that had any effect on the proportion of contracts that have been awarded to smaller defence contractors?
It is difficult to make an accurate assessment of what the price would have been for any particular contract if it had been awarded other than by reference to competition. However, we are confident that substantial savings are being achieved, and a number were listed in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". On the percentage of contracts going to smaller firms, which we regard as important, we are striving through the small firms initiative to ensure that the maximum number of small firms have a real opportunity to participate in work for the Ministry of Defence.
Is the Minister aware that much the more meaningful comparison between now and 1979–80 in respect of defence contracts is that, unlike then, a gap is now opening up between commitments and resources, which some analysts compute as being as high as £8 billion? When he gets back to his Department, will he ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State why there was no mention of that in the Defence Estimates?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government are spending substantially more on defence than would have been spent under a Labour Administration. Furthermore, we are ensuring that we get the best possible value for money in our expenditure.
Nato (Flexible Response)
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's strategy of flexible response.
NATO's strategy of flexible response remains fully valid and continues to be a sound basis for the security of Alliance members.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the credibility of that doctrine depends on our maintaining our defence capability at all levels—in the nuclear and conventional spheres, on land, in the sea and in the air? Does he agree that unilateralism is the enemy of multilateralism?
I agree entriely with my hon. Friend that the unilateralist campaign has obstructed not only the improvement of our own security, but progress in arms control. Now and at all times, the security of the United Kingdom and of our NATO allies is the prime concern of our policy.
Will the Minister confirm that that flexible response includes taking compensatory measures to introduce nuclear warheads and air and sea-launched missiles to compensate for those that have been removed under the INF talks? Will he give the House the categorical undertaking that any such compensatory measures will not result in a greater number of nuclear weapons being committed to Europe than is currently the case with INF weapons?
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, we intend that the INF agreement, if and when it is achieved, will result in fewer nuclear weapons in Europe. On force adjustments, it is always necessary for us to deploy our assets, whether conventional or nuclear, in the way that is most effective for our own defence. We shall continue to do that in the light of changing circumstances, including arms control.
Will the Minister join me in acknowledging the role played by the mercantile marine in our flexible response to every past conflict? Does he share my astonishment that, in Exercise Purple Warrior, which is taking place in the south-west of Scotland and is being observed by east European countries, virtually the entire Merchant Navy presence has had to be brought in from foreign countries because of its systematic rundown by the Government? Does he agree that, from a defence as well as a civil point of view, the destruction of the British Merchant Navy and the virtual elimination of the Red Ensign is one of the Government's badges of shame?
I have a high regard for the British merchant marine, just as the hon. Gentleman has. What I do not accept is the assumption that it is being run down in a dangerous or unsatisfactory way. May I point out that the reason why the ships taken up from trade for Exercise Purple Warrior came from other countries in Europe was that they were willing to make ships available on more competitive terms than British operators. Had it been otherwise, we would have been glad to take British ships.
In a previous answer the Secretary of State mentioned the Montebello agreement and what is described as modernisation. Will the Government now support the West German Government in pressing for talks on the removal of battlefield nuclear weapons at the same time as talks on conventional weapons because, very often, those battlefield weapons are present because of the conventional imbalance?
I have no doubt that we shall have to address seriously the whole question of conventional balance in the light of the arms control agreement that appears now to be in prospect. The question of battlefield nuclear weapons comes into that context, but I certainly do not think that it should come first.
To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 10 November.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty The Queen.
Does the Prime Minister accept that, when the state causes an avoidable injustice to a citizen, compensation and help should he swift and substantial? That being so, why is there such a delay in dealing with the legitimate claim of 1,200 of our fellow citizens who suffer from haemophilia and who have contracted the AIDS virus from the use of dirty blood products? They were not to blame and we need to help them.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is considering this matter and I hope that he will have a statement to make shortly.
During the course of the day, will the Prime Minister reflect upon the massacre in Enniskillen on Sunday? As Ulster once again buries its dead, will she attempt to project herself forward into the meetings at council chambers up and down Northern Ireland where Unionists councillors and others have to sit down with representatives of the Provisional IRA? Will she take the obvious and logical step to proscribe Sinn Fein and any other organisation that supports terrorism?
We are concerned about the presence in Northern Ireland of district councillors who support terrorist violence. We believe that parties should choose between violence and democratic ways. A recent discussion paper canvassed a number of possible solutions to this problem, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will consider what further steps should be taken in the light of comments received. The possibility of proscribing a number of organisations, Sinn Fein and UDA among them, is kept under review, but proscription is a blanket measure that would go further than the specific problem. We shall await further consultation results before we make up our mind.
May I first say how much I agree with the view expressed by the Prime Minister that those who pursue the so-called joint strategy of the ballot and the bullet are guilty of both hypocrisy and complete incompatability with a democracy. Will the right hon. Lady accept that, even in the wake of the barbarism at Enniskillen, she is completely right to resist demands for the return of internment, since that would be more likely to give some form of perverse reward to the terrorists than enhanced security? Can the Prime Minister now tell us whether she will be meeting the Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey, to consider new joint initiatives to improve security and intensify the use of the Anglo-Irish Agreement for that purpose?
At the moment I have no plans to meet the Taoiseach. I shall be seeing him in the margins of the European Council at the beginning of December. I believe that at the moment events are speaking very loudly to those who have important decisions to make.
Does my right hon. Friend consider that the unity of condemnation in the House against the outrage on Sunday should be followed by unity of purpose in dealing with terrorism? Does that suggest to my right hon. Friend that those who have consistently opposed the Prevention of Terrorism Act should now reconsider their position?
Yes, Sir. The Prevention of Terrorism Act will come up for renewal in the coming year and I hope that we shall have unity of purpose in supporting it.
To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 10 November.
Is the Prime Minister aware of the Age Concern prediction that almost 1 million pensioners are at risk this winter? As she has stated that she needs the comfort of a £100 cashmere sweater to keep warm, what does she intend to do to prevent less well-off pensioners from freezing to death this winter?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the heating additions are higher than they have ever been, both on the regular supplementary benefit, where they go the whole year through to enable people to buy cheaper coal during the summer if they wish, and the severe weather payments, which have been the object of many questions in the House and which we have changed so that we now believe that they will achieve the best possible results.
I hope that my right hon. Friend is greatly encouraged by the fact that on Sunday every Catholic priest in Ireland will be preaching on the sinfulness of those who harbour the Remembrance Day butchers. Does she agree that when those people are brought to justice, it must be British justice, before a British court and a British judge, and that any foreign Government who attempt to foil this will not be forgiven or forgotten by the House?
I think that we are all encouraged by the universal condemnation and repugnance felt by the whole world about the vile act that took place in Enniskillen. I agree with my hon. Friend that the justice in Northern Ireland is the justice of the United Kingdom and the courts of the United Kingdom.
To ask the Prime Minister what representations she has received about the establishment of Select Committees to monitor Government Departments.
I have received a small number of representations, including one from the hon. Member.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the inability to bring forward and to find time on the Floor of the House for a given number of reports from Select Committees that are meant to oversee Government Departments weakens the accountability of the Government in the parliamentary process? Will she make representations to her hon. Friends to bring forward the recommendations of the Procedure Committee to ensure that Select Committees have a proper place in our parliamentary process?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there were motions on the Order Paper about Select Committees which were objected to yesterday, and which are still on the Order Paper today. Select Committees have an important role. They have a considerable number of days allocated to them for debate, but if the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is not enough he should have a word with his Front Bench to secure more of the Opposition's days.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Ombudsman committee already does an excellent job in overseeing Government Departments? Will she consider extending the jurisdiction of that committee to include the Police Complaints Authority?
Any such questions should be addressed in the first place to the Leader of the House. I am wary about saying anything about Select Committees without first consulting my right hon. Friend, for very good reasons.
When the Prime Minister considers the establishment of Select Committees to monitor Government Departments, will she consider a Select Committee to monitor the progress of the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Does she agree with the Government of the Republic of Ireland that, with the Government of the United Kingdom, we can use the agreement to put behind us the tragic events of Sunday and seek peace, stability and reconciliation for the whole of Ireland?
I believe that the Anglo-Irish Agreement offers the best chance that we have of enhancing security co-operation with the Irish. My right hon. Friend will be having further urgent talks with Irish Ministers about security. Perhaps the statement that we had yesterday and the universal expressions of opinion from both sides of the House spoke volumes more than any Select Committee could.
Will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind that quite a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House think that we are getting on rather well without Select Committees? Bearing in mind the excesses of some of the Select Committees in the last Parliament, will she not be in a hurry to see that they are re-established?
As my hon. Friend knows, motions on the membership of most of the Select Committees were put before the House yesterday and objected to. They remain on the Order Paper and the House will have an opportunity to consider them in the normal way.I have heard what my hon. Friend has said about the Select Committees. The House decided that they should monitor each Department, and we therefore do not have anything like a Science and Technology Committee. If I am allowed to have a personal opinion, I must say that I have always rather regretted that.
To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 10 November.
In the discussions between the British and Irish Governments, will the Prime Minister look carefully at the establishment of a joint security commission and the need for a unitary judicial system and joint anti-terrorist legislation, passed both by the Dail and Westminster? Does she agree about the paramount importance of the Dail enacting the new extradiction agreement on 1 December?
I see no reason at all to have a joint security commission. The Anglo-Irish Agreement enables us to consider security matters—the Republic of Ireland to raise them with us, and we to raise them with Ministers from the Republic of Ireland—so that, by co-operation, we may achieve better security. We must operate that agreement, trying all the time to enhance security.I agree with the hon. Gentleman that every nation should fight terrorism — every single one. I hope that people will consider, among other things, where the arms are coming from and what action they can take through their ordinary policies about that. We must all fight terrorism, but between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom we must fight it through the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of an initiative by the Liverpool Society of Chartered Accountants and the Merseyside task force that is called "Business Opportunities on Merseyside"? Is she also aware that that initiative was launched at a well-attended conference this morning at the Barbican? Will my right hon. Friend congratulate those bodies on showing the real face of Merseyside, and reaffirm her view that a partnership between the public and private sectors is the best way to regenerate our inner cities?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, particlarly about the need for more businesses — especially small businesses—to start up. It is vital that the local authority welcomes private enterprise and the operations of the private sector.
To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 10 November.
Is the Prime Minister aware of the anxiety expressed by Scottish parents, teachers and churches about the Government's school management proposals, which are designed more for England than for Scotland? Does she agree that, after a period of prolonged industrial dispute and massive curriculum changes, we require stability rather than divisive, alien ideas, which have been forced upon an unwilling population and on what is still arguably the best education system in Europe?
I believe that the Bill coming before the House concerning education in Scotland is designed to give parents more power and influence over their schools. That is a good thing to do and will be welcomed by many Scottish parents.
To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 10 November.
I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in terms of sustained growth and profitability, British industry is stronger now than it has been for 20 years? Will she further confirm that, in addition to making representations to the United States Government about reducing their budget, and, therefore, their trade deficit, representations should also be made to countries such as West Germany and Japan — which have practised unduly restrictive trade and monetary policies over the past few years—to avoid an unnecessary fall in world trade?
I agree with my hon. Friend that British industry is healthy, fit and flourishing, that its profitability is higher than it has been for many years and that it is exporting well, particularly manufactured products. With regard to the wider economic scene, it is absolutely vital that we first have decisions upon the deficit in the United States and how the President and Congress together propose to deal with it. I agree with my hon. Friend that as soon as we have that it is vital for there to be a meeting of the G7 countries and to get co-operation, especially from Japan and Germany, about what they and we can do to help implement the decision from the United States to restore confidence in the world economic community.
To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 10 November.
I refer the hon. Member to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Is the Prime Minister aware of the growing concern that NIREX, having failed to dump nuclear waste in East Anglia, is turning its attention to Scotland? However poorly the Prime Minister may think of us, does she accept that the people of Scotland will not tolerate the country being used as a dumping ground for Europe's nuclear waste?
As the hon. Member is aware, the question of how nuclear waste will be disposed of is still under consideration. He will also be aware that we all, including Scotland, have nuclear power stations. I am sure that he supports those nuclear power stations and also supports the interesting experiments at Dounreay into a different method of nuclear generation.
Data Protection Act 1984 (Amendment)
I beg to move,
Data protection is a complicated subject. Some people think it has its own language. [Interruption.]That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Data Protection Act 1984.
Order. If hon. Members are leaving the Chamber, will they please leave quietly?
The Minister last week described me as an aficionado on the subject for asking parliamentary questions and trying to extend the rights of individuals. Data protection is like a freedom of information right for individuals to see the computer records that are held on them. Access should be as wide as possible. Exemptions, restrictions and denial of access should be kept to a minimum. The Data Protection Act 1984 does not do that. It is much too narrow and seriously deficient in many respects.Tomorrow is data day when subject access will be available, but it will be far too expensive. For example, answers to parliamentary questions that I have asked show that someone may have to spend £900 to get information from the Department of Employment, £720 at the Scottish Office, £700 at the Home Office, £420 at the Welsh Office and £300 at Agriculture. As well there are loopholes. Some universities have already devised ways round the Act to ensure that students will not have access to examination marks to which they should be entitled. Already under the Act the new rights can be used to the disadvantage of the data subject. For example, an insurance company could require a data subject to obtain a copy of his own medical data before offering life insurance and treat the person as a bad risk or uninsurable if he did not supply the information. This will work to the detriment of data subjects. Also, under the Act access to one's personal information held on a computer is constrained by a multitude of subject access exemptions. There is no consistency or logic to justify what should be properly held. There needs to be a proper procedure for data subjects to check suspicions effectively. My thorough Bill will provide for that, will rectify many of the deficiencies in the Act and will make substantial improvements. I have had wide-ranging consultations with many groups to find the best compromise to improve the current Act. Last summer I distributed the first draft to many representative groups which are in contact with the registrar. The constructive comments I have received have been most helpful in drafting the revised Bill. I should like to thank all those who offered advice and support. For example, the Freedom of Information Campaign called the first draft of my Bill a very valuable reform. The Churches Main Committee told me that my reform of registration "would be welcomed" and the Institute of Data Processing Management said that the concept of using data codes of practice instead of registration was delightful. Even the National Computer Centre, although not agreeing with every point in the previous Bill, thought that some of my ideas were useful improvements. The main improvements put forward in my Bill are, first, that registrations will be necessary in relatively few cases. That aspect of the Bill should be attractive to small businesses, as it will remove at a stroke all the red tape, or should I say blue tape because the Act is a Tory creation, which businesses so frequently complain about. My Bill contains a list of categories of personal data and purposes that require to be registered, but for the first time they will embrace many public sector data records. These will relate only to the most sensitive personal datum, which is specified. Most businesses will not have to register, and so they will be relieved of bureaucratic arrangements. My Bill would allow statutory codes of practice to be introduced. The arguments about statutory or voluntary codes were dealt with by the Lindop committee. I agree with its conclusion—that bad apples, so to speak, might take advantage of non-regulatory regimes. Last year, the consumer protection legislation incorporated statutory codes of practice, and I have taken the opportunity to use the same wording. My Bill allows for a gradual change-over from registration to operation under codes of practice, which is favoured by industrial, commercial and public sector data users. These codes of practice will be supervised by and agreed with the data users to comply with the law; they will clarify the responsibilities of users. Properly adhered to, such codes of practice provide security for data users against prosecution and claims for compensation. Thus, the changes will bring benefits to data users, who will also have responsibilities. In particular, there will be a need to provide data subject access. In that respect, my Bill provides for stronger policing powers for the registrar, who is given power to undertake random spot checks, and to inspect personal data that are the subject of a complaint or a dispute. In addition, a data subject will be able to appeal to an independent data protection tribunal against the refusal of the registrar to serve an enforcement notice on a data user. I propose that the registrar will be able to use the new powers to scrutinise developments such as the Government's data network, the proposed poll tax registers, share and electoral registers, and even records of the security services and the police national computers, subject to proper safeguards. I frankly admit that these proposals are not likely to find favour with the Government, who have shown scant regard for civil liberties. They have Sarah Tisdall, Clive Ponting, Peter Wright and raids on the BBC on their record, so they almost certainly do not want to see legislation that might get in the way. However, we need a data protection watchdog with the ability to bite as well as bark, not one of the authoritarian fiefdoms that form part of this Government, who abuse the collection of personal data on computer. For the first time, my Bill will bring within the ambit of the Act personal data held on individuals for national security purposes. This will be done by allowing one of the data registrar's staff who has sufficiently high security clearance, or a member of the Security Commission, to investigate a complaint and make reports. My Bill, unlike the current Act, will ensure that data subjects will have an uncomplicated right of access to their personal data. Where an exemption applies, my Bill establishes a consistent test with which it must comply. The registrar, in the circumstances surrounding an access exemption, can inspect the data in question before deciding whether to allow access to it. A data user and a data subject can appeal to an independent data protection tribunal. The registrar, subject to issuing a warrant signed by a circuit judge, is given powers of inspection of any data user or computer installation, if he suspects a breach of the law and data protection principles. Instead of the subject access fee, which I have already said is exorbitant, my Bill provides for a maximum fee to be prescribed for all personal data held by a user. I get rid of the crazy non-disclosure provisions, which are complex and confusing, and fundamentally designed to deter people from realising that they can obtain computer information that is held on them. [Interruption.] I also provide an order-making power to extend those principles to manual records. The National Consumer Council has already said that some people are putting information on manual files to avoid the Data Protection Act and that should be stopped. My Bill is based on the Data Protection Act as far as possible, as many data users, as well as the registrar, have already established procedures to deal with the current legislation. [interruption.] But it improves it substantially and builds on that existing legal framework, experience and knowledge. It is a forerunner of future change in this area, and that may even be necessary in this parliamentary Session as the deficiencies in the Data Protection Act gather pace. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Gerry Steinberg, Mr. Robert N. Wareing, Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. Roland Boyes, Mr. Gareth Wardell, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Mr. Alan Meale and Ms. Joan Ruddock.
Data Protection Act 1984 (Amendment)
Mr. Harry Cohen accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Data Protection Act 1984: and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 15 January and to be printed. [Bill 51.]
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In presenting his ten-minute Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) had to battle against a chorus of noise for most of his speech. I and, I suspect, many other hon. Members who wished to hear what he was saying were prevented from so doing. The usual procedure is for Members to have 10 minutes, but if that tactic is to be pursued in this Session, will you, Mr. Speaker, extend the time so that Members can be heard in reasonable conditions?
The hon. Gentleman and the House will be aware that as Members left the Chamber immediately after Prime Minister's questions I drew attention to the need to leave the Chamber quietly. However, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I heard the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) perfectly clearly, and I am sorry if my microphones are stronger than those for other hon. Members.
Palace Of Westminster (Security)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you about the internal security of the Palace of Westminster? Two services now exist — the custodian and security service, and the police. It seems to be a growing practice for the custodian service — no insult to it — whose members cannot be as well trained as the police force, whose members have a rigorous training for some years, to replace the police force in some of the passages of the Commons that lead from the Members' Entrance. Do you agree that we should not diminish the power and right of the police in the Palace to save a few pounds by replacing them with a custodian service, good as it is, which is not as well trained as the British police force?
This is one service, under the control of the Head of Security. I shall look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman has said. Deployment is not really a matter for me, but I take note of what he has said.
House Of Commons (Services)
Before we start the debate, I should tell the House that I have selected all the amendments on the Order Paper. It might be for the convenience of the House if we had a general debate based on the main motion, although it will be perfectly in order for right hon. and hon. Members to draw attention to their amendments in the course of the debate.In addition, I have accepted a manuscript amendment to amendment (c) from the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd). At 7 o'clock I will call upon hon. Members to move their amendments formally in the order in which they appear on the Order Paper.
On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. May we know the terms of the manuscript amendment that you have decided to call?
Copies of the manuscript amendment are in the Vote Office. However, it may be for the convenience of the House if I state that the amendment reads:
"line 1, leave out 'research assistants' and insert 'Members' personal staff'".
I beg to move,
The threat of terrorism and the physical limitations of the Palace of Westminster raise issues which require debates in this House from time to time and on which it is appropriate for the House to seek the advice of the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services). Security is of the greatest importance. It does not need me, of all people, to remind the House of what terrorism means. Not only have we been shocked in recent days by a new outrage in Northern Ireland; this House has itself been the victim of terrorism, when the late Airey Neave was murdered in New Palace Yard and when Westminster Hall was damaged by a bomb. Hon. Members must be able to pursue their duties to their constituents and the country in safety, with a reasonable balance between the numbers of staff working in the Palace and the facilities available to them and other hon. Members in these historic buildings. I shall deal at once with the specific occasion for this debate—the suspension of the pass issued to a research assistant employed by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). The free and unescorted access to all parts of the precincts of the House conferred by a photo pass is a valuable privilege. Not only does it allow the holder to use the limited space and facilities of the House; it allows the holder to mingle with hon. Members and to pass unhindered through the building. There is, therefore, a clear threat if a pass should fall into the wrong hands. Mr. Speaker, you are charged personally with the responsibility on behalf of the House for the part of the Palace of Westminster that we occupy. The safety of hon. Members and of the staff who serve them is given the highest priority by you, by the House authorities and by the police, and in my view it is absolutely right that this should be so. The Serjeant at Arms has day-to-day responsibility for the security of the House, liaising with the police. The Serjeant is answerable to you, Mr. Speaker. Ultimately, of course, as your predecessor Speaker Lenthall said more than 300 years ago in a famous remark often recalled by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), you are the servant of the House. As you exercise your responsibilities to ensure the safety of the House, you are entitled to expect its support. A Speaker bears a heavy responsibility, and it is right that he should be free to call for advice as he thinks fit. You have confirmed, Mr. Speaker, that like your predecessors you have been advised on security matters by an informal committee including hon. Members drawn from both sides of the House, although I am sure that you are ready to listen to advice from any quarter where it may be offered. The Services Committee, for example, may take, and does take, security considerations into account in any advice it may give you and any recommendations that it may make. The arrangements made by the House authorities for regulating photo-identity passes have been much discussed in recent months.That this House endorses the application of the recommendation contained in paragraph 23 of the Second Report of the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) in Session 1984–85 (House of Commons Paper No. 195); and invites the Select Committee to consider the wider implications for control over access to the precincts of the House.
Will the Leader of the House accept that there is no dispute between hon. Members about the danger of terrorism? It did not take Sunday's tragedy for us to recognise that and, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, he has had tragic experience of the effects of actions by terrorists and their capabilities. Is it not a question of the Leader of the House trying to ensure that, if there is an adverse report on anyone intended to be employed by an hon. Member, that person should have some redress'? The divide between the Government and the Opposition is that that does not happen now and the Government do not intend to change that position? Therefore Mr. Bennett, who is considered to be unsafe and unworthy to be employed here, has no way of clearing his name. Is not that very important?
Of course, that is a very important issue, and I shall deal with it directly in my speech. However, I should prefer to deal with points in the sequence in which I have organised them in my speech.As I have said, the arrangements made by the House authorities for regulating photo-identity passes have been much discussed in recent months, but I hope that it will be for the convenience of the House if I draw attention to some of the key points now. First, passes have never been awarded lightly. Even before the introduction of the new photo pass system in 1982, the police carried out checks in cases where this was appropriate on applicants to whom passes had been issued. Second, although the term "vetting" has tended to be used in discussions of this procedure, it is misleading. The checks carried out by the police are not the same as the vetting procedures applied to civil servants and others concerning matters of national security. They are limited to checks which have a material bearing on the level of risk to the safety of these buildings and the people in them. Third, I should stress that the checks made in the past took place immediately after the issue of a pass. This was no doubt for the convenience of Members, who understandably preferred a new employee to have a pass without delay. However, the Services Committee did warn in its report of the problems that could arise from issuing passes before checks had been carried out. In the paragraph referred to in the motion, it recommended that a short delay should be accepted between application for and issue of a photo pass. This delay would permit the police to carry out their check before a pass was issued. The Committee recommended that Members should abide by the results of any adverse, and necessarily confidential, report that might be made on a particular application on behalf of an employee. The wisdom of that recommendation has been demonstrated by recent events. It is clearly far better for the checks to be carried out and any adverse result communicated privately to the Member concerned before a pass is issued.
Will the Leader of the House tell us exactly what are the criteria used to decide whether someone should or should not be given a pass? For example, there have been a good many young American students here, some of whom have worked for me. Were they checked to find out whether they were CIA agents? The same may apply to other people. What are those criteria?
The decision is made by Mr. Speaker, and the advice on which that decision is based is confidential. It is not for me to say—indeed, I do not know — what that advice is. It is for Mr. Speaker to decide whether he thinks that the applicant is a fit and proper person to have a pass and be allowed to come into the House.I know nothing of the particular evidence on which the advice given to Mr. Speaker in individual cases is based. Those matters are, as the Committee noted, necessarily confidential. I have complete confidence in the responsibility and professionalism of the police, who are well aware of the significance of their conclusions in matters of such sensitivity.
Normally, I would not dissent from what the right hon. Gentleman said about the professionalism of the police. However, the question that bothers a number of us is how what purport to be confidential police files or security service files from time to time end up, by some alchemy, in the hands of newspaper reporters. Is that done on an authorised basis? Is it done with or without ministerial authority? I would hate to think that it was done with such authority. How does such very sensitive information, which could be extremely damaging to individuals, find its way into newspapers?
Most of the leaks that occur from Government and other sources seem designed to damage rather than to support the Government. Nevertheless, no leaks that I know of have been authorised by Ministers or by anyone else. I regret such leaks as much as anyone when individuals are affected, and, as I stated a moment ago, I believe that such matters should be kept confidential. It is much better for the House and for the individuals involved if that is so.Fourth, and most important, I must emphasise one point on which I believe there should be no misunderstanding. There is no question of any interference on security grounds with a Member's right to employ whom he chooses as a secretary or research assistant. The hon. Member for Islington, North is free to go on instructing the Fees Office to apply his office costs allowance to pay Mr. Ronan Bennett for his services out of public funds. What is at issue is prudent control over the privilege of free, unescorted access to these buildings. It is necessary to balance the proper desire of Members to have their staff on hand every working hour of every day, if necessary, with the need to keep the level of risk to themselves, their colleagues and others in these buildings to the lowest practicable level. I turn now to the second limb of the motion, which invites the Services Committee to consider the wider implications. That brings me to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), which I am happy to support, In 1985, the Services Committee made a number of recommendations about the regulations governing research assistants with access to the House. These included a limit on the number of one particular category — temporary research assistants whom Members expected to employ for less than four months, to bring these more into balance with the capacity of the facilities of the House. The capacity of these facilities is, as we all know, limited. The parliamentary building programme is proceeding and the Services Committee's New Building Sub-Committee, in the last Parliament, published a report on the whole programme. Phase 1 of the Bridge street project is still on track to be completed by the end of 1990. This will provide not only a much-needed increase in the accommodation for Members and secretaries but also new Library and refreshment facilities. It is, however, clear that for the foreseeable future we shall have to contend with limited space and facilities for Members and their staff, working in a historic building that is designed for the needs of an earlier age. The number of research assistants in particular continues to cause concern to right hon. and hon. Members. In the report referred to in the motion, the Committee made clear its own concern at the rate of increase in the number of research assistants. It asked for regular reviews of the situation to be carried out. I recognise the pressure for a further look at this stage, and I look forward to hearing the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking, if he should be fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, later in the debate.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, as I represent the largest constituency in the House, with over 100,000 constituents, my parliamentary allowance is fully used up for secretarial purposes and that there are many hon. Members who believe that the employment of research assistants strikes at the heart of parliamentary democracy? Is it not time to banish political parasites from the House of Commons and to expect hon. Members to do their own research, which lies at the very heart of British democracy in this House?
I cannot go quite so far as my hon. Friend. I have never employed a research assistant, but I am sure that my hon. Friend could make his views known to the Services Committee, which would consider them. together with any other representations that he may wish to make.It would also be open to the Services Committee, in the course of such a review, to consider the representations that hon. Members may wish to make, whether on security grounds or otherwise, about other categories of people who have access to the House, on whatever terms. I am sure that the Committee will take note of any points that hon. Members raise in the debate, or with the Committee direct.
Is there not another aspect of this matter that the right hon. Gentleman has not touched on concerning so-called research assistants? He knows that there has been a large influx of this type of personality into the House and that some of us who have experienced their services have been rather less than happy with what they have offered and with what they have accomplished. A very serious problem that has not been raised in this regard is, how on earth can there be proper security vetting of the large number of people who are foreigners and whose background it is very difficult for the local police or anyone else to check?
That is a relevant question for the Services Committee when it is considering the recommendations that it will make on the number of research assistants the House should allow to be employed and the steps that should be taken to check on them.
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that for hon. Members, who work very hard, the use of research assistants to dig out facts and information is not only a positive benefit to our constituents but of great assistance to those of us who use their services for their intended purpose?
I would happily agree with the hon. Lady, unless by so doing I was being critical of her hon. Friend, who after his unfortunate experience some little while ago has managed quite well without research assistants.I come now to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). I recognise that it has been drafted in a responsible spirit. None the less, parts of its analysis and prescription are flawed, and I shall therefore ask the House to reject it. First, the arrangements for the security of the House are perfectly clear. Control is vested personally in the Speaker on behalf of the House. Secondly, judgments on security in the House are in the hands not of a branch of the Government but of the Speaker, who seeks advice as necessary from hon. Members, the Serjeant at Arms and the Metropolitain police. The Opposition amendment calls for consideration by the Privileges and Services Committees. I remind the House that the Government motion provides for wider implications to be considered by the Services Committee, which should meet the point of that part of the Opposition motion. With regard to privilege, the House is sovereign in such matters, and I believe that it will see no basis for referring the issue before us today to the Privileges Committee for its advice. I note that the amendment calls for the procedures permitting evaluation by the House of information furnished by the Metropolitan police. This point was made by the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds). I should tell the House — this point is where we may differ, so I shall choose my words carefully—that this information is likely to be of a nature that cannot be disclosed. But the main point, I repeat, is that the Speaker rightly has personal responsibility for our security, and it would be wrong for the House to overrule his judgment without calling into question the whole structure, or which I am quite clear is, although not perfect, better than the alternative that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has in mind.
The point about the disclosure of information is crucial. Hon. Members are entitled to know where the information came from and the basis for it. The House will hear from the Metropolitan police, but not from MI5 or MI6 unless the information is provided to the Privileges Committee or to hon. Members. That point is central to this issue.
In matters of security, the police should give confidential advice and their opinion to Mr. Speaker; he can then make a judgment on that advice. I do not believe that it is possible to reveal details of confidential security advice without damaging the security of the nation in an unacceptable way.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, this is the nub of the issue. It is perfectly possible for false allegations to be made about somebody. In the system that the right hon. Gentleman is advocating there is no way in which a false allegation can be checked, which is intolerable. I sincerely ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider that point. If someone's character can be blackened, the hon. Member concerned can have his character blackened. The allegation may be false, but there is no way in which it could be checked.
I have already said that these matters should be confidential. Therefore, there should not be any need for any public disclosure of an adverse report. Our security system requires confidential advice from the appropriate authorities to be given to the Speaker. It is not possible for such confidential advice to be referred to a Committee of Privy Councillors or any other Committee of the House. The advice must be confidential and given to the appropriate person.
Will the Leader of the House confirm that not one Member of the House, including Mr. Speaker, knows the details of the allegations made against this gentleman?
I am not in a position to confirm or deny it—I do not know.
Answer the question.
I will answer the question if the hon. Gentleman will keep quiet. I do not know the details of the allegations that have been made, and I am unaware of anyone else having details of it.
If the hon. Gentleman wants me to answer his question, he must shut up for a minute and I will do my best to answer it. I have no knowledge of this information. It is a matter of security, it is a matter for the Speaker and not for me.
This is an extremely important point because the right hon. Gentleman has said that he does not know any of these details. On a previous occasion Mr. Speaker has told us that he does not know any of these details. That is the curious position that we are in; nobody seems to know any of the details. Is that satisfactory?
We cannot run a security system unless the police and other authorities are trusted to bring forward confidential information on which the responsible person—in this case, Mr. Speaker——
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you confirm that you do not know the details of these allegations?
Order. This is for the House to debate. I have nothing to add to what I have said earlier on this matter.
I am also asking for the amendment of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield to be rejected. The right hon. Gentleman has a remarkable capacity for setting himself up as a defender of fundamental principles. Democracy, human rights — even the pure essence of Socialism — have all been the doubtful beneficiaries of his protection. On one matter I can agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The issue that lies behind today's debate is one of democracy and one that touches on the rights and privileges of the House and its Members.The right hon. Gentleman takes the view that hon. Members should have unfettered right to confer free access to the precincts of the House on whomsoever they wish. It is my belief that hon. Members on both sides of the House, proud and jealous though we be of the privileges that we enjoy, do accept that those privileges carry with them responsibilities. The House rightly accepts a limitation on its right to free speech where cases are sub judice. For example, you, Mr. Speaker, have warned us against the abuse of that privilege in making allegations against private citizens. In the difficult area that is the subject of today's debate, the House has placed its trust in you, Mr. Speaker by giving you discretion in this matter, bearing in mind your personal responsibility for security in the precincts of this part of the Palace of Westminster. That trust and discretion was vested in you when you were elected to the Chair by the democratic decision of the House. In accordance with that decision, you acted on advice in the interests of the security of all of us. You have the authority to make that decision. I ask the House to support the motion and in so doing to express its confidence not only in you, Sir, but in its own democratic procedures.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order to ask you whether the remarks made by the Leader of the House about your personal responsibility were cleared with you before he made them?
No speech in this place is cleared with the Chair. I am here to ensure that speeches are in order. The speech made by the Leader of the House was in order.
We must address many difficult issues, but the central question that we must try to answer relates to how a society which prides itself on being open and democratic responds to terrorism, the threat of terrorism and the fear of terrorism. Everyone must acknowledge that the existence of terrorism poses a threat to the safety of this building, the people in it, and Members of Parliament, when here and outside.Two terrorist explosions have shaken these premises in modern times; the bomb in Westminster Hall in 1974 and the device that killed Airey Neave in 1979. Since then, Robert Bradford has been shot dead at his advice surgery, and Anthony Berry has been killed in the Brighton bombing. In the explosion at the Grand hotel, the Leader of the House was seriously injured and his beloved wife was killed. The right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) was also seriously injured and his wife was cruelly maimed. Other hon. Members were hurt in the devastation at the hotel. Members of the Conservative party who were going about their political business were killed or injured. Everybody in the House has the utmost sympathy for the victims of violence and their relatives and friends. Many hon. Members of all parties represent constituents and even whole constituencies that have suffered grievously at the hands of terrorists. Those experiences deeply colour the views and responses of many hon. Members — indeed, all hon. Members. That is one reason why everyone in the House recognises the reality of terrorism. Everyone has a duty to prevent terrorists from securing their objectives, but it is from the desire to deny terrorists their objectives that our democratic dilemma stems. Assassination or arson may be the immediate object of a terrorist attack, but that is not the end of the story. The death or destruction that is directly caused by a terrorist is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Terrorists wish to bring about a reaction from those in authority, which reduces the openness of our society, undermines our democratic values and casts doubt on our judicial processes. They also seek a form of prestige — the prestige of being acknowledged to be a dangerous threat to the rest of us. We must bear terrorists' objectives in mind when deciding how to try to maintain the safety of the House and hon. Members. Whatever steps we take which may add a measure of safety will certainly curtail the arrangements and conventions that we treasure or used to treasure. If hon. Members consider the changes that have been made in the House—most hon. Members on both sides do not like those changes, but they have been adopted to make terrorists' tasks more difficult—they will see what I mean. I refer to identity cards—never popular in this country—the examination of baggage, visitors being put through metal detectors and explosive sniffers, the examination of vehicles before they enter the House, and the installation of green mesh security fencing, which would look more appropriate around a prison or an Army than around the ancient democratic House of Commons. Such measures may make it harder for terrorists to blow us up, but we can be certain that all of them have been chalked up by the IRA as symbols of how afraid it has made us. To us, such safety measures are a sign of our watchfulness. To the IRA and its friends the same measures are a sign of our fearfulness. There may be many people whose personalities lead them to take delight in being protected by the sort of measures that I have mentioned, but I am sure that delighting in security measures is not the right response in a democracy. We all know how non-democratic Governments respond. They counter terror with terror. Sometimes, we hear people say, with a touch of envy, "At least regimes like that know how to deal with terrorists. They have no inhibitions and consequently appear to have fewer problems." Because of our democratic instincts and institutions, we have more inhibitions and, consequently, more problems, but it is worth reflecting that, although many dictatorships have been undermined and have fallen as a result of terrorist methods in recent times, no democracy has fallen to terrorists. The strengths of democracies may be less apparent, but they are deeper and more lasting. We do best when we err on the side of caution in our response to terrorists. Most of us still prefer not to have generally armed police on the streets. Most of us are pleased that our Head of State and her family take some risks so that they can meet the people rather than be driven everywhere in closed bullet-proof limousines. Their behaviour is all the more admirable in view of their own direct bitter experience of the ruthless murder of Lord Mountbatten and some of his family. Hon. Members may think that this is a little above and beyond a discussion about whether to vet the people whom hon. Members choose to work for them as research assistants and secretaries, but I remind the House that all changes in and erosions of our usual arrangements come in tiny increments. No one proudly announces that we have just decided to dispense with a treasured aspect of our open society. Democratic practices drift into decay. Their departure is seldom signalled by those who make the decisions or even recognised by those on whose behalf the decisions are supposedly made. Most people accept some vetting of some people as a necessary evil, hut, however necessary vetting may be, I submit that it remains an evil. Vetting is ultimately authoritarian and counter-democratic. I do not seek to join any artificial dispute with Conservative Members. I am being careful and am not exaggerating when I say that. One of the basic concepts of democracy is that those in authority must account to the people for their actions. Vetting stands that concept on its head and requires the people to account to those in authority for their actions. I must confess that, when recent events made it necessary for me in my new job to find out about the security arrangements for hon. Members and the people who work in the House and how such arrangements have developed, each succeeding piece of information was generally more surprising than its predecessor. Most surprising of all was the fact that the security of the House has never been discussed at any length in modern times, least of all by the House itself. Arrangements have just grown up, and the process, although not secret, has not been open. We have ended up with arrangements that have received little or no overt authority from the House, put you, Mr. Speaker, in an invidious position, leave security decisions in the hands of a branch of Government, and can undermine the civil liberties of individuals by providing no redress for any person accused of being a threat to the security of the House.
Does the hon. Gentleman concede that effective security depends in large measure on those who might breach it without knowing its arrangements? There is a real difficulty in following the path that the hon. Gentleman wishes us to follow by saying that we should be open about our security. Does he recognise the inherent contradiction in that aspect of his argument?
I have tried to make it clear throughout that there is an inherent dilemma — an inherent contradiction—in any open democracy which tries to deal with terrorism. Opposition Members do not advocate that every measure that is taken in an effort to make this place safer should be disclosed to possible enemies of democracy. We do not suggest that the location and operation of devices such as television cameras should be disclosed. However, other aspects of our security system would benefit from proper evaluation by the House and I shall suggest some of them later.
Does my hon. Friend agree that an additional argument is that a number of the other democratic countries that have faced terrorist threats have structures that are much more open and democratic than ours but those countries have not been trapped into the dangerous degree of secrecy in which this country has become involved at times?
I agree with my hon. Friend, although if we consider the spectrum of democracies and the way in which Parliaments conduct themselves, we find that some are much more fortress-like than our own while others are rather more open.As the Leader of the House said, we now know that all the staff of the House are vetted before they are appointed and that all research assistants and secretaries are vetted after they are appointed. That practice began in the 1970s and was made more systematic with the aid of a computer in 1982. However, the arrangements were not thought through. Recent events have revealed that no procedure was established to deal with circumstances in which the security services advised that they thought that someone was a security risk. That is rather like having an emergency procedure that works well except when there is an emergency. The House may feel that the time has come for more formal and accountable arrangements. I come now to the question of Mr. Ronan Bennett who was apponted as a research assistant by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) in August this year. He was duly issued with a photo pass and filled in his declaration of interest form. Then, with great publicity, he was fingered by the security services. The event raises a number of important issues that affect us all. Twelve years ago, Mr. Bennett was convicted by a single-judge Northern Ireland court of the murder of a Royal Ulster Constabulary inspector. Thirteen months later, he was freed when the Appeal Court quashed the conviction. Two years after that he was arrested in Yorkshire by the special branch and served with an exclusion order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. After two weeks, the order was quashed. In 1979, Mr. Bennett was charged with conspiracy to rob, and found not guilty at the Old Bailey. In short, the highest courts which have considered accusations against Mr. Bennett have set him free. He has not been found guilty of any offence. Under the laws of this country he is innocent of the crimes with which he was charged. People are innocent until found guilty. If found not guilty, they are innocent. That fundamental point is a vital thread in the very fabric of our society and has been a point of pride for the people of this country for hundreds of years. It is a vital part of the rule of law which should not be ignored or set aside by any man or woman or any branch of government, still less challenged in this freely elected democratic House of Commons. It is one of the basic liberties which it is the duty of all of us to uphold.
Is the hon. Gentleman really telling the House that only a person who has been convicted of a crime in the courts in this country or elsewhere can be considered a threat to the security of this place?
Had the hon. Gentleman waited but a moment he would have heard what I have to say about that. In deference to the hon. Gentleman I say that I know that matters are more complicated. The fact that one has been found not guilty cannot prove that one is not a security risk. However, if the only thing that the security services have against Mr. Bennett is the record that I have just related, Opposition Members do not believe that it can or should be used to justify excluding Mr. Bennett. It could be—I say "could" because I do not know; like all hon. Members I have no evidence—that Mr. Bennett is a security risk. He could be using his access to these buildings to put our safety at risk. However, until evidence to that effect is provided Opposition Members are not prepared to support his permanent exclusion on the basis of his known record.The motion asks us to endorse the application of a recommendation of the Services Committee made in January 1985. I am afraid that I cannot invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it. The recommendation was patently not applied in Mr. Ronan Bennett's case. One crucial aspect of the recommendation—included by the Committee in an effort, no doubt, to add an element of equity — was that an hon. Member whose would-be researcher or secretary was the subject of an adverse and confidential report on his or her security status should be told and that the hon. Member should be given the opportunity to decide whether to accept the advice or make representations. In the case of Mr. Ronan Bennett, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North was neither informed in confidence nor given an opportunity to consider what to do next. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the News of the World was informed in confidence so that the first that my hon. Friend heard of the security services' objection to Mr. Bennett's having a pass was when he was told by a News of the World reporter, who claimed that the security services' information had been made available to him. That is quite unacceptable. I must ask you, Mr. Speaker, together with the Lord Chancellor, who shares your responsibilities——
I would like to finish this point. After that, I may give way to the hon. Gentleman or I may not.I would ask you, Mr. Speaker, together with the Lord Chancellor, who shares your responsibility for the safety of the Palace of Westminster, to undertake an inquiry into the identity of the person who passed the information to the News of the World. If, between you, you do not have the resources to conduct such an inquiry, I must ask the Prime Minister, as head of the security services, to institute an inquiry into the leak, to report promptly and frankly to the House on its findings and to dismiss the person responsible from the public service. The Prime Minister has justified the legal actions relating to the book "Spycatcher" on the ground that its author was bound for ever by his oath of secrecy. The person who leaked the information about Ronan Bennett to the News of the World was bound by the same obligation of perpetual secrecy. Surely that obligation is all-embracing. It cannot be dispensed with just because it suits someone to dispense with it. The leak to the News of the World raises a number of questions, not least whether some of those involved were more concerned with lining their pockets or getting bad publicity for a particular hon. Member belonging to a particular party than with the security and safety of the House.
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a curious contradiction in his argument? At one moment he expects everyone automatically to agree that evidence offered in court should not be disclosed, while at the next he says that if an individual is refused access to the House on the basis of confidential information that information should be disclosed. Surely information supplied to Mr. Speaker by the security services, the police or any other agency is supplied on the basis that it will remain confidential. Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that if such information is disclosed it is likely to put lives at risk?
It is a general requirement in our courts—particularly the criminal courts—that evidence should be pleaded in public, and most people think that that is a good thing. We recognise that it is not necessarily of benefit for information from the security services to be widely spread, despite the efforts of the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) from time to time.I believe that if the House chose—and it would be the House which chose—the members of a committee to have access to confidential information of that nature, we should have sufficient faith in the people we chose to be sure that the information would remain confidential. That is what I would hope. There are other objections to the Government's motion——
There is another aspect of this matter that my hon. Friend has not touched upon. In view of Mr. Bennett's known record, is it not less surprising that the security services fingered him than that a Member of Parliament appointed him?
I do not wish to bandy curiosities with my hon. Friend, but there is a further curiosity : that is to suggest that an organisation, even one as inept as the IRA, would select Mr. Ronan Bennett as a secret agent.There are other objections to the Government's motion that I hope are made clear in our amendment. First, we believe that responsibility for the safety of the House and those who work in it must be left to the informed decisions of the House itself. A freely elected Parliament is clearly not properly discharging its duties if it becomes dependent on the unsubstantiated assertions of any branch of the Executive. When those assertions affect the privileges of the House and the rights of individual hon. Members it is imperative that they should be subjected to the informed scrutiny of the House. That is not a point of parliamentary self-importance but literally a point of parliamentary rights. The sovereignty of Parliament is basic to the rule of law and we must have total sovereignty over our own affairs. It is also our view that the physical safety of hon. Members and others working in the Palace of Westminster should be the only consideration in the scrutiny or vetting of any person concerned with this place. Assessments of the political suitability of someone seeking access to this place must be left to the electorate alone.
Is it not a fact that one of the problems is that many of us do not trust the judgment of the special branch? For example, there was the case of Madeleine Haig in Sutton Coldfield who simply wrote a letter to a local newspaper saying that she supported nuclear disarmament. She was checked out by the special branch. Her Member of Parliament, a member of the Cabinet, was lied to about that check. When we know that the special branch is making misjudgments of that sort we need a system to check the basis of its vetting.
I agree with my hon. Friend. However, the fact that we must require information from the security services to maintain our position as a free Parliament would apply even to those hon. Members who have absolute faith in the accuracy of anything that the security services do. It is a matter not of practicality but of principle.I believe that the Leader of the House accepts that there can be no suggestion that hon. Members cannot employ who they wish. That must be a question for individual hon. Members. I agree that we must all recognise the fact of life that the access that researchers or secretaries have to the House means that their action could have an impact on the safety of others working there. Therefore, I believe that rules governing the appointment of people with access to this place are a proper matter for the whole House and cannot be left to each individual hon. Member. We have a duty one to another. If any vetting procedure is operated——
Is not it clear that if somebody intends to come into the House deliberately to plant a bomb and becomes a research assistant or a member of the staff he would never say who or what he was? It would be like Willy Brandt's secretary, who was an agent for East Germany. Herr Brandt did not know that he was an agent and neither did anybody else, except the individual concerned. On that basis, if people are serious about coming here they will do it without us, the security services or anyone else. Therefore, the people who come as research assistants and in other jobs and tell us who they are have a right to be employed, as long as we are satisfied.
I agree with my hon. Friend because he said "as long as we are satisfied." I take the view that it is a matter of the House laying down rules as a freely elected assembly and that those rules must apply to any aspect of the conduct of the House that could have an adverse effect on other hon. Members. Whatever doubts people may have about vetting processes, which as we all know are notoriously slipshod and unsatisfactory——
I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's line of argument. From what he said prevously, I assume that he does not intend that issues involving a dispute about the security rating of an individual should be debated by the House in the open. However, would he tell us what body of the House should have the delegated responsibility for considering such matters?
The hon. Gentleman will find that my logic appears to tally with his. I am coming to that point.If a vetting procedure is operated and the Metropolitan police make an adverse report on someone that an hon. Member wishes to appoint, they should make a confidential report to the hon. Member concerned. If, on the basis of that report, the hon. Member decides not to proceed with the appointment, that should be the end of the matter. However, if the hon. Member is not satisfied, he or she should be able to appeal to you, Mr. Speaker, and you should determine that appeal after seeking the advice of a specially established Committee of the House, to which the police would have to produce evidence to justify their adverse report. We recognise that that might pose problems for the police, but it is the least that could be expected of a Committee of the House advising on the rights of an individual hon. Member and who should have access to this place. There are alternatives to vetting. For example, the European Assembly requires everyone, including Members and staff, to pass through metal detectors and baggage examination at the entrance every time they enter the building. That approach to security may be more or less acceptable to hon. Members, but it would be valuable for the Services Committee to look into the advantages and disadvantages of various alternative approaches so that the House could make an informed judgment. The major part of our concern for safety must be for those working in the House, bearing in mind that the 1974 bomb exploded in a staff canteen and that such threats as letter bombs would be likely to do more harm to staff than to hon. Members. At present, all those working in the House, including the people in the Press Gallery, are vetted. I believe that whatever security measures are taken should he discussed with the representatives of the people concerned, including the representatives of the people in the Press Gallery. If any vetting procedure is operated for all those working here, there should be appropriate machinery to enable persons affected to appeal. In no case can it be acceptable for people to be rejected anonymously by the security services. We have to look to the safety and civil liberty of all the people working here, just as in all our deliberations we have to look to the safety and civil liberty of our people. In short, we do not think that endorsing the January 1985 recommendation of the Services Committee is an adequate response. After all, the Committee's recommendation formed but one paragraph out of 28 in a report on the overcrowding problems caused by an upsurge in the number of researchers. The report was never discussed by the House. Given everyone's doubts—I mean everyone's — about retrospective legislation, it would be unfortunate to give retrospective approval to a matter affecting the rights and privileges of the House and individual hon. Members. However, we wish most earnestly to see this matter given, for the first time, the thorough and informed scrutiny that it deserves. That is why we recommend that the matters of principle should be referred to the Privileges Committee and the practicalities to the Services Committee to ensure the maximum physical safety for hon. Members and others who work in the Palace of Westminster, compatible with the need to preserve the rights of hon. Members, and free access to this free House of Commons. The safety of this place and of the people in it is a matter for us and for us alone. It must not be a matter for the Executive arm. still less for the security services. Our proposal would bring the matter back within the authority of the House and maintain the rights and privileges that are necessary to a free Parliament. However, as the Leader of the House said, with those rights go duties. We have a duty to all the people who work for the House or for individual hon. Members. We have a duty to ourselves and to one another. We have a duty to secure the safety of the House because it is a symbol of our democracy, and its injury would cause rejoicing among the enemies of democracy. We have a duty to frustrate the intentions of terrorists. We can help to discharge that duty by ensuring that the House is not a soft target. However, we can best discharge that duty if, at the same time, we have the courage and confidence to accept some risks in maintaining the open institution and practices of our democracy, for whose preservation thousands of our people, of all political persuasions, have laid down their lives in wars against the enemies of democracy. We must stick up for democracy; we must make ourselves safe. But we must also maintain our ancient liberties.
This is an important debate, but it is not about the freedom of Members of Parliament to speak, to vote, to enter this Chamber, or to conduct their activities in Committees. The debate is about only one thing—the control of the issue of passes to persons who are employed not by the House but by individual hon. Members who wish that employee not only to be employed by them, but to have uncontrolled access to the precincts of the House.If the proposition were that the Government or the security forces should have the right to decide who should or should not be issued with such a pass, I should be among those hon. Members who would say no to it. The House of Commons must trust somebody, but the question is whom it should trust. There was a time when the office of Speaker was used as a depository for unsuccessful Ministers. It was regarded as being in the gift of the Government as a reward for political service in the Cabinet. I am happy to say that Back Benchers, not Front Benchers, have ensured that that is no longer the case. Back-Bench Members have reasserted—not before time—the right—they always had the power—to choose as their Speaker the Member in whom they reposed their trust, rather than to acquiesce in the desire of the Government of the day to reward one of their faithful servants with the office of Speaker. It is entirely within the power of the House to preserve that reality, and the House will neglect it or allow it to fall into desuetude at its peril. As we are conducting this debate in the circumstances that I have described, and as all hon. Members agree that the matter is important, my answer to the question, "In whom should the House repose its trust?" is, "In its elected Speaker." He carries that heavy responsibility and it is one from which he can never escape while he is Speaker of this House. Indeed, there are other responsibilities from which he can never escape while Speaker. The consequences of his decisions will continue after he has ceased to be Speaker of this House. As we have been reminded, it took Parliament and the House of Commons many generations to establish certain important phenomena. The independence of the office of Speaker was historically late in coming. That independence did not always exist, although, as I have pointed out, the recovery of the right of Back-Bench Members to choose whomsoever they believe fit to occupy that office has been recent. In exercising that onerous duty, I have no doubt that Mr. Speaker would come to the House if questions that he wished to ask were not answered. It is inconceivable that he would not do so.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Yes, but I must finish this line of argument before doing so.If Mr. Speaker is to get at the truth in matters of security, it is necessary that the source of his information that satisfies him in that unique performance of a duty to the House, cannot be publicly revealed or questioned. Similarly, there have been many decisions by previous Speakers over the years that the House has come to accept as decisions that must not be challenged. The House can have redress by putting down a motion of censure if it disagrees with his decisions or actions. However, there are certain decisions and responsibilities, including the processes that lead up to the decisions, that are not open to question by the House while the House reposes its confidence in him as Speaker.
I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument, but surely that places Mr. Speaker in a difficult and invidious position? If Mr. Speaker is given the total authority to decide, on the basis of information that was presumably given by the security authorities, there would he no right of appeal. It is most unlikely that Mr. Speaker would be in a position, or would wish to he in a position, to speak to the House on that issue. Therefore, as the hon. Gentleman has just said, the only course would be the unfortunate one of a censure motion on Mr. Speaker. What is wrong with having an appeals machinery along the lines that were set out in the amendment that was tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson)?
I agree that Mr. Speaker is in a difficult position in this matter. But he is in a difficult position on many matters that fall to him for decision. The fact that a question is difficult does not mean that it will go away. The fact that it is so crucially difficult is the nub of this debate. Experience of the past 25 years has not satisfied hon. Members on both sides of the House that Committees are leak-proof. We all know that they are not. However hard we try to preserve confidentiality in Select Committees on certain issues, we know that it is an imperfect system. In most matters it is not a question of life and death if there is a leak, although there may be ill consequences. In security matters, however, it can be exactly that. That is why confidentiality becomes more important when sources of information are revealed, and the source of the information is at risk of assassination.
The hon. Gentleman is missing the point, which is not that it is a difficult decision for Mr. Speaker —we all accept that—but that the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends are asking Mr. Speaker to take responsibility with what is at best inadequate knowledge.
I have no reason to suppose that the basis upon which Mr. Speaker would take such a decision is any more inadequate than if the responsibility were shared by three other hon. Members. There is nothing inherent in numbers that produces accuracy. At the end of the day, where should the responsibility reside? It resides either with Mr. Speaker, or with a Committee. Since the matter was first raised I have given it considerable thought and my opinion is that the best, though not the perfect, solution would be to entrust this decision, so that it is taken as impartially as possible though not infallibly, to the person to whom, above all others, we entrust so many crucial decisions. That is Mr. Speaker.
The House is aware that we are having this debate on the morrow of the horrific killings at Enniskillen. The debate was opened by the Leader of the House who has suffered personally, as his wife was the victim of an earlier murder, and it takes place in a Chamber which has lost two hon. Members and has been the subject of attack in the past. We must also consider that we are responsible for the safety of all people who work here all the time, whether or not they are hon. Members. Those facts are bound to be in the forefront of today's debate.I am all the more grateful to you. Mr. Speaker, for selecting amendment (a), in line 1, leave out from 'House' to end and add:
It is necessary now, more than at almost any other time, to reaffirm the freedom of individuals and the rights of hon. Members and those who elect them. A great deal has been said about confidentiality and the need to preserve it. Anyone who has read Mr. Peter Wright's book will know that:'rejects the recommendation in the Second Report of the Services Committee, Session 1984–85, on security, on the grounds that it would infringe the principles of Parliamentary democracy, under which electors must have the right to elect the Members whom they choose, and honourable Members must have an equal right to employ whoever they wish to assist them with their Parliamentary duties; knows of no powers that this House has, has ever had, or could legitimately, take or assume, to determine who may work for an honourable Member in the Palace of Westminster; believes that the withdrawal of the pass issued to Mr. Ronan Bennett has publicly, and unjustly, identified him as a potential threat to national security, without any evidence having been disclosed, or any hearing or trial, whereby he, personally, has suffered a serious injury; warns that, if the security services are permitted to vet any person, including staff, lobby correspondents, or honourable Members, and effectively veto them, fundamental civil and democratic liberties will be eroded to the point where those affected would become licensed by the Crown, its ministers and servants, thus reversing centuries of struggle by the people of the United Kingdom through this House to gain control of the Executive, and hold it accountable for its actions; and therefore demands the immediate restoration of the pass to Mr. Ronan Bennett, and the complete discontinuation of the present, and wholly unauthorised, practice of vetting those who work in, and for, this House and its Members'.
When it comes to security, the greatest leakers in the country are the security services. There have been journalists who have made a living by being the recipients of the views of dissatisfied security officers, especially when those officers have not got their way with Ministers. How did the House imagine the first account of Mr. Ronan Bennett appeared in two newspapers owned by the same proprietor on 6 September? They were put there by somebody in the security services who wished to have the effect that he or she must now manifestly feel has been satisfied by subsequent events. You, Mr. Speaker, exercising the responsibilities that have been referred to by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), withdrew the pass from Mr. Bennett and acted in a way that you no doubt regarded as right. If I understand your answer, Mr. Speaker, on 5 November you said:"Facsimile copies of some files were made and distributed to overseas newspapers, and the matter was to be raised in Parliament to maximum effect."
I take that to mean that you did not think it right or proper, or did not choose, to see the full report from the security services. If I am wrong I hope that I will be corrected. I presume that you were advised, Mr. Speaker, of its import by your principal adviser, the Serjeant at Arms, who is not an elected person or a servant of the House as a whole in that respect. My fear and the reason why my hon. Friends and I tabled this amendment is that your decision, Mr. Speaker, identified Mr. Bennett as a security threat without giving him, or my hon. Friend, the opportunity of defence or providing any independent assessment of evidence in accordance with the most basic principles of British law, upon which my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) touched so convincingly. Mr. Bennett is now completely unemployable and, unless we decide otherwise today, the House will share the responsibility for the decision to make him unemployable, also without seeing any of the evidence whatever—not one Member of the House has seen any of the evidence. I believe that our amendment for the restoration of Mr. Bennett's pass would be fully justified by any objective test of justice and fair play for that, if not for any other reason. The issue raised by this case goes far beyond the position of Mr. Bennett. It touches upon the right of electors to choose whom they want to represent them in the House and upon the right of Members, once elected, to select those they wish to work for them in this place. It is not for the majority in this House to determine what minorities may do, because when the tables are turned I can visualise circumstances when Conservative Members might be the first to resist the application of the principle that they now so loquaciously uphold."That evidence was not seen." — [Official Report, 5 November 1987; Vol. 121, c. 1080.]
I shall give way when I have finished this point.It so happens that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) employed Mr. Bennett in part to assist him in establishing the innocence of the Guildford four. The question of the Birmingham six is now, at the instance of the Home Secretary, before the Court of Appeal. Those people were convicted on the morrow of the Birmingham bombing, when the attachment to impartiality and the application of justice, as the court may hear, may be the hardest to sustain.
I wish to finish before I give way.The question that I must ask myself—I am bound to—is would the security services, which no doubt played some part in bringing about the prosecution and conviction of the Guildford four, be pleased that the hon. Member for Islington, North had a person assisting him who was engaged in trying to show that they were wrong? There are obvious motives in this as well.
I am cautious of interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but can he tell the House whether there are any circumstances in which he feels people should not be allowed to be employed in the House by a Member of Parliament? Is he saying that there should be a carte blanche? Nobody is saying that a Member of Parliament cannot employ an individual, but what is being said is that a Member of Parliament must have recourse to information, information that came before Mr. Speaker in this case, as to whether that individual can work on the premises.
The principle is straightforward. If an individual seeks a Civil Service appointment the Government, as the employer, can apply what restrictions or vetting they wish. If a Member of Parliament decides to employ somebody, he or she is entitled to employ whomsoever they wish, so long as that person is not disqualified by law or any conviction.
I shall not give way again.I know of no law in Britain, no Standing Order of this House and no precedent in parliamentary history that empowers the House or the Speaker to lay down who is to work for an elected Member. There is no authority whatever for the decision that led to the withdrawal of Mr. Bennett's pass. Indeed, I might add that the informal advisory committee set up more than 10 years ago—I remember it very well because I was a member of the Cabinet at the time—to examine and report upon the Starritt report on the physical safety and security of the Palace and to which you referred, Mr. Speaker, has never been formally approved or its members elected by the House. Therefore, it carries no authority, and it is not even clear whether it played a role in the Bennett case. Even the recommendation in paragraph 23 of the Services Committee report 1984–85, which we are invited to endorse, has never been accepted by the House, nor does it have any bearing on this case, because even if the motion is carried the ban on Mr. Bennett was not applied according to the procedure that the Services Committee recommended. In this case the basis of the ban came from the Crown and its servants in the form of the security services. The information that those services receive is not normally available even to the Home Secretary. If the House looks at the Maxwell-Fyfe directive of 24 September 1952 it is laid down clearly that the Home Secretary does not expect to be informed. Therefore, we are not dealing with the Executive in its accountable form through Ministers, but in its wholly unaccountable form through the security services.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way at the moment.There is not even the most tenuous link of accountability to this House, through a Minister, for the security services and what they do. Questions about the security services are not allowed to be tabled or are disallowed by you, Mr. Speaker.
Will the right hon. Gentleman find time to address himself to what I consider to be the impeccable logic of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) in respect of the ultimate authority and responsibility of Mr. Speaker to take what advice he can and from where? Surely that must be right. The House of Commons must, in the end, give authority and respect to some individual or body. I believe that my hon. Friend has put forward arguments to which the right hon. Gentleman has not addressed his mind.
As a matter of fact, I am glad that the hon. Member for Tiverton raised the 17th century question because Mr. Speaker Lenthall, whom I have often quoted. in this House, said:
The House has never directed the Speaker to take away the right of a Member to choose his servant, so the Lenthall case works my way. What has happened now is that the Crown, in the person of the security services, has come, not to arrest the five Members, but to arrest one research assistant. I believe that Mr. Speaker did not respond in a manner that I believe that the House might, on reflection, think would have been best. The House does not know for certain what is the definition of a security risk. The only one I know is contained in Lords Hansard of 26 February 1975 in column 947 when Lord Harris of Greenwich gave a description that covered almost anything. Essentially the definition of what is a security risk is political, for everything else is criminal. If a person is guilty of an act contrary to the laws of the state he can be brought to the courts by prosecution. A security risk is someone who cannot be brought to the courts, but who is politically unacceptable. Anyone who has had any experience of the security services as a Minister knows full well that the security services take a highly, almost totally, political view of what is a security risk. For example, when I was Minister of Technology I acquired the vetting responsibility of the old Ministry of Supply over officials in Whitehall and I saw some of the files. Later, as Secretary of State for Industry, I was told that Jack Jones, who was then the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, was considered a security risk. I was told that Hugh Scanlon, who was then president of the AEU, was considered a security risk. We know from Cathy Massiter that people who favoured a non-nuclear defence policy are considered a security risk. The Government are still fighting to prevent such people, even when hon. Members, from being able to question Ministry of Defence officials. The most ludicrous example is that of Mr. Peter Wright, who said that when he was with the service the Prime Minister of the day was considered a Soviet agent. Is any hon. Member going to tell me that that was not a political decision? Trade unionists, activists in the Labour movement and those who campaign for peace are considered security risks in the minds of those who work in the security services. That is the background against which we have to look for understanding. If we endorse the vetting of research assistants, we are endorsing the vetting of Members. It is an absolute, manifest, principle of vetting that, to get an adequate response on vetting, one has to contact or observe the relations between the person one is watching and that person's closest associates. Who could be closer to a research assistant than the Member who has employed him? If the House does not challenge that, we shall be authorising the interception of Members' letters and telephone calls, making elected Members' staff and lobby correspondents, who, through their union as well as individually, have an interest, into persons "licensed" by the Crown before they can perform their duties. That argument was developed by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. The use of the term "security" can be extended to cover almost anything about the Government of the day, whichever party is in government. This works both ways and, although it may seem strange, I am defending the rights of future minorities in the House against future majorities—forming a Government who might wish to deny matters to be discussed. For example, it was on security grounds that the Zircon film was banned and the BBC raided. It was essentially on security grounds that Peter Wright's book, in which he alleged illegalities on a massive scale, was suppressed by the High Court. It was by the use of the sub judice rule that the House was prevented from even discussing it. Security prevents Members from asking questions about GCHQ or the security services. Even though some of the books being asked about were written by Members of the House, they cannot be pursued in Parliament. Members of Parliament are in danger of being licensed only to discuss what Ministers want them to discuss. We accept that principle at our peril."May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."
The right hon. Gentleman is saying : "Love me, love my friend". He said that anybody we choose must automatically be a good person, otherwise we are being vetted. Is the right hon. Gentleman certain that he has never chosen an unreliable, disloyal or untrustworthy friend? Why is it so bad to have that person put to a reasonable test to see whether the Member's judgment is right? Members are not always infallible, as the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting.