HC Deb 02 March 2004 vol 418 cc741-4
3. Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab)

What communications he has received from other governments regarding surveillance of delegates to the UN Security Council during the period before military action against Iraq. [157413]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)

The British embassy in Mexico received an official note from the Mexican Government on 19 December. Our ambassador in Mexico City gave our response to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a meeting yesterday.

Mr. Gerrard

In written answers, the Foreign Secretary told me that it is not the Government's policy, and has never been the policy of any Government, to respond to speculation about the operational activities of the intelligence services. Is not it a fact rather than speculation that a communication was received from the Government of the USA asking for assistance in surveillance of United Nations delegations? The question as to what action was taken on that memorandum will not go away.

Mr. Straw

I understand and appreciate the nature of my hon. Friend's question, but I have to say that the House as well as successive Governments have always accepted that we have to ensure that there can be no speculation or no comment either to confirm or deny reports claiming details about the nature of British intelligence activities. However, I can make it clear that the British intelligence and security services operate strictly in accordance with statutory provisions and requirements laid down by the House and the other place. Those requirements take full account of our obligations under international law.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con)

On the subject of bugging in the United Nations, what is any judge supposed to make of any future breach of the Official Secrets Act, given that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) is patently in breach of that Act and of her Privy Council oath and that the Government are too spineless and guilt-ridden to do anything about it?

Mr. Straw

As the hon. Gentleman knows, under the Official Secrets Act, decisions to prosecute are made not by Ministers, but by the Director of Public Prosecutions with the consent of the Attorney-General.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op)

Has the Foreign Secretary noticed that the claims made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) have changed from day to day? First, she said that British intelligence was bugging Kofi Annan; then she said that the transcript came from someone else; and then she said the transcript dealt with Africa, not Iraq. She has probably not breached the Official Secrets Act, but she has been very irresponsible.

Mr. Straw

My right hon. Friend's summary of some of the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) illustrates the sense of successive Governments in not commenting either to confirm or deny allegations relating to the security and intelligence services. I have already explained why we will not comment; we would end up doing nothing else if we were to go down that path. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already expressed the sentiment, which is widely shared on both sides of the House, that the claims made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood were utterly irresponsible.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before we go any further, a right hon. or hon. Member should not be criticised without a substantive motion going before the House.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD)

Without my asking the Foreign Secretary to comment on an individual case, does he agree as a matter of principle that the United Kingdom, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has a special responsibility to protect the integrity and independence of the Council and to uphold the office of the Secretary-General? As a matter of principle, would electronic surveillance of other members of the Security Council, or indeed the Secretary-General himself, be a serious breach of that responsibility?

Mr. Straw

I entirely subscribe to the first statement made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but he will forgive me for not proceeding down the rabbit hole of his second statement. As a senior and responsible Member of the House, he knows why no Foreign Secretary of any party can ever confirm or deny reports relating to our intelligence activities.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend think it more or less likely that the United States and other partners will share vital intelligence with us if we cannot keep secrets?

Mr. Straw

One of the many reasons why we must make every effort to ensure that intelligence is kept secret is to protect our relationships with our international partners, but there other, even more important, reasons as well.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con)

On the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, has any British leader been so uninformed about a selected enemy since Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand?

Mr. Straw

I am not quite as senior in the House as the hon. Gentleman, and I remember the details of Lord Chelmsford's invasion of Zululand less well than he does. We were well informed about Iraq's behaviour. I know that he took one view, but the House took another by a clear majority of more than 200 votes. We were in full possession of the facts: Iraq was and remained in material breach of its international obligations under a succession of Security Council resolutions, and it had committed further clear material breaches of resolution 1441. It was therefore appropriate that the serious consequences proposed under operational paragraph 13 should take place.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that far from wishing to apologise some of us are proud indeed of our vote to destroy one of the most murderous tyrannies since 1945? Some who voted for the war may now want to apologise, but I do not want to be included in that category. The Government and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should be proud of what was done. If military action had not been taken, Saddam would have continued to rule for years ahead.

Mr. Straw

I entirely commend my hon. Friend for his constancy. Let us remind ourselves before trying to rewrite history that the basis on which the House voluntarily made its decision this time last year in respect of military action was not intelligence but what all of us could see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears—the 12 years of defiance by Saddam Hussein of UN obligations. That defiance had got worse. He had thrown out weapons inspectors at the end of 1998. Resolution 1441 was passed, and it imposed clear obligations on Saddam, which he failed to fulfil. Resolution 1441 did not require a second resolution, and it said to Saddam that if he failed to meet his obligations, serious consequences would follow.

As for the second part of my hon. Friend's remarks, there is no doubt that had we not taken military action last March, Saddam would be continuing his oppression of the Iraqi people, including millions of Shi'ites—who now have some religious freedom, notwithstanding the appalling attack this morning—and the Kurds, and he would have been emboldened and re-empowered to increase the terror for his own people and to threaten the stability of the rest of the region.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con)

Returning to the question of surveillance at the United Nations, the issue originally came into the public domain as the result of the actions of a civil servant at GCHQ, an organisation for which the Foreign Secretary is of course responsible. What steps will he take within GCHQ to prevent a repetition, before lasting damage is done both to the transatlantic intelligence relationship and the confidence and —crucially—the safety of our own intelligence services?

Mr. Straw

Without going into details, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we are taking the necessary steps. I should say that such incidents have taken place on both sides of the Atlantic and in most western countries from time to time, but they are very rare. I have no doubts about the professionalism, commitment and, above all, loyalty of all those who work for the British intelligence and security services.

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