MI5 FILES DEBATE – 25 February 1998
[Adjournment Debate secured by Ballot]
Dr Julian Lewis: I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this subject in the House. I am especially grateful to see the Home Secretary preparing to answer personally on this topic, which is increasingly close to his heart. I have written to the hon. Members on the other side of the House and in another place whom I propose to mention if time allows, and I am gratified to see that that is one way in which to ensure that the House is not too poorly attended for my oration.
I suggest that we take a trip back in our imaginations to 1945. Let us imagine that the outcome of the 1945 general election had been different and that, as widely expected, the Conservatives had won. Let us imagine that, shortly after that victory, one of their fairly senior figures - a Minister with perhaps not the most spotless reputation - had announced that he was determined that the Security Service, MI5, should destroy all the files on fellow-travellers with Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. There would have been an outcry - and rightly so - because it is not right for future historians to be denied the opportunity to see what the records say about what people in public life did before - and, I would contend, after - the war, in collusion with or in support of totalitarian, fascist or communist regimes.
How does that relate to today's debate? The answer is, quite simply, that on 22 September 1997, the Guardian published a story about the Minister without Portfolio, headed: "Mandelson wants MI5 files pulped".
The article began:
"Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, yesterday called on MI5 to destroy all files on 'subversives' created during the cold war after receiving an apology from the head of the Security Service over the leaking of details from his own file."
It continued with Mr Mandelson saying:
"'I was not a subversive or a threat to national security - I was a teenager holding ordinary left-wing views' He said MI5 should find the resources to 'weed out and destroy' such files, collected during the cold war, 'which are now entirely redundant'."
I was interested in his explanation of his period in the Young Communist League, because it had already been challenged in the Daily Telegraph of 27 August 1997. That article said:
"Mr Mandelson conceded that, 'disgusted' with the Labour Government's support for the Vietnam war, he had briefly been a member of the Young Communist League in the early 1970s. 'It is true that, for a very short period between three and six months, I was a member of the Young Communist League.' But former political associates of Mr Mandelson who knew him at the time said he and some friends had actually set up a branch of the Young Communist League after falling out with the Young Socialists. They also poured scorn on his reason for leaving the Labour Party, pointing out that Harold Wilson's support for the Vietnam war had come in the 1960s and that, by the early 1970s, the party was no longer in power."
I first raised this matter at the tail end of a speech in the defence debate on 28 October, when I pointed out that it smacked of George Orwell's "1984" in that the past was being airbrushed. It will be remembered that Orwell's Big Brother state used the slogan:
"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."
I began once again to think that power had gone to Labour Ministers' heads. I therefore wrote to Stephen Lander, Director-General of the Security Service, on 16 October - shortly before the defence debate - saying:
"I intend to raise this matter in the House of Commons as soon as Parliament returns later this month. So far as I can see, there is no question of inaccuracy in any of the information that was held on Mr Mandelson's political activities as a member of the Young Communist League in the early 1970s. It is therefore quite deplorable and unacceptable that he should have made his reported demands. I should be much obliged if you will take the trouble to reassure me that there is no intention on the part of your service to destroy files containing accurate information about Communists and their allies who were active in this country at the height of the Cold War - particularly at the behest of one of these formerly misguided individuals."
The Home Secretary replied on behalf of Mr Lander in a letter dated 28 October - the same date as the defence debate, but received afterwards. He wrote:
"The policy of the Security Service is to retain only those records which it needs to carry out its statutory functions, or which are of historical importance. Files held by the Service are therefore reviewed against those criteria periodically as resources permit. There is no question of consigning whole categories of files for destruction without proper review."
Mr Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): The key question is the judgment of what is "of historical importance". The problem is that, almost invariably, that judgment is made by civil servants - although, laughably, Ministers may occasionally try to get something taken out to protect their political reputation. For a historian, the really obstructive thing is when civil servants, to defend their reputation as administrators or having made colossal errors of judgment, weed out or repress things that will reflect badly on them.
Dr Lewis: My right hon. Friend is an extremely distinguished historian; I am a far less distinguished former military historian and it is precisely from the historian's point of view that I am approaching this matter.
The Home Secretary's letter to me finished:
"On the other hand, given the need to ensure that files are not retained unnecessarily the Service will not retain files which do not seem to merit retention on any of the grounds I have mentioned."
On 30 October 1997, 20 Members of Parliament tabled early-day motion 377, which:
"notes the recent admission by the Minister without Portfolio, that he was active in the Young Communist League when MI5 opened a file on him in the early 1970s; regards as unacceptable his excuse that this amounted to the holding of ordinary left-wing views; deplores his reported demand that MI5 files on Cold War subversives should be destroyed; and urges the Director-General of the Security Service to resist partisan and self-serving political pressure from the Minister without Portfolio."
Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): As the hon. Gentleman is one of the Opposition's conspiracy theorists, would it not be a good idea to tell us the full story? He is well-versed in this matter. He was a spy in Newham Labour party; he was a fellow-traveller; he infiltrated deliberately to try to expose people in the Labour party; and then the Labour Member of Parliament, Reginald Prentice, crossed the Floor of the House and joined the Tory party. To be honest, the hon. Gentleman should tell us the full unvarnished truth about his own activities.
Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. If I have my way, my MI5 file - if one exists - will be there so that people can see whether or not what he says is true. That is the irony. Twenty years after my engaging in controversial political activities, my political opponents see fit to bring them up, but, less than that time after controversial political activities in which they engaged, they want to airbrush the record and destroy the evidence of what they did. I thank the hon. Gentleman for supporting my case.
I wrote on 4 November to the Home Secretary to say:
"I quite agree with the criteria set out in your letter. It is certainly of historical interest for future historians to know the extent to which people in British public life co-operated with, or espoused the cause of totalitarian, fascist or communist ideologies before or after the Second World War."
I asked the Home Secretary to be more specific about the assurances he was giving me and, on 8 December, he replied. He said:
"Files which are destroyed are those which are either no longer required by the Service to carry out its statutory functions or are judged not to be of historical importance or both. There can therefore be no danger of the indiscriminate destruction of files by the Security Service."
As an innocent and virginal Back Bencher, I was taken in by this. On 10 December, I wrote to the Home Secretary and said:
"I am grateful for your further letter about the danger of Cold War files being indiscriminately destroyed. I regard your response to my concern as being entirely satisfactory and I thank you for writing back in such a straightforward way."
As far as I was concerned, that was the end of the matter - poor fool that I am.
On 11 January, the front page of the Sunday Times said: "MI5 orders end to spying on political activists."
The report stated:
"The security service MI5 is to announce an end to spying on activists, radicals and insurgents. In a decisive break with its cold war past, it will destroy tens of thousands of files naming anti-nuclear campaigners, trade unionists and others whose organisations were once considered a threat to national security."
The Guardian, on 12 January, said:
"MI5 is speeding up the destruction of thousands of files on individuals it once considered subversive as part of an attempt to modernise".
Evidently, it is now the people's Security Service.
On 15 January, I tabled 12 written questions to ask about the criteria that would be adopted in retaining or disposing of files. Some of the questions were technical and some even went back to criteria used in 1945. I was extremely impressed by the fact that, within five days, I had my answers - although not quite all of my questions were answered. Ten were answered within five days, but a week went by and then another week, and I still received no answers to my remaining two questions.
In the short amount of time I have available - I wish to allow the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) to intervene - I shall refer to the two questions. I fear that I shall disappoint Labour Members whom I warned I might be naming, as I will not have time to do so. [Hon. Members: "Shame!"] I will be happy to do so after the debate. The two missing questions were these - one would not have thought that it would take three weeks to answer them. The first was:
"To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many representations he has received in favour of the destruction of Security Service files from (a) Labour hon. Members, (b) Labour peers, (c) Ministers, (d) trade union officers and (e) journalists."
The second question was even easier.
"To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, what representations he has received from the Minister without Portfolio for his MI5 file to be destroyed; and if it is to be destroyed."
One would have thought that these were easy questions to answer. However, it took almost three weeks before the Home Secretary came up with a reply - after I had telephoned his office to remind him I was still waiting. He said:
"If I receive any representations from individuals about the possible existence of Security Service files, my practice is to explain the approach of the Security Service to destroying files. It is not my practice to give information about any representations from hon. Members or Ministers or from the other sources listed any more than it would be for me to disclose whether the Service holds or has held files on any individuals." - [Official Report, 3 February 1998; Vol. 305, c. 589.]
I would have thought that, if that were the Home Secretary's position, he could have told me so straight away.
I conclude with three questions. Does the Home Secretary accept that it is of legitimate interest to future historians to know which public figures in politics, trade unionism, business or the media consorted with fascists or communists before or after the second world war? Does he accept that it is important that, if files were improperly held, they should be kept so that the Security Service can be called to account in the future? Above all, does he accept that it is especially important for a Labour Government not to preside over the destruction of files that are likely to show some of their Ministers, hon. Members or supporters in a discreditable light?