Inside Parliament: GCHQ union ban is given Cold War polish

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Ten years to the day after the Government announced a ban on trade union membership at its GCHQ intelligence 'listening' centre, the Commons was told that a break in monitoring in 1981 as General Wojciech Jaruzelski's tanks surrounded Warsaw had led to the controversial decision.

The claim by Rupert Allason, alias spy writer Nigel West, drew jeers of disbelief from Labour MPs who were out in force to support a backbench Bill to restore union rights at the Cheltenham communications headquarters.

It was an echo from Cold War history sandwiched between an admission of regret at Question Time from the Prime Minister for tax rises and a robust defence of their economic necessity by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, during a Second Reading debate on the Finance Bill.

Mike Grindley, expert in Mandarin Chinese and one of 14 GCHQ employees dismissed after refusing to give up union membership, was in the public gallery to hear Labour's David Winnick present his Employment Protection (Government Communications Headquarters) Bill.

The Walsall North MP said the ban was 'shameful' and warned that the International Labour Organisation is likely to censure the Government for breaching the convention on freedom of association. 'No Western government has ever been so reprimanded by the ILO,' he said. If the Government was, it would be in the company of regimes such as Sudan, Brazil and El Salvador.

Mr Allason, MP for Torbay, said the ban was not an example of Margaret Thatcher's alleged spite or some manifestation of the Government's anti-union crusade. It could only be explained and justified in the context of the very sensitive work carried out at GCHQ - intercepting and decoding foreign intelligence. The loss of just one word or group of ciphers could mean the loss of months or years of cryptographic work, he told MPs. 'More to the point it puts lives at risk. That was precisely what happened when martial law was imposed (in Poland) in December 1981.

'When General Jaruzelski's tanks were surrounding Warsaw it was the trade union movement that was calling out the members at GCHQ . . . We were blind in intelligence terms to the signals traffic that was going on,' he said. The break was considered sufficiently damaging by GCHQ personnel for them to demand the ban.

Mr Winnick said that when the ban was announced, the then foreign secretary, Lord Howe of Aberavon, said that no threat to national security had resulted from industrial action at GCHQ. The unions have always insisted that 'real-time' intelligence was never affected.

Despite Mr Allason's objections, the Bill's introduction was agreed by 222 votes to 69. The Government would never allow it to reach the statute book, but it would be interesting to hear the Bill debated. Then Mr Allason could treat the House to a little more spy craft.

The rest of the day was more prosaic. Margaret Beckett, deputy leader of the Labour Party, called on John Major to admit that all the promises he had made at the last election were 'a total deception' and apologise.

Standing in for John Smith - away in Bonn - Mrs Beckett accused the Prime Minister of presiding over the biggest tax hike in British history. 'From April this government will squeeze every British family until the pips squeak,' she said, reworking a famous phrase Lord Healey now claims he never used.

Mr Major replied: 'If Mrs Beckett thinks she can resurrect the tax record of that old rogue who was Chancellor at the time, she has a tough job coming.' Despite tax increases, net take-home pay at all levels of income had risen substantially.

Nor was there any deception in what he said at the election, Mr Major claimed. 'Events have forced us to raise taxes. I regret that. But it is necessary to raise taxes to make sure we cut the borrowing requirement and provide the opportunity for sustained growth with low inflation over the medium term.'

He was supported by former Chancellor Norman Lamont, who urged him to 'treat the posturing of the Labour Party on taxes with the absolute contempt it deserves'. It was an unusual intervention in that just about every time Mr Lamont has got up in the Commons since being sacked by Mr Major last summer he has been hostile, or inviting self-praise for economic recovery.

Michael Portillo, the Chief Secretary, told the House his aim was 'an ultra-low tax economy' and that was what the British people would believe the Conservatives were directed towards. People would never believe that was the aim of the Labour Party. From top to bottom Labour was 'characterised by public-spending incontinence'.

Intervening, George Howarth, Labour MP for Knowsley North, said that at the general election the Government had either known what was ahead for the public finances and misled the country or had not known 'in which case, how can we believe the figures they are using now?'

Mr Portillo said the Government had believed, as investment analysts, banks, other governments and Labour politicians believed, the recovery was well under way about the time of the election. If the Government had been wrong, so had the others. 'But if we made an error, it was an error and it was not a matter of dishonesty.'

That was not how Harriet Harman, shadow Chief Secretary, saw it. The Government had been forced to admit that taxes on income were higher than in 1979 and Tory claims to be the party of low taxation were now dead.

Conservative backbenchers gave up attempts to wrong-foot Ms Harman with interventions as each one was cut down with a quotation from his own election address. Quentin Davies was reminded that he told his Stamford and Spalding constituents: 'We are absolutely committed to continue bringing down taxes.' 'What garbage,' Ms Harman, said, directing another jibe at Mr Portillo: 'No wonder they want to end the televising of Parliament.'

(Photograph omitted)