Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have given your office notice of a substantial point of order which concerns not so much the self-importance of the House of Commons or our amour propre, but the fact that the House is being bypassed and neglected, perhaps on purpose.
It has always been the tradition for major statements by Ministers to be made in the House. This morning, many of us heard on Radio 4 a trailer for what was billed as an environmental policy for two decades. It was apparently important enough to have a major press conference for which the Banqueting house was hired, so it was not just a minor matter. It now transpires that, not only is the announcement not being made first to the House of Commons ; it is not being made at all to the House of Commons. We must consider the accountability effect that that has on people outside the House. Thinking automatically that there would be a statement, I rang the director of Kew about a possible supplementary question. He asked in a surprised way, "Have you not been invited to the launch?" No, I was not invited to the launch and, more to the point, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who is the Opposition spokesman on the environment, was not invited either. However, 300 or more other people were.
The question arises about what is the attitude to the House, and there may be a reason. A huge amount of documents were involved, but a cursory look at those documents shows that the promises given at Rio by the Prime Minister do not amount to very much. The fact is that the numbers of words and documents are not a substitute for action in relation to biodiversity and the environment.
Therefore, Madam Speaker, I put it--I must not stray from order--that there is a point for you about whether this House asserts its rights. Parliament at least should have the right to question, particularly when there are real doubts about the money aspects of a Government fanfare of trumpets which has been made outside this House.
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you make it clear to the Government once and for all that the first place which should hear about what in theory could have been a major statement on the future direction of this country, its economy and its environment is the House of Commons and that we, Members of Parliament elected to represent the people, should have the opportunity to question Ministers about it? May I also prevail on the Government to ensure that, while they have sinned today, there will be in the very near future a full parliamentary debate on the documents that have been issued this morning?
Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you advise us whether it is usual for Ministers to make a statement pursuant to policies already declared, well known and in the public domain?
Madam Speaker : The whole House is well aware of what the matter is about and of the importance that I attach to Parliament being the place where important Government announcements are made in the first instance. I cannot, however, be the judge of whether every development in the application of an existing policy--we are talking about existing policy-- justifies an oral statement in the House. That is a matter for Ministers in the first instance. No doubt, if hon. Members want to pursue matters arising from today's announcements--I assume that they do--they will seek ways to do so and will convey their wishes to the occupants of the Front Bench in clear terms, for example, by tabling parliamentary questions on the documents to which the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has just referred. Can we now move on--
Madam Speaker : It is not my concern where Ministers wish to make statements outside the House. I have made it clear that when there is a change of policy it should be announced to the House in the first instance.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for persons employed at the Government Communications Headquarters to have the right to belong to an independent trade union of their choice ; and for connected purposes.
It is 10 years to the day since the Government announced that those employed at GCHQ would be banned from belonging to a trade union. It was a shameful decision. It was a decision taken without any justification. Employees were told to sign a form which stated that, if they wished to continue to be employed at the Government communications headquarters, they had to resign at once from membership of any union to which they belonged. The form added that they could join a departmental staff association approved by the director of GCHQ.
I pay tribute to the 14 people who decided that such was the principle at stake that they could not possibly sign the form. They were sacked. They were victimised. They have not given up the struggle because they understand what is at stake and the principle involved. I pay tribute to them from the Labour Benches in the House of Commons.
The justification for banning trade unions at GCHQ was that industrial action had disrupted work there. However, when the then Foreign Secretary announced the ban 10 years ago almost to the minute, he conceded that no threat to national security had resulted from industrial action. That was confirmed by Sir John Nott, who was Secretary of State for Defence when some of the action occurred. Limited industrial action occurred in 1979 and 1981. In the following year, 1982, the Falklands war occurred. I wish to quote what the director general, Sir Brian Tovey, wrote to every employee at GCHQ when that war was over--when it had been won. He sent a message to every employee at GCHQ. He said :
"High level praise. 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."
A large number of those individuals were long-standing members of the appropriate trade union.
On 25 January 1984 Ministers showed their appreciation of such dedicated work by taking away the right of the employees at GCHQ to belong to a trade union.
We are told that no one need worry too much because there is a staff federation, but that is a company union. It has no independence : it is dependent on the good will of the director at GCHQ. It is interesting to note that, when the officers of the staff federation--foolishly, in my view --made an application to the certification officer asking that the federation be considered an independent trade union, that application was, not surprisingly, refused. The federation appealed, again rather foolishly, to a higher organisation, the employment appeals tribunal, which turned down its appeal on 10 December 1992. The certification officer and the tribunal came to the obvious conclusion that the staff federation could not be considered in any way to be a genuine trade union. Of course, it is not only Opposition Members and those in the wider labour and trade union movement who are concerned. The International Labour Organisation has also expressed deep concern about the ban on union
Column 164membership at GCHQ. It has repeatedly said that the ban is a breach of convention 87 on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise. It has repeatedly called on the British Government to try to reach a settlement with trade unions over trade union membership at GCHQ. It has been right to do that.
As hon. Members know, the unions met the Prime Minister last December. They were willing to give various guarantees and to compromise on a number of points. They were not willing to compromise, however, on the vital principle that employees at GCHQ had the right to belong to an independent trade union. The Prime Minister's response was the same as that of his predecessor. He was not willing to compromise and was totally negative. That meeting, therefore, ended after a short while and without success.
It now appears that the International Labour Organisation may decide formally to censure the Government because they are clearly in breach of convention 87. No western Government have ever been so reprimanded by the ILO. If that occurs, this British Tory Government will join the company of regimes such as those in Sudan, Brazil and El Salvador whose practices have been condemned by the ILO. I started by saying that it is 10 years to the day since the Government announced that they were to introduce the ban. Clearly the issue will not go away. The Ministers of the time may have believed that the fuss and uproar might last a year or two, but that there was no need to worry because it would go away. We have shown that that is not the case and we have kept the issue alive.
We are raising the issue again today. Demonstrations are being held this week. There will be a large one in Cheltenham this weekend, which I am pleased to say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition will attend. It cannot be emphasised enough that what is at issue is a basic principle. There are those on the Government Benches who find this difficult to understand, but throughout the centuries in this country struggles have taken place for democratic and trade union rights. People have been victimised, sacked and in some cases even deported, but the issues on which they fought did not go away. This issue is not likely to go away either because it is too important. It is a basic democratic right to be able to belong to a union at the place of employment. That right was taken away 10 years ago by the Government, and it must be restored. Employees at GCHQ need no lessons about patriotism and duty from a Government who sent political signals to the junta in Argentina and made it believe that, if it invaded the Falklands, there would be no repercussions from this country. They need no lessons from a Government who continued to sell arms to one of the most criminal, murderous regimes, the Iraqi regime, right up until the invasion of Kuwait.
If there are Conservative Members who believe that what I am saying is wrong, not only should one of them oppose the Bill ; they should do what we have always done in the House when we have opposed a measure--go through the Division Lobby.
Let us conclude this matter today in the usual democratic manner. If there is a Division, my hon. Friends and I will vote in favour of the Bill. If there are any hon. Members who believe that what I have been saying is wrong, let them have the courage to vote against it. If the Government refuse to restore the rights of employees at GCHQ, a Labour Government will restore them, as my party has promised to do. That day cannot come soon enough.
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay) : GCHQ is an unusual organisation. Unlike any other branch of the civil service, it not only is at the heart of the British intelligence-collection system but also saves lives. It is quite true that the 1984 ban on external trade union membership curtailed the rights of individuals to join a trade union of their choice, as opposed to the staff association that now deals with the pay, conditions and grievances of GCHQ employees. However, the ban to which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has referred is not an example of Mrs. Thatcher's alleged spite or some manifestation of the Government's anti- union crusade. It can be explained and justified only in the context of the very sensitive work being carried out at GCHQ, which acquired that title in 1940.
Quite apart from the construction and development of secure cipher systems for British use, the organisation is concerned, among other responsibilities, with the interception and decryption of foreign communications. Good intelligence, particularly from what are termed technical sources, can prevent bloodshed and deter aggression. By the timely deployment of troops, or by diplomatic initiatives or other suitable counter-measures, the ill-disposed despot can be prevented from launching an invasion. Pearl Harbour, the Falklands war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Yom Kippur are all classic, textbook examples of how failure to collect, analyse and disseminate intelligence can lead to war. [Interruption.]
Mr. Allason : Any interference with GCHQ's operations--even the slightest disruption--can prove terribly damaging to the British intelligence-collection system. Let me give an example, which I hope Opposition Members will understand. The loss of just one radio-intercept shift can mean the loss of an enormous amount of collection effort. Just one word or one group of ciphers--even one letter--lost can mean the nullification of months, perhaps even years, of cryptographic work. Great skill is required to ensure tremendous accuracy, and the loss of any of that constitutes an enormous waste of time and taxpayers' money. More to the point, however, it puts lives at risk.
This is precisely what happened when, in December 1981, martial law was imposed in Warsaw and General Jaruzelski's tanks surrounded the city. On that occasion the trade union movement called out its members at GCHQ. When martial law was imposed in Warsaw, we were blind, in intelligence terms, to the signals traffic and the interception that was going on. That was the reason for the ban. Senior GCHQ personnel considered the disruption sufficiently damaging to request the ban on external interference.
In addition to the deliberate disruption, considerable anxiety was felt about the kinds of people who were attending GCHQ trade union meetings. They were not GCHQ officials or officers, but so-called full-time trade union researchers who seemed to take a great deal of interest in the workings of GCHQ, the location of the intercept sites and the strength of personnel at particular locations.
It must be emphasised that the ban was not an American demand. In all honesty, the United Kingdom has little to offer its allies any more--we are no longer a super-power. GCHQ is the jewel in the British intelligence crown, however, and it is a tremendous asset. As well as offering services to the Americans, GCHQ achieves unrivalled access to any other part of the American intelligence system. It would be folly to jeopardise that.
Nearly half of the GCHQ staff did not want to join a trade union and they did not. Thousands of staff opted to receive compensation in return for their agreement not to join a trade union ; only a handful resisted that agreement. Alternative employment was offered in every case and,
Column 167after five years of negotiation and court action, just 14 staff were dismissed. That was not victimisation. It was regrettable, but GCHQ now enjoys the full confidence of its staff and our allies. Any attempt to support this misconceived Bill would severely damage GCHQ's credibility and its capacity to deal with and anticipate emergencies. It would also mean that GCHQ was unable to anticipate threats to Britain's national security. I accordingly urge the House to reject the Bill.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business) :--
The House divided : Ayes 222, Noes 69.
Division No. 89] [3.51 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Berry, Dr. Roger
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)
Donohoe, Brian H.
Eagle, Ms Angela
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Foster, Don (Bath)
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harman, Ms Harriet
Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Home Robertson, John
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)