Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.
I join the Home Secretary in offering our condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the outrage in Mumbai.
I am tempted to continue by referring to the Home Secretary as my right hon. Friend, as he just referred to me, but we would probably do each other equal harm. A cosy consensus may break out, but I think not. However, I do join him in welcoming the annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee. It is a thorough and wide-ranging report that raises several crucial issues. It is a fair reflection of the objective and serious manner in which the Committee, led by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), approached its scrutiny of the intelligence and security communities.
The House knows that I have some trenchant views—although I am probably in a minority in the Chamber—on the structure and powers of the Committee, and I shall say more about that later. However, I wish to put on the record that I do not, for one moment, accept the accusations made on “Newsnight” last night. The Committee is doing its job to the best of its very great ability.
I also join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to the work of the intelligence and security agencies. As the Committee’s report highlights, the threat from international terrorism remains serious and sustained. It comes not only from al-Qaeda, as the Home Secretary pointed out, but from its associated networks, dissident groups in Northern Ireland, Iranian state-sponsored terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and foreign espionage. We are all too familiar with the events of July last year—but it is thanks to the efforts of the security and intelligence services, as the Home Secretary said, in combating those diverse and complex threats that there have not been similar attacks both before and since then.
I have to break the cosy consensus on the issue of the Government’s response to the Committee’s comments on the combination of the post of the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the security and intelligence co-ordinator. I defer to nobody in my admiration for Sir Richard Mottram, with whom I have worked on several occasions, but the ISC raised a substantive point and I hope that the Home Secretary will look at it again, in slow time, perhaps before the next Committee report arrives.
The Committee also reports that the Government have recently concluded a study into the impact of new technology on interception of communications. The report was agreed between the Home Secretary’s predecessor and the Opposition in response to our call for the use of intercepts. As the tragic events just over a year ago demonstrated, terrorists will stop at nothing to inflict death and destruction on their enemies and innocent members of the public alike in the name of their cause. In combating that threat, we must consider all possible measures to detect terrorist suspects and to bring them to justice.
Two weeks ago, I wrote to the Home Secretary urging him to review the prohibition on the use of evidence from UK-warranted interception in our courts, as I also did with two of his predecessors. It is vital that our courts system has the tools to convict and lock up terrorists. Intercept evidence could also alleviate the need to lock up terror suspects arbitrarily or to impose control orders, by bringing them into the justice system on an evidence-based basis.
The previous Home Secretary claimed that
“the use of intercept will not result in our being able to prosecute more terrorists”.
He also said that it
“would endanger sources, damage relationships with foreign intelligence agencies or expose highly sensitive techniques”.
I do not accept those arguments.
From the briefings that the Homer Secretary’s predecessor made available to me from representatives of GCHQ and other interested parties, I am convinced that the obstacles to the use of intercept in our courts are not insurmountable. I have come to the conclusion that every problem can be overcome. The Government’s own terrorism adviser, Lord Carlile, says that intercept evidence would be “very useful”. The Metropolitan police say that it makes us look
“a little bit foolish that everywhere else in the world is using it to good effect”—
but we are not. More than a year after the attacks in London, we are still in the absurd position in which intercept evidence from foreign jurisdictions is admissible in our courts, but evidence from our own agencies is not.
The Home Affairs Committee has said that
“outside the Government, there is universal support for the use of intercept evidence in the courts. The Home Office has not produced convincing evidence that the difficulties are insuperable”.
The last Government review—the fifth in 10 years—maintained the prohibition. Since 7 July last year, the Government have conducted another review, which the Committee tells us is now complete.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. My predecessor told the House on 2 February that the Government are committed to finding a possible legal model by which we could provide the necessary safeguards to allow intercept material to be used in evidence, and I have some sympathy with that point of view. The Home Office is carrying out work on two possible legal models. The right hon. Gentleman said that he understood that that work had been completed, but that is not my information. The two models are the so-called public immunity plus model and the examining magistrates model. My understanding is that the work is due to be reported to Ministers in November—I asked about the matter before I came to the House today—so it is too early to say whether a workable legal model can be devised. I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point that this is an important issue, but it is also very risky if we get it wrong. Although it sounds as though it is a lot of time to spend on the matter and even if we were disposed to look on it with an open mind, we would have to be certain that we were not opening up the service and its operations to risk.
I thank the Home Secretary for that extremely useful intervention. The examining magistrates model was proposed in the first instance by the Newton committee and we supported that argument as it appeared to be the most robust. I agree entirely that we should not take risks in that area, but on the basis of legal advice from outside the Government—as well as the Government’s commentary—it appears to be achievable. People as eminent and knowledgeable about the issue as Lord Lloyd, for example, think that it is a tenable and achievable aim. I look forward to the Home Secretary returning to the House at some time soon with a conclusive answer on the issue.
The Committee’s report has a section on the Serious Organised Crime Agency. One of the aspects of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 that many criticised at the time of its passage was the absence of a single UK border police force. What Lord Stevens referred to as our “porous” borders have an impact on all the targets dealt with by the agencies covered by the Committee—organised crime, espionage and terrorism.
The Committee reports that
“the threat from espionage remains...Several countries are actively seeking British information and material to advance their own military, technological, political and economic programmes”.
For almost a century, foreign intelligence services have used large movements of people, especially refugees, as cover for inserting their agents. There is also the now well understood threat of foreign terrorists entering the country illegally.
The failure of the Government to get a grip on illegal immigration, the now famous admission by the immigration and nationality directorate head of removals that he does not have the faintest idea how many illegal immigrants are in this country and the Home Secretary’s description of the IND as “not fit for purpose” demonstrate a serious weakness in the Government’s strategy to keep out those who would do this country harm. As the example of one of the suspects wanted in connection with the attempted bombing on 21 July last year showed, there are also problems monitoring people leaving the country. Despite his photograph being distributed to ports and airports, he was able to escape to Paris and then to Rome.
If the Home Secretary is really serious about protecting our borders, he will look again at introducing a single border police force. The Metropolitan police have called for one, the former head of the Association of Chief Police Officers has called for one and the Home Affairs Committee called for one more than five years ago—but just a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister rejected those calls. If there were a single force, combining the expertise of existing agencies to prevent foreign terrorists entering the country or to detect suspects leaving the country, the burden on the security services would be lower in the first place.
Yesterday, the Home Secretary announced in his statement that a Cabinet-level Committee would work on measures to reduce alienation. However, the ISC reports that another ministerial Committee, the Intelligence Services Committee, has met just once in the past 10 years. That raises a serious problem about ministerial oversight of national security. Currently, a vast array of individuals, bodies and committees are involved in protecting the security of this country, but no single Minister is charged solely with overseeing those bodies and countering the terrorist threat.
By virtue of his wide range of responsibilities, the Home Secretary always has a lot on his plate, and he has admitted as much himself. Much of that work is urgent, as the recent crises over foreign prisoners and other matters have shown. It is impossible for him, or for anyone in his position, to focus entirely on security issues. That is perfectly reasonable, and it is why we have long proposed that a single, Cabinet-level Minister should focus solely on counter-terrorism and national security. I understand that that proposal now has the support of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee.
The Prime Minister has rejected our proposals again, saying that the present arrangements work well, yet the simple truth is that they do not work well, or not well enough. The speed of progress in the prevention and detection of terrorist attacks is slower than we would like. That is not a reflection on the Home Secretary or his predecessors; it is more a reflection on the system that is in place. Until we have a single Minister whose sole focus is defeating the terrorist threat, improvements to the security services and to our resilience arrangements will not be as rapid as they could and should be.
I have paid tribute already to the excellent work of the ISC, under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Torfaen. With limited resources, it performs its task admirably, but no one could imagine that its report on the events of 7/7 could match the 550-page report produced by the 9/11 commission. The time has come for the powers and remit of the ISC to be expanded, to match its task’s heightened profile and difficulty. By increasing the ISC’s powers, Parliament could ensure full scrutiny of the work of the intelligence and security services while maintaining the necessary secrecy that surrounds their operations.
I last asked the Home Secretary about these matters in May, when he responded that the ISC’s scope, remit and statute were defined by the previous Conservative Government. That is correct, and I am touched that the right hon. Gentleman values that Government’s actions so highly that he wants to maintain the status quo. However, I think that the Government accept that we now face a new and more sophisticated threat. It is only right that the ISC’s role should develop to ensure that that threat is met in the most effective way possible.
The ISC was created in the mid-1990s. It was envisaged then that, as the Committee acquired the confidence of the intelligence and security communities, it would evolve towards being a Select Committee of this House, rather than an appointed Committee of the Prime Minister. I urge the Home Secretary to consider those proposals, to ensure that our security services perform their vital role to the best of their ability and under the best possible scrutiny.
The right hon. Gentleman will recall that I was present at the debates on the Bill setting up the ISC, and that the then Conservative Government strenuously opposed Opposition amendments that would have made it a Select Committee. It was made clear to us that under no circumstances would that happen. If he is departing from that position, that is something to be welcomed.
The shadow Home Secretary is suggesting that the ISC’s role should be extended, and no doubt the Government will wish to consider that, but would not that require greater parliamentary accountability than we have at present? Obviously, ongoing operations could not be considered, either in private or in public, by any Committee, but does he agree that there should be more parliamentary accountability than exists at the moment?
I do agree, and I shall offer a model of how I think the Committee should be set up. The hon. Gentleman may remember that I was one of the Ministers on the Bill to which he referred. I recall that I said at the time that the then Government expected the Committee, and its relationship with Parliament, to evolve. I am sure that he can look that up if he wants to.
Prior to the ISC’s existence and, indeed, for the past decade or so, a great deal of oversight had been provided to the secret arm of Government by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee sitting as a Committee of one. From memory, that arrangement applied to various aspects of the operations undertaken by MI6, MI5 and GCHQ. If he casts his mind back, the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) will recall the publication of the report on the £150 million overrun on the cost of the buildings for MI5 and MI6. My predecessor in those days was Robert Sheldon, now Lord Sheldon. He tried to get that report published, but the agencies told him that the information was so secret that it could not be put in the public domain. Tom King, now Lord King, was the ISC Chairman at the time, and he also said that he would like to see the information in the public domain, but he, too, was told that it was too secret. In the end, all three of us ganged up on the Government—this Government—who were persuaded that information such as that could be put in the public domain.
A redaction process then started, as I wanted to make the final report as accountable as possible. I received two documents—one each from MI5 and MI6—containing all their proposed deletions. The chapters that they wanted to redact looked almost identical, but the proposed redactions were different. I therefore wrote to the agencies. I asked MI5, “If MI6 allows us in, why can’t MI5?” I also asked MI6, “If MI5 allows us in, why can’t MI6?” The agencies’ opposition to the report collapsed and it was published almost in its entirety. I do not think that any aspect of our security and intelligence operation was damaged—
No, the western world did not collapse—at least, not from that cause anyway. However, the hon. Member for Walsall, North is right: it is perfectly possible for a responsible Committee to carry out oversight in the way described.
I do not entirely agree with how the Americans handle all their oversight arrangements, especially in respect of budget oversight, but the objective that has been set out is eminently achievable. I should like a Committee to be established along the lines of the PAC, with serious investigative resources. I do not mean this as an insult to the ISC’s current Chairman, but it is possible that, as a matter of course, the proposed Committee should have an Opposition Chairman. That is what happens with the PAC, and if I am Home Secretary in two or three years I may be in a position to offer the right hon. Member for Torfaen another job.
The mechanism that I envisage can be achieved. As we enhance the size and effectiveness of our security services, we owe it to the people of Britain to enhance the oversight that goes with that.
I was Secretary of State for Defence when the ISC was formed, and it is easy to forget how revolutionary an innovation it was considered to be and how nervous the agencies were about any degree of scrutiny. However, I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend: the excellent work done by the ISC, and the nature of the security problems that it and the Government face at present, more than justifies the sort of reforms that he is recommending.
I apologise to the House and to the Home Secretary for intervening, given that I was not present for the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. I am interested in what my right hon. Friend is saying. I have served on a fairly high profile Select Committee and on the ISC, and I have an open mind about the proposal that he is making, but will he elaborate on how he sees a Select Committee working within the confines of the Official Secrets Act? By definition, a parliamentary Committee is open, whereas the Official Secrets Act is, of course, limiting.
There is no doubt that the proposed Committee would be unique in that respect, but the American Senate has a very effective oversight committee. For instance, Pat Roberts’ committee helped to produce the 9/11 report, and there are many other examples. What we propose is not impossible and there are various options, such as requiring all Committee members to be privy Councillors. We need to begin the debate on the matter, to ensure that we have the right level of scrutiny to match the security requirements.
The right hon. Gentleman is making some sensible and helpful proposals. I have pursued precisely these matters for a long time, and over the years I have become aware that people say things in opposition that melt away when they get into government. If he ever gets into government, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will stick firmly by the idea that the security services should account to Parliament and not to the Prime Minister?
There are two aspects for the hon. Gentleman to consider. First, I was a member of the Committee that put MI6—the SIS—on to an avower basis for the first time, so my enthusiasm was evident even as a junior Minister. Secondly, I am told that when people go into government they have 12 months of virtue, so when and if I am Home Secretary in three years’ time, I recommend that the hon. Gentleman reminds me of that point. That is why I am making it now.
Perhaps I can help the right hon. Gentleman. From time to time, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has received classified information, which it has never leaked; nor would it. Nevertheless the Committee has regularly been told by Ministers, in this and the previous Government, that certain information will not be given to us because it is being given to the ISC. The members of that Committee are good people, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), whom I served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, but the ISC is not a Committee of the House and it is not accountable to the House, so I am very interested in the proposal made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), but it should go further.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the ISC has limitations? The report it produced for the House on the Bali bombings in 2002 suggested that MI5 had got the threat level wrong and that it should have been raised from significant to high. The report was put to the House, but the House decided not to act on it. The consequences of not accepting its recommendation about travel advice from the Foreign Office were huge and affected all the people consulting the website when making plans to travel to Bali. The whole report, written by Ann Taylor, was dismissed by the Chamber, which shows how limited the powers of the ISC are.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I think that he is blaming the wrong person. We cannot blame the Committee for the extent to which the House or the Government take action on the basis of its recommendations. That is purely the responsibility of the House and the Government. The Committee does the best job it can within the limits of its remit and my hon. Friend highlights a good example of one of the things that it illustrated.
The burden of the ISC’s work this year has been the report into the London terrorist attacks of 7 July, about which I do not intend to go into great detail as I suspect that the story will change over the coming year. When the Committee published its report, I paid tribute to it as “extremely insightful”, but although the Committee is impartial, astute and of the highest integrity, as I have said before, there are limitations on what it can achieve. I shall read a quotation to the House:
“No one wants to play the blame game. No one wants an investigation to find one person who was at fault and make them pay. But we need to fully understand what happened on July 7. And there is a very simple reason - it is the best way to stop it from ever happening again. The public need to know if there was anything that could have been done immediately before the attacks to prevent them. They need to know whether there were things the police or security services might have done which could have saved all those lives.”
Those are the words not of some wild revolutionary, but of the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). So if the Home Secretary will not listen to me, perhaps he will listen to his right hon. Friend who, as the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and a former Home Office Minister, has a good deal more experience in these matters than almost anybody else—even members of the Government.
It is worth pointing out that almost every serious breach of security under previous Governments has resulted in an independent inquiry, generally led by a member of the judiciary, such as the Radcliffe inquiry in 1962, the Denning inquiry and the Franks inquiry. The least that the Government can do, to ensure that no stone is left unturned in learning the lessons from last July, is to order a full, independent inquiry. So far, the Home Secretary has shown himself willing to reconsider some of the decisions taken by his predecessors. I hope that this will be another issue on which he is prepared to be independently minded and to do what is best in the interests of the public.
The ISC reports that the Home Secretary intends to toughen the Official Secrets Act. We hear that he intends to remove the common law defence of “duress of circumstance”, or necessity, as a defence for so-called whistleblowers, and that the maximum penalty for breaching the Official Secrets Act could be doubled from two to four years in prison. I shall wait until the Bill is published and we have had a proper chance to examine it in detail before I comment on its contents and before the Opposition decide on their stance.
It is surprising, however, that the Home Secretary wants to change the law when the Government have failed to test its operation in crucial cases, most recently in the case of Katharine Gun, which, I understand, led to the proposals. I should make it clear that I do not approve of what Ms Gun did, but if the Government believed that her actions represented a breach in security, or had endangered the interests of the United Kingdom, they had a duty to take the case to court in the national interest. However, the case was reportedly dropped just five hours after the defence sought the disclosure of the Attorney-General’s advice to the Government about the Iraq war.
Whether or not there is a public interest or similar defence in law, it is possible that a jury would still decide a case based on its own interpretation of the public interest. I hope that the Home Secretary will pay particular attention to this part of my argument, as that is an important test; for example, such an interpretation of the public interest may have been the reason for the acquittal of Clive Ponting, under a previous Government.
The Government came to power with an admirable reputation and enthusiasm for freedom of information, for protecting whistleblowers and for civil rights—an apposite point given the issues that were raised with me earlier—which has, sadly, faded in recent years. The Government’s behaviour towards legitimate—indeed, public spirited—whistleblowers has bordered on the disreputable. There will be a fear that the Official Secrets Act is being used to conceal embarrassing facts, rather than secrets that are essential to the security of the state. If the proposed measures represent the former, the whole House will resist them, but if they are really necessary for the defence of the state, they will receive our support. That distinction is vitally.
I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. There were newspaper reports of considerable disquiet in the intelligence services about how the intelligence was presented during the run-up to the war with Iraq. If people feel that intelligence is being misused, there must be legitimate means, without endangering security, for them to represent that view to others who may have a legitimate interest—for instance, the ISC. There is a real fear that if the proposed measure goes through, there could be further oppression of people whose legitimate point of view would help the House.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, although the Committee’s report covers in some detail the quite sensible arrangements for handling dissenting opinion. However, he is right in another respect: we have to be absolutely sure that the Bill is about protecting the interests of our state, not those of a particular Administration, or protecting from embarrassment somebody in the bureaucracy. That is the test that we shall apply to it when it comes before the House.
One point not mentioned in the ISC report, but to which the Home Secretary alluded yesterday, is resilience—the measures taken to preserve public safety when a terrorist attack has happened. Resilience is a vital pillar in the fight against terrorism. Although the Home Secretary included it under the prepare strand of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, it is clear that more needs to be done. For example, simple measures, such as instructions about what to do in a case of emergency—as in a terrorist attack—have still not been placed in tube carriages. A whole year after 7/7, a series of safety measures have not been put in place. Those are small but vital measures, which should not normally occupy the time of the Home Secretary, but they could mean the difference between life and death to members of the public in the event of another attack.
We all pay tribute to the bravery and commitment of those in our intelligence and security communities who protect our lives on a daily basis. However, they cannot win the fight against terrorism alone. I urge the Home Secretary and the Minister who winds up the debate to consider the proposals that I have set out: lifting the ban on intercept evidence; a single, border police force; a single, Cabinet-level Minister in charge of counter-terrorism and national security; an increase in the investigative powers of the ISC; an independent inquiry into the events of 7 July; and further attention to resilience measures.
I repeat what I have said to the Home Secretary before. It is certainly our job on the Opposition Benches—and, in my view, on both sides of the House—to question and to scrutinise the actions of Government and, where necessary, to propose an alternative course of action—and no matter how the Home Secretary may describe it, that is not unpatriotic; it is our duty. However, where we believe that he is taking action in the interests of public security and in the national interest, he will have our unwavering support.
I share the revulsion of the shadow Home Secretary and of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary at the events in India today. It just proves that the terrorism that we now face is in a global form that we have never quite faced in the past. I put on the record my thanks to the Clerk, Emma-Louise Avery, and the staff of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and to the previous Clerk, Alistair Corbett. They work extremely hard. They are dedicated, committed and behave extremely independently in the work that they do. I would also like to thank the members of the Committee, from all parties and from both Houses. They, too, work with great diligence and commitment. They are extremely critical when necessary, but they operate entirely in a non-partisan and non-party political way, as they should.
I was interested in the remarks made by the shadow Home Secretary about whether the Committee should be a Select Committee of the House. I am reminded of a former Welsh colleague of mine, whom many Members here would have known, Cledwyn Hughes, the former Member for Anglesey. When he faced such interesting and difficult issues, he would address the parliamentary Labour party, of which he was chairman, and say, “You see colleagues, there are pros and cons for, and pros and cons against.” On the question of the Select Committee, that is probably precisely the case. I have no firm view on whether the Committee should be a Select Committee, but I am certain that it should be different from any other Committee that exists in Parliament.
Indeed. There are some advantages, then, in the Committee being transferred into a Select Committee.
Let us look at the way in which the Committee is appointed. We know, of course, that the appointments are made by the Prime Minister. However, the Opposition Members on the Committee—remember that out of nine members, four are Opposition Members—are appointed on the recommendation of the leaders of their respective parties. To all intents and purposes, the appointment of the members is very similar to the appointment of Select Committee members. In addition, the way in which the Committee operates in its offices in Whitehall is exactly the same as the way in which Select Committees operate—by way of cross-examination and taking evidence, both written and oral.
I think that my right hon. Friend said that the way in which the Committee is selected is known. I have to remind the House that I tabled parliamentary questions asking the Prime Minister about the manner in which the selections were made and he said that he would not tell me because it was a secret. I think that we should have revealed to us today what he understands is the method of selection.
I assume that my hon. Friend means me when he says “he”. I do not make the selections. What I am telling the House is that the Prime Minister selects the Labour members on the basis of his own decision, having taken advice; other members are selected on the recommendation of the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. That seems very similar to the way in which Select Committees are appointed.
I do not want to go too far down this road, because, as I said, I am neutral on the issue of whether the Committee should be a Select Committee, in terms of the constitutional point, but I am certain that it ought to be a different type of Committee. It has to meet in private. It is clearly absurd for a Committee dealing with secret intelligence to meet in pubic. That cannot happen. Of course, we debate such matters—we are doing so today—in the Chamber of the House of Commons, and that is right, too. There are reports—at least one, usually two and sometimes three a year—from the Committee that are debated in public and that are in the public domain.
It is also nonsense to suggest that the members of the Committee, in the words of some journalists, are the Prime Minister’s stooges, or that we have a cosy relationship with the security services. How on earth can that be the case with a Committee that is drawn up on lines that give the Government a majority of only one—if that were ever to be used, which it is not—and that includes among its members a former deputy leader of the Conservative party and a former deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat party? As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary indicated in his speech, by no stretch of the imagination could it be said that they are the Prime Minister’s stooges.
The accusation that the Committee is amateur and inexperienced is also clearly nonsense. Of the nine members of the Committee, one of whom comes from the House of Lords, four have been Ministers in Departments that have direct knowledge of and relationships with the security services. In terms of experience, although they might not want me to mention it, my colleagues and I have a combined service to Parliament of nearly 200 years. That is nearly 200 years of valuable experience.
The point that I am trying to make to the House is that in no way is the Committee full of people who are there to give the Government a soft line or some sort of easy ride. That is not the purpose of the Committee. The purpose of the Committee is to scrutinise the intelligence services as effectively as it can, without fear and without favour. That is not an issue that divides us. All of us on the Committee, from whatever party and whichever House in this Parliament of ours, believe that that is the right thing to do.
For example, in the annual report for 2005-06, which we are considering, there are three substantial criticisms that we believe should be dealt with. Some of them were touched on by the shadow Home Secretary. There is the fact that the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the security and intelligence co-ordinator ought not to be the same person. We are still unconvinced that that is the right thing to have happened. We also say that the emphasis by the Joint Intelligence Committee on trying to achieve a consensus in its reports could mean that it is missing, or failing to prioritise, key points. We had concerns about the new intelligence system, SCOPE, and the difficulties that GCHQ had with various staff disputes.
At the same time, however, we are also very conscious of the fact that, where praise is appropriate, we give it to the intelligence services. That is something that any Select Committee in the House of Commons would do. For example, the staff problems at GCHQ seem to be in the process of being resolved and the IT project SCOPE will deliver next year. There is no question but that the agencies have faced a huge challenge during the past 12 months, given all the difficulties with regard to the problems of counter-terrorism and 7 July, and I think that they have met that challenge.
There is now an opportunity for dissent and challenge in the Defence Intelligence Staff—an essential recommendation of the Butler review. We recognise that extra funding has gone into the agencies and we have emphasised on more than one occasion the need to ensure that there is good value for money. There is another issue that is completely misunderstood by so-called commentators. That point came out last night on “Newsnight”. I am talking about how people are recruited into our intelligence agencies. I understand that one of the so-called experts said that it was done by means of an Oxford don and a bottle of sherry. I have nothing against the University of Oxford—I went there myself—and I certainly have nothing against a bottle of sherry, but these days that is not the way in which people are recruited to our security and intelligence agencies. If Members had looked at The Times some months ago, they would have seen that it contained advertisements for MI6. If they turn on their computers and look at the websites of both our security services, they will see that jobs are being advertised in public in a way that is completely different from what has gone on in the past. It is right for the Committee, Parliament and the Government to put right such misconceptions. It was good that our campaign to see BBC monitoring continue was successful, and we commend the lead that the agencies are taking on European co-operation.
It is fair to say that much of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s work this year was concentrated on the appalling events of July last year. Obviously, this debate is taking place in the context of the anniversary of that dreadful occasion. We found that there was no prior warning of the attack and no culpable failure on the part of the agencies. We found that MI5 had come across two of the leading bombers before the attacks at the periphery of an earlier investigation, but that there was no evidence that they were planning attacks against our country.
I welcome the provisions made by the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee, especially regarding dissenting voices in the intelligence community. Did the Committee come across any dissenting voices in the intelligence community vis-à-vis the two gentlemen whom he mentioned, most notably regarding Mohammed Siddique Khan and any previous activities in which he may have been involved?
Our report was published on the basis of evidence given to us that was agreed by the agencies.
We found that the extent of home-grown extremism was underestimated by the agencies. We also recommended several changes to the threat and alert systems, so I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced the necessary changes to the House only yesterday.
Some allegations have been made that material was withheld from the Committee during the course of our investigations into the events of July last year and, indeed, that we were misled by the agencies. We have examined each and every one of those claims, whether they were made verbally or in the media, and are satisfied that they are not true. Our report stands as an accurate representation of the facts as we saw them. Although we have investigated the claims over the past weeks, we are still of the opinion that the conclusions at which we arrived in our written report were right.
My right hon. Friend referred to domestic terrorism. Does he share my concern about the opinion poll that was published a few days ago indicating that 13 per cent. of British Muslims sympathised with, or actually supported, the aims of the people who carried out those terrible murders in London a year ago? Does that not indicate that we need to deal with not only intelligence, but the way in which we engage the Muslim communities in detecting, preventing and combating the ideology of al-Qaeda and its sympathisers?
Yes, I do, although that is not necessarily a job for the intelligence agencies or the Committee that I have the privilege to chair. However, it must be taken seriously into account. One thing that we can take from the poll is that although some people thought in the way in which my hon. Friend outlined, the people who live in our Muslim communities in this country overwhelmingly do not share that view. It is important that hon. Members understand that, especially those who represent constituencies in which large numbers of Muslim people live.
My right hon. Friend mentioned misreporting in the press. Perhaps I should have taken the opportunity earlier to comment on reports in the press by reassuring him and the Committee, which is concerned with not only counter-terrorism and security, but organised crime and so on, that it is the Government’s view that one of the essential elements of the fight is identity management and ID cards. I reaffirm our commitment to the introduction of those as rapidly as possible. I thought that it was as well to say that in view of several reports that have misleadingly suggested today that we are abandoning that commitment—we are certainly not.
I am grateful that I have given my right hon. Friend the opportunity to put that on record.
When the Committee compiled its report on the events of 7 July, several matters caused us concern. We were worried that the agencies had not really recognised the speed with which young Muslim men, in particular, were becoming radicalised. Although that is no longer the case, the situation came as something of a surprise. We were also worried that we had all underestimated the possibility of suicide bombings happening in our own country. It is good that MI5 is now reaching out into the regions of our country, especially our great cities, so that we are in a position in which we can, we hope, avoid such problems in the future.
On that point about reaching out, paragraph 107 of the report recognises the leading role of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency on serious and organised crime in Scotland. Point Y in the summary of conclusions and recommendations says that the Committee
“shall continue to examine progress and assess the effectiveness of co-operation between the Serious Organised Crime Agency … Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs … and the Agencies.”
Has the right hon. Gentleman given any consideration to how SCDEA may be linked directly to HMRC and the agencies, other than through the relationship with SOCA in England and Wales?
Yes, Scottish members of the Committee, or members representing constituencies close to the Scottish border, made us aware of the situation, so we are conscious of the Scottish dimension, as we are of the Welsh dimension. We thought that serious consideration needed to be given to the relationship between the special branches of our country’s police forces and the security agencies themselves. We can learn from terrible disasters and what happened in July, as well, obviously, as ensuring that we thwart future terrorist attacks. I was glad that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary indicated that at least four had been stopped in the past year.
Our country faces a number of threats to our security from international terrorism, especially from al-Qaeda and its associated networks, from dissident groups in Northern Ireland, from increasing tension over Iran’s nuclear programme and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and from international espionage, given that several countries are seeking British information and material. Good intelligence is not the only solution to countering those threats, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, indicated, but it can make a huge difference, as it did in Northern Ireland. If we had not had such superb intelligence over the past decade, we would not have achieved what we did there because of it.
One of the reasons we got great intelligence in Northern Ireland was the fact that the community was on side and thus presented a massive number of human sources. Has the Committee taken any evidence about, or inquired into, the impact of some of the draconian counter-terrorism legislation that the Government have introduced and the extent to which that has deterred people from Muslim communities from coming forward as sources?
No, not in that sense, but we had a look in some detail at how to deal with the problems in Muslim communities in which extremists live, work and plot. When we compiled our report, we cross-examined and interviewed many people, from Ministers down. We also went through hundreds of documents to find out whether we could get to the bottom of the issues that were causing concern. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary indicated in his opening speech the difference between what happened in Northern Ireland and the situation that we face today. There was a structure to the terrorist activities in Northern Ireland that we faced. The situation was very much on our doorstep, and the people spoke the same language. We now face a disparate global terrorism that is completely different from what we faced in Northern Ireland, and I say that as someone who spent five years of his life as a Northern Ireland Minister. The way in which we deal with such terrorism is a huge challenge to the security services, this country and the world. I still believe, however, that intelligence can play a hugely important role in combating global terrorism, the effects of which we have seen today in India.
Our agencies face new challenges, especially in counter-terrorism, but they are largely meeting those challenges. The ISC will continue to scrutinise their work; to suggest areas in which greater efficiency is possible; to look at issues that are controversial—
I note that at paragraph 104 my right hon. Friend proposes to conduct an inquiry into rendition. Can he assure the House that it will address the case of the two British residents—not citizens—who were arrested in Gambia and are now in limbo, because the British Government say that they cannot make representations on their behalf, although someone clearly made representations to make sure that they reached Guantanamo Bay in the first place? We ought to have some responsibility for them, not least because one has four young children under the age of eight.
The answer is yes, we will do so. When my hon. Friend intervened on me, I was about to say that our next investigation will be on the issue of extraordinary rendition, and it will look at the cases that he raised. We have already received correspondence from the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who chairs the all-party group on rendition. Those issues will be addressed, because they are important. People hold different views—rendition is controversial—but that does not stop us looking at the issue. We do all those things and carry out all those investigations, however difficult, controversial and unpopular, in the knowledge that our intelligence community is there to protect our country from the security threats of the 21st century.
On behalf of my party, I join other hon. Members in expressing condolences to everyone who was maimed or bereaved in the cold-blooded and callous bomb attacks in Mumbai today. I join other hon. Members, too, in welcoming the ISC’s thorough, detailed and authoritative annual report for 2005-06. As it notes, it is especially timely as there is a
“sustained threat from international terrorism”,
particularly from al-Qaeda. Only last Friday, we commemorated the tragic 7 July bombings in London, and I echo the tributes paid to those who make heroic efforts to secure our safety.
The report should be read alongside the earlier ISC report on the 7 July bombings, as together they fill in important gaps in the jigsaw of events that led to those terrible attacks. It is worth reiterating that the jigsaw will be complete only if there is a full, independent, public inquiry into the 7 July attacks and the events that led up to them. On 11 May this year, the Home Secretary told me that an inquiry would be too costly and would divert resources from other work. The expense of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, running into hundreds of millions of pounds, is regularly cited by Ministers as a reason why an independent inquiry into 7/7 is not justified. I have looked up the costs of key public inquiries in recent years, and they are not as excessive as suggested. The Bichard inquiry, which made 31 important recommendations, cost £2 million; the inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove and Southall train crashes cost £1.2 million, and made 39 recommendations; and the inquiry into the awful death of Victoria Climbié cost £3.8 million, and made 17 recommendations. The Home Secretary may be reluctant to hold a public inquiry but, given the record of previous public inquiries, the issue of costs is not the most powerful reason for failing to do so.
For the record, the hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. The official cost of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, in which a large number of families are involved and which has lasted six or seven years, is £185 million. However, that is not the point. When I use the word, “costs”, I am referring to manpower, and the diversion of a huge amount of resources and efforts by men and women from the primary task of trying to protect us against another 7/7. That—and not financial cost—has always been the major consideration. In view of the challenges that we face—the massive threat to this country and the possibility of another tragedy—to divert a great deal of resources and manpower from our badly stretched security services for a prolonged period would result in a huge drain on our capability to fight terrorism, thus increasing the risk of another 7/7. In all conscience, I cannot do that, especially as I do not believe that there will be a commensurate reward in terms of questions answered, because there are some questions that we just cannot answer. I do not blame the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, nor do I blame the families, because I understand that there are many questions to which they want answers, but against that we must weigh the protection of every family in Britain.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary. I merely make two observations. First, it is difficult for me to assess how many resources would be diverted. Given that much of the information is out there somewhere, I find it hard to believe that it would be beyond the means of an inquiry to allocate a small team from the security and intelligence services to make that information available. Secondly—and this is a much more important, substantive point—the Home Secretary implied that there are not a sufficient number of questions that need to be answered, as enough ground has already been covered by other inquiries and reports. It is difficult to judge with scientific accuracy whether that assertion is true. The week before last, a report was published on the death of Zahid Mubarek, who was killed in custody. That inquiry took place after full reports by the Prison Service and by the Commission for Racial Equality, yet it still identified 176 failings and made 88 recommendations. It would rest heavily on the Home Secretary’s conscience, as it would on mine, if we failed to cover important ground and prevent future terrorist attacks because we omitted to hold an independent inquiry.
I used the powerful example of the report on the death of Zahid Mubarek, which was published after two earlier investigations, to point out that its recommendations were made after it was claimed that all the lessons had been learned and all the information had been uncovered. I do not know the unknowable but, given the enormity of the 7 July attacks, I do not understand why the hon. Lady and others are reluctant to make a comparatively modest investment in an independent inquiry, which might uncover facts of which we have no knowledge at present.
As for the ISC report, I welcome the wording on the regionalisation of the operation of the security and intelligence services, and the fact that the process of regionalisation was accelerated following the July bombings. I was struck by the passage in paragraph 40 which states:
“A vital part of the regionalisation programme will be the Service’s ability to work closely with local bodies, particularly the Regional Intelligence Cells within the police.”
I am surprised that the process of regionalisation does not appear to have happened earlier. It is arguable that excessive centralisation is as unwelcome in this matter as it is in so many other areas of Government policy.
It is consistent with the observation made in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s earlier report of the 7 July bombings that the regionalisation of the security and intelligence services helps improve policing at local level and helps the front-line intelligence-gathering function of our police forces. That takes on particular resonance in the week when the Government’s ill-judged attempt to force through police force mergers seems to have hit the buffers. I note that the Home Secretary’s predecessor today branded that development as weak and damaging, but I come to the Home Secretary’s defence, even in his absence. It is a welcome wake-up call that the move towards forced regional police mergers was the wrong way to go. The report helps to emphasise the need to localise both the police and the work of the intelligence services.
There was reference earlier to the Committee’s observations on the SCOPE IT system and the serious delays in rolling it out, from April 2005 to autumn 2006, yet the capital cost of that delay has been blanked out in the report. I find it difficult to understand why that cost should not be quantified in the report. I understand entirely that there is plenty of delicate and sensitive information that one does not want to appear in such reports, but I wonder whether there is a security risk in revealing the figure. I do not understand why the security services appear to have sought not to release the costs incurred by yet another delay in a public information technology project.
That is particularly apposite hot on the heels of the revelations in the Sunday newspapers, notwithstanding the Home Secretary’s confirmation this evening that he wants to press ahead with the development of the much more ambitious and complex ID card database, that there are pronounced reservations among senior officials about whether that is possible. One official was quoted in the Sunday papers as stating:
“Nobody expects this programme to work. It is basically on hold while ministers rethink their options. It’s impossible to imagine the full scheme being brought in before 2026.”
Another official remarked:
“I conclude that we are setting ourselves up to fail”,
and yet another referred to the possibility that the scheme could be “canned completely”.
The fact that there is so much that we do not know about the feasibility of implementing the ID card database affirms the need for much more detail about why the SCOPE IT system has been delayed and the cost that that delay has incurred.
The report contains an important section on the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and states that the Committee was told about the difficulties that could arise from the fact that SOCA will be competing with other agencies for new recruits. The Committee is to continue to examine progress and assess the effectiveness of co-operation between SOCA, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and other agencies.
I endorse the Committee’s observations that competition for resources between SOCA and other agencies needs to be kept under review. Vigilance is required to ensure the best possible operational relationship between SOCA and HMRC in pursuing serious drug investigations and criminal finance work, which are the two responsibilities that have been transferred from HMRC to SOCA.
However, there is a quasi-constitutional issue on which the report is silent, and which perhaps lies beyond the remit of the Committee—the apparent lack of direct accountability for the work of SOCA to the House. I urge the Home Secretary and his colleagues on the Front Bench to look once again at improving in any way that they can the transparency of the important and sensitive work of SOCA and the way in which the agency can be held accountable to the House.
Finally, in an important section of the report there is reference to the fact that the Home Secretary
“told the Committee that he had commissioned a study into the impact of new technology on interception, including any evidential issues, and that the Committee would have early sight of its findings.”
Although, as I understand it, the study exists, it is a pity that the Committee has not been given early sight of it. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches look forward with some eagerness to hearing the results of the study, because for some time we have argued, as have many others, that the permissibility of intercept evidence in our courts would be an important additional weapon in the fight against terrorism.
Earlier this year the senior anti-terror police officer at the Met, Andy Hayman, advocated the use of intercept evidence in terrorist cases. As we know, in 2004 the Newton committee proposed the removal of the bar on intercept evidence as a more “acceptable and sustainable” approach to the threat from terrorism than the arrogation of new executive powers to restrict liberty outside the normal operation of the judicial process.
We are in a rather anomalous position. According to Liberty, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are the only countries worldwide that maintain a ban on the use of intercept evidence, yet we accept intercept evidence if it has been gained under the jurisdiction of other Governments. It seems odd that it is not permissible if it has been gained under our own authorisation, but is allowed if it has been obtained under the authorisation of Governments overseas. I hope the Home Secretary will use the study mentioned in the report as a launch-pad to have the debate once again. It has been rumbling on for a long time. I accept that there are a number of practical and legal difficulties, many of which we believe can be overcome.
Like all good reports, the ISC report raises as many queries as it poses solutions—queries related to intercept evidence; the merits or otherwise of an independent inquiry into the events leading up to the bombings of 7 July; the importance of the further regionalisation and localisation of the operation of our security and intelligence services; the need to keep a vigilant eye on how the flaws, delays and unquantified costs of delayed IT systems can be remedied; and accountability for the operation of SOCA and other agencies. I repeat my gratitude to all members of the Committee for laying the report before us today.
Order. It is not quite 8 o’clock yet, but I remind the House that as from 8 o’clock, a 12-minute limit will be imposed on all Back-Bench speeches.
I speak as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, albeit of only one year’s standing since the Committee was re-established after the election, and in the knowledge that there are Members in the Chamber tonight who have greater experience and who have served on the Committee before. It is a particular privilege to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who leads the Committee with such great distinction.
The report of the Committee for 2005-06 can be said to give the agencies a clean bill of health. That is as it should be. They serve us professionally, bravely and with distinction. But the report also expresses a number of concerns, some of which were raised earlier—concerns about the merging of the position of the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee with that of the security and intelligence co-ordinator, concerns that the rapid expansion of the services carries risks and needs careful management, and concerns about the overseas part of the SCOPE project.
One notable feature of the report is the planned overall increase in the single intelligence account from a combined amount in terms of resources and capital of £1.1 billion in 2004-05 to £1.5 billion in 2006-07 and to £1.6 billion in 2007-08. That does not include the further £85 million announced by the Chancellor in the pre-Budget report to support the expansion of services, which will allow the earlier delivery of key elements of the expansion and which was initiated in the 2004 spending review.
The significant additional funding made available since 9/11 has generally been accepted as essential to counter the enormous threat that we face from international terrorism and to provide an enhanced standard of coverage and assurance. However, it cannot be that, because an agency’s operations are often secret, it should forgo normal management and financial disciplines—to be fair, no one has suggested that it should.
Given that the current funding and anticipated funding represent an unprecedented level of new provision for the agencies, in the Committee’s view, it is important that functioning mechanisms are implemented to ensure that the money is well spent, that it is appropriately controlled and monitored and that it serves as a driver for increased efficiency. We looked at that matter last year, we shall spend more time on it this year and it will be a key responsibility of the principal accounting officer of the single intelligence account.
As has been said, the main focus of the Committee’s work in 2005-06 was our inquiry into the 7 July bombings, which is not specifically covered in our annual report. Hon. Members have already referred to many aspects of the matter, but I want to mention the international dimension of the 7 July inquiry. Our report states that greater coverage in Pakistan or more resources in the UK might have alerted the agencies to the intentions of the 7 July group.
I do not want to go beyond what was said in the report, but it is clear that Pakistan is an issue. As the report reveals, two of the group visited Pakistan, where it is likely that they had some training from or contact with al-Qaeda—indeed, the video which was recently released appears to make that explicit. The group’s connections to Pakistan confirm the significance of overseas links and of travel to the development of terrorism in the UK. As has been said, the threat is unconstrained and global.
I agree with the emphasis that my hon. Friend is placing on overseas contacts and travel. However, does he agree that people too often assume that everything that happens in Pakistan is bad? In fact, President Musharraf has made courageous decisions and taken helpful steps in trying to counteract the influence of dangerous people and trends in Pakistan.
Perhaps this goes beyond my brief, but it seems to me that President Musharraf faces many dichotomies, dilemmas and difficulties, which he strives, generally with good intent, to tackle as best he can—as we know, he is surrounded by problems. Earlier, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary mentioned the Commonwealth, which is also important. As today’s sad events in Mumbai proved again, terrorism is a global issue, and it is no longer possible to separate the domestic and international parts of the problem. Terrorism comes from a range of groups, networks and individuals, which are sometimes linked and sometimes not.
In a series of articles with headlines such as, “Spies hid bomber tape from MPs”, some in the press have alleged that the Committee was not given all the information that it needed for its 7/7 inquiry, that it was not sufficiently critical and that it might have been misled. Although that is not the case in any respect, it is not surprising that such criticisms have been made, because disgruntled ex-staffers and so-called intelligence analysts combine with the press on the publication of the annual report to criticise the agencies and the oversight arrangements.
Some, including hon. Members tonight, have questioned whether the Committee is constitutionally limited in what it can achieve, whether that is because of the limit on its investigative resources, its remit or its constitution, which makes it entirely dependent on the intelligence agencies for its information and on their willingness to disclose such information. As has been said, the Committee’s form has its pros and cons, and I do not argue that, because it is currently so, it should necessarily remain so. The Committee was set up by the Intelligence Services Act 1994, and appointments are made by the Prime Minister. Some have said that that gives it the appearance of being a creature of the Prime Minister and the Government, but it is not. We are independent of, not an instrument of, the Government. I believe that our reports confirm that, and, as has been said, members are drawn from all parties and both Houses.
Some have said that out terms of reference to provide oversight of the agencies’ administration, policy and finance are too limited and that we should operate as a Select Committee. We may not always report as the press or others want us to, but it is our job to try, as best we can, to tell it as it is, and I believe that we have achieved that. The Committee now considers and reports on matters that go wider than its statutory remit, and my time on it suggests to me that operating as a Select Committee is neither desirable nor, indeed, workable. There has been no occasion when we were unable to see those whom we wanted to see, when we were unable to obtain the information that we sought or when we did not ask the questions that we should have done, and I have seen no evidence to suggest otherwise.
Our job is to provide parliamentary oversight.
If my hon. Friend allows me to proceed, I may persuade him otherwise.
The Intelligence and Security Committee may not be a Committee of Parliament, but it is a parliamentary committee. We are responsible for oversight, not the day-to-day management of the agencies, so information about operations is often neither necessary nor helpful, and both sides have to conduct their work on a need-to-know basis. Where operations have become interlinked with policy or have policy implications, we have, in my view, always obtained the information that we need.
It is noteworthy that so many other countries setting up their own parliamentary intelligence oversight arrangements draw on the experience of the ISC. Of course, I have no problem with increased powers—nobody likes a bit of power more than me—but the Committee, within its statutory establishment, performs well as it is.
There are those who argue that the nature of the Committee, and the fact that we meet in private and operate within the ring of secrecy, means that there should, for the purposes of openness, be a public inquiry into the tragic events of 7 July, which are so much in our minds because of the recent anniversary. The call for a public inquiry is also made by the press, but often for their own reasons and often on flawed grounds. While I understand the deep concern of the victims and families involved in wanting to know that no stone has been left unturned and that they have got to the truth, it seems to me, even accepting the difficulty with the timing of the rail journey, that the findings of our report and those of the Home Office narrative, which were separately arrived at, are objective, workmanlike and mutually reinforcing.
Prior to the establishment of the ISC, some inquiries took place precisely because of the absence of such a committee. The agency resources that would be needed to service a public inquiry—this is the point, rather than the cost—would be significant to massive. I am sure in my own mind that those resources are best deployed in trying to prevent future atrocities and tragedies. Of course, as the Home Secretary said, one can never entirely guarantee, as professional and committed as the agencies are, that we can never have such incidents again. Obviously, we can never have advance notice of terrorist acts. We can seek only to narrow the angle as far as possible, and in some cases manage to eliminate it altogether. As the Home Secretary has remarked, four potential attacks have been thwarted in the past year.
The 90-day detention period has recently reappeared as an item for debate. That is not a matter specifically for our Committee. However, as a Member of Parliament, one is of course concerned that the law enforcement agencies should have the best tools at their disposal and that there is a legal framework and method for dealing with the terrorist threat—a terrorist threat of unprecedented awfulness and danger—as best they can. My first duty as a Member of Parliament is to do whatever I can to ensure that my constituents can go about their daily lives in safety. By extension, my duty as an MP among other MPs is to ensure that citizens of the United Kingdom have a similar freedom. People talk of 90 days detention, but it never was quite that—it was up to 90 days and then subject to judicial approval on a weekly basis.
I appreciate that Parliament has already taken a view on the matter. However, I feel personally that there will be occasions when the current 28-day period proves inadequate: because of the need to intervene early; because intelligence is by its nature inexact, partial and fragmented and needs to be converted into evidence; because of the weight of the evidence that needs to be collected and analysed; because of the complexity of the inquiry and the need to trace data; and because of the difficulties arising in consulting other countries, interpretation and so on. The Home Affairs Committee recently commented on that, and it will continue to be an issue.
Although during the year the agencies have rightly concentrated the bulk of their efforts on counter-terrorism, there remain issues of counter-espionage and the protection of our economic well-being. Although significant resources continue to be devoted to those, our companies’ secrets and our intellectual property are vital to our prosperity. Espionage has not gone away with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and economic protection, including the crucial issue of energy security, will become increasingly important.
I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in China. Did the Committee look into so-called patriotic hacking, whereby people from China, presumably with their Government’s blessing, are accessing Government computers here, including, last year, in the House of Commons? When I asked the Foreign and Commonwealth about it, it did not want to get involved, but patriotic hacking is going on, it is coming from the People’s Republic of China, and it is threatening intellectual property rights and national security. What does my hon. Friend say to that?
It is a fact that cyber-assaults on crucial institutions and organisations can be planned by individuals, by small and large groups or bodies, and, indeed, by nation states. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not comment on that particular example, but suffice it to say that the Committee is briefed on such issues.
The hon. Gentleman is right to share his concerns about cyber-security. Does he share my concern that the Government Department tasked with co-ordinating cyber-security across Government—the Cabinet Office—has in recent months announced redundancies, yet is perhaps the very Department that should be expanded?
I have every confidence in the Cabinet Office’s actions in this area. This issue will not only continue to be important but may become increasingly so, and it is something on which the Committee would wish to keep a weather eye.
Finally, those who follow such matters will be interested to see that this year the asterisked items noting redacted passages are much reduced—not only, I hope, because of the Committee’s robustness in challenging them, but as a sign of the times in that we have more openness.
I pay tribute to the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee over the past 12 years. I agree with what the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) said about the way in which the agencies can sometimes still be parodied. I recall my first visit to MI5 in the 1980s, when I was taken to a nondescript building somewhere behind Oxford street. The British public were not permitted to know that it housed MI5, although the Russians knew that perfectly well. Events have moved on, and we are slightly more grown-up about these matters.
The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) took comfort, rightly, in how few asterisks remain in the report. However, I wonder whether it is necessary in the public interest for Parliament and the public not to be aware of the distinction made on page 12 between resources and capital for the individual agencies. Would it really make Mr. bin Laden’s task that much easier if that information were shared with him? Is not it time to realise that matters of public expenditure, in particular, can be safely shared with Parliament and with the public?
We have heard about the merger of the posts of security and intelligence co-ordinator and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Like others, I know Sir Richard Mottram and have worked with him. I have no doubt that he, as an individual, will be able to combine those two tasks very satisfactorily. However, I do say to the Government that it is not appropriate to use this as a precedent in saying that the debate is now over and those two posts can sensibly be merged. That would be unwise and foolish.
I pay tribute to the Committee for being about to consider rendition as its next major task. The United States sometimes protests to the effect that as rendition has been going on for many years, what is all the fuss? I hope that the Committee will draw attention to the fact that there are two kinds of rendition. There is the kind that takes place when Carlos the Jackal was kidnapped in Sudan and taken to France so that, for the first time, he could face a proper trial before a proper court of law, or when the Israelis kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Argentina because he would never otherwise have come to justice. It may have been somewhat irregular, but at least it happened so that proper justice could be done. The rendition about which we are worried today is different. People in the custody of Governments such as that of the United States may be sent to countries where the last thing they would receive is a fair trial and where they might be subjected to improper treatment. That is different and it would be right for Parliament and the Committee to examine the matter in the greatest detail.
I want to concentrate my brief comments on the Butler review and the Committee’s reaction to it. Let me begin with a welcome. I noted with pleasure that the Committee welcomed the decision to provide a confidential guide in future to enable
“specialist and lay readers of intelligence, including Ministers, to understand better the information in a source-based context.”
I wish that the Prime Minister had had access to such a document some years ago. If he had, the history of the past few years might have been different.
I acknowledge the need for such a document. My introduction to the intelligence agencies was on my first day as a junior Minister in the Foreign Office. I was informed that a gentleman from MI6 wished to see me. He came into my office and I asked him what he wanted. With an unsmiling face, he said, “Minister, it’s my job to indoctrinate you.” I made some flippant remark such as, “I thought it was the Russians who were meant to be doing that”, and he replied that it meant explaining the Official Secrets Act, which I would then be required to sign and be bound by. We have come a considerable way since then. It is important that Ministers in particular know not only how intelligence is obtained, but the use to which it can properly be put.
In that context, I must strongly criticise not only the Butler review but the Committee, which has not properly held the Government to account for the way in which, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the intelligence agencies were misused and allowed themselves to be seriously misused. I could give several examples, but I refer in particular to the so-called “dodgy dossier” and I must emphasise my concern.
There is nothing improper about the production of a document in public if the Government believe it appropriate to show the intelligence that supports their case. I have no objection to that or to the intelligence agencies’ involvement in the preparation of such a document because that would obviously increase its reliability. However, my fundamental objection is that, as the Prime Minister admitted in the foreword, it was the first time in this country’s history that a document had been produced in the name of the intelligence agencies to try to assist the Government of the day.
Those who work in our intelligence agencies are non-political civil servants and it is inappropriate to bring them into a highly charged issue that, in the case of Iraq, divided not only political parties but the nation. I know that the official line of the Butler review and others, including the Government, is that the purpose of the document was not to argue for war. I acknowledge that. However, the Butler review concluded that the purpose of the Joint Intelligence Committee producing the document was to
“gain support for the general direction in which Government policy had been moving”
to get support for
“a more proactive approach to enforcing Iraqi disarmament.”
That was a political objective and no business of the JIC. It should not have been asked to produce such a document and it should not have agreed to do so.
The Butler report spells out the purpose of the document, although it fails to condemn it. Paragraph 323 states:
“The advantage it gave to the Government of associating the JIC’s name with the dossier was the badge of objectivity that it brought with it and the credibility which this would give to the document.”
That shows the Prime Minister’s sad assumption that he could not achieve objectivity or credibility by himself, but required the JIC to do it for him. The chairman of the JIC was gravely at fault. When he was asked to produce the document, he should have resisted the request and, if the task was imposed on him, he should have resigned in the best interests of the country and the civil service. Instead, he has been promoted to be head of the Secret Intelligence Service. That is most unfortunate.
It is unacceptable to use the JIC in that way, and not necessarily because the document was inaccurate. Even if it had been 100 per cent. accurate and the intelligence had been 100 per cent. reliable, it would have been improper for civil servants, who happen to be intelligence agency officials, to be used in such a politicised fashion. I hope that the Minister for the Middle East will say in his winding-up speech that the Government will never again contemplate using the intelligence agencies in that role. The Home Secretary made some good comments in his opening remarks about the dangers of relying on intelligence information. However, that factor did not appear to weigh heavily in the run-up to the Iraq war.
The document contained grave problems. Apart from the failure to provide health warnings, which was spelled out on several occasions, it included the 45-minute claim. I could understand that, through some error, the document did not point out that it referred only to battleground weapons and that the Prime Minister was not aware of the distinction until many months after the end of the war. However, when the “Today” programme and all the newspapers publicised the 45-minute claim the following day, implying that it meant that British bases in Cyprus could be hit and other major international targets could be destroyed, I cannot understand why those who were most intimately involved in preparing the document did not immediately issue a statement to explain that there had been a misunderstanding and that they had not intended to make such a claim. Their failure to do that was due either to total incompetence or to the fact that it served the Government’s purpose for the public to be alarmed, as they were at the time.
The right hon. and learned Member is making a helpful speech. However, is not the position even worse? Is not it the case that the original intelligence was presented neutrally, with caveats, but that, as a consequence of memos from Alastair Campbell to John Scarlett, the caveats were removed and certainty included in the document?
The hon. Gentleman is right. For five years, as Defence Secretary and then as Foreign Secretary, I saw such raw material. I saw the reports that came to me every day during that period. They were invariably accompanied by health warnings, not only because the information might be inaccurate, but because the person providing the information was sometimes being paid for it. Sometimes the informant was a defector from a regime who had his own agenda and wanted to spread information for his own reasons. Intelligence agencies understand that. However, I condemn the Government for not spelling out those matters to the nation when the media, perhaps inadvertently, misrepresented the JIC document.
Although the Butler review did much good work, it failed the country in its comments on the matters that I have considered. However, I am saddened that the Committee, which in every other respect I greatly admire, has not taken as robust a position as it might have done, unless I have missed something—doubtless, I shall be corrected if I have—in protecting the interests of Parliament and the nation when the intelligence agencies operate in such a fashion. Many hon. Members of all parties wish the Intelligence and Security Committee to be given a greater role, but it must be willing to condemn in no uncertain terms the use of intelligence agencies in a politicised fashion, whichever party is in power.
I hope that the Minister will comment on that, but I hope even more that lessons have been learned and that such mistakes will not be repeated.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) will understand if I resist the temptation to comment on his remarks. Suffice it to say that I had the privilege of serving on the Intelligence and Security Committee when we thoroughly considered the matter that he raised. His contributions are always valuable and reflect his huge experience as a former Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary, as he reminded us this evening.
I had the privilege of serving on the Committee in the previous Parliament, from 2001 to 2005. It was different from its predecessor, with a new Chairman and new members comprising more than half the Committee. The same occurred again, with the appointment of a new Chairman and half the Committee being made up of new members. That is good and means that the Committee brings a fresh look to the issues. One of the things that struck me when reading the report was the extent to which it referred to issues in last year’s report, which we worked hard to complete before the election. It is a matter of some regret to me that that report has never been debated; it should have been.
The previous Committee was appointed just before 9/11, and the whole area of intelligence and security was transformed following those atrocities in the United States in 2001. Sadly, many of the developments in international affairs since then have served to fuel rather than dampen the rise of international terrorism. It is surely not controversial, for example, to suggest that Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib will have worked for our enemies in the global battle to win hearts and minds away from terrorism.
With the increased threat of international terrorism, it quickly became apparent to the Committee on which I served, and to the Government, that there was an important need to increase the resources available to our intelligence agencies, and I pay tribute to the increases that have now taken place. The total funding for the agencies in 2000-01 was £862 million. The total budget this year is £1,568 million. The Government’s response to the Committee’s report refers to the £1 billion covering a rather wider area of security and intelligence, increasing to £2 billion. I am sure that the whole House will support those increases.
It is one thing to increase the money available; however, the important thing is to ensure that that money is put to good use. The most important aspect of that is the increase in staffing that arose from the increased expenditure. Indeed, staff numbers at the Security Service are expected to rise about by 50 per cent. in the next three years, representing a substantial increase in addition to what has already taken place. As hon. Members have already mentioned, the Secret Intelligence Service has launched a website in the past year to aid recruitment, and it began advertising publicly for the first time in the press in May. The success of these recruitment procedures will not really become clear for at least four or five years, however, and we will not know until then whether the quality of the staff recruited will be up to the very important tasks for which they have responsibility.
I was interested to see in the Committee’s report that one of the roles of the professional head of intelligence analysis, put in place in the course of the last year, is to lead the cross-community work that is now under way to enhance the use of open source material alongside other sources. Of course, a key provider of open source information from around the world to the Government is BBC Monitoring. The Committee of which I was a member was tremendously impressed by the work of BBC Monitoring and by the potential for its future contribution. In successive reports, we expressed our concern at what was happening to BBC Monitoring, and I initiated a debate on the subject in the House of Commons on 23 March 2004.
In the recent report, the Committee succinctly sets out the details of two to three years of unnecessary financial turmoil. The Committee is tactful, but essentially the Foreign and Commonwealth Office unilaterally reduced its contribution from £7.1 million to £3.1 million, and BBC Monitoring has now been transferred to the Cabinet Office as its sponsoring Department. I should like to put on the record that the stance taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office towards BBC Monitoring was deeply disappointing, and that it is a matter of regret that the FCO could no longer be entrusted with this tremendous national asset. It is my sincere hope that the new Foreign Secretary will recognise the importance of BBC Monitoring, particularly in the context of two of the major issues facing her Department and the people of this country: the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the increased threat from international terrorism.
All those who worked on behalf of BBC Monitoring deserve credit for the fact that the present situation is not as bad as it could have been. Other contributing Departments are making up some of the financial gap left by the FCO, and funding this year has increased slightly to £24.6 million, although it is set to fall again in 2008-09 to £23.4 million. However, while the situation is not as bad as it could have been, it is not as good as it should be. If we consider the significant and welcome increases in funding to the agencies in recognition of the increased threat that we face, and if we consider the enhanced recognition of the importance of open source material to the work of the Government and their agencies, it is my view that we should also be seeing a growth in the resources and the work of BBC Monitoring. Instead, the funding shortfall will mean the closure of 69 posts. I realise that not all of those posts are currently filled, but I suggest that these cuts are taking us in the wrong direction. That does not strike me as a sign that we are looking after this asset entirely in the way we should be.
I am pleased that the ISC has made a commitment to continue to monitor the arrangements for this important service, and I trust that Ministers will recognise the case for increasing the resources available to BBC Monitoring in the years to come, to reflect the increasing importance of the service and the growing demands placed upon it.
The report is a little bit soft in its attitude towards the Ministerial Committee on Intelligence Services, known as the CSI. The Committee on which I served took the view that the CSI should meet regularly, although not necessarily every week or month. The report points out that Ministers consider issues such as Afghanistan in different Committees and are properly briefed by the agencies, and I do not doubt that. Nevertheless, we were convinced that there was a case for regular, if not frequent, meetings. We were particularly impressed by the equivalent arrangements that we saw in Australia.
I am pleased to say that I can pay tribute to the Government for their decision on the Wilson doctrine. I do not think that anyone in the Chamber was in the House in 1966 when Harold Wilson set out his doctrine, although I had the privilege of serving in his Government subsequently. The doctrine stated that there would be no interception of telephones belonging to Members of Parliament. As the House will know, the interception of communications commissioner recommended, on the basis of the new regulatory powers that came into operation in 2000, that that undertaking should be abandoned, and the Prime Minister gave due consideration to that recommendation, as he was duty bound to do. I congratulate him—and the Committee on the role that it played in this—on the fact that that proposal has been abandoned. There is no question of the Wilson doctrine being changed and Members’ telephones will not be intercepted by the Government of the day.
When this Committee was first mooted many years ago, I had grave reservations about it. I thought that it would be dangerous and damaging to the security services. Having read this report thoroughly and looked at the others, however, I now have to say that the Committee has made a major contribution. It has acted responsibly in carrying out its remit, and we should be grateful to it and to the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) for their work. Having said that, I have real worries about certain aspects of the report, including its structure. If I have time, I also want to talk about the costs involved.
I should perhaps declare an interest. I have had some dealings with terrorism in the past, and with the agencies of our enemies—principally the KGB, for reasons that I will explain in a moment. I served in Northern Ireland, where it was pretty clear who the enemy was: it was the IRA. I also served with the British Army of the Rhine in Berlin, defending the border there. The enemy there was pretty clear: it was the Russians and the KGB. We used to go round the Soviet sector in British military mission cars, and the KGB used to come over to our sector in their spy cars. There were pretty clearly drawn lines about who could do what.
I was a little involved in 9/11, in that I was in New York just after the event. Driving into the city, where I had worked many years ago, the orange horizon and the missing buildings made an indelible impression on me. I was staying in mid-town, and I remember the awful smell and the roar of the emergency vehicles and rubble trucks as they drove up and down at night. I had not realised how badly all that had affected me until I tried to make a speech about it to the Market Bosworth Rotary club. I found my eyes filling with tears, and I could not continue with my speech.
Later, in the spring of 2004, I was involved in the launch of the British Memorial Garden Trust UK Ltd, a charity formed to support the building of the memorial garden to the 67 British victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which is currently being built in New York. The launch took place in this House, appropriately, I think, in the Churchill room. Although I am no longer involved in the project, I would ask that the House recognise that a small number of people, on both sides of the Atlantic, have worked extremely hard to complete the garden, due in the spring of next year, and to raise the necessary funding of several million pounds. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in extending to them our wholehearted support and best wishes.
The report has several main thrusts. One of them is the efficiency and effectiveness of the security services, and the Committee has done a lot to improve the mechanism for working by following its remit of examining policy administration and expenditure. The agencies are also much more accountable now, certainly in relation to the use of resources. Reading between the lines, it must be said that financial management was not a big part of the work of the agencies in the past. Methods of redress of grievances, which were addressed by Butler and taken up by the Committee, have also been important.
If I may say so to the right hon. Member for Torfaen, the structure of the report is quite complicated. Obviously, there are the three main agencies, but many other subsections are listed, and it is sometimes hard to see how they tie in. I very much approve of the Committee’s attempt to try to find common ground between the agencies, to reduce duplication and costs. I echo the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) about the combining of the posts of Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator and Joint Intelligence Committee Chairman. Reading the report, I got the feeling that the Committee was deeply uneasy about that—that it had taken advice and agreed to it, but was not too happy about it. I hope that the right hon. Member for Torfaen goes back and looks at that, and does not just accept it as read.
Another aspect of the report that alarmed me was the paragraph on the ministerial committee. From memory, the Intelligence and Security Committee remarked that the Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services had met only once in the last 10 years. What is going on? The ISC report qualifies that by saying, “It’s all right, guys and girls, because they talk to each other elsewhere.” That completely misses the point. The whole point of that committee is for Ministers of State and Under-Secretaries, not Cabinet Ministers, to get round a table, come up with some ideas and understand the real worries. Paragraph 76, on page 22, makes it clear that Ministers across Government need to have a clear understanding of intelligence. If the Minister for the Middle East is listening—I hope so, as we have talked and listened to each other over the years—I ask him to consider that, as it is a real concern. The report states:
“We recommend that there should be a requirement for newly appointed Ministers and officials in key posts to familiarise themselves”.
Yes, there should be.
Another concern, which has not been mentioned, is that the occupancy of the new GCHQ building is up by 25 per cent. The building must be bursting at the seams. What is happening about that unexpected increase in manpower and personnel, which has completely thrown the planning process? I hope that the Committee considers that.
As for the clarity of the report, I was not really happy with its structure. According to the index, “The Intelligence Community” is dealt with on pages 5 to 11, and “The Agencies” on pages 11 to 21. Surely the agencies are part of the intelligence community. What is the purpose of that division? In the previous two Parliaments, I was the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and of the Statutory Instruments Committee, and one of the issues that we considered was how to achieve clarity in reports. If ever a report needed lines, diagrams and boxes to explain the different relationships, it is this one. In particular, on the role of the intelligence staff, I thought that sub-headings to make it clear that not everyone reports to SIC would be helpful.
Acronyms are another issue. The report mentions SCOPE, which is not an acronym for anything, but it does not say what it means—it does not say that it is an IT intelligence system. Paragraph 75, on page 22, contains the following quote:
“I have regular meetings with C”
I wondered who “C” was. I thought that it must be short for CDI. Then I realised that it was CDI who had the regular meetings with C. I therefore turned back to the page of acronyms—there are 43, so it took me a few minutes to read—and C is not listed. Next time, can we manage to include C and SCOPE?
The antiquated terminology of commissioners is another issue. We have the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and, apparently, we also have commissioners in the security services. Those who have been in the House a while know that there are also Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, which is a code name for the senior Whips who sign all the Government cheques. When they are not beating Members over the head, they go back and sign Government cheques for £20 million. I do not like that terminology; it is misleading, and we should change it. We should call them directors, monitoring officers or ombudsmen.
Nowhere in the report is MI5 or MI6 mentioned—it is like an alien culture. The Home Secretary mentions it, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) mentioned it, everyone uses it; it is common terminology. The report should say that the Security Service is commonly known as MI5 and that the Secret Intelligence Service is commonly known as MI6, so that it is more readable.
In 1989, I was asked to take over the British Atlantic group of young politicians. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea, the Minister for the Middle East and the right hon. Member for Torfaen came with me, and we paid visits to Canada, America and so on. We then turned the whole group to face east, and took delegations to the east. Douglas Hurd, who was then Foreign Secretary, agreed to speak at a conference where there were 100 young MPs. I asked him whether we could use Lancaster house, because had had given it to me on another occasion. I went to Brussels on a SHAPE visit and sat next to a Russian chap in the bar. I said that I had a brief to find young politicians in Russia and bring them over here. I said that that was what the Foreign Office wanted and he said exactly what I wanted, “I am a KGB man and a spy, and I will help you out”. That was great; we had a good arrangement.
The point is that east Europe has changed and a lot of our old enemies are now friends. There is a whole diaspora of spies out there and I suspect that they are available at a very cheap price. I hope that the right hon. Member for Torfaen is looking into ways of getting our former enemies to work for us. I believe that he has done a great job with the report, which takes our intelligence services forward in the right direction. One or two issues need to be addressed, but I welcome what has taken place.
Speaking as an MP with a large number of British Indian constituents, many of whom will have relatives living in Mumbai and its surrounding areas, may I begin by expressing my absolute horror and disgust at today’s terrorist bombings. I hope that none of my constituents has relatives involved in the tragedy. My sympathy and commiserations go to all those affected. It is yet another outrage, occurring during a week in which the man responsible for the Beslan murders in Russia has been killed. We can also think of other terrorist events and outrages all over the world.
As the report produced by the Committee chaired by my long-standing and right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) pointed out, there is a serious and sustained threat from international terrorism to the UK and its interests overseas, the most significant being from al-Qaeda and associated networks. The Foreign Affairs Committee drew a similar conclusion in our report, “The Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism”, published just a few days ago on 2 July.
The Intelligence and Security Committee states in its report:
“There is increasing international tension over Iran’s nuclear programme and backing of groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. There is a possibility of an increased threat to UK interests from Iranian state-sponsored terrorism should the diplomatic situation deteriorate.”
Similarly, our Select Committee drew attention to the potential difficulties of moving towards either sanctions or military action. We also noted that the Iranian regime could respond in certain ways, including asymmetrically. The ISC report refers to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as another potential danger to the UK’s security and, once again, the Foreign Affairs Committee report strongly concurs. All three conclusions of the ISC echo the conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Interestingly, there is another echo, which I find apposite. The ISC notes that the Secret Intelligence Service
“has started to implement a policy of requiring senior managers to obtain relevant professional skills, and holders of key posts within corporate services will be expected to attain professional qualifications. The Service considers these structural and training changes essential to improve operational focus, to enable more efficient management of resources, and to meet the challenge of planned growth.”
The Foreign Affairs Committee has been calling on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—though possibly with less success than the ISC—for some considerable time to ensure that its senior managers have appropriate professional skills. If the Secret Intelligence Service can do it, surely the diplomatic service can.
I also concur with my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), who referred to the budget for BBC Monitoring. Our Select Committee had concerns about the changes and the budget reduction, so I am pleased that the ISC has welcomed the fact that other stakeholders have made up the shortfall and come forward to ensure that the vital work of BBC Monitoring is continued for a planned period for the future. It was a matter of great concern to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the last Parliament, and we are pleased that a solution has been found in the short term.
I want to point to one area where I am concerned about the ISC report. It relates to the following narrow and limited statement:
“The Committee is currently looking into the issue of rendition and will report in due course.”
I raise that matter because for almost a year in the present Parliament and about six months in the last Parliament—going back to February 2005—the Foreign Affairs Committee has been putting questions about extraordinary rendition to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We had the frustrating experience of being told that we were not being given that information because it was going to the ISC.
I was therefore interested—perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen can correct me—that he said, I thought, that the ISC was about to begin an inquiry into this matter. We have been told by the Foreign Office for 18 months that, in fact, we were not being given the information because the ISC was carrying out that inquiry. I should be grateful for some clarification.
I want to be fair to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In our latest report, on the information that we have discovered from different sources, including from a more open approach from the FCO more recently, we concluded that there was no hard evidence of the truth of any of those allegations, but that is based on the limited information given to us, having been told that intelligence information would not be given to us, even on a confidential basis, because it was being given to another Committee.
I hope therefore that, when my right hon. Friend’s Committee comes to a conclusion on this matter, he will be able to report to the House that he has got to the bottom of it and found out all the facts of the matter, because the Foreign Affairs Committee cannot say, on the limited information that we have been given, that we have done so, even though we have found no hard evidence. I should be grateful to the Minister if he took up that point when he responds to the debate.
I drew attention to another concern in my intervention on the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). When the ISC was established in 1994 by the then Conservative Government, it was not a Committee of the House and its secretariat was based in the Cabinet Office. Its Chairman, despite his estimable qualities, does not sit on the Liaison Committee, for example, because he has a particular role. I believe that the time has come for the House to revisit that issue. In fact, the Foreign Affairs Committee produced a special report in March 2004, in which we said that the House should consider the following questions:
“What should be the status of the Intelligence and Security Committee? What principles and procedures should govern relations between the Intelligence and Security Services and Committees of this House?”
We received information from the former Foreign Secretary, the Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who told us that
“Parliament has decided that the ISC is the appropriate body to see intelligence.”
That is not satisfactory, and I should be interested if the Minister could tell me when he responds to the debate where in the proceedings on the 1994 Bill or in the Intelligence Services Act 1994 itself there is a statement that specifically supports that assertion.
Committees of the House, appointed by Members, in confidence and subject to various qualifications, should have the right to have access to intelligence material and should not be deprived of that access on the basis of a catch-all, whereby things are pushed off to the ISC, however good and estimable its members and however fine their recommendations, because that Committee is not accountable to us as Members, even though we are having the debate today. That Committee reports to the Prime Minister; it does not report to the House of Commons. I believe that that fundamental issue relates not just to the Foreign Affairs Committee, but to other Select Committees, and I hope that we can revisit it and that the House of Commons itself can consider the way forward in the future.
It is particularly interesting to follow the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. There are many ways in which Committees can co-operate, and the Intelligence and Security Committee has successfully co-operated with a number of other Committees, including the Public Accounts Committee—thanks to which we get very significant help from National Audit Office staff in some of our work—and, indeed, with the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Perhaps some of the ways in which such things were approached in the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred were not the most helpful and constructive, but there must be some realism and some recognition that serious parliamentary scrutiny of intelligence will not happen if it is too widely dispersed. It must be done within a very controlled context, but it is quite possible for inquiries to take place in one Committee, which deals with the wider policy implications, and in the ISC, which deals with specific intelligence aspects.
I do not want to spend the limited time that I have on such general issues, interesting though they are; I have talked about them before. Instead, I shall make a few specific points, one of which is a reflection on the Forest Gate incident that caused much concern. On the one hand, that incident led some people to say, “The intelligence must have been shown to be weak, so the police should not have gone in.” On the other, there were statements emanating from within the police and from others saying, “We cannot ignore intelligence that indicates the likelihood of something very serious being plotted. We have to act.”
I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that in my view, there will be other occasions when intelligence about which there cannot be certainty cannot be ignored, either. So we have to develop sophisticated police tactics that enable them to act in such circumstances without running the risk of massive community alienation. That is very difficult, because policemen have to be protected as well; they must not go into such situations with insufficient protection. But we will have to find ways of using subtle police tactics to ensure that we can respond to intelligence reports that are sufficiently serious not to be ignored, but which are not so certain that we can go in without any doubt that we will find the terrorist or the device that is the object of the inquiry. So there are lessons to be learned from Forest Gate.
I turn to a completely different issue, to which the Government’s response is incomplete: the continued failure of Departments to reach agreement on the funding of the security services’ future work in Northern Ireland. We expressed concern that that might hinder planning of such work. We have been given assurances that planning is going ahead, and the Government indicated likewise in their response, but the fact is that the dispute has not been resolved. Departments are still arguing with each other about who is picking up which tab for this work. That is ridiculous and cannot be allowed to go on. I hope that Ministers will address that issue.
A point was made earlier in the debate about co-operation between intelligence agencies. I suspect that lying behind that is an argument that is sometimes advanced by one or two people in this House, and which was more recently advanced in another place: that perhaps we should just amalgamate all the intelligence services in this changed and different world. That would be a mistake, but I want to put on the record that in the 12 years in which I have served in this work and scrutinised such agencies, I have noticed a massive change in the nature and extent of the co-operation between them. There was a great deal of mutual suspicion, rivalry, distance and separation when I first became involved in this work. However, there have been remarkable changes in the intervening years: joint operations; a great deal of secondment across agencies; partnerships of one sort or another; and agencies in which people from each of the intelligence bodies are involved, so that they become accustomed to working together.
Such approaches have developed to such an extent that they are the envy of many other countries. We deal with and talk to people from oversight committees and intelligence agencies in many countries, and they are generally pretty envious of the degree of co-operation and co-ordination between our services. That is working, although it can be improved. The entire Iraq experience demonstrated this point, as did the role of the Defence Intelligence Staff. The Committee has taken an ever-closer interest in defence intelligence, having been encouraged to do so—and given the support to do so—by the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, following some problems that we had.
The substantive point that I want to make emerged from two or three of the ISC’s reports and from the Butler report: the importance of ensuring that intelligence is rigorously challenged as it is brought in and analysed, and that it is cross-referenced to relevant expertise and open-source information. It is a kind of triangulation process: if someone gets a piece of intelligence, they need to make sure that they set it in the context of what they or other people know because of their expert knowledge—that signally failed to happen at certain points during the weapons of mass destruction discussion, for example—and that it is related to open-source information that could put that intelligence into a rather different context when one realises the circumstances in which it might have been generated. All those elements have to be drawn together, and that means that people sometimes have to challenge the first conclusions that are drawn from a piece of intelligence.
Special ways to do that have been suggested both in our reports and in the Butler report, to which I shall refer briefly. Our overall view, however, is that we do not want a culture of acceptance or deference in the intelligence world. As with any good academic inquiry, there must be a culture in which things that are said are challenged—in which people say “Just a minute: that does not tally with something else”, or “Can we really make that stand up?” Such discussion is necessary. It should not be repressed or discouraged, or simply institutionally not provided for.
I am glad to say that that has been addressed in a number of ways. There are internal arrangements in the Secret Intelligence Service for a challenge process to ensure that the first obvious explanation is not automatically accepted. There is the role of the JIC Chairman, which has been discussed a fair amount today. The JIC traditionally operates on a basis of producing consensus reports. That too is envied in other countries where rival intelligence interpretations are slammed down on the desks of Presidents and Ministers with the words “You make up your mind: here is what difficult organisations think”, which is not always very productive.
We go for a consensus approach in this country, winnowing down all the intelligence to produce the consensus; but there is a danger in that. In paragraph S of our latest report, we said
“We are, however, still concerned that, in seeking consensus on all decisions and judgements, the JIC could be missing or failing to give sufficient priority to key points or vital arguments on a particular issue. We acknowledge that striking the right tone and balance… is extremely difficult, but we recommend that the SIC should continue to work on developing and refining this process further.”
In their response, the Government mentioned the new obligation to put dissent notes on the front of a JIC paper if the chairman is aware of unresolved dissent in the interpretations of the different bodies that sit on the JIC. That is very welcome.
Along with all that go proper channels for the expression of dissent so that staff feel that they can “hang on in there” if they are still convinced that something is wrong, and have somewhere to go. To an extent that constitutes a counsel against potentially dangerous whistleblowing that blows sources. One individual’s judgment on when the national interest demands that he go public may well not be shared by a great many people if, at the end of the day, it means that we lose an intelligence source that we want to keep. Opportunities for people to express dissent to those in a higher position than the level of management immediately above them is very important. That is now an accepted element of the role of staff counsellors. In the Ministry of Defence, members of staff can talk to senior personnel who are not involved in intelligence.
An important rule in the DIS is that a DIS senior official should see intelligence and advise on its distribution. That goes back to the issue of weapons of mass destruction, and the failure of key DIS officials who had expert knowledge to see intelligence that they could and would have challenged. A recommendation in the report that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said he would have valued relates to guidance to Ministers and others on how to read intelligence, and how to interpret its significance. That is relevant to the triangulation of intelligence—to setting intelligence in context, and understanding what it can and cannot do for us.
The way in which we develop, analyse and use intelligence is fundamental to making good use of the massive resources and massive effort that go into it. That is why I chose to concentrate on the issue.
I have already indicated my view that apart from this welcome but very short debate, there is no parliamentary oversight of our security and intelligence services. Let me get this out of the way immediately: obviously I have a high regard for our colleagues who serve on the committee, but that is the only nice thing that I can say about them in the present context, although I do express the hope that they may have some regard for me too. I believe that their membership of the committee diminishes Parliament, and I invite them to reflect on what I say and on their position.
I was a member of the parliamentary assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe last week. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office gave us a briefing note on the question of parliamentary oversight of the security and intelligence services. It had the audacity to include the observation that the British system was exemplary, and parliamentary oversight of security and intelligence was wonderful. I threw it across my hotel room in disgust, because either the author was blind to at least some parliamentary opinion or he really believes that. Either way, he was wrong. I challenged my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the former Foreign Secretary, about that point at the Foreign Affairs Committee. He said—and this view was adopted by the author of the report from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—that it was a distinction without a difference, so what was the problem. I believe that if that is said often enough, people will start believing it. But it is not a parliamentary Committee. There is no parliamentary oversight of our security and intelligence services other than these precious minutes that we get once a year.
The committee is anointed and appointed by the head of the security and intelligence services—the Prime Minister, who is both judge and jury. The committee let us down in the previous Parliament when it abdicated its responsibility to the Butler inquiry on such matters as the dodgy dossier. If it had been a parliamentary Committee, it would have said, “That is our business, Prime Minister. You can appoint whoever you like, but we will decide how we conduct our own inquiry.” But the committee surrendered even the fig leaf of a remote relationship with Parliament.
The committee is made up of parliamentarians, but it is not a parliamentary Committee. I listened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) carefully and I intervened on him on this point. He said that the committee members are selected by the Prime Minister, but he takes advice. Well, who gives that advice? I have already indicated that I would decline to serve on the committee, in the unlikely event that I were asked to do so under the present regime. It would be repugnant to me.
I am unlikely to be invited to serve on the committee for a variety of reasons. If one rubs up the system in this country the wrong way, one is considered mad or bad, or both. I do not mean that Ministers necessarily hold that view, but the people who give the advice do so. I want to share with the House a very serious story, but I hope that no one will press me too much on the details. I recently became aware of what I consider a highly defamatory remark about me on a Government file. Since then, the permanent secretary and the Secretary of State involved have apologised to me—
It relates to the issue of selection for service on the committee. Indeed, it goes to the heart of the matter, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen mentioned advisers. We do not know their names, but my concern is that they are privy to false statements about hon. Members. Presumably, such statements are forwarded to the security and intelligence services. The comment about me had been on a file since 2003 and I got to know about it only by accident.
Reference has been made to the Data Protection Act 1998. I put in an application under the Act and found that there were vexatious, mendacious and malicious comments about me in various documents. Those comments would have disqualified me from consideration by the Prime Minister for membership of the committee. It is, therefore, not a parliamentary Committee. Under the Select Committee system, one can apply, through one’s party, and be accepted or rejected. One cannot apply to sit on the Intelligence and Security Committee. A Prime Minister might decide that someone is worth considering, and their name will be submitted for the scrutiny of people whose names we do not know. The candidate could be vetoed for reasons that neither he nor anyone else are aware of. That is the danger and that is the relevance of my personal experience to the constitutional position of this flawed and unparliamentary committee.
With the greatest respect to my colleagues on the committee, we do not know how it works. We do not know how it selects areas for inquiry. We did not know until this evening even who the committee’s clerk was. My hon. Friend the right hon. Member for Torfaen told us the name, which before tonight was always considered highly secret information. The ridiculous secrecy surrounding the ISC diminishes any confidence that I as a parliamentarian might have in its ability to probe adequately the conduct, competence and management abilities of the people who run our security and intelligence services.
I think that the ISC is seriously flawed. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will look at the Official Report tomorrow, and that you will consider the matters that I am raising to be absolutely valid, as they go to the heart of the selection process for the ISC. To whom is the committee accountable? It is a very serious matter if files on Members of Parliament are kept, without their knowing about it, by departmental officials. We find out about such files only when we stumble across them by accident. In some cases, they contain information about who our interlocutors are, and who would seek to gain our ear.
I turn now to the Wilson doctrine, which is covered in paragraphs 26 to 28 of the ISC report. I wish that the Home Secretary were in his place, as it is rare for me to compliment him, but it is to his credit that he made it clear that he did not support a proposal to end the Wilson doctrine. Nevertheless, that doctrine is wholly inadequate when it comes to protecting the rights of Members of Parliament. However, what we have we need to hold. As I understand it, the doctrine deals with old-fashioned landline telephones, and does not take account of computer technology or the fact that equipment is so sophisticated now that eavesdropping can be carried out at great distances.
I am not confident that people who do not have ministerial authority are not probing the communications of Members of Parliament. I am not making this up: my observations are based on my own painful experience of discovering comments about me in files that should not have contained them. The Executive branch of Government must assure every Member of Parliament that they are not subject to surveillance, and that no undue probing of their technologies is being carried out.
If we had more insight into how the ISC selects its work, we might have greater confidence in it and be able to suggest areas of inquiry. I am especially concerned about one matter that in the past has caused laughter in the House, although I do not know why. I discovered, through a disclosure under the Data Protection Act 1998, that 13 officials—from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the intelligence community—met on 13 January for what was described as a “handling strategy” meeting about parliamentary questions that I had submitted in relation to Project Coast.
When I questioned the relevant Minister about the matter, he said at the Dispatch Box that there was nothing in it at all, but I disagree. Information from court cases and South Africa’s Truth and Justice Commission has revealed that a person equivalent to Dr. Mengele was working—
I am astounded, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I am trying to demonstrate that we lack parliamentary accountability in this area. I have been prevented on two occasions from explaining how I think that our present system is flawed. I want to make it clear that Ministers—the Executive branch of Government—have been instructed to close me down and stop me pursuing a legitimate inquiry.
The South African apartheid regime had a facility equivalent to our Porton Down. I believe that there was intercourse between that facility and UK intelligence and security services, and that people from the real Porton Down were also involved. There is evidence that an unhealthy sanctions-breaking attempt was covered up because some of the people involved are still members of the security and intelligence community and do not want an investigation. I do not say that the attempt was authorised by Ministers at the time, but it happened none the less.
This is my only opportunity to shed daylight on that serious matter. It is something that the ISC—flawed though it is—should investigate. Evidence from the South African court proceedings, which is available on the web, shows that people from the UK broke the law and were involved with Dr. Wouter Basson, who has been described as a South African Dr. Mengele, in sanctions-busting—
The ISC was set up and given its remit in 1994. Things have moved on and we live in very different times. The Home Secretary referred to changes in terrorism, so perhaps we should examine the Committee that oversees the changes in the threat from terrorism. After all, over time, in response to that threat, other bodies, such as the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces, have changed their structure and the way in which they are scrutinised. Now is the time to look at a complete overhaul of our intelligence system.
When we discuss the current jihadi or terrorist threat, we must be careful not to confuse terrorist attacks with how we defeat terrorism. When I consider my intelligence experience during my service in Northern Ireland and the situation to date, there is not much difference. The principles of defeating terrorism remain the same, even though different groups of terrorists are trying to achieve different ends. However, that must not be used as a red herring to say that that is why we need to throw away certain rights and keep things less transparent than they should be.
Islamic terrorists are no different from Irish terrorists. They are human beings motivated by greed, revenge, ambition, attention seeking and a range of issues that make them vulnerable to recruitment. They are also vulnerable to logistics. They need a logistical chain, whether or not it is as structured as the IRA’s. They are vulnerable when they go to Pakistan to be trained or when they meet in bookshops in Leeds. Such vulnerabilities are common to all terrorist networks, even if their opportunities are fewer.
Our intelligence services and police force must be able to exploit those vulnerabilities—to head those groups off at the pass and catch them red-handed. But saying that current terrorists are much more dangerous is not an excuse for putting people’s human rights at risk or jeopardising the contribution that communities can make to defeating terrorism.
On this tragic day of the attack in India, we should remember that terrorists have always done what works. They do not need to reinvent the wheel. The bomb attacks on trains in Chechnya in Russia worked, so the terrorists did the same thing in Spain. They took the attack to London, because those tactics worked and now they have taken the attack to India. Ministers sometimes seem to believe that terrorists are so sophisticated that we need a load of new rules because they are about to invent the atomic bomb, but the terrorists attacked the twin towers with aeroplanes and Stanley knives. Their tactics have been effective, so we should not be distracted by red herrings—by getting so high-tech that we forget how to defeat terrorists and ignore the fact that the original principles about getting inside a terrorist organisation have not changed.
There are real questions to be asked and I hope that the chairman of the ISC will consider them over the next year. Is the overall structure of our intelligence community correct? MI5 was started in 1909, when its main thrust was to expose espionage in this country and people who were spying on it. There is also MI6 and special branch, which was originally regional and is now semi-regional and national. Is that the right way to go? I am talking about the relationship between MI5, an intelligence-gathering body, and a police force that is about evidence gathering and conviction. One has only to look at Forest Gate to start asking questions about the handover between intelligence, conviction and the gathering of evidence. That is one of the key things that we have to learn if we are to defeat terrorism. We have to do it inside the law.
I want the hon. Gentleman to know that the Government are not opposed to looking at such structures. We were discussing strategy earlier tonight. I am firmly of the view that we should continue to look at structures, co-ordination and the best output and capability in relation to the resources that we have got. I do not think that he is arguing against where we are coming from on that. We may reach different conclusions, but he is certainly making a good point.
I am not trying to say that the Home Secretary has a different view. My view is of an FBI-type arrangement, but others will have different views. We have to look at the special branch relationship. Regional special branch is funded by chief constables and reports nationally. There is SO12 in the Metropolitan police. All of those could do with improvement. There is plenty of scope to make sure that we get that chain up to date.
Perhaps we need to look at the powers of the services. There is something important that seems to have been missed. When I served in Northern Ireland, either in a uniform or carrying a weapon out of a uniform, I had emergency powers. As a member of the armed forces, I had emergency powers to stop and arrest people and to use a weapon outside Ministry of Defence land. We have a lot of Army operations on our mainland to assist the police or the security services.
Does it surprise my hon. Friend, in view of his experience and mine in Northern Ireland, that, with increasing operations by military units on the mainland, the Government have still apparently given no thought to the establishment of military intelligence liaison officers around the various constabularies?
I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. That relates to the legal powers of soldiers serving on the streets. We have to ask these questions. Has the Government given people emergency powers? The armed forces on the mainland do not have executive powers under firearms legislation to act in the way that our police forces do. For example, if, during the course of the Stockwell investigation, it transpires that soldiers were involved, we have to be careful that there is not a grey area. We have to remember that a solider has no more rights than you or I on the street in the UK—as opposed to a policeman, who does have those executive powers. That is an important issue that we need to consider.
We also have to look at what is happening in Northern Ireland, where the Government have said that they would like to move members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland special branch to MI5. I have worked alongside PSNI special branch. They are excellent men and women who have learned that one cannot short-cut terrorism. They have learned that the hard way and they have got extremely good results. When I met a few of them recently, I said, “You do realise that if you belong to MI5, you do not have executive powers. You cannot carry a weapon in South Armagh. You cannot go and arrest someone to pull them in to interview them. You do not have all the powers that you used to use to protect yourself and to help you to get access to informers.” That is important.
I said to a current serving policeman, “Would you like to go into Turf Lodge without a gun? Would you like to go to South Armagh, to Crossmaglen, without a gun?” He said, “You can bet your bottom dollar, I’m not going there.” But that is the subtle implication of some of the changes. It is important that the Government pick up the detail when it comes to reforming and moving the intelligence picture along, because if they do not, the person who will bear the brunt at the end of the day will be the individual soldier, the individual policeman, or one of the security service personnel. That is important.
It is interesting to note that the average age of a special branch PSNI individual is about 45 in Northern Ireland; the average age of the MI5 recruits who go there is 28. That is a vast gap in experience and knowledge and a vast gap in relation to the people perhaps best placed to recruit informers and go about getting under the skin of terrorists in Northern Ireland. For all the reports, they have not gone away. The infrastructure is still there.
In this day and age, transparency is very important. Owing to the way in which the security services started, they are obsessed with secrecy. It is important that MI5 moves more into the modern world. If it is to work alongside the police each day in offices in our regions, it must accept that there will be a drive for more transparency in not counter-espionage, but the counter-terrorism field. When the agency hands over information to the police and the police act on it and get things wrong, it is the police that get the blame. The public attacked the chain of command in the Metropolitan police over Forest Gate, but perhaps Security Service intelligence should have been considered on that occasion. MI5 must come into the real world when it comes to transparency. There is no KGB operating in the same way MI5’s counter-terrorism functions, so there is a real need to examine the transparency in MI5.
We should remember that there is no short cut to countering terrorism. The draconian laws that we pass to try to do that will have an impact on the human intelligence that we try to recruit, so they will make a difference. The end result of an operation in Northern Ireland that I joined was that 21 members of the IRA were put down, but it took more than a decade to achieve that. We must accept the rough with the smooth, and the Home Secretary was right that if we get things wrong sometimes, that is life. If we all miss the terrorist, that is life. However, we must also realise that we cannot deny people human rights as a short cut, because the end result of that will be that Muslim communities will produce no informers or sources and will not collaborate with the forces of law and order, although such collaboration and information is the only way of defeating terrorism in that community in the long term.
I express my revulsion at the bombings in Mumbai today. I am the secretary of Labour Friends of India, and I feel desperately sorry for the families and the members of the emergency services who are attempting to sort out that situation tonight.
I have had the privilege of serving for one year on the ISC under the able chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). This year, the Committee has subjected the heads of agencies and their teams to rigorous, often lengthy questioning. It has invariably been detailed, but it has never been soft. I have found it thoroughly offensive to read in the press that the ISC is “weak”, “spineless”, “ineffective” and “tame”. Frankly, I do not recognise any of those words with regards to the ISC.
To my knowledge, the agencies have never held back any information. We have never held back on any question that we wanted to ask. No member of the Committee believes that we are there to protect the reputation of the Administration. We are there to get the truth. We seek the truth and we print it. The report that we have published is thorough and wide-ranging. I was delighted to hear not only the Secretary of State, but the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), say that they agreed.
During the year, we have not only questioned the agencies, but visited them––some more than once and many of them on many occasions. When we have not been confident that we have got the detailed response that we required, we have written and they have responded. There has been a thorough process by which we have critically and constructively examined the work of agencies. I want the House to believe that there is not a question that I would not ask, or a chance that I would let the agencies off on any score. We need to know, and if we need to improve, we need to say that we are improving. The report is thus fair, thorough and wide-ranging. When we visited security services abroad, their universal opinion was that our security services were highly professional, and served our country well. Many of them were complimentary about the work of the ISC. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said that we are not a parliamentary oversight committee, but I believe that we are. Our work is intense and demanding and, although I am privileged to serve on the Committee, I do not think that I am special or different.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful statement about the Committee’s performance. However, Ann Taylor, the predecessor of the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), presented a report on the Bali bombings that was ignored by the House. What are the hon. Lady’s views on that?
The hon. Gentleman rightly reminds the House that we must always discuss those reports and look at their details. The decision not to discuss the report was not appropriate. I hope that response suffices.
I am not concerned about the report itself, but I am concerned about something that it examines—the SCOPE project which, if and when it works, will offer the security services enormous support. That IT programme will enable all intelligence organisations in the UK and abroad fundamentally to improve the way in which they work together by transferring data electronically in a secure and timely manner. There is a desperate need for such improvements because, as the intelligence community grows, the amount of material it uses grows exponentially. We need methods to transfer that material in a timely—for me, that means instantly—manner in a secure environment. The 2004 report to the House said that we needed such a programme but, in 2006, we are still saying that we need it. It is not just a complex piece of kit—the project will demand a cultural change and the involvement of highly trained people. It is therefore crucial that it is introduced, because the intelligence community needs it now.
In conclusion, may I refer again to the statements in the press about our being weak, spineless, ineffective and tame? I do not recognise those descriptions, because my colleagues on the Committee are determined and challenging. I am positively confrontational—if I do not obtain the evidence that I want I will seek it again and again, so that I am sure that I have been given the full facts. One paper said that the director general of MI5 had charmed the Committee. I must have missed that sitting or series of sittings, because I do not remember her doing so. In my opinion, she is a tough, no-nonsense person who deals with facts, and is certainly not interested in charm. She makes demands of us, just as we make demands of her. The way in which journalists characterise us undermines our work and is thoroughly unacceptable.
I would accept the opinions of the press as worth while if their accounts of the 7 July bombings offered a careful analysis and reported the facts. However, The Independent printed the following headline: “If only al-Qa’ida were run by our spineless spy masters”. That is unacceptable, and represents the desire of the press to sell newspapers at any cost. We have an oversight committee that works extremely hard. The agencies are part of the making of a secure community for all of us. We do not peddle the politics of fear, as the press do, and they are shameful and undermining.
In the limited time available, we have had a serious debate with some very good contributions from all parts of the House. It is important that right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed and who have at times appeared to offer criticism, whether in the Committee or on the Floor of the House, have done so in a positive way. It does nobody any service to suggest that those who offer criticism are attempting to undermine national security or the agencies involved. I am pleased that my right hon. and hon. Friends were able to participate in the debate, and I shall return to their contributions.
One of the central issues of the debate is how we maintain and strengthen public confidence in the Government’s ability to deal with the terrorist threat, the effectiveness of our intelligence and security agencies and the police, and parliamentary oversight and accountability. We are all aware of the balance that must be struck in a democracy between the needs of the intelligence and security agencies to keep certain things absolutely secret, and the need, increasingly, to explain to the public why there are restrictions and controls, and why things inevitably go wrong—sometimes disastrously wrong.
This is not an academic debate. United Kingdom citizens have been killed, injured and kidnapped abroad, and terror is now a reality and has been symbolised by the events of last year. The threat is real and immediate. The police say that since last July they have uncovered four alleged plots, which have been stopped or disrupted. The Metropolitan police anti-terrorist branch says that it is currently involved in about 70 investigations in Britain and abroad. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan police recently said that the security position was “very grim” and that we must expect further attacks. We work, speak and live in one of the great iconic symbols, so we should bear in mind that at any time we in the House could be subject to attack.
That does not mean that the House does not have a right to question, press and criticise Ministers, the security agencies or the police. That is not done in a carping or negative way. That is the strength of our democracy. The challenge for the Government and the intelligence and security agencies is, as many people have said, that the terrorists have to be lucky only once. Many successful operations to thwart or disrupt terrorist attacks can never be fully publicised, whereas failures or mistakes by the intelligence and security services receive maximum public attention. That is the lot of the intelligence and security services. It is the task of Ministers to explain and defend where necessary, and to take responsibility.
The role of the Intelligence and Security Committee is an important one. The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) spoke passionately in defence of the members of the Committee and their job. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who speaks as shadow Home Secretary, that the “Newsnight” presentation last night was flippant and disgraceful.
However, genuine concern was expressed on the Floor of the House about the remit of the Committee. That was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). The remit of the Committee is that it
“examines the expenditure, administration and policy of the three Agencies. It operates within the ‘ring of secrecy’”.
We must now consider broadening the remit of the Committee, which has undoubtedly been constrained at times, and it makes that point in paragraphs 6 and 32 of its report on 7/7. Given the need to sustain public confidence and the requirement for proactive scrutiny, the Prime Minister should address the matter. The issue does not merely involve parliamentarians trying to delve into every cubby hole in our security and intelligence establishment—as much as anything else, it is about robust public confidence. A strong case has been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I hope that the Minister takes it into account.
The Committee’s series of annual reports rightly praise the bravery and commitment of the men and women of our intelligence and security agencies and how they have coped with change. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) has pointed out that many operations are long and tedious, and we should bear in mind not only the physical bravery of those men and, increasingly, women, but the fact that much of their work is of the most mind-bogglingly boring nature. I suspect that those people need the mental attitude of a librarian, a philatelist or a Back Bencher to survive numbing tedium in which there is a small nugget of crucial evidence somewhere at some stage. If they miss it, however, everyone on the touchline will ask, “How could they have possibly missed that?”
Criticism must be constructive, and the Committee’s remit is functional in many respects. In the past, the Government have frequently noted recommendations or criticisms in replying to the Committee’s reports. I was a special adviser in a previous Government, and I always liked it when the permanent secretary said that he had “noted” something, which was usually something that a Minister had said. It normally meant, “I do not give a tupenny whatnot for what he is saying. He is ignorant, but I know what is going on.” At times, there is an element of that in the Government’s approach. However, I welcome the Home Secretary’s decision yesterday to publish the Government’s strategy on countering international terrorism and the change in threat levels, both of which were called for by the Committee.
There is no doubt that public confidence has been badly shaken by the Government’s use of intelligence over Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea has referred. Indeed, the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who is my parliamentary neighbour, wrote in the Evening Standard on 3 July:
“The experience with suspected weapons of mass destruction undermined confidence in the capacity of our intelligence services to make accurate assessments of the risks that we face”.
That point was highlighted in paragraph 63 of the Committee’s report for 2004-05. Although it is fair to highlight failures in the wider intelligence and security establishments, Ministers cannot, as my hon. Friends have eloquently pointed out, resile from their part in seeking to get evidence to support a particular case.
Sadly, history is littered with examples of institutional mindsets on intelligence, where Ministers, generals and Presidents have determined the outcome. Today, apart from undermining confidence, that approach can ultimately lead to dreadful consequences. I point the Committee in the direction of the two official historians of the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, Professor Christopher Andrew and Professor Keith Jeffrey, who might give the Committee useful evidence on those particular points.
Going back over several years, the Committee has rightly been concerned that Ministers have not been more actively involved in meeting collectively to set the agencies’ long-term requirements and priorities. Several hon. Members have mentioned the fact that the ministerial Committee on Intelligence Services has met only once in the past decade.
The Committee rightly highlighted concern about the fact that since September 2005, Sir Richard Mottram has been both security and intelligence co-ordinator and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Sir Richard is a remarkable man in that he is a born Whitehall survivor. Anybody who could have survived being Lord Heseltine’s private secretary when he resigned as Secretary of State for Defence, and then survived the debacle over the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), when he came out with that remarkable set of phrases involving a certain word that is of course unparliamentary, is a man who knows very well how to deal with complicated situations. In the words of the Cabinet Secretary—I paraphrase—he has got the post not least because he has no more future in Whitehall and will therefore be independent. In all seriousness, I believe that Ministers should reconsider this, as there are good functional intelligence reasons for keeping the two posts separate.
The Committee rightly recognised the expertise of the defence intelligence staff and their vital role in providing support at the military operational level as well as to other Government agencies and Departments. It welcomed the additional funds allocated to the intelligence and security services, but was rightly concerned that the agencies had not asked for more resources back in 2003-04. Indeed, they failed to spend all their additional funds at the time because the heads of the services feared that they would not be able to manage rapid expansion, with the vetting of incomers and inducting and training of personnel. I recognise that that is a serious problem, but we have been there before—in the summer of 1940. The SIS found that all its overseas operations hidden under the consular service were rounded up. Many of them legged it or had to go underground. Large numbers of SIS and Security Service personnel were retired in the summer of 1940, and hundreds of temporary people had to be brought in. That was a massive expansion that worked. There were many mistakes, but it was one of the greatest successes. In managerial terms, the Security Service, the SIS and GCHQ need to get out of that mindset.
The Committee expressed concern that there should be a correct balance between short-term operational requirements and long-term threats. That is not easy to achieve, but I am not sure whether Ministers believe that they have got the balance right within the intelligence and security services. It welcomed the Security Service’s decision to set up regional offices and to work closely with special branch. However, following the recent incident at Forest Gate, it appeared from media reports that special branch and the Security Service were, if not briefing against each other, giving contradictory briefings. That is an old, bad habit that I hope will change in future.
The hon. Member for Stockton, South and others mentioned the implementation of SCOPE, which is a major IT programme designed to enable organisations across the intelligence community to work together. Given the challenges involved in big Whitehall IT programmes that—how can I put this delicately?—have not always worked, who is managing this programme and who is the Minister ultimately responsible for seeing that it is delivered?
The Committee’s role is important and its members should receive our congratulations on their hard work. However, we need clear ministerial leadership and accountability. There is a strong argument for a Minister who is ultimately responsible across Whitehall for counter-terrorism. The Prime Minister must deal with how we go about that, but the current system—illustrated by the Home Secretary’s suggestion yesterday in response to being pressed by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee—that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was taking the lead, is not good enough. Greater co-ordination and integration are needed at a functional level in Whitehall. Is any individual or organisation in Whitehall thinking out of the box? Is anyone asking important questions? The Home Secretary points directly at the Minister for the Middle East. I always believed that he was in rather than out of the box.
Agencies must believe that they will be supported, especially when there are failures. At the same time, they recognise that they are not beyond criticism. If we do not change the Committee’s remit to enable it meet public concern, that anxiety will continue, to the detriment of the United Kingdom.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to close the debate on intelligence and security. The Foreign Secretary greatly regrets that she cannot be here as she is travelling in the United States.
As Minister responsible for our relations with India, I echo the words of hon. Members who mentioned the brutal murders of innocent people in the Mumbai bomb blast. The underlying message of today’s debate must surely be that there is never a justification for terrorism. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families.
I thank the Intelligence and Security Committee and its distinguished Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), for their work. My right hon. Friend has huge experience of dealing with terrorism and organised crime as one of the best Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland that this country has produced.
Like every hon. Member, I should like to pay tribute to the exceptional work of the men and women of Britain’s intelligence and security services. Earlier, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary highlighted their many successes, and the debate has emphasised their important role in protecting British citizens at home and abroad, often in dangerous circumstances. Some of us have been privileged to witness their operations first hand, as I did last week in Iraq, and we should be grateful to our people who are working for us there.
Let me try to deal with the many subjects that have been raised today. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) described the report as wide ranging and thorough. She made a spirited defence of the Committee and its report. Those of us who know its members realise that she is right.
The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) expressed thoughtfully and concisely the Committee’s value and, as he perceived them, its strengths and weaknesses and the challenges that it faces in future. As he said, those challenges will be complex and numerous, ranging from the tedium of sustained observation of suspects to understanding the influence of Deobandi madrassah education in the Muslim world.
Right at the beginning of this debate, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen emphasised the importance that some so-called responsible news media place on not allowing the facts to get in the way of a good story. There is nothing that the conspiracy theorists love more than a theory that involves the security services. That is why the cool assessment of these complicated and difficult materials by the Intelligence and Security Committee is so valuable to the House.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, among others, defended the report’s criticism of the merger of the posts of Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator and of JIC chairman. The Government do not agree with the Committee on that point. We see no clash between the roles; on the contrary, they are mutually reinforcing. The appointment of Sir Richard Mottram to the roles of SIC and JIC chairman was consistent with the recommendation in the Butler review that the post of JIC chairman be filled by someone with experience of dealing with Ministers in a very senior role. Far from devaluing the JIC chairman’s role, combining the posts has added further weight and authority to it.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden asked about the financing of border security. The border management programme, on which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is working closely, will re-channel existing resources into new and more effective ways of working. Additional resources will be identified as the programme develops. The e-border programme is now at the preliminary invitation to tender stage, and a contract will be agreed with the successful bidder in the summer of 2007.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) and others suggested that Ministers were not sufficiently engaged in intelligence matters, as evidenced by the fact that the Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services had met only once in the past decade. That came as a surprise to me when I sought the briefing on this subject, as I seem to spend three quarters of my life talking to other Ministers about a whole range of issues, including overarching strategy and individual issues such as Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the home security issues that we have discussed in such depth today.
The Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services will meet as and when required. It is important to recognise that Ministers are already heavily engaged in the oversight of the agencies. As the ISC report explains, Ministers regularly discuss intelligence matters in a variety of
“other fora, including at Cabinet meetings”,
and the agency heads regularly brief their respective Secretaries of State.
The hon. Gentleman should not panic. I will say something very nice about him in a moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) made a compelling case for not turning the ISC into a Select Committee. I do not want to intervene in any family matters involving the adult discussions that have taken place between the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen. I am sure that they will be able to sort their relationship out. We will be watching very carefully, and we will do what we can to help. The Government see no reason to change the present arrangements, which allow a cross-party group of parliamentarians to examine a wide range of sensitive intelligence matters in some depth without jeopardising sources or methods. The ISC’s independence is not in doubt. It has consistently produced comprehensive and thorough reports that are laid before Parliament and often make uncomfortable reading for the Government.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) cited the example of the Bali bombings. He has suffered more than the rest of us from that terrible event. I saw the memorial out there, and every parliamentarian should see it. They would then understand the significance of the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
Parliament recognised, when approving the Intelligence Services Act 1994, the difficulties of handling intelligence matters within the normal Select Committee procedures. After considerable parliamentary discussion, it was decided that the best way to impart proper authority and ensure effective oversight of the intelligence agencies was by establishing the ISC and laying down the Committee’s duties and obligations in legislation. Transforming the ISC into a Select Committee would require a change in primary legislation. Any move to change its status would have to take careful account of the need to maintain proper security for the agency’s work. Unless a Select Committee was willing to operate under similar conditions to the ISC, the end result would be less, rather than more, scrutiny.
My right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport met some of the survivors and victims’ families, and they understand clearly why there has been a demand for an independent public inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained with understandable passion that, given the present circumstances, it is not a question of financial cost but of resources. We have heard already about the difficulties of recruitment. It takes time to train people, and I would not like to see those precious resources diverted, as they inevitably would be, into a long-running inquiry of that sort. Several inquiries have taken place. The Intelligence and Security Committee conducted a thorough inquiry. The London assembly also conducted one.
No, I do not have time, I am afraid.
The Government are resolved to learn lessons from those reports and to strengthen our defences and resilience against the terrorist threat. We are working extremely hard at that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South explained the truth behind some of the allegations that information was withheld from the Committee. The ISC’s report provided a thorough, clear and detailed account of what was known about the 7 July bombers prior to the attacks. The security and intelligence agencies and other relevant Departments co-operated fully with the ISC’s investigation, and no relevant information was withheld. Subsequent allegations in the media, some of which have been reported in the House, that the Government or security and intelligence agencies withheld information or in some way misled the ISC are totally false. I note that the ISC has investigated the claims and satisfied itself that they are not true.
The Home Secretary is considering carefully the important question of intercept as evidence, but we should not assume that it will somehow be a magic device for making the task easier. We should certainly listen to some of the advice of people with experience. There is no evidence that other countries get better results through their use of intercept evidence than the United Kingdom. We want to maintain the co-operation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies on which those results are predicated. In February this year, the then Home Secretary told Parliament that the Government
“are undertaking to find, if possible, a legal model that would provide the necessary safeguards to allow intercept material to be used as evidence.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 479.]
I understand that the Home Office is leading work on two evidential legal models—a PII plus model, which seeks to protect sensitive material through a combination of public interest immunity hearings and a pre-trial sift procedure, and an examining magistrates model based on continental regimes. The Home Secretary will consider detailed reports on that work in November.
On the question of the implementation of the Butler review, the Government accepted its conclusions and implemented its recommendations. I note that the ISC’s annual report commented favourably on the matter. The Butler recommendation about the limitations of intelligence being systematically included in intelligence assessments has been implemented. As the ISC noted in its annual report, a confidential guide covering the nature and use of intelligence has been circulated to readers of intelligence across government. Intelligence assessments now carry assessment-based boxes, which highlight the extent or limitations of intelligence coverage on a particular issue.
We have had a very good debate tonight. I am only sorry that I have not been able to cover every hon. Member’s contribution. The contributions were many and varied—
It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.