§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]1.23 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)
These debates on the work of our intelligence and security agencies are one of the innovations of this Parliament and a welcome addition to the scrutiny of those agencies by this Parliament. I would like to think that they have also been a viable means of promoting an understanding in the wider public of the real role of the security and intelligence agencies.
I am conscious that the structure of the debate suffers from one flaw that I would suggest we review in the next Parliament. By convention, I open the debate and only subsequently does the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee address the House to present the annual report. I do not know whether this idea would cause apoplexy among the House authorities, but it is for consideration that, in future debates, we might invite the Chairman to open the debate and lay the report so the rest of us can comment on it. This would enable the Chairman to have the first word and enable the rest of us to respond.
I have great regret that his retirement from the House will prevent the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) from initiating that innovation next year. He has made a real and permanent contribution to the scrutiny of the agencies in his years as the first Chairman of the Committee. His service as a Cabinet Minister in two of the most sensitive Departments gives him a depth of experience that has been a great asset to the Committee. He has been diligent in overseeing its work and, as I can confirm to the House from my personal experience, assiduous in defending its rights of scrutiny. He has also demonstrated great responsibility in his public comments, which have often restored a balance in the media that might otherwise have been missing. He can retire with the respect of the who1e House for the way which he has performed his duties.
I am not sure whether four years is a sufficiently long period to qualify for the establishment of a tradition, but it has become a tradition of these debates that they are pursued in a tone that is free from the partisan spirit of other exchanges in the House. I am conscious that this particular debate occurs at an interesting point in the political cycle, which may test that principle to the point of destruction. Nevertheless, I hope that we can maintain an approach in the debate that rises above party politics. The intelligence and security agencies are not an appropriate matter for partisan exchanges. They need a consensus in the House that recognises their contribution not only to Government policy, but to the national interest.
For the past four years, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have been accountable to the House for the work of the agencies. It is impossible for me to do justice in the House to the immense value of the agencies which I have seen for myself in that time. It is impossible because to disclose it all would be to prevent the agencies from being able to continue to deliver a service that must necessarily remain, secret. However, I shall try today to put on the public record what I can about their success in defending national security and promoting the national interest. 1123 We should not imagine that the traditional challenges vanished with the Berlin wall. I regret to say that the dramatic end of the cold war has not produced the same dramatic reduction in the threat of espionage. The proportion of the agencies total effort in countering that threat to our security may have declined in the past decade, but the importance of that work has not lessened. However, the end of a bipolar world has multiplied the security challenges that we face.
Access to hard facts is crucial to taking the right policy decisions. We need hard facts now about the position in Iraq, the resources of Balkan extremists, and the intentions of rebels in Africa. Gaining access to those hard facts is every bit as challenging as it ever was to produce intelligence on our old rivals in the Warsaw pact. Yet, hard facts secured against the odds by the Secret Intelligence Service and Government communications headquarters have made a real contribution to the progress that we have made in foreign policy.
The House will know, for example, of the malign role of the illegal trade in diamonds from Sierra Leone through Liberia and of the reverse flow of weapons through Liberia to the rebels in Sierra Leone. We have just secured a Security Council resolution that brings sanctions and pressure to bear on Liberia to halt both forms of trade. We could not have built that consensus in the Security Council if we had not been able to share with the United Nations hard facts and reliable intelligence about the situation on the ground.
The Intelligence and Security Committee has already acknowledged the immense role played by the intelligence agencies in the success of the Kosovo campaign. They have since played a valuable role in restoring stability in the region.
Another sphere in which our diplomacy depends on the input of the agencies is in defeating weapons proliferation. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is one of the greatest menaces to global peace. The task of defeating proliferation becomes technically more challenging as the technology spreads and the cost declines. Nor is the problem confined only to warhead technology. The spread of missile technology has introduced a new threat of more sophisticated delivery systems.
Policy making on proliferation depends to an unusually large degree on secret intelligence. I sometimes find a common assumption that, in the age of satellite surveillance, we can acquire all the information that is necessary by technical means. Sadly, that faith in high technology is misplaced. Human intelligence is essential in identifying a threat of proliferation, especially of biological and chemical weapons, the production of which can so easily be disguised as industrial process. Without human agents, we could not take effective measures to disrupt or prevent proliferation.
There is one other way in which the product of our intelligence agencies is crucial to our foreign policy. We have a unique intelligence partnership with the United States. It would be hard to find any example in history of two sovereign nations that have co-operated so closely or so frankly in the intelligence field. As the Committee report notes, on one recent occasion, the US intelligence agencies were served for three days directly from GCHQ, after the National Security Agency equipment failed. Respect for the scope of our agencies and the reliability 1124 of their information is a powerful element in a relationship that makes Britain and the United States closest allies and strongest friends.
If we are to retain that respect and secure the best quality of intelligence, our agencies must be at the cutting edge of the new technologies, and that requires investment. GCHQ's new accommodation programme is the largest private finance initiative project. It will bring GCHQ together on one site rather than two. When complete, it will provide a modern, purpose-built environment for a signals intelligence agency fit for the challenges of the 21st century.
The Intelligence and Security Committee has strongly supported the programme, but has rightly drawn attention to the risks involved in such a large and complex undertaking. I can assure the House that the management team at GCHQ has been strengthened and is making increasing use of external specialists to help with the project management. I have asked for, and receive, quarterly reports on the project. I have meetings with the director of GCHQ—most recently, on Monday—to discuss progress.
I am pleased to tell the House that spending on the project in the current financial year is on track. Better still, construction on the new building is currently 12 weeks ahead of schedule. If that is sustained, it will provide valuable extra time for the transition to the new building, the complexity of which has rightly exercised the Committee.
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the project will be delivered on time and on budget?
§ Mr. Cook
We are currently on track in this financial year. It is of course a private finance initiative project, so any overrun in the cost of construction will be borne by the contractor and the provider of the funds, not by the Government. I assure my hon. Friend that we are being vigilant and maintaining a close guard on the cost. That is precisely why I have asked for and receive the quarterly reports. I am pleased to say that, so far, the stream of reports has been reassuring. Clearly, we will respond if there are any signs that there is going to be an overrun, but at present I have no reason to suspect that.
I have spoken of the foreign challenges, and I will now deal with the domestic challenges with which the agencies deal. The threats to our national security do not come only from other Governments. The danger to the life and safety of British citizens is more likely, in practice, to come from terrorist groups.
Terrorist outrages command massive media coverage when they happen. Successes in preventing such outrages get nothing like the same coverage, but that does not make the crucial role of the agencies in preventing terrorism any less valuable. Since the Committee's report was published, the security services have twice participated in operations that led to the arrest of individuals who have since been charged with terrorist offences or conspiracy to cause explosions.
Some of the domestic challenges are new. They reflect the nature of the modern world. The revolution in communications technology is creating new opportunities on an exponential scale.
1125 This week. 360,000 e-mails will be sent in Britain every second—one fifth more than in January, and double the number sent last June. Computers now manage most of our critical national infrastructure for water, power and transport. With those new opportunities comes the risk of new threats: a computer-based attack on the national infrastructure could cripple the nation more quickly than a military strike. The intelligence and security agencies play a key role in our national infrastructure security co-ordination centre—an unforgettable mouthful to pronounce.
The Committee's report criticises the speed with which that centre reacted to the "love bug" virus last May, so the Committee will be pleased to hear that when the "Kournikova" virus struck in February, a national alert was issued within one hour. In the modern world, that speed of response can make the difference between stability and chaos. Other threats to our domestic security are the product of the dramatic increase in trade which is a feature of the globalised economy. Free and growing trade has been an immense stimulus to economic growth throughout the world, particularly for Britain, which is a major trading nation.
However, increased contacts and accelerating mobility throughout the world also provide cover for the enemies of our society, such as drugs traders. I have sat through totally pointless international debates on whether it is more important to disrupt the drugs trade at the point of supply or the point of demand. The truth is that we have no hope of success unless we attack the drugs trade at every point of the chain—at its production centres in distant countries such as Afghanistan or Colombia, when drugs are in transit through the Caribbean or the Balkans, and on delivery on the streets of our cities. That requires a joined-up approach by both the intelligence and the law enforcement agencies. I am glad that the Intelligence and Security Committee has paid tribute to the secondments in both directions that have produced operational teams with a wide range of skills and a culture of working together.
That has produced real successes. The agencies have helped to disrupt the networks that bring drugs into this country. They have contributed to the seizure of major shipments of both heroin and cocaine, as well as to the arrest of the drugs traders involved and the seizure of their assets. British agencies contributed to a recent operation in the Caribbean which resulted in a haul of drugs with a value of £70 million, from just one raid.
As the Committee has noted, all three agencies are closely involved in countering other forms of smuggling, such as the lucrative trade in cigarettes, which costs the British taxpayer £2.5 billion a year in lost duty.
I have tried to put on the record what I can about the valuable contribution of the agencies both to our foreign policy and to our domestic security. It is important that Parliament and the public should know the clear objectives of the intelligence and security agencies; but it is also right that we should explain to the public that the success of the agencies can be secured only by conditions of secrecy.
The penalty of disclosure of operational details for any of the agencies is the failure of the operation—but the penalty for loss of secrecy in the Secret Intelligence 1126 Service or the Security Service can be loss of life. We have given an undertaking to its agents that we will never reveal their identity or their role. We cannot compromise on that guarantee without losing the trust on which we rely for the recruitment of future agents. That requires us to be vigilant in resisting any threat to operational secrecy, whether it comes from foreign espionage or domestic cheque-book journalism. However, the secrecy of operational detail does not prevent the rigorous oversight of the policy and priorities of the agencies that is essential in a parliamentary democracy. All members of the Intelligence and Security Committee share the credit for the rigorous scrutiny that it undertakes.
As I see that the members of the Committee make up a large proportion of my audience in the House today, I shall add that the prospect of an appearance before the Committee keeps us all on our toes.
§ Mr. Cook
I think that I carry my right hon. Friend with me on that point.
As the report details, in the preceding year the Committee held a formidable list of hearings, taking evidence on more than 50 occasions, with some of the witnesses, including my right hon. Friend and myself, appearing more than once. I would not want the members of the Committee to be under any illusion about the invigorating effect on both their witness and the machine of an approaching rendezvous with them in their spartan Committee room in the Cabinet Office.
I would not want the House to imagine that the relationship between the Committee and the Government is adversarial. We both share an appreciation of the importance of the agencies, we both share the same objective of safeguarding the national interest, and we both want the Agencies to work even more effectively. It is therefore not surprising that the Government share many of the Committee's conclusions and often find its recommendations helpful. There are many points in the report on which we find ourselves in full accord with the Committee. We share its view that Sir Edmund Burton could play an important continuing role in the new accommodation project—GCHQ has appointed him as a non-executive director.
We welcome the Committee investigator's report on the security of laptops and have already implemented the broad thrust of his recommendations. We agree with the stress that the Committee places on a co-ordinated approach to information technology and have created the post of an information technology champion within the Cabinet Office. We value the positive verdict of the Committee on the work of the agencies on serious crime. I am pleased to tell the House that we expect the intelligence gathered by the agencies on that threat to increase substantially over the next two years.
I welcome the Committee's sustained interest in the creation of a special employment tribunal for staff of the agencies. The Committee has waged something of a campaign on the need for progress on that issue. I hope that it will call a truce in that campaign, as the necessary regulations and rules of procedure were laid before the 1127 House by the Department of Trade and Industry this week. We have also taken to heart the Committee's stern comments on the time taken—
§ Mr. Cook
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman should undervalue the effect of debate on stimulating activity. If it has had a beneficial effect we should welcome it rather than decry it.
We have taken to heart the Committee's stern comments on the time that the Government took to respond to its previous Report. I hope that it will welcome the improvement shown by the Government in responding to their current report within a month of its publication.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
I get the feeling that the right hon. Gentleman has come to the end of his responses to particular points raised by the Committee. I notice that he did not comment on the fact that the Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services, which is chaired by the Prime Minister and has overall responsibility for the intelligence agencies, has still not met. If there is an early dissolution of Parliament, the prospect is that it will never meet in this Parliament.
§ Mr. Cook
I am conscious of the paragraph to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. I can assure him that the matter is very much before us. He will understand that it is not easy to arrange a diary engagement that can be attended by many people, including the Prime Minister, especially in present circumstances. However, all members of the Ministerial Committee are fully informed of the work of the security and intelligence agencies, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are in constant contact with them. I regularly see the directors of both of those for which I am responsible, and I know that my right hon. Friend acts similarly. I would not want the House or the public to imagine that there is a lack of oversight or engagement by the members of the Committee, even if they do not sit down in the same room at the same time.
§ Mr. Beith
Going back to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of secrecy, there are some matters about which the public could know more. The agencies have recognised that by increasing disclosure. That could be carried further in, for example, the area of broad budgetary figures to give an indication of how money is spent. Given that many things cannot be revealed, it is vital that some parliamentarians, as members of the Committee, are within the ring of secrecy, so that others can rely on them to see all the information necessary to make a judgment that all is well on a particular matter. The degree of co-operation from the Home Secretary on the Mitrokhin case illustrates that if the Committee is given the information, it can make a judgment and provide reassurance in areas where general disclosure is impossible.
§ Mr. Cook
The right hon. Gentleman touches on a central and unavoidable question. It is not surprising that there will be different judgments on the bounds of secrecy between the intelligence community and the members of the Scrutiny Committee. It would be rather odd if that 1128 were not the case. I think that the frank dialogue between us has been helpful in trying to achieve the right balance, although we must recognise that we will never wholly agree on where that balance should be struck.
On the specific issue of the agencies' separate budgets, the Committee made a recommendation that we should publish one year's set of budgets by agency, but that we should not produce annual sets of figures because the revealing trend could be compromising to the work of the agencies. I have considered that very carefully. The Government did not see it as politically feasible to produce one year's figures without impossible pressure in future years to produce the annual figures. That would lead us back to the problem that the Committee correctly identified—that of the danger of revealing trends. Of course, we can continue to keep these matters under review, but I share the Committee's anxiety that an annualised set of figures would be too damaging. I find it hard to see how any Government could get away with producing one year's figures and then say for the next five years, "Sorry, we are not doing it again."
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Has an instruction been given to civil servants at any stage in this Parliament to try and convene a meeting of the Ministerial Committee, or has not even that instruction been given?
§ Mr. Anderson
My right hon. Friend very properly paid tribute to the close and long-standing intelligence relationship with the United States. He has not mentioned the European Union dimension. However, that may well loom larger as a result of the common foreign and security policy and the European security and defence policy. What can he tell us about that? Are there any reservations about the new building in Brussels or the European Parliament's role? What problems does my right hon. Friend envisage the Committee tackling as these new policies develop?
§ Mr. Cook
I am happy to assure the House that the European Parliament will have no role in the European security and defence policy. There is a very urgent need to ensure that we have a satisfactory building, from a security angle, for those who will be dealing with the European security and defence policy. It is very important that they should have a separate building so that they can maintain a culture of secrecy in that building. I do not think that that would be readily achievable in the general Commission building, where there is naturally quite the reverse of a culture of secrecy. That may not necessarily be consistent with the security that we want to see in place. I assure the House that we shall be very careful in 1129 our approach to the spread of intelligence. We have been quite explicit that there is no presumption that intelligence held by Britain will necessarily be available to partners.
I have paid tribute to the work of the Committee, and on that I hope that I carried its members with me. However, I hope that I carry the whole House with me in paying tribute to the role of the men and women who work in the agencies. They serve their country well. The success of the agencies is possible only because of their professionalism and their belief in their job.
GCHQ employs some of the best minds in computer technology in Britain. Indeed, it could muster a team of experts to match the staff of many university computer departments. Many of them could command much higher monetary reward in the private sector, and we are fortunate that they are attracted to GCHQ by the intellectual challenge of the work and the value of their jobs.
Some of those who work in the agencies accept a risk to personal safety that I suspect many of us would not. Those who undertake work against terrorists or drugs traders are dealing with an enemy every bit as ruthless, if not more so, than their old opponents of the cold war. The rocket attack on the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service last September was a stark reminder of that ever-present threat.
The staff of the agencies do not get much opportunity for public recognition. It is part of their contract that they cannot claim public credit for secret work. The debate gives us an opportunity to put that right. I hope that the whole House will use that opportunity to recognise the skills and courageous work of the staff of the agencies and the immense debt owed by Parliament and the public to them.
§ Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)
May I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for the fact that I have to leave soon after the Front-Bench speeches for an engagement of long standing that proved immovable?
§ Mr. Maude
It is very much a secret. I would be prepared to account for it to the Intelligence and Security Committee, but unless we are prepared to go into secret session at this stage, it would be inappropriate to go further.
I should like to add a tribute from the Opposition Benches to the men and women who work in our intelligence and security services. The Foreign Secretary rightly observed that it is in the nature of their job that they work behind the scenes and by and large without public recognition. Their work is frequently dangerous. Unable, as we hope they are, to talk to others about what they do or to take the credit that they so frequently deserve for what they do, their burden must be and often is a lonely one.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee and especially its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for 1130 Bridgwater (Mr. King) Last year, this debate took place rather later in the year so I was induced to believe that it might be the last such debate in this Parliament. I am delighted that the debate has been brought forward so that the report is slightly fresher, but owing to my misapprehension, I paid an elaborate tribute to my right hon. Friend last year. I am happy that last year's debate was not his swan song, but he has been kind enough to say that he is happy for me to pay tribute to him again, which I am delight to do.
My right hon. Friend really will be missed by the House. That is not just a conventional tribute. I learned much of my politics—I was going to say at his knee, but that would be overstating the case—around his ministerial table in the early 1980s. A Committee such as the Intelligence and Security Committee absolutely depends on the personal qualities of its members and especially those of its Chairman. The Foreign Secretary mentioned my right hon. Friend's relevant experience as a Minister, which gave him a unique insight into the work of the agencies. Beyond that, the Chairman needs to be absolutely trustworthy, able to command consensus in the way that my right hon. Friend has, and able to carry serious and effortless authority.
Under my right hon. Friend's chairmanship, the Committee has won and retained the confidence of the services, to a great extent as a result of the sensitivity and discretion with which the Committee conducts its scrutiny and the obvious commitment of its members to the work of the services. The whole House will want to express its warm appreciation of my right hon. Friend's work and its warm wishes for his cheerful and extremely busy retirement, as I suspect it will turn out to be.
I also said a word last year about the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who has been a member of the Committee from its outset—
§ Mr. Maude
Well, for a good part of its time. I think that I said last year, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it as a compliment, that he is one of the least comfortable Members of the House of Commons. The House should not contain comfortable people; it should contain people who go in for the task of scrutiny and holding Ministers and others to account. That is what we are here for. He has always been an honourable, upright and absolutely tenacious Member, and we shall miss him.
The creation of the Intelligence and Security Committee was the parliamentary manifestation of the programme to place all of the agencies on a statutory footing, to make proper assessment of the work that they do, and to introduce a measure of accountability. Bringing the agencies out of the hidden places that they occupied previously into the light of day has been a gradual process. We must, of course, be vigilant about the agencies' roles, but we should always exercise that vigilance against the background of our understanding that they exist and operate as the servants of liberty, not as its enemy.
In last year's debate, the Foreign Secretary referred to the intention of the Department of Trade and Industry to consult on the introduction of draft regulations. The Committee expressed in its November report its disappointment that that had not happened. Given that the 1131 absence of an employment tribunal was a major gripe of Richard Tomlinson, the disgraced former Secret Intelligence Service officer, it is an unhappy circumstance and a pity that it took the imminence of this debate to prompt the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to lay the regulations. We are delighted to hear that he has now done so, but it would have been better if he had done so quite a lot earlier.
The report also expresses concerns that the process of making the services more transparent, which began under the previous Government, may be beginning to slow down. The Committee has again asked the Prime Minister to publish confidential annexes to the intelligence services commissioner's report. The commission is an important innovation to improve public confidence in the accountability of the services, and it may be that it is in the public interest that conclusions are made known more widely. I am sure that the sensible discretion of the Committee is a sufficient safeguard.
I was interested in the Foreign Secretary's explanation of why it had apparently proved impossible to convene the Ministerial Committee. He contended that it was impossible to get all the Ministers in the same place at the same time. I concede that that is very difficult to do, but his contention is about as plausible as the argument put forward this week that the Minister for Europe had not visited the Balkans because there were no suitable flights available.
§ Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the previous Government were not very assiduous about holding the meetings either?
§ Mr. Maude
I can take no responsibility for that, as I was not even in Parliament then, let alone in that Government.
Today's debate provides a welcome opportunity for me to commend in particular the work of the SIS and of Government communications headquarters, the agencies that fall within the portfolio that I shadow. We should recognise that the excellence of the SIS's work, and the height of its reputation, is one of that unique set of international assets—and not the least among them—that gives Britain a global reach, and which should give Britain a disproportionate influence in the world.
My dealings with those agencies as a Minister gave me a profound admiration for those who formed the service, and who demonstrate dedication, public service, resourcefulness and simple raw courage. Part of what the agencies give the country is the ability to help other, friendly countries with the intelligence input that they would otherwise lack. That gives us a greater influence that other countries simply do not have.
The agencies need proper resourcing, and proper commitment to their capability. Continuity is crucial, as they operate in a world that is not notably safer since the end of the cold war. There was a dreadful stability during the cold war, but the world was more predictable than it is today. Today's greater unpredictability, instability and turbulence means that there are greater opportunities for prosperity and peace, and great threats and risks. The Committee's interim report and the report published last November both give a glimpse of the types of threats and challenges that the services continue to face today.
The Committee noted that the observation by the Director-General of the Security Service that there is still a significant Russian intelligence activity in the UK. 1132 That is of particular pertinence, given the recent US expulsions of Russian diplomats following the arrest of Alan Hanssen in Washington.
During his first year in office, Mr. Putin—a former KGB operative—is said to have been keen to place more emphasis on the gathering of foreign intelligence. Several of his closest associates, including the head of the Security Council of the United Nations, are also KGB veterans and favour a very hard-headed approach to the west. We must maintain our vigilance and not threaten that which already works well. As the Committee says, it is appropriate that the Secret Intelligence Service hascontinued to devote significant resources to Russia and the Balkans.The November report raised, and the interim report returned to, the important question of the co-ordination of our intelligence efforts through the Joint Intelligence Committee and other forums. In times when international crime and terrorism are increasingly global and complex, the need for better co-ordination is stronger than ever.
Any notion that we do not need the services in a post-cold war world should be dispelled by the reports and by the Home Secretary's recent publication of a list of proscribed organisations to be included in schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000. The information on and assessment of those groups is the visible tip of an iceberg of painstaking secret work that is largely and properly hidden from our view. The quickest skim through that list reveals the complexity of the climate facing all our intelligence services as they work together.
Britain has always had a reputation for tolerance and as a refuge for those who have, down the centuries, faced persecution elsewhere. After all, most of us contain a large admixture of immigrant and refugee blood. The Opposition are glad to see that that warm welcome does not mean that this country can become a bolt hole for those who use violence and terror to achieve their ends, whatever those may be.
In recent months, London has been struck several times, apparently by a splinter group of Irish republicans who, although a tiny minority, want to disrupt the efforts of those who want peace. The Foreign Secretary mentioned last autumn's attack on SIS headquarters, and the recent car bomb outside BBC Television headquarters, both of which suggest an approach that is coldly discriminating in the perpetrators' search for publicity, but wickedly indiscriminate in the methods that they are prepared to use. We should all condemn those outrages, which can only strengthen our determination to banish that scourge for ever and to ensure that its perpetrators are tried and imprisoned.
The Committee expressed concern about the rise of cheque-book journalism in the agencies. The services appear to be adopting its recommendation that best practice solutions be adopted to screen out those who might be most likely to have recourse to telling their story in public. However, that task is made all the harder when, on the horizon, they see the impending publication of the memoirs of the former Director-General of the Security Service.
All members of the agencies accept on entry that their own knowledge of the value of their work has to compensate for the periodic frustration of not being able to talk about their job or their achievements. That self-discipline is a crucial virtue that underpins the 1133 effectiveness of the agencies. For years, retired officers of MI5 and MI6, as the agencies once were, have taken it for granted that catharsis in print is simply not an option, not least because it will almost certainly prejudice the work and safety of their former colleagues and make intelligence gathering harder. After all, who will want to help his country, sometimes at great personal risk, if he fears that his identity might be revealed in a subsequent memoir?
It is hardly surprising that senior members of all the agencies are concerned that the book will have a negative effect on their ability to function safely and productively. I hope that Dame Stella Rimington and the Government will bear that in mind before publication. As I told the Foreign Secretary last year, any action that the Government choose to take to prevent publication will have our unqualified support.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, given the proliferation of those who want to sell their memoirs, it is surprising that the programme of work of the Committee does not include recruitment policies, which have in the past apparently proved incapable of identifying those who subsequently sell state secrets?
§ Mr. Maude
That is a fair point. However, if the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that one should try to spot impending memoir writers at the outset, that is a selection process that might even defeat the fine minds of the agencies. I think that I pointed out that we should pay attention to that matter and I suspect that the Committee may well want to return to it.
All those threats, together with the many others to which the Foreign Secretary referred, are clear warnings that Britain must not drop its guard. We need our intelligence networks to maintain our first-class capacity to acquire and assess information from all over the world. Britain cannot work alone.
The greatest intensity of the special relationship between Britain and America lies in intelligence. That relationship has been built up over many years. Trust can be lost in a single day, but it takes decades to restore. In that regard, the relationship between GCHQ and the United States National Security Agency at Fort Meade is crucial. The UK-US arrangement is a powerful symbol of the closeness of our joint interests in the wider world.
The Committee noted:The quality of intelligence gathered clearly reflects the value of the close co-operation under the UKUSA agreement. A recent illustration of this occurred when the US National Security Agency's … equipment … failed and for some three days US customers, as well as GCHQ's normal UK customers, were served directly from GCHQ.That is an important two-way relationship. There is little doubt that the intelligence budget would have to soar were we not able to rely on the information provided by our transatlantic partners.
I regret that I must depart from the atmosphere of congenial consensus that has prevailed in debates on this subject. We hope that that close co-operation between the intelligence agencies will be secure. However, I must say—and this is the right occasion to say it—that the 1134 Government's agreement to move towards a European army may well threaten that capability.[Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary has started to emit low noises, but this is an annual opportunity to talk about the work of the intelligence agencies. It is essential to their work that the special, close and intense relationship with our transatlantic partners in the United States should remain intact and fruitful. If we see that there is a potential threat to that working relationship, it is our duty to raise it in the House and we will do so. If that means departing from the peaceful atmosphere of harmony that has prevailed, then so be it. We will not be deterred from raising those matters.
An overt sign of the potential dangers, although very low key perhaps, was the fact that the European Parliament last year opened an investigation into Echelon—the intelligence-sharing network of which the UK and the US are vital parts. As the declaration made after the Franco-German summit in December 1999 made clear, European defence will require intelligence sharing. The declaration stated:As far as intelligence is concerned, which is a core element of the European Union's independent assessment and decision-making capacity, we are determined to federalise the existing or future means, including in the space field, in order to create common European capacities.The Government may say that there is nothing incompatible between the UK-US arrangement and moves discussed at Helsinki and given effect to at Nice to create amore effective Europe in military capabilityand thereinforcement of our"—Europe's—capabilities in the fit Id of intelligence, strategic transport and control".The Foreign Secretary cannot be unaware of the strong strand of opinion—perhaps the dominant strand, particularly among the ruling class, if one can call it that, in France—that believes that Britain has to choose between the transatlantic relationship and a full commitment to the European defence capability. We do not believe that we have to make that choice, but others do.
Recently, a French official was quoted as arguing that the British would not be able to play a leading role in the EU unless they jettisoned their special intelligence links with the US. The direct quote was:Britain must choose Europe or betray it.I have recently been told by a very senior French journalist—[HON. MEMBERS: "A journalist?"] Yes, a journalist. He may be a maverick and he may not reflect any current of opinion in France at all, but I doubt it. All the evidence is that he is not a maverick and that he strongly reflects opinion in France. He said that Britain must choose whether it is to be pro-European or pro-American.
§ Mr. Maude
I cannot remember the journalist's name, but his comments were all made in public. If the hon. Gentleman is so excited about the name, I undertake to find it and send it to him, but he will not be much the wiser when I have.
1135 The Foreign Secretary knows that what has been created is a European Union military structure which is autonomous vis-à-vis NATO. It has its own separate military and planning committees. After all, the Foreign Secretary has claimed, with typical modesty, that he wrote most of the documents himself. The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister continue to claim that the new arrangement is anchored within NATO, but the documents that the Foreign Secretary claims to have written belie that claim.
If there was any doubt about that, the French chief of defence staff confirms it. He said recently:European politicians need to know what is going on. They need to be able to select options and then conduct operations. Why should we have to go through NATO?Yet the Government have stuck doggedly to their flimsy line that NATO has the right of first refusal.
§ Mr. Maude
I shall finish the point, if I may, and then I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
The Foreign Secretary must have been a little dismayed to read further remarks yesterday by the French chief of defence staff, who said:There is no question of a right of first refusal. If the EU works properly, it will start working on crises at a very early stage, well before the situation escalates. NATO has noting to do with this. At a certain stage the Europeans would decide to conduct a military operation. Either the Americans would come, or not.The Government continue to peddle the idea that the arrangement is anchored within NATO and that NATO has the right of first refusal, but that simply does not stack up. The documents belie it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. We cannot have continual interruptions from a sedentary position.
§ Mr. Maude
Everything is clearly set out. The reason why a specific military and planning staff and a military committee are set out, and a military headquarters is already being set up, is to make precisely the point that the French chief of the defence staff is amplifying: that the arrangements are designed to be separate and to be able, at any rate, to pre-empt NATO. I acquit the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister of wanting it to pre-empt NATO. What I am saying is that the way in which it has been set up allows NATO to be pre-empted.
§ Mr. Cook
I would not want the right hon. Gentleman unwittingly to mislead the House about what was said by the French chief of defence staff. The right hon. 1136 Gentleman is obviously not aware that the French Ministry of Defence has protested at the way in which the chief of defence staff's remarks have been used, and is complaining that what was not quoted was his remark that the European Union force would not duplicate NATO assets; that European ambitions were limited to the Petersberg tasks; that in a major crisis the EU would depend on NATO planning; and that the US should be involved whenever it wished. That puts an entirely different light on the matter.
§ Mr. Maude
I shall deal with that before giving way to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. What the Foreign Secretary says is not at all inconsistent with what I said. I was speaking about the Government's contention—I used their exact words—that the arrangement was "anchored within NATO" and that NATO has a "right of first refusal". Both of those things are specifically not true. The documents make it clear that the arrangement is not anchored within NATO. It is specifically set up to have autonomous, separate organisations and structures.
The French chief of defence staff has not complained about being misquoted. He stated bluntly:There is no question of a right of first refusal.That may be open to misinterpretation, but I have yet to hear it.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson
Is not the argument a little flimsy if the right hon. Gentleman relies on a French journalist who is so senior that he cannot remember the man's name, and on the chief of the French defence staff, as quoted yesterday in The Daily Telegraph, which has its own agenda on this issue? The quote was repudiated in the "Today" programme this morning. If the right hon. Gentleman cares to get the transcript, he will see a view that will not annoy him in quite the same way as the article in The Daily Telegraph may have done.
§ Mr. Maude
I am not relying for my argument on that French journalist. I merely used him as yet another illustration of that strand of thought. The Government may want to shut their eyes to the fact that there is a strain of anti-American opinion in France, but that does not mean that it does not exist. It does exist, and if we are realistic, we accept it. That does not mean, of course, that we do not work with our French partners, but we should be aware that such opinion exists.
On the right hon. Gentleman's other point, the words that I quoted from the French chief of defence staff have not, as I understand it, been repudiated. He may have said other things as well, which were not quoted. I accept that that may be the case. If the words that I quoted, including the blunt statement thatthere is no question of a right of first refusalhave been repudiated, I am willing to hear it, but I have not heard it yet.
§ Mr. Beith
Is not the right hon. Gentleman in danger of losing the plot, so interested has he become in the European defence relationship and his misgivings about it? What is the likelihood that two countries, Britain and the United States, which have found an intelligence relationship so fruitful and so mutually beneficial over so many years, will give it up simply because there are some 1137 people in Europe who have anxieties about it, but who have their own intelligence agenda and carry out their own activities in that field? Is it not much more likely that the relationship will survive in the future, as it has already survived even the complications of limited intelligence sharing within NATO, not to mention the various other circumstances that it has had to face over the years?
§ Mr. Maude
My point is that we currently have arrangements which are based much less on formal structures than on an atmosphere of deep trust and close personal relationships and a cultural affinity between the institutions which has been built up over decades. That basis of co-operation can quickly be put at risk.
None of us has ever said that we should hold back from any European defence co-operation. For heaven's sake, the Conservative Government were pressing for it back in the 1980s and 1990s. Our point was that that should be done within NATO, because NATO is the umbrella under which those relationships have been nurtured and fostered. We should hesitate for a long, long time before we embark on measures which may jeopardise a relationship that is potentially very fragile. The trust can be broken in a day and may take decades to restore.
Right hon. and hon. Members are challenging my contention that there exists in France a willingness to jeopardise the NATO relationship, yet the Prime Minister said just the other day:Well, if we don't get involved in European defence, it will happen without Britain. Then those people who really may have an agenda to destroy NATO will have control of it.I do not know exactly who the Prime Minister was referring to—
§ Mr. Maude
I do not think that even the Prime Minister would have expected a French journalist to have charge of the European defence operation.
We are concerned, and we are right to be concerned, that the natural and important links between Britain and the Echelon group, based, as they are, on a long period of continuity and trust, are at risk from the lurch to a European army deliberately being set up as autonomous from NATO.
The decision to appoint as the first chairman of the military committee a commander from outside NATO was an act of extraordinary insensitivity. Outstanding though General Hagglund certainly is—and despite the great respect in which we all hold the Finnish armed forces—the signal that was sent out about how closely the European army will work with NATO was profoundly depressing. The right course was for the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who is always a European, to hold that position. That would have sent a strong and reassuring signal about the closeness with which the new arrangements and NATO would work together. That did not happen, however, because those who want Europe to become a superpower that can compete with America and challenge transatlantic links would have prevented—
§ Mr. Maude
I am not suggesting that it was Finland. I do not criticise our Finnish partners for wanting such arrangements. After all, Finland is not a member of NATO.
1138 Of course, we depend on our intelligence agencies for much information about what is going on in places where Britain has vital interests, but we also depend on Ministers to take the trouble to see for themselves what is happening and to speak to people on the ground. The House might have assumed from the lofty tone in which the Foreign Secretary spoke to me on Tuesday that he and the Minister for Europe were never out of the Balkans. It was, therefore, surprising to read the next day a report published by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs which lambasted them for failing to make such visits. I have visited the Balkans, however, and my remarks about the danger that is created by the west's vacillation on the long-term final status of Kosovo were based on long discussions with Kosovo's political leaders. I may say that they derived also from a visit to Macedonia, where I met both the Prime Minister and the leader of the main Albanian party. I suspect that the Foreign Secretary's position is based less on some superior understanding of the Balkans than on a slavish adherence to a received wisdom that is shown to be false by discussions with people in the Balkans.
Let me close my remarks by commending the Intelligence and Security Committee and its Chairman for the excellence of their work. I also commend those in the intelligence agencies for their outstanding work for the country. I think that all members of the public would want to echo those remarks.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate. I listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary's remarks, and I think that his suggestion regarding the restructuring of such debates—as he said. I shall not be able to take advantage of such proposals—makes sense. I have discussed the matter with the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), who agrees that the proposal may provide the easiest way of handling reports such as those produced by the Intelligence and Security Committee.
This debate is not a busy one, but the House will appreciate its quality, if not the quantity of those who are present. My Committee greatly appreciates the attendance of two Secretaries of State who represent two of the busiest Departments and carry some of the heaviest responsibilities in government—the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary Their attendance also demonstrates due respect for the intelligence agencies, for which they take personal responsibility. Indeed, that explains why they do not delegate the work that they do to their more junior Ministers.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for mentioning the sheer enjoyment that he felt in appearing before the Intelligence and Security Committee. I hope that he will pass that message on to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, as it is clear that he has not yet received it. Our successor Committee will expect to see the Chief Secretary in the new Parliament. We are charged under statute to oversee the finances of the intelligence agencies. The Chief Secretary has a specific role and is taking a close interest. As both Secretaries of State will know, he has a co-ordinating role and a special report group is reporting back to him on co-ordination between the agencies and on opportunities for such co-ordination.
1139 The challenge of this debate, and the problem of having been accused of too much secrecy, is how to attract the interest of our colleagues when we appear in the daylight. I suggested to my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) that if the Order Paper had stated that the House would sit secretly for this debate, we would have had a full House, if not a full Gallery. That might have made for a more stimulating debate, but, as I said, the quality is here.
There are one or two absentees. I undertook to apologise to the House on behalf of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), who is a member of the Committee and chairman of our Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation, for his absence. In earlier days, the knowledge that a senior member of the Intelligence and Security Committee had left for Cuba might have caused some excitement or invited security Alarms. Such is the change that has occurred, however, that that senior group has been able to make the visit. Indeed, it is extremely senior, as only hon. Members who are not standing for re-election had the nerve to go to Cuba. I think that those involved left last night.
As the possibility of ever getting the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister in the same room together, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer also in attendance, seems completely beyond the reach of the Government machine, I give two cheers for the timing of this debate. One can say only that it is a lot better than last year, although it is occurring at the very last gasp in respect of a report that was delivered to the Government at the end of the summer. Indeed, the Government laid their response before the House when Parliament reconvened after the summer recess. That was so long ago that the Committee has since produced an interim report. Without any especially valuable intelligence, we formed the impression that this Parliament might not last much longer, so we produced that report to cover our work to date. I should like to add a personal point in that respect. I shall not be standing again, and neither will three other members of the Committee. The next Committee must, therefore, have a new Chairman and some new members, regardless of what happens in the election.
One aspect of the Committee's role is to maintain continuity of oversight. Its work suffered a serious interruption after the last election. I make a plea, which is supported by my colleagues on the Committee, for every effort to be made to establish the new Committee as soon as possible after the new Parliament is formed.
This debate marks the end of a chapter. I have had the privilege of being the Chairman of a Committee that did not exist for most of my years in Parliament. It was created in 1994, and a number of hon. Friends have served on it with me since then. New members joined us in 1997. I am grateful for the personal comments made by the Foreign Secretary and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham. I am grateful also for the comments made in the Government's response to the report about the work that I have tried to do as Chairman. All hon. Members will understand, of course. that the work of any Committee is only as good as its members. I am grateful both to the hon. Members who served on the Committee with me originally, many of whom since have continued to serve throughout its existence, and to those who have joined since—in particular, the hon. Members for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who are present in the Chamber, and the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton).
1140 The Committee suffered a tremendous upheaval as a result of the change of Government, but I am grateful for the way in which its new members have carried on its work. Indeed, they added a new impetus in some directions, but they maintained its ethos, which I hope is respected by the intelligence agencies. The Committee started from scratch with the simple blueprint of the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which required the establishment of a Committee to oversee the three intelligence agencies. Apart from wording on the extent to which secret information could be withheld and the remit within which it could work, the Committee was set up on pretty bald terms, so we had very much to write our hymn sheet and to develop our own operational practice.
I believe that we can claim that oversight is now firmly in place. It is always easy when something starts to ask why it did not happen years ago. It was not very long ago, however, that people would have believed that such a proposal was unthinkable. In fellow member states of the European Union that are a short distance from Britain, it is still unthinkable that parliamentarians could oversee the intelligence and security agencies. The intelligence agencies were undoubtedly nervous when the Committee started out, and such nervousness remains in some quarters. However, in general, a gradual development of trust and confidence has occurred. There has also been a gradual acknowledgement of an obvious point: we cannot form a fair and true opinion unless we are as fully informed as possible. That acknowledgement is shown by the presence of two Secretaries of State in the debate. The Security Service and GCHQ have also accepted the point, and I paid tribute to them in the foreword that I wrote to the major annual report.
I commend a recent event: Sir Stephen Lander, Director-General of the Security Service, had the courage to appear in public at the Royal United Services Institute for the first conference the Intelligence and Security Committee supported and with which it was greatly involved. In my foreword to the annual report, I stated that the Secret Intelligence Service finds matters more difficult. The Committee has sympathy for that point of view and realises that there are reasons for that.
However, the Foreign Secretary knows that some matters might have been less of a problem. He kindly paid tribute to the work of the Committee, and said that he appreciated the occasions on which I made public statements, which were not appropriate for him or the heads of the agencies to make. As spokesman for the Committee, I can sometimes say things that give the public confidence about some situations, when the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary cannot confirm or deny the endless diet of allegations that surrounds the agencies.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am leaving the Committee. The role of the Chairman could be reinforced. The Security Service and the SIS should seriously consider the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. There are many occasions on which it is imperative for them to make statements but they cannot do that. They should use the Chairman of our Committee to do it when they can assure us that the information is absolutely correct.
§ Mr. King
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who knows the occasions on which it has been possible to say 1141 something. Sometimes, I have been approached to make a statement, which would have been helpful, but we did not have the requisite information. On those occasions, I was not prepared to compromise the integrity or the value of our Committee. One of the valuable roles of the Committee is giving the public confidence in the agencies.
One incident is graven on my heart. An editorial in The Times was widely believed to have been written by me—it was not—after the Mitrokhin investigation. The matter had been blown up out of all proportions in some quarters. We were able to investigate it because we were given access to all the information. We made one or two tough criticisms. I paraphrase the editorial, which said that although the agencies might feel a little bruised about some of our comments, they gained from the exercise because they were seen to be subject to a system of independent scrutiny by independent parliamentarians who had generally given them a good report and paid tribute to them where it was due.
We stated that the retrieval of the Mitrokhin archive was an outstanding achievement. Our praise was qualified by specific criticisms of some of the subsequent handling. However, the praise and criticism encouraged public confidence.
We have evolved a unique oversight system in this country. We take some interest in the systems that other countries operate, and we are especially familiar with the exhaustive American system. We are also familiar with the systems in Germany, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and our other allies. We recently visited Moscow, where oversight of the intelligence agencies is at an early stage. We visited the Duma security committee, several members of which had considerable experience of security arrangements in the former Soviet Union and Russia. Clearly, developments are occurring, and they will lead to increased democratic oversight of the agencies in future. As both Secretaries of State know, there is a genuine willingness in Russia to seek further co-operation with this country on subjects of common concern such as international organised crime.
We do not claim perfection, but we have a unique system. The Executive authorises, the judiciary verifies and our Committee, made up of parliamentarians, oversees. We have developed our role and our operating practices, which are not set out in legislation. There is no point in considering only the three agencies; we must consider the whole intelligence community. There is no point in considering GCHQ without ascertaining out its customers' view of its performance. If the Defence Intelligence Staff of the Ministry of Defence constitute its biggest customer, it is important that it is in our ambit. We regularly have sessions with the Chief of Defence Intelligence and his colleagues.
We are also involved with Customs and Excise and the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which are also of interest to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Work on serious organised crime is increasingly being co-ordinated.
We have lengthened our reach by appointing an investigator with Government agreement, which was given readily and is appreciated. I pay tribute to John Morrison, the investigator for our Committee, for the work that he already done and that he will continue to do. He has been a valuable addition to the Committee.
1142 I spoke about the brevity of the legislation and the extraordinarily limited nature of our blueprint. The greatest part of it details the reasons why we should not be given information, and the powers to withhold it from us. I am glad that that is being increasingly ignored for reasons that I mentioned earlier. The heads of the agencies and their colleagues increasingly appreciate that if they want us to have a sensible and full understanding, we need the most comprehensive information. We have tried to secure that build-up of trust, and to ensure at all times the security of the information that we receive. There has hardly been an incident that could lead the agencies justifiably to claim that we had not kept information properly and securely.
Overseeing the agencies' finances is one of our responsibilities. When I was a Minister, there were extraordinary limitations. There was a single intelligence vote, a single line and little proper understanding of the agencies' finances. I would like to claim that we have made a major contribution, ably supported by an arrangement, which was not scheduled in the legislation, with the National Audit Office. Its representatives sit in and advise on our hearings and investigations into the agencies' budgets and finances.
The schedules in our reports are impossible to read because they are full of asterisks. However, they set out the range of financial matters that we cover. All the details are given to the Committee and they are also available to Ministers.
We have taken a great deal of interest in international aspects. If I were to make a comment that is not in our reports—we are currently conducting our annual reviews, which include a review of the agencies' budgets—I would convey to the Secretaries of State a concern felt by the Committee about something that applies not just to the agencies but to every Department in which I have been involved.
The finance function tends to be included in part of the administration of a Department. Someone who is promoted in administration is suddenly told, "You are now the principal finance officer". No one would appoint the chief scientist on the grounds that he was a spendid layman with no scientific experience whatsoever. I think we are entitled to be concerned about the financial qualifications and experience possessed by people who are responsible for financial matters at very senior levels.
That is a firm impression that the Committee has recently formed. I think it important to put it on record because we are dealing with substantial sums of public money, and it is felt that there is on occasion something of a layman's approach to financial issues.
That brings me to the biggest construction project that the intelligence agencies have ever undertaken. The Foreign Secretary referred to it, and we have drawn attention to it. Progress has been pretty mixed so far, as the Foreign Secretary will know: he will be aware of some of the embarrassing events that are mentioned in our report. He will know, for instance, of the extraordinary gyrations in the sums—substantial sums—involved in the costs of the transition to the new building.
We hope, and believe, that project management is much stronger than it was, but we know that the task is still exceptionally challenging. Neither Thames house nor Vauxhall Cross represented the happiest of events in terms of financial control; then the new GCHQ 1143 accommodation building came over the horizon, dwarfing both those earlier major construction operations in terms of cost and complexity.
The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee unkindly suggested that we had taken no interest in the recruitment processes of the agencies. In fact, we have taken a keen interest. During almost the whole period the Committee has been in existence, we have felt disappointment and regret about the difficulties and concern that can be caused by just one or two disaffected personnel. Such people can cause considerable problems for the agencies—and, I suspect, a considerable amount of work for Secretaries of State. I shall not comment in detail on two specific events, but Members will know that I refer particularly to Messrs Tomlinson and Shayler.
We were greatly concerned by the issue of recruitment, and the challenges and difficulties that would be caused by the appointment of the wrong people.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson
My remark was not meant to be unkind. I was referring to paragraph 8 of the Intelligence and Security Committee's interim report, published this month, which refers toissues that would form the basis of this ye Les programme.Recruitment was not mentioned, which I thought a little surprising in the light of the events, involving Shayler, Tomlinson and others.
§ Mr. King
Sadly, those issues have been with us for a long time, as the right hon. Gentleman will see if he looks at our earlier reports. People who left the agencies some time ago have been causing difficulties, and giving rise to concern, for a long period.
An abiding theme of our considerations has been recruitment, along with the issues of vetting—including review vetting—and general security Admittedly, there is a sense in which we could take pleasure in that. During our time, there have been some appalling breaches of security; but they have taken place in the United States, not here.
A deadly comment was made by Mr. John Deutsch, who used to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He said, "It is a terrible thing to find a spy in your organisation. The only thing worse is not to find a spy in your organisation". We have continually emphasised the importance of establishing the tightest possible vetting and security scrutiny, but we live in a world in which the same pressures exist. According to the newspapers, the Prime Minister recently made representations to President Putin about the amount of Russian espionage activity in the United Kingdom. I do not know whether that is true; but our Committee has expressed concern about the degree of Russian activity in earlier years, and about the number of intelligence officers believed to be operating in this country.
In any event, there is no doubt that we shall be exposed to the same pressures as the United States. The ambitions of Russian intelligence services will be the same here as they are in the United States—in the shape of Mr. Aldrich Ames, Mr. Harold Nicolson and Mr. Hanssen.
We in the Committee have observed the way in which the role of the intelligence and security agencies has changed. The Foreign Secretary mentioned the challenges faced in Sierra Leone and the Balkans. My hon. Friend 1144 the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), speaking of military intelligence, said that in the old days of the cold war he hardly needed a map when he had to take part in military exercises on a German plain. When today's forces are put in harm's way, in territories that they have never been near before, high-quality advance intelligence is essential, and the promptness and relevance of such intelligence has certainly increased.
The agencies have an increasing role in dealing with organised crime. In the foreword to our main report, I referred to the Committee's visits to Dover, where we spoke of the fragile nature of our controls. We discussed illegal immigrants, and drugs. We saw something of the arrangements that were in place, and agreed that they were fragile enough anyway and, without intelligence, would be virtually non-existent. We said that before the terrible tragedy involving a container-load of dead Chinese immigrants. The traffic in immigrants was not fully identified until that tragedy, of which we knew nothing, was revealed to the British people. It underlined the scale of the challenge presented to intelligence agencies—that they must try to combat the sophistication and determination of big international gangs.
We also referred—as did the Foreign Secretary, in graphic terms—to the problems of information warfare. It is possible to shut the country down with no need for a bomb: a good computer hacker can often wreak, or at least threaten, far greater damage. I do not want to become involved in an argument about whether the Government coped better with the Anna Kournikova virus than they did with the love bug—that is the sort of language now creeping into our discussions—but as we pointed out, the House of Commons, ancient institution though it may be, was more on the ball with the "love bug", and gave earlier warning, than the great UN1RAS—unified incident reporting and alert scheme—which was supposed to warn every Department. The Committee went to America shortly afterwards and we observed that the slowness of the official system to warn the United States meant that people had got out of bed and switched on their equipment only for the virus to get into it as well before the British warning arrived. I am pleased that when a further major virus attack came, it was dealt with much more promptly.
The role of the intelligence agencies and the continuing importance of their work in the world is recognised and accepted in the Committee. Changes are occurring in international terrorism: there is an on-going threat from and serious concern about breakaway elements in the republican movement and the continuing heavy burden that they represent. The Security Service thus has a role to play in respect of the continuing need to acknowledge the threats posed by foreign intelligence services.
I was interested to read today's announcement that Mr. Sergei Ivanov, who some of us met recently, has become Russian Minister of Defence after being transferred by Mr. Putin from his position as secretary of the National Security Council. He is a former KGB colleague of President Putin's, so the influence of the intelligence community in the new Russian Government is real.
We have discussed the importance of agencies working together on different issues, organised crime in particular, and such developments and changes mean that, although they are separate, they must co-operate more closely. The Government are encouraging that and we also support it. That is one reason why my Committee attaches 1145 importance to the Ministerial Committee. I know that there is full access and that all the Secretaries of State attach proper importance to the work of the agencies for which they are responsible, but we are looking for more joint, co-operative working.
I am sure that the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary would pay tribute to the work of the Security Service, but it is important that the role played by the agencies be fully considered; and we believe that, as a minimum, there should be an annual ministerial meeting chaired by the Prime Minister so that the agencies' work in their combined role as our intelligence community, which plays an increasingly important part in the uncertain and thus more dangerous world in which we live, can be pursued and recognised at the highest level.
I shall leave to my colleagues who want to pick up individual points our concerns about the Official Secrets Acts and the need to ensure that we have relevant protection in place. There are secrets that need to be kept and the Foreign Secretary put it very well: nobody will entrust us with their secrets, which they may risk their lives to give us, if they believe that we are not a trusty and secure home for those secrets.
There is interest in freedom of information and a feeling that there is unnecessary and excessive secrecy. There are good arguments to be made on both sides, but we must not go so far as to say that there is no longer any need for the basic protection of essential secrets. It would be enormously damaging to the security of our nation if it was thought that we no longer regarded any information as secret and put it all in the public domain.
We have had the opportunity, which is given to few, to launch a new function of parliamentarians, set up a new Committee, and build a new relationship with our intelligence and security agencies. I place on record my personal thanks to the Clerks who have served our Committee. When one goes to the United States to meet the House Intelligence Committee, one sees that it has a 30-strong staff. One then meets in the Senate another 30-strong staff, as well as the 30 staffers working for the Congressmen on the Committee and the 30 staffers who serve the Senators. One begins to realise a sense of scale.
I offer my personal gratitude to two individuals, Jonathan Alden, our first Clerk, and Alistair Corbett, who took over from him, and the teams that have worked with them, which are minute compared with those in the United States. I know that the whole Committee will join me in expressing appreciation for the work that they have done.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
Although I have been absent, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have been following all he has said with great interest and admiration. I also realise that all my colleagues here are distinguished parliamentarians.
I want to make a narrow but important point of principle about the status of the Committee. The selector of its members is the Prime Minister, who is the head of the security services. He chooses those who are there to scrutinise him. I know that hon. Members work diligently, but is it not time selection was undertaken by the House rather than by the Executive branch of government, namely, the Prime Minister?
§ Mr. King
If we introduce a system of secret ballot for membership of Select Committees, we may be able to 1146 draw a real distinction between the way members of those Committees and members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are chosen. I believe that the Liaison Committee has made a suggestion along those lines. However, the point that I am obviously making is that if it is being suggested that who serves on Select Committees is decided by the free, unfettered will of the House and individual Members, then I must have missed something. No one is under that illusion. Personally, I think that such a distinction is vanishingly small.
I have described the work of the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire was Chairman of the Defence Committee for many years and other Members have served on the Public Accounts Committee and other Committees. Obviously there are differences in the ways we work. Our Committee meets in secret, although, as I have said publicly, I hope that we shall move on. I am sure that our style of operation will evolve under a new Chairman with a new approach and we may meet in public, although it will not be possible to do so in respect of all matters. That could be helpful.
There are those who hold to a point of principle, saying that there are too many asterisks in our reports and that there is too much secrecy over information. However, some Defence Committee reports contain many asterisks because information has been withheld. Some of us have worked on nuclear matters on which evidence has had to be given in secret. A considerable amount of information is excised from reports.
This is a process of sending for persons and papers. I have used the example of the Chief Secretary, who, so far and unfortunately, has is failed to appear, but in the main, people have been willing to appear. We have received every paper that any Select Committee would have had and we have also received a considerable number of papers that no Select Committee would ever have got its hands on.
I know why the Committee was set up, though I was not privy to the information at the time: there was a fear of the agencies and departments; there was also a fear of giving the Committee powers that might have led to the Director-General of the Security Service being summoned to the Bar of the House for refusing to give us a paper. There was perhaps a sense that an impossible situation would arise over the ownership of material, but we have ignored all that. We carry on as effectively as any Select Committee would, and the only difference is that we work within the ring of secrecy. If some people want to change that, they may be able to do so, as they are now familiar with members of the Committee and Members of Parliament.
We have made a lot of comparisons with experience overseas. That is no secret, as I have said it in public. In Australia, a decision was made to have oversight of intelligence, and to set up the first oversight committee. Someone went up to their Chief Whip, or whoever it was, and said, "We're going to have this committee. Whom are we going to put on it?" Someone else then looked up everyone who had ever asked a question about intelligence agencies. They were all members of what I call the awkward squad. They were put on the committee because it was thought that they were interested in intelligence.
The result was that the committee was a complete shambles and collapsed within about nine months. The agencies knew that those people had asked a lot of 1147 unhelpful questions—I am not pointing at the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who would never fit into that category—and the result was that the agencies clammed up and told the committee as little as possible; the exercise was a shambles. The committee has now been rebuilt on a much more sensible basis. We avoided that kind of hiccup by setting up the Committee in the way that we did.
I have taken up too much of the House's time, but I would like to thank both Secretaries of State who attended the debate, and the Prime Minister, for their courtesy in relation to the work that we have tried to do. I have seen both Secretaries of State on behalf of the Committee, on private occasions and on different matters. We have not always agreed, but we have tried to preserve the integrity of the Committee. However, they have taken a genuine interest in our oversight work and genuinely believe that our function is not just a nuisance to be borne with as much good humour as possible, but positively helpful to the functioning of the agencies, the respect in which they are held and the value in the public eye of the matters for which the agencies have a serious responsibility.
I want to thank every member of the Committee who served with me. I am a pretty intolerable Chairman at times, but they have borne that with good grace, and this has been an interesting and—I hope they will feel—worthwhile experience for all of us. There is a feeling in the agencies that our report was a bit negative, because we are always reporting on issues and problems on which we have comments to make. That can give a flavour of our not having a real appreciation of the good work that the agencies do. I shall therefore end with the words that I wrote at the end of the foreword to our annual report about the agencies:In particular it has been a privilege to work closely with those who serve in our Intelligence and Security Agencies. Mistakes are made and we will criticise failings as we find them, but these should not detract from the recognition of the generally high quality and commitment, and at times, great courage of those who serve our country in these essential tasks.
§ 3.3 pm
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I am pleased to pay a genuinely warm tribute to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), under whose chairmanship I have served since the Committee was set up. He may say that he is an intolerable Chairman, but I do not think that that is quite the word that I would choose. He may occasionally be a stern Chairman, but he has been a very effective one and he has enhanced the Committee's ability to do its work by the way in which he has conducted its meetings. By our own choice, he has represented the Committee externally. We made the decision that he should be the person who, on almost all occasions, spoke for the Committee, and he has always taken the various views in the Committee into account when he has done so.
The right hon. Gentleman has achieved the results that he has through consensus on the Committee. I cannot remember the Committee ever taking a vote, except, on one occasion, to decide whether we should travel by plane or train between two European capitals. That was a pretty closely contested vote. However, I cannot remember any others, because the Committee does not proceed in that way. We make unanimous reports, and are usually able to accommodate the occasional element of dissent, or regard 1148 it as less important than the overall recommendations that we intend to make. It is no small tribute to the right hon. Gentleman that he has achieved that.
I also want to pay tribute to my other colleagues on the Committee. It is not apparent, because the record is not public as it is in other Committees, that the members of the Committee share a very high level of commitment. Some Committees of the House have difficulty maintaining a quorum for their meetings; that does not happen in ours. Members attend every week and are heavily committed to the various visits that we undertake. They take their responsibilities very seriously and apply a great deal of effort and energy to them, in the full knowledge that hardly anyone will notice what they have been doing, except those who are aware of the Committee's importance and are closely involved in the work of the intelligence agencies.
There is no shortage of threats and tasks for the agencies. The most obvious example, perhaps, is the continuing activity of the Real IRA and the various dissident republican groups. A major responsibility for our agencies is tracking down and preventing terrorist outrages whenever possible. Further examples include the work of other terrorist groups, and activities such as drugs smuggling and people smuggling, into which the agencies have been drawn in addition to their traditional roles. Serious organised crime also falls into that category.
A major area of activity for the agencies, involving a great deal of detailed work and specialised knowledge, is dealing with arms trafficking, chemical and biological weapons, and weapons of mass destruction. An enormous amount of unseen work goes on in that area. The agencies are also involved, more obviously, in support for our troops in dangerous conflicts, such as those in Kosovo and Sierra Leone—examples that the Committee referred to in its reports. That is vital work.
In addition, the espionage being carried out against this country continues to require the efforts of counter-intelligence. The Hanssen case in the United States—as well as the earlier Ames case—demonstrated vividly how much intelligence activity is still going on, how much money can be involved in luring people into such activity, and the extent to which people's lives can be threatened by the activities of people such as Hanssen and Ames. As our Chairman pointed out earlier, such cases are a reminder of the vigilance that we have to show, and a great deal of effort goes into that.
Intelligence cannot do everything, but it can make a huge difference to the vital tasks in those areas. Sometimes, there is a danger of exaggerating what intelligence can do. However much intelligence we gather on drugs, it remains an issue that can be resolved only by combining intelligence, law enforcement and work within society to persuade people not to endanger their lives by taking drugs. It is important that our intelligence resources are used to catch some of the dangerous and unscrupulous people operating in that area, and to break some of the supply lines. It is also important that our law enforcement agencies can bring those people before the courts and present evidence that will convict them. However, we can deal only with a minority of the suppliers, and as long as there is a high level of demand, supply routes will be found. As the Foreign Secretary pointed out, all the activities have to be combined. Intelligence cannot do all sides of the work.
1149 Intelligence is obviously increasingly important to securing our borders against unwelcome traffic of various kinds. It is increasingly widely recognised that mere border checks do not solve such problems. There was a tendency for a few years to say, "We're an island and therefore we can keep out all sorts of unwelcome things." My experience on the Committee has demonstrated to me that it is through intelligence that we are able to interdict unwelcome movements into the country, whether they involve people, tobacco smuggling or drugs smuggling.
To the extent that we are successful, we depend heavily on intelligence to be so. That is partly because we could not conduct trade, or allow the movement of people in the way that most people want to be able to travel from one country to another, if every person was strip-searched on every overseas journey, or if every cargo was searched at every border point that it crossed. That is not the world in which we live. Intelligence, therefore, attracts a greater importance, whether we are talking about the work of intelligence agencies or about the intelligence component of the work of law enforcement agencies, which is directed more towards bringing people to justice than towards identifying traffic movements.
Our intelligence and security agencies work on those various tasks, but we must remember that intelligence can be wasted, ignored—especially if it does not accord with the prejudices and preconceptions of the person on whose desk it falls—used for the wrong purposes or misdirected. The Committee exists to monitor those matters and to try to ensure that mistakes are not made. The Committee has followed trails, trying to establish that intelligence was not wasted or misused. There have been earlier conflicts—going right back to the Falklands—where there was plenty of evidence of available intelligence not being used as it should have been to avoid conflict and to save lives.
The Committee can help to monitor and prevent the misuse of intelligence and the use of techniques for the wrong purposes. In a semi-public speech, the Director-General of the Security Service indicated that there is a tendency now within the agencies to ask what the Intelligence and Security Committee would think if they embarked on a certain course of action. That argument could be used in the future against Ministers who want intelligence in areas that the agencies do not think fall within their remit.
Intelligence can be expensive and it is relevant to ask whether resources are being committed to the right issues and whether too much is being spent on particular areas. The Committee, with the aid of the National Audit Office, is alone in its ability to question the order of priorities.
Intelligence can compromise civil liberties. It is a natural interest of a Liberal Democrat member of a Committee to want to attach importance to raising those questions. Many intelligence techniques—particularly those used at home in counter-intelligence—can pose a threat to civil liberties. We have various techniques through which we try to protect those liberties. These have become topical following the passing of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
The Act has a bad name, but perhaps we should put on record that it greatly widened the recognition of surveillance and what ought to be subject to regulation. 1150 The Act did so to comply with the European convention on human rights, but it has brought the activities of many Departments—MAFF, for example—within the ambit of broad regulation. All sorts of Departments must use some kind of surveillance to prevent things from happening or to discover what is happening. We cannot open our newspapers without being reminded of that. In the last couple of days, there have been questions about meat imports and whether we should have examined more carefully the imports that might have led to the foot and mouth outbreak. That would involve some kind of surveillance by Departments that we might not have thought would be involved.
The area that caused the greatest worry was the extension of surveillance powers to electronic communication and e-mail. The first and major anxiety was that of large secions of the industry in Britain, which were led to believe that it might impair their ability to produce material for export and to trade in such equipment if this country had a harsh regime. I hope that there is an increasing recognition that we cannot avoid applying in those areas the surveillance techniques that we apply to telephone communications. We would simply shift the traffic from one to the other if we did not have techniques that could be used properly by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. However, that makes it even more important that the powers of control are strong and effective.
That has led my party to argue that it would be better if the key decisions on matters that intrude on individual liberty were made judicially and not by the Executive. That view has not been accepted by the Government, but it is one that we will continue to press. We have Executive approval, but with an area of subsequent judicial examination. That is a problem to which we referred in paragraphs 19 and 20 of the interim report, which deal with the support available to the commissioners and the tribunal. The new amalgamated tribunal deals with a wide range of public complaints about security and intelligence issues. The several bodies involved are dependent on a tiny support structure which is quite incapable of carrying out the job. As we reported, there was not even anybody to open the mail, let alone process it, for many months. That was ludicrous.
The sort of mail that the tribunal will get requires some scrutiny, because some of it bears a resemblance to the mail sent to Members of Parliament. A number of our constituents believe that they are under daily surveillance from the security agencies, who are up the chimney, in the garage, or inside the television set. Such delusions give rise to a great deal of correspondence, but hidden among that may be a serious case involving an intrusion on civil liberties. We are in a ludicrous position if there is nobody to process that.
We have been advised that urgent steps have been taken to remedy the present situation, but we have not yet had the chance to check on that. The new Committee, when it is appointed, will have to do so at an early stage because great reliance is placed on the mechanisms. They are Britain's defence in relation to the European convention on human rights, so that an individual who believes that his civil liberties are being damaged has a mechanism through which he can appeal. If those involved in that mechanism cannot even open his letter—let alone process it or put it in front of the judicial authority who is to adjudicate upon it—we are not providing a safeguard that should be there.
1151 That was not a failing of the agencies, but of the Government, as was the delay on the regulations on employment tribunals. We are talking about the civil rights of people employed in the agencies; they, too, have rights that we must safeguard. The absence of an employment tribunal is clearly something that we should not allow to continue, particularly as that is increasingly cited as an excuse for behaviour which it does not excuse—namely, giving away our official secrets, obtained in the course of previous employment, to further one's own case. Nothing excuses or justifies that. Nevertheless, that was a gap that needed to be plugged. The change was only introduced in a late stage of an earlier piece of legislation, but it way not entirely to our satisfaction in the form that it took.
As has been pointed out, the regulations have been laid before the House this week, so the debate has—as the Foreign Secretary conceded—had a real, practical value in concentrating somebody's mind somewhere. But how long will it be before the necessary vetted staff and tribunal members are in place? We could have another year of delay if we are not careful. There must be early action on that matter, which need not wait on the parliamentary process. If the regulations have been laid, we can get on with the job so that the tribunal is available within a matter of weeks, rather than months or years.
These civil liberties failings are Government failings, not agencies' failings. There is a real awareness in the agencies that they are working to defend our liberties as a nation. Those involved are the beneficiaries of those liberties; they want to live free and civilised lives. They have a consciousness in their work, which must be set against the demands placed upon them and their difficult task in dealing with some pretty unscrupulous people about whose activities we need to know.
It should not be assumed that the agencies are staffed by people who have no concerns about civil liberties; they do, including concerns about their own. That issue came up in the whole question of trade union rights at GCHQ some years ago. Part of the pride that those people have in their work is that they are defending the liberty that we enjoy as citizens of the UK. Many are exposed to danger, difficulty and challenge as they seek to defend those liberties.
As a party, the Liberal Democrats believe that the Committee that scrutinises these services should be a Select Committee. That is the appropriate model, but I share the view of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, who said that this is an evolving matter and that it would have been difficult to start from that point. I recognise that the way in which the Committee began was probably the best way to win the confidence of all concerned.
I believe that if the Committee operated as a Select Committee, we would not behave significantly differently from the way in which we behave now. Our work would continue in much the same manner, and we would have to establish pretty much identical procedures to the ones that we have now, probably including the presentation of a report to the Prime Minister and then to the House. We would certainly still meet in secret and require secure premises in which to do so. Therefore, it would not make a great difference to the way in which the Committee operates.
Such a transition would probably help in a small measure to remove an argument against the Committee and enhance public and media confidence in it. 1152 Confidence in the Committee has grown regardless, and we have had glowing comments from some parts of the media on our work in the past year or so. Nevertheless, such a change would have some symbolic value.
Committee members have to serve as guarantors of democracy and liberty. By using that mechanism, Parliament is effectively sending inside that ring of secrecy a group of Members in whom it has some confidence, thereby allowing them unprecedented access to information. I think that Parliament also assumes that those Members' instincts, political background and awareness of colleagues' feelings enable them to act decisively in dealing with anything that might be wrong inside that ring, to set boundaries and parameters, and to ensure that money is not being wasted and the job is being done properly.
There used to be some very odd attitudes to intelligence and security. There was a left-wing attitude that all of it was unnecessary and that all such activity should be stopped. There was also a right-wing attitude that our boys are doing a grand job, so do not ask any questions. Neither of those views is sustainable. We need our intelligence and security services, but they need to be scrutinised. Probably the only way of scrutinising them is to entrust a very limited number of people with the task of getting in there and examining the services very carefully.
That group of people has to be given the necessary information. The Committee does not need to know everything. We do not need to know a specific agent's name or location, but, sometimes, we may have to know an operational detail so that we can determine whether the right or wrong action has been taken. Currently, we have relatively little difficulty in obtaining the information that we think we need. However, just occasionally we do have difficulty, and some outstanding issues have to be addressed.
The Government have to recognise that the Committee cannot make authoritative statements to the effect that "nothing wrong has been done" or "the matter has been pursued properly" unless we have the necessary information. The Committee will not make that type of statement or give the assurances that the House requires unless those statements and assurances are based on the necessary information. If we have that information, we can give the assurances.
Committee members will have to be in place if they are to do the job. I endorse the remarks of the retiring Chairman, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, that it is vital that the Committee is appointed quickly after the general election. The new accommodation project at Cheltenham will still be a major issue, as will many of the very topical matters mentioned today by hon. Members. It would be a travesty for those matters to be unsupervised for the next six to nine months. I therefore hope that someone, somewhere—including the usual channels, the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister's office and anyone else who is involved—has received the message that the Committee requires an essentially continuous existence to do a very necessary job.
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I shall be very brief as I am hoping to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair after the Easter recess, on Monday 23 April, when I hope we shall have a debate on privileges. I hope to participate in that debate prior to the next general election.
1153 My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) is in the Chamber, and I should like to reply to his intervention on a matter that, as he knows, has been discussed by some of our hon. Friends—the nature of the process by which Committee members are appointed.
The truth is that, if I were a Chief Whip, there are some hon. Members on both sides of the House whom I would not appoint to the Committee. That has nothing to do with whether one has been a rebel in the past or has asked hundreds of questions that may have been embarrassing to the security services. I remember a time, in the mid-1980s, when I would go to the Table Office to table questions that included names. When I was not looking, the staff would ring someone to check whether I was allowed to do so, and I always presumed that they were ringing the services to find out whether the name would identify someone who was active. But we have moved on from that.
We could never allow a system whereby someone could be appointed without great consideration. Ultimately, the whole system survives because of the relationship between the services and the Committee. The problem is that one Committee member could completely destroy the Committee's integrity and credibility. Even so, I am in favour of having on the Committee people who are questioners.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock would make a particularly good Committee member. I believe that he would adopt the same type of attitude to its work as I have had, and I know that he has the interests of the state very much at heart. The fact that someone is a maverick should not necessarily prevent their membership. It is a matter of where their loyalty lies. That is the issue. As a Committee member, one very quickly discovers that that is critically important.
Outsiders who consider our activities may wonder how far we have come. We have moved on from the 1980s, when it was very difficult even to ask a question and one certainly never received an answer. Although I was not able to go on the trip, some Committee members have been to Moscow to meet all types of people, some of whom I presume probably had the closest contacts with former regimes in the former Soviet Union. That is a measure of the change that is occurring.
It is a measure of the trust that the services have in the Committee that they felt that they could add their support for such a visit—in the knowledge that nothing would be compromised, and that we would be helping the process of creating and generating international relationships which in the longer term may benefit both the former Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. There are matters of common interest, such as the fight against drugs and international organised crime. There would also be, to some extent, a matching of views on Islamic issues.
I now want to deal with the critical shifts that I think have been made during my membership of the Committee. When I joined it, having spent 12 years on the Public Accounts Committee, one of the things that struck me was that—although we knew that the National Audit Office was in the background—prior to the appointment, in 1997, of "the new boys and gals", the Committee never took evidence from the NAO. One of 1154 the first things that I, and other hon. Members, did on being appointed to the Committee was to press for the development of that relationship.
I have always regarded the NAO's role as critical to monitoring what is happening inside any Department. It is the NAO, on behalf of taxpayers, that follows taxpayers' money. I think that the public might be very interested to know that the NAO can go as far as examining the detail of a particular investigation by officers in the services, pass comment on that operation in relation to financial accountability, and if thought to be necessary and appropriate, make that information available to the Intelligence and Security Committee. If the NAO believes that there has been a misuse of public money, for example, it can draw that to our attention.
I confess that we have not been presented with operational information of that nature. However, it would be within the Committee's power to have access to such information if we felt that that was necessary. Although obviously we would not have access to the details of the operation or the personnel involved in it, access to the other information demonstrates the level of intensity that the NAO can apply in its investigation if it chooses to do so.
I believe that the compromise arrangement on an investigator—it was a compromise to some of us—was also very important. I was taken by the idea of an inspector general when the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) returned from their visit to Australia and were so enthused by what they had found. Subsequently, some of us argued most strongly for the establishment of an inspector. However, we compromised on an arrangement that was proposed, I think, by the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates,) which has proved to be an excellent arrangement. It has introduced the principle of someone outside the Committee, but acting on our behalf, having the right to go in and find out precisely what is happening in greater detail than we can, reporting to us within the remit set by law.
Stephen Lander talked about something at the Royal United Services Institute lectures that I thought would never be referred to in public. He said that, on occasions, he felt able to go further than the law required in terms of providing information to the Committee. To outside students of our activities, that should be very interesting, because it shows that our remit extends further than the legislation and that we are therefore more effective than might be supposed. We can go further, on occasions, without compromising any element of national security.
I have been struck, on visiting the agencies, by the number of young people there. The agencies offer a career that must be unparalleled in our public service. It may not be the best-remunerated career in the world, although reports show that there are developments in that area, but it must certainly be the most exciting.
It is quite wrong for people outside to presume that the agencies are riddled with people on the right wing of politics, who fly the flag and are incapable of considering libertarian principles. In fact, they contain people of all political persuasions. I have had some fascinating discussions about politics with people whose name I did not know. I cannot emphasise enough how acutely aware they are of the civil libertarian arguments that take place 1155 here. They would never allow their politics to interfere with their judgments in carrying out their public duties. It is very impressive.
I understand from my sons, and I have discussed it with agency personnel, that there is much discussion in universities about applying for intelligence work, particularly at GCHQ, which must be having one of its finest periods for recruitment. Many people on relevant courses are being attracted to and applying for jobs at GCHQ. That is good news and bodes well.
A young man in his mid-30s in one of the agencies—I am not breaching security in saying this—told us about his work, within the limits of what he could say. His sense of commitment was remarkable. We could tell that he had the national interest absolutely at heart. I must not say too much, but I want to emphasise how impressed I was by our conversation. If he has the opportunity to read Hansard, I hope that he will be able to identify himself, because there are many such dedicated people in the agencies. I told him that many people in the House of Commons would be most impressed if only they had the opportunity to talk to him.
I do not want to labour the arguments about Select Committees—I have done so repeatedly over the years, in the Committee, on the Floor of the House and outside—but there is one very important matter that the House should take into account. We are moving into a century that will be very different from the previous one. Throughout this century, there will be more and more attempts by Governments of all political persuasions to compromise our civil liberties, not because they want to but because they feel that they have to if the wider freedom of all individuals in society is to be preserved. It is a tremendous dilemma to decide how far we can allow the state to go.
National identity cards are an example. Some see them as an invasion of individual freedom. I do not. There is a division of view within the Conservative party. Some Conservatives—right-wingers such as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—regard them as infringing civil liberties. I am not making a party political point here, because the same is true of the Labour party. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) would be completely opposed to them, preoccupied as he is with civil liberties, whereas I take the opposite view and regard them as necessary for the future.
I believe that national identity cards are inevitable, and will come regardless of which party is in power. I remember when closed circuit television cameras were introduced on our streets. Civil libertarian groups in my constituency were outraged and saw them as an intrusion, but now I never hear any criticism of them at all. People want them. There was an element of principle to begin with, but compromise was inevitable. Every time we move the debate on and allow such principles to be compromised, we must have a check in place with which the public can identify. There has to be effective public scrutiny, and that has to be through this institution.
If we are to allow such intrusions to take place—which we will; in the end they will be accepted, or at least acknowledged as being for the wider good—we need 1156 them to be overseen by an institution that is identified with elections and has the imprimatur of Parliament. That is why I want the structure to change.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
My hon. Friend flagged up something that has exercised me since last autumn. I abhorred and found anathema the actions of those people who tried to hold the country to ransom over fuel, but if surveillance was used on them, as we are led to believe, I am in a dilemma. I wonder how my hon. Friend feels about it, given our mutual belief in democracy and liberty. Is it right for the state, for economic reasons, to use the machinery of surveillance that we would normally use in relation to national defence, on people who are trying to frustrate the state and exert pressure on the Government in relation to fuel prices—or perhaps on other malevolents? Where is the fine line?
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
There is a category in which the state would have some interest, and that is what we would call economic well-being. That is where we come in, because we can ask questions about such matters. During the course of our inquiries we can bring the heads of the services before us—in this case, the head of the Security Service. We can ask Stephen Lander about developments in this or that particular area, and he will have to reply.
Of course, our report would go through the Prime Minister before it filtered through to Parliament, but there is a mechanism for dealing with such issues. My hon. Friend should not remain interminably suspicious that such matters cannot be controlled. There is also the role of the Home Secretary, who has responsibilities in that direction; we know that the present Home Secretary takes those responsibilities extremely seriously. I hope that I have put my hon. Friend's mind at rest slightly.
I know that there has been lots of banter in the Committee about Select Committee status, particularly between the hon. Member for East Hampshire and me. I have always thought that when we are on a platform together, as we were last week, the people who watch us like that. They know that even within the present remit, there are divisions of opinion, and we can argue them out, even in a public forum. That is helpful to the process. I know it is helpful to the services, too, because people in the services are fascinated by those arguments. Within the services themselves there are people who want the Select Committee structure to be set up. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will know about that.
I have said what I had to say, and unless I have the opportunity to speak in the debate on privilege on 23 April, this may well be my final contribution in the House. Thank you.
§ Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who made what could be his last contribution in the House. I would be happy to cross swords with him again on 23 April, because I, like him, think that a general election would be a distraction at the moment—but I shall not go into that now.
All this business about a Select Committee is an old chestnut by now. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have crossed swords about it before. I have never 1157 heard the case so persuasively put as it was by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)—who has just stopped on his way out to hear me say that. However, persuasively as the case was put, I have to tell him that I am not persuaded.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said, I had the honour to chair the Defence Committee for six years, and I have now been a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee for six years. He was right to say that there is a distinction rather than a difference, but there is an enormous distinction.
We dealt with very sensitive matters; for example, we examined the Trident nuclear submarine programme, year after year, almost from its inception to its end. However, when a Government Department—or, particularly, one of the intelligence agencies—gives evidence to a Select Committee, that evidence then becomes the Committee's property. That is the distinction. That is the only difference between us.
Once somebody gives evidence to a Select Committee, that evidence is the property of the Committee and of the House, and at the end of the day the Committee can do what it will with it. The difference that was—rightly in my view—built in to the structure of the present Committee, is that the evidence does not become the property of the House until it has been filtered through the Prime Minister. I am certain that without that filter, we would not have been privy to even half the growing amount of information that we have been given over the years. We must remain exclusive and different.
However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater said, it is a distinction that need not bother us, because our work is very similar to that of a Select Committee. I say that for the benefit of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), too. It is simply that the ownership of the highly sensitive information that we have been given has to remain within the ring of secrecy until such time as the Prime Minister and his advisers allow it to be reported to Parliament.
I do not think that there is a difference in the confidence that the House and the general public have in the Intelligence and Security Committee, as opposed to a Select Committee—although there may have been a difference for the first few years, when we were a new Committee. I think that that feeling of confidence will grow. In four or five years' time, whether there is a change or not, and I do not think that there will be—[Interruption.] I must tell the hon. Member for Workington that I have the last word at the moment, which is a nice position to be in.
I do not think that by that time there will be any difference perceived, either outside or inside the House, between the level of accountability of the intelligence and security services, and that of the other Departments to their respective Select Committees. That argument is academic, and is becoming more academic as the days and years go by.
My right hon. and hon. Friends have raised many of the relevant points, so I can be quite brief. First, I want to amplify what the Foreign Secretary said about the inherent dangers of technology and information warfare. As has been said, an enemy could do far more damage by bringing down computer systems than by dropping bombs. That gets truer every day.
1158 I remind the House of something that may have slipped people's minds. Three or four years ago, an 18-year-old computer hacker brought the entire US air force in the United States to the ground by hacking into the air traffic control system for military aircraft. The authorities were bemused. They knew that this was not a friendly hacker, and he was so clever that he made it appear that the attack on the computer system was coming from India. For two days, until they sorted it out, all they could do was to ground the entire United States air force. I do not need to tell hon. Members what would happen if that took place even in a period of low-level conflict, as we have had in the Balkans all too recently. There would have been chaos.
I shall give another example, because the danger needs highlighting. A couple of years ago, an IRA plot to use bombs to disable the electricity generating sub-stations around London was discovered. It would have crippled the electricity supply of the capital, but by careful intelligence and very good work by the police and the intelligence services, the attack was prevented.
How much more effective would that attack have been had the terrorists moved somebody into the London electricity generating control centre and left him there for years? At the appropriate moment, they could have told him to destroy the computer system. That would have been more devastating, it could have been done much more quickly, and mere would have been less chance of discovery, because the IRA would not have needed garages in back streets full of cars and explosives.
That is an important factor, and I hope that the Committee will look into it if I have the honour to serve on it again—if, indeed, I have the honour to get back here and serve on the Committee in the next Parliament. I hope that the Committee will take the matter up to help the Government go forward into an ever more complex and dangerous area.
That is why we will need more intrusive inspection of computer communications—to prevent just such a threat. I know that I am repeating what has been said before, but I thought that it would be helpful to illustrate the point, so that people who do not understand intelligence matters could grasp the size of the problems caused by the ever increasing pace and sophistication of technology.
My last point is about the growing problem of serious crime—smuggling drugs, illegal immigrants, false asylum seekers and all that. This week I visited Dover and went across to the other side with the customs officers, because I could not be there when the rest of the Committee went two or three months ago.
I saw the new scanner. With X-ray cameras, officers can now scan a container lorry as long as this Chamber in five or 10 minutes. I could see how effective that was. One sees the contents immediately, and can spot differences, and whether there is anything irregular. I commend the Government for having introduced the scanner and I hope that they will further speed up its introduction. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater said, without intelligence there is no way that we can interdict such activities at the moment.
If everyone has to go through the scanner routinely, the smuggler will face a much harder problem. The Treasury Committee looked at that in its second report and recommended that 13 scanners were needed very soon. I do not suppose that anybody will oppose that except 1159 the Treasury, as scanners are expensive items. I urge the Ministers concerned to tackle the Treasury about that, because it is one way in which—I hesitate to use the phrase—at a stroke they could improve the detection of a huge amount of smuggled contraband, especially cigarettes. The Treasury is now losing hundreds of millions of pounds, but it is difficult to explain to it that it will eventually make a profit. It does not see the matter that way, but it has always worked like that.
I saw the highest-tech piece of kit imaginable, which is mobile and looks a bit like a Heath Robinson device; it goes over the top of the lorry and moves along it. The plan is to move in fixed technology whereby the lorry drives through and is scanned, rather as one's suitcase is at the airport. Although more expensive, the sooner that that happens, the better. Despite all that wonderful technology, the approach to lorries is back in the age of the quill pen and dependent on the observational ability of Customs and Excise.
I raise that point for the benefit of Ministers, who may not be aware of it. It is a question of the British and French Governments organising matters so that information, which is available on computer, can be transferred. Our customs officials in France and, indeed, the French customs officials at Dover, would therefore have access to low-level intelligence, such as manifests, number plates and so on, before the lorries arrive. They could add that to the intelligence produced by our own intelligence sources, and identify suspicious lorries in good time, as opposed to the three or four minutes that they have at the moment.
When one sees millions of pounds worth of new technology alongside a chap trying to look down a handwritten list that changes twice a day, one realises that we have not yet got that right. In the battle against smugglers—of people, drugs and so on—we need to address that problem and get it right quickly. That is a matter for the two Governments and the organisations that run the cross-channel ferries, the tunnel, freight trains and everything else. I very much hope that that will be taken to heart and acted on quickly, as it is frustrating, especially for customs officials, to have wonderful kit, but to have one link missing in the chain.
It is time to thank everyone. I am happy and grateful to have been on the Committee since it started. If I survive, I hope that I may serve on it in the next Parliament. I shall miss the hon. Member—I was about to say "hon. Friend"—for Workington. I shall miss him as a maverick and a member of the awkward squad whose presence adds a little ginger to our proceedings even if, alas, as everyone else has said, they are rarely seen by the public.
The House will have gathered from the speeches of Committee members—there are still one or two to come—that not only do we work happily, but effectively and well. We work without party politics as a team.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
May I tell the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) that he does not have the last word on the status of the Intelligence and Security Committee? It seems that that has become part of our annual debate; we do not have to justify it, but give our own opinions about its status.
I was particularly interested in the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on my hon. Friend the Member for Workington 1160 (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who is a member of the Committee. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock has attended previous debates on the matter, but I believe that our entire debate is a distraction from the fact that we should be debating the Committee's annual work load, as far as that is possible in the public domain. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) talked about the symbolism of the Committee. I am not greatly into symbolism; we should consider whether something is functional and practical. The way in which members of the Committee are assembled by the Prime Minister and the Executive, who, it is true, have prime responsibility for national security in this country, needs to be set alongside the way in which other Committees in the House are assembled.
I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock that, after the 1997 election, I was offered, by telephone, the chairmanship of a Select Committee, which I declined. The offer was not the general will of Parliament; it was made by the Executive. About two and a half years ago, I was asked by telephone to sit on a pre-legislative Select Committee, which examined the Bill that was eventually passed by the House to set up the Food Standards Agency. Not only was I asked to sit on that Committee, but I was asked to be Chairman. I must tell my hon. Friend that it was not the will of Parliament that that offer was made; the call came from someone in the Executive. To a large extent, therefore, our debate is a distraction from what the Intelligence and Security Committee is about.
I do not agree with everything that the hon. Member for East Hampshire said about what would, or would not, be seen if the Committee was a Select Committee, as opposed to a Committee of parliamentarians assembled by the Prime Minister. I am not arguing that the Committee should never be a Select Committee; we should get down to what it does, what it makes public, and how that squares with what happens in society, with Parliament and with our perception of people's attitudes towards the intelligence services in this country.
In that context, I want to say a few words in our debate. What has happened to British intelligence agencies in the past two decades is unique. First, it is only in the last 20 years that there has been a public admittance on paper that those agencies exist. In the past decade, the Executive and the Prime Minister set up a Committee of parliamentarians, on which I have served since 1997. Members of the Committee who had not signed the Official Secrets Act had to do so, and look into sensitive areas of the agencies' work inside and outside the country.
Every speaker has paid tribute to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), but I want to do so in the context of those two unique decades. During that period, he has performed a singular role. He has been a Secretary of State, with direct responsibilities for signing off, at least annually, the budget of an agency which, in theory, did not exist; its existence was not acknowledged. Yet he sat in Cabinet signing off its annual budgets and, presumably, not wanting to take responsibility for some of its capital projects. In 1994, he then took up the chairmanship of the Committee. I had little parliamentary contact with him, other than across the Floor of the Chamber, until I joined the Committee in 1997, but I believe that he has been an extremely good Chairman. He has not caused trouble, as people often do when they chair committees, as he said himself.
1161 I want to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his ministerial experience and chairing of the Committee. I recall his saying on numerous occasions in the Committee that although he had held ministerial responsibility for the intelligence agencies, he only really got to know about them when he became chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I probably should not be saying that, because people might think that I am out to cause trouble. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman will be writing his memoirs when he retires from Parliament. However, I genuinely want to thank him for the work that he has done, as have other speakers before me, including my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
The work of the Committee is evolving; there have been further developments since we discussed the last annual report. It has not been quite 12 months, as the last one was produced quite late. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater spoke about the leader in The Times and the press reports about the publication of our report on the Mitrokhin archive. The right hon. Gentleman said that someone had suggested that he might have written the leader himself. At the conference held two weeks ago at the Royal United Services Institute on oversight, security and intelligence issues, when the Director-General of the Security Service sat down, having spoken for the first time ever about the relationship that the service has had with the Committee over the years, we could have been forgiven for thinking that the right hon. Gentleman had written that speech as well. It went into detail about the evolving relationship between this Committee of parliamentarians and the agencies.
The right hon. Gentleman can be proud of how he has steered this ship. It could have got into troubled waters; it might, once or twice, have got a bit near the coastline at low tide, which might have been unwise. However, by and large, the Committee has kept away from troubled waters, certainly for the years I have been a member. That is due in no small part to the right hon. Gentleman's stewardship.
I was reminded of the director-general's speech when my hon. Friend the Member for Workington said that the director-general had said that sometimes more had been done than the law required. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members here today, those who will read this debate in Hansard, and members of the public will recognise that this debate covers only a part of the work that we have done over the past 12 months. I suppose that the iceberg metaphor is the correct one inasmuch as the report is indeed the tip of the iceberg—a lot of other work has been done. Some of it is asterisked in the report; some has not been included but remains in the confines of our office.
I turn to the investigator who has worked closely with the Committee over the past few months. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater paid John Morrison a compliment, which I would like to do as well. However, considering the work that has been done, a few other people should also be thanked.
We were not sure how the investigator would work with the Committee. He reports to us, and we task him in relation to going into the various agencies to look at matters that we could look at if we had the time. His ability to concentrate on specific issues has been very valuable.
1162 We have had three reports in the past 12 months. The report on the agencies' security policies and procedures was eventually sent to the Prime Minister. There was a report on the use of laptop computers. No one will be surprised at our decision to look at that issue. It was not simply about laptops going missing or being left in taxis, although that is an important aspect. That report went into detail, some of which has been included in our annual report. When there are multi-use laptop computers in organisations, they should be wiped clean when an individual has finished with a particular issue. When laptops are for the sole use of an individual, we should ensure that there is no build-up of sensitive information. If the laptop went missing and fell into the wrong hands, a lot of material could obviously be lost.
The third report deals with information technology systems and strategies in the public sector. That has nothing to do with the agencies; sadly, massive amounts of taxpayers' money have been misspent in many areas of the public sector, including health, on the procurement of IT systems. The investigator was tasked to look at the issue on that basis. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that we now have an IT champion looking at some of these issues.
The Government's response to the reports that we sent to the Prime Minister, as well as their response to the investigator's reports on the agencies, showed a mature attitude to what some people thought was an uneasy path for us to take. The period from 1997 until now may seem quite long, but we hope that it will in fact be a very short time in the life of this oversight Committee in the United Kingdom. Everyone's attitude to the investigator's report has been very important.
An ever-increasing part of the intelligence agencies' work is serious crime. The action taken on human smuggling and its awful consequences has been mentioned this afternoon. I refer not only to the deaths in Dover but to human, trafficking around the world. We, along with many other countries, must deal with the problem of people exploiting others for money. That is a developing area which is highlighted in our report, and I am pleased that something is being done about it.
Serious crime is also a major issue. Drugs have been mentioned, as have the intelligence products that some of our agencies use in the international field to stop the movement of drugs around the country. Many of them are targeted on the misery in our communities and constituencies, where people are hooked on drugs. Such products are invaluable in trying to stop drug trafficking.
There is greater use of the agencies' products to deal with Customs and Excise evasion or fraud. I have an interest in public health matters, tobacco in particular. Tobacco smuggling into this country costs the Exchequer somewhere in the region of £2.3 billion to £2.5 billion. It is argued that tobacco is smuggled because of our high taxes: it is not. European Union countries such as Italy and Spain have lower taxes on tobacco products, but smuggling is as big problem there as it is here. So the reasons go wider than that.
I am concerned not simply about the loss to the Treasury, but about the fact that much of the smuggled tobacco reaches the under-15s, who cannot buy cigarettes in legitimate outlets. They are cheaper, and as a consequence people get hooked on cigarettes at an early age. A lot of work is being done on that, too.
1163 While we have the ear of Ministers, I draw attention to the interim report of the Committee, which has been published in the past few days. Paragraph 32 says on the subject of tobacco smuggling:The Committee was concerned to hear that large consignments of cigarettes continue to be exported from the UK. only to be smuggled back into the country via a staging country or countries.I know that an independent Department of Trade and Industry investigation is taking place. It looks at what happened in the past, but the quotation makes it clear that the Committee has received evidence that such smuggling is still happening now. The Minister may want to pass on the Committee's concern expressed in that part of the report. I believe that the Government should have a look at it.
In both of the past two years, we have commented on the absence of legislation to give people who work in the security agencies the right to go to an industrial tribunal. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary say that orders to that effect had been laid in Parliament this week. That was fortuitous, given that the debate was scheduled for today. We shall be pleased to see the orders passed. I am not sure whether anyone in the agencies could have usefully used the legislation in the years since we have been lobbying for it, but it is good that the machinery is being put in place. We hope that it will not be needed. Two years ago we sought to ensure that there was a good system in each of the agencies to enable people who did not feel that they were being looked after properly to seek redress internally. The system should be able to handle that; we did a fair amount of work on it.
We have included a deliberately short comment in our interim report on the future of the Official Secrets Acts. I will not go into the detail of that paragraph, but I genuinely believe that the Act needs to be re-examined quickly. We say in our annual report that the future of the Act should be considered by any follow-on Committee, if there is to be a general election in the next few years—[Interruption.] That might be wishful thinking, not on my part, I hasten to add. If there is to be an election in the next few weeks, a new Committee should be set up more quickly than in May 1997 and it should look at the operation of the Act.
The context of the Official Secrets Act is changing—if in no other sphere, then in that of the internet and its effect on people's ability to put information in the public domain. That can form a case for the defence in any judicial action. The situation needs to be addressed.
Our compliments to the professionals who work in our agencies are in our report for all to see. On every visit, on some of which we have given staff a rough time by questioning what happens in their departments, I have never ceased to be amazed at their professionalism and courage. They do jobs in our democracy that most of us who are democratic representatives would shy away from because of the personal danger. I cannot emphasise enough the fact that, in the years I have served on the Committee, which I have thoroughly enjoyed, I have always been amazed at their professionalism. The people who work in the agencies ought to be given recognition by everyone. They look after not their own interests but the interests of the country, and they do that job well.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
Unlike other Back Benchers who have spoken so far, I am not a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I hope to have the indulgence of the House in doing what I usually do, which is to talk primarily about intelligence and security issues rather than the work of the Committee. However, I shall touch on one aspect of the Committee's work before I conclude.
The topics that I wish to address are MI5 and subversion, with reference to some recent and on-going developments; some historical topics relating to the retention of files and the examination of foreign archives; and oversight and the problems of reconciling it with the needs of security.
On 12 January 1998, a prominent story in The Times was headlined "MI5 decides that democracy is safe." The reporter, Michael Evans, said:The once-thriving F branch of the Security Service, which in its heyday investigated the extreme Left and the extreme Right, is now reduced to 'half' a desk officer who concerns himself with the pensions of former employees…An acknowledgement that this line of MI5 business has gone out of fashion will be made clear in the third edition of the Security Service booklet to be published in March".Indeed, the booklet "MI5—The Security Service" was published in March 1998. It stated on page 19:Subversion in the UK is essentially an historical phenomenon … The Security Service currently has no investigations in this area. During the financial year 1997/98 only 0.3 per cent. of the Service's resources were allocated to the remnants of this work, predominantly to pay the pensions of retired agents.That came back to me on 21 June 1999, when the Home Secretary made a statement in the House about the demonstrations in the City of London. There had been some violent demonstrations, and the right hon. Gentleman said:I want to place on record my appreciation…for the way in which the City of London police, supported by the Metropolitan police and the British Transport police, dealt with this wholly deplorable outbreak of violence which was plainly premeditated…At the moment, I have no firm information to suggest that a recurrence of those demonstrations is likely in the foreseeable future. However, I intend to hold further consultations with the Commissioner and the police service, to ensure that everything possible is done to protect the safety of the public and the businesses in the City and elsewhere in London…The London police … have a fine record of co-operating fully with peaceful demonstrations. But the refusal of the organisers of that demonstration even to discuss with the police how the event was to be handled was wholly irresponsible, and showed a contempt for peaceful protest and for democracy."—[Official Report, 21 June 1999; Vol.333, c.778.]Hear, hear, we may all say to that.
In the questioning that followed that statement, I pointed out to the Home Secretary that perhaps we were having a problem with non-co-operation of demonstrators taking part in mass and illegal action because F branch of the Security Service had effectively been closed down. I urged him to recognise that that was a mistake and that, when such riots were being surreptitiously organised, the counter-measures that were required were those which that part of the Security Service had specialised in, but no longer carried out.
1165 I was evidently wasting my breath, because the same thing happened all over again the following year. On 2 May, the Home Secretary once again made a statement to the House about demonstrations in London and Manchester. He said:Yesterday's shameful violence was the culmination of a loosely organised series of events that took place from Friday to Monday. Although all the events were broadly described as a protest against capitalism, they were organised by a number of wholly disparate groups.None of the organisers was willing to discuss preparations in advance with the police, who therefore had to make their plans on the basis of the best information obtained by them."—[Official Report, 2 May 2000; Vol. 349, c. 21.]A number of times in the statement and in the questions that followed it, the Home Secretary referred to the "benefit of hindsight" when hon. Members said that mistakes had been made in the way in which the London demonstration had been handled. However, I do not believe that it was a question of being wise after the event. It was wholly to he anticipated that, with demonstrations of that sort being organised in a clandestine manner by people who had no intention of obeying the law or demonstrating peacefully, a level of disruption would be caused that could have been dealt with only by the normal methods of the Security Service functioning as F branch of MI5 used to do.
I raise the matter of those two demonstrations because a third is in the pipeline. On 18 February, The Sunday Telegraph carried the following report.
Thousands of anarchists plan to take over London streets on May Day in a violent version of Monopoly, seizing hotels and company headquarters in an effort to disrupt the general election expected on May 3.Police have uncovered plans for more than 15,000 extremists to converge on London from all over Europe on May 1.The article quotes one of the plans, which states:This year we want to celebrate May Day by playing a game of Monopoly on the streets of London on May 1.The plan advises activists to "consider the possibilities" and toseize the headquarters of companies involved in debt, privatised railways and utilities such as gas and electricity.The plans also instruct activists to targetabove all the streets and areas in which the daily business of capitalism continues normally unhindered.A number of speakers in the debate so far have wisely referred to the increasing importance of the role of the internet and of methods of communication by that means. The information that I have may or may not be reliable, but it suggests that the information that the police have managed to gather so far has primarily come from a study of websites such as www.mayday2001.org, or www.maydaymonopoly.net. Those sites include information that the organisers of the forthcoming riots have chosen to make available on the internet. I gather that details about how they are really proposing to organise their events are contained in encrypted e-mails. That encryption is easily available via a commercial firm—I will not name it because I do not wish to give more publicity to its activities—which has recently recruited a senior US encryption expert.
1166 My information is that it would take the most powerful computers of the American National Security Agency or our own GCHQ at least 24 hours to break such a code. We are therefore facing the possibility of quite major, planned disruption that could well spill over into the day on which the general election may be held. However, our police are having to make do without the advice of the Security Service that they would have had in the past if the decision—erroneous, in my view, and in that of others with an interest in this subject—had not been taken to destroy the counter-subversion arm of MI5.
I have been interested to note that some of the events of past subversive activities still have knock-on effects today. A letter published in The Guardian yesterday was headed "Log on to keeptheToriesout.com, the democratic way". It encouraged people to visit the website of something called "tacticalvoter.net".
I visited the website, to see what it was all about. Naturally, I had a degree of personal interest, given what the site might have contained with regard to my constituency. The site's home page revealed a commendable degree of honesty in stating that the aims of the organisation are topromote anti-Conservative tactical voting at the General Election … To demonstrate the need for electoral reform … To raise interest in the election and improve voter turnout.In a section called "Background", the website states:At least 25 Tory MPs lost their seats to tactical voting in 1997. A further 127 are vulnerable.I think that that figure is calculated on the basis that hon. Members who won anything under 50 per cent. of their constituency vote are, in principle, vulnerable to tactical voting.
The site continuesWebsites that allowed Greens and Democrats to swap votes received ½million hits and nearly kept Bush out of the Whitehouse … Web-inspired tactical voting could make a big difference to the shape of parliament and the tone of politics after this election.So far, so good: we live in a free society. However, an item at the bottom of the page caught my attention. It stated thattacticalvoter.net is a company limited by guarantee … We are funded by grants from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Limited and the New Politics Network".It is then stated, in bold type, thattacticalvoter.net is not affiliated to or funded by any political party".Well, yes and no: the organisation is being a little too modest in saying that it is funded by the New Politics Network. A visit to the network's website reveals that the telephone and fax numbers and the address of the New Politics Network are the same as those of tacticalvoter.net, which it funds.
I thought that the name New Politics Network rang a bell, and I was reminded of an excellent article that appeared not in a right-wing or reactionary magazine but in the New Statesman, that journal of progressivism, on 23 October last year. The article was by Nick Cohen, an investigative journalist of the left with a commendably independent spirit. The article was headlined, "Up for grabs: £3.5 Million of Stalin's gold; New Politics Network funded by smuggled Russian gold."
1167 The article began:You may think that the Communist Party and its heirs is of no importance. But their wealth could still have a profound political influence.I doubt if one person in 100,000 has heard of the New Politics Network. The all but unrecognisable remnant of the once militant communist Party of Great Britain has been rebranded and repackaged like a flagging line of groceries … The network matters because it has money—£3.5 million, to be precise—the residue of the Moscow gold smuggled from the Kremlin to the British communist Party. To socialists, £3.5 million is a fantastic sum. Outside the trade union movement, no organisation on the left can match the network's wealth.Putting together those few bits of paper and snippets of information might have been routine for MI5, if it had retained its counter-subversion role. It appears that an organisation that is avowedly trying to influence the outcome of a democratic election is doing so on the basis of funds supplied by the KGB—illegally—to the Communist party of Great Britain. That party is the direct ancestor of the organisation to which I have drawn attention.
In the course of this Parliament, a number of other interesting cases have arisen out of cold war history. The case that has interested me a great deal is the targeting by the Stasi of certain activists and individuals in the United Kingdom.
The Home Secretary, whom I am delighted to see back on the Treasury Bench, will remember our pleasant debate on the retention of MI5 files. In the early days of this Parliament, it looked as though those files might not be retained—indeed, some quarters on the left exerted a great deal of pressure to destroy the cold war files of the Security Service. Having secured a half-hour Adjournment debate on whether the files should be retained or destroyed, I had the experience—intriguing to me, as a relatively new Back Bencher—of being fortunate enough to have none other than the Home Secretary himself responding to that debate.
I am not sure whether any other Back Bencher has been so fortunate as to have a Cabinet Minister respond in person to an Adjournment debate chosen by ballot, but I certainly felt duly privileged. Furthermore, I was delighted with the outcome: the Home Secretary took it on himself to refer the question of whether or not the files should be retained for future use by historians or destroyed to a proper committee of academics working in conjunction with the Public Record Office. Although it will be many years before those files ire open to academic historians, I am sure that the Home Secretary concedes that it is as a result of that chain of events that a substantial part of the MI5 archive is now to be retained.
A similar process went on in the former communist East Germany in respect of the Stasi files held in Berlin. A large quantity of files was retained and has gradually been worked through by scholars, historians and some intelligence agencies. I shall not rehearse the revelations that have emerged during the course of this Parliament about the role of various people in British public life acting as agents for the Stasi, although as recently as September 2000, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and I were intrigued to be identified as people who had attracted Stasi attention because of our work combating unilateral nuclear disarmament in the 1980s.
During the course of that controversy, I became concerned that it had taken a British academic, Dr. Anthony Glees, to go to Berlin, to investigate the 1168 contents of the files and to bring into the open the role that had been played by some people in British public life in serving the Stasi, and that, at the time that Dr. Glees made his investigations, it was clear that no similar investigation had been carried out by our official intelligence agencies. I believe that since I raised that issue in the House, progress has been made. Dr. Glees has been consulted by the Security Service—I can say that openly, because I received a letter from a Minister confirming that.
My final point arises from those positive developments. Early in the debate, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) seemed to suggest that the question of who was appointed to the Intelligence and Security Committee should be a matter for a simple vote by parliamentarians. I was greatly impressed by the comment by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)—I am often greatly impressed by his comments—that one member of the Committee could completely destroy its integrity. I have always been concerned to ensure that, if we are to have oversight of the intelligence and security services, we are satisfied that those who undertake the job are themselves as thoroughly discreet and reliable, and have been vetted in a similar way, as those who are privy to the secrets of the agencies themselves. Otherwise, we build a weak link into the agencies' operational security. Although I hasten to emphasise that, in my following remarks, I shall not say anything to identify any individual, I should like to speak in support of the view expressed by the hon. Member for Workington as to a potential danger.
Among the papers that Dr. Glees found in the Berlin archive was a Stasi report in which the agent tasked with reporting on the activities of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament noted the following:In the execution of the strategic orientation of goals, the CND will, in the future, more strongly exploit its position within Parliament using MPs. In this way, the CND members and MPs"—here the agent names two people whom I shall not name—had been elected into the Parliamentary Defence Select Committee and would have access to confidential NATO materials which are marked 'Top Secret'. They would not have access to documents marked `COSMIC'.As a member of the Select Committee on Defence, I can confirm that I have not seen any document marked "COSMIC".
The point we should bear in mind is that the people who made those reports to a hostile foreign intelligence agency regarded the possibility of getting sympathetic Members of Parliament on to a sensitive Select Committee as a potential opening for the obtaining of classified information. I am happy to say that I am not aware of any document in the archive that shows that any such breach of security ever took place.
§ Mr. Barron
Does the hon. Gentleman recall the press reports about another case emerging from the East German Stasi files, that of Professor Vic Allen, who was based in west Yorkshire at the university? He had been on the central committee of CND, had been spying on the organisation, and had reported back to the East Germans. In the light of the hon. Gentleman's interests before entering the House, does he approve of Professor Allen's actions?
§ Dr. Lewis
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he tempts me to take a path that I had been 1169 rigorously resisting. No, I do not approve of what Professor Allen did and I have raised that matter in the House. It gives me little satisfaction to have to point out that back in the mid-1980s, I was one of those who publicly identified Professor Allen as one of the most prominent pro-Soviet activists in CND.
However, on the specific question of membership of Select Committees and access to classified information, I am not aware that there was ever a case of a Member of Parliament leaking such information. From the files, I have learned that certain individuals, such as Professor Allen, Dr. Robin Pearson and others, behaved disgracefully. I think that some of them should have been prosecuted, but the Government, in their wisdom, have decided that that should not be done. None the less, I believe that the document from which I have quoted confirms the importance of the comment made by the hon. Member for Workington, namely, that we have to have some safeguards to ensure that the people who are appointed to sensitive parliamentary Committees are reliable.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I became a member of CND in 1978—I am not sure whether I still am a member—and I am a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The idea that someone might think that they had an interest in me because I have been a member of CND is utterly ludicrous. The problem is that the hon. Gentleman compartmentalises people: he presumes that because one had a view on nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, one falls within a group who would necessarily be targeted because they were somehow disloyal to the state. He is completely wrong and he misunderstands the British Labour movement.
§ Dr. Lewis
I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads carefully what I said in Hansard, he will see that I am not making that mistake. I am saying that we have to expect that people who were attempting to find out illicitly sensitive, classified and, if possible, "COSMIC" top-secret information, hoped that by working through Members of Parliament who were sympathetic in some respects—although not necessarily all the important respects—with their point of view they might progress their nefarious aims. That is why the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the need for some protection with regard to those appointed to such Committees are apposite.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
Speaking as a member of Scottish CND and of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, whether I am on the files of MI5 or the Stasi or not, I have never heard of any approach by SCND to Scottish Labour Members of this House of the sort that he suggested a few moments ago, before he started on his qualification.
§ Dr. Lewis
The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to do what I hoped I would not have to do. I am delighted to be able to say that a lady who is the president of Scottish CND, Marjorie Thompson, is a close personal friend of mine. We have always disagreed about nuclear weapons. She has stated publicly—this is why I am prepared to state it in the House—that one reason why she withdrew from 1170 the national CND and now confines herself to SCND was that she was so distressed by the extent to which sincere nuclear disarmers such as herself, who would never have dreamed of doing anything to favour the Soviet Union, had to fight off some senior communist sympathisers within the organisation who were trying to use it to those ends. Those are my views, but they are hers, too, and she would be happy to confirm them because she has stated them in public.
I will end as I began. A Security Service that does not have a counter-subversion capability is incomplete. In two successive years—I do not think that the Home Secretary was present when I pointed this out—we have had serious riots in the capital. On each occasion, the right hon. Gentleman has felt it necessary to bemoan the fact that those riots could not be contained as they should have been because of a lack of intelligence about what was going to happen.
We are not living in an age in which the police alone can hope to penetrate the electronic communications that are being used in encrypted form to organise such demonstrations. Therefore, I renew —possibly for the third year in a row—my plea to the Home Secretary to think again about the closing down of F branch and about the need for a counter-subversion arm to the Security Service, MI5.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
The money may or may not have come from Stalin's gold, but it is interesting that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), with his decades of magnificent, or otherwise, obsession, seems to think that the definition of subversion would include a body that asks people to vote tactically in elections, including those in the New Forest. That same obsession runs him close to the danger of smearing all those who have been linked with CND.
The hon. Gentleman and I come from the same city of Swansea. Indeed, he claims that as a boy in a local school he sat at my feet when I gave a lecture. He is a most assiduous researcher, but even his researches have not discovered that, for a brief period when I was an undergraduate, I was press secretary of Swansea CND. Shortly after, I was recruited into the senior branch of the Foreign Service and I have a higher security classification than he has had. Therefore, he must be a little careful when he nears the boundary of smearing people who have taken a certain interest in nuclear disarmament. Along that road lies the investigator and matters about which any democrat would have to be very wary indeed.
The hon. Gentleman and I have one thing in common. I think that we are the only two hon. Members to have spoken who are not in the ring of secrecy—that charmed circle. The debate has been rather like a nostalgic goodbye party. We heard the excellent valedictory dispatch from the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and the helpful personal pilgrimages and observations of those who have served on the Intelligence and Security Committee.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman used the words "initial nervousness" to describe the attitude of some of those in the security establishment. I pay him this tribute: if one were devising an identikit CV for someone to chair that Committee, his background and the senior offices of state that he has held would offer the exact description of 1171 someone who would soothe the anxieties of anyone who suffered that nervousness. He has prepared that Committee for what I hope will be a rather more relaxed future. He has served democracy extremely well as he, perhaps, glides along the Corridor to another existence.
The only discord was in the speech of the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude). I would dearly love to comment on and answer his obsession with Europe and the European army. I will not do so, save to say that he mentioned the Foreign Affairs Committee's report on the Balkans after Milosevic, which was published this week. He was quoted yesterday as saying that the report was "an indictment" of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). In a serious report of 190 paragraphs, it contained but two sentences on my hon. Friend in one paragraph. In that context, perhaps we may put the right hon. Gentleman's judgment in perspective.
I shall make one further comment before I come to the main part of my speech, which relates to the Foreign Affairs Committee. As the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) said in his excellent speech, the threat has changed. When I was being recruited for another organisation many years ago—as it was 40 years ago, this is probably outside the limits of the Official Secrets Acts—we were given an introductory lecture on security.
At that time, the lecturer would choose a text and sermonise on it. The text was something about the devil thine enemy roaming about seeking to devour whom he might find. The person giving us the lecture said that in one's first posting overseas, one would never know who the senior Soviet agent would be. He continued "In my first posting overseas, the senior Soviet agent was my head of chancery, Donald Maclean."
To show how times have changed, a couple of years ago I met General Klaus Naumann, who was then the senior European officer in NATO, who told me that following the founding Act, one member of the Russian group at NATO headquarters was caught involving himself in—let us call them—clandestine activities. General Naumann called the head of the Russian delegation to him and said, "That behaviour is quite unacceptable, but this is the material that your colleague was seeking. Do have leave to open it and see what it is."
Times have indeed changed, and the threat, as the hon. Member for East Hampshire mentioned, comes from various terrorist organisations, asymmetric warfare, such as that conducted by the hacker, and so on. It is a turbulent and multifaceted threat that our people face.
I shall now put on my hat as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and speak about our activities and our relationship with the security services. Although the Committee has found over the four years of this Parliament that the Government are co-operative with its inquiries—I pay great tribute not only to the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Office, but to diplomats overseas for the way that they have helped the Committee in its inquiries—there has been one notable area where that has not been the case.
Requests for evidence on intelligence matters have not been met forthrightly. The Committee is appointed under the Standing Orders of the House to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and any associated public bodies. 1172 The Secret Intelligence Service is an associated public body of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Affairs Committee has asserted its right to take evidence from the SIS when the circumstances warrant it and when such evidence is relevant to a specific inquiry being carried out within the Committee's remit. There have been a number of such inquiries, notably those in respect of Sierra Leone, weapons of mass destruction, and the Kosovo conflict and its aftermath.
§ Dr. Godman
May I remind my right hon. Friend that when he, as Chairman of the Committee, requested such meetings, those requests were supported by every member of the Committee, Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour?
§ Mr. Anderson
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that observation. We are indeed an all-party Committee. We have worked on a consensual basis and, save in respect of the Sierra Leone report, we have always produced unanimous reports. The quality of the reports that we produce can be affected by access or lack of access to intelligence material. Our focus can be misdirected if we do not have access to some of that material, so the effectiveness of the Committee's reports could be adversely affected.
For example, as part of the Committee's inquiry into Sierra Leone and the Sandline affair, we asked the Foreign Secretary for access to relevant intelligence reports and assessments. The request was refused on the basis that intelligence information was not normally released to Select Committees. We also sought to hold a private evidence session or, failing that, an informal meeting with the head of the Secret Intelligence Service. Both options were refused by the Foreign Secretary, who told us that the Intelligence and Security Committee was the appropriate Committee to examine the work of the SIS.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Will my right hon. Friend tell us what he thinks is the highest level of security classification to which his Committee should have access?
§ Mr. Anderson
It is difficult to answer that without serious consideration. I should have thought that, at the very least, we should have access to the level marked "Secret". I remind my hon. Friend that members of the Committee that has been chaired so well by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater have a distinguished parliamentary past. Comparing person with person, we have on the Foreign Affairs Committee several individuals who have been Ministers in the Ministry of Defence, the Northern Ireland Office or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Person to person, I think that our background is at least as distinguished as that of the Intelligence and Security Committee. It is, therefore, rather sad that we are not considered trustworthy in this context. I may revise my view on the "Secret" classification, but I believe that we need all relevant information that is consistent with national security.
§ Mr. Tom King
I have considerable sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, but the level of classification is not the point. There is no question about the integrity of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Of course, classification of information as secret depends on the issue that is involved. If a particular issue falls within the purview of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but is classed 1173 as top secret, it is likely that details can be provided by arrangement. As I understand it, however, the argument lies in the need to avoid overlap and to decide what is within the purview of each Committee, rather than in a need for absolute classification of the information that the right hon. Gentleman's Committee can receive. In the right circumstances, I would have thought that there would be no limit on such information.
§ Mr. Anderson
I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for providing a rather better answer than I did on the definitions that are at stake. Certainly, it is partly a question of trust. I am pleased that, as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, he has broken down some of the aura of lack of trust. I hope that that will allow those involved to be a little more flexible in their relationship with Parliament.
There is not all that much overlap between the two Committees. Much of the recent Intelligence and Security Committee report deals with the future intelligence and security programme in terms of administrative matters such as the financing of the new headquarters and so on. There is no overlap between such work and that which is done by the Foreign Affairs Committee. Equally, on Sierra Leone, I understand that the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee focused on secret communications and on the fiasco that occurred, about which I shall not go into detail. That matter would not, of course, have been within the remit of the Foreign Affairs Committee. However, some information might have helped my Committee in another direction. Certainly, we would have been assisted by having access to the reports, or at least by being told that no reports were relevant to our work. That might have ensured that our report was more properly centred.
During the inquiry into Kosovo, my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, and I wrote to the Prime Minister asking to hear evidence from the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Chief of Defence Intelligence. The Prime Minister refused to allow the Joint Intelligence Committee to give evidence to either of our Committees. He was willing for the Chief of Defence Intelligence to appear only before the Defence Committee. Like the Foreign Secretary before him, he cited the Intelligence and Security Committee as the appropriate forum for hearing such evidence.
Paragraph 8 of the Intelligence and Security Committee's annual report for 1999–2000 states that the Committeeexamined the intelligence contribution to the Kosovo campaign, taking evidence from the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of Defence in their role as customers".The report contains a series of unhelpful paragraphs that are filled with asterisks, such as paragraph 64 and those that immediately follow it, which relate to Kosovo. Paragraph 66 states:GCHQ provided a flexible and in-depth service of intelligence, including *** ***
It provided intelligence on ***
1174 GCHQ monitored the situation *** and helped to provide reassurances that ***
***GCHQ stated that some *** of the intelligence that went to UK customers was *** in origin.That paragraph is not helpful.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) informed me before he left the Chamber that, in his inimitable fashion, he had totted up the asterisks. They totalled 720 in the main report and 4,005 in the annexes.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Perhaps the matter is not as simple as it appears. The number of asterisks shows the level of the information that we received. They show that the Committee has access to information that perhaps Parliament did not realise it received.
§ Mr. Anderson
I am sure that that is true. However, it is also true that we were denied any of that information for our work on Kosovo. Access to it might have led us to modify or even abandon some of our conclusions. Information, to which we did not have access, was available to the Government. Perhaps we did not receive it because the Foreign Affairs Committee is not trusted in the same way as the Intelligence and Security Committee. We have always kept secure any information that we received from the Government, and there is therefore every reason to trust our Committee.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has stated its regret about the Government's refusal of its request for limited access to germane intelligence. I stress the words "limited" and "germane". We also stated that such obduracy had inhibited the Committee's work and was inimical to the Government's best interests. We emphasised that the Committee had a long history of receiving confidential and classified documents from the Foreign Office and that it had always handled them with the utmost discretion. I refer colleagues who want to follow up the references to that part of our report on Sierra Leone that considers the history of the relationship, and covers the Crown jewels, the Belgrano affair and other matters.
It is therefore regrettable that the Foreign Office does not regard the Foreign Affairs Committee as sufficiently trustworthy to have access to intelligence material or personnel. I concede that the attitude has modified, but only in a limited way. Proper scrutiny of Government sometimes requires access to such information.
One argument has been used to deny the Committee access to information for the Sierra Leone and Kosovo inquiries. The Government claim that the Intelligence and Security Committee is the onlyappropriate forum for oversight of the agencies by parliamentarians".What is, therefore, the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee? The Foreign Affairs Committee welcomed its establishment; we respect its work, 1175 its Chairman and its distinguished members. However, it is not an adequate substitute for the departmental Select Committees.
The Intelligence and Security Committee is appointed by the Executive, not the House; it reports to the Prime Minister, not the House; its secretariat is responsible to the Government, not to Parliament. The work programme that paragraph 8 of the Committee's latest report outlines shows little overlap with the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Lord Hurd was Foreign Secretary when the Intelligence Services Act 1994 received its Second Reading. He gave an assurance to the House that the Intelligence and Security Committee would nottruncate in any way the existing responsibilities of existing Committees."—[Official Report, 22 February 1994; Vol. 238, c. 164.]In my judgment, hon. Members should resist any attempt to renege on that commitment. The Foreign Affairs Committee, and other Select Committees, must have access to requisite intelligence and security information, and to officials in the intelligence services, when such access is germane to our inquiries.
§ Mr. Mates
The right hon. Gentleman has just made two remarks that should not go unchallenged. He mentioned the fear that Lord Hurd's undertaking would not be adhered to, implying that he was receiving less intelligence information than the Foreign Affairs Committee had received before the establishment of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I venture to suggest that the information is no less and no more: there was not any then, and there is not any now.
As for the right hon. Gentleman's second remark, can he really suggest with a straight face that the Executive and the Chief Whip had nothing to do with his appointment to the Committee?
§ Mr. Anderson
I have never had much contact with the Chief Whip, but I will say this in mitigation, if I may. As a member of the Select Committee on Liaison, I invite the hon. Gentleman to consult "Shifting the Balance" and subsequent reports. Those who chaired the Select Committees were unanimous in suggesting that if we were to perform our role as a legislature properly, the task of appointing Committee members should be transferred from the Whips to another body—a proposal that I gladly accepted.
§ Dr. Godman
The intervention of the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) was certainly blunt.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and I were recommended to the Foreign Affairs Committee by the Chief Whip; that is a matter for conjecture. I remind my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), however, that our investigation of circumstances surrounding the Sierra Leone affair was sustained and complicated, and that we were not helped by the obduracy of the Foreign Office when we requested general information.
§ Mr. Anderson
Given the sturdy independence of members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, if we were all there at the Whips' behest the Whips seem to have done a pretty bad job, and their intelligence seems not to have been very well founded.
1176 Traditionally, foreign affairs in the United Kingdom have been very much the domain of the Executive. Only rarely has the legislative body been allowed to intrude. The situation has become even more difficult lately, given the speed of communications, the potential for secrecy, and so forth. To some extent, that total dominance by the Executive changed with the appointment of Select Committees at the beginning of the 1980s, but we still have a long way to go in comparison with the United States. That is an obvious comparison, although I concede that the constitutional relationship between the Executive and branches of the legislature is different in the United States, and that that causes differences between our arrangements. However, the same can be said in respect of some of our European Union partners.
Some advances have been made in the current Parliament, but not enough. We could end up with reports that were not entirely in focus, which would be bad for the House and bad for democracy. Paragraph 92 of the Liaison Committee's last report, "Shifting the Balance", states:Parliamentary accountability of the intelligence and security services is a major issue, to we which plan to return".We shall indeed return to it, fortified by what the right hon. Member for Bridgwater and his Committee have done in preparing such an excellent platform. This is not an ending point but a process, and that process has been helped by the right hon. Gentleman's work. It is certainly clear from the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee—on which I am delighted to serve, with my two colleagues who are present—that the current position is unsatisfactory, and I look forward to returning to the matter in the next Parliament if I, too, am re-elected.
§ 5.9 pm
§ Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak because, as many Members have said, this may be our last debate before the general election and, with the retirement of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and others including my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), we have reached a watershed in the Committee's development.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) made several comments about the Committee and improvements that could be made, but I am sure he agrees that, since the Committee's inception in 1994, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, an incredible trust has been built up between parliamentarians on the Committee and the intelligence and security agencies. That trust would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.
I understand that the Director-General of the Security Service said at a conference recently that he cringed at some of the matters that he and the Security Service felt unable to share with members of the Committee when it was established. He paid tribute to the trust that has been achieved and the work of parliamentarians on the Committee in building up that trust, which has enabled the agencies to become more transparent and more open. That is the aim of the Committee and the agencies in this process.
It is particularly important that we maintain the move towards openness and transparency in this new era, especially because the agencies work in closer co-operation 1177 with law enforcement agencies on operational matters. As that relationship becomes closer, it is important that there is accountability and openness in it. Openness and transparency mean proper scrutiny not only by the Committee and the parliamentarians on it, but by Ministers.
The meetings—or lack of meetings—of the ministerial committee have been mentioned. At least the Government gave a commitment in their response to our report that an attempt would be made to make the committee meet annually and that it would meet shortly. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary can confirm that that remains the Government's ambition, because it also remains an important part of maintaining democratic oversight. We must maintain too public confidence and trust in our security agencies. People must feel that someone is making sure that the agencies are properly accountable.
These debates always provides an opportunity to pay tribute to the hard work, professionalism and enthusiasm of those who work in the agencies. They want a proper system of parliamentary oversight to be achieved, so that if they are suspected of any wrongdoing, they can prove that proper accountability and oversight are in place.
We rely on those who work in the agencies to protect us and to enter dangerous situations on our behalf. That is why it is only right that they receive recognition for the work that they do, and in that work they should also have proper employment rights. That is why the Committee emphasised in the 1999–2000 annual report the recommendation that those who work in the agencies should havea dedicated and specially cleared Employment Tribunal … to hear Agency staffs' cases … when they could not appear before a normal Employment Tribunal for national security reasons.I am glad that the Department of Trade and Industry has now moved to make that a reality. It is a pity that it has taken so long because that sends the wrong message to the people who do a lot to protect us. However, let us hope that that provision can now be enforced quickly.
Scrutiny is also important for reasons relating to public resources and to the agencies' budgets. The single intelligence vote is about £900 million, which is a lot of money. Other right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the Committee's concerns about the new accommodation project at GCHQ. The Committee has played an important role in ensuring that such projects are accountable, and that there is proper reporting to Parliament—including the Prime Minister and other Ministers—through the Committee, about that issue. That is a huge project, and it is important to keep Parliament informed about it.
It is also important to ensure, in relation to the budgets and general working of the security and intelligence agencies, that the agencies' work does not overlap. The appointment and work of the efficiency adviser is important in that context. I hope that the Home Secretary will give us an assurance that efforts will continue to be made to ensure that there is no overlap between the work of the agencies, or between the work of the agencies and the law enforcement authorities. We are also considering whether increased joint working is possible. We need to ensure that there is no repetition of work undertaken by the agencies.
1178 Many right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the work that the agencies undertake on tackling organised crime. As we said in the interim report, we took evidence from Keith Hellawell that showed greatly improved co-operation on that issue. That evidence also showed that the agencies were fully integrated into the Government's anti-drugs strategy, and that additional funds are now going into tackling the problem. I hope that the Home Secretary will reassure us that he is still considering whether more can be done to use the agencies to help in that work, and to help to tackle the disturbing new aspect of organised crime, mentioned by the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), involving criminal gangs bringing illegal immigrants and so-called bogus asylum seekers into this country. The tragedy that can result from such activities was demonstrated by the deaths of the 65 Chinese people in June last year. We must see if there is more that we can do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) referred to the Official Secrets Acts-something that the new Committee should look at. In our interim report, we pointed out that the traditional threat of espionage from hostile foreign Governments has not receded, while other matters, such as cheque-book journalism, have increased. Disclosures are increasingly being made—sometimes anonymously—through media such as the interner with no obvious means of redress for the UK authorities. The injunctions taken out by the Government are civil matters and tend only to prevent disclosure in the UK. Obviously, this matter needs additional work and the new Committee must look at it closely.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater said that we might consider his chairmanship to have been intolerable. I would certainly disagree. I thank him and all members of the Committee who have helped and supported me since I joined it last year. One of my enduring memories of the right hon. Gentleman was of our recent visit to Russia, when we had a number of unusual meetings with people with whom, I suspect, he would not have expected a few years ago to be indulging in friendly conversation.
The Committee' visits to other countries, and our meetings with other parliamentary oversight committees to advise them on what has worked and what has not worked in this country, have been important. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bridgwater on the way in which he led those visits, which have led to important links with other countries. I also wish to thank Alistair Corbett and his team for the help that they have given to the Committee and to me.
We have heard many arguments about turning the Committee into a Select Committee or whether it should remain as it is. Following the general election, there will be an opportunity, with the establishment of the new Committee, to review how it has worked so far. It will be important for the Prime Minister and the ministerial committee to draw on the expertise of those who have been on the Committee since its inception and of those senior members who may be retiring.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater wondered whether some of the Committee sittings could be held in public. This will be the time to discuss that, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will agree that we should review the system. The Committee should be re-established quickly and should continue to evolve 1179 positively, to maintain the trust of the services and to operate in the effective way in which it has operated in the past.
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
Although I am not a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee and am perhaps to bat last before the Front Benchers wind up, I hope that the House will be a little patient with me if I do not use quite the conversational tone that has characterised this very fine debate and trespass into some spheres that I think are germane to it.
First, however, as one who hopes to be a survivor and return after the general election, I should like to express my great respect for both the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savotirs). I first knew of them from newspaper reports of by-elections. The right hon. Gentleman won one, whereas, initially, my hon. Friend was a casualty of one. They are distinguished parliamentarians. I hope to be able to say that, in a week or two, to other hon. Members, but I say it particularly to them. It has been an honour and a pleasure to serve in Parliament with them. I have learned a great deal from them and from other colleagues who may soon be leaving. I hope that they will have a resurrection in the tranquil waters of another place.
My next point might sound like a matter of levity, but I make it most seriously. There is both a light and a serious aspect to it. It has become almost a badge of office for my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench to be able to boast that, in years past, they were the subject of scrutiny by the security and intelligence services. I deeply regret that I was not so scrutinised. However, although it is amazing how people can become a part of the establishment, and things have moved on, those events are still within living memory. I remain to be persuaded that I can be confident that—among those who freelanced in our security and intelligence services 30-odd years ago—there is no residue of the contempt and arrogance that allowed them to dip into the private lives of people who posed no threat, but who are probably loyal and committed public servants with pride in their United Kingdom citizenship.
Therefore, although I am not a Committee member and accept that things have moved on—a process in which the Intelligence and Security Committee has been an important element—I am concerned that, within living memory, there has been a capacity for people to delve into the lives of students and, I believe, to try to undermine the Labour Government of 1966 to 1970. I have spoken at some length to Lady Castle about that matter and I know that she shares that view. Some very deep forces which were not unrelated to the security and intelligence services had a capacity to try to undermine that democratic Government.
I should like to make a point that touches on the way in which I approach Parliament. When some hon. Members were involved in the 1968 demonstrations, I was working and earning a crust. I did not go to university. I remember being summoned by the deputy clerk of Surrey county council, for which I worked. His summons was equivalent to a papal summons because, although I had worked there for three years, he had never spoken to me.
1180 Basically, I was called in and asked to spy on the students at Guildford art school who were participating in a sit-in with students at Hornsey art school. I think that the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs might have been one of them. I am also told that the Home Secretary said that he was organising them. However, the serious point is that the establishment was making a concerted effort to deal with the students.
I was required to telephone students to entice them to reveal the names of the principal organisers of the sit-in. Although the request caused me great trauma, the next day, I went back and politely but firmly told the deputy clerk of Surrey county council that the answer was no. I deeply resented the request, but the incident has always been a lesson to me and served as an example when I have had to stand up to those who were trying to lean on me, both outside and inside this place.
We have dwelt for some time on the nature of the Committee itself. One Conservative speaker said that whether it was a Select Committee or a body appointed by the Executive was a distinction without a difference. I listened very carefully to both the right hon. Member for Bridgwater and the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) on the subject. It might surprise them to learn that I am not too exercised by the matter, in that I understand their point, which was also made by my hon. Friends the Members for Workington and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), that there is a dynamic—things are moving on—and we need to show some confidence.
I hope none the less that in the next Session the House will dwell on the fact that, human nature being what it is, Prime Ministers, no matter how fine, always feel the need to appoint someone who is not a maverick, a loose cannon, eccentric or bloody-minded—someone who is not, as one distinguished Prime Minister put it, neanderthal. If we could remove responsibility for that appointment from the Executive, it would be a healthy constitutional development.
Of course, we are all on Committees by patronage, perhaps from the Whips Office or party groups. Many of us want to minimise that patronage. Whatever mechanism we have for appointment, common sense must ultimately prevail. We must have confidence in our capacity, collectively, not to appoint those who are reckless and undisciplined, as distinct from those who are inquisitorial and determined to promote and protect the rights of Parliament without fear or favour.
We have a special responsibility because, almost uniquely among democratic legislatures, we neither sanction nor even retrospectively authorise the commitment of our armed forces abroad. I think that that is a deficiency in our constitution. I know that that is a minority view, so I shall not labour the point, but as we do not have such parliamentary endorsement—the equivalent of the United States War Powers Act or similar legislation that, as I understand from parliamentary answers, applies throughout NATO—we have an especial responsibility to be confident that we do not have arbitrary government and that there is proper prudence in our foreign and defence policy. This must not be the end of the tale: it must be the beginning of trying to promote parliamentary scrutiny in this field, as in many others.
§ Mr. Tom King
We have had a mini-debate about the Liaison Committee report, in which the Intelligence and 1181 Security Committee was mentioned. The hon. Gentleman has made the point well that the issue of patronage and who is appointed to Committees is not confined to the Intelligence and Security Committee but applies to all Select Committees. That issue needs to be tackled. The more I listen to the debate, the more I understand that there is a compromise over our Committee. I do not want to be unkind to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but he provides an instance of paralysis. He kept asking for things and being told that he could not have them. The Committee was supposed to be all-powerful in sending for persons and papers, but it did not get any.
Our success, if I may be allowed to claim it, is that we get all the material. One could say that we get it by virtue of a different structure, but it is a measure of confidence in who is on the Committee. We are getting over the problem. The awkward squad often attracts Back-Bench support, and there are Conservative as well as Labour Members whose appointment to the Foreign Affairs or the Intelligence and Security Committee I would not recommend. There needs to be some control there.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
I do not, I think, demur in principle from anything that the right hon. Gentleman has said, but his intervention invites me to amplify my remarks. Clearly, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has broken new ground during this Parliament, to the intense irritation—there is no point in disguising it—of both the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
We have not succeeded in everything, but I think that what we have done has been well worth while, and I do not regret it. Probably one of my proudest moments in the House was securing the continued investigation of our involvement in Sierra Leone, despite repeated attempts—both direct and, I have to say, indirect—by the executive branch of Government to close down that inquiry. One day I shall write about it, because there is more to come out— [Interruption.] I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), who is the Foreign Secretary's Parliamentary Private Secretary, not only that there is more to come out, but that one day it will come out. I hope that he will not provoke me, because what might follow would probably not be the most prudent thing I have done in my life. We pursued that matter, and the test will be what happens when our applications to be reappointed are submitted. It will be interesting to find out how they are treated. We shall see.
I was talking about the Official Secrets Acts, and how I have probed the Home Secretary during this Parliament about how our existing legislation can be squared with our obligations under human rights legislation. I am referring in particular to the fact that, as I understand it, we do not have a defence in law whereby a person who has disclosed information can argue that it was done in the wider public interest.
In a sense, that is where the French courts were superior. I hold no brief for the man who absconded to Paris—Mr. Shayler—but the French courts said, in effect, that the English legislation was flawed because he could not advance the defence of a wider public interest. We should remedy that, because the public interest should be an important test.
1182 Something that has surprised me about the Home Office over this Parliament is that when Ministers ask the advice of then lawyers, the lawyers seem to be consistently wrong. Ministers then have to eat their words, and I say, "I told you so", but no one gives me a badge for merit.
One example concerns the electoral franchise for the people of Gibraltar. The lawyers are consistently wrong. The Home Secretary ought to look into the deficiencies of the Official Secrets Acts and, early in the next Parliament, seek to remedy them in the context of human rights and the capacity to advance a defence in line with our European obligations and our obligations to justice.
In an intervention I asked a question to which I do not know the answer; it has not been answered in this debate. I mentioned my misgivings about how to draw the fine line between people or organisations that clearly pose a threat to the security of the state and prejudice the whole existence of the United Kingdom and its sovereignty, and people involved in industrial or economic disputes. We might find either or both sides in such disputes abhorrent, repugnant, irresponsible or disloyal; nevertheless, as democrats, surely we are prepared to take those disputes on the chin time and time again, because the wider interests of democracy are paramount.
We know that the security services have been used over the decades—I guess that they are still being used in this decade—in connection with trade union leaders, industrial disputes and so on From what we can ascertain, there was some activity concerning the people who stopped the movement of essential fuel last autumn. Clearly, I do not identify with those people; I think that they were grossly irresponsible and had a hidden political agenda. None the less, in a democracy, we should strain to the very limits to allow such things to happen, without using the machinery of the state to subvert what we might find an unpalatable stance.
§ Mr. Barron
My hon. Friend mentioned the fuel protest. What bothers me is that that consisted primarily of people protesting against the level of taxes on fuel. I thought that tax and spending were matters for the ballot box and the general election. If those people managed, as they nearly did, to shut the economy down for a time, could they not equally decide to do so because they thought, for example, that nobody with blue eyes should live in this country? Would we not then be moving towards a different type of democracy—or rather, a dictatorship, which is something that people in this country have fought against for many centuries, and given their lives in that fight?
§ Mr. Mackinlay
My hon. Friend did not listen to me sufficiently closely. Perhaps I was expressing myself inadequately. Of course, I hold no brief for those people and deprecate their actions. However, his words are almost exactly the same as those uttered by the Opposition on other disputes.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
I am posing a question and trying to demonstrate to the House that there is a difficult line that we should be cautious about crossing. I do not want to make any point but that; we should be extra vigilant because of the dangers of a slippery slope concerning our liberties.
1183 I was interested in paragraph 85 of the annual report, the content of which features in other documents. The Committee identifies considerable work on combating organised crime, and there is common ground between it, the Government and other hon. Members on the need to combat smuggling, bootlegging and especially the terrible trade—which, I fear, will increase—in trying to smuggle human beings into the United Kingdom, which is surrounded by tragedy and wickedness.
On a minor point, I hope that the Home Secretary will keep an open mind when his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions conduct their inquiry into the future policing of our ports. I hope that he will consider that there is a powerful case for having a dedicated police force in our ports, as many other countries do. It should complement, not he used instead of, the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office, the secret branch in our ports and Customs and Excise.
Not having such a force is a flaw: there should be a dedicated force like the British Transport police in all our ports, and the cost should be borne by a small top-slicing of port fees. It would greatly assist the primary agencies that combat organised crime, illegal smuggling, bootlegging and so on. I invite my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to look at the port of Tilbury, Dover harbour, Felixstowe and Teesside, where police are taking such action. Comparable forces do not exist in many other British ports; the ports that Canada polices are a particularly good model.
I have a constituency interest in our debate. My constituent Michael John Smith is serving 20 years in prison for breaching the Official Secrets Act. I hold no brief for him; I visited him once and he has never disguised his offences from me. He disclosed secrets, which the courts found were of extreme importance to the United Kingdom. Some of his trial was held in camera, and I believe that some evidence was not disclosed to the defence. I do not want to trespass on that today, other than to say that he was largely found guilty on the evidence of a defector, Victor Oschenko, who featured in "The Mitrokhin Archive" and is well known.
When the Home Secretary makes his wind-up speech, will he give us some assurance about how we treat the evidence of defectors, many of whom are brave people? I do not take that away from them, but if one is on the other side one does not look on them as brave. Indeed, when the defection is in the other direction, we do not look on people who defect from us as brave. Arguably, defectors have a vested interest in exaggerating the importance of the information that they can impart. Again, that is human nature. I am concerned that there are probably not sufficient guidelines, nor is there a sufficient review of the evidence and information volunteered by people who want to defect or have defected. I am nervous about how we handle that.
Finally, I shall refer to another constituency matter. On 31 October, I raised in Westminster Hall the case of my constituent John Redgrave, a senior Metropolitan police officer who was involved in Operation Nightshade. That operation had three elements—a planned cocaine shipment from Venezuela, money laundering and an illegal arms deal using Sierra Leone as a trans-shipment point. John Redgrave was the principal police officer investigating these criminal operations. He headed up a multi-disciplinary team, including the Houston branch of 1184 United States Customs, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Branch of the US Treasury Department.
A man from a Texan gang, Roger Crooks, who runs the Mama Yoko hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, had approached people in the United Kingdom about supplying weapons, including M16 assault rifles, grenade and rocket launchers, plastic explosives, mines and ammunition.
During the operation, there was considerable liaison between the Metropolitan police and their United States counterparts. Then things went terribly wrong. Despite the fact that Roger Crooks was at one stage expelled by the Government of Sierra Leone for arms trafficking—their official website says that it was for trying to smuggle arms to and from Northern Ireland—he has somehow been rehabilitated. Operation Nightshade was closed. My constituent was suspended; when he came up before a stipendiary magistrate, all charges against him were dismissed. He has been on suspension for three or four years without any reconciliation of his position.
I think that my constituent got in the way of a wider security operation. I do not know the detailed circumstances of Roger Crooks, the Mama Yoko hotel and the attempt to bring weapons from Sierra Leone to the United Kingdom. However, my constituent is in limbo. That is wholly unsatisfactory; no matter how difficult the circumstances, people should not be treated in this way. There has been no resolution of his case, unless it has happened in the past few days. If so, my right hon. Friend might know about it.
The few disciplinary matters outstanding have not been resolved, through no fault of my constituent but because of the inability either of people whose names and organisations I know not or the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to deal with this case. I am sorry to have to raise it on the Floor of the House, but I have not imparted anything that was not disclosed in Westminster Hall. There is a bit of a hum about this and I hope that it will be looked into.
I am sorry to have delayed the House on a number of issues but I hope that I may have opened up one or two that were not directly featured in the report of the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater. As I said earlier, although I have not known him intimately in the House, I have always respected him as a parliamentarian and held him in very high regard.
§ Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)
This has been a good debate. Quite rightly, most of the contributions have come from members of the Intelligence and Security Committee. There have been three exceptions to that general rule. The right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) reminded the House that there remained an important role for departmental Select Committees in scrutinising the work of the security and intelligence agencies. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) seemed, between them, to be auditioning for the soon-to-be-vacant role of the awkward member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Which of them will have done most to impress whoever is in a position to make such appointments, I will not risk guessing.
Everyone who has spoken has paid tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and of my right hon. Friend the Member for 1185 Bridgwater (Mr. King), the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I start by doing the same, although I am conscious at this stage of the evening that it must seem at times to both of them, especially when listening to the hon. Member for Thurrock expressing hopes for their future resurrection, that they have been granted the exceptional privilege of attending their own memorial services, without the trouble of crossing the road to St. Margaret's.
The hon. Member for Workington has shown all hon. Members, but especially those more junior in service than him, what can be achieved by way of persistence, awkwardness and a determination to insist on answers to questions, even when those answers are being resisted by a Government of whatever party happens to be in office.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater has brought to his chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee his experience of serving as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and as Secretary of State for Defence. In both offices, he learned a great deal about the work of the agencies that we are debating and about the real, pressing and permanent nature of the terrorist threats which those agencies devote a great deal of their time and energy to resisting.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) summed up the work of the Committee by saying that he had worked happily but very well. The fact that that description can be applied is in large measure due to the skilful chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater. It is in large measure due to his leadership that the Committee has, from an untried beginning, earned itself within a few years a formidable reputation within the House and a reputation for persistence and trustworthiness among the senior members of the agencies whose work it scrutinises. The House has every right to be proud of and grateful for the work that both my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Workington have undertaken during their time on the Intelligence and Security Committee.
Tribute has also rightly been paid to the members of the various security and intelligence agencies. The security of our country and its citizens depends in no small part on their vigilance and professionalism, and we are all in their debt.
The debate has ranged widely over the contents of the reports from the Intelligence and Security Committee. I shall confine my remarks to three or four matters. I hope that the Home Secretary may be able to provide some answers to questions raised not only by me but by other hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon.
The first matter is recruitment and retention of staff. Getting the right calibre of officers is clearly essential if we are to have agencies of the quality and professionalism that we have come to expect. The hon. Member for Workington spoke encouragingly about what he had seen and learned of recruitment efforts in our universities. In paragraph 27 of its 1999–2000 report, the Committee reported that although the agencies were able to recruit staff for their mainstream work, they were experiencing difficulties in the recruitment of specialist staff such as IT and electronics specialists. The Security Service reported that it was experiencing problems retaining officers after they had served for about three or four years.
1186 That is worrying, especially given what the Foreign Secretary said in his opening speech, and what my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire said later. They both referred to the way in which electronic communications are becoming ever more important in intelligence and counter-intelligence work. The Foreign Secretary referred to the exponential growth of e-mail traffic, and to the threats to this country's interests that could be posed by a computer-based attack on them. I hope that the Home Secretary, therefore, will be able to give the House some assurance that the difficulties identified in the Committee's early report are being addressed, and that the agencies are now managing to recruit and retain the specialist staff that they need.
Secondly, I want to refer to the agencies' expenditure programmes. The hon. Member for Workington commented trenchantly on the importance of the National Audit Office in supporting the Committee's work. I welcome the Foreign Secretary's comments about the new accommodation project at GCHQ, and the news of the appointment of Sir Edmund Burton as a non-executive director. However, I hope that the Government will take account of the strictures levelled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater at the quality of the financial management and accountability in the agencies.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I question the Government's reluctance to disclose to the Committee figures for individual agency budgets. The Committee notes in its report that the only criteria for non-disclosure would be the risk of compromising national security or prejudicing the continued discharge of the agencies' functions.
I accept that it is clear that there must come a point at which the detailed disclosure of finances would let in too much light on the operation capability of the service concerned. However, I hope that the Government will at least reflect on the comments made by members of the Intelligence and Security Committee of all parties, and consider whether it is safe to let in a little more light than previous Governments, including Conservative Governments, were willing to let in. I also hope very much that the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary will be able to persuade the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to reconsider his reluctance to give evidence in person to the Committee.
That leads me to the broader question of the accountability of the security and intelligence agencies. The balance is incredibly difficult to get right. In the end, I believe that Parliament must trust the Ministers appointed to take responsibility and be held accountable for work that must, by its very nature, remain secret. The key and overriding; priorities must be to protect the integrity of secret intelligence work that is vital to the defence of this country and its interests, and to protect the lives and safety of those who serve in the field as agents on behalf of those services.
There has been quite a lot of discussion this afternoon of the tribunal system set up under the previous Conservative Government and continued by the present Administration. I welcome the way in which the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 has simplified the structure by creating a single investigatory tribunal and getting rid of the some of the duplication that would otherwise have complicated matters. However, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked whether the tribunal had the capacity to process the 1187 complaints that are brought before it, saying that, for much of 2000, the tribunal did not have enough staff in the right place even to open the post regularly and at the right time. I hope that the Home Secretary can state how much progress has been made since the Committee first reported its concerns.
The debate has also covered the question of possible disclosure to the Committee of confidential annexes to the commissioners' reports to the Prime Minister. I understand the arguments advanced by members of the Committee that they need access to those annexes to judge whether the tribunals and the agencies have responded properly and in full to complaints that may have been justified. However, as I said in respect of finances, at the end of the day Parliament has no option but to trust the judgment of Ministers. None the less, I hope that Ministers will keep the issue of further disclosure under close review. As members of the Committee have said, the Committee has built up over the years a relationship of trust between its members, members of the agencies and—I hope—the Ministers to whom the agencies are accountable. The extent of disclosure is a matter that any sensible Government would review from time to time.
Certain matters are more directly relevant to the Home Secretary's sphere of responsibility as the Minister to whom the Security Service regularly reports. Organised crime and the role of the intelligence and security services in combating it are themes that have run though the debate and featured in speeches made by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. In his introduction to the 1999–2000 report, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater cited the opportunities given to international serious organised crime asone particularly unwelcome consequence of the end of the Cold War",and added:In the face of the volume of traffic entering this country the chances of preventing criminal activities are not good. The briefest study of Heathrow or Dover reveals immediately how fragile our present defences are, and without intelligence they would be virtually non-existent.My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire and the hon. Members for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) all alluded to the challenge presented by organised crime.
The Security Service website states that, in 1998–99, about 7 per cent. of Security Service Expenditure went on operations against what was described as "serious crime". The definition of that excludes terrorism, which forms a separate heading. Is the Home Secretary able to tell the House whether that percentage has increased since those figures were reported, and if so, by how much; and what plans there are to enlarge further the resources and effort directed against organised crime by the Security Service and other agencies? That too is an issue on which there was consensus among hon. Members on both sides. The Government have said that they look to increasing the efforts made against organised crime by the agencies. I hope that the Home Secretary can give us a little more detail.
The hon. Member for Doncaster, Central pointed out the need to secure better co-ordination between the work of different agencies that are engaged in combating organised crime. The Committee's report refers to evidence that it took from Customs and Excise and the 1188 Security Service about tobacco smuggling. It also commented on the role that the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad are playing in helping to lead the work to combat the international traffic in human beings.
The Home Secretary could answer one question. The Committee recommended in its earlier report that both NCIS and Customs should be given a place among the members of the Joint Intelligence Committee. I was not clear from looking at the Government's response to the report whether that has happened. It would be helpful to have an answer if possible.
One aspect of organised crime that has drawn the attention of both the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Home Affairs Committee in the past 12 months has been the organised trafficking in human beings. The Home Secretary and I have been known to disagree on immigration and asylum policy, but there is agreement across the Chamber about the need for resolute action to deal with the ruthless trafficking in human beings, the consequences of which we saw in the most stark and tragic form in the deaths of 58 young Chinese men and women in the back of a truck in Dover last year.
At paragraph 90 on page 32 of the Intelligence and Security Committee's report for 1999–2000, it expressed its concern aboutthe scale of illegal immigration into the UK.It reported that the Joint Intelligence Committee had taken a paper on the issue in June last year. The Intelligence and Security Committee then stated:GCHQ and the Security Service have also produced intelligence on this topic. but accept that they could do more.I hope that Ministers will be able to assure the House that that comment has been heard and that greater efforts are being undertaken to combat this particularly cruel traffic in human beings.
This debate has been characterised by a seriousness of purpose and sense of agreement on the basics on both sides of the House. I started by paying tribute to the retiring members of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I conclude by paying tribute to the men and women who work in our security and intelligence services. When I have spoken to former Ministers from Conservative and Labour Governments who have had responsibility for dealing with the security and intelligence agencies, they have all said how impressed they have been by the courage, patriotism, professionalism and sheer commitment and hard work of those men and women, who go about their duties in secret on behalf of us all. Those of us who are outside the circle of secrecy have to rely on the occasional glimpse through the veil. Perhaps the best tribute that we can pay is simply to place on the record our acknowledgement that the constituents of every hon. Member can go about their lives today more peacefully and securely because of the work that members of those agencies do.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
As the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, this has been a good debate. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said in his opening remarks that such debates were traditionally bipartisan, but given the electoral timetable, he wondered whether 1189 that would be tested to destruction. It almost fell over with the first speech from the Opposition Front Bench, that of the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), to whose remarks I shall return in due course.
There have been one or two discordant voices, and rightly so, but the debate has been of a high standard. It has served to illustrate the great effectiveness of the Intelligence and Security Committee in holding Ministers, particularly my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself, and the Government to account for their stewardship of the intelligence and security services.
My right hon. Friend began by paying tribute to members of the Intelligence and Security Committee who are leaving the House, and I shall do the same. Two members who are leaving, my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), have not been able to be present today for the debate, for reasons that we all understand. However, I know from the assiduous way in which they have attended the Committee, and the even more assiduous questions that they have put to me and to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, that they have made an important contribution to the work of the Committee and will be greatly missed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) entered the House, in the end, at the same time as I did, after three tries, two in Darwen, the adjoining constituency to mine, in February and October 1974, and then at a famous by-election, when Fred Peart went to the other place to become Leader of the House of Lords. I first got to know my hon. Friend the Member for Workington—he may not remember it, but I do—as Barbara Castle's bag carrier at a meeting in Darwen at which he was speaking before the October 1974 election. I admired him then and I have admired him ever since. Over the period in which we have been in the House together, we have become firm friends.
My hon. Friend has done a huge amount not only to maintain but to enhance the reputation of the House, at a time when there have been many assaults on its reputation from inside the House as well as outside. He made his own decision to be a parliamentarian, rather than to seek office, and very effective he has been. When the history of the period comes to be written, he will feature in more than footnotes, whereas many others who served in government will scarcely appear even in footnotes. I place on record my great thanks and the tribute of us all to him for his work across the House, and not least in the Intelligence and Security Committee.
My hon. Friend will go to his grave as a member of the awkward squad, and quite right, too. The House cannot operate if it is simply full of self-congratulatory toadies. He would not be a member of any such club. His characteristic criticism, combined with good judgment, makes him such a good Member.
The last of the four who are leaving is the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). Many tributes have been paid to him and I underline them all. There are other records for which he will be known. I had to look twice in the reference books to refresh my memory. He must be one of the few hon. Members in the past century to have served as Secretary of State in three Departments within 1190 10 months, as he did in 1983. Between January and June that year, he was Secretary of State for the Environment; between June and October, he was Secretary of State for Transport; and between October and some time in 1985, he was Secretary of State for Employment. No doubt that was a shock to him, if not to his Departments. He then served with distinction as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Secretary of State for Defence. He has been the mainstay of the Intelligence and Security Committee, although I have no idea whether he has been a difficult Chairman. He has never been difficult with me, only firm and inquiring. Long may that tradition continue. We wish him well whatever he does and wherever he goes, although a few of us. might lay some bets about that.
The fundamental work of the Committee is a theme that has run through the whole debate. Its role is to hold the agencies and the Ministers who are responsible for them properly to account for what they do. The Committee ensures a degree of accountability in the most difficult areas of Government. Of course, they are so difficult because the matters with which they deal are secret by definition.
It is interesting to reflect on just how far we have moved in this country in 17 short years. Before the Interception of Communications Act 1985 took effect, none of the work of the intelligence or security agencies was done on a statutory basis. Indeed, the existence of most of their work was denied. Officially. they did not exist and no one owned up to working for them. All their work was done on the basis of directives such as the Maxwell-Fyfe directive and of the royal prerogative. Since that time, however. Parliament has introduced the Interception of Communications Act 1985, the Security Service Act 1989 and the Intelligence Services Act 1994. Much of that legislation was driven by the fact that the way in which the agencies were operating—as opposed to what they were doing—was increasingly inconsistent with our obligations under the European convention on human rights.
At each stage, people in the agencies, as well as Ministers and Members of Parliament, were extremely worried that steps towards greater accountability would reduce the agencies efficiency and effectiveness. The great thing is that those fears, which were understandable at the time, have turned out to be entirely misplaced. In my judgment, the agencies have become more effective and efficient as they have become more accountable.
There is a twofold reason for that. The oversight systems that have been established have better ensured that the agencies and their staff stick to their task. In any field of government, people can distort the purpose for which they are employed, but that is especially true with regard to law enforcement. It is true of the police service, the customs, the immigration service and the agencies, as they use the coercive power of the state. Indeed, they often do so covertly.
That work gave rise to suspicions, some of which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). I have no doubt that some of those suspicions were well founded, but I believe that many of them were unfounded. There is no doubt that public confidence in the work of the agencies was undermined. whether they were performing tasks set clearly by the House and by Ministers or following an agenda of their own. We now have a much greater degree of certainty 1191 about the integrity of the staff, their professionalism and the degree to which they are following a programme laid down by Ministers and, in turn, by this House.
When we are dealing with parliamentary accountability, there are moments when the rights and interests of Parliament run directly counter to those of the Minister who is being held accountable. In acute circumstances, that can lead to the resignation of the Minister concerned—and quite right too. However, I believe that I speak on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary as well as myself when I say that our increasing accountability to the Committee and thus to Parliament has directly helped our role of not only holding the agencies to account, but ensuring that their work takes a more effective direction.
I could give many examples. The most obvious is that the list of questions that I am likely to be asked by the Intelligence and Security Committee triggers thoughts in my mind. All Ministers are busy; we cannot ask every question. When others raise issues, especially on the basis of greater expertise, it helps our work. The Home Office intelligence and security liaison unit arid the terrorism and protection unit work with the agencies They acknowledge the importance of the ISC's work in enhancing their supervisory role of the agencies.
Debate continues about whether the ISC should be a Select Committee. The Prime Minister expressed the Government's view this time last year. There is much to be said on both sides; I personally see the argument from both sides. If it became a Select Committee, it would be a rose by another name. It would also show that it belonged to Parliament rather than to the Prime Minister of the day. Perhaps we will move towards that in the next decade. However, it must be done on a step-by-step basis.
I stress to the sceptics, and there were many in 1993 and 1994 when the House considered the formation of the Committee, that the ISC has done work that is at least as good as that of any Select Committee. I do not disparage the work of Select Committees by saying that. I have witnessed the work of the Select Committee on Home Affairs under two Chairs. They and their members have been independent-minded and held me to account. They have done it differently from the ISC because the work for which I am answerable to them is overt rather than covert.
In practice, the ISC has been able to drill deeper, even though its proceedings are secret. It has been able to go into more detail and develop greater expertise. However, I stress to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) that the way in which the members of the ISC and members of Select Committees are chosen is no different. Although we could go for secret ballots, tossing coins and drawing names out of a hat, as long as our democracy is based on parties, they are bound to take a view about the membership of the Committees.
It is evident that not only toadies need apply to become members of Select Committees. I say as a compliment to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock that if that were the case, he would never serve on any Select Committee. That applies to a long list of my hon. Friends and to many Conservative Members. We are all members of political parties, which are the bedrock of parliamentary government.
I want to deal briefly with some of the points that were raised. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked about recruitment and retention. Eighty-nine IT specialists were 1192 recruited at GCHQ this year against a target of 95. That is not bad in a highly competitive market. A lot of effort is put into recruitment and retention. I stress to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, my hon. Friends the Members for Workington, for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have put in a lot of effort with the heads of the agencies to ensure that they improve the performance of their recruitment systems, examine individuals' background more closely and make sure there is better psychological profiling.
Crises or disruptions in people's personal lives occur in any organisation; the agencies cannot be immune from that. Such disruptions can contribute to or cause relationship problems in the office. We want to ensure that people are given better counselling and support than they received in the past and are not simply left. That applies to the staff not only of the agencies, but of Departments.
Direct access to employment tribunals for people with grievances relating to employment problems is important. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I regret the delay in enforcement of the regulations. We are grateful for the work done by the Committee, and for the knowledge that the debate was impending: it concentrated people's minds.
Members have raised the issue of finance. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater asked whether there should be more qualified people running the agencies' finances. That gives rise to an interesting debate which, as the right hon. Gentleman said, is not confined to the subject of the agencies.
There is a point at which people in every organisation must decide whether there should be subject specialists in Departments, or whether there should be a crossover involving people with more general expertise that is relevant to the way in which the organisation is run. There is currently a great debate in private industry—in the PLCs—about whether finance directors should end up running organisations, and about the point at which taking an interest in the organisation and having expertise in financial matters should cross over into more general skills. I do not think that there is any one answer, but I know that it is important to have proper systems of control, while also making use of qualified people.
§ Mr. Tom King
I hope the Home Secretary will allow me to say something about what might be described as a hobby horse of mine. People who may have had experience in a number of parts of an agency or department may never have been involved in finance. They may suddenly be promoted to the job of principal finance officer, although they have no expertise in that field. Not many companies could be found in this country that would entrust their funds to a financial director who had no financial qualifications.
§ Mr. Straw
That is a fair point.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury mentioned the risk of information being given to the Intelligence and Security Committee. He cannot have known this, but we give the ISC full information about the balance of expenditure not only between but within agencies. The issue has been whether the information should be provided publicly. My right hon. Friend and I are at one, in that we understand the argument for having a snapshot of only one year, but do not consider it to be sustainable.
1193 Questions were raised about organised crime, NCIS and Customs and Excise. NCIS and Customs and Excise attend occasional meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee, but are not full members of it. An increasing amount of the effort of agencies—not just the Security Service, under its specific powers, but the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ—is devoted to dealing with organised crime, and a great deal of effort goes into improving co-ordination of work across agencies. I see, directly, the work of the Security Service, the National Crime Squad and NCIS in dealing with organised crime, as well as that of the Met. Although there was a fair amount of suspicion initially, as often happens with law enforcement services, it is gradually being broken down, and the organisations involved are learning from each other.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggested that the Security Service should concentrate more on subversion. He implied that the problems that we experienced with two successive riots in the City could be blamed on a decline in the size of F5.
As is well known, there was a time when much of the effort of the Security Service was spent on investigating potential subversion in this country. That was the case throughout the cold war, and for as long as there were suspicions that many people might be fellow travellers and potential traitors. It goes back to the concerns of the Attlee Government after the war about the lack of vetting. Information gradually emerged about the extent to which various secret organs of the state had been infiltrated by the Communist party. As the cold war wound down, that was bound to change.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that if he thinks about what those organisations were doing, he will realise that they were mainly concerned with bodies such as the Communist party and those who might spy for the Soviet bloc. They had some involvement in industrial trade unions, but, for a similar reason, they were little concerned with general mayhem on the streets. One could think of plenty of examples of potentially violent and, in some cases, very violent demonstrations in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, including the poll tax riots, that occurred when there was a high level of activity by F5. Palpably, that activity did not prevent those demonstrations, because, even with the best intelligence in the world, one cannot prevent them. Furthermore, that is not what the organisation was there for.
The hon. Gentleman also slightly glossed over the situation as to those riots. There were serious lessons to be learned from the 1999 riots, and most were learned by the time of last year's May day riot. Yes, that riot occurred and damage was done, but it was controlled to a high degree by the Metropolitan police. I pay tribute to it for its direction.
§ Mr. Straw
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, want to close my remarks.
Members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are concerned that staff of the agencies may sometimes think that they are mentioned only when their work is being criticised. Any member of staff who has listened to 1194 the totality of the debate will recognise that any criticism has been made with affection and support for the organisation. Across the Chamber, every Member who spoke expressed high regard for what staff do, and that is entirely right.
One of the great delights of my four years as Home Secretary has been getting to know what necessarily secret organisations and people who cannot name or laud themselves do and witnessing their commitment, professionalism and esprit de corps. I have to add that they also show a great deal of personal courage. In thanking members of the Committee for their work and in paying tribute to the outgoing members, in particular the Chairman, I know that I express, on behalf of the whole House, our great debt of gratitude to the agencies and their staff.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.