HC Deb 04 December 1969 vol 792 cc1838-50

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I can fairly say that neither by background, by temperament nor by heredity, am I the sort of person who would ever be likely to have a temperamental sympathy for a spy, and even less so would the party to which I have the honour to belong.

Hon. Members may therefore ask why, for a period of some months, I have persistently sought to deal with the case of Ethel Gee. I have never set eyes on this woman, and I am glad that I have not done so, because it makes my comments all the more impersonal. It is a tradition of this House that an hon. Member owes a duty to all his constituents; and if one of them be an aged woman, a captive, in misery or in peril, receiving harsh treatment, in frail health or has sinned, so much the stronger is that duty, certainly to put her case, for if that case is not put by him it will not be put by anybody else in the world.

The year 1961 was an unusual one. Two unmarried women civil servants were convicted in criminal courts of disloyalty. Both were in their 40s or 50s. Both fell in love. One was a top civil servant drawing £3,800 a year, and she was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for revealing to a diplomat of an Eastern Power confidential diplomatic documents over a long period. The other, a junior clerk, was 46 years of age and was also dominated by her lover. She passed defence documents, which she clearly should not have done, in a way which was criminal, and she was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment.

Throughout history women in love have, through their emotions, been guilty of this sort of crime, and, naturally, punishments have fallen on them. I believe that most courts have taken—I will not stress this point—a slightly more lenient view towards what they have done than towards what their lovers, or men, have done.

I need hardly outline the crimes, because they are so well known. Naval secrets were sold from Portland to a foreign Power, Russia. However, I must outline the penalties, which were inflicted by the Lord Chief Justice. He described Lonsdale as the master-mind and sentenced him to 25 years' imprisonment. He sentenced both the Krogers to 20 years, while Houghton, on whom I will not dwell, and Ethel Gee, on whom I shall dwell, were given 15 years.

The Lord Chief Justice heard the case, saw these people, heard the cross-examination, and that was his assessment of their relative guilt. I accept his verdict, and had that verdict remained I would not have raised this matter in debate. The political interference with those sentences that subsequently took place is that of which I complain, and it is the inequity that that has caused which I must condemn.

First, however, a comment about the treatment of Ethel Gee in prison. Hon. Members will agree that a prisoner is a defenceless person. For that very reason, I would like to think that any promise or undertaking given to a prisoner would be scrupulously fulfilled. On arrival in prison Ethel Gee was told that if she was a co-operative prisoner she would, in due course, receive her reward. She was, in fact, a model prisoner, and I believe that the Home Office will confirm that. After four years, she did see her reward. In 1965, she was sent to Styal open prison. She was given a study bedroom, with a radio. In one of the letters which she was allowed to write to a friend outside, she said that she was overwhelmed with delight. Presumably, the prison authorities thought that by her conduct she had earned that degree of relaxation.

It was unfortunate that at that point Blake, who never had any kind of connection with Ethel Gee and was totally unknown to her, happened to escape from a different prison. As a result, all Ethel Gee's privileges were withdrawn. She was removed at immediate notice from Styal and sent to Holloway. She was there put in a cell, her radio was removed, and a naked light was kept burning in her cell day and night for many many weeks.

On that, I comment thus—and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will mention it in his reply. First, it was a breach of faith to Ethel Gee. Even in the existing circumstances, I argue not so much that the Home Office was inhumane as that it was singularly silly. Either by sending her to Styal, an open prison out of which she could have walked whenever she chose, the Home Office showed gross negligence, or by sending her to Holloway it showed needless severity. It can take its choice as to which of those descriptioins it thinks it deserves. I say only that the Home Office should not play cat and mouse with a prisoner in that way.

It was at that point that Ethel Gee wrote to me, and I wrote to the Home Office. By now, I think, the Home Office was a little shamefaced. In January 1967, Lord Stonham wrote to me to say that her radio would be restored. That was it—her radio "would be restored", without qualification. With Home Office consent, I told Ethel Gee that this would happen, and hence I became involved in bad faith, too, which I resent. Four months later, her radio had not been restored. Again I wrote.

In May 1967—how many months was it after it was first removed?—I was told that she would have her radio "in about five weeks". She did not receive it in five weeks, although, again, I had written and told her, on the authority of the Home Office, that she would. In October of that year—I think that she actually had the radio a little earlier, perhaps in August—I was finally officially told that it had been returned to her.

To us, a radio seems a small matter. To a prisoner it is not. But I am not concerned to argue in this debate whether Ethel Gee should be in Styal or in Holloway, should have a radio or should not, should have a naked light in her cell day or night or should not. But I do argue that, if assurances are given to her—I have quoted the three separate points—it is wrong for the Home Office not to fulfil the promises which it gives.

The argument is that she is an escape risk. There can be no other argument. May we spare a moment to examine that? This is a woman of 54. Her nearest relative is a aunt of 82. Was the escape to be organised by her relatives, or is it suggested that it would be organised by some eastern Power? Let us consider that. The Government themselves had already sent the major criminal, Lonsdale, back to Moscow, and they have sent Kroger back to Poland. Is it tenable that the pawn in the initial conspiracy could conceivably have any information which would be of value to a foreign enemy? Where, therefore, does the risk of escape lie?

Having sketched in a little of the background, I come now to the major point. At the end of July 1969, the Foreign Secretary annnounced that the two Krogers would be freed in exchange for Gerald Brooke. Lonsdale had already been freed in exchange for Greville Wynne. So what happened to the Lord Chief Justice's original sentences? Lonsdale free after serving less than one-eighth of the period to which he was sentenced; the Krogers free having served less than half that to which they were sentenced: the wretched Ethel Gee, the female clerk, left to bear punishment for a crime which clearly she had not planned or initiated. That could not be held to be equitable.

I said once, though this is not the subject of the debate, that I think the whole scheme the Government initiated of exchanging prisoners was a foolish one. It simply invites Russia, on a score of trivial offences, to arrest more Englishmen. I am not in favour of exchanges, but once they made up their minds to follow this course, one would think that at least they would have seen the consequences through. I have a vivid memory of asking the Foreign Secretary immediately after he made the initial announcement, "What about Ethel Gee?" From the look on his face and what he said it was fairly clear that he had not thought of that. It must be presumed that if a Government embark on such a course they would have thought through the other consequences which must flow from it.

I understand the Home Secretary's difficulties and the pressures on him. He has said himself that he is sympathetic to this case, and I hope to arouse that sympathy further. He conceded that he would refer the case of Ethel Gee to the Parole Board set up under the Criminal Justice Act, 1967. He then told the House that the Board had recommended against her parole. I do not think that the Board was set up with the idea of taking what has become a political decision. Second, the right hon. Gentleman said categorically that he could not release her without the consent of the Parole Board. How comes it then that the Government were able to release Lonsdale and both the Krogers, as I understand it, without reference to the Parole Board, or did he refer their case to the Board? If he did not, why not, and how can it be that the case of the less guilty woman must be referred to the Parole Board whereas the case of the major criminals does not have to be so referred?

I read last night the Government White Paper of 1965, "Adult Offenders". I am sure the Minister will be familiar with it, but I would quote one sentence: Persons who do not of necessity have to be detained for the protection of the public" should be freed after serving an appropriate portion of their sentence. I find it impossible not to include Ethel Gee within the meaning of those words. Persons who do not of necessity have to be detained for the protection of the public … If the Minister tells me that those words no longer represent Government policy, I understand that. But if they do, I cannot see how Ethel Gee's can be excluded from the meaning they bear.

Why do we send people to prison—punishment, retribution, security? Let us examine those words one by one. She can no longer be a security risk. Retribution or punishment? Ethel Gee is 54 years of age. She is in frail health. Her only relative is an aunt of 82. She is no longer a security risk. She has served nine long years; she has been punished and punished and punished again. Now I think that it is reasonable to ask the Home Secretary to use his authority to let her go.


Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I think that the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) was less than fair to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I remember the occasion when the hon. Gentleman asked that question. My right hon. Friend's reply was: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but this is a question that he must put to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th July, 1969; Vol. 787, c. 2151.] Surely it is clear that, given the Departmental responsibilities in Whitehall, my right hon. Friend was saying the correct thing. It was my opinion, on that occasion at least, that he was not surprised by the question.

The other issue is that, since, rightly or wrongly, the United States Government set a precedent in these matters by swopping Colonel Abel—who was a very much more considerable centre of a spy network than has appeared in this country—this must have coloured the actions which Her Majesty's Government should take.


The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Elystan Morgan)

I should, first, remind the House briefly of the circumstances which led to the question that we are discussing. The story of what has been called the "Portland Spy Ring" has been told many times, but it is as well that we should recall the threat to national security which the breaking of that ring brought to light. The offence was conspiracy to commit the gravest offence under the Official Secrets Act— that is to say, conspiring together, for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interest of the State, to communicate to other persons information which might be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy.

The conspirators convicted were Gordon Lonsdale, Peter and Helen Kroger, Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee. Lonsdale—that, of course, was not his real name—was a professional spy employed to seek out military secrets wherever they could be found. The Krogers were employed in the transmission of this vital information. It was Houghton and Miss Gee who were the sources of the information, without which the conspiracy could not even have begun. I merely make that point, without labouring it, in an attempt to show to the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Evelyn King) that they were not the passive pawns that he suggested they were.

Mr. Evelyn King

I did not suggest that they were passive. I said that I accepted the relative sentences imposed by the Lord Chief Justice—25, 20 and 15 years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does the same.

Mr. Morgan

The hon. Gentleman said that Houghton and Miss Gee did not initiate the crime. What I am saying is that it could not even have begun but for their initiative in that respect.

Both Houghton and Miss Gee were employed at the Admiralty Under-Water Weapons Establishment at Portland. Both had access to information which they knew to be highly classified. At the trial, evidence showed that Houghton and Miss Gee were observed in London on a number of occasions meeting Lonsdale and handing parcels of papers to him. They were in process of handing over a set of Admiralty test pamphlets when the three of them were arrested.

These pamphlets were, in fact, available only to Miss Gee in the course of her official duties. In her own evidence, she admitted that she herself had suggested the test pamphlets as a further source of information, and these had been produced for Houghton to photograph with a view to transmission in due course to Lonsdale.

The gravity of the offences disclosed in the evidence was reflected in the sentences imposed by the court. Lonsdale was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment, the Krogers to 20 years' each, and Houghton and Miss Gee to 15 years' each. The difference in the sentences may be taken to mark the order of importance of the various conspirators within the spy ring—namely, that Lonsdale and the Krogers were experienced professionals while Houghton and Miss Gee were tools, albeit willing tools.

Nevertheless, both Houghton and Miss Gee were in a special position of trust. They abused that trust. Both were British subjects. That was not the case with Lonsdale and the Krogers. Houghton and Miss Gee betrayed their country. The court, having had the benefit of seeing and hearing all the defendants, found Miss Gee to be a willing participant for gain and saw no reason to distinguish between the two for the purposes of sentence.

All the defendants subsequently applied for leave to appeal against their sentences, but these appeals were unsuccessful. The Court of Criminal Appeal found no reason to disagree with the sentences imposed by the court of trial.

These, then, were the sentences decided upon by the court, and under our system of law it was entirely a matter for the courts to decide. The Executive, even in a State prosecution of this kind, obviously has no part in this process, either at the trial, or subsequently. Of course, there remain the exceptional powers under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy which may be invoked on the advice of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but, as the House will recognise, it has long been recognised that these powers ought not to be used in such a way as to usurp the responsibility of the courts for deciding sentence upon the evidence which has been placed before them. It is only in exceptional circumstances and when considerations have arisen which were not, and in some cases could not have been, present in the minds of the court that the Executive powers of interference can properly be invoked.

What I have said about the Executive in relation to the courts also bears relevance in relation to the Parole Board itself. The Government as such can have no policy in relation to the Parole Board, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman has suggested. The Home Secretary has duties, of course, under the Act of 1967, but he exercises those duties in a quasi-judicial manner, and that is a different thing.

As it happens, such exceptional considerations have arisen in the case of three of the five conspirators in this Portland spy case. These were considerations which had nothing to do with the merits of the sentences which were originally imposed. As the House will recall, Lonsdale was released and returned to Russia in 1964 in order to secure the release of Mr. Greville Wynne. In rather similar circumstances, Peter and Helen Kroger were released in October, this year, to ensure the immediate safe return of Mr. Gerald Brooke.

It is, of course, not for me tonight to go into all the reasons for the arrangements made with the Soviet Government in these cases. It is sufficient to say that exceptional action was taken because of compelling humanitarian considerations relating not to the prisoners detained here, but to the health and welfare of British subjects detained elsewhere.

I fully realise how this will be seen by Houghton and Miss Gee. It is natural that they should feel bitter that they are still detained when those given the longer sentences have been released. It does not follow, however, that because circumstances have compelled the release of one offender, another sentenced with him must also be excused. It is necessary in each case to find special reasons justifying the release of the individual.

Clearly, the exceptional reasons leading to the release of Lonsdale and the Krogers do not arise in the case of Miss Gee, and my right hon. Friend has found no other grounds which could be taken to justify interference by means of the Prerogative with the sentence which the courts thought it right to impose. Furthermore, if these cases were to be given special consideration because of the association with the three people released, many thousands of prisoners not so privileged would feel that they were the victims of an equivalent denial of justice. If there is to be earlier release, it falls to be considered within the framework of the general statutory provisions, which brings me to the question of parole.

I would remind the House that parole is governed by Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1967, subsection (1) of which provides for early release on licence of persons serving determinate sentences of imprisonment, but that provision makes it clear that an essential prerequisite is a favourable recommendation by the Parole Board. The Home Secretary, therefore, cannot act solely on his own initiative.

Under the provisions of the Act, every prisoner serving a determinate sentence is eligible to be considered for parole after serving not less than one third of his sentence, subject to serving at least a term of 12 months. Prisoners are considered automatically unless they choose to opt out. At the first stage each case is reviewed by a local review committee at the prison, comprising the governor of the prison or his representative, with at least three other members appointed by the Home Secretary, including a member of the board of visitors or visiting committee of the prison, a probation officer other than the prison welfare officer and an independent member.

The prisoner is interviewed by a member of the committee other than the governor and, in addition, is free to make written representations to the local review committee. The committee sends to the Home Office its finding as to whether the prisoner is suitable or unsuitable for release on licence. All cases favourably recommended by local review committees are sent to the Parole Board for its consideration.

If the board is not in favour of parole the Home Secretary has no power to grant early release on licence. If the board recommends parole the Home Secretary has power to refuse to approve its recommendation. This is a power exercised very sparingly by him, for example, where in his opinion early release would have entailed an unacceptable degree of risk to the public.

The legal position with regard to parole is exactly the same for spies as it is for all other prisoners serving determinate sentences. The procedure followed is exactly the same except only that the Home Secretary has to take into account any special security considerations. I can say at once that no such considerations arise with regard to Ethel Gee. The local review committee sent forward a favourable recommendation in her case and consequently, in accordance with the normal procedure, her case was referred to the Parole Board. The board informed my right hon. Friend that it did not recommend her release on parole and in those circumstances, as I have explained, my right hon. Friend has no power whatever to issue a parole licence.

Mr. Evelyn King

Would I be right in assuming that her case could again go before the Parole Board in the spring?

Mr. Morgan

I was coming to that.

My right hon. Friend has, however, arranged for the case to be considered again in the New Year and we must await the further recommendation of the Parole Board at that time. It is not for me or my right hon. Friend to speculate about the possible findings of the board when it comes to consider the case a second time, but I can undertake that what has been said in the House tonight will be placed before the board at the proper time along with all the other information about the case which it will have.

Mr. Dalyell

Is it within the terms of reference of the Parole Board to consider the wider implications involved in this case, such as the swapping between countries of other persons connected with the same affair? Can this be taken into account by the board, or is it irrelevant to its deliberations?

Mr. Morgan

As I have explained, the case we are dealing with involves an exceptional factor. I know of no rule that specifically debars the Parole Board from taking cognisance of that situation but normally it would direct its mind to more classical criminological considerations.

I turn now to the treatment of Ethel Gee. She was in custody in Holloway Prison and shortly afterwards at Birmingham Prison for a few months. Then she returned to Holloway and transferred to Styal Prison, Manchester, as a long-term star class prisoner in April, 1964. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman must take up the question of the wisdom or otherwise of that decision with Lord Brooke of Cumnor, who was Home Secretary at the time. Secondly, Styal Prison is not an open prison, as he has suggested, and she could not have walked out of it at any time.

After the escape of Blake—and we appreciate that that event brought about very substantial changes—Ethel Gee was returned to Holloway in 1966 and detained in the special security wing. It is true that she lost her personal radio set because she was then classified as an A prisoner. At a later date she was given piped radio in her cell. Last February, she returned to the ordinary category C condition at Styal, where she still is.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.