[Relevant documents: The Intelligence and Security Committee's Annual Report (Cm. 4073) for 1997–98 and the Government's reponse (Cm. 4089).]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]
§ Madam Speaker
Before I call the Secretary of State, I should say that I had intended to place a time limit on Back Benchers' speeches in this debate, as there is great demand to speak in it. However, we are starting in good time, and I leave the House to discipline itself for once.
§ The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)
Thank you, Madam Speaker; I shall take your words to heart.
Today's debate is a piece of parliamentary history. This is not the first report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, but it is the first time that Parliament has had an opportunity to debate one. It is not so long ago that Governments would not officially recognise the very existence of the Secret Intelligence Service—or I6, as it was popularly known—and in those years it would have been inconceivable that Parliament should debate its functions. Even the location of the agency's headquarters was protected information. It is perhaps a measure of the new openness that, when I last visited those headquarters, I noticed that the nearest bistro has been named Miss Moneypenny's"—which is an interesting case of fiction invading real life.
It is a consequence of the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee that we are able to have this debate at all. The first report of the new Committee fully justifies the new mechanisms of scrutiny. It sets out the work programme of the agencies with clarity, and also raises openly, but responsibly, discussion of areas of legitimate public concern, particularly relating to the personnel management of the agencies and the files on individuals held by them.
The Committee's work necessarily is not in the open. It would sharply inhibit the candour with which its questions were answered if it met in open session. Some hon. Members may imagine that, because the Committee meets and takes evidence in private, it provides an easy life for its witnesses. I should disabuse the House of that idea. As one of those who has given evidence to the Committee, I can assure the House that the fact that the meeting takes place in private does not in any way diminish the acuteness of the questioning, which is just as testing as any in front of the press.
I thank all members of the Committee for the hard work that they have put into the report. Their effort is all the more appreciated as, by definition, it cannot lead to the public recognition that might attend membership of a Select Committee. The success of the Committee owes much to the experienced hand of its Chairman, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). The House is fortunate to have in the Chair of the Committee a Member who has had extensive experience, in Northern Ireland and at the Ministry of Defence, of the work of the agencies. As the report of the Committee stresses, the frankness with which the agencies are able to respond to 579 its scrutiny is crucially dependent on the relationship of trust between the agencies and the members and the Chairman of the Committee.
The Government welcome the report. Our published response to the report has already demonstrated that we find ourselves in agreement with the bulk of the Committee's recommendations, although there are some which are for the House itself, not for Ministers, to progress. I would begin with the very lucid observations in the foreword to the report. I would agree with the Committee that the three agencies are operating in an environment that has changed dramatically over the past decade.
For the first 40 years after the war, the role and justification of the three agencies was self-evident. Europe, and indeed much of the world, was divided into two armed camps, with a very real risk of hostilities between them. Today, three of our former potential enemies in the Warsaw pact are becoming firm allies in NATO. Almost a dozen of the countries of the former communist bloc are democracies on the threshold of membership of the European Union.
We are fortunate to be living through a period of such exciting and historic transformation in our continent, yet there remain security threats to our country, some of which have become more serious over the same decade in which the cold war has receded. The cold war provided a world order of a kind, and not everything that has happened since its disappearance has been either predictable or welcome.
The conflicts in the former Yugoslavia continue to bring home to us the dangers to regional peace from the revival of a narrow ethnic nationalism. The recent strategic defence review confirmed that British forces must be ready for deployment on a variety of missions to keep the peace and to ensure humanitarian relief. Accurate and reliable intelligence will remain as important to those missions as it ever was to the defence of the central front of NATO. Moreover, the increased communication and speed of transfer of equipment and technology which comes with globalisation brings with it challenges as well as opportunities.
Increased mobility creates new opportunities for the drugs trade, which is now second only to the oil trade in value. The revolution in the transfer of knowledge creates new problems of preventing access to the technology required for weapons of mass destruction; and terrorists today can conduct their campaigns on a global horizon, not just on a national stage.
We have sought to give new priority to combating the global concerns of drugs, terrorism and proliferation, and I want to put on record my appreciation of the vigorous and imaginative way in which the three agencies have responded to these fresh priorities. It is of course essential to the continuing success of the agencies' work in these spheres that I cannot disclose to the House their specific successes, of which I know from my own experience. The nature of what they do means that they cannot boast of their achievements if they are to remain effective, but let me assure the House that they have scored real achievements.
The work of the agencies is of major importance in fighting the menace of the drugs trade. The intelligence that they provide to the law enforcement agencies helps us to go further up the supply chain, targeting the barons 580 rather than the underlings. In the past three years, the agencies have contributed to more than £200 million worth of drugs being seized and dozens of criminals being arrested.
The work of the agencies is also crucial in frustrating the ambitions of those regimes that are trying to acquire the technology for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Without the intelligence from their monitoring, we would never have the accurate information needed to apply diplomatic pressure or to secure effective international agreement to discourage proliferation; nor would we be able to disrupt covert attempts to acquire such technology. They are also vital to the fight against terrorism. By keeping us alert to the preparations of the terrorists and by helping us to frustrate those preparations, they have saved lives from the hands of the terrorists.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. Although none of us would wish to decry the work of any of the three agencies, does he accept that because the Intelligence and Security Committee was set up by the Government and reports to the Prime Minister, it is different from the Select Committees? Does he further accept that Select Committees retain the right to call on any of the agencies that may be concerned specifically with the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee—for example, in respect of drugs, which would concern the Home Affairs Committee? Matters of foreign affairs which are the responsibility of the Foreign Affairs Committee would be another case in point.
§ Mr. Cook
I would anticipate that the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee might wish to make an observation on that later. However, I would correct the right hon. Member on one point: the Intelligence and Security Committee was set up by Act of Parliament. It is accountable to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and we are laying before Parliament the report that it submitted to him. That is right, and it gives Parliament the proper opportunity to exercise scrutiny.
The involvement of other Select Committees will be a matter for review on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis where it may be appropriate for those Committees to intervene on intelligence matters. However, it does not seem to me that there is much merit in maintaining an Intelligence and Security Committee—with the specific task of building a relationship of trust with the intelligence agencies in order to carry out the job of scrutiny—if the same job is then done by Select Committees. A Select Committee that wished to intervene in those matters must be carrying out a clear and distinct job.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I have listened with great care to my right hon. Friend. Is it not the truth that if the Committee were to be a fully fledged Select Committee, many of the arguments that have taken place would not be necessary in future?
§ Mr. Cook
Possibly the one that we have just had would not need to take place in future, but I can assure 581 my hon. Friend that there would be many others. I believe that he has not yet commanded a majority on the Committee for his proposal that it should transform itself into a Select Committee. Of course it must be a matter of judgment—ultimately the judgment of Parliament as to whether it wishes to amend the legislation—but I am sure that Parliament would be wise to reflect on whether, in the move to greater openness that would be made with becoming a Select Committee, some of the candour and openness with which the agencies can co-operate with the present Committee would be lost.
§ Mr. Winnick
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in opposition, we made proposals for more openness and voted accordingly? Does he further accept that as long as there is a lack of proper parliamentary accountability, as is the current position, regardless of the existence of the Committee, the controversy will continue in one way or another? The way to resolve it is by allowing the type of scrutiny that we proposed in opposition.
§ Mr. Cook
We did commit ourselves to more openness, and today's debate is an example of our being more open than any previous Administration. Moreover, our work on accountability for the Secret Intelligence Service shows that we are willing to be more open. As the House will be aware, I have ordered a report to be prepared by historians in response to a parliamentary question on the Zinoviev letter which will put more into the public domain than has yet been revealed.
The current Administration have no need whatever to be apologetic about our record on openness in regard to the intelligence and security services. On the contrary, we have taken steps that no previous Administration have taken, but at the same time we have to be careful that we create mechanisms of scrutiny that will actually work and will not result in the process being so open that the agencies cannot co-operate with them in the same way as they co-operate with the present mechanisms.
So far, I have discussed the work of the three agencies as one single effort. That makes sense because they co-operate fully together, and the intelligence assessments which we see as Ministers can draw on the work of all three agencies. I also wish to give a few examples of their separate work.
The Security Service leads the intelligence war against terrorism related to Northern Ireland. Its work with the police has led directly to the disruption of major terrorist attacks and the arrest and conviction of many terrorists.
Last year, six Provisional IRA members were convicted of planning to blow up six of the main electricity substations feeding London. Had the terrorists succeeded, there would have been immense disruption to the lives and prosperity of the people of London.
Since 1996, the service has supported the law enforcement agencies in the fight against organised crime. That co-operation has already resulted in success. 582 One example is the conviction last year of a major criminal on a firearms offence. The Security Service played a key role in bringing him to justice.
Similarly, GCHQ has given vital support to our military in every crisis since the second world war. That is as true today as it was at the time of the cracking of the Enigma code. We have well over 50,000 troops deployed in more than 20 different operations around the world. Some of them operate in conditions that are anything but safe. The intelligence provided by GCHQ helps them cope with volatile and dangerous circumstances. Our troops in Bosnia, for example, get intelligence from GCHQ that enables them to work more effectively and safely.
GCHQ also has a key defensive role. It is one of the world leaders in developing information technology that is safe from attack. The Government secure intranet launched in April was a good example. So was the GCHQ-designed Brent secure telephone, which is both highly effective and the cheapest totally secure telephone system ever produced. In a world in which information is increasingly the single most important commodity, the ability to protect computers from attack is a fundamental requirement for our national security. The work of GCHQ will help ensure that Britain can go into the information age with confidence and, as a result of current investment, GCHQ will be able to face that future in a modern building on a single site in place of the present two sites.
§ Mr. Beith
My hon. Friend hopes to catch your eye, later Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Foreign Secretary recognises the force of what the Committee said about how undesirable it is that such an enormous project of tremendous importance to Cheltenham and the surrounding area should have been overseen by no fewer than four different director-generals.
§ Mr. Cook
I felt that on one arithmetical problem, the Committee slightly overegged it. To be fair, the fourth director was in post for five years, which is a reasonable period. However, I acknowledge that there have been three directors over the past two years. Of course, there is a balance to be struck. It would indeed be desirable that directors should remain at GCHQ for longer. On the other hand, over the past two years the present Government and the previous Administration, who were responsible for the first of those three appointments, have sought to make sure that those appointed as directors were people of the highest calibre and potential. It is a matter of record that people of high potential and high achievement tend to get poached for promoted posts, and the fact that two of those three have departed for posts of permanent secretary is a tribute to their calibre.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will continue to make sure that GCHQ continues to receive top management of the highest calibre; and I hope that we can now have a period of stability to see the project through. The project is not just the work of one man or woman as director. It is the work of a team. Expertise has remained available throughout that period.
583 GCHQ and the Security Service have been opening up. Both have publicly advertised for recruits and both now have websites. The Security Service has produced a booklet describing its work. However, the third agency—the Secret Intelligence Service—must remain secret. I cannot be as frank with the House about its successes as I have been about those of the other two agencies.
Those who work with SIS overseas often risk their lives so that our lives may be safe. Their effectiveness and their lives depend on their identities and work remaining out of the public eye. Their ability to gather intelligence depends on the confidence that their sources have in the absolute trustworthiness and discretion of the service. Their international links depend on their sister services in other countries knowing that when they hand information to SIS it will remain secure.
For all three agencies to perform their work adequately, they must be adequately financed. The function and structure of the agencies were separately examined in the recent comprehensive spending review. We concluded that there was a real and continuing need for the work of the agencies. If they are to do their job, they must have confidence that they will be resourced to fulfil the tasks that we place on them. I am pleased that the comprehensive spending review has halted the decline in the resources available to the agencies and enabled them to face the future with confidence. That is in contrast to the past five years, during which the budget of the agencies declined by nearly one third.
I particularly welcome the care and attention that the Intelligence and Security Committee has paid to issues of personnel management. All three agencies depend wholly on their staff. For each, their staff are their key asset. When they join they sacrifice some personal freedom. The agencies depend on the loyalty and discretion of their staff. In return, we need to make sure that there are proper arrangements in place to deal with their problems and grievances.
I am glad that the Committee recognised the valuable work done by the staff counsellor. We share the Committee's view that Sir Christopher France has an important role. The Government also share the Committee's anxiety that staff should, as much as possible, enjoy the same rights as other employees, including access to industrial tribunals. As we have already said, we are reviewing whether and how it might be possible to give access to a tribunal for those sensitive cases that are currently excluded from such arrangements.
The Government have already demonstrated their commitment to the rights of the staff who do important national security work. One of our earliest acts was to restore to staff at GCHQ the right to belong to an independent trade union. Three of those who lost their jobs because they refused to lose their union membership are now back at work at GCHQ.
§ Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham)
Will the Foreign Secretary accept the thanks of all the people of Cheltenham—particularly the 14 who were fired for keeping their trade union membership—for the fact that the Government kept their promise to remove the ban on GCHQ trade unions soon after taking office?
§ Mr. Cook
I do not think that my hon. Friend addressed that question to me.
584 I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cheltenham for that comment. I know from what the 14 people concerned have said that they appreciate what we have done. As one of them has said, we have righted a wrong that lasted for too long.
The Committee is right to pay attention to personnel management, because this is not just an issue of ensuring that we treat fairly those who are dedicated to the national interest. It is also vital for the security of the agencies that they detect—and when possible resolve—staff dissatisfaction before it leads to disaffection.
At the height of the cold war, a major threat to the security of the agencies was the possibility of the corruption of a member of staff by bribery or blackmail. Although that threat may have receded, a new one has arisen. Today, the extravagant rewards that can be gained from an exclusive deal with a newspaper or book publisher can provide a bigger payout for disloyalty than the KGB ever offered. Moreover, it does not necessarily come with the same insistence on accuracy that the KGB might have required. It therefore remains vital that the agencies be vigilant in recruiting their staff and maintaining the motivation of their officers.
The members of the Committee are familiar with the difficulties caused to SIS and the Security Service by former members of staff who present a cocktail of fact and fiction as a portrait of the work of the services. Considerable investment has been made to reduce the possibility of such cases in future by improving the vetting and recruitment procedures and strengthening the monitoring of staff in post.
The secrecy that is essential to the work of the agencies means that most of our constituents are not aware of their real work. They are left to form their impressions of the three agencies from the word processors of novelists and the cameras of Hollywood. Those impressions are not always entirely accurate. It may be challenging for the Intelligence and Security Committee to correct all those false impressions satisfactorily. Nevertheless, by providing a candid and sober account of the work of the three agencies, the report restores some balance. Our constituents pay for the three agencies. They must have access to an honest explanation of why it is important that their money should be invested in them.
That is why it was right to commit a day of parliamentary time to debating the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I commend the work of the Committee to the House and I look forward to working with it to ensure that we get the right balance between operational secrecy and parliamentary scrutiny for these three pillars of our national security.
§ Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)
I pay tribute to the men and women who carry out, on behalf of us all, some of the most difficult, delicate and dangerous duties that any servants of the Crown are asked to discharge. I speak as shadow Foreign Secretary, but for four years, as Home Secretary, I had responsibility for the Security Service. In that capacity, I acquired detailed knowledge of the activities in which the personnel of that service engaged, through general briefings and through the ability to follow the course of particular investigations that comes with the duty to authorise warrants. I was left in no doubt about the enormous risks run by those whom 585 we charge with such responsibilities on our behalf. I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to them and to members of the other agencies for their work.
There can be no doubt about the continuing need for that work. In the introduction to its latest report, the Intelligence and Security Committee refers to the threats to this country and to the peace of the world that have arisen in the aftermath of the cold war. The report asks starkly:Was not the Cold War, in its awful way, a form of rigid security system that has now collapsed, and have not new developments and technology and 'globalisation' produced their own dangers?Without any trace of nostalgia for the cold war, few, if any, hon. Members would decline to answer that question in the affirmative.
The next paragraph of the report identifies some of the threats, including the enormous increase in the instability of the world and the breakdown of what had previously appeared to be stable sovereign entities into separate states, often riven by ethnic enmities. The consequent need for peacekeeping or humanitarian missions places a premium on the product of intelligence services. The new world order, which was hailed with such optimism just a few short years ago, has since degenerated into a discord of disorder.
Despite welcome developments in Northern Ireland, the threat of terrorist attack remains. Growth in the activities of serious criminal organisations, centred on the drugs menace and associated with large-scale money laundering, has continued apace. Many such organisations have access to resources that dwarf the entire national incomes of many sovereign states. Their sophistication is formidable. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction poses a danger that we ignore at our peril. The need for this country to have efficient, effective intelligence services at its disposal is as great as ever.
Efficiency and effectiveness can be helped by proper scrutiny arrangements. The increased accountability that such arrangements bring can promote the better working of the agencies as well as, of course, providing all the advantages of greater openness and democratic control. That is why the previous Government introduced arrangements in the Intelligence Services Act 1994 which included the establishment of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Its latest report does much to inform today's debate. I am happy to join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the Committee, and particularly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who has chaired it with such distinction since its inception.
The way in which the Committee has discharged its responsibilities in both the previous Parliament and this one has given the lie to the doubts that were expressed by some who now sit on the Government Benches. The present Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, for example, asked in respect of the Intelligence and Security Committee:Are not we…supporting what is, to all intents and purposes, becoming a charade?The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) spoke against the presence on the proposed Committee of former Cabinet Ministers. He said:Those people will be seen to be against any type of oversight of the security services."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 29 March 1994; c. 267–72.]586 I hope that, in winding up the debate, the Home Secretary will acknowledge that those objections were misconceived, and will distance himself from those comments.
That is the background against which we must consider some of the issues raised in the report that are relevant to today's debate. Yet another tragic murder over the weekend, and the acknowledgement of responsibility for it by what might be a new terrorist grouping, reinforce the need for continuing vigilance by the Government as a whole and the security services in particular in respect of events in Northern Ireland. The work that has been done on combating Irish terrorism in recent years has been, in the full and literal sense, absolutely heroic. It must continue; it will not be assisted by the continuing release of those who have been convicted of the most brutal crimes without any decommissioning of paramilitary arms.
The report contains a brief and necessarily curtailed reference to Iraq. Again, events over the weekend underline the importance of continued vigilance. The threat to world peace from Iraq is acute, and we must combat it by all legitimate means at our disposal. The contribution of the security services must continue.
The Committee's programme of work refers to its intention to pursue questions of intelligence policy in relation to recent events in Sierra Leone in the light of the findings of the Legg report. The House will recall the difficulty faced by the Foreign Affairs Committee in trying to question the Foreign Secretary on the subject. At every stage, information had to be squeezed out of Ministers and officials. The process was as prolonged and painful as drawing teeth without an anaesthetic.
The arms-to-Africa affair evolved into a constitutional confrontation between the Executive and Parliament. The Foreign Secretary attempted to put into practice a new constitutional doctrine that, if he orders an internal inquiry, which is held in private, it should take precedence over and, indeed, displace the role of Select Committees. In view of that, will my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater tell the House a little more about the Committee's plans in that regard and what progress, if any, has been made?
One of the most significant changes in recent years in the Security Service has been the additional responsibilities entrusted to it concerning serious organised crime—a change made when I was Home Secretary. I therefore read with particular interest the information in paragraph 17 of the report, and look forward to the results of the further work that the Committee intends to undertake in the area. I hope that the Home Secretary will tell us a little more about the Security Service's work in that area in his winding-up speech. Like the Committee, I very much welcome the new priority given by the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ to their work against drug trafficking.
The Committee highlights several other issues in its report. Its recommendations on finances seem very sensible. The new form in which information was presented to the Committee is helpful, and may be helpful to Ministers. I agree, too, that formal provision should be made for the disclosure of information and reporting by the Comptroller and Auditor General to the Committee, in consultation with the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. It would be desirable, where practicable, for 587 the National Audit Office to carry out further value-for-money studies into the agencies' activities. Will the Home Secretary tell us to what extent that has been taken forward since the publication of the Committee's report?
The Committee's recommendations on personnel management issues are especially important. It is clearly crucial, as the Committee said, that every effort should be madeto address and resolve potential disaffection at an early stage.The Committee makes other recommendations on the subject, of which the most interesting is that employees of the agencies should have access to industrial tribunals. The Government have said that they are examining the proposal. I suspect that it will prove to be necessary for the Secretary of State to retain the power to issue a certificate where necessary to prevent an individual from having access to a tribunal, although it may nevertheless be possible to adapt several of the Committee's recommendations and, indeed, adopt them. I would support such a move. Has any further progress been made in implementing the proposal?
Conservative Members will watch with interest the effect of the Government's decision to restore trade union rights at GCHQ, conscious of the fact that, before the decision to withdraw those rights, 10,000 man days had been lost to strike action. As a result of the previous Government's general trade union reforms, the entire climate of industrial relations in Britain is very different. That difference in climate may well be sufficient to prevent a return of the sad, strike-torn days that led to the ban. I certainly hope so.
§ Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)
I am sure that the shadow Foreign Secretary would not want to mislead the House, but by just giving the figure of 10,000 man days, he has created an entirely sad picture. Will he say how many people work at GCHQ and over what period the days were lost? For instance, we could be talking about 1,000 employees losing only 10 days each—but over what period? It is not good enough to make such a statement without justifying it.
§ Mr. Howard
I am afraid that I do not share the hon. Gentleman's premise. The 10,000 man days lost through strikes at GCHQ were 10,000 fewer man days devoted to protecting the defences of the country and reinforcing them with valuable intelligence activity. That is the point at issue.
§ Mr. Winnick
The ban was imposed on 26 January 1984. Is the shadow Foreign Secretary aware that, after the Falklands war, GCHQ employees were greatly praised by the director-general? Does that not show that, once again, GCHQ employees carried out their work properly? Some 18 months after that lavish and justified praise, the ban was imposed. Do the Conservatives plan to restore the ban, should they return to power?
§ Mr. Howard
There is no inconsistency whatever in the two points to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Of course employees of GCHQ did excellent and important work during the Falklands war. Of course it was right to pay tribute to that work. Of course it was wrong to have 10,000 man days lost through strike action. There is no inconsistency in those propositions.
588 The one area where the Government appear to differ from the Committee relates to the need for an independent element of scrutiny in reviewing files for destruction. The other recommendations of the Committee in respect of files and personal records have found greater favour with the Government. I have noted the reasoning behind the Government's reply, which is set out in paragraph 16 of their response to the Committee's report.
I have also read the report of the Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) earlier this year, and the Home Secretary's reply to it. In that debate, the Home Secretary delivered a comprehensive snub to the then Minister without Portfolio—now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—who was reliably reported to have called for the destruction of his own files. In view of that Secretary of State's admitted membership in his youth of the Young Communist League, the House may well consider his call for the destruction of his files a piece of gut-wrenching hypocrisy. I appreciate that a number of my hon. Friends will have views on that proposal, and I want to hear them before coming to a firm view.
The Government are rightly more sympathetic to the Committee's decision to have available some investigative capacity of its own. We look forward to seeing how that matter develops.
§ Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I ask whether the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was informed that an attack was to be made on him before it was done as I believe is usual in the House.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
That is entirely a matter for right hon. and hon. Members.
§ Mr. Howard
I am happy to allay the anxieties of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge). I did cause a message to be passed to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make sure that he was fully apprised of the position.
§ Mr. Howard
I did not do so because, to the great pleasure of the House, I know that when I oppose the Foreign Secretary across the Table he will be present in the Chamber in his usual place, and it is therefore unnecessary for me to give him notice.
The activities of the intelligence agencies in a democracy must be the subject of proper scrutiny. With the establishment of the Intelligence and Security Committee—and the holding of this debate—that scrutiny has seen significant advances in recent years. Her Majesty's Opposition will play our full part in that scrutiny process in an appropriately responsible way.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
Whatever our views may be on the operation of the intelligence agencies and of our need to scrutinise them, it is right—I speak on behalf of the Intelligence and Security Committee—to pay tribute to those who work for the Secret Intelligence Service, the Security Service and GCHQ. As a former President of the 589 United States would put it, those people often put themselves in harm's way for our security. I certainly join in the tributes that have been paid to the staff of those agencies by the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).
As Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I welcome this first such debate, which is part of the parliamentary system and part of our parliamentary accountability. The Committee has a different structure. It is not a Select Committee, but a Committee of parliamentarians with responsibility for oversight of the intelligence and security agencies.
I appreciate the presence in the Chamber of the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary because, with the exception of the Prime Minister, they are the only people who can answer the debate by virtue of the nature of their responsibilities and the direct responsibility of the intelligence and security agencies to them. Much of their work cannot be delegated to more junior Ministers. Therefore, it is right for the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary to be here for the debate.
This is the first such debate, but it is the Committee's third report. However, it is the first report of the new Committee in the new Parliament. I have had the privilege of chairing the Committee throughout its years of existence, and I am grateful that a number of the Committee members were in the previous Parliament, so we have had a continuity of membership. I could not, for political reasons, say that we have had a welcome infusion of new members. However—granted that there would be a change of membership—I am very grateful to the old and new members for the role that they have played in what I am conceited enough to believe has been a successful and effective Committee. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary and to my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary for the kind words that they have expressed to me personally and to the Committee.
This is the fullest report that we have produced as a Committee. I should like to express my thanks to our staff—led by Jonathan Allden—for the role that they have played throughout the past year. They have a lonely and independent role, because they are on secondment from the Cabinet Office and owe their allegiance to the Committee, a separate body. It is not the easiest of roles, and I am extremely grateful to them—as are the other Committee members—for the way in which they discharge it.
I owe an apology to the House, and to the wider public, for the content of our report, in the sense that—by nature of the reports that we publish—certain parts become totally unreadable because it is impossible to publish certain matters. The presence of asterisks in the most interesting places is perhaps best exemplified by the financial charts at the end of the report, which I insisted should appear. Someone suggested that we should just publish a summary but, with the support of the Committee, I insisted that the full charts appear.
Although not a single figure appears, the charts illustrate clearly that we had all the figures and the details. That was not the case in the first years of the Committee. It is a further illustration of the extension and evolution of the Committee's role that all those figures are now 590 available. By looking at the headings, hon. Members at least know the subjects that we considered, including details, in terms of the SIS and the Security Service for example, of the payments to agents for information, and the different categories of information that we investigated and examined.
We are grateful in that respect for our relationship with the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee—who is in his place—for his Committee's co-operation, and for his support in ensuring that the Intelligence and Security Committee had access to information. We are grateful to him also for encouraging the full co-operation of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the NAO.
In our unanimous report, the Committee referred to a fundamental question, which was addressed by both the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary: do we need the agencies any more? Is it not true that, for the past 45 years or so, the structure of the agencies has been concentrated on tackling the biggest threat that we faced—the threat of a major world power, in the shape of the Soviet Union, intent on the subversion of the western democracies and posing a threat to our democratic institutions, our existence as a country and the continuity of our alliances?
After the collapse almost overnight, of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact, the problems that faced Russia as an independent country caused people to ask whether the threat had ceased to exist and whether we needed the agencies to continue in the same form. Many suggested that the agencies had invented new threats to justify their existence.
The Committee examined those assertions as fully as we could and, as the Foreign Secretary said, the Government considered the matter in the comprehensive spending review, in which we took a close interest and played a part. The Government concluded that expenditure on the agencies should continue to be much the same as before, recognising the fact that new threats had taken the place of old threats.
Probably the biggest threat is the risk of proliferation—a major preoccupation of the SIS—in nuclear, chemical and biological capabilities, especially because missile systems have increasing ranges and may be within the reach of some undesirable and unstable regimes.
The threat posed by the collapse of old structures is most clearly seen in the former Yugoslavia. If we are to play a part in peacekeeping—in Bosnia or in Kosovo—asking British people to go unarmed to monitor difficult situations, the very least we owe them is the best possible intelligence of the dangers that they may face.
I have read only the brief headlines of Sir Michael Rose's account of his time in Sarajevo but, when I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he was a brigadier commanding one of the brigades, and I should expect him to confirm that the dangers that he faced in Northern Ireland—during what was, in many respects, a hairy time—were as nothing compared to some of the risks, uncertainties and hazards that arose as a result of the violent and unstable elements in the former Yugoslavia.
591 The Foreign Secretary rightly paid tribute to the Security Service for its outstanding work in preventing what would have been two significant and hugely damaging IRA attacks in this country. However, the current extent of international terror is a sobering thought. Hon. Members may have read in our report the surprising fact that, on average, every month, there are 60 international terrorist incidents of one sort or another in the world. Those attacks may not impinge on us directly, but British citizens may be affected through hostage taking or other threats to our interests.
The increase in the drug trade and in international crime has been given a nasty new dimension by gangs from Russia, some of which include former KGB members. Their viciousness and their involvement in that nastiest of cocktails—drug trafficking—pose problems of a scale that we have not previously experienced.
Another new development, to which we referred only briefly in our report, is information warfare. Growing public concern about the millennium bug—a self-inflicted injury—has drawn attention to the wider problem. It may seem a harmless accident when a 17-year-old in Ealing hacks into the US Department of Defence computers on nuclear structures, or when innocent people amuse themselves by hacking as a hobby, but such techniques can be used as an instrument of aggressive activity by one nation state against another. That emphasises the importance of GCHQ's advisory role in securing our organisations and information structures against such attacks.
The Committee examined how the agencies allocate effort and decide on their priorities—in general, we supported their decisions. We also consider new issues—for example, what happened in Sierra Leone—as they arise. In that case, we examined the criticisms that were made about the lack of intelligence and the amount of support that was given to our high commissioner in an extremely difficult situation, involving not only the evacuation and safety of British citizens but relationships with outside companies and mercenaries.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe asked me to report on the interest that the Committee has taken in the matter. We have heard from Sir David Spedding, the head of SIS, and we have taken evidence from the chief of defence intelligence. We hope shortly to take evidence from Mr. Penfold, the high commissioner in Sierra Leone, and we shall consider the intelligence aspects of that affair.
§ Sir Peter Emery
Before my right hon. Friend leaves that subject, will he consider a matter that I do not think has arisen in the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee? Security matters are of considerable importance to the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is responsible for looking at the conduct of the Foreign Office. The Committee, of which I am a member, will hear from the head of MI6 later this month but our invitation to security services involved with the Foreign Office has been declined.
Should not Select Committees be able to co-operate with the intelligence and Security Committee, so that, when a Select Committee is unable to obtain information, the matter could be passed to that Committee with its special relationship with Government? The Intelligence and Security Committee could then report to the Select 592 Committee, so that the Select Committee would not be debarred from information that might be vital to its inquiry.
§ Mr. King
I shall speak about our role in oversight at the end of my speech; it may be relevant to my right hon. Friend's point.
A matter of particular interest—it has been the focus of the Committee's work this year and previously—is internal security in the agencies. The story has not been entirely happy on either side of the Atlantic. The most spectacular betrayals have been in the US—they led to the betrayal of British agents, too—but, as the Foreign Secretary said, and as the Committee identified, failures in security are no longer a result of ideological commitments. A deep commitment to the communist cause was the background to the famous British traitors and spies of earlier generations. Now, people are more likely to be seeking funds because they have financial or personal problems. The United States has also suffered as a result.
Secrets must be protected within an agency. People who give information to intelligence agencies are risking their lives. They will not do so if they believe that the agencies cannot be trusted not to disclose their name, address or background. One does not have to live in Northern Ireland to know what happens to people who inform. People will not take risks unless they are confident that the information and their identity will be protected. That is why that matter must be taken so seriously.
In some cases, we have lost information and secrets have been divulged—there has been a straight betrayal with the passing of information. People have breached their contracts, and the Official Secrets Act, in return for money. Staff have become disaffected because of grievances of one sort or another. The Foreign Secretary referred to two recent cases. People may, or may not, have been seeking payments from national newspapers for information or hearsay. Some cases have been the result of lax internal discipline and a failure properly to safeguard and classify information. Whatever the reason, all the cases matter.
The Committee has been trying not to chase after individual hares but to consider the fundamental issues that must be tackled. We have been, and will continue to be, critical of the agencies' attention to matters as elementary as personal security, such as random searches of people leaving buildings and ensuring that documents are secure. We have mentioned that problem in three successive reports. The most spectacular and awful CIA traitor carried shopping bags full of documents away, but no one checked or searched him. The result was the destruction—and execution—of the CIA network in the Soviet Union at the time, which endangered the life of Mr. Gordievsky, who was bravely passing on information.
We must not forget personal security and the boring business of continual vigilance, random searches, checking on people's concerns and taking an interest in people's personal circumstances. If an agency employee is divorced or has marital or financial problems, that may be a matter of national security concern. It is a difficult balance to strike. Agency employees are entitled to reasonable personal privacy. We cannot make their lives totally intolerable. With the benefit of hindsight, we can 593 see that incidents in this country and in the United States have shown that someone should have realised that there were problems and identified them. That is why the report deals also with recruitment, as care must be taken to ensure that people are suitable for employment in the agencies in the first place. Employees should be monitored so that stress and personal difficulties can be identified before they pose serious problems. There should be proper counselling.
If all else fails, people should be entitled, as far as possible, to the sort of employment rights that others expect to enjoy. I am glad that the Government have responded positively on that. That is why we recommended the setting up of some form of tribunal to replicate as closely as possible an ordinary industrial tribunal. It might have a lawyer as chairman, with the membership including an employer and a trade union representative. Surely and certainly in this country we can find people patriotic and trustworthy enough to hear any secret that the Committee can hear and deal with it in such a tribunal without prejudicing the information.
The Foreign Secretary and shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned files, but I shall leave that subject to my colleagues, as many have taken an interest in it.
GCHQ has considerable capabilities and it is no secret that they have increased substantially. New challenges exist, since new technology is also available to some pretty nasty and dangerous people, not least drug traffickers and some of the big new organised criminal gangs. GCHQ must have accountability structures that ensure that systems authorising the proper interception of communications match up to the new challenges. We must also ensure that the privacy of the individual, to which all law-abiding citizens are entitled, is properly protected.
GCHQ is a massive organisation with extremely sophisticated equipment. It has to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week without a second of interruption. That is the nature of its undertaking. However, it is planning to move, and not all transfers of public or even Government activities have been a seamless robe. The organisational challenge of the GCHQ move is massive, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has pointed out, and the Committee makes no apology for drawing the Government's attention to that fact.
Oversight has been a process of evolution. The Committee is a strange animal—like no other Committee in the House. It is a Committee of parliamentarians, but we report not to Parliament but to the Prime Minister, who tables our annual report for debate here. We are not a Select Committee and we have our origins in the Intelligence Services Act 1994. The Committee was established at the same time as it was first admitted we had the Secret Intelligence Service, and the SIS and GCHQ were given a statutory basis, barely four years ago, which seems incredible when one looks back through the history of the CIA's activities.
The two agencies came in from the cold. They were perhaps fearful that parliamentarians might not be entirely reliable: that they would become caught up in party political warfare or point scoring between Members of Parliament and that secrets would leak out. Committee members realised that, whenever a Bill is enacted, the 594 legal arrangements set out therein are only the bare bones on which one has to build. We have taken the trouble to study other oversight bodies. The American system is massive. The Inspector General of the CIA has a staff of 140. Its former director, Jim Woolsey, told me that, during his three years in office, there was not one day when he did not have to give evidence on Capitol hill to one committee or another. We did not want to follow the model of oversight on that scale.
One or two countries are still managing to proceed heroically with no oversight whatever: one of them is not far from the channel tunnel; but I understand that it is considering the matter at present. Others set up oversight committees to which they appointed all the difficult squad who had made speeches about intelligence agencies and did not believe in them in the first place. The intelligence agencies made jolly sure that they told those people nothing, so there was inadequate oversight and open warfare.
We have recognised that we work within the ring of secrecy. We inevitably, have, a close relationship with the agencies, and I hope that we have established a measure of mutual respect, but not a cosy relationship, as that would prevent us from doing our job. We expect to be told everything and to have every question answered unless there are clear and obvious reasons—of national security or secrecy, as narrowly defined as they can possibly be—why such information should not be made available.
We do not expect the agencies to hide behind a narrow interpretation of the law, because to do our job we need the clearest possible picture. We try to ask only what is relevant to our purposes, and I believe that we have succeeded in ensuring that the information is kept secret. We have sought not to destroy or undermine the agencies but to ensure, in their own best interests, that their performance at all times matches the standards that the public expect of them.
The public often see the agencies as sinister bodies that are out of sight and out of ministerial control, operating in a world of their own. Public support can be fragile: on the occasions that the Foreign Secretary mentioned, there were banner headlines thanking God for our security services, and people were full of praise, but when something goes wrong and there is an allegation of a mistake, misunderstanding or compromise involving the agencies, people are quick to believe the worst.
Our job is to try to bring some balance and ensure that we can investigate when there are serious grounds for public concern. That is why we have proposed an investigative arm: in certain circumstances, we need the ability to verify. When a situation arises that gives serious cause for public concern, the public often react to a statement by the head of an agency by saying, "He would say that, wouldn't he?", and if Ministers merely repeat an assertion from an agency head whom the public suspect of putting his agency's interests first and defending its position, the necessary public reassurance is lacking.
We shall not be able to help matters unless we can say that we have investigated the allegations, with full access to all the relevant information, and that we are satisfied either that a charge needs to be answered or that the charge is merely malicious and unfounded. Then we can speak with the unanimous, all-party voice of our Committee, which will carry the authority that the agencies are entitled to expect.
595 I am grateful for the Government's positive response. We shall see how we go, because I well understand the nervousness and uncertainties, but I believe that an investigative arm is the correct next step in the development of oversight. It will be good for the agencies and attract public support and give our reports the authority that they need to meet any circumstances that may arise.
Oversight is the heart of our work. We need to have appropriate openness and oversight of a world of activity that is necessarily secret and essential to our country's ultimate security. We have made a start down that road; I do not pretend that we have reached the end of it. That is the sensible way of proceeding, and I believe that the existence of the Committee and its successive reports will create some public confidence and awareness that there is accountability in the agencies, that they serve our country well and that the systems under which they operate are appropriate to their activity.
§ Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)
On behalf of all the Committee members, I pay tribute to the Chairman for his extremely hard work. His knowledge of the ins and outs of Whitehall has been invaluable in achieving what we all regard as an evolutionary process. I know that he would confess that, on occasion, he has been a little irritated with me when I have wanted to proceed a bit more quickly with that evolutionary process than was possible under the previous Government;, but now we are moving apace. Members of the Committee are unanimous in their desire to make progress on oversight.
Some of us—although not the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry or the Minister for Defence Procurement—who served on the Intelligence Services Bill when it was outed are present today; the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who is here, was then one of the Foreign Office Ministers responsible for the legislation. The Government of that time were very brave in outing the security service with the Security Service Act 1989 and then the Intelligence Services Act 1994, but they were a little hostile to some of our suggestions.
Some of my hon. Friends may be anxious to reproduce some of the words that I uttered in 1994 promoting the idea of a Select Committee; perhaps I can pre-empt them by drawing attention to the fact that the Government accepted only one of dozens of amendments, if not more than 100, that I tabled on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition of the day. That amendment increased the Committee from six to nine, which was a very wise step. The easiest way to describe the rest of my experience is that it was like running up against a brick wall.
The Government of the day were determined to move. I remember speaking to a senior member of MI6. I said, "I suppose you wrote this Bill, Sir Colin." He replied, "No, I didn't write it, but I did give a job description." That was the extent to which the agencies co-operated. It is important to remember that the agencies wanted a system of oversight, and co-operated in developing it. That was as far as we could go in those days. Since then, a critical development has been not only that the agencies trust the Committee, but that we are beginning, in some ways, to trust them.
We must also have the trust of our parliamentary colleagues, because without it we cannot properly oversee the agencies. At the press conference last week, a 596 gentleman from the press asked whether we regarded ourselves as poodles of the agencies. I jumped in, with my big mouth, and said, "Yes." Everybody clapped and reported my comments, but they did not say that I added that we could be regarded as poodles if the present system continued.
One of my colleagues answered the question by saying that he was nobody's poodle, but he could have added that, under the present system, nobody would know whether we were poodles, because we get only the information that the agencies want to give us. We have a question and answer system, and we can investigate, but if the agencies hide behind reasons of national security or the risk of endangering the lives of agents in operations, we have to accept that and go no further. In that sense, we cannot perform our task of oversight properly, but the system is evolving and slowly moving forward.
As the Chairman of the Committee has said, one of the most important aspects of the report is the Committee's realisation that it is necessary to extend our powers, within the parameters of the present Act and the ring of secrecy, to include an investigative arm. We must develop that aspect of our work, but it is not intended that every member of the Committee should charge into MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and demand to see the books and lists of agents.
One suggestion is that the Committee should use someone who operates, or has operated, within the ring of secrecy to act on the Committee's behalf. That would protect the secrecy that the agencies require to carry out their work, but the Committee could be confident in its conclusions if, for example, any allegations were made about an agency's conduct.
Fellow parliamentarians should not think that we do not have heated debates on these contentious issues. We have long and difficult discussions on how the Committee's role should develop. We have had strong debates on the possible adoption of a Select Committee style for our proceedings.
The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), who intervened at some length, is not in his seat now, but I can tell him that we have examined whether the Committee impinged on the functions of the Foreign Affairs Committee over the issue of Sierra Leone. All we are interested in is whether the intelligence systems worked. The Committee is not concerned about the politics of the incident, but we want to discover whether the Foreign Secretary, the High Commissioner and the other politicians involved were in receipt of fresh intelligence at the critical times.
There is obviously an interface between our role and the role of the Home Affairs Committee, which has a general responsibility in the area of crime. The previous Home Secretary asked the Home Affairs Committee to consider whether MI5 should be involved in the investigation of serious and organised crime, and it concluded that the police should be the body that investigated crime. However, MI5, with its peculiar talents and abilities which are not available in the police force, should be available to help.
If we cannot harness every aspect of the state against drug traffickers and other evildoers, what hope is there for our communities? Some have suggested that there is jealousy between different Committees, but I say that we must work together. The virtue of using MI5 in the 597 investigation of serious and organised crime is that it has abilities and qualities that allow it to take a long-term view. It does not have to bring the criminals to account and follow them through the judicial process, because that is the responsibility of the police and others, such as Customs and Excise. For the Committee to do its job properly, it must evolve slowly along those lines.
§ Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)
The hon. Gentleman kindly referred to my involvement in the original creation of the Committee. Now that I am not fettered by ministerial shackles, I can say that it was always my understanding that the Committee would develop and grow into the job. I strongly support the Committee's proposals for an investigative power, but does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the example he just gave of the overlap between the Committee's responsibilities and those of the Home Affairs Committee clearly demonstrates the specific powers that his Committee already has? That shows the experiment's worth.
§ Mr. Rogers
I wish that the right hon. Gentleman had been a little more positive back in 1994 and given us the benefit of his wisdom during the passage of the Act, because we have lost four or five years; but I accept his conversion with good grace.
The right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) is not in his seat—although I think he poked his head in a little earlier—but I recall his arguments early in the Committee's life about whether intelligence should be a free good. [Interruption.] I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman, who is present after all.
I was impressed when I first joined the Committee by the range of the work that the intelligence agencies undertook, which is used by other Government Departments in pursuit of their functions. The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked whether such work could be done by other people more efficiently, and we had lengthy debates about the issue. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, some of whom have lost their seats, for the work they did.
The Committee started from scratch, and even now is still involved in a learning process. Our work load is so heavy that we have had to divide the responsibilities. I know that other colleagues will speak about specific issues, but I wish to make the point about the Committee's evolution because I have been involved from the beginning. I have been especially concerned about changes in priorities, given recent geopolitical changes.
The development of new priorities, and a change of emphasis in the work of the Committee since the end of the cold war, has made it content that the agencies should operate within the general parameters of the law with proper accountability and warranting. During our discussions in the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, in which we had considerable help from John Wadham and Liberty, we covered the peculiar area of warranting. We considered actions that might be illegal and for which, in certain circumstances, a warrant might be required. The Committee was satisfied by its dealing with the heads of the services that the agencies act circumspectly in those circumstances.
598 My final point concerns defectors and dissatisfied people, a matter of long discussion in the Committee, to which I am sure some of my colleagues will wish to refer. The Foreign Secretary and the Chairman of the Committee were quite right to emphasise that chequebook treason—there are no other words for it—is prevalent today.
One person wrote to a newspaper to say that we had not sought to protect whistleblowers, like himself, who spoke out in the public interest. I am wary of those who claim to be whistleblowers in the public interest, but who accept £80,000 or £100,000 or a contract to write a book. If they are speaking in the public interest, let them not go into the marketplace to sell their souls and their country's secrets for money.
If the individual to whom I have referred had wanted to speak purely for the love of country, there are mechanisms by which he could have done so. I accept that the mechanisms are not perfect, and the Committee has considered that point. We have suggested industrial tribunals. Perhaps the Home Secretary would consider the whole structure of the security commissioner and the bodies that exist in this area. Perhaps they need modernisation to meet changing aspects of chequebook treason. We must bring the mechanisms up to date. If people want to act in the public interest, they need not accept money for it.
It will not always be possible to prevent treachery or betrayal of national security. It will not always be possible to prevent jeopardising the lives of colleagues, agents who are operating in dangerous situations. The Committee's responsibility is to set up systems to allow people to have, for whatever reason—a defect in their personalities, perhaps, or simply the fact that they cannot cope with the job into which they have been recruited—a sympathetic hearing outside the agency. That would allow them to feel that they could do something. If we can set up such systems, we shall have a better overall system of oversight and accountability.
§ 6.2 pm
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I join other speakers in paying tribute to the work of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), the Chairman of the Committee, and to the staff of the agencies for their work. Some of that work is courageous, and some shows outstanding skill and dedication. Much is extremely valuable, done with commitment to the welfare of the whole community, and often with a full awareness of values that matter to me, such as civil rights and liberty. Many employees of the agencies are fully aware of those values, which form a part of their own thinking.
There is no doubt about the need for and the value of intelligence, if it is well used. I say, "well used", because an awful lot of money and intelligence has been wasted over the years. One need think only of the years running up to the Falklands war to realise that effort can be wasted and intelligence not properly used. If used properly, intelligence saves lives, prevents acts of war or terrorism and arms us against the dangers of those acts. It helps us to catch highly dangerous terrorists and criminals. It can prevent costly errors.
Threats continue, even though the cold war is over. Espionage continues among those who have traditionally practised it—including Russia. Instability in parts of the 599 former Soviet Union is worrying. A proliferation of nuclear and biological capacity has resulted partly from the break-up of the Soviet Union, and partly for other reasons. British troops find themselves in extremely dangerous situations, in which they deserve intelligence support. Drugs and crime on an international scale are issues on which the agencies can make a valuable contribution, although they are not the bodies primarily responsible for dealing with those problems. The threats of information warfare are serious. There is always a continuing threat of betrayal of our defensive capacity.
To Liberal Democrats, the world of intelligence is by nature both important and challenging. Intelligence protects civil rights about which we care. It also impinges seriously on those rights, using methods that deny some element of civil rights such as invasion of privacy. It permits Governments to undertake actions and policies without public knowledge. It may allow actions to be taken which, if widely known and discussed, would not have public approval.
Secrecy can allow agencies to pursue their own agendas independently of Government, perhaps because of excess of zeal or because of partisanship within an organisation—the charge levelled against MI5 during the Peter Wright controversy. MI5 has a legal position different from that of other agencies, because it is not merely tasked, but makes its own judgments about what the threats to the state are.
Most of the charges were based on a much more heavy-handed approach to matters of domestic subversion than is contemplated nowadays. They are part of history more than of the present, as the law specifically precludes the agency from acting in the furtherance of the interests of any political party. The situation has changed significantly since those allegations were made, although the possibility exists nevertheless.
In secret, inefficiency can flourish and resources can be wasted. We must find a way to scrutinise the service without destroying secrecy. That is difficult. In some areas of operation, to disclose the existence of an activity is to make that activity's continuance impossible. I do not see why an individual whistleblower or a member of a committee should take it upon himself or herself to decide that an activity is unacceptable and should be ended, and to make an announcement or put a story in a newspaper. Such a decision must be taken by more than one person, and we need a means at every level by which actions may be tested by a range of people with possibly differing opinions. Our current mechanism is a genuine and valuable attempt at that.
While on the subject of secrecy, I want to ask one question. Is there an unnecessary culture of secrecy, and does the secrecy go too far? Certainly, that has been so in the past. The existence of the agencies was once denied, as other hon. Members have said. While we pretended that we did not have an intelligence service, the Russians knew perfectly well that we did, and they knew all its principal managers, too. People wrote books about the agencies. There were factual books and fiction: often there was more fact in the fiction, mainly because some of it was written by ex-employees of the agencies. It was absurd that we pretended that these organisations did not exist.
The culture has changed, partly under the impetus of cases and anticipated cases under the European convention on human rights. It is welcome that we now 600 recognise the existence of the agencies, and that they must be scrutinised, but the Committee had to show that it can be taken into the agencies' confidence. The Committee has shown that it does not leak. Former members of agency staff, and even ex-Ministers, have done more to leak the work of the agencies than anything done by the Committee.
The culture of secrecy owes more to a desire to protect sources in dangerous circumstances than it does to an instinctive wish not to have people knowing about the agencies' work. The idea that, "Your identity is safe with the British," is a valuable byword in the difficult world of intelligence gathering. The Ames case, in which many American agents were compromised and met an awful fate—thankfully, no British agents did—explains the obsession with secrecy that sometimes goes beyond what most would think sensible. It is a way of communicating to those who might help this country, in dangerous situations, that their secret is safe with us. One can understand that, but it cannot be an absolute bar to mechanisms of effective scrutiny, or to the public knowing things that it is reasonable they should know.
Is the present formula right, of a Committee of parliamentarians within the ring of secrecy reporting to Parliament through the Prime Minister? We have always advocated a specially chosen parliamentary Select Committee, possibly a Joint Committee of both Houses. The present Committee is a Joint Committee with only one representative from the upper House.
It remains our objective to obtain a body that is a Select Committee of this House, but it can never be the same as other Select Committees. I have advocated that for many years, first in a lecture in 1968. I took part in debates, and introduced motions, in favour of some such committee structure in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The Liberal-Social Democratic party alliance tabled an Opposition day motion in favour of such a committee in 1986. It took an awful long time to get to where we are. In 1986, I said that existing Select Committeesclearly cannot be the exact model for a body that must operate in a much more restricted way."—[Official Report, 3 December 1986; Vol. 106, c. 985.]If we moved immediately to a Select Committee, what advantage would we gain? The main issues are direct reporting to Parliament and the ability to call for persons and papers. If it was a Select Committee that reported directly to Parliament, I do not think that there would be a significant difference from what happens now.
The Committee's reports come before Parliament formally with deletions. Such deletions would have to be made by some mechanism, even if they did not go through the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is forced to pay attention to the parts of the report that are not published as well as to those that are. It is open to the Committee to report to the Prime Minister on an issue on which it cannot report to Parliament at all, because every aspect of it requires the protection of secrecy.
I am not sure that any great gain would be made in respect of reporting to Parliament, but what about the power over persons and papers? If a Select Committee was carrying out the role, the same arguments that confront many such Committees would be encountered, but more often. The authorities would have recourse to 601 the argument that something was "advice to Ministers" or that there were "operational reasons". One or other would be used frequently.
The mechanism suggested in the report, adding an investigative capacity to the existing Committee, is likely to take us further forward, at least in the short term, than an immediate move to a Select Committee. Indeed, I think that we would take a step backwards in the short term if we were to move to one now.
I say that without prejudice to the possibilities of getting to that destination in future. The confidence that has been built; the fact that we do not need a legislative change—or even a change to the House's Standing Orders—to take the steps advocated in the report; and the Government's favourable response lead me to believe that, if the objective is immediately to get more effective scrutiny, we will serve it better if we get on with that task now and leave the Select Committee issue for a later date.
The investigative capacity is important, because it is not possible to deny some of the assertions put to the Committee, or give firm reassurance that all is well on some matters, without being able to check the papers fully. Such a capacity is not foreign to our system. The commissioners who review the carrying out and issuing of warrants for interception have such a capacity. It has caused no problems. They make judgments based on careful review of the detailed papers. There are no barriers to their examining papers, and one has greater confidence in their judgment because of it.
I shall briefly consider Government communications headquarters at Cheltenham, though my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) will understandably seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not least because many of his constituents are employed there.
GCHQ is an important place for Cheltenham. I hope that it can stay there, where it has such strong community support and is closer to the homes of the thousands who work there than any other site would be. I share my hon. Friend's welcome for the Government's reversal of the ban on trade unions. The ban put GCHQ on the front pages of newspapers all over the world—not a sensible thing to do with a sensitive institution that likes to get on with its work with the minimum of publicity. The decision backfired dreadfully on the Government who took it, and on the country's interests.
I intervened on the Foreign Secretary to point out that it is ludicrous that, at the time of the biggest ever GCHQ investment decision, there were four directors. None was removed for incompetence—they retired or were promoted. What business, confronted with such a major investment, would do that at such a stage? That suggests to me that the Government's promotion policy, of grabbing whoever it can for whatever job, without regard to the institutions they are managing, is not sensible.
On warrants, I remain of the view that giving authority for interception of communications and intrusion into people's property and private lives should be a task for a judicial or independent body, not a Minister. The sanction for such intrusion is more appropriately given by someone who is not part of the Executive and does not have Executive responsibility. We have accepted that principle, and fought for it, in respect of the use of such powers by the police. In the closing days of the previous Parliament, 602 a fierce battle took place. My right hon. and hon. Friends in both Houses can claim credit for insisting on a judicial form of examination of authority for warrants for such intrusions.
The long-established system for the Security Service and the intelligence service is that Secretaries of State give the permission. I know what care they attach to that, how they examine cases individually and do not delegate. The Committee examined them very thoroughly on the matter. However, the final process of approval should have an independent judicial element: a review not merely of the process as a whole, as happens now, but of the decisions when they are made. That is the practice in many other countries.
I have two concerns on files. First, there should be more protection for individuals on whom files may be held. The Committee says in its report that it wishes to do more work on that. It is a serious matter, but I hope that concern will be less fevered, because there is no longer a practice or policy in the Security Service of investigating broadly political subversion as it was viewed in earlier decades, when persons present became the subject of files. Nevertheless, it is a matter of such importance that we should seek ways of getting more protection.
Secondly, the Government are plain wrong in their response to the proposal for independent review of files that are to be destroyed. They are records of how the service operated, and may have individual liberty implications. In their otherwise constructive response to the Committee's report, the Government state:the Government does not believe that the process of reviewing files for destruction would be assisted by independent scrutiny.
Their argument is that it would not be appropriate becauseit would involve second guessing decisions that the Service is required to make".That is not true. It is not second-guessing the service's operational decisions but deciding whether a file on a decision that the service made years ago should continue to exist, the service having decided that it has no further need of it. That is not second guessing, but a decision about an historical record which should be independently taken. The danger is that the service could, knowingly or unknowingly, destroy evidence that would demonstrate both the good and the bad things about its previous work, which would be wrong.
I draw my final comment from the report of a royal commission set up in Canada, which published a report in 1981 on "Freedom and Security under the Law", setting out the principles that should govern the Canadian security service. Four of the five principles that it set out were that the rule of law must be paramount; that the means of investigation must be proportionate to the gravity of the threat; that the need for investigative techniques must be weighed against the damage that they might do to personal freedom and privacy; and that, the more intrusive the technique, the higher should be the authority to authorise its use. Those are good principles. By and large, they are practised in our three agencies, but they could be written in larger and brighter letters, or incorporated into the agencies' mission statements.
The use of intrusive methods should be limited to special or overriding circumstances. The carrying out of operations of which only a few people are aware can be justified only in exceptional circumstances. The 603 mechanisms by which those matters are examined should be equal to the difficult task, in terms of both oversight and how the Executive handles them. Such principles could usefully be added to the vocabulary of statements that govern our services. The rule of law should be paramount; the means should be proportional to the gravity of the threat; we should weigh the techniques that we use against the damage that they might do to freedom and privacy; and, the more intrusive the technique, the more carefully it should be scrutinised.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
I welcome this debate, which is another small step towards rendering our intelligence and security services democratically accountable, and I look forward to its becoming an annual event. I also welcome the gradual removal of some of the unnecessary mystery that has surrounded those organisations in the past, particularly the detailed statement on 29 July by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the number and status of the files held by the Security Service. One must pinch oneself to recall that my right hon. Friend was once identified as a potential subversive and was once, as the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said, the subject of such a file. It must be satisfying now to find himself in charge of the Security Service—a responsibility that he takes very seriously.
I welcome the latest report from the Intelligence and Security Committee. It is a serious piece of work. May I make it clear that, although I am critical of the mechanism by which the security and intelligence services are accountable, nothing that I say should be read as a criticism of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and hon. Members on the committee, who were obviously working conscientiously within the powers available to them. People who serve on such committees sometimes have the distressing tendency to go native after a while. Parliament should be constantly on the alert for symptoms. I have been listening carefully to this afternoon's debate, in which one or two speeches occasionally strayed a little close to going native, but nobody could actually be accused of it thus far.
Today I shall address only one issue: whether the existing arrangements are the appropriate mechanism for rendering the security and intelligence services accountable in a mature democracy. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say at the outset that, provided that they are properly managed and accountable, the intelligence and security services have an important and legitimate function in a democracy. The difficulty has been that, until the advent of the ISC, no one outside the services had a clue as to whether they were properly managed. To put it mildly, such snippets of evidence as emerged from time to time did not inspire confidence. Political oversight was always a fiction in the past. It was always ludicrous to imagine that, with the best will in the world, the Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary, let alone the Prime Minister, had time to take a close interest in what the agencies got up to.
For the purposes of today's argument, however, I am prepared to accept that MI5, at least, has cleaned up its act in recent years. Some time ago, a former Conservative Home Secretary remarked to me that a great deal of dead wood had been cleared out since the scandals of the 1970s and early 1980s. I was glad to hear that because 604 there was certainly no shortage of dead wood. I am less sure about MI6. I may be wrong and I make no allegations, but it is hard to believe that MI6 had no hand in reinstating the regime in Sierra Leone, which is now busily murdering its enemies. If I am right, one cannot help wondering who authorised it, as it does not seem to have been the Foreign Secretary.
If the public are to have confidence in the security services, it is important first to be certain that they are protecting democracy rather than attempting to subvert it, as they have done in the past. Secondly, we must be confident that we are getting value for the considerable sum—currently some £700 million; I hope that no more is hidden away in other budgets—that taxpayers contribute to the upkeep of the Security Service. We want reassurance that that expenditure is all strictly necessary, especially given that the cold war has ended and, with it, a considerable part of the services' reasons for existence.
It was an unlucky coincidence that, just as the Berlin wall fell, both the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service moved into lavish new headquarters on either side of the River Thames. Furthermore, if the war in Ireland is over—I appreciate that it is much too early to say yet—another large part of their work load will disappear. In such circumstances, there should be scope for a little downsizing, to use a phrase that is popular in the City of London.
I am glad to see from figures published in the report that some savings have already been made. There is always the danger that the agencies will invent new tasks, or expand into areas into which they should not expand, in order to make work for otherwise idle hands.
§ Mr. Rogers
My hon. Friend has made some fairly sweeping statements without giving illustrations. Would he care to give us some to support his generalisations?
§ Mr. Mullin
I am not sure what my hon. Friend is referring to, but if it is expansion into other areas, I suppose that one possibility is expansion into serious crime. It only requires vigilance; I am not making a big deal of it. In 1996, I served on the Committee that considered that authorised that expansion, and the authorisation was very general. The crime that the service was, in theory, allowed to become involved in investigating was not all that serious, but I am sure that what it actually investigates is, and that the number of officials involved is relatively small.
§ Mr. Mullin
I am sorry, but other hon. Members want to speak this afternoon. My hon. Friend asked me to offer an illustration. My response is simply to say that the authorisation in the Bill was a little general.
Public confidence requires rigorous scrutiny, and it is Parliament's job to provide it. The question is: do we have it? As I have made clear, I do not wish to cast aspersions on the right hon. Member for Bridgwater and his colleagues, who are doing as good a job as we could hope for with the powers that they have been given. However, are those powers adequate, and is the relationship with the agencies correct? Reading between the lines of the ISC's report, and having listened to what the right hon. Member for Bridgwater said, I see that the Committee itself 605 appears to have doubts. For example, at paragraph 58, it says that it cannot express a view on the effectiveness of the commissioners and tribunalssince we have not had access to the material to enable any judgment to be made.At paragraph 65, the Committee says that it has not yet formed a view on whether its existing status is adequate. I was glad to note that, in a section headed "Further evolution of the UK oversight structure", the possibility of changing the Committee's remit in due course was left open.
I welcome all that. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), said, it is an evolutionary process, and we are all learning as we go along. For what it is worth, it is my firm view that the Committee's existing powers are inadequate. It is a fundamental principle in a democracy that those who spend public money and exercise power should account to an elected Parliament. The Select Committee system ensures that the work of every Department is scrutinised by Members of Parliament, who are, in theory at least, appointed by Parliament, and can be removed only by Parliament. Each Committee employs its own staff, and each has the power to summon people and papers as it sees fit. Although that power rarely needs to be used, it defines the relationship between a Committee and the Department whose activities it is responsible for scrutinising.
The relationship between the Intelligence and Security Committee and those whom it is supposed to scrutinise is entirely different. First, this Committee's members are appointed not by Parliament but by the Prime Minister, who can remove or fail to reappoint them as he sees fit. Secondly, it does not employ staff of its own, but it is serviced entirely by officials in the employ of the Government. Thirdly, it has no power to summon people or papers; it must take what it is given. How can there be effective scrutiny when the body that it supposed to be the subject of such scrutiny can ultimately decide what will and what will not be disclosed?
I realise that some will protest—indeed, I have heard several people say this during the debate—that everything is working smoothly so far. That may well be so, but the new arrangements have never really been tested. We have not yet experienced a crisis: we have not had a Zinoviev letter, an operation Clockwork Orange, a "Spycatcher" or a miners' strike. In any event, we may have to wait for years before some disaffected ex-employee of one of the agencies reveals that things were not going quite as smoothly as we all thought at the time.
It is essential to get the mechanism right at the outset. After that, everything else will fall into place. I firmly believe that the ISC should be a Committee of Parliament, appointed by Parliament, with the same powers and facilities as a Select Committee. That is the only way to create public confidence in the integrity of the security services. When the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked what the Committee needed, one thing that he did not mention was public confidence. I am referring not just to what is actually happening, but to its perception in the world outside. I do not think that the importance of that should be overlooked. There would, of course, have to be special arrangements recognising the need for secrecy and security, but that is not an insuperable problem, and should not be used as an excuse for doing nothing.
606 I might add—others have mentioned this—that, until not so long ago, my view was the official Labour party view. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill that became the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which set up the ISC. I vividly recall that, at that time, the position of our Front Benchers was that oversight of the security services should be the responsibility of a parliamentary Committee. I have a list of quotations from Labour spokesmen, some of whom are now senior members of the Government, espousing exactly the view that I am now advancing. I shall not embarrass anyone by reading out those quotations, although I am tempted to do so; but let it not be said that my view is held only by a small minority of extremists.
My point—and it is a matter of record—is that the security services have run rings around all previous Labour Governments. Past Labour—and, for all I know, Conservative—Home Secretaries, Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers have been systematically misled, and even spied on, by the very agencies of which they were supposed to be in charge. I do not allege that that is happening now, but the only way to be sure that it never happens again is to set up an effective system of parliamentary accountability—and that we do not yet have. Such a system is also in the interests of the security services, which will never entirely enjoy public confidence until they are properly accountable. If they are wise, they will not stand in the way of proper accountability.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is aware, the Home Affairs Committee has long taken an interest in the matter. Our first report on the accountability of the security services was published four years ago, under a previous management. In this Parliament, we have raised the matter with my right hon. Friend several times, and I am grateful to him for not ruling out the possibility of change. I urge him to keep the door open, for the issue will not go away for as long as the present inadequate arrangements obtain. I realise that the Government have other priorities for the time being; I only hope that we will not wait until some future scandal makes change inevitable.
§ Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)
I, too, praise the agencies that the ISC oversees. They have done a great deal in the past to defend the country's freedoms and civil rights, and, no doubt, will have to do the same job equally effectively in the future.
I did not intend to comment specifically on the committee's work, but I want to respond to what was said by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I have considerable respect for him, but in this instance I think that he is wrong. I was one of the Ministers who brought the committee into being when the Bill that became the 1994 Act was going through its stages, I have been a customer of the agencies in the past, as a Minister, and—somewhat unusually—I have even appeared before the Committee. I can testify that it was not a comfortable or an easy process, but a process that demonstrated that the Committee was after the truth, and, in the widest sense, concerned with the country's interests.
I am very much in favour of what has happened so far. I compliment the Committee on its operations and, in particular, the effectiveness of its Chairman, my right hon. 607 Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), during its first four years. I support the arguments put by my right hon. Friend and the Committee's members, including the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), recommending the committee's development through its investigative capability. I feel that such progress would have no down side and a considerable up side, and would add to a public confidence that is already well established.
What I want to say is narrow in scope. It relates principally to points raised about the National Audit Office and its actions in support of the Committee. As such, it will be dull in comparison with the Hollywood, not to say James Bond, references of the Foreign Secretary—although, by the standards of the auditing profession, it will be unbearably exciting.
On page 10 of its report, in paragraph 21, the Committee says:We were told … that no value for money project work in respect of the Agencies had been carried out over the past few years".That, although accurate, gives a slightly unfair impression. The financial audit of what are, effectively, the public accounts of the agencies dates back only to 1995, and it is the financial audit that often provides the understanding, insight and, indeed, intelligence to make a good value-for-money exercise possible. It takes a little while for that to develop. There is also a problem of limitations on capacity to which I shall return shortly.
On page 11, in paragraph 23, the Committee says—and I wholeheartedly agree—thatthere should be a specific obligation on the Agencies to inform the NAO"—the National Audit Office—of material items of expenditure";and thatthe arrangements for the disclosure of information by SIS, approved by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, should be brought as far as possible into line with those of the Security Service, specifically in providing for the C&AG to be given the reasons for any refusal to provide him with information".I consider that a wise proposal. Although it is pretty technical at this stage, because there has been no such occurrence, it will be useful in the future.
In the same paragraph, the committee states thatin view of our own statutory responsibility to examine the Agencies' expenditure, formal provision should also be made for the disclosure of information and reports by the C&AG to this Committee, in consultation with the Chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.The Government accepted that, and I agree entirely with their proposal. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater has said, we have had informal discussions on the matter.
We should not, however, have too high expectations of value-for-money studies. In intelligence and security matters, value for money is no magic wand. Normally, it depends on a determination of whether the maximum value has been obtained for the minimum cost. That means that we have to assess the value of what is produced. The "value" half of the equation is difficult to assess with intelligence and security. It is rather like research and development. Once, when I worked in that sector, I was told that some hits justify a lot of misses. The same rule applies here.
608 What is more, the value of the information, even with a hit, is difficult to assess—even more difficult than in commerce. Take the example even of the apparently hard technical data that the agencies sometimes bring up. We know—certainly my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater will know from previous experience—that, on occasion, we can demonstrate the saving of hundreds, even thousands, of lives in wars in living memory; so clearly value has been obtained there, value beyond price, but with narrow exceptions, even that sort of technical data depends on information about intentions or deployment.
I pose a hypothetical example to demonstrate my case. Let us imagine that the agencies find that a foreign power has a nuclear, biological or chemical missile system that is capable of attacking a British city. If we determine that there is an intention to use or to deploy it as a threat, that information is invaluable—again, valuable beyond price because it will save thousands or millions of lives—but if there is no intention to deploy or no clash of interest, it is interesting to us, but of little national value.
In these days of military stretch, decisions on soft data are necessary. We cannot make decisions that take into account every possible risk; we know that already. Also, in these days of international uncertainty, those decisions are, by definition, difficult and it may be impossible to demonstrate whether they are right for several decades afterwards.
Today, we could probably make a decent assessment of the intelligence gathered in the 1970s through to the early 1980s. I am not sure that we could make a proper assessment now of intelligence that was gathered between, let us say, 1985 and 1995, so it is difficult to assess the value of the information that we get. It is even more problematic in those areas—this happens quite commonly with the agencies—where soft data are used in judgments in conjunction with much other public data, or much other data obtained by normal means. That means that, for the National Audit Office's actions to help the Committee, value-for-money studies will tend to focus on cost control, on coming to the conclusion that we have obtained whatever it was that we wanted at the minimum possible cost, with no wastage; the very point that the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has made.
I have discussed this with the Comptroller and Auditor General. There are appropriate value-for-money studies that might deliver some useful information for the Committee—the House will understand if I do not elaborate on them—but I say as an aside that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater pointed out some of the problems that some agencies in other countries have had with excessive bureaucracy: a sort of sclerosis of the agencies involved. I would be wary of trying to second-guess absolutely everything that is done because we might then destroy the flair of the agencies.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The right hon. Gentleman has an important role in these matters. It may be that a productive intelligence can be secured at a fraction of the cost simply by looking at open sources. The question that we have to ask ourselves is: how can we be absolutely 609 sure that, in securing that intelligence, the cheapest means of securing it has been used? That is very much a matter for the National Audit Office.
§ Mr. Davis
I absolutely agree; that was my point about obtaining the intelligence at minimum cost. It is what I refer as to as the Mossad rule. The previous head of Mossad once commented that he was not going to spend Israeli taxpayers' money or risk the lives of his agents on obtaining things that were on the front page of Al-Ahram, the Arab newspaper. It is a well-taken point, but my point is that that is not strictly a value-for money exercise; it is a cost-effectiveness exercise.
There is one other area of value for money that might deliver significantly more than what I have discussed already: comparison with other allied services abroad. That would require international agreement, but I could think of three or four other services that might be interested. However, such an idea, if it were possible—and I do not know whether it is—would require a separately financed exercise.
I say that because it is not the entire National Audit Office that is engaged in this process. By definition, this is a process that uses a small cadre of the NAO—those who are cleared to the level necessary. To extend that cadre would be expensive and would need funding.
In this assessment process, the tasking of the agencies is important. Crisp, clear tasking leads to sharp and effective operational management and facilitates after-the-event evaluation. Soft or tardy tasking makes it harder, and occasionally impossible, for the agencies to act.
The Liberal Democrat spokesman referred to the Falkland Islands war. I refer the House to paragraph 311 of the Franks report, which points out only too clearly that late tasking created problems for the intelligence assessment there—as it turned out, the tasking change was too late because it was only six months before the operation.
Effective and clear tasking allows good management. It also makes it possible to devise and measure cost-effective delivery—the very point that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) raised—in which process the NAO will play its part in helping the agencies and the Committee to do their job: to protect this nation and defeat the enemies of the realm.
§ Yvette Cooper (Pontefract and Castleford)
The Intelligence and Security Committee report is broad in scope. I want to concentrate on only two issues—oversight and personal files—while joining in the tributes by other hon. Members to members of the agencies, who work hard on our behalf and are frequently unrecognised.
In the 1994 Richard Dimbleby lecture, Stella Rimington, former Director-General of the Security Service, said:Accountability lies at the heart of the tension between liberty and security".She could just as easily have said "between democracy and secrecy", because democracy holds that we must hold public organisations openly to account, while good intelligence saves lives; secrecy saves lives.
610 Inevitably, we cannot hold our secret agencies to account by the public, press and Parliament in the ordinary way, but that is all the more reason why those who are charged with oversight and who have responsibility to look into what the secret agencies are doing really have the power to do the job properly on behalf of everyone else. There are gaps in our system of oversight—in particular, in the ISC's access to information about what the secret agencies do.
At the moment, information is provided by agency chiefs and by Ministers at their discretion, which raises a difficult point: how can we have proper oversight if the very people whom we are supposed to be overseeing are determining what information we get? That severely jeopardises the Committee's ability to pronounce with authority on important intelligence issues. Credibility demands knowledge and knowledge demands the power to verify—the power to check what is going on. Until now, the ISC has not had that power, and that reduces its credibility in the public mind, as well as in Parliament's mind.
None of that means that I suspect the agencies of any wrongdoing; it means simply that we on the Committee lack the ability to pronounce with confidence that all is well. We cannot come to the House, put our hands on our hearts and say that all is well, because we do not have the power to know.
A good oversight committee will never be able to answer all the questions that are raised by hon. Members about the secret agencies or their work. It may never be able to answer questions about all the issues that it is investigating. That is inevitable. However, colleagues in the House should be able to feel confident that someone is investigating issues on their behalf and has the power to do the job properly, even if ordinary Members of Parliament are not able to get the answers themselves. At the moment, colleagues cannot do that, but they should be able to do so. It is possible, without jeopardising national security or secrets that we need to keep, to move to a better system of accountability. That is why the ISC's investigative arm is so crucial. It is worth thinking through the objections and the likely objections, because we must make the investigative arm work in practice. Although there has been a great deal of positive discussion today about that investigative arm, we have not yet made it work in practice.
The first objection that people raise is that a security risk is involved—that information that the Committee demands may jeopardise the lives of agents or threaten the security of sensitive operations. That does not fit with the facts. We should consider the experience of other countries. The German oversight committee has the power to call for papers and for people to testify before it. In the United States, the congressional intelligence committees have a right of access to all the information that they require. So, too, does the Canadian oversight committee, the Security Intelligence Review Committee. Those committees do not leak. When we visited them, the agencies and the committees told us that, with just one exception, there had been no security breaches from their oversight committees.
There is also a precedent in the United Kingdom as the commissioners have full access to information. They have full access to all the files that they want to see and anything else that they want to look at to do their 611 job. If commissioners for the agencies can be trusted not to abuse their power, surely a group of politicians should be trusted to do exactly the same.
The second objection, and I have heard this raised, is that the existing system of accountability is already adequate—that the ISC may have limited powers, but there are also commissioners and tribunals. It is argued that agency chiefs answer to Ministers and Ministers answer to Parliament and that a complicated system of accountability is in place. The problem with that argument is that it does not stack up to an adequate system of accountability. It simply is not acceptable in a modern democracy for the agencies to be answerable only to the Executive, especially given their growing technical power to invade people's privacy and look into their lives. Where they have so much power, they must, for the sake of public confidence, also be answerable to Parliament.
Ministers must also answer to Parliament for their security decisions. The ordinary process of ministerial accountability to Parliament will never work for security issues. We cannot have Ministers at the Dispatch Box answering parliamentary questions on security issues, and we would be horrified if such a system were ever to start. However, in the absence of that, we must have a credible and powerful system of parliamentary oversight, even if that cannot be done by the whole House. Without some sort of Committee, neither Ministers nor agencies will be properly accountable for their decisions.
Colleagues have argued that we should go further and set up a Select Committee. I think that that would be a good idea, but we must remember that such a change would not of itself magically solve the problem of access to information, which is the issue at the heart of the debate. Existing Select Committees are routinely denied information on the ground of national security. The Canadian oversight committee is not a parliamentary committee, but it is more credible than Britain's ISC because it has greater access to information and can act as an independent check on what the agencies are doing.
There is an issue surrounding the lack of independent checks in Britain that goes far wider than the ISC and accountability to Parliament. It is about the principle of external independent checks on organisations that have had a long tradition of self-regulation. At the moment, agency chiefs report directly to Ministers, but the secret agencies' tradition of autonomy and self-regulation means that that is often the sole point of Executive accountability, as Ministers and their civil servants rarely go beyond the agencies' doors. Commissioners check whether it was legal for Ministers to sign a particular warrant, but who outside the agencies checks whether operations are actually carried out in accordance with those warrants? Who checks whether operations are well managed? Who outside the agencies checks the wider issue of compliance with the law?
Obviously, we cannot have a system under which absolutely everything that the agencies do is checked in that way, but who outside the agencies checks any of it? In principle, the commissioners could do that, but as Lord Justice Stuart-Smith made clear in his annual report this year:It is not my function to review operations.
I hope that Ministers will consider the tradition of self-regulation of secret agencies, because I believe that it is out of date. That applies not only to secret agencies, 612 but to any organisation operating in the modern world. It is not a criticism of the secret agencies; it is simply an argument for proper independent checks that can improve efficiency and act as a spur to improvements. After all, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment does not rely on self-regulation for schools; he sends in the Office for Standards in Education. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health today argued for an independent external audit for doctors. The US, Canada and Australia have inspectors-general to fulfil that function in their secret agencies. It is something that the Committee has said it will consider further, but Ministers should pursue in more detail the issue of Executive oversight.
Of course, it is vital that such checks do not become over-bureaucratic, but it is possible to have effective independent checks that work for the benefit of the secret agencies and make them better able to perform their functions for the sake of all of us. Such a system is not just in the interests of democracy; it is in the interests of the agencies themselves. A credible oversight system would give them more cover. It would give the ISC the ability to defend them, to take some of the flak and to object to some of the more ludicrous allegations that will inevitably arise and will not go away, no matter what sort of oversight system we have.
I want briefly to raise the question of personal files—in particular, the destruction of the old subversive files, where the same principle of independent checks applies. The ISC has argued that there should be an independent check on those files that the Security Service has decided it does not want any more and should be destroyed. It appears that the Government have rejected that recommendation and I strongly urge Ministers to reconsider. If the only objection to independent checks is that they are too bureaucratic, we should keep all the files. They should be put in a vault or microfiched; we must not destroy those old subversive files for good simply on the say-so of the Security Service.
The Government's response states:the decision to retain or destroy a file must be an operational one.However, that is only part of the story. I accept that only the Security Service can make the operational decision whether it still needs to retain a file and continue to use it, but, once the service has decided that it does not need it, there is an historical—not operational—decision to be made. History is not an operational decision. There is absolutely no reason why only the Security Service should be capable of deciding whether something has historical significance for the future. In fact, for the sake of the credibility of history, someone other than the Security Service should make that decision.
It is controversial stuff. We have all heard the allegations about the monitoring of so-called subversives in the 1970s and 1980s. For all I know, none of it may have happened. On the other hand, all sorts of outrageous things may have happened. The point is that future generations have a right to know what happened and how the organs of the state behaved. They have a right to be able to learn from that and to know that what they are looking at is the entire record. They need to be confident about that. For the sake of credibility, it should not be the Security Service that decides that. Future historians should never be able to say that the service was given a licence to write its own history.
613 There are all sorts of other issues about individuals' rights to see their files if the Security Service has decided that they are now redundant and should be closed. It is too difficult an argument to go into in detail tonight; it is a matter to which the Committee has said it will return. Important issues are involved—files that the Security Service has decided are redundant should not be destroyed without there being at least some consideration of whether it is possible to consult the individual involved on what should happen to his or her files.
I welcome today's debate. We have certainly come a long way since the mere existence of MI5 and MI6 was denied. I believe that, sooner or later, we will travel much further. We will have to improve our system of accountability, for the sake not only of democracy but of the very secret agencies that the United Kingdom needs to function and to protect our modern democracy. If we do not improve our system of accountability, those agencies' capacity to operate in the national interest will be threatened.
§ 7.9 pm
§ Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham)
I am delighted to be called to speak in this important debate. As hon. Members have already said, the headquarters of GCHQ is in my Cheltenham constituency. Moreover, it is the town's largest and most important employer.
Since implementation of the Intelligence Services Act 1994—I served on the Standing Committee that scrutinised that Bill—the Intelligence and Security Committee has made regular visits to Cheltenham to visit GCHQ. I pay tribute to the work being done by the Committee, and echo Committee members' tributes to the dedicated personnel working in our intelligence and security services, especially at GCHQ.
I wish to speak primarily to paragraph 8 of the Committee's report. However, I should like first to mention the now-ended ban on trade unions, which has been. mentioned already in the debate by the Foreign Secretary and other hon. Members. Once again, I thank the Foreign Secretary and the Government for ending the trade union ban at GCHQ, thereby ending a disgraceful episode in which the loyalty of dedicated employees was questioned.
Each January while the ban was still in operation, on the anniversary of its imposition, trade unionists, Members of both Houses of Parliament and ordinary, decent citizens used to meet in Cheltenham to march through the town to protest against the ban. Since I was first elected to the House, in 1992, I have marched shoulder to shoulder with campaigners to end the ban. For five years, I had the privilege of addressing great rallies, at one of which I shared the platform with the late John Smith. Four great party leaders have shown solidarity in redressing the great wrong of the ban—John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Lord Steel of Aikwood and my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown).
We met to support especially each and every one of the 14 loyal trade unionists who were sacked from GCHQ for sticking to their principles and wishing to belong to a trade union. Many of those 14 are my constituents, and they are very special constituents. They are Mike Grindley, Graham Hughes, Brian Johnson, Alan Rowland, 614 Gerry O'Hagan, Dee Goddard, Bill Bickham, Alan Chambers, John Cook, Clive Lloyd—a distinguished local councillor—Roy Taylor, Barry Underwood, Gareth Morris and Robin Smith.
Of the 14, 13 were involved in supporting our armed forces during the Falklands conflict, and every one of them was positively vetted. The previous Government claimed that they were a threat to Britain's security, although they did not make that claim when those people were working their socks off helping our troops in a war and providing crucial, round-the-clock support in hugely difficult conditions. The previous Government also did not make that claim at the end of the conflict, when they honoured those people.
The ban on trade unions was a shabby act, and the new Government have put it right. Mike Grindley, Clive Lloyd and their friends—all 14 of the trade unionists—are about as subversive as a bunch of bananas. I thank the Government for keeping their promise to remove the ban on trade unionists at GCHQ.
Hon. Members will know that the previous Government decided to proceed, under the private finance initiative, with new accommodation for GCHQ. The remit was to consolidate GCHQ on a single site, and there were three options—to consolidate on one or other of the existing two sites, at Oakley or Benhall, in Cheltenham, or to build on a new site within the Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury triangle. Soon after taking office, the new Government confirmed their intention of proceeding with that PFI, to the surprise of many people, including me. I must admit that I am still not convinced that using a PFI is a good idea in a service that is as vital to national and international security as GCHQ. However, the argument is over, and the PFI will proceed.
The local community has felt left out of the decision-making process because of the confidential nature of the bidding process. Some of the consortiums bidding for the contract were better than others and tried to keep local people informed, whereas others were downright cowboys—although some of my constituents have used the expression "sharks". Rumours were rife, causing considerable alarm and anxiety to local residents, especially those living near GCHQ, Oakley. Local councillors and I did what we could to alleviate the concerns.
Sadly, however, some mischief makers seemed determined to undermine the chances of GCHQ remaining in Cheltenham. At one stage, I found it necessary to tell a journalist that the wild stories that were circulating were "pie in the sky" and would never happen. Fortunately, he used the expression in the headline of his article. Even more fortunately, my comments have proved to be correct. The director of GCHQ found it necessary to take the unprecedented action of writing to the local newspaper to try to calm the rising hysteria. It was a sorry chapter, which, fortunately, has now come to an end.
Last month, the Government announced that they had decided against building GCHQ's new accommodation at Oakley. I support that decision. The Oakley site was far too cramped, and the roads were not suitable to cope with a doubling of office traffic. Currently, during rush hours, queues build up, particularly along the A40 London road, at Sixways, in Charlton Kings, and on other roads leading to GCHQ, Oakley.
615 The Government have announced also their decision on the successful consortium. GSL—which includes Tarmac, BT and Group 4—submitted an attractive circular design, with a central open courtyard, for the Benhall site in Cheltenham. On the land to be released—all of Oakley and part of Benhall—there are outline plans for a science park, perhaps a hospital, housing, retail facilities and a public centre. Needless to say, the circular design for the new accommodation has been christened "the GCHQ doughnut".
Unfortunately, when announcing the preferred developer, the Government did not announce the site. Instead, they have rather confused the issue by saying that the doughnut would be built either on the Benhall site or over at Brockworth, in the Gloucester business park, in the Tewkesbury parliamentary constituency. I should explain briefly why the Benhall option should be chosen. I should also like to urge the Government to make a decision quickly—today, if possible—to end speculation on the matter.
On the GCHQ PFI project, in paragraph 8 of its report, the Intelligence and Security Committee states:The challenge of ensuring no interruption to operating capabilities during this reorganisation is a daunting one, which will require the highest levels of management skill.The Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), eloquently expressed the importance of that point.
The Government currently own land at Benhall that is within the GCHQ's boundaries, which will allow new accommodation to be built alongside existing offices. Therefore, there need be no interruption of or conflict with the vital work done there. Many talented employees working at GCHQ tell me that they wish to remain in Cheltenham. The vast majority live in or near the town. Visiting American security officers who occasionally visit Cheltenham have said that they think it is "unthinkable" that GCHQ should leave Cheltenham. Frankly, it would be disastrous if GCHQ left.
I have been told that GCHQ's work force is the equivalent of one quarter of Cheltenham's entire work force. Estimates show that, with the multiplier effect, GCHQ and its staff annually contribute more than £200 million to the town's economy. The people who work there contribute not only through their high street spending but in various other ways. They contribute to sports clubs and to voluntary and arts groups; some are school governors and a few are even local councillors. I was told last night that Cheltenham's Bach choir is made up mainly of GCHQ employees. If GCHQ moved out, property prices would fall, shops would close and many jobs would be lost.
There is also an important environmental reason for building the GCHQ doughnut at Benhall. A large majority of GCHQ personnel live in Cheltenham. If the new accommodation were built at Brockworth, the staff would need to travel to and from the new site every working day, many of them along busy and narrow roads. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of extra vehicles would use the A46 through the delightful village of Shurdington. According to one estimate, an extra 5 million miles would need to be travelled each year.
I understand that, under the terms of their contracts, GCHQ employees would be reimbursed for up to three years for the additional costs of travel. I shall let hon. Members work out for themselves how much that would cost the taxpayer.
616 The Government claim to be environmentally aware. Indeed, each Government Department has appointed a green Minister, and I support the thrust of that policy. I therefore find it impossible to believe that the Government are considering using taxpayers' money, which is always in short supply, to force GCHQ staff to waste their time travelling millions of extra miles to and from work, using non-renewable resources and adding to air pollution. How would that policy fit in with the Government's obligations under the Kyoto agreement? One of my constituents is the country's leading environmental campaigner, Jonathon Porritt. I discussed the issue with him last week, and he was horrified to hear what was being considered.
Another key point to bear in mind is that the people of Cheltenham, whom I have the honour and privilege to represent, want to continue the long and successful partnership between the town and this vital Government installation. I pay tribute to the councillors and officers of Cheltenham borough council who have bent over backwards to help GCHQ during the PFI process. On 12 October, the chairman of the council's policy and resources committee, Councillor David Lawrence, asked the council to approve a resolution welcomingthe selection of GSL as the preferred developerand urging the Government toaccept the Benhall option".That motion was carried unanimously.
In order to gauge local opinion, I sent a letter and survey to thousands of people living near the Benhall site. I pointed out the importance of GCHQ and the fact that development would take place at the site whatever the decision over GCHQ. My office has received bucketfuls of responses, and 97 per cent. of the people responding want GCHQ at Benhall.
By contrast, the people of Brockworth say that they do not want GCHQ. Brockworth parish council chairman Jim Hunt is reported in the Gloucester Citizen as saying:I'm dead against it. It would be a horrible blot on me landscape".Other councillors have also said that they do not want it. Councillor Mike Matthews said that traffic was a concern:We all know what the traffic is like now. It would be worse. There wouldn't be any jobs created for people in Brockworth".Councillor Colin Gomersall said:There would be chaos on the roads. We said 'yes' to Gloucester Business Park because it would bring jobs to the locality but this is a dead duck.Councillor Barry Morris said the council had been kept in the dark about the proposal. He added:I think we should write to Tewkesbury Borough Council to express our dismay mat we knew nothing about the prospect of GCHQ moving to Brockworth.I understand from a constituent that the water table on the Brockworth site, formerly used by the Gloucester Aviation Company, is no more than a metre below the surface. He writes:The geology of the site reveals alluvial lias clays. These sub-soils have the ability to absorb large quantities of water, expanding to double or triple their size. The downside is that when they dry out they contract in similar proportions, from where they get the name 'shrinkable clays'.Modern construction methods can overcome the worst effects of these clays on normal rectangular buildings, but it must be a major concern for the potential distortion of an annular form of the proposed doughnut.617 What my constituent is saying is that the Brockworth site is not suitable for a circular design like the GCHQ doughnut.
The decision for the Government should now be easy. The people of Cheltenham want GCHQ; Brockworth does not. The Benhall option in Cheltenham ties in with the Government's green agenda; Brockworth does not. The employees of GCHQ want to stay in Cheltenham; they do not want to waste time travelling to Brockworth. The Benhall site in Cheltenham is structurally sound for the circular design of the new GCHQ; Brockworth is not.
I urge the Government to announce, sooner rather than later, that Benhall is to be the home for a successful future for GCHQ.
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I warmly welcome this debate. I have been a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee for only 15 months. Before that appointment, I must confess to an underlying unease—a healthy scepticism—about the security services. Indeed, in the 1980s, I hunted with the hounds over the Wright affair and played my part in embarrassing the Government of the time.
Following my experience of the past 15 months, I feel greatly reassured. I have "been in", "seen much" and "pondered at length", and I am much reassured by what I found and by the conversations that I have had with people in the services. Some people might say that I was "going native"—a phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—but I assure him that I am not. All members of the Committee observe the performance of others, and I do not think that my fellow Committee members could accuse me of going native. I would suggest to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, that the nature of my questioning was little different from when I was on the PAC. My colleagues can be reassured that, along with others, I play my part.
I hope that the agencies are reassured by today's debate. In my view, they should welcome the report, as I do. It is an excellent report, especially in its reference to the investigative arm which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, is critical to the workings of the Committee. The Committee needs teeth, and that is the route that we must take.
I must pay one or two tributes at the outset. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) for his very important work on industrial relations, work that is of some historical significance. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford for the excellent work that she did on files, and to the Chairman of our Committee, who I believe has been an excellent Chairman and who adds credibility to the work that we do. I mean that most sincerely.
I pay tribute to the service heads who have painstakingly set out to reassure the Committee within the terms of the legislation. I pay a special tribute to the work of agency personnel, whoever they are and wherever they are in the world. Their names I know not, but I would 618 like them to know that their work and dedication have been an inspiration to members of the Committee as they carried out their duties. However, there is a hole in the way we work, and a big hole in the report, and that is the status of the Committee. I shall comment almost uniquely on that aspect of the debate.
I do not believe that oversight is fully credible while the Committee remains a creature of the Executive—and that is what it is. The problem at the moment is that the Committee considers its relationship with the Prime Minister more important to its operation than its relationship with Parliament. I strongly dissent from that view and find the arguments in favour of Select Committee status utterly overwhelming. So what are they?
First, we live on the threshold of an era in which our civil liberties and freedoms will be the subject of increasing pressure as the state strives to maintain collective responsibility. It is an exercise in which states throughout the world are involved. Curiously, closed circuit television adequately illustrates my point. Civil libertarians were hostile to its introduction. Now they simply talk of safeguards and regulation. The demands of society for protection against the excesses of criminal activity have crowded out arguments over the intrusion of camera surveillance on our lives. In such conditions, one has to be beef up systems of regulation, safeguard and oversight. Those systems need to command public support, confidence and trust. I do not believe that the ISC, despite the good intentions of its membership and the witnesses that come before it, as a creature of the Executive, can possibly meet those tests.
Secondly, the Committee needs new and increased powers to call persons and papers and to communicate with other Committees. There are times when the information that comes our way should, in certain circumstances, be referred to other Select Committees. It would enable them to carry out their inquiries. That does not mean that security will be in any way breached because mechanisms can be introduced to ensure that that does not happen for the release of material.
It is already acknowledged that the Committee needs the power to report directly to Parliament and the argument has been well rehearsed this evening. I believe that we need the power to take evidence under oath. Select Committees have that power, yet we do not. Without going into any details, it is fair to say that there are times when the Committee might receive assurances on issues where, if those assurances were given under oath, we might have the confidence—under present circumstances, with the approval of the Prime Minister—to make statements that would be extremely helpful during the course of public debate and in the exercise of reassuring the general public.
We need the power to take evidence under privilege. Technically, if a person appeared before the Committee today, he could libel another person because he would not be protected by privilege. The Committee has none of the powers that are accorded to witnesses giving evidence to parliamentary Committees.
Above all, the Committee should have the power to hold witnesses in contempt if they deliberately mislead the Committee—[Interruption.] Does the Chairman of the Committee wish to intervene? I see not. If Parliament knew that the Committee had the ability to take evidence 619 under oath and to hold witnesses in contempt in the event that they were deliberately to mislead, it would substantially increase the credibility of any reassuring statement that the Committee makes.
The arguments are not new; they have been rehearsed at length on a number of occasions in the past, most notably during the passage of the 1989 and 1994 legislation. Those supporting Select Committee status included the noble Lord Hattersley, speaking from the Front Bench. If he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), intends to go into greater detail about what was said at the time. Other supporters included the noble Lord Randall, who also spoke from the Front Bench, and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), who in 1993 made a number of fascinating speeches that make most interesting reading. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North will read them. The noble Lord Richard, speaking from the Front Bench in another place, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) also made positive speeches in favour of Select Committee status. Indeed, in 1989, the entire shadow Cabinet, including my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, voted for Select Committee status. I have a copy of the Division list. The entire Labour membership of the Committee today that was in the House at the time all voted for Select Committee status, so we are not arguing new principles this evening.
Some say that legislation is required to accord Select Committee status, but that is not my understanding—a resolution of the House will suffice. We could establish a Select Committee to carry out fully the functions of the ISC by using existing arrangements within the House, simply carrying a resolution. Of course there would be a residual ISC in place by way of the legislation, but that would need to meet only once a year for five minutes to fulfil its function.
I recognise that there is strong opposition, which is to be found everywhere. Some argue that the fact that the Committee reports directly to the Prime Minister gives individual members of it additional clout, kudos, weight or importance in the political world. I strongly reject that view. Others argue that no way can be found to restructure the practices and procedures of the Select Committee so as to ensure Executive influence for reasons of national security over material that it may seek to publish. That is simply untrue. A resolution of the House could require that the Committee sought the approval of the appropriate agency before reporting to the House. The resolution could further provide that, in the event that a dispute arose between the agency and the Committee over the publication of information or evidence in a report to the House, the matter of the dispute could be referred to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his decision and the Committee could be required to comply with the decision of the Prime Minister. If, in unforeseen circumstances, the Committee or any member of it were to threaten to breach the Committee's rules of procedure as approved by the House, it would always be open to the Leader of the House, on the instruction of the Prime 620 Minister, to dissolve the entire Committee or remove any member of it on a resolution tabled on one day which took effect on the next. There are adequate provisions.
§ Mr. Rogers
I accept what my hon. Friend says and there is a great deal of substance to his argument. However, the issues involved are a little more complicated than those of a general Department of State. For instance, the relationship between our allies in matters of national security and defence has to be considered, as does the interrelation between GCHQ and the National Security Agency in America. In so many ways, there is a nexus of relationships. If that were disentangled, perhaps the argument for Select Committee status would be more valid, but at present it is not as simple as dealing with an ordinary Department of State.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
My hon. Friend is arguing that, by implication, accountability to the legislature means a wider form of accountability to Members of Parliament.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
That is how I understood his intervention. That is invalid if resolutions of the House suitably circumscribe the powers of the Committee, which is what the argument is about. We can carry resolutions that make the Committee as hermetically sealed as any structure that currently exists. We are told that such a Committee could not be prevented from taking evidence in public session if that were the wish of the Committee. A resolution of the House could introduce a general prohibition on the Select Committee taking evidence in public session. It could further place a requirement on the Committee to seek the permission of the appropriate agencies and the Prime Minister in conditions of dispute if it wished to take evidence in public.
It is argued that, while a Select Committee is neither more nor less likely than the ISC to leak, it would have the right to publish reports in a way that would prove prejudicial to the interests of national security. A resolution of the House could introduce a general prohibition on the Select Committee publishing reports. It could further place a requirement on the Committee to seek the permission of the appropriate agency, and the Prime Minister in conditions of dispute, if it wished to publish a report. Safeguards would be available for every eventuality.
As prime ministerial appointees, members are currently responsible for reporting collectively to the Prime Minister. It is argued that such limited powers to report would not be possible if the Committee were appointed by the legislature. There is no reason why the resolution of the House should not stipulate the procedure to be used in the publication of reports. It could require the Committee to publish its reports subject to sidelining by the Prime Minister for reasons of national security, as currently happens.
It is also argued that a move to a parliamentary arrangement would lead to greater pressure on Ministers to be accountable as witnesses to a parliamentary Committee structure, with less emphasis on agency heads giving evidence. That argument is not supported by an examination of practices in some of the House's other 621 Committees. In my 11 years on the Public Accounts Committee, Ministers never attended as witnesses. I am not advocating a prohibition on Ministers attending. Ministers would be no more likely to attend a House Committee than the ISC. With hearings being held in private, there would be no additional pressure on Ministers to attend.
The most remarkable argument is that a lack of secure accommodation in the House would make it impossible to conduct inquiries, take evidence and deliberate in secure conditions. We have been to all parts of the world recently and seen parliamentary Committees working perfectly. The relevant House authorities manage to find secure arrangements.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda may have been alluding to the fact that dealing with foreign powers and the agency involves trust. The problem in this particular instance is not the structure, but the people. With the right membership, a parliamentary Committee is no more likely to leak than the ISC. If the right people are selected, there will not be a problem. I remind those on the Committee—this is the first open debate that we have had; I welcome that—that we have to grasp the nettle, because there is an expectation among our colleagues that the system should work. We may be satisfied that it works, but they are not. They do not believe that it is credible. Journalists ring us all the time and we all give them the same answer: "We are not in a position to talk about those matters publicly." For us, that is all right, but they have no confidence in the structure set up in the 1994 legislation. Let us change it and build a system that commands public confidence.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
When I look at the extensive gaps on the Benches on both sides of the House, I feel like the last man monitoring subversion in MI5. I believe that even he is now out of a job.
It is always a privilege to listen to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). I do not always agree with what he says, but his comments are always thoughtful and well considered, and deserve to be taken seriously. I endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) about the importance of retaining MI5 files when the Security Service might be minded to destroy them. She outlined the main reasons. I shall not repeat them, but I am pleased to endorse them.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said, I initiated an Adjournment debate on that issue on 25 February. I am pleased to see that paragraph 40 of the report says that there should be safeguards against MI5 using file destruction to rewrite the historical record. There should also be safeguards to prevent politicians from doing the same.
The foreword to the report is a two-and-a-half page summary of the rationale for the continued existence of the SIS, the Security Service, and GCHQ. It is the finest distillation of all the reasons why those services are essential to the nation in the future, just as they have been in years gone by. Emphasis is laid on regional wars, aid and peacekeeping, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, computer security and chemical and biological weapons.
622 I pay tribute to those in the SIS and the CIA who were responsible for bringing to the attention of the world community in 1993 the way in which the Russians, who had signed the 1972 biological weapons convention, had systematically flouted it for 20 years, redoubling their efforts to produce deadly bacterial weapons when other nations were honouring the agreement.
However, I find the foreword a mite over-generous in one respect. It says at the start:For more than 40 years, the United Kingdom and its NATO allies endured the threatening environment of the Cold War. The genuine menace of an aggressive world power, seeking to subvert and dominate Europe and the wider world, gave abundant justification for substantial defence, intelligence and security structures. In this climate, the case for foreign intelligence and internal security was generally accepted.I am put in mind of an occasion as recent as April 1989, right at the very end of the cold war, when no fewer than 29 hon. Members saw fit to sign an early-day motion calling for the abolition not only of MI5 but of special branch. I am pleased to note that none of them has been appointed to the Intelligence and Security Committee.
I have sometimes been accused—not least by the honourable and ever-genial Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase)—of re-fighting the cold war in some of my speeches and interventions. We would be very foolish when considering the security and intelligence services' future role not to look at the cold war and the lessons it has for us.
Several points in the Committee's report give me grounds for concern. One is that, when the report concentrates on vetting, it says in paragraph 47:there may be files on individuals under the age of 55 because they joined an organisation which was categorised as subversive possibly 20 years ago, and these files may still be used for vetting and other purposes. However, no such files would be opened on somebody who joined the same organisation today.That is a little naive. Many of the organisations that were subversive 20 years ago will no longer be around for people to join; they collapsed with the demise of the Soviet threat. There is no comparison between people who joined an organisation 20, 10 or 15 years ago, when that organisation may have been organically linked to the Soviet Union, such as many of the Soviet front organisations, and people who join a similar organisation today even though the Soviet threat has disappeared.
I am concerned that paragraph 17 of the Government's response to the report says:the Government's policy is that the Service—the Security Service—will no longer surface records in the vetting context purely on account of membership of organisations hitherto considered subversive.Does that really mean that, if, for example, someone were being considered for appointment to a senior position in NATO, no attention whatever would be paid to whether he had previously been active in organisations classed as subversive at the height of the cold war? The fact that such checking apparently does not happen at least clears up a mystery for me about one person—an academic—who I know was appointed to a senior position in NATO 623 despite being actively and prominently involved in seeking to undermine NATO's position at the height of the sensitive argument over European missiles.
§ Dr. Lewis
The problem with MI5 dealing with subversion was that its task was much easier in war than in peace. In war, as we now know, the Security Service succeeded in the incredible task of taking control of the German spy network in Britain by means of the double-cross system and the XX committee. The German spy network was so fully controlled that not only was no effective espionage carried out in this country, but when the time came for London Controlling Section planners to work out the strategic deception that would fool the Germans on D-day, German agents in this country were used as the conduit for disinformation, which was fed to the Nazis and undoubtedly saved many lives.
It is more difficult to trumpet the achievements of the security services in peacetime. One tends to wish that they would be a little more forthcoming. For example, in 1961, when Colin Cross was writing his account—definitive at the time—of the fascist movement in Britain, he was still unable to say for certain that the fascists had been funded during the 1930s by Mussolini. It should not have taken the security services until November and December of 1983 to reveal special branch and Security Service reports that show that Mosley had indeed been the paid stooge of Mussolini for part of that period.
Similarly, I do not know, even to this day, whether the Security Service realised that, at least from 1958, right through until at least 1979, the KGB was financing the Communist party of Great Britain. Certainly, throughout all those years, leaders of the Communist party of Great Britain angrily denied that anything of the sort was going on. The fact came out not as a result of a revelation from the Security Service's archives, but when researchers who were looking through the archives in Moscow found reports of payments—in one year as much as £100,000—to Reuben Falber, the bag man for the Communists at the time.
I understand the security services' need for reticence when they are touching on matters that could relate to party politics. Much of the debate until now has inevitably been a mixture of generalities and structural recommendations. I should like to describe a few examples that might illustrate the difficulties that arise when people who belong to the security and intelligence services must make decisions about action and intervention.
During the second world war, in 1944, MI5 tendered a report to Cabinet Minister Herbert Morrison on the Trotskyist movement in Britain. It was remarkable for its comprehensiveness. It especially identified a man called Edward Grant—Ted Grant, as he later became better known—the editor of Socialist Appeal, as the leading organiser of Trotskyist subversion during the war. Strangely enough, that man was still active when, in the 624 1970s, the Revolutionary Socialist League—the direct successor to the organisation with which he had been involved during the war—began infiltrating the Labour party as the Militant Tendency.
The question that one must ask is whether it is right for a security service to intervene when a democratic political party is being infiltrated by people who are subversive. I am delighted to say that, 10 years after I tried to help the Labour party to kick out activists of the Revolutionary Socialist League in the 1970s, the Labour party finally got round to doing it itself.
It is very strange that one can still look back at events in the 1980s and try to criticise the Security Service for taking an interest, but forget the interest that the security services took in the 1970s in the undermining of the Labour party by people who were trying to get revolutionary communists into Parliament on the back of the Labour ticket, which was finally confirmed by the all too belated expulsions from Labour's ranks.
Perhaps a more immediate example is that of the Soviet propaganda front organisations, such as the World Peace Council, the World Federation of Scientific Workers, the World Federation of Trade Unions and all the others that were set up in the late 1940s and 1950s to carry the Soviet propaganda message into battle against NATO and western countries. Those front organisations were banned by the Labour party for many years, because they were communist fronts. In 1972, the proscriptions were lifted, and suddenly, once again, the security services had a dilemma. What would they do if an activist in a political party were also an activist in an organisation that is an acknowledged instrument of a potential adversary?
To give the House the flavour of my point, I shall cite what the Foreign Office said at the United Nations about the World Peace Council. In a report in 1981, the Foreign Office said that the spokesman for the World Peace Council had said that his organisation represented hundreds of millions of people. The World Parliament of Peoples was presented in the literature of the World Peace Council as a kind of rival to the United Nations itself. However, the Foreign Office said, the grand facade of the World Peace Council was no more substantial than a Hollywood film set. The report said that the World Peace Council was a disguised instrument of one country's foreign policy. It was a wolf in sheep's clothing, and its clothing had begun to look very threadbare.
During the confrontation of the nuclear debate in the 1980s, an organisation came into existence which was a sub-front of the World Peace Council. It was called Generals for Peace. Generals for Peace consisted of eight former NATO senior military officers, half of whom were in their own right members of the World Peace Council. They were identified at the time as people who were engaging in an operation that was directly aimed at western strategic interests, and they were being orchestrated by a man called Dr Gerhard Kade, who was well known to be active in the Soviet front network.
When the cold war came to an end, those of us who had been denounced for trying to point out what Generals for Peace and the World Peace Council had been up to in this respect were somewhat heartened to 625 see a report from a felicitously named former Stasi agent called Gunther Bohnsack, who had spent 26 years in the active measures department of East German intelligence. He confessed that Generals for Peace had beenconceived, organised and financed by the Stasi.This had createda real power that was in line with Moscow's ideas",and wascontrolled through intelligence services in Moscow and east Berlin.Last year, the former head of the Stasi, General Markus Wolf, confirmed the truth of that.
There are those who say that there is no role for the security services in monitoring subversion and the past affiliations of people who may yet be appointed to sensitive posts. I should like to know what they expect of somebody who has been involved with an organisation that turns out to have been actively in the pay and control of a foreign hostile intelligence service. [Interruption.]
Some hon. Members want to know the direct relevance of all this; it relates to the aspect of the report which says that, in future, the Committee should have a further investigative capacity. Paragraph 69 says that the Committee lacks the ability to investigate directly different aspects of the agencies' activities:Without such a capability, the Committee cannot make authoritative statements on certain issues … We … intend to introduce this capability in the coming year.If the role of the Committee and its investigator is to guard against abuses by the security and secret services, quis custodiet ipsos custodes—who will guard the guardians?
Paragraph 26 of the report states that there will be more vetting of agency staff, more random searches and close checks, so that nobody employed by the agencies will be likely to do anything to undermine their security. I suggest that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If the Committee, with its extra powers, wishes to take to itself the right to look absolutely, totally and deeply into individuals and cases being conducted by the security services, the Committee itself will have to do something to ensure that its own security is beyond reproach.
I have given examples of the dilemmas faced by the security and intelligence services when they find their inquiries into potentially hostile organisations leading them back towards a political party. Let us imagine what the security services' dilemma might be if they were faced with the prospect of looking at a Member of Parliament who had, for example, sponsored a defence fund for the Trotskyist paper Militant when it was threatened with a libel action by a fellow Labour Member of Parliament; who had described the US air raid against Gaddafi as American state terrorism against Libya; who had welcomed a campaign to have Porton Down closed, thus depriving Britain of its chemical and biological defence research centre; who had supported Cuba and congratulated it on the 30th anniversary of Castro's communist revolution; who had praised the World Peace Council's own bogus Kremlin-organised peace congress in Copenhagen in October 1986; or who had backed a front for North Korean propaganda organisations.
626 The problem that would face the security services if they were looking into something of that sort is that they would find themselves investigating at least two members of the Intelligence and Security Committee itself. The security services will face a paradox—they must try to preserve their complete impartiality towards political parties, while doing their duty to follow the trail of hostile organisations, wherever it might lead.
I thank the House for its indulgence in hearing my speech. I look forward to hearing in particular the speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), whose own organisation, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, had a number of very close links with the front organisations which I have mentioned—and on that point I conclude my remarks—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his remarks, let me make it clear that he will not impugn the activities of any hon. Member, and he will not make any remark against any serving Member of this House. The organisation to which the hon. Lady belonged is a legal organisation, and it is her own business.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Gentleman has concluded his remarks. I am telling him what he will not do.
§ Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)
I congratulate the Committee on the report, and associate myself with the comprehensive opening remarks of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Because of time, I intend to concentrate my comments strictly on the subject of personal files. I intend to speak of the past—not, I hasten to add, because I want to dwell in it, but because I think that it has direct relevance to this debate and to any future investigations that the Committee may undertake.
In 1979, I was Labour's parliamentary candidate for Newbury, where I lived at the time. At the end of that year, NATO announced that American missiles would be sited in Europe. Some months later, the Ministry of Defence organised a ticket-only public meeting on Newbury racecourse to explain why the cruise missiles should be sited at Greenham common. I spoke for the local opposition. For me, it was a mere accident of history and geography, but the consequences of that time have cast a long shadow over my life.
It was a very different time—a time of cold war, when, as the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said in the introduction to the report:the case for foreign intelligence and internal security was generally accepted.But then, as now, ordinary citizens thought that they had the right to free speech and peaceful protest. In 1984, the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan—speaking of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—appeared to agree. He said:There is no doubt that peaceful political campaigning to change the mind of government and of the people generally about nuclear disarmament is an entirely legitimate activity.627 So how did I lose my right to legitimate dissent? How did I end up—as I believe I have been—the subject of MI5 surveillance? I do not know if there are files on me or not, but I have been frequently named in that context.
In March 1985, Cathy Massiter, an MI5 agent of 12 years' standing who had left the service two years earlier, made statements in a television programme that she reiterated in a lengthy sworn affidavit. She has never been prosecuted. What I have to say derives from that affidavit.
At that time, the Security Service operated under the 1952 Maxwell-Fyfe directive, which I believe defined subversive activities as those that threaten the safety or well-being of the state or that are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy through political, industrial or violent means.
Despite the history lesson that we have just heard from the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), I understand that, when I joined CND, MI5 did not believe that it was a subversive organisation—indeed, CND could not possibly have met the criteria that I have described. I was a long-standing member of the Labour party, and I worked for a well-known and respected voluntary organisation. Speaking about me, Cathy Massiter said:it was fully recognised by the Service that she had no subversive affiliations and therefore she could not be recorded under any of the usual subversive categories.However, as she said, the service was not deterred. It took advantage of the fact that CND was an open and democratic organisation, with the highest ethical standards. We had no personal scandals, despite repeated attempts to smear individuals. There was no Russian gold, and we famously sent back the donations from a numbered Swiss account.
We gave interviews freely to anyone who asked. When I gave one to a Soviet journalist, I unwittingly provided MI5 with—according to Cathy Massiter—the opportunity to record me as a contact of a hostile intelligence service.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis
In May 1982, was not the hon. Lady a member of the delegation that travelled to Moscow to meet the Soviet arm of the World Peace Council? Sally Davison, one of her colleagues in that delegation, said that the difference between CND and the Soviet peace committee was that the Soviet Union was in favour of peace.
§ Ms Ruddock
I speak only for myself. Because CND was open and democratic, it was willing to engage in discussions with other organisations. At no time in the Soviet Union did we fail to put our case for disarmament equally, east and west. The debate is not about the virtues of nuclear disarmament—all hon. Members will have their own views on that. I want carefully to deal with the report.
§ Mr. Winnick
Will my hon. Friend confirm that CND, of which I was not a member, produced a pamphlet that condemned totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union, making it clear that the activities in which she and her colleagues were engaged could not take place there? How, therefore, can CND be described as a Soviet front organisation?
§ Ms Ruddock
I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. Indeed, members of the democratic movement in the Soviet Union told us how much they had learnt from the way in which we conducted ourselves.
628 As I said, Cathy Massiter alleged that I was recorded as a contact of a hostile intelligence service. I will never know whether the journalist was a KGB agent, but, frankly, it hardly matters. Central to the debate is the claim that someone who did not fit the rules for scrutiny was put under security surveillance on a pretext. I had no redress then—and I have none today—for the slur on my character and integrity.
Secret surveillance was not the end of the matter. In March 1983, the then Secretary of State for Defence established a special unit—DS19—inside the Ministry of Defence, with the solely political purpose of combating CND's campaign. Miss Massiter testified that she was required to compile a report based on her MI5 files for DS19. That was a clear breach of the Security Service's duty to remain free of party political bias and influence.
Between 1981 and 1986, I was frequently subjected, as a direct consequence of my involvement in CND, to frightening and intimidating behaviour. I shall never know whether those events related to MI5, but I feel certain that my privacy—and that of my family—was systematically invaded, and my character, impugned, with absolutely no justification.
Did that happen to me? Does it still happen today? Could it happen tomorrow? The Committee must ask those questions for us, and it is clear that it is willing to do so. I share the concerns expressed in paragraph 40 of the report, which my case illustrates.
According to Cathy Massiter, my file grew and grew. It contained, she said, special branch references to my movements, products of mail and telephone intercepts, and police reports recording my appearances at demonstrations and public meetings. I believe that I should have the right to see that file. Indeed, before I heard the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), I was going to say that I believed that I had the right to have it destroyed.
The Committee's report makes no such recommendations about access, but, in paragraphs 50 and 51, it acknowledges the need to consider such matters. It says that more than 250,000 personal files still exist. I am not suggesting that my case is typical, but I suspect that it is not unique.
Changes in the law and the creation of the Intelligence and Security Committee should ensure that there is no repetition of the events of the 1970s and 1980s. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford asked, how can we have effective oversight if the people we are supposed to oversee decide how much information we receive? I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiments behind that question, and I welcome the Committee's proposals for a new, independent investigative arm.
The events that I have described belong to another time, but, even if my file had been closed a decade ago, I would still be angry that it had been compiled in the first place—solely because I was at the centre of an open and democratic organisation, which had massive public support and which was engaged in peaceful protest.
The charge that I was an enemy of the state was so patently absurd that I had thought that it had long been dismissed. However, The Mail on Sunday now says that I was one of the nine people singled out as "security risks" before the previous two general elections.
629 I have never been a security risk. I was and am a loyal citizen of this country, who has done nothing more than campaign for causes in which I believe. If there is any file on me that suggests otherwise, that file contains a falsehood, and I should have the opportunity to correct it.
The rights to free speech and protest are fundamental democratic rights. Take them away, and we lose our ability to defend all the other rights and freedoms that are dear to the House. I very much welcome the Committee's report. I regard its work as one of the important checks and balances that protect those freedoms.
§ 8.8 pm
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) will forgive me if I do not cover the areas that she mentioned. Clearly, she listened to what was said earlier about the proceedings of the Intelligence and Security Committee as regards personal files.
I want to cover two areas that the Committee has considered since I joined it in July last year: personnel management and oversight. The Committee has been studying personnel management since it was set up, investigating recruitment, the adequacy of vetting procedures and the handling of disaffected staff. As a relatively new member, I am pleased—as are most members, I think—that changes in personnel management in the agencies are in line with policies and practices in the rest of the public sector and that they are evolving year by year through the use of best practice. For example, the agencies are developing measures to increase personal responsibility for career development. Career progression is no longer likely to be made solely because it is one turn's to move up the ladder, which is not the best way to promote people's careers in any institution. I am sure that it causes resentment if people believe that they are ready for and have earned that next step, but are not promoted. Some people in the agencies had become disaffected as a result.
Recently, we looked into that matter in detail, primarily because of the disaffection that has been reported in the newspapers in the past 12 months. The Committee looked into individuals and bodies inside and outside the agencies that have responsibility for handling the problems of disaffected staff: the individual's line manager, the grade manager in the personnel branch, training or security staff, occupational psychologists, and personal and financial counsellors, in addition to a range of managers. Also, we met welfare staff who are employed by each of the agencies, who are very approachable.
I, and other Committee members, were impressed at the experience and commitment of the professionally trained groups whose role inside the agencies has been to give advice and counselling on employees' problems. Of course, their personal problems vary. The agencies give me great confidence in the way in which they work with staff members who feel that they have not been looked after properly for one reason or another.
In addition, we studied the role of external staff counsellors. We took evidence from Sir Christopher France, and the report states how many disaffected staff cases he has handled. However, in many of the cases that we have read about in the media, the individuals involved 630 have not sought to have what they believed to be a wrong put right from within the agency, which is a great problem. The staff counsellor outside the agencies has a reactive role when dealing with disaffected employees. He cannot seek people with problems. His door is open if people choose to walk through it, but many of the people who end up in the media after they have left the service do not choose to walk through his or any other door. The agencies see that as a great problem, as many hon. Members would agree it is. The Committee thought that the staff counsellor could perhaps have a more proactive role with people who have left the service and are dissatisfied with their situation.
The Committee also considered access to employment tribunals for people who felt that they had been wronged in the workplace. Indeed, that was one of our recommendations and we all agreed that it ought to be possible to constitute a tribunal of members and staff qualified to serve as an industrial tribunal and to deal with secret material. I am pleased at the Government's positive response to that recommendation. They are considering it. However, not many of the cases that come into the public domain would be served by such a tribunal. If someone chooses not to go to a tribunal and goes instead to the media—whether by writing books or selling articles to the newspapers—there is little that we or the agencies can do about it.
The status of oversight and of the Committee have been mentioned. Members will have read that there is a difference of opinion about the latter and about whether the ISC should be a Select Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) argued that case, saying that the evidence for it to have such status was overwhelming. I feel quite underwhelmed by the debate on the matter. I do not do so because I am worried about status—I am not a status politician or a status person, and I do not feel that our appointment by the Prime Minister gives us some great and grand role and that all wisdom is ours. Having spent 15 months on the Committee, I can say that on occasion it is not ours at all, so I do not buy that argument.
On the question of how we operate as a Committee within the "ring of secrecy", which is a broad brush, but under the Official Secrets Act, I have worked on two Select Committees and have now spent 15 months as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and I realise that it would be difficult for our Committee to be a Select Committee. For example, where would we meet? The public can be removed from Select Committees, but that is done only rarely. Our Committee has no public gallery and most of our questioning and information gathering would preclude that. I suspect that it would be difficult to find a Committee Room in the House in which evidence could be heard in confidence without spilling over into the Corridor. So, there are logistical problems. Some hon. Members think that it would be an easy operation, but because of the very nature of the evidence that we take and the people we interview, we would inevitably end up in the room in the Cabinet Office where we take evidence now, doing so under the same conditions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington ended his remarks by saying that what matters is the nature of the people on the Committee and I agree, but that is true of the Committee now. It does as good a job as any Select 631 Committee could do. So, we should not spend too much time arguing that it should be a Select Committee without considering what it does.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's reasons for rejecting my argument. He gave two reasons, which were logistical—where the Committee could meet and whether conditions would be secure—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should be addressing the Chair.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Is my hon. Friend saying that, if we could find a secure location in the House, he would change his position? I listened carefully to what he said.
§ Mr. Barron
It is a great pity that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, is no longer sitting next to my hon. Friend. In his speech, which I thoroughly enjoyed, he said that the Committee has to take what it is given—that is not my experience; we ask for and receive some materials that are not offered to us—and that it has no powers to call for papers and witnesses. I might disagree with that, but I would not want the Committee to have the power to call for papers. There are some papers that no one should be able to see, because of the dangers of certain information ever getting out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South also said that Select Committees, in theory—he smiled when he said that—are appointed by Parliament. I know why he smiled, because I suspect that, like me, he got a phone call last May about what Select Committee he wanted to be on and, perhaps, whether he wanted to chair one. I had such a phone call from the Executive, but I am pleased to say that I turned down the request and have been able to sit on the Intelligence and Security Committee for the past 15 months, where I have learnt a lot more about intelligence and security than, with all respect, I would have learnt by questioning my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary or other Ministers. We see many things in the ring of secrecy that we would not see if we were a Select Committee.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I put it to my hon. Friend that, irrespective of the smile of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the power rests with Parliament, because we can object. When we were in opposition, I blocked the membership of a Select Committee of a Conservative Member, and in the end his nomination was withdrawn; so we are in a position to exercise that power when Parliament itself decides who should be on the Committees.
§ Mr. Barron
I will not rehearse what happened with the two Select Committees that I served on, but I do not think that the decisions were taken in the Chamber; they were more likely taken in the Whips Office.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. This is very interesting, but it is straying outside the terms of our debate.
§ Mr. Barron
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
632 It has been suggested that the Committee should have an investigative arm so that we can consider certain matters in detail. I hope that people in the security and intelligence agencies realise that we do not want a roving brief to allow us anywhere in those agencies. We want to be able to send someone into an agency to investigate a specific matter when we feel that to be warranted.
Many events might trigger such an investigation—I do not want to speculate how many times a year that would happen; it might not even happen at all—but we, like many other parliamentary Committees, work on a parliamentary timetable, and events that should be investigated quickly often happen when we are not here in London. We could not easily reconvene the Committee for such an investigation, which is why we should strengthen our powers to enable us to send someone who is independent of the agency to look at papers and reassure us, we hope, that whatever allegation has been made is not true.
At present, all or most of the allegations made against the agencies go unanswered. I can understand that, because once they started responding to one question, that would beget the next and the next, and the process would run out of control. It would be difficult for the agencies to be more open with the general public in that way, so it would help if we had the right to send in an individual to consider a specific issue, after which the Committee could make a public statement.
In the past 15 months, I have had an insight into areas that would have been completely closed to me before. I was as sceptical as the next person about the security agencies and what they do for the country, but I have been greatly impressed by the way in which they operate both inside and outside the country and by the advice that they give. The people in the agencies are the most professional people I have ever met.
If the Committee strengthened its oversight, we would be able to tell people that the security and intelligence agencies are doing positive things on our behalf, for the good of the country; then more of the general public would recognise that.
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)
I apologise for missing about an hour and a half of this debate. I was attending a meeting with the Speaker on modernising the House of Commons to make it more effective in examining the Executive, which is not a million miles from the subject in hand.
I congratulate the Government on holding this debate, because it is not long ago that we were told that it was not possible to debate these issues. As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said, only four or five years ago MI5 and MI6 did not exist in any statute. It always struck me as odd, as I remember saying 10 or 15 years ago, that two of the most famous security services in the world—admittedly, that fame is largely owing to Ian Fleming's James Bond character—had no statutory existence.
Those intelligence agencies were created at a time when the House had begun to lose some of its effectiveness in holding the Executive to account. I support the call by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) for the Committee to be a normal Select Committee, subject to the 633 constraints that he rightly set out, because when we refuse to do that we send out the message that we do not have confidence in our Parliament. That is why other countries have a conventional scrutiny system.
The members of the present Committee are good people and they are doing a good job but, because they were appointed under the relevant statute to answer to the Prime Minister, they are a group of parliamentarians who have been asked by the Executive to keep the Executive under observation. The Select Committee system is there to hold the Executive to account more effectively, and that is why it should always be used to represent the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) rightly drew attention to the fact that the Whips have an enormous say—ultimately, the real say—in deciding the membership of Committees. Things could go off the rails, as they occasionally do—[Interruption.] Quite right; it is very rare. Increasingly, however, people are questioning that position and they have reason to do so.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
May I request my hon. Friend not to be modest and to state who he is, for the record and so students outside who may read our debates are aware of it? He is the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour party, representing two-thirds of the House of Commons. I am sure that his comments tonight reflect the views of many of the members of the parliamentary Labour party.
§ Mr. Soley
This matter is open to discussion in the parliamentary Labour party and in the Conservative party. Many Labour Members would not agree with what I am saying, although many would. The important point is that over the past four or five years we have moved so dramatically. We were told that we could not discuss the issue and, indeed, if we went to the Table Office, we were told that we could not table a question on it. No one, least of all me as chair of the parliamentary Labour party, is going to pretend that the party system does not play a crucial role in ensuring the governance of the country. It always has and it always will, but a delicate balance must be struck between the rights of the party and the rights of parliamentarians. As the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, I have to be aware of that balance and take it into account in my judgments.
§ Mr. Rogers
Does my hon. Friend accept that this issue has never been the subject of debate in the parliamentary Labour party and that we have never voted on it? He speaks in a personal capacity tonight, not on behalf of the parliamentary Labour party.
§ Mr. Soley
I ask my hon. Friend to listen to what I am saying, especially as he intervened. The position is not as stark as he maintains and there are arguments on both sides. All I ask him to do is to listen to the argument and bear in mind that all the things we were told could not take place four years ago—the tabling of questions, 634 debates such as this and reports by parliamentarians on security services—are now all happening. Change does happen and the House is an agent of change.
The confidence of Parliament is critical. In the last century, when Parliament was at its greatest, it would not have accepted a situation in which the Executive could set up bodies that then answered to them. Parliament would have resisted that, but we lost that attitude at about the time of the first world war. I have already mentioned the difficult balance between the rights of parties—the need for parties to maintain unity to be able to govern—and the rights of parliamentarians to hold the Executive to account, which is, after all, this place's final purpose.
My next subject is slightly tangential, but crucial to the work of the Committee. Several hon. Members have referred to the actions of disaffected members of the security services and others in the civil service in passing secret information into the public domain. They have done so for two reasons, either because they have a resentment against the security services or want money—Peter Wright and "Spycatcher" is the classic example—or because they felt it was right to reveal information in the public interest. The two cases that I have in mind have nothing to do with the security services directly—one is Clive Ponting and the other is the rather sad case of Sarah Tisdall, the 23-year-old who was sent to prison, having given information to The Guardian.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
Blame The Guardian.
§ Mr. Soley
If I remember rightly, The Guardian lost an action on the matter, but the point is that the Official Secrets Act—and Labour party members have long argued this—needs a public interest defence so that we can differentiate between those who reveal information for money or fame and those who do it because they see it as a public duty. Clive Ponting and, probably, Sarah Tisdall, fall into the latter category, but Peter Wright does not. I urge my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to consider whether we should, in the future, change the Official Secrets Act so that the courts have a much clearer guide to differentiating between those who reveal information because they are disaffected or want money and those who believe that they have a right to do so because of legitimate public interest in democracy and the rule of law. We must never forget, when discussing the security services, that we are discussing a vital arm of the defence of the state. I have always, and without reservation, held that the security services are necessary in any modern state. They are there to protect the very democracy and rule of law that brings us here and if we ever allow that fact to get out of focus, we will go wrong.
I turn now to the issue of personnel management. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bridgwater and his colleagues on picking up that issue. It came to my attention some years ago and it highlights the wider problem of how the agencies are set up and operate. In Shepherd's Bush where I held my walk-in advice surgeries at the time I used to get a wide variety of local people, but I was surprised one evening when a person came to see me and, after a short discussion, it became apparent that he was an MI6 officer, as they were then called. His problem had to do with the classic situation of being grossly discontented with the way in which the service operated. Having spent some time with him, then 635 and on another occasion, I took the matter up with the then Home Secretary, now Lord Hurd. I was told some time later that the matter had been investigated by management and it was felt that it had been properly handled. The person involved did not know that and neither did I. Indeed, I am now satisfied that it had not been properly handled, because another incident took place a year or two later—which also came about partly through my advice surgery—that suggested to me that management in the security services was failing badly.
The various efforts that have been made to deal with staff problems are very important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley mentioned. We must take into account staff who have personality or social problems, such as drinking or family problems, as well as those who feel seriously aggrieved about their treatment as employees by the agency. Such people feel they have no voice and can end up, bizarrely, tootling down the Uxbridge road to see their local Member of Parliament. I am all for people seeing their local Member of Parliament, but there has to be a better way to deal with the issue. At the time, the man who came to see me had no alternative and he dealt with the problem responsibly. At the end of the day, he and I felt that it had not been adequately addressed.
My final point is on the question of files. The former Under-Secretary of State for Women, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) spoke powerfully about the issue and made the case as well as it could be made. Her speech should be sent round to schools as a good introduction to civics.
I have a question for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary relating to—I think—paragraphs 46 and 51, which deal with summaries on candidates for election. I have no reason to believe that those matters are inappropriately dealt with as a rule, but I am concerned that hon. Members on both sides of the house have, to my certain knowledge, had regular dealings over many years with political representatives of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. The previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was courteous enough to tell me that he could assure me that my phone was not bugged. I had not asked about it, and was not troubled by it, but he offered the information. I was aware, therefore, that that thought existed, and it was clear that bugging happens in limited circumstances.
I am anxious to know, therefore, that any information held on a Member of Parliament, or on anyone who stands for election, is judged properly. If one believes—as, to be fair, many Conservatives did—that it is necessary to talk with political representatives of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, even at the height of violence, it is important to be able to do so with confidence that one's phone is not being tapped. That matter is retrospective now, but it is profoundly important.
Members of Parliament must be able to talk to people who are not wanted by the police for any criminal offence freely and without fear that they are being recorded and might be considered, as my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford has said, a threat to national security. There is a delicate balance to be struck. I know of cases, in the recent history of Parliament, of individuals who would have had real concern about that. I raise the point because several 636 of us, myself included, were involved in talks supported by the then Government involving representatives of paramilitary groups. I always drew the line at talking to anyone whom I knew to be wanted for a criminal offence of any kind. I would, however, talk to anyone who was elected, or who represented a legal organisation.
The Committee deals with crucial areas concerning the importance of Parliament, management structure and how we deal with elected representatives. We should never lose sight of them.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
I want to raise only two matters that arise from my long experience as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. That experience was long only because we were not successful in winning elections, which meant that the Opposition were able to elect the Chairman of the PAC. The two matters are fraud, and the ability to investigate areas of security and sensitivity.
There is a clear danger of fraud wherever there are security matters. Obviously, not many people can be involved in making decisions, even financial decisions. An extreme example of that occurred in the Metropolitan police. There was a fellow named Williams who had authority to place orders and to make payments. He was buying helicopters. The police did not want the criminals to know that they had that kind of surveillance, so Williams was given that power. He pocketed £5 million, went off to Scotland and bought most of a village and a hotel. He lived the life of a lord, and everyone assumed that a wealthy relative in Norway had provided the money. Every Sunday, he returned to London to cover his tracks.
That is the sort of case that can happen. It is very difficult to uncover such cases when there are matters of great secrecy, so there must be proper procedures, no matter how important security is. It is obvious that one person must never be made responsible both for placing orders and for receiving the money. Less obviously, there must be some investigation from outside. In that case, the investigation was made by the Comptroller and Auditor General, a marvellous institution that both does the audit and understands what is going on. In the Ministry of Defence, people from the National Audit Office are placed permanently to see what is going on. Some information filters through to the PAC, rather more filters through to its Chairman, and that is enormously important in giving an understanding of how the system works, and allowing rules to be laid down for procedure.
Another case was that of Al Yamamah, a £20 billion contract with Saudi Arabia, which was investigated by the Comptroller and Auditor General. How should we handle matters of such sensitivity? I informed the Committee of the matter, and it allowed me and the senior Conservative Member of the day, Michael Shaw—now Lord Shaw—to act as the full Committee. We pursued the matter together. If there had been any fraud or bribery in the Ministry of Defence, there would have been no question of secrecy. We would have let that be known in order to preserve the standing of the public service in general. In fact, there were matters concerning certain overseas individuals that we thought might be disadvantageous to our continuing with that important contract. We were able to assure ourselves that there was nothing more than that.
637 The PAC has long been in favour of the ability to pursue public money wherever it may go. We do not have that power now and we did not have it then. I hope that the Committee may get that power at some future stage. It was discussed in 1983. Following public money wherever it goes happens in the United States of America and other countries.
My other point relates to the security services—MI5 and MI6 in short. We considered their two buildings, about which I shall not comment much except to say that I wish they were not quite as obtrusive as they are. There should be a certain amount of discretion not only in the services, but in their buildings. The one on the other side of the Thames is almost a disgrace, although that is a personal observation that has nothing to do with my former position as Chairman of the PAC, which ended last year.
I was concerned when we investigated the buildings. I read a secret report from the Comptroller and Auditor General, and I could see that there had been an overspend that had not been reported to the House. There were certain reasons for the overspend, and certain security implications into which I cannot go. However, the fact that there were overspends on both buildings should have been known. Until I ceased to be Chairman of the PAC, I was pursuing the matter to make sure that it was known. Unfortunately, the general election intervened, and my role on the Committee ended.
The crucial point is that there is a need for an investigating arm. There is the Comptroller and Auditor General, but the Intelligence and Security Committee needs someone to perform that role. It needs a highly respected and responsible person who has the approval of Government and Parliament and who is able to undertake investigations. Knowing our civil servants and public-spirited individuals, it would be astonishing if we could not come up with one or two names of people who could undertake such activity.
No one can deny that are several things going wrong in our security services. There have been too many reports of one sort or another. While the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) can undertake certain investigations—I pay tribute to his valuable work—that facility is limited. We need someone inside the bodies concerned to help us find out what is going on. The person with that responsibility must have the respect of people generally. I hope that the Committee will return to this matter in due course.
§ Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh)
It is clear from the debate that the House values the third annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee. We are all grateful for its work. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) brings much experience to it and he and its other members have served the House well.
There can be no argument about the importance of the work of the security services. The report recognises the huge value of their work when it is successful. As many, including the Foreign Secretary, have noted, in the main it is by definition not sensible or practical to focus attention on their successes. The report is valuable and contains much useful material on personnel management 638 and on the compilation, retention and destruction of personal files. I, however, wish to discuss the security services' priorities.
There are clearly many valuable things that the security services can do, but resources are limited. The end of the cold war provides a great opportunity. Understandably, most of the focus of the media has been on the new work that they are doing on drugs and crime. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary values that work, where they are able to contribute.
I want to concentrate on other areas. The report's preface states:Moving British forces on humanitarian or peace-keeping missions into dangerous and untested territory requires the best possible intelligence on the local situation, and a close watch on what may be rapid and threatening changes in very volatile circumstances. Britain's involvement in such activities has also resulted in new terrorist threats to British interests.We are proud of the contribution of our forces to peacekeeping—the Foreign Secretary mentioned Bosnia—but the work of the intelligence services in that respect is crucial and should be strongly supported.
My second point concerns the growth of international terrorism. There is huge growth in world aviation, and that will continue. That means more threats to aircraft, to mention but one aspect of international terrorism. If the intelligence services can contribute to reducing the number of hijackings, that would be an important service.
Thirdly, the preface mentions the important matter of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other horrific modern weapons capable of huge destruction. If the intelligence services can increase our knowledge, especially of those countries that are developing such capabilities, it must be of immense potential value to our people.
Supporting our forces, international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are by definition areas of great international interest. It follows that our intelligence agencies work with other agencies. That is how it should be. There are established democracies like ours with viable services, and by working together, they can achieve more. However, hard decisions must be taken on the priority and resources allocated to those activities.
On page 9, the report gives a figure for total expenditure of around £700 million. Paragraph 19 states:Figures for the individual Agency budgets are not at present published. The Committee believes that the fullest information should be published wherever possible, and will be discussing further whether there could be greater openness in this area.All power to its elbow.
We know that, by definition, the intelligence services must be treated differently. No one wants transparency that compromises their work, but although decisions on the priority attached to different activities are for the agencies and the Government, Parliament and the broader community should also be able to participate. I hope that the committee will be able to provide more information and more of a breakdown of the resources allocated to different activities so that we can all contribute to the development of a set of priorities that commands the broad support of Parliament and the country.
We all hope that the significant sum of money still allocated to combating terrorism associated with Northern Ireland will come down; it is too early to say. If it does, 639 we can have a constructive debate on how that money can be effectively used to help further the benefits that the security services have the potential to bring to our people.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
This has been a good debate marred only by the characteristic contribution of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). He went to great lengths to tell us that the World Peace Council was a Soviet front organisation, but as everyone in politics and, I assume, in this House, knew that from day one, it was not startling news.
Whenever there is a call for greater accountability of the security services, the fear is always expressed, as it has been to a limited extent today, that that would undermine the work being undertaken. That was the excuse for retaining the ban on unions at GCHQ from the beginning of 1984. Labour opposed that ban and promised that once we were elected, it would go, as it did within days of our victory last May. Would anyone suggest that in the months that have elapsed since, its work has been in any way undermined by the fact that people have the right, which they should have in a democracy, of belonging to a trade union and having the union recognised by management?
In the not-so-distant past, any form of parliamentary Committee was opposed. It was long argued that it would be wrong for parliamentarians to be involved in examining the work of the security services.
In the 1983 Parliament, when I was a member of the Home Affairs Committee—I am again a member of that Committee—it was decided to look into the work of the special branches of the police. As far as I know, it was the first time that that had ever been done by a parliamentary Select Committee. Critics outside argued that we should not do that, as the special branches worked closely with the security forces. However, we did. Our report was not unanimous; it was a majority-and-minority report, but no one suggested afterwards that the work undertaken by special branches was undermined as a result of our inquiry.
There has been a tendency to question whether such work should be undertaken. As I have said in the past, I have never doubted that even if there were no terrorism in Northern Ireland, from Republican or Loyalist sources, or even if international terrorism did not exist, the work of the security services in a democracy such as ours would be essential. Moreover, I know of no democracy, let alone dictatorship, where such work is not undertaken in some form or other.
Those involved in extremist organisations that want to undermine and, if possible, destroy parliamentary democracy should be targeted. Who would suggest that the National Front, the British National party or other such organisations should not be targeted? No Labour Member would suggest that extremists on the ultra left who carry out activities that are not meant to advance the cause of parliamentary democracy should not be targeted. How far they should be targeted is a matter of judgment for the security services, but I have never disputed the fact that such work is necessary.
It is important, however, that the security services should carry out such work with the clear understanding of what they are about. The former Under-Secretary of State for Women, my hon. Friend the Member for 640 Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), explained what happened to her as a result of being involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She quoted Cathy Massiter, a former MI5 employee, whom even Conservatives, I believe, respect for the manner in which she spoke out. She concluded that much of the work that she was doing was simply wrong, and said:Anyone who was on the Executive of the National Council for Civil Liberties"—now known simply as Liberty—who worked for the organisation, was an active member to the degree of being, say, a branch secretary of the organisation, would be placed on permanent record and routine inquiries were instituted to identify such people and police inquiries were sought.These people were not extremists. Indeed, it can be argued that they did a useful job in defending our civil liberties. How can what happened possibly be justified?
In an Adjournment debate on 21 December 1983, I raised the case of a constituent of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler).Mrs. Madeline Haigh made no secret of the fact that she was a CND activist. She wrote to the press and was, as far as anyone could tell, a perfectly law-abiding person. However, police investigations took place and she was lied to. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, I see, nods his head. The reply that he received was not the truth. Being a determined person, Mrs. Haigh wrote again to her Member of Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman—he was a Minister at the time—carried out his constituency duties in a proper manner. He wrote again to the chief constable and received a different reply, which showed that the police had lied to his constituent.
Incidentally, I do not wish to pre-empt Thursday's debate, but the point can be established that once a Member of Parliament is elected, he serves all his constituents, not necessarily according to policy. I doubt whether Mrs. Haigh voted for the right hon. Gentleman. As we all would in such circumstances, he carried out his duties and no one can criticise him. The case caused much concern, which is why I raised it at the time.
As we know, since the early 1980s commissioners and tribunals have been established. One argument that is constantly advanced is that those commissioners and tribunals should be able to avoid some of the abuses that have occurred in the past, but paragraph 58 of the ISC report points out that none of the tribunals has found in favour of a complainant. The decisions of those tribunals may well have been justified, but I wonder whether such commissioners and tribunals could be relied on to be the custodians, or guardians, in circumstances in which abuses could occur in the security services.
§ Mr. Rogers
As my hon. Friend will remember, when we served on the Standing Committee considering the Bill that became the 1994 Act, we were given statistics showing that, during a period just before 1994, some 51 cases had been referred to tribunals, and none of those tribunals had found in favour of a complainant.
§ Mr. Winnick
Indeed. Paragraph 58 also states that, as the Committee had had no access to the material involved, it had been unable to make a judgment. That is entirely understandable.
I welcome the Committee's conclusion in paragraph 69 that it wants "an additional investigative capacity". I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be able to tell us whether the Committee will be given the necessary powers.
641 Perhaps engaging in a bit of mischief making, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) predicted that I would quote what had been said by Front Benchers and other Labour Members in opposition. I shall not do so, because it would serve no purpose; but I will say that, in opposition—certainly around 1994, when we were discussing these matters—we took the view that there should be some sort of parliamentary Select Committee rather than what was being proposed, namely the ISC.
I do not challenge the contention that, in government, it is possible to change or at least modify one's opinion, but I must tell my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that I should be happier if the Government did not close their mind to the possibility of a Select Committee. No one is suggesting that my right hon. Friend will tell us tonight that such a Committee will be formed, but I hope that the Government will give it serious consideration.
Let me make two final points. First, I do not believe that this issue will go away. The fact that debates such as this take place—like other hon. Members, I have initiated them in the past—demonstrates that it is an on-going issue. Secondly, although some have opposed the establishment of any parliamentary Committee, no one—not even the hon. Member for New Forest, East—has today challenged the existence of the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), despite all that has been said in the past.
I very much doubt that, if and when a parliamentary Select Committee comes into being, anyone will stand up in the Chamber and say that it should no longer exist. In other democracies, the security services are subject to much more parliamentary accountability, and I personally will not be satisfied until ours are too. We have taken the initial steps, and we have had a useful debate today. As I have said, I hope to hear from my right hon. Friend words that will encourage me to believe that, in the not-too-distant future, we will have the parliamentary accountability that we said we wanted when we were in opposition.
§ 9.8 pm
§ Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)
This has been a valuable and exclusive debate, although perhaps not quite as exclusive as it looks at the moment. I congratulate the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, many of whom have spoken, on the way in which the Committee has been accepted and is trusted by the security services. In particular, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) on the way in which he has led the Committee. We are fortunate to have a man of his experience and integrity as its Chairman.
In the debate, there were two features of particular significance. First, there was general agreement that, even though the old iron curtain may have been brought crashing down, there was still a need for the security services; that point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). It has not been a matter of the security services inventing new threats or new roles for themselves. Those threats were already there to be tackled. In particular, there was the threat of organised crime and of drugs.
642 Secondly, there was a recognition generally throughout the debate that special circumstances applied to the security services in respect of secrecy. Throughout the world, people will not take risks unless they are confident that every effort will be made to preserve their secrecy. Every reasonable effort must be made to do that, including personal management of the services themselves.
There was less agreement on how those principles should be put into practice, particularly on the nature of the committee that should oversee the security services. Several Labour Members—the hon. Members for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), for Walsall, North and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley)—argued for the Committee to be a Select Committee of the House. Indeed, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South pointed out that at one stage the Labour party said that that was its policy.
I am glad to say that I am entirely unencumbered by such a pledge, which is just as well. In any case, I would not accept the argument, because I am persuaded more by the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the hon. Members for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis): the way forward is to seek to develop the present structure—to add, as the report proposes, an investigative capacity to the Intelligence and Security Committee.
That is a sensible step forward. That is the way in which to proceed. The Committee has the confidence of the security services. That is important because, without it, it would be easy for the shutters to come down. We all know that that is true. We all know how these things work, but an investigative capacity would enable the Committee to dig deeper.
A strong case has been made with regard to the destruction of personal files and the introduction of some form of independent check. The point was made by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). There are two issues. There is the issue of operational use, and the security services are the only people who can decide that. However, there is also, if I may put it this way, the requirement of history. It would be a great mistake if files were destroyed that could throw light on policies and, sometimes perhaps, on personalities at the time. The Government should look at that matter again.
Another point that was raised—[Interruption.] May I have the attention of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for a moment because it was raised by him in the debate, but not taken on? He referred to the three security agencies and asserted:It makes sense because they work so closely together.If that does work as perfectly as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, it is fairly unusual in Whitehall.
§ Sir Norman Fowler
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman said that. However, I would find that defence more convincing were it not for the Pinochet case, where 643 it is clear that the Home Secretary had not the first idea of what the Foreign Secretary knew. The Home Secretary makes my point in a wonderful way, and I rest my case. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater that this area should again be examined very deeply, as that obviously would have the thorough endorsement of the Home Secretary.
In looking at the recent history of the security services, especially in regard to subversion, we need to recognise that many of those whom the services had to investigate in the past were members of parties and organisations that made no secret of their wish to undermine parliamentary democracy. I in no way refer to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock). However, there was no doubt about the objectives of some of the organisations, for example, the Communist party of Great Britain, which set great store by seeking to infiltrate and manipulate organisations such as trades unions. It achieved only negligible support at the ballot box, but sought to gain an influence that was far out of proportion to that. Such activity was a legitimate subject for attention by the Security Service. It was of concern not only to the last Conservative Government, but to successive Governments.
All that is history. Now, the major effort of the Security Service is aimed at terrorism, both in Northern Ireland and internationally. That point was made well by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang), with whom I am glad to be debating again. Terrorism plotted to cause terrorist outrages overseas. We all hope that the new position in Northern Ireland will lead to a reduction in the work of the Security Service. However, at the moment, there is no reason radically to reduce the resources going to that area. It would be a vast mistake to lift our guard too early. There is still a range of breakaway groups that presents a huge challenge.
Intelligence gathering against terrorists is difficult and often dangerous work. Many of those who work in this area risk their lives. As the former head of the Security Service, Stella Rimington, said in her Dimbleby lecture, they do it from a sense of public service and a firm belief in the rule of law and the democratic system. There have been major losses as a result of that work, such as the helicopter crash in 1994. I was with the then Prime Minister in Downing street when news of that crash came through. We have much cause to be grateful to those who work for the Security Service, often in very difficult and dangerous circumstances.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, especially as I have not been here during the debate, having fulfilled a long-standing commitment in my constituency.
As I am a former Northern Ireland Minister and a member of the Defence Committee, hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I have occasionally come into contact with the security services. I want to pay tribute to their professionalism and dedication. Individuals carry heavy personal responsibility, often at an early age. It is a worthy commitment and long may first-class people come forward to fulfil it.
§ Sir Norman Fowler
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to his work in the Northern Ireland Office.
644 Important points on accountability have been very much rehearsed in this debate. However—this is my main concern—we must also address other vital issues, such as the agencies' effectiveness, and whether the agencies realise their full potential to do good. The one point on which everyone seems to be united is that the security services have a vastly important role in tackling organised crime, especially the drug trade. Effective operations undoubtedly make full use of intelligence in combating professional crime. Indeed, in the past 10 or 15 years, use of intelligence by police has been one of the most significant developments in fighting crime.
In his introduction to the Committee's report, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater states:In recent years there has been a growth in serious organised crime, funded significantly by the world-wide trade in drugs. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the removal of barriers to travel from those countries let loose dangerous new criminal groups, often including ex-members of the KGB and other intelligence and security services. They have a substantial involvement in drugs and money laundering and, increasingly, in the traffic in illegal immigrants".
At paragraph 4 of the Government's response, the Prime Minister states:The Government welcomes the Committees's strong support for the increased priority the Agencies are giving to counter-drugs work. We shall continue to harness the invaluable contribution which they make to this important task.
We all agree on the challenge. However, I tell the Home Secretary that it would be a tragedy if the Prime Minister's words were simply the usual generalisations that Ministers tend to make about organised crime and especially about drugs. I heard the Foreign Secretary's statement about £200 million-worth of drugs being recovered in the past three years. Although that is good, personally, I remain to be convinced that our efforts are adequate to meet the increased challenge posed by organised crime.
I returned recently from the United States, where I saw the work of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA was created in 1973 as a response to increased cocaine processing in south America and heroin refining in south-east Asia. It not only is the lead agency for domestic enforcement of federal drug laws but has sole responsibility for co-ordinating and conducting crucial drug investigations abroad. The DEA is determined to tackle the source of the drugs trade, and the very powerful criminal organisations that are behind the exploitation. Essentially, the DEA performs the very task that everyone has in mind for the security services, particularly the SIS.
The United States is much better resourced than the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, some indication of the emphasis that it is placing on the fight against drugs is provided by the fact that the DEA has a staff of 7,500, with 340 special agents in foreign countries, laboratories and 100 aircraft performing surveillance work. That gives some idea also of the challenge that the United States faces.
The United States operations against the drugs trade are relevant to our operations. Although it may not always be the same criminal organisations from the same parts of the world attempting to bring drugs into the United Kingdom—and too often succeeding—the type of threat is very much the same: exploitation of the public by entirely ruthless and professional criminals.
International developments sometimes have consequences for us. South America, for example, is displacing south-east Asia as the major source of heroin 645 in the United States. What happens to the heroin from south-east Asia? It goes to a developing market in Asia; it has also meant a new concentration on Europe.
Increasingly, organised criminals are trafficking not only one drug but any number of drugs for which there is a demand, or for which they think a demand can be created. By any standard, it is a serious and professionally organised operation. It is a brutally organised trade. We have now recognised, by statute at least, that we face very much the same kind of threat.
The SIS and GCHQ can now, by statute, be involved in combating serious crime. I do not share the view of Liberty that those organisations' powers are too wide. Liberty says that they can cover "relatively minor crimes" such as robberies. It depends on one's view of minor crime, but it had not hitherto occurred to me that robbery fell into that category.
The Security Service Act 1996 gave the Security Service the functionof acting in support of the prevention and detection of serious crime".I support the legislation's aim, but I am still sceptical about the resources that we are devoting to tackling organised crime. My understanding is that the Security Service is able to devote only a very small percentage of its resources to that. It is difficult to make a complete and accurate assessment of the figure, given the asterisks that appear in the report in place of the relevant sum. I think that I know the figure, but I shall not reveal it. In any event, the service spends only a small proportion of its resources on tackling crime. If one accepts the nature of the challenge, as I do, that proportion needs to be increased. We shall need to return to the issue of whether the effort that we are making is adequately resourced, or even whether it is given sufficient priority within the Budget.
This has been a welcome and valuable debate. The activities of the intelligence agencies must be subject to proper scrutiny—no one seeks to deny that—and the Committee deserves to be congratulated on its work. We must now develop that work but, above all, the aim must be to make the agencies as effective as possible because they have a continuing and invaluable role to play.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
When the Intelligence and Security Committee was established, there were twin anxieties. There was an anxiety in the House that it would be a weak substitute, or patsy, for a proper, full-blooded Select Committee. The opposite anxiety, among the intelligence agencies, was that the prospect of a Committee of parliamentarians, if not a parliamentary Committee, would mean that the ring of secrecy, which was patently so important for the operation of those agencies, would be compromised and that their work would thereby be undermined. As experience has shown, both anxieties proved misplaced.
We have had a good debate not only on the ISC's work over the past year but, effectively, on its work in the four years since it was established. I shall deal in a moment with the proposals that have been around for a long time for changes in parliamentary scrutiny, but we know that, 646 under the excellent chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), members of the Committee, who come from all parties, have done their job properly, as Parliament intended. The Committee has effectively scrutinised the work of the intelligence and security agencies. I have appeared before the Committee twice. The experience of giving evidence to the ISC is no more comfortable than giving evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which is as it should be.
Given the anxieties that I mentioned, the paradox is just how much the agencies have benefited from the establishment of the ISC. As a result of the establishment of the ISC, there is now a group of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have knowledge and expertise about the operation of the agencies, but who approach the issue with independence of judgment. That is hugely to the advantage of the agencies, given that there is such widespread support and admiration for the important work that they do.
My hon. Friends the hon. Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), who used to represent Hammersmith—it was better in the old days when he and I were up for that seat and, happily, he got it—all raised the question of whether we should replace the ISC with a Select Committee. Let me make a number of observations before not closing the door on the idea.
First, we should give the ISC time to develop. All members of the Committee supported the proposal that the ISC should have its own investigative capacity. As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater said, we said in paragraph 21 of our response that we intend to consider that requestas sympathetically as possible and discuss with the Committee any necessary strengthening of its staff.So we understand the case for that. A separate investigative capacity would obviously enhance the role of the Committee, and in the long run would be an important protection for the agencies.
Secondly, although I do understand the important points of principle to which my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, South and for Workington referred, there is an important difference in principle between a Committee established by the House—we all know that it is exactly the same in practice—and one established by Act of Parliament with appointments to it by the Prime Minister. If we are to continue discussing the issue, it is important to recognise that, in practice, the way in which any Select Committee would operate, if it were to operate effectively, would be little different from the way in which the ISC operates in terms of the ring of secrecy and there having to be some prior vetting—ultimately by the Prime Minister—of what is published in the Committee's reports and so on. That said, we do not close the door for ever on the idea of a Select Committee. We want to see how the new developments that are now in train work out in practice.
§ Mr. Winnick
My right hon. Friend said that the existence of the ISC has been to the advantage of the security agencies, although originally they had reservations. Is it not a possibility that a Select 647 Committee, with the restrictions that obviously would be necessary, would give the security agencies even more confidence? Is that not worth considering?
§ Mr. Straw
That is a seductive argument and it is certainly worth considering. With great respect to my hon. Friend, I shall leave the matter where I have just left it, which is that we should look to the strengthening of the operation of the ISC, which is only four years old. That is but a blink in the 1,000 years of Parliament's history—a matter that, no doubt, we shall discuss again on Thursday. Let us watch with care.
I shall now deal with the points raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), in addition to what he said about the ISC becoming a Select Committee. First, he asked about serious crime and organised crime, a point to which the shadow Home Secretary also referred. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was entirely right to introduce what became the Security Service Act 1996. We supported the provision to extend the role of the Security Service into serious and organised crime. As paragraph 17 of the report states, during the period covered by the report, there have been 24 separate taskings of the Security Service in respect of serious and organised crime. I have seen a great deal of the service's work and believe it to be a valuable addition to the law enforcement effort against serious and organised crime. The Security Service brings expertise not currently available in the police or Customs and Excise.
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), and the former Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) asked about resources and value for money. The National Audit Office has undertaken some value for money studies of the work of the agencies. That is very important. The NAO should have the fullest possible access to the work of the agencies.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne rightly reminded us that, if we take secrecy too far, we reduce internal accountability in the agencies. What happened in the Metropolitan police is a dismal story of an absence of the most basic systems for separating those who ordered services from those who paid for them.
The shadow Home Secretary asked about resources. As paragraph 19 of the report shows—this is not too partisan a point—the resources available to the services dropped significantly between 1994 and 1997–98. For a variety of reasons, some good and some not so good, the figure fell from £855 million to £707 million, then to £693 million last year. We are increasing the figure to £743 million for the next three years. Of course there is never as much money as has been sought, but that is a verity at all times for Governments and agencies. We believe that the services have adequate resources.
The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe raised the point about access by staff to industrial tribunals. Work is in hand on that. We shall report to the House when the work is complete.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater made a wide-ranging speech in which he raised the importance of improving the agencies' internal security. That was reflected in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) and the sage remarks of my hon. 648 Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). The issue is how to nurture and treat the staff of the agencies, while ensuring that we spot any staff who are becoming disaffected before they are tempted down the road of chequebook treachery—in the resonant phrase of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda—which we see too frequently.
The service recognises that internal security has to be improved. Paragraphs 26 and 27 say that the Committee will return to study that in further detail. That is important, because this is a good example of the work of the ISC complementing the work of the agencies. The process of cross-examination and demanding more scrutiny of those internal procedures should raise the standards of internal security.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked about warrant signing—an old chestnut if ever there was one—and whether, rather than by Secretaries of State, warrants should be signed by commissioners along the lines of the commissioners established under the Police Act 1997. I should make two observations. The first was made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, who said that the process of scrutinising and signing applications for warrants is one by which any holder of my office is able, day by day and week by week, to hold the agencies to account. It was not until I started on the process that I understood just how important it is as part of the line of accountability. It is not like having a meeting from time to time. The fact that warrant applications come through routinely and that one has the power to say yes or no to them means that the service must make a proper case for its operation and that the Secretary of State has responsibility to ensure that the law and its requirements are properly complied with. Behind any signature on the warrant, almost resting on one's shoulders, is the shadow of the interception commissioner, who is at present Lord Nolan. In my experience, Lord Nolan and his staff are very thorough.
Secondly, although I do not want to rehearse all the debates on the Police Bill that we had in the run-up to the election—even though I would be very happy to do so—I must point out that the argument at that stage was about the kind of system for authorising warrants other than that of a Secretary of State. It was generally accepted—certainly on both Front Benches—that, had any Secretary of State or putative Secretary of State been rash enough to volunteer to take over warrantry for intrusive surveillance as well as for interception, there would not have been an argument either at this end of the Palace of Westminster or the other. It was precisely because that was not on offer that we had to make other arrangements.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) rightly refered to some important issues on behalf of his many constituents who work at GCHQ and, indeed, on behalf of the town of Cheltenham. GCHQ is dominant there both as an employer and in its rather questionable architecture. Other hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred my involvement—I say only partial—in the fact that there have been four director-generals of GCHQ in the past three or four years. I seek exoneration. I should point out that the present permanent secretary to the Home Office, David Omand, in respect of whose appointment as director-general of GCHQ I played some part, served for slightly longer than I have been Home Secretary. That, at least from the point of view of Conservative Members, 649 is a period that cannot come to an end too quickly. I cannot speak for David Omand's predecessors or successors.
Other issues that have been raised in the debate include the question of the holding of files. On 29 July I disclosed what I said I was going to in the Adjournment debate in February. Getting on for 300,000 files of one kind or another are held by the Security Service, although most of them are now closed. How those files are disposed of is very important. I am absolutely clear about one thing, which I made clear in the debate in February and again in July: no individual on whom a file may be held should have any say over whether a file should be disposed of.
It is extremely important to people's civil liberties as well as to a study of the history of this country that objective criteria should be laid down, which the Security Service should be able to follow. It is for that reason that we have asked the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Public Records, under the chairmanship of the Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, with the help of some very distinguished historians, to look at the criteria to be laid down. Their report will—I think—be made available to me just before Christmas.
§ Mr. Beith
Will the Home Secretary look again at the logic, or lack of logic, of the Government's response to this point? It is simply not the case to say that it would be second guessing if there were independent scrutiny of which files were to be destroyed. That will be long after operational decisions have been taken.
§ Sir Norman Fowler
Does that mean that the Home Secretary will look again at the position of an independent check, because that is what is being urged?
§ Mr. Straw
Yes. The Committee has urged that there should be some kind of independent check in respect of files that have long ceased to have any operational value. The question whether a file is operational or not must be a matter for the director-general. There is then a separate question of whether a file that has had no value for many years should or should not be disposed of.
The first stage is that we are getting advice from the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee. The second issue is whether there should be any independent scrutiny of the decisions made about the disposal of the files. The Committee said one thing, and the Government have 650 raised the issue of second guessing. Many representations have been raised this evening about whether we should think again and—without pre-empting our second thoughts on the matter—I am happy to take it away and think again.
Before I conclude, I shall refer to one other matter—the role of the commissioners and the tribunals. As the report makes clear, there have been a number of complaints to the tribunals and commissioners over the years but, so far, none of those has been successful. That could lead to the conclusion that the tribunals—despite the fact that they are chaired by eminent jurists—are simply there to whitewash the operations and poor practices of the agencies. On the other hand, it could mean that the internal processes of the agencies are sufficiently thorough so that—at least up to now—it has been quite appropriate that none of the complaints has been substantiated.
I believe that it is very much the latter, and not the former, that is the truth. In terms of interception, what has been striking to me—as someone coming entirely new to my role as one of the few Secretaries of State dealing with warrants—is how thorough the process is. Therefore, I am not surprised that no complaint has been upheld, and long may that continue. The interception of communications is, in principle and in practice, a serious violation of people's civil liberties, and it should take place only when the narrow criteria laid down in legislation are complied with.
I finish where my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary began—by paying tribute to a number of people. First, I pay tribute to the Chairman and the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee for the thoroughness of their work and for their independence of judgment, which shines through this report. Secondly, I pay tribute to a small group of officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office who are very often unsung but have the important task on behalf of Ministers of monitoring the work of the agencies.
Thirdly, I pay tribute—and express the thanks of the whole House—to the staff of all the agencies. They do very important work—important to the security of this nation, important in terms of our economic well-being and important in trying to make our society safe from serious crime. Those are dedicated people who, because of the nature of their work, cannot speak for themselves. It is right today that Parliament and the House of Commons has spoken for them, and has recognised the value, importance and integrity of their work.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.