Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC S: [Mr Anthony Blunt]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [974/402-10]
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2941
Themes: Executive, Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Security services & intelligence
[column 402]


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

Mr. Speaker

Before the debate begins, I should like to make a statement.

As the House knows, it is the general rule that matters which would entail legislation must not be discussed on a motion for the Adjournment. However, as I reminded the House on Monday, I am given discretion under Standing Order No. 16 to permit incidental reference to legislative action when enforcement of the prohibition would unduly restrict discussion. I propose today to exercise this discretion in respect of the general matter of the possible modification of the Official Secrets Act.

In the Prime Minister's written reply to a question by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter), reference was made to information conveyed to the Palace. I therefore think it wise at this stage to draw the attention of the House to our well-established rule that any references to the Royal Family must be phrased in courteous language and must not reflect upon the conduct of the Sovereign. This does not, however, inhibit the full discussion of any advice which may or may not have been given to Her Majesty.

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

In the early part of last week, Professor Blunt was publicly identified as having been a suspect Soviet agent. This disclosure understandably gave rise to grave concern.

Last Thursday, in response to a priority written question from the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter), I thought it right to confirm that Professor Blunt had indeed been a Soviet agent and to give the House the salient facts. Today we have an opportunity to debate the whole matter. It may be convenient, therefore, if I start by setting out the facts in greater detail.

Professor Blunt has admitted that he was recruited for Russian intelligence when he was at Cambridge before the war. In 1940 he joined the Security Service. [column 403]

To us today it seems extraordinary that a man who had made no secret of his Marxist beliefs could have been accepted for secret work in any part of the public service, let alone the Security Service. But that is with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps standards were relaxed because it was a time of considerable expansion and recruitment to deal with the wartime tasks of the service, which were directed against Hitler 's Germany.

Professor Blunt has said that during his period in the Security Service from 1940 to 1945 he regularly passed to Russian intelligence anything that came his way which would be of interest to them. We do not know exactly what information he passed; we do know, however, to what information he had access by virtue of his duties. There is no doubt that British interests were seriously damaged by his activities. But it is unlikely that British military operations or British lives were put at risk. Further, the story that he jeopardised the lives of secret agents in the Netherlands is without foundation; he was never in the Special Operations Executive.

After he left the Security Service in 1945 and resumed his career as an art historian, Professor Blunt ceased to have access to classified information. He has said that from 1945 to 1951 he passed no information to the Russians.

In May 1951 an investigation which had continued for some years caught up with Donald Maclean. It was Philby who warned Burgess to tell Maclean that he was about to be interrogated. And it was Burgess who used Blunt as a contact with a Soviet controller to help with the arrangements for Maclean's flight to Russia—a journey in which he was joined by Burgess.

Blunt admits that on one occasion between 1951 and 1956 he assisted Philby in contacting Russian intelligence. He has said that he has had no contact with Russian intelligence since then.

The defection of Burgess and Maclean led to intense and prolonged investigations of the extent to which the security and other public services had been infiltrated by Russian intelligence.

At an early stage in these investigations Professor Blunt came under inquiry. This was as a result of information to the effect [column 404]that Burgess had been heard in 1937 to say that he was working for a secret branch of the Comintern and that Blunt was one of his sources. Blunt denied this. Nevertheless, he remained under suspicion, and became the subject of intensive investigation. He was interviewed on 11 occasions over the following eight years. He persisted in his denial, and no evidence against him was obtained. Of course, until his confession, the authorities did not know the extent of his involvement with the Russians or the period over which it lasted.

It was early in 1964 that new information was received relating to an earlier period which directly implicated Blunt. I cannot disclose the nature of that information but it was not usable as evidence on which to base a prosecution. In this situation, the security authorities were faced with a difficult choice. They could have decided to wait in the hope that further information which could be used as a basis for prosecuting Blunt would, in due course, be discovered. But the security authorities had already pursued their inquiries for nearly 13 years without obtaining firm evidence against Blunt.

There was no reason to expect or hope that a further wait would be likely to yield evidence of a kind which had eluded them so far. Alternatively, they could have confronted Professor Blunt with the new information to see if it would break his denial. But Blunt had persisted in his denial at 11 interviews; the security authorities had no reason to suppose that he would do otherwise at a twelfth. If the security authorities had confronted him with the new information, and he still persisted in his denial, their investigation of him would have been no further forward and they might have prejudiced their own position by alerting him to information which he could then use to warn others.

They therefore decided to ask the Attorney-General, through the acting Director of Public Prosecutions, to authorise them to offer Blunt immunity from prosecution, if he both confessed and agreed to co-operate in their further investigations.

I should like to pause for a moment on this question of granting immunity, because I think that there may remain some misunderstanding about it. It is not [column 405]unusual for the Attorney-General to be asked to authorise immunity from prosecution in return for co-operation in the pursuit of inquiries. It happens from time to time in the course of criminal investigations. Under our constitutional arrangements, the decision is taken by the Attorney-General in his capacity as a Law Officer.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

It is one law for them and another law for everybody else.

The Prime Minister

He takes it on the basis of what, in his view, is best in the public interest. He may consult his ministerial colleagues but he is not bound by their advice. The decision is his alone.

In this case, the then Attorney-General, Sir John Hobson, decided that it was in the public interest to offer an immunity from prosecution. In fact, to this day there is no evidence which could be used as a basis for prosecution against Blunt. So the offer of immunity was made. Professor Blunt confessed. Both at the time of his confession and subsequently he has co-operated in the inquiries of the security authorities. He had provided information about Russian intelligence activities and about his association with Burgess, Maclean and Philby.

After the Attorney-General's authority to offer immunity had been given, the Queen's private secretary was invited to a meeting with the permanent secretary at the Home Office and the Director-General of the Security Service. The Queen's private secretary was asked to the meeting because Blunt had, since 1945, held an unpaid appointment in the Royal Household for which he had been awarded a knighthood in the Royal Victorian Order in 1956. At this meeting, the Queen's private secretary was told that Professor Blunt was suspected of having been an agent of Russian intelligence, but that, provided he confessed and co-operated in the inquiries of the security authorities, he would be granted immunity from prosecution.

The Queen's private secretary asked what action the Queen was advised to take if Blunt confessed. He was told that the Queen was advised to take no action. Any action would, of course, have alerted Blunt's former Russian controllers and others who were already under suspicion to the fact that he had [column 406]confessed and could well be providing information to our security authorities. After Blunt had been interviewed and had confessed, as I have already described, the Palace duly followed the advice that had already been given.

I turn now to the question of how Ministers were informed. Relations between the Security Service and Ministers are governed by the directive given to the Director-General of the Security Service by the then Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, in 1952, which is reproduced in Lord Denning 's report of September 1963 at paragraph 238. When discussing and endorsing the principles embodied in that directive, Lord Denning said:

“The Head of the Security Service is responsible directly to the Home Secretary for the efficient and proper working of the Service and not in the ordinary way to the Prime Minister … The Head of the Security Service may approach the Prime Minister himself on matters of supreme importance and delicacy, but this is not to say that the Prime Minister has any direct responsibility for the Security Service … If the Director General of the Security Service is in any doubt as to any aspect of his duties—as, for instance, when he gets information about a Minister or a senior public servant indicating that he may be a security risk—he should consult the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary will then have to take responsibility for further action.”

I can tell the House that in the case of Blunt the Director-General of the Security Service followed scrupulously the procedures which had been laid down. He had a meeting with the Home Secretary on 2 March 1964, in the course of which he told the Home Secretary about the new information implicating Blunt and he indicated that he would be discussing with the Director of Public Prosecutions how to conduct the interview with Blunt, bearing in mind the Security Service's need to obtain as much intelligence as possible about Soviet penetration.

The Home Secretary drew his attention to the need to inform the Queen's private secretary. On 17 June 1964 a further meeting was held between the Home Secretary, his permanent secretary and the Director-General, in which the Director-General reported that Blunt had admitted spying for the Russians throughout the war when he was serving in the Security Service.

The Home Secretary of the day, now Lord Brooke, who, at first, did not recall being told—[Interruption.] At first, he [column 407]did not recall being told, which is quite understandable—[Interruption].

Mr. Speaker


The Prime Minister

I shall start the sentence again. The Home Secretary of the day, now Lord Brooke, who, at first, did not recall being told, has been reminded of these meetings and has, with characteristic integrity, accepted that his memory must have been at fault. [Interruption.] There is no more honourable or devoted servant.

It is also clear that when the Attorney-General took his decision to authorise the offer of immunity from prosecution he knew that the Home Secretary had been made aware of the matter.

There was therefore no failure on the part of the Security Service to carry out their duty to inform the Home Secretary of these matters. It was for the Home Secretary of these matters. It was for the Home Secretary to decide whether the Prime Minister should be informed. There is no record on this point. Neither Lord Brooke nor Lord Home can recall discussing the matter.

In the light of these events, I see no need to change the principles governing the relationships between the Security Service and Ministers, as set out in the Denning report. I think it right, however, that there should be a clear understanding among all those concerned about how we expect those principles to be applied. I have accordingly agreed the following points with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

First, the Director-General should report to the Home Secretary if he receives information about a present or former Minister or senior public servant indicating that he may be, or may have been, a security risk, unless circumstances are so exceptional that he judges it necessary to report direct to the Prime Minister.

Secondly, when the Director-General has reported to the Home Secretary, it is the Home Secretary's responsibility to inform the Prime Minister or make sure that the Prime Minister is informed.

Thirdly, if the Attorney-General is asked to authorise a grant of immunity from prosecution in a case involving national security, he should satisfy himself that the Home Secretary is aware [column 408]that the request has been made. In cases of especial doubt or difficulty, the Attorney-General or the Home Secretary, or both, may wish to see that the Prime Minister is also aware that the request has been made. The Attorney-General and the Home Secretary should always be informed of the outcome of the offer of immunity. It is the responsibility of the Home Secretary to ensure that the Prime Minister is informed.

So much for the procedures between the Security Services and Ministers. I turn now to another matter. I am advised that since 1967 successive Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries have all been informed about the position on Blunt.

Further, as I indicated in my written reply, the matter was also brought to the attention of successive Attorneys-General in 1972, June 1974 and June 1979. This was to inform them of the immunity that had been given.

Any legal matters will be dealt with by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General when he replies to the debate.

I have been asked why a day's notice of my intention to reply to a written question was given to Professor Blunt's solicitor. Had there been any question of prosecuting Blunt, of course there would have been no advance notice—and, indeed, no detailed reply either. Since there was no question of prosecution, there was no question of enabling Blunt to escape justice. His name had already been published, and it was reasonable therefore to tell his solicitor that I was going to give the facts in reply to a question in this House.

Clearly the public services are an attractive target for Soviet penetration, and the Security Service especially so, The service is very conscious of that danger. Indeed, in the light of all that has happened, it should be. Procedures for recruitment, vetting and monitoring members of the public services who have access to classified information have been much extended and improved. Of course nothing can be absolutely proof against penetration. In a democratic society it is always possible that a few will try to use freedom to destroy freedom. We must do everything that we can to prevent them. [column 409]

I will sum up. First, the procedures under which the Security Service is directly responsible to the Home Secretary were scrupulously followed. After 1967 successive Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries were all informed about this case.

Secondly, the immunity was offered to Blunt to get information on Soviet penetration into the public services. Neither at the time nor since has there been any evidence on which he could be prosecuted. I am advised that a confession obtained as a result of an inducement given would not be admissible as evidence in any prosecution.

Thirdly, the events of this case began well over 40 years ago. Many of the principal figures concerned, some of whom I have mentioned, have long since retired, and some have died. For obvious reasons, it is therefore not possible, and never will be, to establish all the facts accurately.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

How many are still living?

The Prime Minister

These are some of the factors that will have to be taken into account in deciding whether there should be an inquiry, a matter on which hon. Members will doubtless wish to express their views.

Fourthly, we have now put beyond doubt the arrangements for reporting to and consulting the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister on security matters.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


The Prime Minister

May I go straight through? It is a very carefully marshalled statement.

In practice my right hon. Friend William Whitelawthe Home Secretary and I both make a point of keeping in close touch with the Director-General of the Security Service.

Fifthly, it is important not to be so obsessed with yesterday's danger that we fail to detect today's. We know what happened to a very few of that pre-war generation who had Marxist leanings and who betrayed their country. We find it contemptible and repugnant. Our task now is to guard against their counterparts of today. [column 410]

Finally, the Security Service, by its very nature, has to work in secrecy.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

What about the brother of the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery)? The right hon. Lady cannot have it both ways. There were others as well as Marxists.

The Prime Minister

It cannot therefore defend itself in public. That task falls to Ministers. The Government's purpose is to do everything possible to improve the morale and effectiveness of the Security Service, and to do nothing to undermine or weaken it. In that aim I believe that we shall have the support of the House.