HC Deb 27 February 1984 vol 55 cc25-111

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

Mr. Speaker

Before we start this very important debate, I draw to the attention of the House the fact that I have a very long list of right hon. and hon. Members who wish to take part. This is a day on which I ask for short contributions, please.

3.38 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

Just over a month has passed since I announced to the House the Government's decision to bring the conditions of employment at GCHQ into line with those which apply in the other intelligence agencies. The subject has hardly been out of the news since and there should be no surprise at that. The issues involved are of great importance and it is right that they should be debated.

There are points on which we need to be emphatically clear from the outset. First and foremost, GCHQ is one of the security and intelligence agencies on which our national security, and to some degree also the security of our allies, depends. Any significant interruption in the flow of intelligence from GCHQ could, in circumstances which can never be foreseen, deprive the Government of the day of information which could be vital to our national security. Therefore, it is crucial that GCHQ's operations and activities should be maintained without any disruption or interference whatsoever.

The next point which I hope will now be accepted on all sides is that the decision which we are debating today is not part, and should not be seen as part, of any wider campaign. There is not one word of truth in the wild and extravagant claims which have been made on that point.

The arrangements which we have now introduced at GCHQ are those which have always existed in other agencies whose operations and activities are primarily concerned with security and intelligence. We have made it clear from the outset, and I repeat it again today, that it is emphatically not the Government's intention to extend these measures beyond those agencies whose primary functions are concerned with security and intelligence. Let me emphasise, too, that the decision we have taken is in no way a departure from established principle. On the contrary.

Successive Employment Protection Acts, repeating the provisions of the Industrial Relations Act 1971, have provided for the need to except certain categories of employment on grounds of national security. Certificates precisely similar to the ones which I have signed have been in force since 1971 for the other intelligence and security agencies. They have been signed by the responsible Ministers of previous Governments of both parties. The only anomaly is that a different situation had been allowed to grow up and exist in GCHQ. I emphasise that it was an anomaly.

It was only once we had specifically and publicly acknowledged that GCHQ was also an agency whose operations and activities are concerned with security and intelligence — as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did in the House on 12 May last year—that the way was open to correct that anomaly.

Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)

The Foreign Secretary has once again suggested that previous Governments acted in the same way as this Government in signing certificates under the Employment Protection Acts. Will he confirm that those certificates do not affect the right of anyone to be a trade union member and that the deprivation of trade union membership flows from instructions given by the Government under the Order in Council of 1982, which relates entirely to the Government and their activities?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

That is right. There has been no mystery about that. The terms and conditions of service have to be altered as well as the certificates being enforced. The terms and conditions of service will have the same effect in all intelligence agencies as a result of the instruction given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)


Mr. Speaker

Order. The Foreign Secretary is not giving way.

Mr. Morris


Mr. Speaker

Order. The Foreign Secretary is not giving way.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have a number of points to deal with and I am at the outset of my speech. I know that the point about the avowal of GCHQ, to which I have just referred, is one which some, including the Select Committee on Employment, have been inclined to dismiss, but I can assure the House—

Mr. Morris


Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows better than that.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

—that that is an argument which was given considerable weight by Ministers both when they discussed the matter in 1982 and again more recently.

As I have already reminded the House, the issues before us have been considered in detail by the Select Committee on Employment. The Committee's report, published on 14 February, makes recommendations to which I shall return. I shall also address myself to the points raised by the Civil Service unions in their evidence to the Select Committee, as well as in course of their discussions with the Government.

First, let me underline one point which has become increasingly widely accepted as the debate has proceeded in public, before the Select Committee and in discussions with the unions: it is the absolute necessity for arrangements which, to quote the recommendations of the Select Committee meet every requirement of national security". I very much doubt whether that would have been so widely recognised and endorsed if the Government had not taken the decision which I announced on 25 January. The extent of the support for our objectives is, none the less, welcome. The differences that remain can be seen as differences about means rather than ends.

The Government have given, and will continue to give, full weight to this common understanding of objectives, but, in deciding on the right means to that end, we must take very full account of the extent of the problem, potential as well as actual. That was revealed by the events of 1979 to 1981. The point is crucial, and I must remind the House of the salient facts. Between February 1979 and April 1981 the continuity of GCHQ operations was disrupted seven times. Over 10,000 working days were lost. More than 25 per cent. of the staff were involved on the so-called day of action, on 9 March 1981, when parts of GCHQ were virtually closed down by industrial disruption. The action included many people engaged in sensitive operations. That kind of effect and activity must be regarded as unacceptable.

Some have argued that no great harm was done, but to call for quantified evidence of damage is to miss the point. We can never know what intelligence has been, or might be, lost. Fortunately, no serious threats to the nation's security materialised during those particular periods of disruption, but that is not an argument for accepting the possibility of disruption as a fact of life. The function of GCHQ is to be continuously, permanently on the alert. Nothing less will do.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

My right hon. and learned Friend has just pointed out that up to 25 per cent. of the work force were engaged in the disruptions between 1979 and 1981. Have 25 per cent. or 75 per cent. now accepted the terms which the Government have offered? Surely, if he maintains that we are discussing the means rather than the end, that is crucial as well?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend is aware, of course, that the offer expires not today but on 1 March. He is also aware that the numbers accepting—I shall return to this later—are growing steadily. The figures that have been given by the Government are based on the counted forms accepted and delivered to GCHQ.

Mr. John Morris


Sir Geoffrey Howe

The right hon. and learned Gentleman must acknowledge that I have just given way to him. The decision that we took, notwithstanding what I have just said, was not taken lightly.

From 1979 onwards, management was in touch with the unions to seek ways of avoiding disruption, but union officials were thinking along very different lines. A national officer of the Civil and Public Services Association, for example, was quoted as saying in February 1979, when the Labour party was in power, that the strike would completely paralyse Government communications, both internally and externally. A local official is quoted as saying a few days later that our action will seriously affect operations by at least 80 per cent., as our members are specialists. In the following year, 1980, informal soundings about a no-strike or no-disruption agreement were taken locally by GCHQ management. The reaction of local union representatives was not encouraging.

Later still, during the period of selective action that followed the one-day strike on 9 March 1981, GCHQ's senior management and a very senior official in the Civil Service Department appealed to officials of the Civil Service Union not to take disruptive action in certain key areas. The only result was deliberately perverse: pressure to continue strike action was brought to bear on GCHQ staff in precisely those areas.

That same month, and after these clear warnings, the unions announced: There will be a range of selective and disruptive action which will affect Britain's secret communications surveillance network. There will be both national and international repercussions. On 3 April 1981 a senior union official said on the eve of a strike at a GCHQ outstation: This is the most crucial station we have hit so far. We are going to hit this Department 'as hard as we can'. There can be no doubt that the union leaders concerned knew what they were doing. As I said in my evidence to the Select Committee, they deliberately chose to direct action against what they correctly saw as a very sensitive and vital agency of the Government, with the avowed intent of causing both national and international repercussions.

Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)

I accept everything that my right hon. and learned Friend says about what happened between 1979 and 1981 and about the importance of Cheltenham, but, in retrospect, would it not have been wiser, more subtle and more sensible a month ago to attempt to reach a no-strike agreement with the unions and, had that failed, to raised the stakes?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend in a moment. Even after the discussions that have taken place in recent weeks, it has not proved possible to reach an agreement on the lines suggested by my hon. Friend.

Mr. John Morris

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall give the right hon. and learned Gentleman an opportunity in a moment.

To put it more bluntly, in the period that I have described, the unions were quite prepared, in pursuance of a dispute about pay, to cause or threaten damage to national security. The attitude of some at the time was well summarised in the CCSU campaign report No. 1 issued in 1981, where it was said that our ultimate success depends upon the extent to which … defence readiness is hampered … by this and further action". It is against that background that the Government have formulated the objectives that I described to the Select Committee on Employment, and it is in that light that we have considered the report of the Select Committee and the points put to us by the unions.

Let me first remind the House of the objectives, as I put them to the Select Committee. The overall objective is to ensure—I repeat, ensure—that staff at GCHQ are not in future subject to the kind of pressures that have deliberately been put on them in the past. That implies four detailed objectives: first, that staff at GCHQ must be deprived of the right to access to industrial tribunals, for security reasons; secondly, that it needs to be part of the conditions of service of GCHQ staff that there will be no interference in GCHQ's activities and operations by industrial disruption, whether in pursuit of national or of local disputes; thirdly, that negotiations on departmental issues, including questions of structure, must, for security reasons, be carried out by departmental staff representatives answerable to the staff of GCHQ and to no one else; and, fourthly—and this overall proposition is every bit as important as the other three—that the maintenance of GCHQ's service must not be put at risk by any conflict of loyalty of the staff.

Let me refer now to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Employment. The first recommendation is that we should thoroughly examine the concessions offered by the unions to satisfy ourselves that they meet every requirement of national security. We have done so very carefully, taking into account not only the union proposals submitted to the Committee, but further developments to the proposals which arose in subsequent discussions.

There is no doubt that the unions have made very real attempts to meet our points, but we have reached the conclusion at the end of the day that the unions' proposals unfortunately do not remove the risk of conflicting pressures from outside GCHQ on the undoubted loyalty of those who work there. They do not satisfy the Government's ultimate responsibility for safeguarding national security.

The Committee's second recommendation is addressed to the unions. The Committee's conclusion that the arrangements to be made should be totally effective endorses an important element in the Government's thinking. Its recommendation that the unions should be prepared to offer whatever legally binding assurances the Government require to ensure that is also very relevant. But making assurances legally binding—difficult enough in itself — can only be part of the answer. What is crucial is that those assurances should go far enough to meet the Government's fundamental objectives. And, as I have explained, they do not go far enough to eliminate the risk of conflicting pressures on those who work at GCHQ.

The third recommendation is that any new arrangements involving precedents which would in other circumstances be unacceptable to trade unions should be applied solely in matters relating to national security at GCHQ. As I have already made clear, the Government have no intention of introducing similar measures outside the field of security and intelligence. And it is our firm position that the measures must apply to all GCHQ staff.

Mr. John Morris

Given the precedents which the Foreign Secretary has cited on the issue of certificates under the Employment Protection Act and its predecessor the Industrial Relations Act, and as the right to belong to a union of one's choice is made under the Order in Council, which was not referred to in terms in the Foreign Secretary's original statement, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give even one precedent for withdrawing the right to belong to a trade union under an instruction given under the Order in Council?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The statutory right to protection of the right to trade union membership first found its way on to the statute book in the Industrial Relations Act 1971, so there has not been a very long time in which to test the proposition, but, beyond that, the provisions under which we are operating apply to security and intelligence. The other agencies which are primarily concerned with security and intelligence are already covered by the certificate. This agency was outstanding as an anomaly and it was therefore appropriate and right for an order of that kind to be made and for the Order in Council to be varied.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Did the Government of the day issue an Order in Council following the certification procedure applied in 1976 to MI5 or MI6?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

So far as I know they did not, because the conditions required in that respect already applied there. That is my point. In the other intelligence and security agencies these conditions already applied. In those circumstances, all that was necessary was the making of a certificate. It is because this one agency was an anomaly that it was necessary to act in this way.

In response to the Select Committee's fourth recommendation, exploratory talks between the Government and the Civil Service unions have indeed taken place on several occasions in an attempt to find the necessary amount of common ground. It is no reflection on the seriousness with which the Government and the unions conducted those talks that they were unable to reach agreement.

The Committee's fifth recommendation is conditional on agreement having been reached. As I have just explained, that has unfortunately not proved possible. I come, therefore, to the final recommendation—that the Government should suspend their action while talks with the unions continue. The Government do not believe that it would have been right to act as recommended by the Committee.

As it was, the Government and the unions moved as quickly as possible to explore the scope for an agreement. If one had been possible, I have no doubt that there would have been no difficulty then in drawing the appropriate conclusions for all the staff of GCHQ.

I turn now in more detail to the points which have been put to us by the unions.

Let me say again that the Government recognise that the proposals put to us by the unions constitute a genuine and sincere attempt to work out an agreement that would meet our objective. We have considered them very carefully in the same spirit, but we have come to the conclusion that there remains a gap which cannot be bridged. I shall explain why in a moment.

The question of access to industrial tribunals is not in my judgment a major difficulty. The unions have put forward proposals for alternative appeals machinery which would involve negotiations going far beyond GCHQ, and beyond the scope of this debate, but I do not think that their view on the basic point is very far from our own. For the unions have accepted that the certificates which I signed on 25 January must stand, and the effect of those certificates was to withdraw from GCHQ staff the right of access to industrial tribunals under the Employment Protection Acts.

GCHQ staff will of course continue to have access to the Civil Service Appeals Board and to the Medical Appeals Board. Other relevant legislation, including the sex and race discrimination Acts, will continue to apply. All this, in our view, provides full and effective protection.

The union proposals have also addressed the security problems involved in union representation at GCHQ. They are prepared to accept that GCHQ union representatives should not give, and that other union officials should not seek to acquire, classified information about GCHQ.

However, the unions' proposals also provide that the right to negotiate for GCHQ staff on matters involving classified information should remain in the hands of GCHQ employees "acting as union representatives." And they provide, too, by implication, that on other matters the rights of national unions should remain as they were before 25 January.

On industrial disruption, the unions are prepared to accept that it should be a condition of service for GCHQ staff that they would take no action which would or might interfere with uninterrupted operation of essential security and intelligence services", and that the unions themselves should undertake not to instruct or ask members at GCHQ to take action which might put at risk the continuous maintenance of such services.

This implies a distinction between essential security and intelligence services and the rest of GCHQ. That distinction is one which we cannot accept. National security requires that GCHQ should be treated as a whole and industrial disruption avoided throughout.

However, the problem is more fundamental than that. The crucial point is that the unions continue to insist, first, that they should be recognised at GCHQ, and, secondly, that they should represent the interests of all the staff at GCHQ, whether members of unions or not.

The Government recognise that the unions' position in this respect is entirely consistent with the Whitley principles which generally govern relations between management and staff in the Civil Service, but, in the case of those agencies whose primary functions are concerned with security and intelligence, the requirements of national security have to take priority over the principles which apply elsewhere in the Civil Service. That is, and has been, the position in other intelligence agencies, and so it has to be at GCHQ.

The overriding responsibility of the Government in this field is to safeguard national security. Members of the House who have experience of industrial relations will know that periods of calm have all too often been interrupted. No one can guarantee that the cycle will not be repeated at some time in the future. That is why the Government have to be sure that the measures we take today will be watertight in rough weather as well as in calm.

In the last period of rough weather, as I have described in some detail, staff at GCHQ were subjected by national unions to severe pressure to put their union loyalty above their loyalty to the service. It was only because most of the staff of GCHQ disregarded these calls for industrial action that worse disruption did not occur. We know that many people at GCHQ found that a very difficult period and were deeply dismayed by the extent of the pressure put upon them to participate in industrial action which they knew could be damaging to national security.

The vital objective for the Government must be to prevent a recurrence of events of that kind. We have to do so not only today and tomorrow but also in the more distant future, when union leaders may be less disposed to concentrate on good order at GCHQ than they have been during the last few weeks. The union proposals, for all the effort that they undoubtedly represent, seek to maintain a monopoly position for union representatives in GCHQ, and the previous degree of involvement by GCHQ members in national union affairs and vice versa.

Those are the very elements which have led to conflict in the past, and there can be no guarantee that they would not lead to conflict again in the future, despite the undertakings which the unions are prepared to offer today. Indeed, the fact that the unions are at this very time seeking to fight their case at GCHQ by provoking disruption elsewhere in the public service makes my point more clearly than anything that I can say.

Indeed, one of the union leaders involved said in a letter to his members, referring to 28 February, that to avoid giving propaganda points to the Government and in the interests of continuing to hold public support, the GCHQ members will not be asked to take strike action on that day. Nothing could make it clearer that, in his mind at least, pressure on GCHQ is being avoided on this occasion largely for tactical purposes.

To say this is not to cast doubt on the loyalty of the staff of GCHQ. It is just because of our respect for that loyalty that the Government wish all members of the staff to remain in the service of GCHQ. Nor does it imply that the Government regard members of trade unions as untrustworthy. The measures have nothing to do with fears about traitors, moles and the like. The purpose of the measures is to insulate a vital part of our security and intelligence system from the conflicting pressures which were so apparent in the past. With all respect to Mr. Murray, the pressures had nothing to do with family, religion or party. They were brought to bear by the unions, on a basis similar to what they have led us to expect will happen tomorrow.

It will be clear from what I have said that the Government regard the requirements of national security as paramount in this affair, but we have also been concerned to provide a fair deal for the staff of GCHQ, and I should like to turn to that side of the picture.

First, it is a consequence of the measures which I have announced that staff at GCHQ have lost certain statutory rights under the employment protection legislation. The change has occurred perfectly legally in a way explicitly provided for in the Acts themselves, but there has, nevertheless, been a loss, and the Government have thought it right to make an ex gratia payment in respect of that loss. There was no legal obligation on us to do so; but, as a matter of equity, it was the right thing to do. It is as simple and straightforward as that. Talk of bribery from the Opposition Benches or anywhere else is absurd. Talk of bribery to leave unions — again from the Opposition Benches—is even more demonstrably absurd because the payment of £1,000 will be available to union and non-union members alike.

Of the statutory rights which have been lost, many are paralleled by provisions in the Civil Service pay and conditions code and the principal civil service pensions scheme, which will continue to apply to the staff of GCHQ. For example, these guarantee time off for public duties, maternity pay and the right to return to work. Indeed, in some areas, for example that of maternity provision, civil servants enjoy more favourable conditions than the statutory minima. I have already mentioned that GCHQ will continue to have access to the Civil Service Appeals Board and the Medical Appeal Board; and that other relevant legislation will continue to apply.

It is also very important to note that GCHQ staff will remain members of the Home Civil Service. Changes in service-wide conditions, such as pay, allowances and pensions, will continue to apply to them, and they will continue to be eligible for membership of Civil Service associations which offer group benefits in other fields.

By losing their membership of national trade unions, individual members of staff at GCHQ will not be left without effective representation. The Government fully recognise the importance of having a representative body which can talk to management on behalf of the staff. The director of GCHQ has invited staff to make proposals for the formation of the staff association. We intend it to be strong and effective. We expect it to be established on a permanent basis, and we expect it to represent all members of GCHQ, both industrial and non-industrial.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend say a few words about the staff association which he intends to come into existence to represent the best interests of the staff at GCHQ? Will it be a statutory body similar to the Police Federation? It would be helpful to many hon. Members if he could say more about how he visualises the staff association working.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

At this stage I see no necessity for it to be a statutory body, but when he replies to the debate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will no doubt take account of any points made by my hon. Friend.

People experienced in Whitley and industrial trade union affairs have already been invited to help in forming the association, but all members of GCHQ will be eligible for office. The constitution will be for the staff to propose, though it will have to be acceptable to the director, who will want to exclude external membership or affiliation.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether he intends next Thursday to sack forthwith the members of staff who did not sign the options?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am coming to that point. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it.

The association will be encouraged to negotiate on the full range of subjects covered by previous trade union arrangements, where national agreements do not apply. Representatives of the association will be entitled to represent and advise individuals, on request, in personal cases. The Department will provide facilities in the normal way. It is GCHQ's intention to bring the association into being as soon as possible after 1 March.

I do not deny that there are matters of principle at stake in the decisions the Government have taken over GCHQ. It is for that very reason that the Government have considered the matter very carefully before taking action, and it is for that reason that we considered equally carefully the points put to us by the Select Committee and the unions.

I have no doubt that the interests of the staff of GCHQ will be fully protected by the measures I have outlined. A clear majority of GCHQ staff—over two thirds—have already decided to remain with the Department under the new conditions of service. I emphasise that these figures are authoritative and reliable. They are based on the figures of returns received by GCHQ. I hope that those members of GCHQ staff who have still to answer will join the majority of their colleagues.

Only a tiny minority have asked for transfer to another part of the Civil Service. Every effort will be made to arrange a suitable transfer for those who have expressed the wish to leave. That will take some time. How long will depend on the numbers involved and on their qualifications. And, as the original letter to staff implies, there is no question of instant dismissal for those who have failed to respond by the deadline.

To sum up, what the Government have done is to take action to safeguard national security under statutory provisions long established for that specific purpose. The Government have acted not to create an anomaly but to remove one. There is no union representation or membership at other security and intelligence agencies. There are very good reasons for that. Those very good reasons apply with just as much force to GCHQ.

Ideally, that would have been the position from the outset, when GCHQ emerged as an organisation at the end of the last war. It will be so from now on. The staff of GCHQ will have conditions of service similar to those in other security and intelligence agencies. Those conditions of service are fair to the staff concerned and they will help to ensure that GCHQ will operate, as in the interests of national security it must, effectively, continuously, and in secret.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

With regard to circumstances after 1 March, will the Foreign Secretary deny the serious allegations that are made in the document circulated to us to the effect that the director has been given discretion randomly to sack small numbers of staff periodically, to identify staff who formed the backbone of the movement to prevent organised resistance and to identify key staff which GCHQ cannot afford to lose—for example radio operators—and sack other more dispensable staff? Will the Foreign Secretary deny that, because unless he does his conduct will be utterly outrageous?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

No doubt the right hon. Gentleman will make available to us the document from which he has quoted.

Mr. Callaghan

I picked up the document just before coming into the Chamber. It is available generally and publicly.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

No doubt we can study it in due course. The fact remains that the position is as I have described it. Arrangements will be made for those who wish to seek a transfer to find posts elsewhere in the Civil Service. If that does not prove possible, arrangements will have to be made for their severance on redundancy terms.

Mr. Callaghan

Will the Foreign Secretary please correct or deny the allegations in the document before the end of today's debate?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The document from which the right hon. Gentleman quoted appears to suggest that the method of dealing with staff after 1 March will be done on a calculated basis. That is not the approach that will be adopted by the director of GCHQ. The approach will be as described in the notice sent to staff by the director of GCHQ on 25 January. I refer the right hon. Gentleman to that rather than to the document from which he has quoted.

The offer that we have made to GCHQ staff remains open. As I have already said, a substantial majority have already accepted it. There is no doubt in my mind, or in theirs, of the importance of the work which they are doing. I should like to pay tribute once again to the skill and dedication with which they are doing that work. The conditions we have laid down are the only way to ensure that the results of that skill and dedication are never again put at risk.

4.17 pm
Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

Let me begin by agreeing on one thing with the Foreign Secretary. No one with any knowledge of the matter can underestimate the importance of this issue. GCHQ has been by far the most valuable source of intelligence for the British Government ever since it began operating at Bletchley during the last war. British skills in interception and code-breaking are unique and highly valued by all of our allies. GCHQ has been a key element in our relationship with the United States for more than 40 years.

I am glad that, in his final words, the Foreign Secretary recognised the skill, loyalty and dedication of the men and women who work there. I have personal cause for gratitude as a result of my years as Secretary of State for Defence. Many other Government Departments benefit, although GCHQ is carried solely on the Foreign Office Vote. I shall come to an implication of that in a moment.

It is just over four weeks since the Foreign Secretary told the House that he had decided to rob those loyal and dedicated men and women of their right to trade union membership—a right that they have enjoyed throughout their employment there and which has been enjoyed by all employees ever since GCHQ was first set up. It is a right that is enjoyed by tens of thousands of other men and women who do work of equal secrecy and of equal national importance in other Government Departments and in private industry. It is a right that is enjoyed by more tens of thousands of men and women in the Post Office, the Health Service and in many other parts of the Government service on whose continuity of work lives might well depend.

The decision that the Foreign Secretary announced to the House just over one month ago was taken without consulting the representatives of the workers concerned and without consulting even his colleagues in the Cabinet. Since then, I must tell the Foreign Secretary, his daily contradictory statements have made him the laughing stock of the world. When reading through them this weekend I was reminded of nothing so much as the five press conferences given by President Reagan on the Lebanon. The Foreign Secretary has been attacked anonymously by fellow Ministers as basing his decision on emotional and not on intellectual judgment. He has been attacked publicly by Conservative Back Benchers, notably the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), in whose constituency most GCHQ workers reside, and by the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) — Gorst of Grunwick as some of us have learnt to call him—who, on radio recently, described the Foreign Secretary's action as the nasty thin wedge of Fascism". The Conservative newspapers have been even more outspoken. The Daily Telegraph described the behaviour of the Foreign Secretary and the Government as "little short of shambolic". The Daily Express described their decision as "highly illiberal and authoritarian". Moreover, they were condemned unanimously by the Select Committee of the House which has a majority of Conservative Members.

More important still, the Government's decision has already done immense damage to the morale, not only at GCHQ but of the Civil Service as a whole. It was condemned by Lord Bancroft in a letter to The Times as: Breathtakingly inept; a further exploration of the bloody fool branch of management science. Lord Bancroft wrote as a former head of the Civil Service. The entire First Division Association, which represents the top rank of the Civil Service, is up in arms. The Cabinet Office members of the First Division Association have already formally complained to the Minister for the Civil Service, and middle and junior staff have walked out both at the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. The whole machinery of Government is now seething with discontent, partly because the Government's decision is seen as a precedent for attacks on union membership in other secret work—public and private—and in other areas where continuity of operation is regarded by the Government as important.

The Foreign Secretary told the House that he had no intention of using this precedent elsewhere. I remember him and the Prime Minister telling us at election after election that they had "no intention" of cutting Health Service provision. The fact is, however, that that phrase is used by members of the Government to disguise a decision to do something by not actually denying that they will do it. For the Government, the way to hell is paved with "no intentions".

The Government must recognise that their decision about GCHQ is a kick in the teeth for all those trade union leaders who have been prepared to develop a constructive relationship with the Government. Above all, it is a kick in the teeth for Mr. Lionel Murray. — [Interruption] —Before Conservative Members sneer, I hope that they will recognise the significance—I am sure that the Foreign Secretary does and I hope that the Prime Minister does —of the fact that the opposition to the decision is led by Mr. Alistair Graham, who compared the Prime Minister to General Jaruzelski, and by Mr. Bill McCall. No one who knows them would describe them as mindless militants.

In the past month everyone has been asking why on earth the Foreign Secretary took the decision. It was not because he believed that trade unions were likely to be spies, because he knows, as we do, that most spies since the war have been public schoolboys, masons, scientists or service men. I have no doubt that the Government have in hand measures for dealing with that particular threat to our security. The Foreign Secretary told the House this afternoon that he took the decision because the disruption at GCHQ on certain occasions between 1979 and 1981 broke the continuity of work there and might have endangered lives. He concluded—he told us again this afternoon—that membership of the trade union produces an unacceptable conflict of loyalties.

Some hon. Members may have been impressed by some of the quotations that the Foreign Secretary read out in his speech from trade union leaders during those periods of industrial action. However, the trade unions have shown that there was no prejudice to the essential operations of GCHQ at the time, and the Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee that there was no evidence that any damage was done.

The most important statement by a Minister was made on 14 April 1981, after all those interruptions had taken place. Sir John Nott, the then Secretary of State for Defence, said in the House: I do not wish to discuss the difficulties surrounding the dispute, but up to now they have not in any way affected operational capability in any area … I have the highest praise for the great loyalty shown by the Civil Service to Governments of all kinds." — [Official Report, 14 April 1981; Vol. 3, c. 136.] There was one another incident, in Hong Kong in 1982, that the Foreign Office quoted in its briefing shortly after the Foreign Secretary's announcement to the House. In that briefing the Foreign Secretary suggested that that incident might have affected our operational capability in the Falklands war. However, the then director-general of GCHQ, Sir Brian Tovey — I shall refer to him on several occasions in my speech—sent a telegram to all staff when the war was over. He said: High level praise. Never has so much praise been accorded. There can be no doubt that this praise has been well deserved. It has been earned by hard and dedicated work by you as individuals. Against that background the Foreign Secretary's accusations today and during the past four weeks are an insult to dedicated men and women, and he should withdraw them.

I do not deny that Ministers said one thing at that time and say another thing now, and that some trade union leaders said one thing then and say another thing now. There has been an element of what psychologists call role reversal in recent weeks. The Foreign Secretary cannot have it both ways. If the action of the unions in 1979 was as dangerous as he told us it was this afternoon, it was a gross dereliction of duty for him not to have taken then the action that he is now proposing.

Since then there has been a series of international events, in which the continuity of operations at GCHQ was of vital importance to the country —for for example, the Falklands war, the death of Brezhnev and the continuing trouble in the middle east. Five years have passed since those events which he described to us today. Hon. Members know only that GCHQ had informal discussions at official level in 1980. When the Foreign Secretary gave evidence to the Select Committee, he was unable to say what those discussions were and had to send a vague and unspecific letter about it later. He told the Select Committee that Lord Carrington had discussed the matter with a small group of Ministers, including himself, who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The proposal for a ban on union membership, which was discussed by Ministers in 1982, was brushed aside so contemptuously by Lord Carrington that he could not even remember that it had been put to him when he was questioned by his friends, as reported in The Times a fortnight ago.

Two years after Ministers rejected a ban on union membership at GCHQ, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister took a decision to ban the unions right out of the blue. Their only excuse was that the Government had not avowed the existence of GCHQ as an intelligence centre until they published the report of the Security Commission on the Prime affair. I have been in the House for more than 30 years and that is the daftest excuse I have ever heard a Government give for an act of policy. Paragraph 1.2 of that report, in describing in detail how GCHQ operates, points out: There has long been close and fruitful cooperation between the signals intelligence organisations of the United States, the National Security Agency (NSA), and the United Kingdom to the mutual advantage of both countries. Whilst this is generally known, and has certainly long been known to all hostile intelligence services, the methods by which their operations are carried out, the targets at which they are directed … are among the most important secrets". The existence and function of GCHQ have been known to any interested person anywhere in the world since the end of the second world war. In 1960, two American defectors from the National Security Agency in Washington held a 90-minute press conference in Moscow describing the work of NSA and its foreign links. Mr. Krushchev joked about it in public when he visited the United States 25 years ago. Mr. Prime was recruited in 1968.

Moreover, the Government avowed the role and function of GCHQ when, in the so-called ABC trial in 1978, they prosecuted two journalists for an article which described in detail and which showed a plan identifying the sites of GCHQ and the NSA in Britain. That article was published in May 1976. The Government of the day prosecuted the journalists concerned for offences under the Official Secrets Act, but they had to drop the case when counsel for the defence, Lord Hutchinson, showed that all the facts in the Time Out article in 1976 were either available or deducible from public sources, mainly from the offical records of the Royal Signals Association and the Intelligence Corps, to which the journalists subscribed. Anyone else can subscribe if he so wishes.

As an ex-Secretary of State for Defence, may I say that Ministers and officials sometimes have the most peculiar ideas about what are official secrets. When I assumed office as Secretary of State for Defence in 1964 I was told that the configuration of the Polaris submarine was the most jealously guarded secret in my possession. On my next visit to New York I was able to buy a scale model of the Polaris submarine, produced by the Metal Toy Company, for my children. Anyone who is interested in the higher lunacies of Government should read the account of the ABC trial, where the former head of SIGINT in Britain, Colonel Hugh Johnson, admitted in a mood of gloomy confusion, I am not sure what is a secret and what is not. For the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to tell us in 1984 that no one had known—the Government had never admitted—until eight months ago that GCHQ was an intelligence headquarters is arrant nonsense, and they know it.

It is difficult to find any convincing reason for this sudden decision by the Government—eight months after the publication of the Security Commission report on Prime—except for their fear of staff reaction to the introduction of the polygraph, or lie detector, which is due to begin on an experimental basis in a few weeks' time. The lie detector has been described by a scientist who studied it as wrong on two thirds of the occasions on which it was used, and it was condemned by the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure as unsuitable for use in court proceedings in Britain for that reason.

There is no doubt but that the Government were terrified of how staff might react if the use of the lie detector was made a ground for dismissal. Perhaps there was also American pressure—we were told that by the previous director of GCHQ, Sir Brian Tovey, who said in an interview with The Sunday Times in recent weeks that discreet pressure had been applied. He was so proud of his interview in The Sunday Times that in The Times the next morning he wrote a letter urging everyone to read it. Someone must have had a word with him within the next 24 hours, because he told a different story to the Select Committee. He said that what The Sunday Times had printed was not quite right, but he did not tell us vv hat he said, and I understand from the journalists who conducted the interview that those were his precise words. General Keegan, a retired American general from the intelligence community, said in an interview just after the Government's announcement that subtle pressure would have been applied. I do not know whether there was such pressure. My experience is that the Government are quite capable of making their own mistakes without pressure from other sources.

The Government undoubtedly feared that staff at GCHQ might have recourse to industrial tribunals to protect themselves. However, it is interesting to note that the staff have never been interested in using industrial tribunals. In all but three cases during the past 40 years, when there has been a dispute they have taken it to the Civil Service appeals tribunal, and they are prepared to do so now. The only case which required any publicity of an industrial tribunal affecting GCHQ was one brought by Colonel Thwaite recently, because he was not a member of a trade union and was complaining about the effect of union activities on his personal prospects. However, I am glad to see that since the Government's announcement Colonel Thwaite said that if he was still a member he would join a trade union now like a shot.

We all agree that there is a powerful case for guaranteeing continuity of operation at GCHQ, but the unions have now offered that in terms of a contract which is legally binding on individual employees. In the evidence quoted at the end of the Select Committee report, Sir Brian Tovey says that had that offer been available when he was director-general, it would have satisfied him. Such an arrangement is far better than a yellow-dog union like a staff association. I regret having to say this, but the management of GCHQ has shown that it is not very good at managing on its own. Sir Brian Tovey told Ministers at the time, and expressed the view to the Select Committee, that not more than 20 of the 10,000 employees at GCHQ —10,000 was the figure given in Mr. Peter Hennessey's Foreign Office briefing in The Times immediately after the Foreign Secretary's statement—were likely to refuse the Government's offer. The quality of management seemed to be slightly in doubt because of what The Sunday Times called Sir Brian Tovey's two-faced behaviour when he boasted of his duplicity with the trade unions—"boasted of his duplicity" were the words used in the interview of which Sir Brian was so proud.

If the Government had a spark of common sense, they would have jumped at the offer made by the trade unions, and the next Labour Government will do so when the opportunity arrives. But the Prime Minister has behaved in this affair, uncharacteristically, like General Galtieri, who rejected her offer on the Falklands — a very favourable offer—preferred to fight, and lost. She is now gambling with people's lives. Sir Brian Tovey told us that if only 10 per cent. of the members of GCHQ in key areas refused to stay there, the operation would collapse. I put it to the Foreign Secretary that it is certain that many more than that will refuse, especially the radio operators at the outstations, which are the most important area of GCHQ operations. The Foreign Secretary told us, without giving figures, that two thirds of employees had already signed, but we know that 40 per cent. of employees are not trade union members, so they are taking the £1,000 and running. Some trade union members might also have signed, but there is no doubt that a very large number of dedicated men and women in key posts at GCHQ have not signed and will not sign.

The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister talk of conflicts of loyalty. They have forced on the staff in GCHQ the most damaging conflict of loyalty known to man—loyalty to principle as against loyalty to family. The staff know that in many cases, if they give up work at GCHQ, it will be impossible for them to find work anywhere else without breaking their family life.

One of the results of the Government's action has been to give more publicity to GCHQ in the last three weeks than it has had over the past 40 years. The Government's action is risking the disruption of the work of GCHQ at one of the most dangerous periods in the post-war world, when the Lebanon is in chaos, when the Gulf war is threatening oil supplies to the Western world, when the United States is warning of military intervention very close to the Soviet frontier, and when there is a new leadership in the Kremlin. What a wonderful moment for the Government to choose to put this vital operation in jeopardy.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

The right hon. Gentleman regards the no-strike agreement as paramount, as if function were the only thing to be considered here, but surely security is also of vital importance. Is it not true that trade union practice and convention at Cheltenham prevent such things as briefcases being searched when people leave the premises? [Interruption.] Therefore, what is needed from the trade unions is a guarantee not just of function but of security operations at the site itself.

Mr. Healey

I made the point before that the threat to security in that sense, through espionage, in all Government establishments comes from former public school boys such as the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] The Government have never told us that they have raised these issues at any time in their discussions with the trade unions. The issue raised by the hon. Gentleman is a wholly false one.

Not everybody is unhappy at the Government's decision. The sharks are now circling round GCHQ in Cheltenham — notably, representatives of the Plessey company, of which Sir Brian Tovey is now a consultant. The company has put advertisements in the local newspaper asking members of GCHQ to leave their work on the grounds, as it is put in the advertisement, that it is difficult to feel dedicated at GCHQ, where prospects have clouded". Who has clouded those prospects? They have been clouded by the Government.

I fear that many of the people who have taken the £1,000 will leave GCHQ and take the jobs on offer from private companies. But many others will refuse — at least one third, I suspect, according to the Government's own figures. Then what will happen? This is where the "resolute approach" is already fraying at the edges. The Prime Minister is unravelling her woollen statue very fast, because Sir Robert Armstrong has given the director at GCHQ freedom to delay action indefinitely against people who refuse to sign—a day, a week, a month, a year. [Interruption.] I have read the letter, and the Minister who replies to the debate may read the whole thing to us, but the director has been given freedom to act if and when he thinks fit. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) quoted from a directive which I have not yet seen myself. I have no doubt that the Minister will later make his own speech in his own inimitable way, and I look forward to seeing the faces of Conservative Members when he does so.

It is possible that the Government may sack some members of the staff in order to encourage the others, but then they will find that staff pay is made up by the trade union movement, and the Government will face legal action. The Civil Service tribunal, as the Government know, can award unlimited damages if it finds against the Government in favour of an employee who has been unfairly treated.

The unions will also be going to the International Labour Organisation because they believe—and I share their belief, although I am not a lawyer — that the Government's decision is in flat violation of an ILO convention that the Government have signed.

I ask the Government to recognise that they have now embarked on a long-drawn-out campaign that they are bound to lose. The campaign will continue until the Government change their mind, or until the Government are changed by the British people, because there is deep feeling on this matter throughout the trade union movement.

The £1,000 bribe was deeply offensive to trade unionists throughout the country. The Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that the cost of the bribe, if successful, could amount to £10 million. I hope that we shall be told that it will not be carried on the Foreign Office Vote, but I understand that there is no other Vote on which GCHQ is carried, so will the Government take it out of the pockets of Cementation? [Interruption.]

Every trade unionist in Britain feels threatened by what the Government have done. The anger felt by trade unionists was felt deeply by everyone, not least Mr. Murray, who attended the meeting with the Prime Minister last week, because she was felt to be accusing trade unions of lack of patriotism, of being prepared to risk people's lives and to break their promises. The Foreign Secretary made it crystal clear in his speech that that, in his view, is what trade union membership at GCHQ must imply. I ask the Government to recognise that they really cannot talk in those terms to people such as Terry Duffy and Kate Losinska, who are now leading the campaign against the Government. What a miracle the Government have achieved in the trade union movement.

I remind the Government of the last time when anything such as this happened. It was when Mr. Chamberlain and his Home Secretary compared Ernie Bevin to Quisling. Within months they were out of office and Ernie Bevin was in office, helping to win the war for Britain.

I have not wasted time on the Foreign Secretary this afternoon, although I am bound to say that I feel that some of his colleagues must be a bit tired by now of his hobbling around from one of the doorsteps to another, with a bleeding hole in his foot and a smoking gun in his hand, telling them that he did not know it was loaded.

The Foreign Secretary, however, is not the real villain in this case; he is the fall guy. Those of us with long memories will feel that he is rather like poor van der Lubbe in the Reichstag fire trial. We are asking ourselves the question that was asked at the trial: who is the Mephistopheles behind this shabby Faust? The answer to that is clear. The handling of this decision by—I quote her own Back Benchers — the great she-elephant, she who must be obeyed, the Catherine the Great of Finchley, the Prime Minister herself, has drawn sympathetic trade unionists, such as Len Murray, into open revolt. Her pig-headed bigotry has prevented her closest colleagues and Sir Robert Armstrong from offering and accepting a compromise.

The right hon. Lady, for whom I have a great personal affection, has formidable qualities, a powerful intelligence and immense courage, but those qualities can hint into horrendous vices, unless they are moderated by colleagues who have more experience, understanding and sensitivity. As she has got rid of all those colleagues, no one is left in the Cabinet with both the courage and the ability to argue with her.

I put it to all Conservative Members, but mainly to the Government Front Bench, that to allow the right hon. Lady to commit Britain to another four years of capricious autocracy would be to do fearful damage not just to the Conservative party but to the state. She has faced them with the most damaging of all conflicts of loyalty. They must choose between the interests of their country, our nation's security and our cohesion as a people and the obstinacy of an individual. I hope that they resolve this conflict in the interests of the nation. If not, they will carry a heavy responsibility for the tragedies that are bound to follow.

4.52 pm
Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

I am one of the few hon. Members who have lived and grown up with GCHQ since it arrived in Cheltenham. In the late 1940s I played a part as a councillor in encouraging the Government of the day to establish that important presence in Cheltenham. I know better than anyone else that from its arrival it was well known what GCHQ was doing. From its commencement, a trade union presence and a right of choice to belong to a trade union was established.

A communication circulated by the personnel and establishments officer on behalf of the director of GCHQ to all new employees states: The management has close relationsips with the Unions and the Departmental Trade Unions and you are encouraged to join the Union concerned with your grade. Advice on many aspects of your employment as a civil servant is available to you as a member of your association and, should the need ever arise, representation of your personal problems can be made at the highest level. The names of officers of the various Unions and the Departmental Whitley Council are to be found in the pink pages of the GCHQ Telephone Directory. That was hardly a discouragement from management. The advice was still operative until Wednesday 25 January. It was withdrawn only moments after the Foreign Secretary announced in the House that the terms and working conditions of GCHQ employees would be changed at a stroke.

I make a correction — I should like the Foreign Secretary to spare just a second to listen to me. GCHQ has not encouraged and certainly would not encourage any of the suggested strike steps being initiated for tomorrow. Neither I nor they are that type of person. The Foreign Secretary underestimates GCHQ employees. The Foreign Secretary's comments in his opening speech were completely wrong in that assumption. Having lived in Cheltenham for so long, I assure the House that it would be difficult to find a more noble, loyal, hardworking and sincere group than the 8,000 employees, plus all those who subcontract work from GCHQ. They seek only the opportunities to continue with their valuable services in peace and security. None of this need have occurred. I am saddened that those responsible for the impasse have handled this matter with ineptitude and insensitivity beyond belief.

Until the last few years all appeared to be going well, but it is extraordinary and almost beyond the wit of anyone that morale in such an establishment could be so reduced in a comparatively short period. I remind the House that the Prime case was an unhappy affair. Prime was a non-trade union member who brought disgrace not only on all those who worked with him but on his family, too. That affair was a great blow to the respectability and decent work force of GCHQ.

Hardly had GCHQ recovered from that when some bright berk in either a Government Department or America brought pressure to bear to introduce the latest technology, the lie detector. Its only claim to fame is that it is faulty, unreliable, and has no effect on the trained infiltrator. Its damaging effect is that the loyal GCHQ workers feel that their trust has been impugned yet again. Even before the dust had settled on that matter, on Wednesday 25 January, the Foreign Secretary's announcement came as a bombshell to the House and to those working at GCHQ who heard it on the radio. Feelings ran high and disturbed much of Cheltenham and the Civil Service. The announcement distressed the locals, some of whom thought, misguidedly, that the safety of the realm was in peril. That was far from the truth. Yet again there was a deliberate distortion.

There was immediate and deeply felt resentment at the insensitivity of the directorate and the Government. The staff at GCHQ was having its loyalty questioned. It was then suggested that the Falklands effort had been put at risk, in spite of the fact that staff, both union and non-union, had, without hesitation, volunteered for long hours on round-the-clock shifts for weeks on end in direct support of the nation's effort.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Irving

It is terribly nice to see my hon. Friend, but, I am sorry, I never give way. I am grateful to him for showing interest, but I do not want to create yet another precedent.

There was never a hint of disruption at Cheltenham or at any of the outstations involved in the Falklands campaign for the entire duration of hostilities, and the imputation that there had been hurt, infuriated and deeply wounded staff. The latest slur, conveyed to the general secretaries of the unions last Thursday, that union membership at GCHQ involved a risk of putting people's lives in danger, is completely beyond the bounds of decency and truth.

The events in 1979 and 1981, which were repeatedly stressed by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary as being disruptive, were refuted by Sir John Nott, who was then Secretary of State for Defence, when the matter was raised in the House of Commons, when I was here, on 14 April 1981. He said: I do not wish to discuss the difficulties surrounding the dispute, but up to now they have not in any way affected operational activity in any area." —[Official Report, 14 April 1981; Vol. 3, c. 136.] On another occasion, he repeated that on both occasions the employees at GCHQ had assiduously avoided any disruption that would affect not only operational but security standards at GCHQ. From a senior Minister, that sounds fairly strong to me.

Surely, if the situation were as serious for national security as the House is being misled to believe, would it not have made sense to have taken this action in 1981? The delay has never been satisfactorily explained. The reason then for action would have been clear and all those involved, and those who have enjoyed the freedom of choice about which we hear so much at election time, would have been fully aware why their terms and conditions had been brought into line with MI5 and MI6.

I accept that in sensitive establishments there is undoubtedly a case for the Government continually to keep under review long-established practices, but I refute in the strongest possible terms the right to change anyone's terms of employment and conditions at a stroke, with no consultation and against all the traditions that we have been led to believe permit the operation of a democratic and free society in which non-union and union members can work in harmony side by side, as we have seen, with the First Division Association operating in GCHQ since 1931. This is where so much misunderstanding and bewilderment have been caused.

Not unnaturally, after the outburst there was even more alarm and concern when the Select Committee was told that three essential witnesses would be refused the right to give evidence on security grounds, although the matter under discussion was nothing to do with security but dealt with the effect of the Employment Protection Act. I hope that there will be an opportunity for a full and proper investigation as to the propriety of the action that was taken. In passing, I refer to the evidence given by my old friend, Sir Brian Tovey, who now claims to have been the architect of this rather squalid affair. Why was the action taken not immediately after the major disruption but after three years? If the security of the state is so paramount, is it not criminal that there has been such a delay?

I refer to the letter that was sent to the employees at GCHQ, through the Council of Civil Service Unions, dated 22 February, which laid out four major points that would be acceptable, in line with the Minister's wishes. The first was that there would be an assurance of no disruption and a guarantee of the continuance of 24-hour operations. Secondly, it was said that the assurance would be enforceable and written into the terms and conditions legally binding upon each individual employee. Thirdly, dismissal cases would be dealt with by the Civil Service Appeals Board or the Security Appeals Committee. Fourthly, national union officers would continue, as at present, to have no access to confidential information, with local union representatives handling aspects of negotiation requiring access to such information. Any failure of these conditions could be dealt with in the way suggested, but the Government were not prepared to give them a chance or to accept the fact that there was a case.

These proposals were endorsed by the all-party Select Committee, and what is more—this causes bewilderment in this bizarre affair— Sir Brian Tovey told the Committee that, had the concessions now being offered by the unions been available at the time that he was drawing up plans to ban the unions, the concessions would have met all requirements necessary. It seems strange that circumstances have changed so rapidly.

I do not know how much more an elite work force can do as its members grovel, as they go on their knees to secure justice and fairness. I find very strange indeed the whole event, which has given a sensitive establishment worldwide publicity—not that the work at GCHQ was unknown before its awowal, whatever that may mean. After all, the Colonel B case in 1978 brought a great deal of notoriety, and to suggest that GCHQ was operated in secret until 1983 is nonsense. Questions were asked in the House in 1980.

I still hope that there may be a straw that can be clutched, because the majority of people wonder where this will end. The dangers at GCHQ are much less than the dangers involved when highly confidential, classified information is being used at Whitehall ministries. Is this ban a preliminary effort to enable the Government to extend the same procedure throughout the parts of the Civil Service operating in sensitive areas? There is bound to be a strong feeling that this is so, and I deplore the unhappy and unfortunate way in which this important matter has been handled, especially as 4,500 families in my constituency are affected.

5.8 pm

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) on his speech, for he has shown what is clear—I address myself to his colleagues—namely, that this is an issue that far transcends the ordinary differences that divide the two sides of the House and is of especial concern to Back Benchers on both sides of the House.

I say that for a particular reason. Those of us who sit here representing our constituents have a common obligaton to ensure that the Executive, in the person of the Government, are acting with full responsibility to all the interests which they have to reconcile when they use the words "national security". It is because I believe that they have not discharged that task that I rise to speak this afternoon.

When the Government use the words "national security" to justify an action which would otherwise be regarded as outrageous, there is a natural inclination on the part of the overwhelming majority of us to give the Government the power which they demand without much question, but we must test those words. When the Government demand that employees at Cheltenham should swallow their principles to keep their jobs—and that is what is being done—all of us in the House have a special responsibility to speak on behalf of those employees and ensure that the Government are not misusing their prerogative or concealing a misuse of powers.

Ministers must justify to the hilt their intention to outlaw the trade unions at Cheltenham. In my judgment, they have not done so. I listened to the Foreign Secretary's explanations — I nearly said excuses — and I have listened and read what has been said by the Prime Minister and the other Ministers who have been wheeled out. I am unconvinced, and I have had some responsibility in both directions—as a trade union official for a Civil Service union and responsibility for security.

Another course of action was and is open to the Government. It would adequately protect the civil rights of the civil servants and could yet be secured by wise and patient Ministers without endangering our security one jot.

Ministers seem not to care. The Prime Minister sets the lead in the tone that she adopts. She seems not to care about the necessity and wisdom of trying to secure agreement from opponent; when one is in government. That is one of the great weaknesses of her performance as Prime Minister. I have begged her before, and I beg her again, to recognise that this is one country. Trade unionists are as loyal as anyone else and she should not always speak with scorn when referring to them.

Ministers, and the Prime Minister in particular, seem indifferent to the tide of resentment that is flowing so strongly. Let no Minister delude himself or herself that the indignation is synthetic: it is not, and it cannot be disregarded. I ask Conservative Members, in the general interest and not in any party interest, to bring pressure to bear on the Government to change course. If they do not, this issue will colour the whole background of everything that the Government do from now until the next general election. Let there be no doubt about that.

The Foreign Secretary argued that because of the possible conflict of loyalties it was a mistake that the staff at GCHQ should ever have been allowed to become trade union members. I go back no further than the second world war, and since that time Conservative Governments have been in office for 22 years. The country has had five Conservative Prime Ministers and eight Conservative Foreign Secretaries before the present holders of those offices. Not one Prime Minister — Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Home or the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) —and not one of the Foreign Secretaries—Selwyn Lloyd, Butler, Carrington or the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym), who is not in the Chamber — thought it necessary to deprive the staff at Cheltenham of their rights.

For 30 years or more Conservative Administrations have allowed the so-called mistake to continue. When challenged, all that the Foreign Secretary can say is that disruption between 1979 and 1981 created uncertainty about the staffs future loyalty. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) asked why Lord Carrington or the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East did not take action when they had responsibility for these matters. Is not the truth that they decided that action was not necessary? I believe that it must be so.

The Government's lame excuse for waiting three years before taking action is that they could not act until Mr. Prime was exposed as a spy, because it would have meant acknowledging that intelligence work was carried on at Cheltenham. The hon. Member for Cheltenham has disposed of that answer. I find it incredible; I simply do not believe it. When the Government have to advance such an argument, it casts doubt on the strength of the rest of their case.

However, let us take that answer at its face value. We have to ask from whom the Government needed to protect that information. It was obviously not from the Russians; they had their own man in the establishment, so they knew what was going on. It was obviously not from the Americans; they are our closest partners in the joint enterprise at Cheltenham. It was not from our other NATO allies or our friends outside NATO; on occasion, they make use of and are given access to some of the intelligence.

So who is left from whom the existence of GCHQ had to be concealed? Presumably, it is the British people They are the only people who did not know very much about it. It is an insult to our intelligence for the Foreign Secretary to say that he had to wait until the British people knew about Cheltenham before he could take action. Does it not follow that if Mr. Prime had not been exposed the so-called conflict of loyalty would have existed to this very day? Therefore, if Ministers had taken no action they would have been guilty of dereliction of duty.

If we dismiss, as I do, the Foreign Secretary's explanation as unworthy of him, we have to examine the other two theories that have been advanced, both of which were referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East. The first theory is that there has been pressure from American intelligence officials. That has been denied by the Foreign Secretary and we have to make up our own minds about that. We know that there is such a thing as deniable pressure, and I dare say that there was some on this occasion.

I believe that the major reason for the Government's action was the one advanced by the hon. Member for Cheltenham. It was their brusque and ill-mannered attitude when they proposed to introduce a lie detector at Cheltenham, which was felt by the staff there to be a slur on their loyalty and integrity.

The director of GCHQ, knowing that there had been disruption, knowing of the serious discontent that existed about the introduction of the lie detector and fearing that it might lead to unrest, may have decided to make a pre-emptive strike and weaken the staff even further by taking away their trade union rights. That seems to be the most likely explanation of an otherwise inexplicable action being taken three years after the original disruption. If the reports about the staff's reduced efficiency and morale are correct, the Government have much to answer for.

How many people have signed the document? We do not know. I do not know how many people work at Cheltenham, but if it is 10,000, as is reported in what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East said was an official briefing, and only 65 or 70 per cent. have signed, that means that at least 2,000 have not signed. Is that so? I do not expect an answer, but we can all draw our own conclusions. Is it really true that 2,000 or more people have not signed, despite having put their jobs at risk?

No doubt some Conservative apologists, including one or two who have had some connection with the intelligence services, will try in this debate to crush the resistance of the rest of the staff.

I ask the Secretary of State for Employment to make it absolutely clear that a document that was handed to me as I came in cannot be accurate. It is a printed document issued by the Council of Civil Service Unions and signed by the secretary. It says: One issue not covered in the briefing which arises out of a Written Answer given by Mr. Hayhoe last Thursday is the question of the discretion given to the director of GCHQ. This discretion can be used in one of three ways. The director could randomly sack small numbers of staff periodically. Secondly, the director could identify staff who form the backbone of the resistance to signing away rights to prevent organised resistance. Thirdly, the director could identify key staff which GCHQ could not afford to lose—for example, radio operators—and sack other more dispensable staff. Those are the options which the Civil Service unions regard as being open to the director, in the light of the answer given last Thursday by the Minister responsible for the Civil Service. I am glad to see the Secretary of State for Employment rising to his feet, because I ask him to deny at once that any of those methods will be used.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Tom King)

What the right hon. Gentleman is saying now is not what I understood him to say earlier, when he implied that these were Government instructions. Now I understand the right hon. Gentleman to be telling us that they are union suggestions of what the, implications could be. I think that he recognises the concern on the Conservative Benches about the document that he is quoting. If he will be good enough to let me have a copy of that document, I shall seek to answer it as clearly as I can. He will understand my difficulty, in that I do not have a copy of that union document.

Mr. Callaghan

The right hon. Gentleman has now been handed a copy of the document. I was not aware that I had been given a special privilege. It is a printed document and as such is surely available widely. At any rate, I ask the Minister to deny these possibilities now —he could do so— unless he wants to be guilty of outrageous conduct. There is no reason why the Minister should not say at once that this discretion will not be exercised in this way, and I invite him to say so now.

Mr. King

There has already been misunderstanding over the right hon. Gentleman's earlier interpretation of the document. I have every intention of reading the document, of which I had no previous knowledge and which appears to have been privately circulated by unions to selected Members. Since the right hon. Gentleman started to speak I have been seeking to obtain a copy, but without success. I think that the House will allow me at least the opportunity to reply properly to the document, after having a proper opportunity to consider it.

Mr. Callaghan

Of course we will give the Minister the few hours that are necessary for him to deny that small numbers of staff will not be randomly sacked, but if he needs time to consider the matter he is not a very worthy Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs grossly exaggerated the idea of a conflict of loyalty. The people who work at Cheltenham are not compelled to join a trade union. There has been no closed shop so far, although I wonder, from the questions put by Conservative Members, whether there will be a closed shop in future. I understand that this trade union or staff association—whatever it is—will represent the interests of everybody, so presumably, not having had a closed shop in the past, there will be one in future. That is the extent of the Government's illogicality.

When the right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about the disruption in 1981 on the day of action, he might at least have filled it out by adding that the disruption arose because the Government withdrew, or tore up, a pay agreement which they had signed and into which they had entered. Certainly I do not defend the disruption. I have made that clear when I have spoken to the staff at Cheltenham and when I have been asked to do so. The staff were wrong, and it should not happen again. I want the most watertight understandings and guarantees given on that, and, indeed, they have already been given. However, when the Government are putting their case and claiming severe disruption on the day of action, they might at least acknowledge that they had some part in provoking it, by tearing up a pay agreement. Perhaps a staff association will be more tame — I do not know — but the Government should beware, because staff associations can bite, too, if they are as outraged as the staff at Cheltenham were on that matter.

We do not know how the discussions would have gone if the Government had raised the issue with the full-time officers, the general secretaries of the trade unions, before they took this action. However, we do know that, as a result of the Government's diktat, the trade unions offered an agreement. We have seen a copy of the document which the unions prepared, which was handed to Sir Robert Armstrong, the head of the Civil Service, and discussed with him. It is breathtaking, in my view, in the concessions that it makes and in the lengths to which it goes to meet the Government's views about national security. If what happened in 1981 and the Government's action have brought the Civil Service unions to this level, the Government can claim at least a partial victory in what they have secured.

Let us consider the issue of possible disruption. Let us see what was said in the document which was handed to Sir Robert Armstrong: The staff will take no action which would or might interfere with the uninterrupted operation of essential security and intelligence services. That is an undertaking. The Government say, "Ah, but that is not sufficient. It is not sufficient to have an undertaking in this particular matter." Let us look again at the document: It is agreed that there shall be included in the conditions of service of staff employed in GCHQ a provision that they will not take such action. That is more than an undertaking. That is something that would be written. It is something the trade unions have apparently offered to include in the conditions of service. That is why I say that, in my view, the concessions are utterly breathtaking.

The next paragraph provides for the immunity from risk of industrial disruption, whether in pursuit of national or local disputes. It says that the trade union side will not instruct or ask members employed in or under GCHQ to take any action which would or might put at risk the continuous maintenance, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, of essential security and intelligence services at GCHQ. That is to be written into the conditions of service. What more do the Government want?

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Would the right hon. Gentleman he good enough to tell the House how, in the event of the unions breaching that agreement at a moment of international crisis, the Government could enforce that agreement?

Mr. Callaghan

If it is in the conditions of service, presumably if the staff break those conditions of service disciplinary action will be taken. That will be as true of a staff association as if they remain members of trade unions. There cannot be any escape from that. The hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) refuses to face the real issue.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Would the right hon. Gentleman support the enshrining of those undertakings in statute, because it is a specific security service?

Mr. Callaghan

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) will know—here I get on to wider ground—that I am opposed to the introduction of the law into these matters. On general philosophical grounds, ever since the 1960s, I have always made my position clear, and I am not ready to go that distance with him. The hon. Gentleman has acted as a trade union official.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths


Mr. Callaghan

If the hon. Gentleman does not want to be regarded as having acted as a trade union official, I withdraw the slur on him. However, he will know that when responsible general secretaries of unions enter into an agreement, it is then written into a man's contract of service and is so regarded, and is at least as good as anything that is written into any statute. Indeed, it may be more worth while to the Government than an Act that is forced through an unwilling Parliament against the will of those concerned. However, I do not want to go further on the matter, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.

It seems to me that the undertakings that have been offered in this document meet everything for which the Government could ask. However, the Prime Minister spurned it, so she should not be surprised if the only conclusion to be drawn is that she is so emotional and irrational about trade unionism that she cannot bring herself to accept an agreement, even when it meets her requirements.

We do not know the view of the present head of the Civil Service, but we know that sensible negotiations and discussions went on between him and the Civil Service trade union leaders. Also, we know the view, of his immediate predecessor, which was quoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East, and he is not alone in that view. Former permanent under-secretaries who have at least as much responsibility, at least as much knowledge and at least as much concern about national security have said—and it is known—that they regard the undertakings which have been given, especially the undertaking to write this into people's contracts of service, as sufficient to meet the Government's case.

We know that some members of the Cabinet disagree with what is being done. We know that they have been overridden. We know that a number of Government supporters, including the hon. Member for Cheltenham, the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) and today the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Sir K. Lewis), have been courageous enough to say publicly what many of their right hon. and hon. Friends believe even if they have not yet said so. But they have an opportunity to influence their Government if they will.

Nor did the Government convince the all-party Select Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton), which rendered a considerable service by acting so quickly in this matter.

It seems to me that the Prime Minister should have spoken in this debate. She is the head of the Civil Service. She is the head of the security services. It is she, it is believed, who has taken this decision in its last essence. She should have accounted for herself to the House of Commons today.

I know that the right hon. Lady will not take any advice from me, but if she were wise she would step back a pace or two. She could do it in the following way. She should invite Lord Bridge of Harwich, the chairman of the Security Commission, and his colleagues, Lord Justice Griffiths, Lord Allen of Abbeydale and General Sir Hugh Beach, to consider the document which the trade unions have prepared for Sir Robert Armstrong. If necessary, let them examine it — let them see the trade unions privately if they wish to do so — to elucidate the document's meaning and to see what is necessary. Let them report to the Prime Minister whether, in their view, the proposals and safeguards are adequate to satisfy the security needs of the Government.

I can think of no group which could better that group. It includes not only two distinguished judges but a former permanent secretary to the Home Office and a defence specialist, General Sir Hugh Beach. There could be no better team assembled. Its members cover all aspects of this matter.

I still urge the Prime Minister to have the wisdom to admit that perhaps there was a little impetuosity in this matter and that it would now be sensible, in view of the disquiet felt on the Government Benches as well as on the Opposition Benches and widely outside the House, to step back and say, "Let someone else look at it." The members of the Security Commission are not people who, by any stretch of the imagination, could be regarded as irresponsible in these matters.

Secondly, the right hon. Lady could disperse a great deal of bitterness now if she were to say to the staff at Cheltenham that until the report of Lord Bridge of Harwich has been prepared, received and considered by her she will defer the date of 1 March by which they must make this choice between their unions and their jobs.

With those two steps the right hon. Lady could get rid of much of the bitterness, which is genuine. She must understand this, because the Government's action is seen as forcing the staff to swallow their principles.

The third step, which I do not suppose the right hon. Lady will take but which would certainly raise the present low morale of the staff at Cheltenham, would be to withdraw the lie detector and lift the slur from the staff. I do not regard that as essential, but I believe that it would do more than anything else to raise the morale of the staff there. It is disquieting to hear reports that it is at a low ebb.

This issue will not die. The issue of principle that is at stake here is older than the Prime Minister and will survive long after she has left office. Whatever the result of the present round, and even if the Prime Minister wins a hollow victory today, I tell her that the staff at Cheltenham, however long it takes, will one day have their rights restored to them by a Prime Minister and a Government who are more careful of the need to safeguard civil liberties as well as national security than she has shown herself to be.

5.36 pm
Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

During more than two years as the Minister responsible for GCHQ I never at any time had any cause to doubt or question the loyalty, patriotism and sheer integrity of the people at the establishment. On one occasion when strike action was called—in February 1979, when I was still Secretary of State — it was noteworthy that at that establishment practically no disruption occurred and that the majority of people were quite content to cross the picket line and continue to work. They were right to do so. I crossed the picket line at that time, and I was right to do so as well.

I say to the Prime Minister, who has not always shown the greatest understanding of this issue, that I hope that she will listen to the suggestion of a former Prime Minister that she should wind up this debate. It is inconceivable that we should have this debate, when she is clearly the person who has made all the major decisions that we are debating, and not have her voice explaining what exactly she still finds deficient in what has been offered by the Civil Service unions.

As the Prime Minister knows, on the day that the original statement was made I said from this Bench that I thought that the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary was right to ask the trade unionists and others at GCHQ to forgo their right to go to industrial tribunals. They have now agreed to that and instead will use the Civil Service machinery. Those proceedings will be held in private and, therefore, there will be no potential conflict with security in having to reveal information. There is some doubt whether there ever was. But that has been clarified, and that was the sole purpose of issuing a certificate under the Employment Protection Act.

We now have it clear that never before has the Order-in-Council procedure been used to ban anyone from being a member of a trade union. That ban came about as a result of an administrative decision from the Government and does not necessarily follow the mere issuing of a certificate. It was not done in 1976 when the then Secretaries of State issued certificates in respect of the other intelligence establishments. We have had that confirmed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.

I wish to tackle the issue on which the Prime Minister has tended to concentrate most, which is that trade union membership is an anomaly in GCHQ and that the Government are simply bringing GCHQ into line with all the other security and intelligence agencies, by which I imagine she means MI6 and MI5.

We have to choose our words carefully in describing the position. The Prime Minister knows that this is a wholly false comparison. The people who serve in these agencies do not admit even to their close friends that they work in such agencies. It is a wholly private arrangement. For that obvious and sensible reason, they have never sought to be members of trade unions. It has not been necessary for any Government to ask those people to disavow their trade unionism. They have never been trade unionists. The reasons are obvious and clear-cut to everyone.

At GCHQ there has never been any question about the identities of those working there. They go through the gates into GCHQ quite openly. They tell their friends that they work in GCHQ. They are proud to work there. It is nonsense to compare MI6 and MI5 with GCHQ. The Prime Minister must know that, and she ought to admit that at the Dispatch Box tonight.

We need to be told whether the trade unions have met the objections over the industrial tribunal. Have they met the Government's legitimate objections over a no-disruption and a no-strike agreement? The alliance has made it quite clear that, in view of the events of 1981, and, possibly, the marginal events in February 1979, it was legitimate to ask for such agreement. The Foreign Secretary has given us no grounds for believing that there are substantive issues on which more should be given by the trade union movement. If there are, we should know, and the trade union movement should know what wording or extra-special agreement needs to be added so that they can respond.

Most people listening to the debate are left only with the Foreign Secretary's rather vague talk about the risk of conflicting pressures. He and the Prime Minister know that people much closer to the nation's security are members of trade unions and risk those conflicting pressures. They work only a few yards away from the Prime Minister's office in No. 10 Downing street. The Foreign Secretary has only to go down the corridor in the Foreign Office to see many similar people—active trade unionists, privy to the most secret and classified information. I dare say that on occasions they are privy to rather more classified information than that which goes through GCHQ.

I ask the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to realise that the implication of their decision is that there is a risk to national security in the mere fact of being a member of a trade union. It is that which many hon. Members find objectionable, just as much as trade unionists find it objectionable. It is for that reason, more than almost anything else, that the trade union negotiators are prepared to go to almost any lengths to establish that they were prepared to safeguard the national security while still retaining the right to be a member of a trade union. That is why the document that is being presented demonstrates that they are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths, and they are justified and right to do so. The House has the right to know why the document does not meet the needs of legitimate national security for which any Government might be entitled to ask.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that there is much merit in the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) that the matter should be referred to the Security Commission?

Dr. Owen

That is the suggestion that I put to the Prime Minister at the start of the dispute. I said that the matter should be referred to the Security Commission because its membership was, as the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) rightly said, beautifully judged to give a balance of views on this most difficult issue. If whoever is to reply to the debate—I hope that it will be the Prime Minister—were to say that the Government are ready to refer the matter to the Security Commission, there would be no necessity to push the matter to the vote.

We have had no explanation why the decision was not taken as soon as the Government felt that there were major security implications in the action taken in 1981. Even that was no justification, although there was abundant justification for going to the unions privately. We are told that some informal discussions took place. At that stage, the heads of major trade unions, who are responsible people, should have been told by the Foreign Secretary that he was concerned and felt bound to ask them to look at the matter. He should have sounded them out in that way. There is a well-established precedent for dealing with such matters in that way. Those conversations could have been entirely private, and the Foreign Secretary must know that such a confidence would have been respected. That should have been done at the highest level by the Minister with responsibility for GCHQ.

As the debate has continued, I have grown ever more concerned about the information about GCHQ that has now been revealed, some of which is damaging. In 1978 the then Attorney-General had to make a decision whether to prosecute under the Official Secrets Act—the famous ABC trial. As the House knows, such decisions are for the Law Officers, not Ministers. I was consulted and I must confess that I had grave anxieties whether such action should take place, for one simple reason—I believed that more information would come out as a result of the trial. The decision was taken and I admit that eventually I was persuaded that it was right to go ahead. However, the decision was made by the Attorney-General and, in retrospect, I believe that I and all those associated with it made the wrong decision. Fact after fact began to emerge from the trial and, in embarrassment, eventually we closed the matter down. That was nothing to what has emerged over the past month. Day after day more information has come out, to an extent which has seriously damaged national security. That is more important than the rather footling argument that has been developed on the questions that we are debating today. Serious facts have emerged which are damaging. We are asked to believe that the dispute will continue and that morale in GCHQ will continue to deteriorate. If ever there was a fertile territory for another Prime case, it is the background of the past few weeks.

Some interesting questions arise on the way in which the House of Commons conducts itself and I want to consider them briefly. I sought leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 10 on 25 January. For acceptable reasons, Mr. Speaker, you decided that that should not take place. Then, on 14 February, we had the Select Committee's report. If ever there was a case for an immediate debate, it was that report by the all-party Select Committee. It is now 27 February and the issue has been discussed in every newspaper arid on every radio station, not just in Britain but in every country. It has been discussed in Pravda, Tass and everywhere. At long last we are asking the House of Commons to debate it. What is it debating it on? It is debating it on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, with, apparently, a two-line Whip on the Government and Opposition Benches. What a way to discuss a major issue. [Interruption.] We are told by the Labour party that there is no Whip, no vote. If the House can debate the issue without reaching a decision, there is something strange about the way in which parliamentary democracy works.

The honest answer is that it is justifiable not to have a Division if there are to be further negotiations. However, a much more serious development has now taken place. The issue has now, most unwisely, been taken from the House of Commons by the unions' decision to take strike action. Such strike action is deeply damaging. It is one thing for that strike action to take place within the Civil Service unions, although I wish that it would not, but that it should be widened to include all unions is wrong, and that needs to be said.

In the light of the consequences, it becomes even more important that the House should make its views known. If there are no reasonable signs that the Government have listened to the debate, whether by taking up the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, to refer the matter to the Security Commission, or by undertaking to deal with the matter in some other way, I and my right hon. and hon. Friends will divide the House. We shall do so on the fundamental principle that it is here in the House, not on the streets, not in strike action but by reasoned, sensible and rational debate, that decisions should be taken, and, if need be, taken to the vote.

We urge those Conservative Members who think like us to vote with us. It may be easier for them to vote with us knowing that those who are going into the Lobby will not be those who will in any way associate themselves with the strike action that is to take place tomorrow. They will be those who wish to assert in the House the primacy of the House as the control of the Executive. To those who say that the Government's majority is so vast that no debate and no vote in the House can have any effect, I say that that is a counsel of despair.

If we are to go through the next four years discounting any votes in the House because we shall not win them, it will be a very poor Parliament and House of Commons. The vote and the voice ought to go together. Unless the Prime Minister gives the House a satisfactory assurance tonight, hon. Members will have an opportunity to vote.

5.50 pm
Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) made the point, which has been made before, that there are other civil servants, not at the GCHQ, who handle equally sensitive matters and who are members of trade unions. I imagine that he has in mind, for example, people who work in ministerial private offices. There is an important difference between them and people working at GCHQ. As far as I know, the people working in ministerial offices have no record of going on strike.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) was wrong on at least one point. With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), he also was wrong. I forbore to interrupt my hon. Friend because I was afraid that he might not say of me, as he said of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), "How lovely it is to see him." My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham was wrong to claim that, in his remark on 14 April 1981, Sir John Nott was referring to GCHQ. I have the question and answer, and it is clear that Sir John Nott was referring to the operational activities of the armed forces. He was responsible for them. He was not responsible for GCHQ. I see my hon. Friend shaking his head, but I have the extract from Hansard. The question is: Will my right hon. Friend be assured that whatever the consequences in increased disruption, his decision to send in the Navy to service the Polaris submarine `Resolution' will be supported by the vast majority of people in this country, who find it intolerable that the nation's defences should be put in jeopardy by the action of self-seeking civil servants? The relevant part of the answer—

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

Read it all.

Sir Peter Blaker

The hon. Gentleman can look at it if he wishes. The relevant part of the answer is: I assure my hon. Friend that there are no circumstances whatsoever under which we would allow the defence, including the deterrent capacities, of this country, to be adversely affected in any way by such an industrial dispute. I do not wish to discuss the difficulties surrounding the dispute"— that is a reference to the Polaris dispute— but up to now they have not in any way affected operational capability in any area." — [Official Report, 14 April 1981; Vol. 3, c. 136.]

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I raised the matter originally in the House. The right hon. Gentleman is repeating what the Prime Minister said. I raised the subject for one purpose. I know that the Ministry of Defence depends upon the defence capability of GCHQ. If the Secretary of State—not replying only, as I see, about the precise matter that the right hon. Gentleman raised—says that it did not affect operational capability in any area, he should have known better.

Sir Peter Blaker

The Secretary of State for Defence is not responsible for GCHQ. He was asked about areas for which he was responsible, and his reply clearly referred to those areas. There is no doubt about the position.

The Opposition and trade unions' case would be stronger if it were not for three points. The first is the industrial action that we know occurred in 1979 and 1981. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary quoted a case in 1981 in which the trade unions had been asked specifically to avoid action that would damage certain areas of the activities of the GCHQ. He told us that the result was that they specifically aimed their action to damage those areas. That is new information. We must bear that fact in mind when we assess the wisdom of reaching an agreement with the trade unions and relying on it. We know, because we have seen the documents, that in 1981 the Council of Civil Service Unions said: 48-hour walkouts have severely hit secret monitoring stations belonging to the Composite Signals Organisation. The Government is clearly worried and will be subject to huge pressure from NATO allies. There is a further quotation from campaign report No. 1 in the same year issued by the Council of Civil Service Unions. It states: The use of selective strike action by members in sensitive areas is a key part of our campaign. Our ultimate success depends upon the extent to which … defence readiness hampered". Those statements cannot be repeated too often. The unions make it perfectly clear that they have seen GCHQ as a sensitive and inexpensive target to hit. It is sensitive because of the damage it could do to the country's safety, and it is inexpensive because a great deal of damage can be done with small amounts of strike pay from the unions as the numbers at GCHQ are not large.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

As the hon. Gentleman is talking about disruption, and as the Government are pinning disruption on the trade unions, is it not incumbent upon the Government to ensure that no disruption occurs from other causes? I understand that disruption was not just being caused by this event, but because there have been a succession of technological breakdowns at GCHQ which could not be repaired because there was insufficient money to provide the technological back-up. I shall give the right hon. Gentleman an example—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. Interventions should be brief. The hon. Member can see that there are a large number of hon. Members waiting to take part in the debate.

Sir Peter Blaker

The hon. Gentleman appears to be making a point about the extreme importance of the activities of GCHQ. It reinforces the case that I am making, and I am grateful to him.

We are indebted to The Guardian newspaper, which on 30 January quoted Mr. John Sheldon, the general secretary of one of the major unions involved. He was talking about his union's past activities and he said: We attempted to disrupt GCHQ and we failed to do so because people there felt their loyalty was primarily to the state. I should like to endorse the implied compliment paid by Mr. Sheldon to the GCHQ staff. I have no doubt about the loyalty and sense of responsibility of the staff who work there.

Sir Brian Tovey, in an interview in The Sunday Times, which has already been mentioned, said: GCHQ did not operate at its peak efficiency during both the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the crisis in Poland. It made us look ridiculous. So, there have been occasions when the actions of the trade unions have had an adverse effect.

The second point on which the trade unions' case is weak is their lack of response to the inquiries that were made—my right hon. and learned Friend has referred to them—in 1980 about the possibility of reaching a no-dispute or no-strike agreement.

The current offers of the trade unions have the air of a death-bed conversion. It is a pity that they did not take up the possibility of reaching a no-strike agreement in 1980.

The Opposition's case is weak on a third ground—the action that they took in 1975, when the Employment Protection Act passed through Parliament; in 1976, when they signed the certificates depriving other intelligence organisations of the protection given by the Employment Protection Act; and in 1978 when they passed the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act. These Acts enabled the Government to deprive civil servants involved in matters affecting the security of the nation of the protection offered by the Employment Protection Act.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that although my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Employment are on the Front Bench, not a single member of the shadow Cabinet is listening to the first speech from the Back Benches in favour of the Government's point of view? People outside who may be listening to the debate should know that.

Sir Peter Blaker

My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to that important point. Not one member of the shadow Cabinet is on the Opposition Front Bench. One junior spokesman, the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) is present. I noted that the right hon. Member for Leeds, East left the Chamber immediately after making his speech.

One is entitled to ask why the Labour Government legislated in 1975 and again in 1978, saying that Governments would have the power to deprive civil servants of the protection offered by the Employment Protection Acts on grounds of national security. Why did they legislate in that way if they did not intend that power to be used, if necessary, in future? If they intended that power to be used at some time in the future, to what organisation did they think it might be relevant, as already MI5 and MI6 had been deprived of the protection given by the Acts? What other organisation did they have in mind? They must have had some organisation in mind. Perhaps someone can suggest what it was.

Mr. John Smith

I understand that in my temporary absence from the Chamber I was attacked by the right hon. Gentleman. I should like to tell him why I left. I was summoned to leave by a Minister from the Department of Employment to discuss a matter at his request.

Sir Peter Blaker

I am grateful for that explanation and to notice that there are now two Opposition Members on the Front Bench. At least that is an improvement.

I should like to know what organisation the Labour Government had in mind when they passed the legislation to which I referred. I cannot think of any other organisation that is such an obvious candidate as the GCHQ. We should go back to first principles. As I have already said in the House, it seems illogical and wrong for workers in intelligence organisations to be represented by national unions, most of the officers of which are not part of those organisations. Those officers will tend not to have the same level of security clearance as members of GCHQ. There is thus a built-in problem.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The argument that the right hon. Gentleman is advancing could be used for employees in other sensitive positions in the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere. Does he not recognise that the very arguments that are now being advanced, which he supports, only confirm our suspicion that in time the Government will try to extend the ban?

Sir Peter Blaker

We have had assurances, which I accept, from my right hon. Friends. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the wording of the two Acts passed under the Labour Government — the Employment Protection Acts of 1975 and 1978. They require that the power be exercised only for the purpose of safeguarding national security.

It is illogical that members of GCHQ are represented by people who have a lower security clearance than they have. I make it clear that I am not impugning the patriotism of the staff of GCHQ, but inevitably this situation poses a practical problem. How are the national staff, without adequate security clearance, to discuss fully the problems and grievances of the staff at GCHQ without going into matters to which they are not entitled to be privy? As we have heard, there is a built-in conflict of interests.

Some ridicule has been cast on the thought that it has been possible to take action only since 1983 because, it is said, not many people knew before 1983 what GCHQ was involved in. It is said that the Russians, the people in Cheltenham and others knew. However, the fact is that it was never publicly stated by any Government until 1983 that GCHQ was an intelligence-gathering organisation. It may seem odd if many people knew roughly what GCHQ was involved in, but I know enough of civil servants to be confident what would have been their advice at any time before the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in May 1983 to the effect that GCHQ was an intelligence organisation. Civil servants would have advised until they were blue in the face that we should not take the step that has now been taken because it had never been stated publicly that GCHQ was an intelligence organisation. That is how civil servants operate. I speak as one who was a civil servant for 10 years.

The right way for the staff of GCHQ to be represented is by a staff associaton. There is no reason why a staff association should not represent them satisfactorily. There is the example of the Police Federation, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) referred.

The unions have offered concessions, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said that the unions are insisting that the no-disruption agreement that they have offered should distinguish between one category of staff and another. I should like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, who will wind up the debate, to elaborate on that point. If that is so, it is a bar to acceptance of the unions' proposal. One cannot satisfactorily separate one type of category of staff at GCHQ from the rest. One may say that some are involved in activities that are not directly concerned with the most secret work of the organisation. That is true. However, one must take the staff as a whole, as a block. One cannot say that the unions can deal with the grievances of the less important people but not of the more important people without getting oneself rapidly into trouble on security matters that should not be revealed.

If there is scope for agreement with the unions, it would have to be an agreement that left the role of the unions purely nominal. Virtually the only function of the unions would be to collect subscriptions of the members of GCHQ. That would not be a satisfactory arrangement from the point of view of the staff.

Tomorrow's industrial action is a powerful example of why the staff at GCHQ should not belong to trade unions. An atmosphere of hysteria has been worked up by some trade unions. The behaviour of some of them is deeply irresponsible. It is certainly disproportionate. I understand that some of it is illegal. If the unions are prepared to break the law over this matter, what reason have we to think that they will not break a contract? Is it not more serious to break the law than to break a contract, which is what they are proposing should be made with the Government?

There has been a reference to Solomon Binding, a gentleman we knew when the Labour Government were in power. We know what happened to the solemn and binding agreement that the Labour Government made with the unions. That agreement did not last long. I have a feeling that, on a matter of this importance, it is inconceivable that if there were only an agreement of the type so far offered by the trade unions, they might find it unacceptable to keep to it in future. Therefore, I believe that every person who goes on strike tomorrow will be helping to confirm the Government's case.

6.9 pm

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

I am sure the House agrees that the Government's unprecedented step in unilaterally altering terms and conditions of employment and attempting completely to suppress trade unionism at GCHQ was an appropriate matter for the Select Committee to inquire into and examine. Our report is proferred in what I hope is a helpful and constructive manner to shed light on the facts and to suggest a way out of what I regard as an unhappy, sad and unnecessary situation.

The Committee started from the common ground that any Government have a responsibility to ensure national security, that questions of national security arise at GCHQ, that industrial action there could disrupt national security and that the Government have a legitimate interest in seeing that the exercise of trade unionism at GCHQ does not damage national security.

In its inquiry the Committee sought to establish whether the measures announced by the Foreign Secretary on 25 January banning trade unions were necessary, whether that was the only option, whether in all the circumstances the measures were right, whether the Government acted appropriately in their manner and handling of the matter and what would be the effect on the staff concerned. In short, did the Government take the right action in the right way?

Unfortunately, there is a gap or imbalance in the evidence, as we were able to talk to Sir Brian Tovey, recently director of GCHQ, but not to Mr. Jack Hart, the senior elected trade union official and chairman of the staff side of the Whitley council at Cheltenham, because a stop was put on Mr. Hart's appearing before the Committee. In paragraphs 194 and 195 of his evidence Sir Brian paid glowing tribute to Mr. Hart, confirming that Mr. Hart had positive clearance and was a person with whom Sir Brian could work and in whom he had complete confidence and trust. The question of national security was not relevant in that instance, as we wished to discuss industrial relations and not security secrets with Mr. Hart. I greatly regret the fact that we could not see him. No doubt the House will wish to consider the implications of that prohibition at an early date.

Having heard the evidence and reread the transcripts, I do not believe that the Government have acted properly or that their measures are justified. As we say in the report, the Government's handling of the matter could not be described as a model of its kind". The House will note the temperance of our language. We seek not to score cheap points but to address ourselves seriously to the issue. We have also heard the comment of the former head of the Home Civil Service, that the Government's action was "breathtakingly inept".

I find the Government's case literally incredible. That is why I asked the Foreign Secretary when he appeared before the Committee whether there was anything that he wished to tell us in camera. I was so unconvinced by the Government's public presentation of the case that I wondered whether there was some as yet undisclosed reason for these draconian measures. Apparently, there was not. Personally, I find the Government's action—it is entirely without precedent — ill-advised, misconceived, unacceptable in the violence that it does to civil liberties and freedom of association, unnecessary and counterproductive in its effect and highly damaging to GCHQ. I believe that there were—and are—better ways of dealing with the matter.

The Committee's criticisms fall under six main headings which I shall amplify in my own way. The first relates to timing. The Government said that they were seriously concerned about the effect of industrial action at GCHQ between February 1979 and April 1981. They have not satisfactorily explained why, if they were so worried and if a great danger to the state" — [Official Report, 3 February 1984; Vol. 530, c. 53.] was discerned so long ago, it took five years for them to take any action. If there was such a great danger, it was surely dereliction of duty not to act to remedy the situation by an approach to the unions nationally. The answer that it was all secret and hush-hush is utterly lame and unconvincing. The centre was written about in the press in 1976 and 1978.

The Foreign Secretary himself has quoted a strike sheet — campaign report No. 5 — showing that the unions were well aware of the centre's work. Sir Brian Tovey also, in paragraph 187 of his evidence, mentioned talking to national union officials who although they had derived an awareness of what we were doing from the press and so on, were nevertheless constrained from actually saying so to management's faces". The unions therefore knew. We also know that other countries' intelligence services knew. The Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that it was impossible to talk to the unions before the Prime case while at the same time saying that half- hearted local and informal talks were held in 1980. In holding those talks at all the Government surrendered the argument that it was impossible to talk to the unions. Finally, are we really to believe that but for the emergence of Prime this so-called great danger to the state would have been tolerated indefinitely? That stretches credulity too much.

The second criticism concerns the lack of consultation. After five years of masterly inactivity, this stark thunderbolt came out of the blue without any prior notice at all. That is astonishing. There was no consultation with the House or with the Cabinet. The Foreign Secretary suggested that this was a minor matter with which there was no need to bother his Cabinet colleagues. Had he done so, I suspect that we should not be in this mess. Despite the unprecedented step of unilaterally altering terms of employment, as no other employer would be allowed to do, there was no consultation with the staff or their representatives—what an example for the Government to set—and no serious national approach to the unions even in private to say confidentially, "Here is a problem—what can we do to resolve it?" Had such an approach been made and rebuffed, the Government would have had far more plausible grounds for these harsh and extreme measures.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Leighton

No; I promised to take only 10 minutes. The unions have now responded and the case for the ban has not been made out.

The third area of criticism concerns the way in which the Government have shifted their ground and released information about their actions almost furtively in instalments. It was not clear from the statement of 25 January that staff who declined to move to alternative posts would be sacked without compensation. Furthermore, the Foreign Secretary on 25 January used the following words: The certificates have immediate effect and new conditions of service are at the same time being introduced at GCHQ." —[Official Report, 25 January 1984; Vol. 52, c. 917.] Two things were confused in that one unpunctuated sentence. The inference was that trade unions were banned by certificates under the Employment Acts, which as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know have a respectable lineage, whereas that was not the case. It was dragged out only later that the action was being taken under a separate legal instrument under an Order in Council of 1982 on the authority of the Prime Minister. There was certainly sleight of hand about that on 25 January.

The fourth criticism concerns the inducement—again utterly unprecedented—of £1,000 to leave a union. Incidentally, the Foreign Secretary did not say on 25 January that the payment was subject to tax, but perhaps he did not know that. It is clear that many people find that offer deeply repugnant and offensive. The Foreign Secretary said that the offer is only one indication of the importance we attach to the principles at stake. Plainly, there are those who find the idea that their principles are up for sale for £1,000 cash an affront and an insult. I believe that it also sticks in the throats of many Members of Parliament.

The fifth criticism is that, although the smooth and efficient operation of GCHQ depends on good staff relations and willing co-operation, the Government's actions have soured relations, angered staff, destroyed morale and attracted widespead, unwelcome attention.

If the House could face some black humour, it would savour the sentence starting on the third line of the letter sent to the staff by Peter Marychurch, director of GCHQ, on 25 January. It reads: Ministers have recently decided that because GCHQ must be able to work in secrecy and to provide a service on which the Government and our allies can confidently rely at all times, it should be freed as far as possible from the dangers of its operations being discussed in public. How far has that objective been achieved? What on earth are we doing now? The centre is illuminated by a blaze of publicity. It must be the most highly publicised spy centre in the world. Staff are saying that Ministers in this House are blurting out all the information which in the past they have kept secret even from their wives.

The sixth criticism is that there is no analogy with MI5 or MI6. The latter are small groups of professionals recruited on the basis that there will be no trade unionism. GCHQ has a staff of thousands, recruited for decades on the basis that there would be trade unions. Indeed, guidance notes for new employees encourage them to belong to trade unions. Furthermore, I have heard no suggestion that we should set up staff associations for MIS or MI6. There is no analogy.

Why did the Government take this action? Prima facie, it is inexplicable. In the report we charitably leant over backwards to put the best possible construction on the Government's action. We wondered—I paraphrase—whether their extremist stance was a bargaining counter designed to elicit concessions from the unions. However that may be, there has been a remarkable and profound response from the Civil Service unions on the Government's four objectives of no disruption, no disclosure, no intrusion and no conflict of loyalties. The unions replied that they were willing to meet all those objectives. That is a basis for an agreement.

Mr. Nicholls

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be in order for the hon. Gentleman to make that statement if he was aware that evidence was recorded in private from Sir Brian Tovey to the effect that in 1980 the unions were informally approached for a no-strike agreement and no agreement was forthcoming?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order for me.

Mr. Leighton

At the expense of prolonging my speech for a couple of minutes, I point out that Sir Brian Tovey said that there were informal talks. How can the Government say that it was impossible to talk to the unions before Prime if, according to the hon. Gentleman, such talks took place? The talks were informal and unofficial. They were not on a national basis. I should have preferred the approach to be made on a national level. The unions have now come forward with their response.

In his evidence to the Committee, in paragraph 94, the Foreign Secretary said: I readily recognise that the scene now is not the same as it was in 1981. In other words, we have elicited from the unions the response that the hon. Gentleman wants, and it must be perverse of the Government not to take yes for an answer. It cannot go beyond the wit of a British Government and British unions in this sphere to reach a mutually satisfactory voluntary arrangement, and a voluntary arrangement must be much better than one which the Government attempt to impose by diktat. The Committee's report points the way out of this fiasco—the way to achieve the Government's four objectives while retaining the civil right of free association. After all, it is these precious rights that the centre is there to protect.

The Committee's recommendations call on the Government to satisfy themselves that the unions' offers satisfy every requirement of national security, that the unions offer whatever legally binding assurances are necessary, and that the arrangements would not create a precedent but would apply solely to national security at GCHQ. We recommended the Government and the unions, using their reason and rationality, to get together and reach agreement on those lines. In the event of such an agreement guaranteeing the continuity of operations at GCHQ, the Government should withdraw their proposal to prohibit employees at GCHQ from belonging to a trade union; and, in the meantime, all action consequent upon the certificate signed by the Foreign Secretary should be suspended.

That would not be a defeat for anyone. It would not be a climb-down. It would not involve a loss of face. The Government would have achieved all that they want. It would surely be a victory for reason. If there was ever any suggestion in the future that the agreement was not being abided by, the state would still retain all the powers to take the draconian measures that it has contemplated.

What is the alternative? What will happen if our suggestions are dismissed out of hand? What if the Government are unreasonable, if they confuse resolution with rigidity, if they are stiff, mulish, inflexible, and obdurate? What if they are clad in cast-iron, with minds and brains like concrete, all mixed up and set hard? I would not give much for the future of GCHQ. We should jeopardise and grievously damage a valuable national security asset. The Government would cause much more disruption than anything the unions have done. It is true that the unions caused disruption. There was not much disruption, but the director says that any disruption is too much, and the unions agree. All hon. Members of the House agree.

However, what is to happen now? What disruption will the Government's action cause? According to the Tovey article in The Sunday Times, the advice was given to the Government that only about 20 members of staff would object. It is now clear that that advice was wrong and that many more are objecting, despite all the pressure and propaganda and the worry about wives, families, mortgages and careers. Despite the appalling financial coercion, which I personally deplore, many more are resisting.

I do not want to join in the numbers game. It is meaningless. I suspect that less than half the staff are members of trade unions. To say that a majority have signed, therefore, is only to say that the majority who are not members of trade unions have taken £1,000 not to join the unions to which they do not wish to belong. I suspect that a majority of trade unionists—or a goodly number—have not signed, despite coercion.

Sir Brian Tovey told us that if 10 per cent. of the staff left the work of the centre would be disrupted but that he did not think that the number of staff resisting would approach that number. That has been proved wrong.

I ask the Government whether, on 2 March, they will sack forthwith those who have signed. That is the crunch.

Mr. Tom King

Those who have not signed.

Mr. Leighton

I am glad that the Secretary of State is listening intently. I hope that he will tell us clearly whether they will sack forthwith those who have not signed.

Mr. King


Mr. Leighton

I was certain that the answer would be no. On 7 February, in the Select Committee, we asked the Foreign Secretary how difficult it would be to recruit replacement staff in different categories if large numbers opted to leave. He said: This is a hypothetical question because the ability of the Government to recruit new staff, or of other Government Departments to absorb GCHQ staff, will depend clearly on the numbers and specialisms of those concerned. This cannot be known until March. And thereafter transfer and recruitment procedures are likely to take some considerable time. I would say some very considerable time.

What will happen during that time? What type of staff relations will there be? How many people will find conditions there intolerable and join Sir Brian Tovey at Plessey? Is it not clear that there will be the most widespread disruption—far worse than anything that the unions have caused? Is it not an ill-advised, misguided and crazy way to proceed? I appeal to the Government to think again—second thoughts are often much better—in our nation's interest and to reconsider and proceed along the lines suggested in the Select Committee's report.

6.29 pm
Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton), a good many other Opposition Members and one or two Conservative Members have said, first, that there is no danger to security at GCHQ and, secondly, that if there is the unions will make such promises as to ensure that no harm will result. I do not see how the first proposition can be maintained. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) has documented precisely the number of strikes and go-slows that have occurred at GCHQ. He also pointed out that they took place at critical times. Our attention has been called to a letter written by Mr. Sheldon of the Council of Civil Service Unions in which he deliberately targeted GCHQ as a place that the union would disrupt then and in the future. I do not see how it can possibly be said that there is no danger.

If there is a danger, can we rely on the procedures that have been variously proposed? Can we be sure that the unions would use them and that no danger would result? Mr. Solomon Binding has already been referred to. He has been dishonoured so often that I am surprised that anyone should think that such undertakings are worth having. I was surprised that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), who must know more about Mr. Solomon Binding—and regret him—than any other hon. Member, should now return to this ironic cliché and invite us to embrace him.

I join those who say that workers at GCHQ are just as patriotic as anyone else. I go further. Because they work in an intelligence environment, they are probably more conscious than most of us about the value of loyalty where they work. I assume also that I can say that the Government have no doubt about their loyalty. If that were not the case they would not be doing their best to ensure that none of them leave the service. However, loyalty does not surmount the problem of intrusion by trade union procedures and conditions in the normal routine of inquiries and tribunals into what goes on at GCHQ. To conduct them properly, outsiders have to be brought in. A conflict of loyalties will inevitably beset workers at GCHQ at such inquiries and tribunals. If it is argued that such arrangements can be made entirely within GCHQ, we are left with a staff association such as is now being proposed.

It has been suggested that the unions should divide staff into security and non-security people. That is not a practical proposition. I am certain that the judgment of a trade union official about who is "security" and who is not is not to be trusted. I am not suggesting that officials would not try to make the distinction properly, but they cannot have the knowledge on which to make such a decision. That can only be done by the Government, whose duty it is.

As to the substance of the matter, therefore, I do not believe that any case has been made by Opposition Members. As to the method, I agree that there can be two views. But is it not obvious that the trade union leaders would never have agreed to the abolition of trade unions in GCHQ? Tentative conversations were turned down in 1980, as my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) pointed out earlier. The uproar that is now going on and the conduct of trade union leaders, especially of Len Murray, are proof enough that the trade unions would never have agreed. Calling a conference to reach some form of conclusion which was not acceptable in any circumstances would have been dubbed hypocritical, and that is precisely the charge that is now being levelled at my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister because she received trade union leaders at 10 Downing street, did not agree with them and said so. She is called hypocritical for allowing them to come to talk to her.

Trade union negotiators necessarily believe that negotiation ends up with a 50–50 compromise between the proposition and the defence. For this problem, however, there cannot be a half and half solution. Either trade union practices are allowed at GCHQ or they are not. It would have been positively deceitful to have called consultations when it was known that there could not be agreement. The horror shock surprise of TUC leaders that the Prime Minister should stand on principle shows how little they understand or wish to understand the problems.

There has been criticism of the delay in making a decision. There might be something in that. We must allow natural reluctance to provoke the type of row we are having to weigh with us. Delay does not imply that the problem has gone away or does not exist.

Mr. John Page

My hon. Friend is making a most thoughtful speech. Does he agree that if earlier or immediate action had been taken it would have led to exactly the claim of victimisation and vindictiveness that is often levelled at employers who take action after a dispute? The whole point is to let the thing simmer down.

Sir Anthony Kershaw

My hon. Friend, who has great experience of labour relations, speaks wisely. I am sure that no better result could have been achieved.

I understand that it is being proposed to go to international law. I am not an international lawyer, but that step seems unlikely to be successful. The International Labour Organisation convention exempts the police and armed forces from the right to belong to trade unions. The convention was drawn up a long time ago when the police and the armed forces were the only forces that concerned themselves with intelligence. In a nuclear age, however, early intelligence and surveillance are equally important as, if not more important than, the police.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)


Sir Anthony Kershaw

We have an international lawyer with us.

Mr. John Morris

I am not pretending to be an international lawyer, but I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the convention that the TUC has called in aid is dated no earlier than 1948 and that the exclusion for the armed forces and the police would not apply to his point.

Sir Anthony Kershaw

We shall see who is right. I do not believe that the convention will be found to be applicable in this case. The human rights convention, which specifically mentions security forces, will cover the point if application is made to that court in Europe.

The protestations that we have heard from the Opposition would come better from people who are prepared to make an equal amount of noise about the right not to join a trade union. Closed minds on the closed shop are not the best advocates of freedom. The people at GCHQ still have many rights. They have the ordinary rights of civil servants, including those relating to conditions of transfer and work and protection under various Acts of Parliament to do with health and so on. They still have the same rights as the armed forces and the police, the functions of which, in relation to the state, are similar. The Labour Government enforced that policy in regard to the armed forces and the police. I note that they have fared a great deal better under the present Government than under Labour. The only right that people at GCHQ have lost is that, for negotiating reasons, to endanger the safety of the state. That is a right that no one should have.

6.39 pm
Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Sir A. Kershaw) because in the last few minutes of his speech he raised matters of law. In my short speech I hope to raise questions about law and shall be grateful if the Minister will answer them when he replies.

It became abundantly clear during the reluctant exchanges between the Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) and myself that the withdrawal of the right to join a trade union does not come under the certificate of the Employment Protection Act. It comes from instructions made under the Order in Council — the royal prerogative. It became abundantly clear that while the Government prayed in aid, in the original statement of the Foreign Secretary and his statement today, precedents for signing certificates under the Employment Protection Act, there was no precedent, under this or any other Order in Council, to withdraw the right to join a trade union. That fact must be clearly established in our exchanges with the Foreign Secretary today.

As the Government from time to time make great play of the point that they receive their support partly because of the importance they place on law and order, it is important to examine closely whether they come to the House with clean hands regarding the law in relation to GCHQ. Never mind that they are behaving like an old-fashioned Victorian employer. This is one of the earliest fruits of returning to the Victorian values that the Prime Minister prays so much in aid. However, whether they can use the royal prerogative to vary unilaterally the conditions of service of their employees is open to argument. Under the royal prerogative it is certainly provided that the Government can dismiss and re-engage their employees, but unilaterally to vary the contract without dismissal and re-engagement cannot be done unless the courts can infer that the variations are effectively dismissal and reemployment.

An equally, if not more, important issue is the possible—indeed, probable—breach of Britain's international obligations. I do not recall—I may have missed it and do not wish to be unfair—a reference to that by the Foreign Secretary in his speech. In his statement to the Select Committee, he said: On the basis of the legal advice available to the Government this action is in accordance with our international legal obligations. I shall examine the main obligations that could be affected. The first is International Labour Organisation convention 87. It is dated 1948 and is ratified by the British Government; therefore, we cannot lightly ignore it without being seen to be in breach of international obligations. Article 2 states: Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation. GCHQ is a case in point.

Article 3 states: Workers' and employers' organisations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules. It continues: The public authorities shall refrain from any interference which would restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof. Article 8 states: In exercising the rights provided for in this Convention workers and employers and their respective organisations, like other persons or organised collectivities, shall respect the law of the land. 2. The law of the land shall not be such as to impair, nor shall it be so applied as to impair, the guarantees provided for in this Convention. Article 9 states: The extent to which the guarantees provided for in this Convention shall apply to the armed forces and the police shall be determined by national laws or regulations. There is no reference to civil servants. The exclusion is confined specifically to the armed forces and the police.

Mr. Nicholls

Is my recollection correct that article 1.2 of convention 151, which was signed in 1978, is to the effect that public servants who are dealing with information of a peculiarly sensitive nature are also deprived of the right of trade union membership?

Mr. Morris

Article 151 is wholly different, stands on its own and in no way seeks to limit the general provision. I agree and accept that there is an exclusion in 151, which is why I do not propose to bring it to the attention of the Minister. I mention the articles because I seek clarification.

Will the Minister explain the position where there is more than one convention each of which has different exclusions? Some exclude the whole body of public administration, some exclude national security interests and this one excludes the armed forces and the police. The Foreign Secretary has not said a word about that today, and in Select Committee we heard only the confident tone that the Government were satisfied that they had carried out their obligations. Where there are two conventions, both of which are equally binding on the Government, and one provides for a particular exclusion and the other does not, what is the position? We have not had clarification either in Select Committee or from the Foreign Secretary, and so I ask for it this afternoon. I cannot be denied that request.

Contrary to views expressed in the past few weeks, I find difficulty in applying the 1950 European convention on human rights because it excludes persons engaged in the administration of the state. It also provides for restrictions where they are necessary in a democratic society for the protection of national security. This is a parallel point. Whether the Government—I assume that the convention applies — could satisfy the European Court on the second point, that they have made a bona fide determination, allowing them every reasonable margin of appreciation, might be questioned. "Necessary" is a word with a mandatory nuance about it. How far, given the offer of the unions to provide guarantees for the changes in their conditions of work, the exclusion of the basic rights that they have enjoyed so far is necessary, it might not be easy for the Government to argue. As confirmation, I have the evidence of Sir Brian Tovey that, had the particular proposal of the trade unions been available to the Government at that stage, they would not have needed to carry out the administrative acts that they have done. That would count against the Government if they tried to pray in aid the need to act in this way because it was necessary in a democratic society for the protection of national security.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) mentioned in Committee the international covenant on civil and political rights of 1966. That is a United Nations convention and the only restriction it provides is a personal one regarding the police and the armed forces, not unlike the restriction in the ILO convention. It has a restriction similar to that contained in the European convention on human rights, and refers to exclusions necessary in a democratic society for the protection … of national security. A similar argument applies to the unions' offer. If the offer is excluded, was the Government's action necessary to protect national security? I doubt, given the terms of the offer, whether the Government could make a case on that.

Article 22(2) of the covenant states: No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those which are proscibed by law, which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety. In the Select Committee my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West asked the Foreign Secretary whether the right to belong to a trade union was proscribed by law. The Foreign Secretary replied: No, it is the right—or the change in that repect is made by the change in the terms and conditions of service. As reported on page 41 of the report, the Foreign Secretary continued to justify this: It is the Prime Minister who is acting by virtue of the Civil Service Order in Council 1982, and it is that Order, part of the law of England, which gives her authority from time to time to make regulations or give instructions for controlling the conduct of the service and for the conditions of service of those employed in it. It is as a result of our power to act under the 1982 Order in Council that the changes in the terms and conditions of service are being introduced as set out in the notice. The Government are obviously relying upon the Order in Council coupled with the Prime Minister's instructions made under it. I note that there is a gap in time between the certificate signed by the Foreign Secretary on 25 January and the confirmation of instruction on 7 February. That became apparent in an answer given last Thursday, and was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan). However, there may be no significance in the gap.

The position is not as clear-cut as the Foreign Secretary would have us believe. The order does not proscribe; it merely empowers the Minister to give instructions for controlling the conduct of the service, and providing for the classification of all persons employed herein and, so far as they relate to matters other than remuneration, expenses and allowances, the conditions of service of all persons. We need a great deal of imagination to understand this, but it would appear that the words, "the conditions of service", give the Government the power to deny people the right to belong to a trade union.

I return to my original anxiety: whether the Government are satisfied that the royal prerogative allows them unilaterally to vary conditions of employment as opposed to sacking and reinstatement. The House has traditionally been against the royal prerogative since the Magna Carta. In 1611 the courts said: The Sovereign can claim no prerogative except such as the law allows, nor such as are contrary to Magna Carta or any other statutes, or to the liberties of the subject. It would be strange if the House could easily endorse the interpretation that a prime ministerial instruction can automatically be proscriptive in law and a denial of the hallowed liberties of the subject.

The House cannot make law. It is strange that, on this interpretation, the Prime Minister can make law by edict. The Government may be right in this connection, but, if they are, the sooner that the House examines the extent of the royal prerogative, the better. Whatever doubts and difficulties there may be about other conventions—I should be glad to know the Minister's view on this—there is serious anxiety about ILO convention 87. I put forward that convention, having considered all the others in turn, as the greatest hurdle facing the Government. If we cannot have a clear answer tonight, I hope that a paper will be placed in the Library to justify the Government's case that they have adhered to their international obligations. In that way, we can understand how they put their case.

6.55 pm
Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

As some of my hon. Friends know, some years ago I was involved in and gave my support in a well-publicised industrial dispute at Grunwick. They may be puzzled by my apparent volte face in now taking the side of the trade union movement at GCHQ, Cheltenham. May I tell those of my hon. Friends who may believe this to be inconsistent that there is no such inconsistency. At Grunwick I argued for the right not to belong to a trade union, and with GCHQ I argue for the right to belong to a trade union; if one makes one such argument, one must be consistent with the other.

As a member of the Select Committee when it embarked upon its examination of the Government's intention to ban membership of a trade union, I began with the assumption that banning union membership could be justified on the very special grounds of national security. However, I wondered even then whether the Government had addressed themselves to their announcement in the best possible way. As the Committee's inquiry progressed, I gradually came to the conclusion that the Government were not necessarily correct in banning unions at GCHQ. Much of the credit for my change of mind — my conversion, if that is what it was — is due to the evidence given by Sir Brian Tovey.

I conceded at the outset of the inquiry—I still do—that drastic action is justifiable to protect national security. I am convinced that dangerous disruption due to industrial action took place in 1979 and 1981. That is common ground among all sides in this argument, but our response to those facts differs. I do not accept that the Government have adequately examined the options that are now open. I admit that those options may not have been available when the decisions were being discussed, but times have changed and options now exist. Nor do I believe that the Government have given convincing reasons for rejecting what the unions have conceded. The unions have offered unprecedented concessions and have said that they are willing to agree to equally unprecedented and legally binding assurances. Why have not the Government pursued those options?

Before dealing with that matter, I should mention the Select Committee. It would be wrong to overlook two aspects of the Committee's deliberations. Important morals for all Select Committees can and should be drawn from the points that I shall make. It is a compliment to the integrity of those on the Committee that it published a unanimous report. It was founded on facts and I believe that we propounded those facts with objectivity. However, while we were examining our subject I had reason to complain of interference by both Whips and Ministers as to how we were conducting our proceedings. That complaint still stands; indeed, I have further noticed, since our report was published, that there are further signs of Whips' or Government interest in how we are conducting our affairs in the Select Committee on Employment. Perhaps that is a compliment to our potency and the value of the Select Committee system, but it also has its dangers.

The purpose of Select Committees is to examine facts and to examine how the Executive conducts itself, and for that purpose a Committee must choose its own subjects of inquiry. It must select for itself which witnesses it believes are relevant. There has been interference—subtly applied, of course—in both those areas, and such interference endangers the work of Select Committees. It inhibits one of the most valuable instances of progress made in recent years to provide an extra balance against the overwhelming power of the Executive.

Select Committees must not be undermined. The independence of Select Committees needs to be reinforced. They must not only be independent, they must be seen and known to be so.

The Government refused to allow witnesses to give evidence in private to the Select Committee on Employment. The two witnesses whom the Government disallowed were a leading trade union representative within GCHQ and the present director. I make no complaint about the latter; I do make complaint about the former.

The reasons given for denying the opportunity to give evidence are both specious and anomalous. They are specious because they hide behind a ruling made on the very day that Geoffrey Prime's role at GCHQ was first avowed. That ruling, quoted by the Foreign Secretary, was that Government does not provide information … on matters of security and intelligence". But the ban by the Foreign Secretary was upheld, despite his being told that the Committee's purpose was merely to question the witnesses on the terms and conditions of employment and despite his having said in a written answer on the same day that we were questioning him: elected trade union representatives are allowed to publicise their unions' views on matters which directly affect the conditions of service of members of their union." —[Official Report, 6 February 1984; Vol. 53, c. 490.] The Foreign Secretary's reasons are, I believe, anomalous because, throughout the subsequent days, trade unionists from GCHQ have had access to the media and access to their Members of Parliament, and they came in droves to lobby Members of Parliament last Thursday. What, I wonder, had been done, is being done, or will be done about that?

Thus we have a ridiculous situation in which a GCHQ trade unionist can talk with other trade unionists outside GCHQ, and talk to Members of Parliament, but a Select Committee, wishing to sit in secret, can talk to none of them. I hope that this House will look with disfavour on that undesirable intrusion by the Government into how Select Committees conduct their business.

The Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee, when he was asked how he could equate discussions and information purely about terms and conditions of employment with matters of security: It is not a question of equating it; it is a question of applying the rule. Hon. Members may well regard that reply as being rather short on reasonableness and rather long on pedantry. Suffice it say, however, that it had the momentary effect of hiding the deep mortification felt by those who work at GCHQ.

One of the reasons given by the Government for not accepting the Civil Service unions' far-reaching concessions is that the fact of union membership creates of itself a condition in which individuals are torn between a loyalty to their union and a loyalty to their employer, GCHQ. I regard that as a dangerous fallacy.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Would my hon. Friend accept that, in a previous incarnation, I found myself in that very unsatisfactory position? I assure my hon. Friend that it is real.

Mr. Gorst

I shall talk about the dilemma of my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) after I have developed my argument a little further. I am sure that he will agree with me that there are ways in which the dilemma can be overcome.

What has happened is disturbing because it harks back to the early part of the last century when, after 150 years, the test Acts were finally repealed. Hon. Members may recall that those notorious Acts debarred Roman Catholics and nonconformists from working in the armed services and the Civil Service because, it was alleged, they could not be trusted, on account of their divided allegiances. Therefore, just as religion was once claimed to be a threat, so today, in the 20th century, union membership is held to pose a disruptive threat. This, I believe, is a most uncomfortable development. Indeed, I believe it is a most infamous theme that is behind the argument.

The argument is also fallacious. Hon. Members will know all about divided loyalties. We have loyalties to our country, to our constituents, to our party, to our families, and, yes, some of us even to trade unions. I do not believe that we have the slightest difficulty in reconciling those conflicting pressures, whether we are Back Benchers or whether we are Ministers. Why should those who work at GCHQ be in any different category?

Given the fundamental principles involved, it is inevitable that this sorry episode should now be escalating. Possibly an illegal TUC-backed campaign, with industrial action, will be mounted. If that happens, the Government will not be alone in arguing that illegal disruption only goes to show how right the Government have been. But I take leave to differ. If provoking one's opponent is the best way to prove the validity of one's arguments, those arguments must be shamefully thin.

Nevertheless, I say to the trade unions, "Two wrongs never make a right, nor is the path of wisdom to win your rights by putting yourself in the wrong. To defend rights by perpetrating wrongs must in the long run be counter-productive".

Equally, I say to the Government, "Where is the wisdom in allowing no honourable way of retreat for the trade unions? Do you really expect them to surrender without protest a right that could be conceded, at least in embryo, if the Government took up their offers of concessions? Were you really surprised when an ex gratia payment of £1,000 was interpreted as an offer of 30 pieces of silver? Was it really impossible for you before the announcement to consult the right hon. Lionel Murray, a Privy Councillor, on Privy Councillor terms before you promulgated those decisions?"

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Many hon. Members have listened to the hon. Gentleman putting an honourable point of view on radio and in the House. Why does he think that his Government did what it did? What led them to take that action?

Mr. Gorst

I should like to be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, but nothing I heard in the Select Committee or this afternoon in the House has given me any inkling about the Government's true motives. I can assume only that they are basing their actions on inadequate reasons.

Mr. Nicholls

My hon. Friend wonders why the Government did not make an approach to simplify the negotiation. Why did the Committee's report leave out those parts of Sir Brian Tovey's evidence which would have shown exactly what the Government's position would be, including the fact — I can refer my hon. Friend to the paragraph numbers if he cannot remember them—that the first informal approach was made in 1980 and was then turned down flat? Does my hon. Friend accept that, if those parts of the evidence had appeared in the report, the report might have been a great deal more helpful?

Mr. Gorst

I believe that I can help my hon. Friend by saying that Sir Brian Tovey's report is available from the Vote Office in its entirety, except for a few sidelined paragraphs which he asked to have deleted, which in no way—

Mr. Nicholls

All of the evidence is not public. My hon. Friend knows that I cannot refer to it in the House.

Mr. Gorst

That is possible. I can give my hon. Friend a copy. He is incorrect in his assumption. The relevant evidence given by Sir Brian Tovey was to the effect that had he had those concessions on offer he would have found them more acceptable than banning a union, provided that they were reinforced by concrete assurances. That is the basis upon which the Committee reached its conclusions and made its recommendations.

The questions are legion and the Government's answers are lame. It is not for me to argue the merits of union membership. This is a democracy, and many millions have a deep attachment to their right to belong to a union. Hon. Members have a duty to remove that right only if there is no other way. The Government have not proven the case that there is no other way. I urge the Prime Minister, even at this late hour, to re-examine the possibilities. In the final analysis, the Government seem to be resting their case on the proposition that they have no other choice and that this is an unpleasant necessity. Regrettably, we do not seem to have learnt as much from our history as we should have done. About 200 years ago the then Foreign Secretary came to the House of Commons to argue for another measure—not on grounds of choice but on grounds of necessity. Charles James Fox, talking of the East India Company Bill, said: This business forces itself upon me and upon the nation. He was answered by a Back Bencher, the 24-year-old Mr. William Pitt, who said: This measure is an abrogation of all the ancient charters and privileges by which the company was first established". He added: Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. I will forbear to complete that famous quotation. Surely the Government should ponder carefully the "necessity" for their chosen course of action.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As at least one of my hon. Friends is under a misapprehension that the evidence of Sir Brian Tovey is not public and he is not allowed to refer to it, perhaps it should be made clear to the House that all of Sir Brian Tovey's evidence, other than the few comments to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) referred, has been cleared by the Select Committee on Employment. The Committee was anxious that the House should be able to read that evidence in full when considering this debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for making that point.

7.15 pm
Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

I was one of the hon. Members on the Select Committee who had the privilege of listening to the evidence. Having listened to the debate, I am more convinced than ever that the Government have no case to justify their action. They made their decision to go ahead with the ultimatum but later turned to their civil servants and Ministers to justify the blunders made in the presentation to the House.

The GCHQ Cheltenham issue is one of many trade union issues forming an overall picture of the Government's attitude to the whole of the trade union movement. There are continuous undercurrents of confrontation. It is believed throughout the country that the Government are hell-bent on a continuous battle with organised labour. The Government seem to have double standards when making comparisons with free trade unions in other countries.

Two years ago I attended one or two meetings at Strasbourg. Conservative Members went to the rostrum condemning the Polish Government for denying trade union freedoms in Poland. While Conservative Members were shedding their crocodile tears when talking about trade union rights, the Prime Minister was wallowing in statements referring to free trade unionists. On 16 December 1982 the right hon. Lady said: A Communist society cannot bear or abide another source of power within the State. That is what it is all about in Poland." —[Official Report, 16 December 1982; Vol. 34, c. 479–80.] We can presume that the Prime Minister feels that way with regard to this country.

Mr. Cormack

The hon. Gentleman does his cause, with which I have some sympathy, a great disservice by making that ridiculous, ludicrous comparison. Does he think that there would be the same freedom in Poland and in the countries east of the iron curtain to have the type of agitation that we have seen over this issue?

Mr. Eastham

That is very much a matter of opinion. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the trade union movement, which feels disgust and resentment, would support the attitude that I am trying to present rather than the hon. Gentleman's smokescreen of respectability.

On 22 December 1981, the Prime Minister, wallowing in the issue of free trade unions, said: If the authorities believe that they can snuff out that flame they are making an error of historic proportions. —[Official Report, 22 December 1981; Vol. 15, c. 867.] She was referring to the Polish people's stand for the tight to have free trade unions.

Mr. Winnick

Is it not a fact that, apart from eastern Europe, and especially Poland — we all support Solidarity and the efforts for genuine independent trade unionism in that part of the world—the Prime Minister has never praised any form of trade unionism? Not once has she said a kind word in favour of trade unionism in this country.

Mr. Eastham

That is most noticeable, and the trade unions recognise my hon. Friend's point.

Great emphasis has been placed on the importance of the Civil Service trade unions, and it is useful to remind the House that other trade unions have also been involved, including my own trade union, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. Large organisations such as that, the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, the Transport and General Workers Union and the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union are all involved in this establishment. They are being compelled to face the fact that the day is arriving when the Government must be taken on.

It is an indisputable fact that since 1979 a list of rights has been denied to the trade unions, of which there are eight main ones. Workers are being denied the right to belong to a trade union and the right to a fair return for labour. There has been the cancellation of the fair wages resolution of the International Labour Organisation, convention 93. The Government announced that they would not endorse ILO convention 154 promoting free collective bargaining. There has been curtailment of social benefits during disputes, even when the benefits have already been paid for by trade unionists. There have been seizure of trade union funds, fines and even penal threats. This humiliation will not be allowed to continue, and the trade unions are becoming sick and tired of this unnecessary confrontation, which is unworthy of any Government in this country. The saying is correct—he who rides the tiger usually finishes up inside.

The disgraceful conduct of some of the Government's Whips has been courageously referred to by the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst). He took a stand in the Select Committee to expose the conduct of the Whips, who seemed to lack confidence that their Members would serve the Government in the way expected. This is not in keeping with the spirit of a Select Committee, and this attempted manipulation by the Government Whips' Office led to a feeling of distrust. This was most unworthy, and I hope that we shall never witness such conduct again, which led to a Government Member accusing his Whips' Office of attempting to nobble members of a Select Committee.

Mr. Baldry

I forbade to interrupt my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) on this matter because we have tussled before, but, lest this idea that the Government Whips nobbled any Members of the Select Committee should grow roots and flourish, I should make it clear that at no time—I think that I speak for my colleagues—were we nobbled or interfered with by any Government Whips. Would that we had been so lucky. This is a bad point and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) is bringing it up again, as there are many better points that he could make.

Mr. Eastham

It is not for me to contest the point. All I am saying is that a member of the Select Committee is on record as accusing the Government Whips' Office of attempting to nobble members of the Select Committee. The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) may be saying that no approaches were made to him, but no other Conservative Member has said that. If he feels that because he sits on the Government Benches he is expected to deny the fact that somebody attempted to nobble him, that is to his shame. I, for one, know whom I would believe if there were a difference of opinion between the hon. Member for Banbury and the hon. Member for Hendon, North.

Mr. Gorst

I was asked whether I could cast some light on this local difficulty by explaining that there is more than one way of nobbling. One does not need to take a man by the arm; one can sometimes wink or nod at him.

Mr. Eastham

I appreciate the odd nod and wink. This has been the style of management over the centuries. It is still a form of nobbling, and it was for those reasons that the hon. Gentleman, I feel sure, felt that he was compelled to report this to the Select Committee. However, in spite of the problems, when the report was considered, to the credit of the Select Committee members, they were unanimous in their view. Throughout the evidence, nothing was presented that seemed to justify the action taken by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.

Day by day it became more obvious in Committee that this was an ill-thought-out action and that even the Cabinet had been treated with contempt and not consulted as to its importance. Perhaps it was not considered that it was an important issue, but anyone with a trade union background will recognise the severity and seriousness of the consequences should any Government take such action.

When Sir Brian Tovey came to give evidence to the Select Committee, I felt that Downing street had sent him along as a pet poodle, but nothing that he said convinced any members of the Committee that there was a case to justify the Government's action. As has been said, Tovey admitted to the Committee that if a deal such as that later presented by the trade unions had been forthcoming he would have snatched agreement with both hands. Regardless of that, the Government went ahead and decided to continue the confrontation.

The trade unions have been more than accommodating. They have offered a no-strike agreement. As has often been said by Ministers and hon. Members on both sides of the House, the loyalty of the workers was beyond doubt. They were already bound by the Official Secrets Act. What more could any Government expect from a loyal band of workers?

This deplorable episode is typical of the Prime Minister's arrogance, and there have been no negotiations. The Prime Minister agreed to meet the trade unions on a second occasion but it was obvious that such a meeting would be a dialogue with the deaf. She had made up her mind, and there will be no trade unions. This is an example of the cheating of the workers of their democratic rights. As the Opposition have often said, and as we said last week, there is an increasing feeling that hooliganism is taking place. These smears must end. How can the Government expect any loyalty when they deal out such brutality?

This debate is the culmination of an episode of sheer Government stupidity. History has shown us that the traitors to this country usually come from the elite and not from the trade unions. This has been proved time and again. The same is true of the industrialists who sell Britain short by investing and developing abroad. Those people are not trade unionists; they are among the ranks of Government supporters.

The Select Committee offered the Government a face-saving way out of their stupid position. The issue will not end here. It will continue to fester. The unions offered a deal, but the Government may not get another chance.

7.30 pm
Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)

I cannot help thinking that the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr.Eastham) was not listening when the Foreign Secretary gave the House a categoric assurance that the ban on trade unions would go no further than GCHQ.

The issue is undoubtedly one of grave national importance, because it involves national security. Some hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), deny that lives are at stake in the work of GCHQ, but I believe that they are. The whole object of the station is to defend our shores, and lives are at stake. GCHQ is unique. There is no duplication of its activities anywhere in NATO and total surveillance is essential to maintain our defences. Our allies as well as ourselves depend on that, and it is important to keep that fact in mind during the debate. From the beginning of the controversy, no one has doubted the loyalty of the staff at GCHQ. Many live in my constituency and I have every reason to endorse their loyalty.

My first impression of this whole business was that the Government had been rather heavy-handed, although they had offered GCHQ staff three choices—to sign the agreement to leave their trade unions and to collect £1,000, to transfer elsewhere within the Civil Service or to resign. The right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr.Healey) says that those who resign could work for Plessey, which has apparently suggested that it will employ staff who do not want to leave their union.

I began to look at the background of the case, and hon. Members can imagine my alarm when I discovered that between February 1979 and April 1981 continuity of operations had been disrupted seven times. More than 10,000 working days had been lost and on 9 March 1981, 25 per cent. of the staff employed at Cheltenham were involved in a day of inaction and parts of GCHQ were virtually shut down as a result of their refusal to work.

Some people try to maintain that there was no drop in the surveillance capability of GCHQ during that time. It is noticeable that none of those people has sought to explain the overmanning at GCHQ. If the station can manage when 25 per cent. of the staff are not working, there must be substantial overmanning there. Perhaps those who say that there was no drop in the surveillance capability might like to explain that.

My mind was irreversibly made up when the Prime Minister told the House on 31 January that in one of its campaign reports the CCSU stated: 48 hours walkouts have severely hit secret monitoring stations belonging to the Composite Signals Organisation. The Government is clearly worried and will be subjected to huge pressure from NATO allies. A second report said: Our ultimate success depends upon the extent to which … defence readiness is hampered … by this and future action. No union representatives have sought to deny that that was written and circulated among their members. It is unacceptable to me that the unions should try to use strikes to force increases in pay.

Staff at GCHQ were clearly being asked to place loyalty to their service and their duty to protect the safety of their unions above loyalty to their fellow citizens. In my opinion, no-strike agreements with the trade unions will not hold water. They are having a death-bed conversion and the TUC has shown an ingenuity and deviousness that is second to none in putting pressure on reluctant members to get its way. We cannot allow staff at GCHQ to be subjected to that, and I do not believe that the staff want to be subjected to that.

Mr. Bill Walker

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that the Civil Service trade unions involved in the dispute had a deliberate "hands off' policy towards Cheltenham before February 1979.

Mr. Marland

I thank my hon. Friend for that useful intervention.

As I said earlier, many GCHQ staff live in my constituency, and I have brought up the subject at several meetings, the most recent being last Friday night. On every occasion, the feeling of the meetings has been unanimous that the Government are right in their action and that lives come first. At my advice centres, I have been approached by several employees, union and non-union members, who have all stressed their loyalty to the service. Only one has objected to the Government's action and even he said that in the end he will sign.

However, concern has been expressed to me about the proposed staff association and whether it will be effective in looking after the employees' interests. I understand that at present the bereaved spouse of a GCHQ employee receives £600 if his or her partner dies while employed at the station. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment tell my constituents whether that will continue?

Secondly, will there be an appeal procedure for those who fail the lie detector test? The machines are known not to be 100 per cent. reliable and there is considerable anxiety among those at GCHQ about whether there will be an appeal procedure. Thirdly, I should be glad if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment would tell us how the staff association will be constituted. Can he reassure me and my constituents that the association will have teeth and be able to act in the best interests of its members?

The trade unions are doing themselves no good over this issue — not because they are losing a few subscriptions, but because of the way in which they are behaving. On Thursday of last week deputations came to the House to lobby hon. Members about the Government's decision. I understand that there were 1,500 people outside the House. But only 60 came from Cheltenham and, as the hon. Member representing a constituency in which many GCHQ staff live, I received only two green cards. I cannot help thinking that "Rentamob" was on duty that day. The TUC has completely, and probably conveniently, misinterpreted the reasons for the Government's action. National security and the lives of all of us and our families are at stake.

Sir Anthony Kershaw

My constituency is next to that of my hon. Friend and he may be interested to know that only three people came to see me on Thursday.

Mr. Marland

If my hon. Friend and I were lobbied by only five of the 1,500 people who were here on Thursday, I have to wonder who all the others were seeing.

To me, tomorrow's day of protest belittles the TUC. I am shocked that Mr. Murray has written to 105 TUC-affiliated unions trying to whip up support among 10½ million workers for a day of idleness. This debases all that I and many others have always believed that decent and constructive trade unionism stood for.

7.40 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I shall say a word, first, about the staff association to which the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) referred, because in my opinion the tone of his remarks does a disservice to the genuine and widespread feelings of people both inside and outside trade unions on this issue.

I care deeply, as I think all Liberals do, about the right to belong to a trade union, or the right not to belong to a trade union. Both those rights are important. I am glad that the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) has been notably consistent and clear in his enunciation of these principles, because it required a certain amount of courage on both occasions. As I said, both those rights are important and lie at the heart of the issue today. So, too, is the issue of national security, to which the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West also referred, and about which we care with equal force.

The debate has ranged widely, and I shall therefore concentrate on picking out some of the unanswered questions. First, why is it thought that the Government's measures — in particular, the creation of a staff association — represent a watertight guarantee against further disruption ever taking place at GCHQ? The phrase "watertight guarantee" has been used by the Government Front Bench. There is no guarantee that the staff association will agree with the writing into the contracts of its members of the obligation not to take industrial action, to which the unions have so far consented. The staff association does not yet exist. We do not know whether it will be as ready to consent to something to which the unions, as a concession, are ready to consent. There is no guarantee that the existence of a staff association will prevent a future argument boiling up into withdrawal of labour at Cheltenham. It is not likely that there will be a withdrawal of labour, but it is not made less likely by the transfer of industrial relations representation to a staff association confined to that institution.

Several Conservative Members spoke as if the Government were withdrawing the right to strike from the employees of the GCHQ. That simply is not true. We are not discussing that. We are arguing about the withdrawal of the right to belong to a trade union. If the right to strike is taken away, it will be taken away on the basis of a concession to which the unions have agreed, namely, that it should be written into the contracts of the people who are working there. That is far more important than any undertaking given by the unions—the writing into the contracts of those who work there of an obligation to maintain the constant surveillance upon which the institution depends. I have seen no evidence so far in the debate to suggest that the arrangements that the Government propose, which are the alternative to the union proposals, will safeguard Cheltenham in the future from any disruption. There is no watertight guarantee, and a false alternative is being proposed. That is the first unanswered question.

The second unanswered question was raised by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Is the main reason why the Government will not now, at this eleventh hour, accept the proposals put forward by the unions that the unions have not agreed to apply them to all the employees at GCHQ? Is it the attempt by the unions to distinguish between employees—some to whom the undertakings will apply, and others to whom they will not apply? Is that the difficulty? If so, in my view, it is a negotiable difficulty, out of which a way can be found.

It could be argued that there is no one at GCHQ who can be exempted from the restrictions that would be agreed between the Government and the unions if an agreement were reached. One can argue against that proposition. It is at least arguable that the whole institution could continue to function if the canteen were not working, for example. It is arguable that the institution could continue to function if the grass were not cut, although that poses the question whether the Property Services Agency staff who are working in institutions such as this on the maintenance of buildings and grounds are covered by these agreements anyway. It appears likely that at least some people working on the premises will not be bound by the agreement, and that some disruption will take place, even under the proposed arrangements, which will not impede the surveillance work. That issue could be resolved if the Government were determined to resolve it. I cannot believe that the possibility of an alternative to barring trade unions altogether needs to be excluded because there is an unresolved disagreement about the extent and number of the people to whom any limitation should apply.

The third unanswered question that I want to raise concerns delay. Why did the Government wait several years before they took this action? The Prime Minister's defence, reiterated by the Foreign Secretary, is that it was because it was not acknowledged until 1983 that GCHQ was engaged in surveillance work. I have always regarded that as an absurd argument. The pretence that Cheltenham had a glorified extended telephone exchange employing an unusually large number of people never made any sense to anyone who took any interest in the matter, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) pointed out. Even if there were a reason for the Government to preserve the fiction in their official publications that the institution did not have a security role, that reason must have been secondary to the feeling that the Government now have that it is important to take action to deal with the unions there. If the considerations which now lead the Government to persist in an action which has been highly criticised are valid, they must have been stronger than any arguments that led the Government formerly not to acknowledge that GCHQ had a security role. If what is now in the Government's mind has and had any validity, it would have overridden the maintenance of what we all knew was a pretence that GCHQ did not have a security role.

If the reason for not acknowledging the role of the institution was that it was better to play it low key and minimise the publicity that attaches to it, why have the Government now got themselves into the position of publicising GCHQ far more than any such institution has ever been publicised by any Government? They have put it on the front pages not only of every British newspaper but of every newspaper throughout the world on this side of the iron curtain and on the other. It seems to make nonsense of the delay that there has been in bringing forward these measures, and that delay undermines the reasons advanced for those measures.

Fourthly, what has been the role of the arguments about real security at GCHQ? I say that because it is rather galling, having said from this Bench on several occasions that there needed to be stricter security at GCHQ, to be confronted with measures which, in my opinion, will damage security there. The Government have done two things in response to the genuine need to tackle the security problems. The first was to get involved in the nonsense of the lie detector, and the second was to bring forward this measure

It has been suggested in our debate that union anxieties and objections to the lie detector have been one source of the Government's persistence in this respect. I hope that that is not so, because I believe that there are good grounds for the complaints about lie detectors, of which Richard Nixon said, It may not work, but it sure scares the hell out of people. That is about as scientific a description as we have had to date of a procedure which does not test what one needs to test in the interests of security—it tests not whether people are lying but whether they are made nervous or anxious by a situation. As has been said in the debate, it is something that a trained agent can easily outwit and deal with. The lie detector has given rise to the feeling among people at GCHQ that their loyalty is questioned. It has given rise to that feeling among some of the most loyal and committed people who work there.

The Government seem to have diverted their attention from the real security measures, which involved the spending of money, into measures which will not help security. If the unions were raising objections to genuine security — gate security and surveillance within the buildings—the Government would be right to take a tougher line and to insist that national security requires the staff at GCHQ to accept conditions which they would not accept in other walks of life. It is an unfortunate necessity of the institution. However, the Government have not advanced any case that the two steps they have chosen to take—the lie detector and this measure—are justified on security grounds.

The effect of these measures will be very damaging on the work of GCHQ. The Prime Minister seems to ignore the fact that people work there and that we are dealing with the feelings and loyalties of people. We disregard them at our peril. The effect will be seen in several ways. First, some people will leave the GCHQ because of this episode. They will be a loss. They will include people who are intelligent, dedicated and committed to the service of this country, and precisely because they are people of high principle they will not have their right taken away in this manner. They may be a few, but they have considerable skills which may not be easy to replace.

Those who remain will have had their morale seriously affected. We cannot do this to the people who work for the institution without delivering a severe blow to their morale. I repeat that we are dealing with extremely intelligent people who well understand the nuances and the background of what is going on but who are deeply affronted when it is put to them that their decision to be members of a trade union creates in them a divided loyalty with which they cannot cope and which they cannot exercise in a patriotic way. If we say that to people, we damage their willingness to do the jobs which people at GCHQ have done, working long hours and with a heavy rate of concentration when circumstances have demanded it.

This measure will impair the recruitment in the future of highly able people to the Government Communications Headquarters. Again we may be talking about small numbers, but some people will believe that an institution in which they are required to make this sacrifice on grounds which have not been adequately made out is one that they do not want to join.

As I said earlier, the publicity which the affair has produced and which the Government's action has produced will itself damage GCHQ by raising its profile and increasing awareness of its activities.

The Government have managed to unite a wide range of people in disapproval of this measure. They are people who might never have been thought to be brought together. The TUC, for example, had become consistently unpopular. This is about the first measure in a long time to lead to a great deal of popularity attaching to it. TUC leaders may be impairing that popularity by the decision that they have taken about tomorrow. I think that that is a mistake. I must say that if I was working in many an institution I should feel the temptation to use whatever weapon I had, especially the withdrawal of my labour, to make my protest. But it is a mistake to involve other institutions in any damaging or disruptive process about it.

The Government have advanced a preposterous proposition that membership of a trade union of itself brings about a serious conflict of loyalties—a conflict between loyalty to the union and loyalty to the country—and a conflict which a patriotic man is incapable of resolving. The hon. Member for Hendon, North put forward the best argument: who better than hon. Members of this place to know that life is full of conflicts of loyalties? We have loyalties to the interests that we seek to represent, loyalties to the nation, and loyalties to our own personal interests and families. How can we pretend that the people we have recruited after very careful procedures to work in GCHQ cannot cope with those loyalties?

There is a lack of understanding on the Government's part of the reality and meaning of trade union membership for the vast majority of trade union members—not those who are active in trade unions, not those who serve on committees and not those who come here on deputations, but those who simply belong to trade unions as an ultimate insurance policy because they believe that there may come a day when it will matter to them and who are suddenly deeply affronted to be told that they cannot belong to a union because it impairs their loyalty to the nation.

I urge the Government to step back from the brink towards which they are walking. They have nothing to gain in terms of national security or in terms of their own position by taking this step. They have a great deal to lose. I counsel them to take the step recommended by my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr Owen) and recommended forcefully by a former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), to refer the matter to the Security Commission, whose job it is to recommend to the Government where security considerations require changes of policy or practice to be made.

I beg the Government to step back from the brink, because they will do no good to national security if they take the step that they propose.

7.54 pm
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary called this a novel situation. There may have been a number of writers of this script over the past five years, but it was more like a political jack-in-the-box when it burst upon the House last month.

The correctness of the Government's decision takes time to sink in. The initial reaction is inevitably to defend the right of anyone to belong to a trade union, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) feels, but GCHQ is different. The unions now realise this. They repent of their earlier action. They now offer to go a long way to meeting the Government's requirements.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have asked why not accept the unions' offer, the armed forces option, an honourable compromise and a harmless if unnecessary superfluity. They argue that that is much easier to swallow than the stiff medicine of an outright ban. But the Government cannot accept the unions' offer, because there is an undisclosed fifth factor which the unions can never deliver. This factor is the cause of the unbridgeable gap between the Prime Minister and the unions. It is the reason why thousands of people at GCHQ are flocking to accept the Government's offer and spurning the despairing calls of the unions.

The undisclosed fifth factor is a secret bond. It is the Prime Minister's special relationship with the secret services. They share a unique distinction, my right hon. Friend with her sole responsibility for security and they with their individual burdens of total secrecy. The Prime Minister has sole personal responsibility for the secret services, and it is one into which even Parliament cannot pry, as the Select Committee discovered.

This special unique responsibility makes the Prime Minister particularly vulnerable, not just to collective disruption but to individual acts of treachery. It takes only one Geoffrey Prime to jeopardise the nation's security. Loyalty, not just conflict-free but totally committed personal loyalty, is what counts when it comes to keeping secrets. The Prime Minister knows that, and so does everyone at GCHQ.

I see the solid block of an outright ban as being very different from a compromise. I see it as an anvil upon which the nation, led by an iron lady using the white heat of this debate, can forge 7,000 links—seven triple-O bonds—unbreakably binding together every member of the secret services. I see those signed option forms not as mere formalities to be filed away but as bonds of personal loyalty indissolubly welding together everyone at GCHQ.

I call on all employees at GCHQ to accept the Government's offer and trade unionists everywhere to ignore calls to mutiny.

7.58 pm
Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

The hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) performed an invaluable service not only to the House but to parliamentary democracy in his attitude to Select Committees of the House and his stringent criticism of the Government's behaviour towards a Select Committee which sought to deal with this problem impartially. He paraded the behaviour of the Government, which showed without doubt the dictatorial instincts of a Government who have a substantial majority in the House and who are therefore disinclined to listen to the arguments. That is applicable especially to the Prime Minister herself.

The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) referred to the iron lady. The Prime Minister wallows in that description, which was given to her by the USSR in the first instance. She thinks that the more stubborn she is, and the more she refuses to listen to anyone other than herself and her acolytes, the more she projects herself as the iron lady.

Of course, at the end of this debate and at the end of this week she will claim yet another victory. She will attribute that no doubt to her own sterling qualities, which have brought us to the present impasse, which need never have arisen had it been handled with a modicum of tolerance and understanding of the issues at stake.

The Prime Minister has claimed victory in a number of areas. One, which brought her a substantial victory at the general election, was the Falkland Islands issue, but that will prove to be a shallow victory when we start paying the bills. Thousands of millions of pounds sterling will be taken from the taxpayer because of the futility of the Government's actions, their stupidity and their refusal to face the long-term consequences of their actions. That is on all fours with the position that we now face.

We are all concerned with national security, but the Prime Minister cannot understand, or refuses to believe, that anybody who opposes her views is not automatically a security risk. She believes that such people are unreliable by definition because they dare to differ from her. The right hon. Lady is behaving increasingly and frighteningly not so much as an iron lady but more as a stubborn, rigid, unimaginative, tinpot dictator, not prepared to listen to any view different from her own. The policy that we are debating today springs from her paranoic detestation of trade unions. That is the motivating force behind the stupidity that we are now debating.

If our national security is jeopardised by the existence of trade unions in GCHQ, it has taken the Government a long time to act on that suspicion or conviction. Now, suddenly, and with unseemly and incomprehensible haste, the whole matter is thrust on the House and the Cabinet with a minimum of notice. We are bound to make certain assumptions from that.

It is said that the Government have been got at by the Americans—to impose the lie detector or whatever. The assumptions on which the policy is based are deeply shocking to Labour Members and to many outside. For instance, it is said that trade unionists are potential enemies of the state, potentially disloyal, unpatriotic and untrustworthy. The Foreign Secretary's speech today was very much along the lines that the Prime Minister almost invariably takes in her speeches on such matters.

The second assumption is that loyalty and patriotism can be bought for a few pieces of silver, taxed or untaxed. We have not yet been told that, but if it is taxed the matter is made even worse. It is assumed that the men will sacrifice their basic human rights for a handful of silver. Thirdly, it is assumed that, if they cannot be bought, a pistol at their head and a threat to the families of decent, moderate working people will do the trick. It is the most detestable and incomprehensible posture that I have ever known.

Despite the outcome of the debate, despite the victory which the Prime Minister and the Government might claim at the end of the week, the debate will go on. Unless the Government accept the bolthole that was offered to them by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) and by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) and put the matter in more experienced hands than have handled it up to now, the matter will continue to be debated, not only in the House but outside, in the European Court and in the International Labour Organisation. It will reverberate throughout the world, and that is no exaggeration.

All for what? It is assumed that if a union is broken and turned into a staff association, a creature of the Government, security will thereby be improved. That is a lot of nonsense. It is another of the many banana skins on which the Prime Minister has trodden since the election. I hope that the Government will seek a sensible way out and for once take the advice of hon. Members. They can still retrieve a desperate and serious situation.

8.5 pm

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

This has been the most extraodinary foreign affairs debate that I have ever been involved in during the 25 years that I have been a Member of the House of Commons. It has had virtually nothing to do with foreign affairs. It might be said that it is bad enough for the House of Commons to cope with the Foreign Office dealing with foreign affairs. But if we also have to put up with the Foreign Office becoming involved in home affairs, and labour relations in particular, it is not surprising that we get into great trouble. Nevertheless, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, for whom I have a warm regard—I think that goes for many hon. Members—will not be surprised to know, as I warned him a fortnight ago, that I cannot accept the direction in which he is going. I have heard nothing from him today to change my belief that the decision that has been taken is insensitive, stubborn and mistaken.

I realise that in security matters one can never be sure that one is speaking with the knowledge of Ministers. Therefore, it is necessary to be a little cautious. However, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary did not close the door to discussions with the unions. They had such discussions on two occasions in order to seek agreement. Therefore, we have every justification for suggesting that there was the possibility of a deal. There was nothing so hidden and secret which Ministers knew which we did not know which stopped them from reaching an agreement, unless Ministers were engaged in a charade with the unions, having meetings that were meaningless, and I do not believe that that was so.

The question is whether a deal with the unions was possible. I understand that, as the Foreign Secretary admitted, the trade unions have gone far towards providing a basis to satisfy the Government's requirements. The document from the Civil Service trade union that I received today tells us that the Government have accepted that they, the unions, were able to provide guarantees on all four of the reasons given for the Government's ban. Further, the ban on union activity at GCHQ was first proposed by Sir Brian Tovey, the former director at GCHQ, who states that if the trade unions had offered what is now before the Government it would have satisfied him. If it satisfied the man who was the boss at Cheltenham at the time of the disruptions, why can it not satisfy the Government?

I agree that the Government are right to seek to cut out national union negotiations at Cheltenham. If union negotiations are needed at Cheltenham, they should be local, in "shop", or there should be some council inside the organisation in which the unions are involved. There was no closed shop at Cheltenham even before the Government tried to buy out the union membership. Many people did not belong to a union.

I object strongly—I believe that the country objects to, and is puzzled by—the fact that individuals should be told that they must give up their union membership and that they cannot, as union members, participate in normal employer-employee management relations.

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Gentleman used the word "puzzled" and he wrote a formidable and informed letter to The Times. May I ask him the same question as I put to his hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst)? With his interest in this matter, why does he think that the Government have embarked on this course at this time?

Sir Kenneth Lewis

I believe that the Government have embarked on this course at this time because they recognise that there is a problem. I recognise that there is a problem, but it does not mean that, having embarked on such an exercise, the Government need to continue to the bitter end when there is a means of picking up a deal.

I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend believes—I do not—that setting up a staff association at Cheltenham will solve all the problems. He can ask the big banks whether they had problems with their staff associations a year or two ago. The existence of staff associations does not mean that there will be complete peace and agreement on anything for evermore within an organisation that employs 8,000 people. It does not mean, and it cannot mean, that there will never be a disruptive character inside the organisation. The disruptive character who gets in through the union door will seek, in the same way, to get in through the staff association door.

I believe that the difference between the deal which the unions offered and the perfection which the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary seem to want is marginal.

Mr. Bill Walker

Will my hon. Friend consider the position at Cheltenham and the difference that there would be with a staff association? At the moment, disruption could be engineered to create great difficulties for security and strategic reasons. That is unlikely to happen with a staff association, because individuals would have complete loyalty to Cheltenham.

Sir Kenneth Lewis

I have already said that I believe that the union inside Cheltenham should be local. The union should not be involved in national calls for strike action from outside. I believe that is a reasonable objective for the Government to seek.

I believe that the difference is marginal. The Foreign Secretary thinks that the margin is important, or crucial It may be important, but I do not believe that it is crucial. I do not believe that the marginal difference is the only matter to be considered in the final outcome.

National security cannot only be about intelligence or the intelligence services. What profit does a man or the Government gain if they have all the right information coming in hour by hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a year, if they lose because there are trade union interruptions and difficulties in other areas at home? National security is as much about good overall labour relations between management and the unions, and between the Government and the TUC, as it is about anything else.

The Government, in the last Parliament and in this, have been much less hawkish about the unions than the Government of 1970 in which my right hon. and learned Friend was Solicitor-General. The Bill which was introduced in 1970 and came into effect in 1972 was a draconian measure. Some Conservative Members tried to persuade the Government to accept some amendments tabled by the Opposition which had been suggested by the TUC, but they were not acceptable to the Government. To know anything about "dries" in the Government, one would need to have been here then. At that time the dries were drier than anything that we have had during the last Parliament.

Both the previous Secretaries of State for Employment in the last Parliament took the opportunity to seek to achieve the right balance between the community and the unions on a slowly-slowly, softly-softly legislation basis, and they got it right. We are continuing in the same way in this Parliament with the Trade Union Bill, which is in Committee. That is to the Government's credit. Why should we now seek to change all that by imposing a thumping ban on trade union membership simply because we want to get something on security right, at the margin?

The Government must recognise that, although they are in office with a large majority, they can govern only with the support of the trade union membership. We had massive support from trade union members at the last general election.

The Government have had second thoughts about this matter, but they still seem intent on turning down a deal with the unions. When one is about to get married, one goes to church and has the banns read three times. I want to ask my right hon. and learned Friend to have a third go at this and consider the matter again. There would be considerable advantages for the Government. If we do not reach agreement on this matter, the disadvantage to the country will be a tragic loss of good relations with the unions.

The Government must have noticed that the unions and the TUC have at last been discussing matters with them directly and not simply through the agency of the Opposition. For the first time, trade unions have been talking to Ministers. Are we to throw away those recently obtained good relations suddenly for something at Cheltenham that is at the margin? Are we to lose the wider TUC co-operation that seems to be on the horizon? Are we to lose the newly found good communications that are important for any Government when they deal with organised labour? If we throw away those advantages there may not be an immediate effect but, as in 1970, the effect will roll on towards the next general election

So far the Government have got it right in terms of their relationship with organised labour. We were entering into a period of better relations. It will be bad for the Conservative party if we throw that away or if we blow it. It will also be bad for the country. This is no time for stiff intransigence. It is a time for the lady to think of turning on this matter. Turning now will strengthen, not weaken, the Prime Minister. I hope that she will take the chance so to do.

8.21 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Sir K. Lewis) speaks from a great deal of experience. He had many wise words to say. It would be a wise Prime Minister and a wise Foreign Secretary who heeded the words of their experienced Back-Bench colleague.

This Administration are motivated, and have been since they came into office, by intense dislike of trade unionism in all its forms. This is where I differ from the hon. Gentleman. They tend to view British trade unionism in much the same way as the Polish and Soviet authorities view Solidarity. That is part of the background to the decision to ban trade unionism at GCHQ. If the Government could get away with it, I doubt whether there would be much hesitation in extending the ban to other forms of public service. Indeed, there is already concern that the decision about GCHQ could be used in time as an excuse for extending the ban on trade union membership to certain parts of the public service involved in sensitive work.

What of civil servants working at the Ministry of Defence and other such establishments? Could not the same argument be used in 12 months, 18 months or two years? Part of the argument about GCHQ is that the ban already applies and has always applied to the security service. Now it will be extended to GCHQ. Why should it not be extended to other sensitive areas? Why limit it to GCHQ? That is why there is understandable concern, not confined by any means to the Labour Benches. There is concern in the country that the Government may be trying to find a way of banning trade unionism on a wider basis than that which we are discussing today.

I am also concerned at the possibility that what the Government are intending to do at GCHQ could be used as an excuse by employers in the private sector. Those who are involved in Government defence contracts and so on will have a ready-made excuse if there is not already a trade union organisation and there is an attempt at organising one in such establishments. They could use the same arguments as those used today by the Foreign Secretary. Understandably the trade union movement and many civil servants are offended at the link that is made by the Government between subversion or disloyalty and trade unionism. I assure the House—I do not think that it is necessary to give such assurances—that there is no lack of loyalty over security matters in trade unions. There never has been and never is likely to be. It is unfortunate that the Government give the impression that in itself trade unionism is somehow undesirable, and in sensitive areas such as Cheltenham and elsewhere it is both undesirable and subversive.

We do not know the number of staff at GCHQ who have agreed to give up their rights to belong to a union and to take the £1,000. Every time we table parliamentary questions, there is an evasive answer from the Foreign Secretary. The Government have been conducting what I can describe only as their own intelligence warfare, with obviously leaked stories about the apparent large numbers who have agreed to the decision and taken that money. I suspect that now, some three days before the deadline, a fair percentage remain who have not signed away their rights, although I do not in any way—no one in the House should—underestimate the tremendous pressure on the staff to agree.

Some may say that the Labour party are echoing their usual pro-trade union cries. We make no apologies about that. It is interesting, however, that the Bishop of Gloucester, in a letter to The Times on 8 February, said of the staff at GCHQ: Suddenly, all these people are confronted with a form to sign which gives them only two options. The first is to trade in their right to membership of a union in return for £1,000 in cash. The second is to apply for, and accept, a transfer at the Government's discretion to who knows where, with consequent disruption to family life. Many will have children preparing for important examinations; others would need to uproot elderly relatives and so forth. That is a fair description of the dilemma in which the Government have placed loyal and dedicated civil servants whose only apparent crime has been to belong to a trade union. In the same letter, the bishop also said that many of the staff value the right to union membership as one of the traditional freedoms of our land. More or less like the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding, the bishop asked: Is it too late to hopes that the Government will be strong and wise enough"— interesting words— to alter the terms of this crude and inhumane ultimatum before it expires at the end of the month? The Bishop of Gloucester, like the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding and other Conservative critics of the Government, had his answer today. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary stand pat. They refuse to budge in any way, no matter what guarantees the unions are willing to give, no matter that there has been a unanimous report from the Select Committee, with its Conservative majority, no matter that there has been widespread criticism in the country. The Prime Minister will not budge an inch. If there is a vote tonight, she will rely on her majority. That is part of our present difficulties as a country. The Prime Minister is obstinate and believes that only she knows the truth. She is unwilling to listen, even when criticism comes from members of her own party in the House, with long experience.

One thing is for sure — the removal of the ban on union membership at GCHQ will remain a demand of the trade union movement. Let there be no doubt about that. If the Government get their way—they will use intense pressure to do so—the trade union movement will not give up. It has had many defeats in the past. When it started so many years ago, it was hardly legal. It will not give up. It will constantly demand that the ban be removed. No matter how long it has to wait—one hopes that it will not be too long—it will see to it that that ban is removed. It will be removed by a Labour Government. Similarly, following the general strike in 1926, the Civil Service unions were told that it would become illegal to affiliate to the TUC. The trade unions did not say, "That's it. That is for the rest of time." They bided their time until there was a Labour Government, who were determined to remove that ban. The same will apply to GCHQ.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

The hon. Gentleman will know that, following the general strike or thereabouts, the police service, which had gone on strike, was statute barred by the House from any union activity or political affiliation. That ban has remained. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not say that for that reason the police are unable to be properly represented, or that a future Labour Government will remove the ban.

Mr. Winnick

The hon. Gentleman has, I think, confused himself over particular events. The position of the police arose out of what happened in 1919, I believe, not 1926. I do not know whether he was patting himself on the back when he said that he regarded the police as being well represented without a trade union. My answer, however, is that that is a matter for the police. The trade union members at Cheltenham wish to remain in their unions and to the extent that they are being forced to give up that right they are doing so under intense pressure from the Government.

One of our fundamental freedoms is the right to belong to a trade union. Another is the right to elect representatives to the House of Commons. A feature of any country which can describe itself in any meaningful sense as a democracy is a free Parliament such as we have here. Another is free trade unionism independent of the state. In the name of security and the state, a fundamental right is being removed from some British citizens. That is obnoxious and distasteful.

I hope that even at this late hour the Government, having heard the arguments and the criticism, will give way and recognise that what is at stake is a fundamental right that no Government is entitled to take away

8.32 pm
Mr. Peter Lloyd (Fareham)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I shall touch on several of the points that he made, especially his argument about fundamental rights.

The debate has dealt with a number of linked issues but it has certainly not been about matters of principle. The matters of principle were settled with the Employment Protection Acts of 1975 and 1978 when the Labour Government took the powers that the Conservative Government are now using at GCHQ. Those powers were certainly not taken for show, to impress the then. Tory Opposition that the Labour Government were taking security matters seriously, because the Labour Government proceeded to issue a number of certificates.

Mr. John Smith

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present when the Foreign Secretary opened the debate and I asked about this. The Foreign Secretary agreed that the power taken by the Government to deprive people of trade union membership had nothing to do with the Employment Protection Act but proceeded from an Order in Council of 1982 and instructions issued thereunder.

Mr. Lloyd

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right as far as he goes. I accept that the Employment Protection Acts and the certificates issued thereunder did not remove trade union membership in the security establishments to which they applied, but I believe—the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to confirm or deny this-that that was because there was no trade union membership in those establishments. The relevant provisions, however, gave the Government powers that they would not otherwise have had to prevent those establishments becoming unionised. That is why I say that there is no deep principle involved today.

Mr. Smith

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I must make this crystal clear. The certificates under the Employment Protection Act relate merely to depriving people of the right to go to an industrial tribunal in respect of allegations of unfair dismissal. Nothing in those Acts affects people's rights to belong to trade unions. The Government are doing this unilaterally as employer, under an Order in Council of 1982. That is an issue of principle that has nothing to do with the Labour Government.

Mr. Lloyd

I accept what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says. I shall look at the matter again. If I am wrong, I beg his pardon, but that was my understanding of the matter.

Mr. Howard

Before my hon. Friend accepts too much from the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith), does he agree that one of the rights that would exist under the Employment Protection Acts—but for the provisions to which my hon. Friend referred—is the right to go to an industrial tribunal and complain about dismissal from employment on the ground of not being permitted to join a trade union, a right which is centrally connected with the Order in Council to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred?

Mr. Lloyd

I am most grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was so vehement that I thought that he must have completely solid ground for what he said and all that it implied. The certificates allow the Government to prohibit union membership under the relevant contract of employment. I believe that that is what they did.

Even if the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) is strictly correct in everything that he says, which I very much doubt, is he saying that the Labour party has gone back on the view of the Labour Government and now supports the unfettered right of everyone in the army, the police or anywhere else to belong to a trade union? If the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues do not take that view and accept that there are certain areas in which on the whole it is safer not to permit trade union membership, we are arguing not about a matter of principle but about a matter of judgment as to where the line should be drawn. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not intervene to deny that, I shall assume that he accepts my argument that we are not discussing a matter of principle.

If it is not a matter of principle but a matter of judgment, the question arises whether GCHQ, which is clearly a crucial defence establishment—no one has argued the contrary—has suffered disruption as a result of trade union membership. All that has been said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and all the information available to the Select Committee shows. plainly that the work of GCHQ has been disrupted on a number of occasions. The only point of debate is how severely and completely it was affected. Clearly the Government had to take action. I believe that the only secure way forward was to detach GCHQ employees from their national unions and the national considerations and preoccupations of the officers of those unions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Sir K. Lewis) argued that the possibility of agreement with the unions was before the Government. My hon. Friend argued, "Why not pick up the unions' offer of a no-strike agreement and see how far it can go?" The answer to that is that, however detailed the arrangements might be, they would be agreements not between employer and employee but between employer and union and there would therefore be—even if to a lesser extent than there is now—a conflict of loyalty for the employee. I do not believe that there is any way of completely removing that tension while union membership continues.

There is a second point to be made. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) argued that the agreement could be put into a legal context and given effect at law. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) then intervened to ask how that would make the arrangement any more effective than the present one. My hon. and learned Friend was right in implying that there is no way that the law, at the time of a dispute, can make matters more effective when there is such an agreement. At present, the employer has power to discipline an employee who breaks his contract. There is no additional penalty that could be imposed upon him that could have any basic effect.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has rightly said that the unions are prepared to make many more concessions now than ever before. That is not because they have had a change of heart but because the Government's action is removing them entirely from GCHQ and they are seeking to salvage a little influence. If the Government want to take up the idea of an agreement and try to make it work, there will always be a lack of clarity and certainty as to whether the agreement would apply in a time of crisis.

A few weeks ago in the NGA dispute, Mr. Len Murray said firmly and clearly that the law should always be obeyed. However, there is now a day of action scheduled for tomorrow and Mr. Murray is making ambivalent signs. That makes the argument much clearer than it could be made by any speech from the Government. When trade union leaders call upon members to break their contracts—contracts that those leaders may have helped to negotiate—in order to persuade the Government that an agreement with GCHQ should be accepted because it would be lasting and watertight, the absurdity of the unions' position is plain. The Government are right to adhere to their policy.

One criticism that has force has been made several times by Opposition Members. They have said that the Government did not act quickly enough. If action was necessary, why was it not taken earlier? I cannot answer that, but I can assure Opposition Members that the delay does not in any way undermine the Government's argument. I believe that the House will support the Government tonight, and that the country will support them too.

8.44 pm
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I am grateful for the chance to speak briefly in this debate, as a number of people in my constituency work at GCHQ. When I was in the Foreign Office I was well aware of the activities of GCHQ and of the lengths to which we, and all those involved, were asked to go to ensure the secrecy and security of the organisation.

As right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out, never has so much damage been done to that essential security as has been done during the past few weeks by the Government's ill-thought-out decision and intemperate action. A perplexed and bewildered union official at GCHQ came to my surgery last week and said bluntly that he believed that, with the single exception of the Prime affair, this affair had done more damage to security at GCHQ than anything in the previous 20 or 30 years.

Other right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about the rights involved in the case—the essential rights of free people in a democracy to be members of a trade union. With the benefit of hindsight—and I said it at the time—one can say that some of the action taken by trade unions in the past in relation to GCHQ was ill-advised. In my judgment, some of the action to be taken tomorrow is also plainly ill-advised. However, it must also be recognised that there are practical reasons why members of GCHQ will wish to belong to a union. Those reasons are based as much on ideas about rights as on the necessity to join a trade union, because some of the actions taken by the Government to safeguard jobs and provide reasonable conditions of employment have not been entirely reassuring to those employees.

On a number of occasions, only the intervention of the unions has ensured proper and appropriate recompense for some of the illnesses and injuries suffered by people who work at GCHQ. I am thinking, for example, of tinnitus. There was also an occasion some years ago — this reaches an emotional plane — when two members of GCHQ were killed on service abroad and only the intervention of the unions secured a recompense of some £10,000 for their families. The Government did not wish to pay compensation.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Why does the hon. Gentleman imagine that a staff association, such as the Police Federation, would not effectively intervene in such a case?

Mr. Ashdown

It might or it might not. However, it is the view of the members who work at GCHQ that it was only the strength of their unions that managed to secure that compensation.

One of the unfortunate aspects of the debate has been that, of necessity, a veil of secrecy is drawn around GCHQ. The Government have been able to make certain statements which have raised the temperature of employees at GCHQ because they were unable to answer them.

For example, the Government have referred, today and previously, to the loss of some 10,000 hours as a result of industrial action. Those working at GCHQ find some inconsistency in that charge. I have been told, and I believe it, that on occasions the management at GCHQ has insisted that staff should take their leave at holiday times, leaving GCHQ — in the opinion of many — very undermanned. At the time of the Afghanistan crisis during the Christmas period in 1979, a certain number of people were made to take their holiday on pain of losing their jobs. That caused precisely the discontinuation of service that the Government now accuse the unions of bringing about.

I am told — it was admitted today by the Foreign Secretary — that the disruption during the Falklands campaign occurred in Hong Kong where it could have had no conceivable impact on that campaign. Moreover, the disruption was caused not at the behest of the trade unions but by several people who were not on the front line and whose actions were in any case covered. The Government have made much of that incident, but it would not have been resolved by removing trade union rights as those people went on strike without the benefit of the backing of a trade union. They withdrew their labour without any insistence or request from a trade union. Nothing was lost anyway.

There is another form of disruption in GCHQ of which the Government should take account. Essential surveillance has been undermined not because of the actions of the trade union movement or because of action taken by employees, but because the Government were unable or unwilling to provide sufficient financial resources for those operations to continue. I understand that during the Polish crisis two essential pieces of equipment were allowed to remain out of operation—I am told that much coverage was lost—for five days because the management at GCHQ was unwilling to bring in technicians. I also understand that an entire section of GCHQ was out of operation during a holiday because the management was unwilling on grounds of cost to bring in technicians to man equipment. if the Government are genuinely worried about disruption they should look to their own house and recognise that many of the decisions that have caused disruption, have not been taken by trade unions but arise from the Government not being prepared to provide the essential back-up to keep the service operating full time.

The House will want to know that technicians at GCHQ work only a 9 to 5 day and a five-day week. There are many occasions when there is no back-up facility or commitment from the Government to supply the type of continuous service that they now regard as so important. Full-time cover is required to provide surveillance. It is wrong of the Government to point the finger solely at the trade union movement. It is estimated that the amount of disruption caused by factors such as I have described is far greater than that caused, however regrettably, by membership of a trade union.

The Prime Minister has been extremely ill-advised. There are many who believe—I concur with them—or suspect that there is an element of making the trade union movement a scapegoat for some of the incompetence which has caused disruption. Moreover, the Prime Minister is too out of touch to know better and too proud to listen to contrary opinions. She seems to have grown to believe in her own infallibility. She does not seem to know the difference between the resolute approach and dangerous inflexibility. In this instance she is a Prime Minister whose vindictiveness towards the trade union movement has warped her judgment on the issue. Those are the ingredients which have drawn the Government into this profound folly. It is an action that has constituted a major attack on the civil rights of British people. Above all and most seriously, it has destroyed the morale and operational effectiveness of a proud profession with a proven record of expertise. By instituting this action the Government have done what they wrongfully accuse the trade unions of risking doing—damaged the security of our country for the moment and perhaps for some time to come.

8.53 pm
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

I shall begin by dealing with the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) when he intervened during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd). The right hon. and learned Gentleman must be aware that one of the rights provided by the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 is the right of an employee not to have action taken against him by his employer for being or seeking to become a member of an independent trade union. It was to remove that right in relation to issues such as this that the power was expressly provided in the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978. That Act was put on the statute book by a Labour Government when the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) was Secretary of State for Employment. That issue was closely related to the Order in Council and I fail to understand how the right hon. and learned Gentleman can pretend that in some way it has nothing to do with the issues before us.

Mr. John Smith

I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman knows well that the 1978 Act was a consolidation measure which repeated the provisions of the 1975 Act, which in turn repeated the provisions of the 1971 Act. The Labour Government issued certificates in respect of certain other agencies, but, as those agencies did not have trade union members, the issue of membership of a trade union did not arise. It is utterly misleading for the Government, the Foreign Secretary or their apologists, such as the hon. and learned Gentleman, to pretend that somehow the Labour Government introduced legislation that is designed for the present purpose.

Mr. Howard

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong. The fact remains that the Labour Government had opportunities extending over about five years to remove this power but did not do so. They expressly included it in the Employment Protection Act 1975 and kept it in the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978. It is absurd to suggest that they did not notice what they were doing.

Despite that rather unhappy controversial beginning to my speech, I had hoped to strike a less controversial attitude. It is extremely regrettable that the issue we are discussing has become the subject of such intense controversy. There is much common ground on this matter. One has only to look at some of the common propositions which the Select Committee took as its starting point to see how substantial it is. The Select Committee approached its inquiry by agreeing four fundamental points. I need refer only to the last two. They were that industrial action at GCHQ could affect national security in certain circumstances, and that the Government have a duty to ensure that the exercise of trade union rights does not adversely affect national security.

Given that broad area of agreement, it would appear that the critical aspect of the issue is simply whether there exists an alternative to the Government's actions which safeguards national security satisfactorily. That theme has permeated many speeches and almost everyone who has spoken in opposition to the Government has suggested that what has been offered by the trade unions amounts to a satisfactory alternative. I suggest that anyone who takes that line has a duty to answer the following critical question: if, in circumstances of international tension, the trade unions breach any such agreement, what effective remedy will be available to the Government to safeguard the operation of installations at GCHQ and therefore to safeguard national security?

The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) was gracious enough to allow me to intervene in his speech to ask that question. I am grateful to him for having allowed me to do so. However, I must confess that I was astonished by his answer. His answer was that, because the trade unions were prepared to write into their conditions of service the fact that industrial action would not be permitted, members of the trade unions who engaged in such industrial action would be liable to instant dismissal. In our law strike action is, in any event, ground for dismissal, yet we all know that strikes occur.

It is idle to suppose that because the matter was written into the conditions of service the Government could take effective action when the crisis arose to safeguard the running of GCHQ and national security. I hope that the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East will deal with that question when he replies, because unless he can show that there is effective action which the Government can take the entire basis on which the argument against the Government rests—that there is an effective alternative—falls to the ground.

I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you wish me to be brief and I shall be brief. Because no such effective alternative has been advanced at any stage of the debate, I support the Government's action. There is no alternative, and the Government are right to recognise that this is the effective way of safeguarding national security.

8.59 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In the last few minutes the Prime Minister has courteously rejoined us. She may be able to help with the answer that has so far eluded many hon. Members. Why has it taken three years since 1981 for any action to be taken?

The Prime Minister may recollect that my interest in GCHQ predates January 1984. On 19 December 1983 I asked her whether responsibility for GCHQ Cheltenham remained with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Her answer to that was yes. She answered a question on polygraphs at the same time. I wonder whether at this late stage of the debate, and before her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment replies, she would care to comment. Naturally, I would willingly give way to the Prime Minister. Perhaps she wants to say something. It would greatly help the House. [AN HON. MEMBER: "That is a good try."] The hon. Gentleman may say that it is a good try, but the Prime Minister can answer our question.

On 31 January the Prime Minister, in answer to a question, said: The acknowledgement was made on 12 May 1983. The time was not unreasonable for such a matter." —[Official Report, 31 January 1984; Vol. 53, c. 120.] There has been a great delay. I ask the Prime Minister to tell me what has happened in the last few months that accounts for this extraordinary, inexplicable action? Why was it that apparently she did not consult her Cabinet colleagues on the issue? I do not wish to be impertinent, but I find it extraordinary that the Prime Minister, who courteously comes in towards the end of the debate, will not answer a question which was asked most eloquently by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), to the nods of another former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath).

The Prime Minister's silence is absolutely deafening. I have already asked whether her decision has anything to do with the Falklands issue. On 20 February I asked the Foreign Secretary on what basis he expressed dissatisfaction with GCHQ staff's performance during the Falklands conflict. He replied: I have not done or had no cause to do so." —[Official Report, 20 February 1984; Vol. 52, c. 383.] That is a bit different from the briefing that the Foreign Secretary gave to the Daily Telegraph on 31 January, which said: In a previously unsuspected catalogue of trade union action since 1979 he showed that the organisation was badly hit during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, in the hours following the attempt to assassinate President Reagan during the Beirut crisis and in the final days of the Falklands campaign. Why was it that the right hon. Lady's Government briefed the press in the early stages that part of this decision concerned the Falklands campaign, when her Foreign Secretary says that the Falklands campaign had nothing to do with it?

Once again, both explanations cannot be true. I say as courteously as I can to the Prime Minister, which is it? Which is it? Which is it? [Interruption.] It is no good the Prime Minister saying something in an aside to the Secretary of State for Employment. I have asked, as courteously as I can, for an answer to the question that has been put many times in this debate, because we have had no explanation for the delay. Could it be that we have not been told something? Could it be that there is information which it would be embarrassing to reveal?

I must tell the Prime Minister that next week a book will be published by Secker and Warburg, written by Desmond Rice and Arthur Gaushon, which will call for all sorts of explanations—[HON. MEMBERS: "Who are they?"] The former head of Associated Press in London and the chairman of Shell in Buenos Aires.

Surely this extraordinary action is in no way related to the Falklands campaign. The Prime Minister hangs her head—

Mr. Winnick

In shame.

Mr. Dalyell

I think that the point has been made. Or does the decision have something to do with computer network 102 or the platform programme? We have had no explanation.

It is proper for me to raise the personal behaviour of Sir Brian Tovey. We are told that the decision related to disruption at Cheltenham. Sir Brian, as director of GCHQ, secretly advised the Government to ban unions, and subsequently took early retirement for health reasons. Following his early retirement, Sir Brian became a consultant to Plessey, a major internationally important electronics company. That company has significant commercial interests in sales of equipment to GCHQ and, moreover, would be extremely interested in recruiting certain key technical specialists who might choose to leave GCHQ rather than to accept the ban on unions. Here is the man who says that there must be no disruption, but who is now a consultant to a major electronics company that is trying to recruit people from the very institution that he says must not be disrupted.

Sir Brian told the Select Committee on employment last week that if as few as 10 per cent. of key personnel refuse to accept the changed conditions of employment, the headquarters' work would be seriously jeopardised. After the Government announcement of the ban on unions at GCHQ, Plessey, Racal, Marconi and GEC are trying to recruit some of GCHQ's most skilled experts. Is that true —I am given to believe that it is—and, if so, is it moral? What are the ethics of a former head of GCHQ soon after he has occupied that key position transferring his allegiance to one of the great firms of this country and trying to lure away the people—his former colleagues—who are so vital?

The information appears to reveal the distinct possibility of a most grave and completely unacceptable conflict of interests with respect to Sir Brian's consultancy. It is conceivable that such a conflict of interests could lead to circumstances in which Britain's and NATO's security might be seriously affected. One knows that many senior civil servants on retirement have taken up, with varying degrees of legitimacy, lucrative industrial and commercial appointments. However, a former director of GCHQ is in a very special position, and he should never place himself in a position in which a potentially damaging conflict of interests might arise The expertise of retired directors of GCHQ should, in the national interest, continue to be available to the Government, but the provision of such expertise for commercial gain involves unavoidable and unacceptable risks to national and NATO security. If that is the position, perhaps the Government should make special financial arrangements for former directors of GCHQ, as they do for people who leave other key positions.

Sir Brian Tovey's behaviour must be explained. Indeed, if I may put it once again to the Prime Minister, at some time she will have to answer the question that has been put so often from the Opposition Benches and, most forcefully of all, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth as to the reason for the delay. If it was important, why not do it in 1981? Some of us believe that it has been done for motives that have a great deal to do with the political interests of the Prime Minister and very little to do with the national interests of Britain.

9.10 pm
Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)

As nearly every speaker has acknowledged, this has been a very important debate. More than one speaker noted that in the debate we were touching upon some fundamental issues—perhaps the most fundamental to come before this Parliament or the last one.

Several right hon. and hon. Members noted that the issues raised in the debate will not disappear after it has concluded, or even after the issues have been resolved one way or another, because the underlying attitudes and assumptions—particularly those displayed by the Prime Minister and her Government—will cast their shadow far into the future and may have a profound effect not just on the fortunes of the Conservative party but upon the attitudes of the nation as a whole for many years to come. Those who expressed such sentiments underestimated rather than overestimated the effects, because the issues have thrown a searchlight of truth upon the Prime Minister's motivation and attitude towards the trade union movement.

The concerns that have been expressed in the debate do no more and no less than mirror the genuine anxieties that exist as a baffled and puzzled nation seeks to get to grips with the issues and wonders what on earth prompted the Government to carry out the policies on which they have embarked. Those sentiments were eloquently expressed by Conservative Members in notable and courageous speeches from the hon. Members for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst), Stamford and Spalding (Sir K. Lewis), and Cheltenham (Mr. Irving). No doubt at some political cost to themselves they articulated the sentiments of their own constituents. Their views were reinforced in speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) —the Chairman of the Select Committee that did such a splendid job in exposing the issue to the scrutiny of Parliament and of the nation—by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) who served on the Committee, and by the pungent speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) and Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) among others.

If there was one speech which caught the attention of the House and crystallised the issues for many of those listening to the debate, it was the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), the Prime Minister in the last Labour Government, under whom I had the privilege of serving. He spoke not only as a former Prime Minister but, interestingly enough, as a former Civil Service union official. [Interruption.] I do not know what sort of comment the Secretary of State for Employment is trying to make. Instead of commenting on people who have been trade union officials—particularly when they are also distinguished public servants—it might be better if he were to keep quiet for a little longer.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth expressed, in a very simple and effective way, the total incredulity of the House and of the nation as to the reasons that have been given by the Government for the action they have taken. My right hon. Friend said that they are an insult to our intelligence, and that view has been repeated in several of the speeches.

My right hon. Friend warned the Prime Minister concerning the scorn towards the trade union movement that she has exhibited ever since she took office. Not a decent word has been said by the Prime Minister about trade unionism or a trade unionist since she took office as the leader of this nation. No one who is prepared to vilify and pour scorn and vituperation upon an important section of the people can lead this nation.

My right hon. Friend was good enough to offer a way out to the Prime Minister in suggesting that the whole matter should be referred to the Security Commission for further consideration and" that, in the meantime, the threatening letters should be withdrawn. Hon. Members on both sides of the House thought that there was a great deal of merit in that suggestion in that it would meet any legitimate worries about national security and help to resolve this problem of balancing the legitimate interests of national security and the fundamental civil liberties to which the people rightly attach such importance. I ask the Secretary of State for Employment, when replying, to answer that proposal specifically and to tell us whether the Government are prepared to take up my right hon. Friend's suggestion.

I do not propose to go over the arguments used throughout the debate. Conservative Members who have participated in the debate have clearly studied the issue carefully. Most of them have read and based a great deal of their speeches on the report of the Select Committee on Employment. I hope that the House will not forget the points made by the hon. Member for Hendon, North on the importance of preserving the independence and thereby the integrity of the Select Committee system which serves the House. His statements about the influence brought to bear on members of the Committee by this Administration demand the attention of the Prime Minister and senior members of the Government. Whatever else the Government get up to, it is no more or less than subverting the constitution to influence House of Commons Select Committees in a way favourable to the Government and to stop people giving evidence, as was clearly done by the Government on this occasion.

I remind the House and those outwith the House of the Select Committee's conclusions. It concluded that the Foreign Secretary had not pointed out in a statement to the House on 25 January that the certificates issued under the Employment Protection Act 1975 did not in themselves remove the right of GCHQ staff to belong to a trade union. That was typical of the evasive actions of the Foreign Secretary throughout the whole of the dispute. He wanted to say to the nation that this was a rather routine exercise by the Secretary of State of statutory functions such as were likely to be exercised under that legislation by a Labour Government.

It took some probing, digging and alert questioning to elicit from the Foreign Secretary the admission that the withdrawal of the right to trade union membership did not come under that legislation but under an Order in Council of 1982, an exercise of the royal prerogative, which this Government had taken. It was not good enough for that news to be dragged out reluctantly from the Government. When Government Ministers make statements to the House of Commons, they should tell the truth about the actions in which they are indulging.

The Select Committee also arrived at the conclusion that the Government had not justified the delay in taking action to prevent the threat to national security resulting from any so-called industrial action at GCHQ. That point has been dwelt on repeatedly throughout the debate. Hon. Members' statements have done no more than reinforce the conclusions of the Select Committee, which looked into the matter thoroughly and reached a unanimous all-party conclusion.

The Select Committee regretted, as do many hon. Members, that no consultations were held with the staff affected, or their unions, on the proposed ban. They regretted also—who does not? —that the decision was apparently taken without full Cabinet consideration. The extent to which the Secretary of State for Employment, who has responsibility for industrial relations, was consulted about the matter remains doubtful. The Select Committee referred to other matters, but the tenor of its report was of total scepticism towards the Government's reasons and justifications.

On the question whether purely Civil Service action was taken on previous disputes and any real threat to national security, I commend to those who did not hear it the speech of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who compellingly showed the other side of the coin. He discussed the many threats to national security occasioned through the Government's negligence in the operation of that sensitively listed headquarters.

It has become clear to most hon. Members that at the heart of the matter is the agreement offered by the trade unions to the Government to meet the Government's so-called concerns for national security. The only basis upon which it could be justified to remove the fundamental civil rights of the people at Cheltenham would be if some real threat to national security were proved to exist. The argument about whether there was such a threat did not matter once the trade unions had put on the table the bankable assurances contained in their document. We need not argue about whether there was or was not a threat to security, because the trade unions in that agreement give the Government all the assurances for which any reasonable Government could ask.

It is fair to say that the trade union leaders concerned bent over backwards to do a deal with the Government. But what are they told by the Government? I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Stroud (Sir A. Kershaw), who said that we should have our old friend Solomon Binding back again to haunt us. It is nothing of the kind. The trade unions offered legally binding assurances, gave guarantees and backed them by agreeing that they should be put into the contracts of employment of those employed at GCHQ.

The Select Committee recommended that that should be done, the trade unions followed that up, and there was no difference between the Select Committee and the trade union on that. What more do the Government want? What more could the trade unions conceivably have offered to meet the Government's demand than what they had already given in the draft Whitley Council agreement negotiated with Sir Robert Armstrong, which was put before the Prime Minister at the last meeting?

There is no reasonable person who believes that the trade unions could have gone further. I listened to what the Foreign Secretary said and at no stage did he say that there was something else that the Government wanted that the trade unions did not concede. After the meeting I was told what had happened. After the trade unions had explained their case to the Prime Minister, she thanked them for what they had done, said that she thought that they had made a sincere attempt to reach agreement, but her conclusion was that all that they had done was to clarify the issues and to show an unbridgeable gap. She did not say that there was something more that they could offer, because there was nothing more that they could offer consistent with having trade unions at GCHQ Cheltenham.

Those who were with the Prime Minister on that occasion—I have had the opportunity to speak to them—found her reactions to their proposals breathtaking, and they were staggered that anybody could react to their propositions in the cold and clearly predetermined manner used by the Prime Minister.

Mr. Beith

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recall that the Foreign Secretary seemed to suggest that there was one issue on which the unions had not sufficiently delivered—whether there was a distinction to be drawn between some staff and others at GCHQ? If that is the case, could it not be negotiated away, and does it not represent an insufficient argument for the impasse that the Government have created?

Mr. Smith

That would not detain us for long if that were the only difference between the Government and the trade unions. That could be negotiated and clarified, and could have been at the meeting with the Prime Minister, or at any time. The Government should lift a telephone and start discussions again with the trade unions.

The facts drive us ineluctably to only one conclusion—that what is wrong with the trade unionists at Cheltenham is that they are trade unionists. The Prime Minister regards membership of trade unions as something intrinsically malign and she thinks that there is something about national trade unionism that, if allowed to exist in Cheltenham, will subvert its operations. That must be it. If there is some other explanation, the Government would have been able to offer it in the debate since the announcement was made. The Government tell us that there can be a "sweetheart association" or a company union, but nothing affiliated to the TUC.

That malign attitude towards trade unionism is not the only characteristic that the Prime Minister has exhibited. We have had her usual arrogant assumption that she alone is right, her unyielding stubbornness, and refusal to comprehend, let alone act on, the advice of anyone else. We have also had her unfailing helpmate, the present Foreign Secretary, as he goes through yet another minefield in his celebrated electro-magnetic boots. The House has listened to his fumbling explanations and evasions day after day as more information has been extracted from him and as his explanations have become less and less credible. We can now believe that if the Foreign Secretary is in charge of any part of Government policy, as he has demonstrated at home and abroad, disaster lies ahead for the Government.

I now go on to the effect of the Government's action and ask specific questions of the Secretary of State for Employment. First, will he deal with the extension of such procedures to other sectors? We listened carefully to what the Foreign Secretary said, and he denied that the Government had any intention to act in relation to any other trade unionists in the Government service. He said, "We have no intention of introducing similar measures outside the field of security and intelligence." He did not say that the Government's action was confined to GCHQ.

I have some questions for the Secretary of State for Employment. Are not there civil servants in the Ministry of Defence who are trade unionists and are doing work of even greater sensitivity than that being done at GCHQ? Are not there trade unionists in the defence provision industry who are doing work of similar and even greater sensitivity to that done by those at GCHQ? Why did the Foreign Secretary use the careful words "field of security and intelligence"? We have learnt to look carefully at the small print of Government statements and the Foreign Secretary's pronouncements during the dispute. I ask the Secretary of State for Employment to give a cast-iron guarantee to all other civil servants not employed at GCHQ that similar action will not be taken against them.

Perhaps the most important question, and it concerns not only the House but many people outside and particularly the employees al Cheltenham, is what will happen after the 1 March deadline. What will happen to those who have not been bribed and blackmailed into giving up their trade union membership?

The Secretary of State for Employment undertook to answer some questions put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. I remind the Secretary of State of the importance of those questions. First, I remind him of what was said by a Treasury Minister in reply to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) on 23 February about the instructions given to the director of GCHQ. Those instructions stated: I am writing to confirm that the Prime Minister, as Minister for the Civil Service, … has given instructions that the conditions of service under which civil servants are employed as members of the staff of the Government Communications Headquarters shall be varied so as to provide that such civil servants shall not be members of any trade union other than a departmental staff association approved by yourself. Existing members of the staff at GCHQ shall be given such period of time as you think fit in which to determine whether or not they are prepared to continue to serve at GCHQ under the conditions of service so varied. You should make such changes in your staff regulations and take such other ancillary and consequential steps as may be necessary to give effect to these instructions. Having taken the decision to deprive people of their rights, the Government are leaving the dirty work to the director at GCHQ. He will have to sack people, all at once, in ones and twos or in groups. Alternatively, he may take the ringleaders aside and deal with them first to see whether the rest of them crack and he will have to use all other techniques that have been perfected over time by those who wish to carry out this sort of operation.

That is why it is extremely important that the Secretary of State for Employment answers the questions that the Civil Service unions have raised in their memorandum, which was referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. The questions relate to what will happen after the deadline. Will one or two people be sacked or will those likely to form the backbone of resistance be identified? Even worse, will the Government identify those whom they dare not sack, because they cannot replace them, and leave them in their jobs while those who are not indispensable are put out of work? If there is any discrimination in the way in which various employees are treated, that will add another round of wickedness to this whole sorry chapter. There must be fairness in all aspects of the operation.

Above all else, we know that there are people at GCHQ who will not sign option A or option B. They are prepared to stand by their principles and their rights. I do not criticise those who have been forced to sign. They have had to face a terrible conflict of loyalties between their belief in trade unionism and their desire to be members of trade unions and their responsibilities to their families, which is an important burden on anyone. I shall not criticise any man of woman who finds that conflict extremely difficult to resolve. I only regret that in Britain, of all countries, people are put to that invidious test, for no reason whatever. Why are the free people of this country to be blackmailed and bullied by an authoritarian Government in this insidious and disgraceful way? We in this House must speak up for the rights of those people, and we must not stop speaking up for their rights as the dispute drags on.

I do not know how the Government will play it. Perhaps they will sack them all at one time. Perhaps they will deal with the ringleaders. Perhaps they will deal with those whom they think are the easier targets. Whatever they do, it will be a sorry chapter. No justification has been found either by the Select Committee or in this debate for what the Government have done or for what they propose to do. No matter how one views the matter, one comes back to the essential truth, that there is no explanation other than that the Government believe that trade unionism is a malign influence and that one cannot be loyal to a trade union and the state at the same time. That is an outrageous motive, and it will have an outrageous effect, because it will diminish the liberties of our people, as well as presenting them with an agonising and unnecessary conflict of loyalties. Above all, it will damage the very interests of national security that the Government profess to support. Having a sullen, embittered and perhaps depleted work force at GCHQ is no way to safeguard and obtain the loyalty and dedication which, in this area above all, are what any sensible Government would seek to achieve.

The Foreign Secretary said, in one of the less dramatic parts of his speech: "I do not deny that there are matters of principle at stake". Only the present Foreign Secretary could approach these major issues in such a negative fashion. Of course major principles are at stake. We see a Government bent on coercion and victimisation in an attempt to get their own way. Thank goodness, this House, on behalf of the people of this country, can still speak up on their behalf. We give notice to the Government that if this struggle goes on, we will struggle with the people in Cheltenham and, in solidarity with them, we will fight for their rights.

9.32 pm
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Tom King)

I wish to refer, first, as the subject was mentioned in the debate, to the absence of the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey). The right hon. Gentleman was courteous enough to say that he was sorry that he was not able to be here for the winding-up speeches because he has to be at a meeting in Chesterfield. I am sure that all hon. Members will accept that no one could be more sorry than the right hon. Gentleman that he has been obliged to go to Chesterfield and will accept his apology in the spirit in which it was offered.

This debate has reflected the seriousness of the issues involved at GCHQ. We have heard a number of speeches of deep feeling, which all hon. Members respect, because of the difficult issues involved. I, as Secretary of State, feel them as keenly as anyone. Some aspects of the matter are capable of massive misrepresentation, as those who have listened to this debate will realise. I therefore welcome this opportunity to put the record straight on matters that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have sought to misrepresent.

There is a particular difficulty, in that GCHQ is an institution, the nature of which makes it particularly difficult to talk as frankly as one would wish about some of the background and the issues involved. Certain allegations have been made, and the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) made a number of comments to which he knows I cannot respond. He recited certain anecdotes about GCHQ, although he must understand the difficulties that are involved.

I deal first with the very fair point about the delay in coming to this conclusion. I thought that, as a former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) was surprisingly dismissive of the problem of avowal. My understanding is that during his period in office the right hon. Gentleman never avowed the existence of this institution. As a former Foreign Secretary, he also understands the significance of any avowal to that effect. The right hon. Gentleman dismissed it lightly as though it was just a fabrication that to acknowledge the existence of an organisation carrying out its responsibilities over a wider range than just this country, bearing in mind some of the activities in which it is involved, could be done at any time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) referred to his old friend Sir Brian Tovey, but one of the interesting features to emerge clearly from the evidence given to the Select Committee was that this was not a proposition which originated at the top as some obsession of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary or even my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but that it originated in the management's very proper concern about the difficulties which had been experienced and was then considered by Ministers.

I was asked whether I had any knowledge of this proposal before it was announced to the House. Certainly I had knowledge of it. I was involved in discussions on the matter. I was involved because I have a responsibility for the Employment Protection Act. Like my predecessors in office, one or two of whom I see on the Opposition Benches, I have a responsibility for those sections of the Act which they put on the statute book. After the vandalism that they wreaked upon the Industrial Relations Act 1971, they specifically retained sections dealing with national security which provided the power for my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary to issue the certificates. It is my responsibility, as it would be theirs, to see that that power is in force, and it is right that in the interests of national security certain powers should be provided to a responsible Minister to take action.

Mr. Gorst

Will my right hon. Friend enlighten the House on one very important aspect? He hinted darkly that secrecy and national security were behind this issue in some important way. However, when he, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and Sir Brian Tovey gave evidence to the Select Committee, they were emphatic that nothing other than the published reasons lay behind the Government's decision. Cannot my right hon. Friend try to persuade us that there is some dark ultimate reason for the Government's action?

Mr. King

That is exactly what he said to the Select Committee, and I thought that it was abundantly clear. I shall turn to some of the reasons to which certain of my hon. Friends have alluded and some of the problems of the conflicts of pressure and the difficulties that those have caused in the past at GCHQ.

I am also glad to have the opportunity to lay the lie that in any sense this is part of some general assault on the principle of trade unionism either widely in the nation or more particularly in the Civil Service. I give that assurance categorically from the Dispatch Box. We have made a clear distinction. We have recognised that those agencies whose primary function is national security and intelligence are in a different category. Successive Governments have recognised that. Successive international obligations into which we have entered have also recognised that specifically.

I destroy another myth. A number of allegations have been made about the ex gratia compensation that we are paying to staff at GCHQ for the loss of certain of their statutory rights. One of my hon. Friends said in a rather dismissive way that the loss of access to employment tribunals was a matter of no consequence. That is a serious matter. It is right that the Government should recognise it. We are making the payment proposal to union and nonunion members alike because of the loss of certain rights that happen to include trade union membership as well.

I cannot add much to what my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said on the withholding of permission for certain people to attend to give evidence to the Select Committee. I am sorry that the point was raised again by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) because we sought to make it clear. It is exactly in line with the warnings given by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when the rights of Select Committees were being discussed. We entered the reservations at that time. It is understood in the House that where, for reasons of security and intelligence, it is not appropriate for those specifically employed in the area to be present, it is proper for the Minister responsible to attend and to account for his actions. That is precisely what was done on that occasion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham and the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth mentioned the polygraph or the lie detector. In one of his less elegant phrases my hon. Friend referred to "some bright berk" who came up with that idea. As a description of Lord Bridge of Harwich, Lord Justice Griffiths, Lord Allen of Abbeydale and General Sir Hugh Beach, the members of the Security Commission, that will not do. Within five minutes he referred to that same group as people who by no stretch of the imagination could be called irresponsible. I leave it to my hon. Friend to work out which is the more apt description. My hon. Friend will know that, as the Government have made clear, it was the Security Commission which recommended a pilot scheme to test the feasibility of the polygraph.

One of my concerns in this difficult issue is, rightly and properly, as my right hon. Friend sought to set out, the rights of those at GCHQ who will lose certain statutory rights under the Employment Protection Acts. Members of GCHQ continue to enjoy Civil Service codes, to which many hon. Members have referred. I have checked the figures and hardly any members of GCHQ have needed to use the industrial tribunals because of the high regard that they have for the Civil Service appeal boards which will continue to be available to them.

I have been asked about conditions of service, in particular the rights of widows. Undoubtedly the director will be anxious to see that such points are properly safeguarded under the new arrangements. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth referred to a document without telling us what it was. He referred to certain statements that were alleged to have been made about instructions that were given to the director of GCHQ. I have had the matter investigated and I have obtained a copy of it. It is issued by the Council of Civil Service Unions.

I say in the kindest possible way, because I have some respect for the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, that he seemed to give a clear impression to the House that those were instructions issued by the Government when, in fact, he read out a piece of propaganda from the Civil Service unions that were seeking to put a mischievous interpretation on an answer given by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. With regard to the document referred to by the right hon. Gentleman, the Government deny without reservation that there is any intention to act in any of the selective ways referred to in the postscript to the Council of Civil Service Unions' document.

As my right hon. and learned Friend said, every effort will be made to deal with the problems that may arise and to arrange suitable transfers for those who have expressed a wish not to accept the conditions of service. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise, as I do, that the document is written in a misleading way and could imply that the instructions were given from the head of the Civil Service to the director. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept my categoric assurance that they are no such thing.

Mr. James Callaghan

Hansard tomorrow will show what I said. I was sent a copy of my remarks by the Official Report for confirmation. I asked the Foreign Secretary to "deny the serious allegations that are made in the document." I then enumerated the allegations. The right hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood me, but I do not believe that I could have been clearer. I was under no misapprehension. This was a statement being made by the Civil Service unions, and that is what I asked him to deny. [Interruption.] Those hon. Members who were not present are not aware of what was said.

The matter is in Hansard. I am pleased to have the right hon. Gentleman's assurance that this kind of behaviour will not be exercised and that it will not be at the discretion of the director of that institution. We shall hold the Government to that.

Mr. King

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting the record straight. I was worried by the allegations, which are clearly propaganda. I hope that my categoric assurance will help to put the record straight.

I want to deal with the problems of the trade union proposals. Any member of the Government involved in the discussions held with the TUC and the Civil Service unions recognises the real efforts made by the union leadership. They showed a considerably greater understanding of the seriousness of the issues involved than did the right hon. Member for Leeds, East in his flippant and, I believe, grossly irresponsible opening to the debate.

My right hon. and learned Friend made clear the three specific difficulties in the trade unions' proposals. The first was that they were not prepared to treat, as I understood it, GCHQ as a whole. They thought that it would be proper to discuss which were and which were not the sensitive areas of GCHQ. My right hon. and learned Friend made it clear why the Government feel that it is necessary to treat GCHQ as a whole. Secondly, the unions maintain their insistence on the right to represent their members at GCHQ, with the external contacts that that might have involved, although they were willing to enter into certain agreements about that. However, they expected to represent all the members at GCHQ whether or not they were members of a trade union. My right hon. and hon. Friends will recognise the difficulties in that proposal.

The House has recognised, and the Select Committee gave an important lead in this respect, that national security is paramount. I shall refer to the Select Committee's proposals in a minute. Inevitably in such circumstances, there is a conflict of pressures. That is not theoretical. There is evidence for it in the instances in 1979 and 1981. Tomorrow, in 1984, that same problem of the conflict of pressures is with us. It is difficult to see how it can be resolved in any way except through what the Government propose.

An issue that has not been raised, but will be known to anyone familiar with the background to security, is the approach towards the need to know. The basis of security and the maintenance of maximum security is keeping to an absolute minimum the number of people involved and their need to know in any particular situation. That is why I recognise that in these areas of secrecy it is important to minimise the external contracts that are involved. That is implicitly recognised by Mr. Alistair Graham who, in his evidence to the Select Committee, made it clear that he accepted that one could not have a normal form of trade union membership within GCHQ.

I have referred to the problem of the conflict of pressures. The House has heard quotations by trade union leaders and from various campaign documents that underline how pressure was exerted deliberately because it was felt that it would cause the maximum damage. There are quotations such as: 48 hour walkouts have severely hit secret monitoring stations belonging to the Composite Signals Organisation. That is from the Inland Revenue Staff Federation journal. The CCSU campaign report states: The use of selective strike action by members in sensitive areas is a key part of our campaign. Our ultimate success depends upon the extent to which … defence readiness is hampered. The report refers to the role of the United Kingdom in the NATO exercise being damaged and certain signals and intelligence installations being involved in that action. The campaign document states: It is now absolutely vital that the indefinite selective actions in sensitive areas, and the lightning disruptive actions, are extended and intensified. When Sir Brian Tovey gave his evidence to the Select Committee, he said that he got some of his officials to try to explain as discreetly as they could the problems in that respect and to try to discourage any industrial action, but the response was Thank you. You are telling me where I am hurting Mrs. Thatcher the most". Those areas became specific targets for further, more intensive action. It is against that background that the House has to take its decision.

Mr. Dalyell


Mr. John Smith


Mr. King

I should like to complete this point.

I referred to 1984. I do not know whether the House understood the significance of what my right hon. and learned Friend said. Industrial action is threatened tomorrow. Union leaders are saying that, to avoid giving propaganda points to the Government and in the interests of continuing to hold public support, GCHQ members will not be asked to take strike action on that day. Nothing makes it clearer that pressure on GCHQ is being avoided not for reasons of national security—nobody can pretend that they are not fully aware of the significance of it-but because of short—term tactics in an industrial dispute.

Mr. John Smith

The right hon. Gentleman talks about pressures on people at GCHQ. I wonder what he thinks is going on as a result of the Government's threats towards the people at GCHQ. He quoted Sir Brian Tovey. He has said that if 10 per cent. do not sign the operation cannot be successful. What will the Government do if more than 10 per cent. do not sign by 1 March?

Mr. King

I am pleased to come to that. It is exactly the point that I want to raise. Many Opposition Members have been concerned about the position of those who find the proposed new conditions of service difficult to accept, and who are faced with real problems. We have not heard much about the other side of the coin—about those put in an impossibly difficult position by union action and pressures during the previous disruption.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, as an old friend, and almost a neighbour, will accept that many other hon. Members represent many of the people who work at GCHQ. The theme of my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Sir A. Kershaw) and Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) today was very similar to that of Sir Brian Tovey in his evidence to the Select Committee. The origin of the problem was the people who came to Sir Brian during the previous pressure for industrial action saying that something must be done about the situation. I am told that some radio operators who came out initially on the day of action thinking that that would be all came under four days of continuous pressure to cease work and take industrial action. Those who stood up against the pressure and showed their loyalty were put in a very difficult position. That may be the reason why—it may be closer to the truth—I can tell the House that at the latest count virtually three quarters of the total employees of GCHQ world wide have now returned their forms accepting the terms and conditions offered by the Government. That is slightly ahead of what we expected at this time.

Mr. Leighton

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. King

As I said in opening—

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister is not giving way.

Mr. King

The only issue that is relevant here is that of national security. As I have told the House, there is absolutely no question of impugning the loyalty of employees at GCHQ. We have invited every one of them to continue to serve and we hope very much that they will do so. Nor are we in any sense suggesting—and I very much regret the allegations—that possession of a trade union card makes a person either a traitor or a potential traitor.

Save only in this very specific area, we fully accept the right of people to belong to trade unions. Hon. Members have pointed out that there are trade union members throughout Government offices and we fully respect that. All that we are doing is to apply to the agencies whose primary function is national security and intelligence the same requirements, the same certificate and the same conditions of service that Labour Members imposed on intelligence agencies when they were in government. Save only in this very specifically defined area the Conservative Government stand absolutely four square by the fundamental right to trade union membership in a democratic society

It was this Government who in 1971 put the right to belong to a trade union on the statute book for the first time. We will defend that right save only, as all Governments and international conventions recognise, where national security provides a higher requirement.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. King

I accept entirely that dealing with a difficult issue of this kind where secrecy and intelligence are involved raises real difficulties and criticisms can be made of the handling—

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, out and agreed to.

Main Question put accordingly:

The House divided: Ayes 25, Noes 201.

Division No. 175] [10 pm
Alton, David Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Ashdown, Paddy Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Beith, A. J. Skinner, Dennis
Bruce, Malcolm Steel, Rt Hon David
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Cohen, Harry Wainwright, R.
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Wareing, Robert
Freud, Clement Wigley, Dafydd
Howells, Geraint Wrigglesworth, Ian
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd) Tellers for the Ayes:
Johnston, Russell Mr. John Cartwright and Mr. Charles Kennedy.
Maclennan, Robert
Madden, Max
Alexander, Richard Dorrell, Stephen
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Ancram, Michael du Cann, Rt Hon Edward
Arnold, Tom Durant, Tony
Ashby, David Emery, Sir Peter
Aspinwall, Jack Eyre, Sir Reginald
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Fenner, Mrs Peggy
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Baldry, Anthony Forth, Eric
Batiste, Spencer Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Bellingham, Henry Fox, Marcus
Bendall, Vivian Franks, Cecil
Berry, Sir Anthony Fraser, Peter (Angus East)
Biffen, Rt Hon John Freeman, Roger
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Gale, Roger
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Galley, Roy
Body, Richard Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Bottomley, Peter Glyn, Dr Alan
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Goodhart, Sir Philip
Braine, Sir Bernard Goodlad, Alastair
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Gower, Sir Raymond
Brinton, Tim Greenway, Harry
Brooke, Hon Peter Gregory, Conal
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds)
Bruinvels, Peter Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Bryan, Sir Paul Grist, Ian
Buck, Sir Antony Ground, Patrick
Bulmer, Esmond Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Butcher, John Hampson, Dr Keith
Carlisle, John (N Luton) Hanley, Jeremy
Carttiss, Michael Hargreaves, Kenneth
Chapman, Sydney Harris, David
Chope, Christopher Hawkins, C. (High Peak)
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Hawksley, Warren
Clegg, Sir Walter Hayes, J.
Cockeram, Eric Hayhoe, Barney
Conway, Derek Heathcoat-Amory, David
Coombs, Simon Heddle, John
Cope, John Henderson, Barry
Couchman, James Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Cranborne, Viscount Hickmet, Richard
Crouch, David Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Currie, Mrs Edwina Holt, Richard
Dicks, Terry Hordern, Peter
Howard, Michael Nelson, Anthony
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Neubert, Michael
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Newton, Tony
Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk) Nicholls, Patrick
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Normanton, Tom
Hunt, David (Wirral) Norris, Steven
Hunter, Andrew Oppenheim, Philip
Jackson, Robert Ottaway, Richard
Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Page, John (Harrow W)
Johnson-Smith, Sir Geoffrey Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Kershaw, Sir Anthony Powell, William (Corby)
Key, Robert Powley, John
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Proctor, K. Harvey
King, Rt Hon Tom Rathbone, Tim
Knight, Gregory (Derby N) Renton, Tim
Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston) Rifkind, Malcolm
Knowles, Michael Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Lang, Ian Roe, Mrs Marion
Latham, Michael Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Lawler, Geoffrey Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Lawrence, Ivan Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel Silvester, Fred
Lee, John (Pendle) Skeet, T. H. H.
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Soames, Hon Nicholas
Lightbown, David Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Lilley, Peter Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Lloyd, Ian (Havant) Stanbrook, Ivor
Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham) Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Lord, Michael Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Lyell, Nicholas Stradling Thomas, J.
McCrindle, Robert Taylor, John (Solihull)
Macfarlane, Neil Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.
Major, John Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Malins, Humfrey Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Maples, John Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Marland, Paul Thornton, Malcolm
Marlow, Antony Thurnham, Peter
Maude, Hon Francis Viggers, Peter
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Mellor, David Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Merchant, Piers Wall, Sir Patrick
Meyer, Sir Anthony Waller, Gary
Mills, lain (Meriden) Ward, John
Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon) Watts, John
Miscampbell, Norman Whitney, Raymond
Mitchell, David (NW Hants) Winterton, Mrs Ann
Moate, Roger Winterton, Nicholas
Monro, Sir Hector Wolfson, Mark
Moore, John Yeo, Tim
Morris, M. (N'hampton, S)
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes) Tellers for the Noes:
Morrison, Hon P. (Chester) Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones and Mr. Archie Hamilton.
Moynihan, Hon C.
Murphy, Christopher

Question accordingly negatived.