Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House has considered the matter of the Annual Report of the Intelligence and Security Committee for 2008-09 (Cm 7807) and the Government’s response (Cm 7808).—(Mr. Watts.)
I have had the honour to chair the Intelligence and Security Committee since October 2008, or for roughly 18 months now. This is the second time that I have had the opportunity to open such a debate, and it will be the last. I wish to put on record my thanks to members of the Committee and its staff for their hard work in what has been a remarkably difficult year for it in more ways than one, as I shall seek to illustrate.
Some members of the ISC have announced their intention to retire as MPs. They include the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who is the only ISC member to have served on the Committee since its creation 16 years ago. He is our remembrancer, and future Committees will greatly miss his pretty awesome powers of recall, and his sense of humour.
The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) is another to be leaving. He has great experience of international affairs, and of matters relating to Northern Ireland and his spiritual home in the borders of Scotland. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) is also retiring. He has inevitably enhanced our deliberations with his unrivalled knowledge of Whitehall's administrative and political geography and its darker arts.
For a Committee of nine to lose four of its members at one fell swoop is a serious blow against the cause of continuity and that is why I am going to concentrate in my contribution on one theme. In my view, it is the most important theme—that of strengthening and sustaining the independence of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
Then I will come back to my hon. Friend.
There are many other important issues that have come before the ISC and I am sure that they will be dealt with by the hon. and right hon. Members who are present. Those issues include the allegations generated by the Binyam Mohamed case, and the relationship that exists between our intelligence and security agencies and their counterparts in other countries, as well as the measures being taken to counter the activities of those who would do harm to Britain through cyber attack and other forms of electronic warfare.
Indeed, we have looked this year at the measures taken to deal with a whole range of threats to the UK, including the threat posed by the latest wave of Irish republican terrorism and the threat from espionage, including the potential use of powerful electromagnetic pulses and a range of other advanced technologies. Latterly, of course, we have expended a huge amount of time reviewing the new, consolidated guidance for questioning detainees and others, but that is an ongoing review that I am sure will be the subject of intense debate and scrutiny at a later time.
I give notice that some of my right hon. Friend’s officials might like to refer to column 433 of our debate on 7 May last year in relation to paragraph 177 of that report, which does not seem to have been addressed in this report. We were promised that it would be, and I shall raise that later.
I want to draw Mr. Speaker’s attention to the paragraph before the contents page of this report, which states:
“The Prime Minister appoints the ISC Members after considering nominations from Parliament”.
That is simply not true, is it? There are no nominations from Parliament. Why do we put this garbage in a report when it is simply not true? If I am wrong, no doubt my right hon. Friend will point out to me how I missed the opportunity to be nominated.
That is for good now. I am very grateful, as ever, to my hon. Friend for bringing these matters to our attention, and I am sure that they will be discussed by the usual channels.
This debate should be on the Committee’s 2008-09 annual report on our work from December 2008 to July 2009. We sent it to the Prime Minister in December 2009, but unfortunately it has taken more than three months for it to be published. We have complained bitterly about that delay to both the Prime Minister and his security adviser. Given that the Committee signed off the text in July 2009, eight months ago, that is simply unacceptable. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will give an undertaking that it will not take this long again. There is no good reason for the delay, other than bureaucratic inertia, to use one of his own favourite phrases. Such has been the delay in publishing the 2008-09 report, that in the meantime the Committee has completed its 2009-10 annual report, which we sent to the Prime Minister on 5 March. When we sent it to him, we requested that it be published by 17 March—yesterday—at the latest, to ensure that right hon. and hon. Members would have the opportunity to read it in good time for this debate. We were assured that it would happen and I have every sympathy with hon. Members who have not had sufficient time to read it.
It is also very disappointing to the Committee that, despite the fact that the Government have had sight of our report in draft form for some time, we have had to fight the Cabinet Office, even yesterday, to be given sight of the Government’s response to our report in sufficient time before this debate. It is a shame that they do not place more value on our being able to have a well-informed debate in the Chamber.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a contradiction in the Government’s behaviour in regard to intelligence security? Oftentimes they press us to make very fast decisions—in my judgment, badly thought-out decisions—here on the Floor of the House when we introduce legislation in the name of national security, yet when they have an independent-minded and authoritative Committee such as his, they sit on the recommendations for months, almost a year. That simply does not accord with the panic-stricken pleas for hon. Members’ co-operation when we get dragged through the Lobbies on intelligence and security matters.
Much as I do not want to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, I have to say I have not experienced those panicky debates on the Floor, but, as I said, I bitterly resent these delays. They are needless and they should be addressed.
Shortcomings in the way the ISC has been treated over the last 18 months have for the first time led us to publicise in our 2009-10 annual report our concerns about its status. It is a very serious matter, as those who have had the opportunity to read our report will realise. The fact that we are publicising these difficulties is not, as some in the media have speculated, in response to criticisms that the Committee is not robust enough. They should know better. The ISC has never been a Committee to pander to its critics. We prefer to get on with our work and leave the sensationalist headlines to others, but we have experienced significant difficulties during the past 12 to 18 months, which we have been trying to resolve within the system. The failure of the system to respond means that we are taking the unprecedented step of commenting publicly, in the hope that we can change things so that our successors on the ISC do not have to face the same problems that we have faced.
I recognise the great importance of this Committee and its very responsible remit, but does the right hon. Gentleman think that there is any case whatever for the chairmanship to be in the hands of the Opposition rather than in those of the Government? Does he have any view whatever on the application of the new Wright Committee arrangements to be made applicable to the ISC, and will he please comment on that?
That is a very good question. I would have no objection to the Chair of the Committee being a member of Her Majesty’s Opposition. That does not seem to me to strain credibility in any shape or form. I hope to deal in a moment with the question of its becoming a Select Committee. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to that shortly.
The ISC has been in existence for 16 years. It is controversial and it attracts much comment and criticism. This arises primarily from the way in which we conduct our work, the vast majority of which is private. Anything done behind closed doors leads to gossip, and the ISC is no different. There has been much comment on and speculation about what the Committee does or does not do, how it does or does not hold the agencies to account, how it would be better to hold meetings in public, and how we should have some kind of running judicial inquiry instead. The complaints, the wish lists, the conspiracy theories and pies in the sky keep tumbling off the fevered production line week by week.
I want to tell the House a few things about the ISC. We meet in private because the things that the agencies talk to us about are secret. Therefore, if we met in public they could not talk to us about secret things. If they can talk to us about non-secret things, it would be a pretty pointless discussion. So if we meet in public, Parliament will get less oversight of the agencies’ work, not more. I do not think that that is a difficult concept to grasp, but still people keep talking about the ISC meeting in public or becoming a Select Committee. If the House wants to make the ISC a Select Committee—at least the kind of Select Committee that we have currently—so be it, but I want to say as a matter of record that a Select Committee will not get the access that the ISC gets, so oversight will not be strengthened but weakened. It is only because of that that I and other members of the ISC would not recommend this oversight body becoming a Select Committee. The present arrangements are far from perfect, as we know, but it is my view and, I believe, that of the Committee, that this Parliament would end up with far, far less accountability if the ISC were a Select Committee. I hope that both Houses will consider any proposals with great care before such a transformation is agreed.
If my right hon. Friend looks at the Official Report tomorrow, he will see he said that if the ISC was a Select Committee, it would get a lot less information than we get now. That is an affront to Parliament. Who is running this country? Is it them, or is it us? The ground rules would have to be dictated. It is no different from the Congress of the United States. It has a congressional committee, which we do not have—a parliamentary committee—it gets access and it is the legislature and the scrutiniser for its country. So are we. It is not for the secret service or the spooks to tell us what we can or cannot have. That is an affront to our constitution and our democracy.
I hope my right hon. Friend recognises that the criticism that may well come today, including from myself, is in no way directed at personalities, but is about the credibility of the Committee. I for one do not accept, unlike perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), that it can operate as an ordinary Select Committee. I have never advanced that idea. My right hon. Friend dismisses the possibility of public sessions, but I remind him that on 17 July 2008 the Foreign Secretary told the House, with reference to my amendment:
“The Government believe that there is scope for holding some sessions in public, and we want to make progress on that.”—[Official Report, 17 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 497.]
My hon. Friend is quite right. Those undertakings—or promises, or pledges, or whatever we want to call them—have been made. I have to say to him that I would love to chair such a session with the media circus waiting to hear the great questions that we will ask the directors of our agencies. When we ask them, they will sound like patsy questions because that is all they ever can be. As I said, this is about secrets. We do not expect our agencies to spill secrets all over the place because they are in the business of trying to keep this country safe from terrorists and other murderous lunatics.
Surely the issue is not whether the Committee is in name a Select Committee but how it has to operate. The change that would make it completely ineffective would be if it could no longer report directly to the Prime Minister on the state of affairs in the secret work that it is able to examine, because a published report on that subject would destroy the effectiveness of the work itself.
Does the Chairman agree that if the ISC sat in public, no evidence would be put before it that could not be heard by any other Select Committee in this House—by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Select Committee on Defence or any other interested Committee?
I am not sure that I understood the hon. Gentleman’s question—I know that he is a tough questioner because he is a member of the Committee. In his wisdom, the former Prime Minister John Major thought long and hard before he created the Committee. The hon. Gentleman knows that over the years the Committee has been around the world, talking to other committees that have such oversight responsibilities. I do not think that the Committee has ever come across a superior system—I would certainly disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about the American system, as I do not think it is superior at all. It is completely flawed and is probably one of the reasons why the Americans are in so much trouble over trying to distinguish between torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment—or CIDT—and the rest of it.
I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman says, but will he bear the following fact in mind? I took part in the discussions with John Major on the formation of the Committee and those discussions were of the kind to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. However, does he accept it is important that the Committee evolves and that the fact that it is not formally described as a Select Committee of the House adds to the impression that it is the creature of the Prime Minister? That is a false impression, but it is nevertheless one that is often held. Is it not possible to consider changing the status of the Committee so that it formally becomes a Select Committee but one with very special rules both as regards the way in which its members are appointed and the way in which it operates, to safeguard the crucial points that he has made?
I have always found the right hon. Gentleman’s words to be very wise, but on this point we are very close to drifting towards gesture politics. I am not sure that the hard, central question of what the Committee does and how it has that access would be addressed by such a change of title. I agree entirely, however, that it should always be ready to evolve. This House should take a great interest in the way it evolves and should shape that evolution, but I cannot see that it would make an enormous difference to call it something else. Perhaps it would be more acceptable in the eyes of some, but I am not sure that I see that.
There are changes that need to be made to the Committee, however, and that need to be made very quickly. They concern the need to maintain and reconfirm the Committee’s independence from the bodies and agencies that it oversees. Put bluntly, these changes must help to guarantee in the eyes of parliamentarians and the public that there must be no threat to the independence of the ISC and that its future independence will be protected.
Our critics, because they cannot see what we do, presume the worst when it comes to our independence. They presume that we sit and nod at the agencies and agree with everything that they say. They do not know, because they cannot see it, so how can they know that we act with a robustness and a determination that are the equal of any Committee in this Parliament? Having spent a number of stimulating years as a belligerent member of a particularly ruthless Public Accounts Committee, I can swear to that. All our members have sat on Select Committees and they will reassure anyone that they act just as robustly on the ISC as they would on any other Committee.
Is the right hon. Gentleman convinced that his Committee has the resources and the backing that the PAC does, with the National Audit Office? Does he think that strengthening the ISC and reforming its structure would be helped by having the powers and resources that the PAC can draw on with the NAO?
I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point. We have the NAO as one of our investigative advisory bodies. It is cleared for studying secret documents and it looks at the issues and reports to us. We take great cognisance of its reports and we have our own investigator, of course. If he is asking me whether the Committee needs more resources because of its importance, I certainly agree that it does. I shall try to explain that.
Knowing the right hon. Gentleman as I do and knowing that he is robust and independent, I find the fact that he is raising the issue of independence by way of a sort of criticism to be in itself a demonstration of his integrity. However, may I return to the point that I made earlier? In order to bolster and make clear to the public at large, and to Parliament too, that there is that degree of independence, would it not be a good idea—in terms of the respect that such a move would gain—for the Chairman of the Committee, provided that the right person was chosen, to come from the Opposition?
I tried to answer the hon. Gentleman in the best way I could. I have no objection to that at all. Sitting to his left is the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, who chairs the Committee when he has to. He also speaks on behalf of the Committee when the Committee agrees, and he does so in a robust and effective way. However, I fear that when parties are in opposition they tend to think that such chairmanship is a good idea, but when they come into government they do not. That is another matter, however.
It is easy for some of our critics—I am sorry to include in their number some right hon. and hon. Members who chair parliamentary Select Committees and Joint Committees—to drive their tanks on to the lawn of the ISC and fire shells at the structure and performance of the Committee. They know, of course, that the nature of the material that we work with limits severely our ability to return fire, however frustrated we might feel about it. Just because our reports do not go in for sensational soundbites, that does not mean that we have not done a thorough job in arriving at our conclusions.
There are others in this House who for perfectly noble reasons, I am sure, project themselves as the tribunes of liberty and transparency. Some of those great tribunes are not above stirring the pot by dropping dark hints to their friends in the media that members of the ISC should be regarded as little more than the placemen of the Prime Minister. I will not convince them otherwise, but I want to say to them that I have had experience of no other group of individuals who have displayed more independence of spirit or more determination to uncover the truth than I have in the ISC. It is a Committee that can withstand ill-informed attacks on its integrity and motives, not least because it does not indulge in the kind of party political point scoring that flows so often from the leaking and backdoor briefings that are among the chief curses of Committees of this House.
If we on the ISC have concerns about the independence of the Committee, they stem not from the motives and abilities of its members but from the nature of the ISC’s relationship with the Whitehall administrative machine. On pages 4 and 5 of our 2009-10 annual report, we have described how, over the last 12 to 18 months, it has become very clear to us that there are some within the Whitehall bureaucracy who, for reasons of their own, have not understood or have refused to accept that the independence of the ISC is sacrosanct. Some of them have given the impression that they regard the ISC as an irritation—a problem that they could well do without. Inside the Whitehall machine they think of us as a thorn in their side, which is ironic, because outside Whitehall we are told that we are not a sufficiently sharp thorn in their side. I have little doubt that some Whitehall insiders, like some right hon. and hon. Members, believe it would be far easier to turn the ISC into a Select Committee, but that, as I tried to explain earlier, would be about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
That is almost certainly the reason why, during the past 18 months, life for the ISC secretariat has been distinctly uncomfortable and, at times, very unpleasant and threatening. The ISC does not take kindly to such behaviour. We are not a Committee to be “steered”, “guided” or manipulated by means of any other Whitehall cliché; we are a statutory and independent Committee of parliamentarians, and we speak as we find.
Let me make it clear that when I talk about Whitehall insiders, I am not talking about the Committee staff or the agencies that we oversee. It is the Committee’s experience, for example, that the harder we investigate and question the agencies, the better they understand the need to be fully accountable. Although it may sound paradoxical, they understand the need to be more transparent within the so-called circle of secrecy that encompasses most of their work and the Committee’s work. The intelligence and security agencies understand full well the value of an ISC that is robust, well equipped and determined. They know that without effective and independent oversight they will fail in their vital task of maintaining and strengthening the trust that the people of this country have in them.
The agencies can rarely defend themselves publicly when they are attacked. They are a sitting target for anyone describing themselves as a campaigning journalist; for certain—and it pains me to say this—high-profile defence lawyers who appear not to be overly concerned about throwing mud at them, presumably in the hope that it will influence the public mood in favour of their clients; for some of the less scrupulous non-governmental agencies with axes to grind; and for 1,001 conspiracy theorists from the judiciary to the clubhouse.
The agencies realise that our heightened oversight is in their own interests; it is in their own interests to be properly held to account. But they and we will never convince the British people that the agencies are being held properly to account if there is one iota of doubt about the independence of the ISC.
I could not agree more. The right hon. Gentleman points out that such behaviour is a relatively new phenomenon that has hit us from the authorities in Whitehall only in the past year or so, but it is getting worse. May I remind him that when he opened our previous debate, a reprimand was sent from the Cabinet Office to the Clerk of our Committee, because the Committee staff had not told the Cabinet Office what the Chairman was going to say? I do not know how that new attitude towards the Committee has come in, but the sooner it is put away, the better.
I could not agree more, as I shall try to make clear.
As for our staff, the secretariat of the ISC, allegations have been made, sometimes in this very Chamber, that they are not independent. Nothing could be further from the truth. They work wholeheartedly for the Committee, and they defend its independence absolutely—to the point where their own careers have been put in jeopardy, as the right hon. Gentleman just hinted at. They are our most valuable asset: intelligent, hard-working people who have accumulated a great fund of experience and knowledge. In so many ways, they guarantee the vital continuity that the ISC requires, and they are the causeway between one Parliament and the next. That is why I hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will today assure the House that when the current Committee members stand down, there will be no attempt to interfere with the Committee’s secretariat in the intervening period before a new Committee is appointed. I, for one, would interpret any such step as a severe breach of its independence.
The Committee believes that, in order to reinforce its independence, it must move out of the Cabinet Office. There are very good reasons for that. The Cabinet Office has hosted the Committee since it was set up in 1994. That was for administrative convenience, and no more than that, whatever might be said now, because the Cabinet Office was a central Department that was used to handling highly classified material, and it had suitably security-cleared staff. However, the role of the Cabinet Office, in terms of its relationship with the intelligence and security services, has grown substantially over the past 16 years, and the Committee’s remit has similarly evolved to include that central intelligence machinery in the Cabinet Office. The relationship is therefore now completely different: we sit in a Department that has a significant role in the UK intelligence community, which we oversee, and we do not believe that that is an appropriate relationship.
As a matter of principle, no matter what the circumstances, it is clearly not right for the ISC to be hosted by an organisation that the ISC has a role in overseeing. No matter how sturdy and high the Chinese walls within a Department such as the Cabinet Office may be, the danger of boundaries not being respected is potentially deadly for the reputation of the ISC. The Committee has therefore requested that it be moved to another Department—one without such a central role in security and intelligence matters. We believe that that would serve to demonstrate that there is no link between the Committee and those whom it oversees, and that it would provide a much needed separation.
I think I heard the right hon. Gentleman say that he thought the Committee should be moved to the precincts of another Department. Given the importance of the Committee, the sensitivity of the information involved and the extreme responsibility that the Committee has, does he not think there is a case for moving it to completely separate precincts?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. The Committee is in a completely separate building, and we have a room in which we meet and hold discussions. Witnesses appear before us in that room, which, I am reliably informed, is swept frequently, and it is perfectly secure and safe. So I am not worried about that aspect, but I understand why the hon. Gentleman asked that question.
The same point applies to our budget request. As with our staff, our accommodation and other resources are decided and allocated by the Cabinet Office, and there is clearly a conflict of interest if the Committee has to go cap in hand to those whom it oversees in order to get the resources that it needs to oversee them. Therefore, we also recommended to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary that our resources be separated from the Cabinet Office, and that our budget be index-linked as a set percentage of the single intelligence account, although outwith the SIA itself. That would allow the Committee’s activity and capabilities to grow or shrink in accordance with those whom it oversees, with a minimum threshold to ensure that fixed costs were covered, thus ensuring that the oversight function were proportionate to the work that it oversaw. In our view, those changes are fundamental if the ISC is to maintain and reinforce its independence.
But the wheels of Whitehall turn abysmally slowly in response to our requests. We have shown how it is possible to solve all the difficulties that may arise from these administrative changes, and we have presented the powers that be with solutions; they in return have presented us, largely, with silence. That silence will not serve to help us to convince the British people that the Intelligence and Security Committee enjoys the independence that it requires to do its job properly.
Today, finally, we have the Government response to our report, and what does it say in response to our request? It says that it requires “further consideration”. It is surely stretching credibility to suggest that after five months the Government still have not managed to reach a decision. I hope it is not the case that they have made a decision but do not want to say so. They say that a move might—this is a wonderful phrase—“complicate accountabilities”, but I find it difficult to see how it is such an insurmountable problem, when the central question is the independence of the Committee.
The Government then say:
“The most appropriate time for such engagement is early in a new Parliament.”
That, of course, is Whitehall-speak for booting our proposals into touch. They are really saying, “Let’s get rid of this awkward lot we've got on the Committee at the moment and when we get a new committee we’ll just gloss over it and make it go away.” I trust that this House will not stand for such short-sighted and ill-advised behaviour. As a matter of principle, the ISC cannot continue to sit within the Cabinet Office or any other Department with a central intelligence role. There are no grounds to refuse our request to move, and no good reason not to agree to it.
I very much hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will carefully consider what I have said and confirm for us here today that he will back this relatively modest administrative change. It does not require an Act of Parliament. It does not mean that the Ministry of Justice, for example, has to find new living quarters for the ISC; nor will it be a new administrative or financial burden for that Department or for any other Department. It is a simple matter, but for us it is a vital one. I urge him to act on it and restore our faith that the Government want an independent oversight Committee.
The Government must take great care to ensure that Whitehall’s reluctance to implement even a modest change such as this does not serve to undermine the credibility of the ISC. I have made clear my views about the erosion of real oversight that would result if the ISC became just another Select Committee. A Select Committee might offer less of an administrative burden to the Whitehall machine than the ISC does, and be far less controversial, but less oversight will do little other than provide nourishment to those who, for all kinds of reasons, wish to undermine the reputation of our intelligence and security agencies and of the Committee that oversees them.
The ISC does an immensely valuable job, and it is a great shame that that is not recognised by a vocal few, but that is always the way when one cannot talk about what one does. Sadly, many of those who talk about intelligence matters are less bothered with the truth—with the facts of the matter—than with trying to get a sensational headline. They call for a judicial inquiry into allegations of misconduct by the agencies, yet they conveniently ignore the fact that there is already a body headed by judges, in the shape of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, that can conduct any inquiry it chooses to. They call for the ISC to hold public meetings, yet they gloss over the fact that the agencies will not be able to say anything in public, so they will be for show only. They call our staff “spooks”, yet they do not know that those staff have put their careers on the line in very difficult circumstances because they uphold the independence of this Committee. They call for us to become a Select Committee, yet they do not realise that that is playing into the hands of those who think it is probably a jolly good idea that parliamentarians should not be allowed to poke around in the very deepest recesses of our intelligence and security agencies.
When it comes to the ISC, it seems that, for some, perception is all that matters. But let me tell hon. Members that this Committee has worked tirelessly, and not simply at the tasks it was created to undertake but at trying to sort out row after row and problem after problem, most of which have arisen because, as I have explained, the Committee’s administrative home continues to be in the Cabinet Office, which now has so many additional intelligence and security responsibilities. Believe me, the Committee has not done all this for the sake of perception. Nor have we done it for popularity, or so that our members can edge a few more centimetres up the greasy political pole— most of us are too close to the end of our political careers to worry about any kind of preferment. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) once informed the Prime Minister face to face, most of us on the Committee are closer to being extinguished than distinguished. We certainly have not done it for money. I believe that I am the only Committee Chairman who is not paid for his pains; I will take back-pay any time. Like every other ISC member, I do what I do because I believe in the work that the Committee does, independently, in holding the agencies to account.
I am sure that in the course of this debate right hon. and hon. Members will deal with a number of the most controversial issues generated over the past year about intelligence and security. I would like to thank Committee members for the enormous amount of hard work and dedication that they have given to the Committee, and especially for the way they have conducted themselves in the face of endless criticism and sniping from those, inside and outside this place, who seem to believe that all secret intelligence and security operations must intrinsically be evil and designed to erode human liberty and dignity.
One of the duties of the ISC is to ensure that the agencies and organisations that we oversee carry out their work according to the laws of this country and in compliance with the international laws and treaties that this country has signed up to. That means that we take very seriously the defence of human rights and civil liberties where they may be affected by the work of our intelligence and security agencies. We will continue to maintain the utmost vigilance in detecting and, if we find them, highlighting transgressions in these areas. But we have other roles, as well. One of them is to ensure that our agencies have the means and the wherewithal to protect this country from the terrorists and enemies—be they Islamic suicide bombers, Irish republican gunmen or any other breed of murdering fanatic who believes that by slaughtering British citizens they can help their religion or their cause. There is no reason why those two functions cannot fit perfectly well together.
Those of us who have had the privilege to serve on this Committee are well aware that our intelligence and security agencies must operate to the very highest standards in terms of protecting the values of liberty and justice that this great country of ours represents and espouses. We also know, however, that those same agencies have to protect the lives and limbs of British people. I hope that in future, when journalists, commentators, the judiciary and Members of this Parliament draw in breath to launch their assaults on the agencies and on the Ministers who have to answer for their actions in this place, they will pause for a moment to consider the likely effects of those assaults on the confidence and morale of the brave and talented men and women we count on to protect us and our democracy at home and abroad.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask both for your guidance and, I believe, for the protection of this House. If you look at today’s Order Paper, you will see that we are being invited to consider the annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee for 2008-09. Listening to the remarks of the Chairman of the Committee and given, from what I understand informally, what will be said by the three parties’ Front Benchers, it seems that that report is being conflated with the report for 2009-10, which was available in the Vote Office only today. When I went to the Vote Office this morning and said, “Can I have the documents for today’s debate?”, I was, quite rightly, given only the report for 2008-09. It was only through listening to the Chairman of the Committee and having had informal discussions with colleagues that it dawned on me that he—and, it would seem, Front Benchers, although I do not rush to judgment on that—are in the business of conflating the two. That is not only alien to what is on the Order Paper but an affront to Parliament, because the document relating to 2009-10 has only just been published.
Surely, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is an outrage that this has happened, particularly against the backdrop of the views of people like myself. I think that this Committee—well, you will have got my drift because you have heard it year after year. Can you tell us what we are discussing today? I ask you jealously to safeguard the Order Paper and insist that our debate relates to what is on the Order Paper, with nothing relating to the 2009-10 report, which must be dealt with on a separate occasion by the House of Commons if it is to provide proper scrutiny.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who gave me some little notice of the point of order that he was going to raise. As I understand it, the terms of the motion, which relate to the ’08-’09 report, were tabled on behalf of the Committee, so strictly speaking, that is the motion before the House. It is a question of the circumstances that we are in as to how narrowly or how widely I rule on this particular matter. I am thinking of the London bus syndrome—you wait a long time for one and then two come along together. It is as recently as this morning that the second report has appeared. It would seem quite difficult for the House to lose the grip of this moment in not alluding to it. The substantive motion that the House will be invited to agree to or negate is on the ’08-’09 report, so I hope that that is where the main focus of the debate will be. However, I would not be helping right hon. and hon. Members if I said that I do not want to hear any reference to the ’09-’10 report. The House might also bear in mind, even though Dissolution is near, that it might not want to sacrifice the opportunity for the new Parliament to discuss formally, in its own time, the ’09-’10 report. My instincts are to say that I should be flexible today. However, it will be on record that the House approves this motion, and it is still open to Parliament, at some point or other, to seek to have a further formal resolution on the ’09-’10 report. I hope that that is helpful.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful to you for that advice, particularly for your final comments, but may I ask you to clarify and amplify them? As I understand the rubrics of the House, every annual report has to be reported to the House. I am looking to our successors in the new Parliament in saying that we should safeguard jealously their right to have a full debate on the 2009-10 report on a substantive motion. Surely that is correct. I think that that is what you are saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if I do nothing else I want to ensure that we say unequivocally that it is a matter for the next Parliament to deal with that report.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think it is quite clear that under the terms of the motion before the House, formal approval can be given only to the 2008-09 report. The House will therefore still require, whether formally or at length, to give its approval or otherwise to the 2009-10 report in future.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was somewhat surprised to hear reference to the report for the subsequent year. I notice that the motion refers not only to the report for 2008-09 but to the Government’s response. I wonder whether part of the reason why we are not considering the later report is that there is no Government response to go with it.
The Government’s response to the 2009-10 report has also been published, but perhaps not in time for all right hon. and hon. Members to have had notice of it and to consider any remarks that they might wish to make in relation to it. That is why I suggest to the House that it should confine its appetite to look at the 2009-10 report and response, because there will, by obligation, be a motion to come forward on that report at some time in the future. However, because that report is there and some hon. Members have had the opportunity to see it, I do not want to be over-rigid in my rulings when there is an opportunity to allude to it in the context of what is in the 2008-09 report. I am trying to be as helpful as I can, and I hope that that does help.
Given that it seems that the Committee tabled the motion, not the Government, it is nice to be able to open a debate without having to apologise for something that the Government have done or failed to do. I will bear your comments in mind carefully, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I frame my remarks. Mr. Speaker warned us severely not to take too long on our speeches, and I shall try to be as brief as I can while doing justice to the issues involved.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), who I think spoke for the whole ISC with passion and verve. I thank him for his outstanding work over the past 18 months, and I also thank his colleagues. The right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) has sat on the Committee for 16 years, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) have also served on it with distinction. In my experience they are all men of principle and passion, and they have discharged their responsibilities with a view not just to the task that the House has given them but to the duties given to them by the country, which expects the parliamentary aspect of oversight to be as effective as the ministerial and legal aspects. I thank them sincerely for the work that they have done and wish them well in the future, and I hope we can do justice to their work.
I have felt at times that the annual reports of the ISC, and indeed its work as a whole, have not received the attention that they deserve in Parliament or outside. I know that a number of dedicated hon. Members, to their credit, follow intelligence and security issues closely. My right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd talked about the lack of credit given to the Committee for its work. One important lesson of the past year or two is that more public discussion of the work done by the different branches of the accountability system, and of the dilemmas and challenges posed by the modern world, is welcome. It is a good thing in the drive for demystification, which my right hon. Friend rightly said was important.
The issues involved are complex and profound. That is true not just of the policy issues, some of which I shall touch on, but of the governance issues. The Intelligence Services Act 1994 was intended to balance secrecy and accountability. Secrecy is necessary for the effectiveness of our intelligence agencies, and accountability—not just the fact but the perception of it—is necessary for their legitimacy. That accountability cannot be of a normal kind, but it must be thorough, systematic and effective. Any organisation depends on appropriate oversight as well as good management, and the intelligence agencies are no different.
The two ISC reports before us—the one referred to in the motion and the one that we are allowed tangentially to refer to—are serious pieces of work. As I said recently in another debate, there is a myth that our security and intelligence services operate without independent oversight. That is not true. The Government want a strong and robust ISC, and as far as I am concerned it is vital for any Secretary of State to know that all the checks and balances work properly. That includes checking organisations for which Secretaries of State are responsible.
Last year, the High Court called the ISC
“a very significant means of democratic accountability.”
Independent judicial oversight is different. It is provided by the Intelligence Services Commissioner and the Interception of Communications Commissioner, who report to the Prime Minister and through him to Parliament. As my right hon. Friend said, however, effective oversight is not the same as openness. Because the ISC meets in private, and because its reports are redacted before publication, some say that it cannot do a proper job of holding the Government and the agencies to account. In fact, the opposite is true. It is precisely because the Committee operates inside the so-called ring of secrecy that it can have access to material and question witnesses on very sensitive issues to a degree that makes its scrutiny effective. In my experience, its dialogue, debate and probing questions speak to that. That is not an easy message to get across, but it must be said.
I do not accept the Foreign Secretary’s premise. I illustrate my opinion with the fact that in 2008, either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary himself instructed Sir David Omand to produce a report about the loss of documents on a train. In our debate on 7 May 2009, at column 433 of the Official Report, I drew attention to the fact that the report of the ISC, which at the time was headed up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), said:
“At the time of writing, the Committee is still awaiting the sight of Sir David’s report”.
I criticised Sir David Omand, and a very hurt Sir David Omand wrote to me saying, “It’s not my fault, it’s the Government and the Prime Minister who are still sitting on my report. It is not my property.” There is no reference to any of that in the report that we are now discussing, which illustrates the attitude of “Couldn’t care less, don’t listen to the debate—valid point, but let’s just ignore it.” Can we have a response to that issue in this debate? It shows how flawed the system is and how contemptuous some people, whose names I do not know, are of this House.
My hon. Friend raises a point of principle and another specific point. He has the perfectly legitimate point of view that something that is not conducted in the public domain cannot be effective. I do not agree with him, but I recognise that that is his point of view. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, the Chairman of the Committee, who says that if it met only in public, it would have far less impact as an accountability mechanism than it does in its current form, however imperfect or in need of reform it is.
On the specific question of the Omand review, I will have to get some work done this afternoon and ask the Minister for Europe to respond to my hon. Friend. The issue of lost laptops is not referred to in the 2008-09 ISC report, because that was in a separate review by Sir David Omand and was not to do with particular ISC documents. I am not even sure whether they were Security Service documents, but I will ask the Minister to fill the House in on that when he speaks.
It is important to be open where we can. Important steps have been made to bring aspects of the intelligence community into the light since the 1994 Act, for which the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) claimed some responsibility in an intervention. He rightly made the point that we cannot allow bodies such as the ISC simply to stand still; they should develop. Of course, until 1994, even the existence of the Secret Intelligence Service was officially denied. In the early years, ISC reports contained no published figures for agency expenditure, for example, but that has now changed. The latest report contains more unredacted data on the funding and administration of the agencies than ever before.
However, that does not mean that we should not seek to go further. Since 2007, we have made a number of proposals for ways to strengthen the role of the Committee, including an offer to discuss how it might hold some annual evidence sessions in public, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, who rightly said—I think this is more or less correct—that a patsy session is not worth having. That must be true, but equally, demystification is important, and there are points of principle and judgment that can be discussed openly. Actually, the public debate would benefit from a more public discussion of such things.
I believe that the country would also benefit from a more open discussion of the priorities given to different kinds of threats, which the Committee has raised in successive reports. There is some meat for public discussions that would not put Committee members in an impossible position, in which they would be required to give advance notice of all their questions to the extent that they become patsy questions, nor would Ministers or agency heads be put in a position in which their answers look pathetic—for example, if they had to say, “I can’t answer that question.” It is sobering to be reminded that the debate on public sessions has been going on since 2001, but as I said, my reflection is that it is worth trying to demystify and demythologise the process. I hope that the Committee can take that forward.
My right hon. Friend is completely right that some issues could be aired in public sessions with the heads of the agencies or, for that matter, even Ministers on some occasions. However, it is important that we carefully delineate that which can be discussed in public and that which inevitably, because of its nature, would have to be discussed privately.
Despite what the Chairman of the Committee said, I am not in favour of an ordinary Select Committee format, with continuous public sessions, as I indicated to him. That cannot be done. Some might disagree, but it is my view that the bulk of the Committee’s work must, by its very nature, be done in private. However, surely, as the Foreign Secretary has been saying, public sessions from time to time could be held when we discuss matters such as articles written by the head of MI5.
Members of the Committee have thought very carefully about the prospect of public hearings, and have wanted to find a way of holding them. However, it is a question not simply of patsy hearings, but of choosing real subjects that are not suddenly going to disappear because one asks a question to which the security chiefs must answer, “I can’t tell you.” The Foreign Secretary was talking about priorities and security. Would we not get close to that situation if we began examining why a certain aspect of security was a priority against another without going into the detail of the information behind that?
I completely accept that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and other members of the Committee have gone back and forth on that issue. Public hearings need to go alongside more public discussion of the ISC’s role in the accountability process. The first responsibility is for Ministers and agency heads to uphold the law of the land and the values of the nation. The second responsibility is that there are parliamentary oversight bodies. Thirdly, the commissioners to whom I referred and—fourthly—the courts, provide the ultimate means of redress for any citizen who believes that their rights have been abused. It is important to fill out the public discussion. That could be useful. There will be a degree of choreography in any public hearings, because some issues are within the remit to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred, and some are not. However, from the Government’s point of view, it is worth continuing to work on that.
This is not simply about public hearings, but about the public having confidence in the ISC’s work. As I said to the Chairman of the Committee, that includes ensuring that the Committee has the full resources it needs to undertake its investigations. Will the Foreign Secretary address that point about resources?
To be fair, I was coming on to that. We should always look at the Committee’s procedures and its siting, meaning the Government body under which it works—that important issue was raised in previous reports—but we should also look at resources. As it happens, one issue that has been raised in the past is the question of an investigator, and an investigator has now been added to the Committee’s staff. The increase in the Committee’s resources has been faster than that of general Government spending, which is a good thing—it has more or less mirrored the rise in spend of the intelligence agencies themselves. The Committee needs expert staff and the right kind of resources—
Let me make some progress on that point. I am a quarter of the way through a thought, never mind a sentence.
It is important that the Committee gets the resources it needs, because, from the Government’s point of view, a strong ISC is an important part of building confidence in its work, not just among the public, but among Ministers and Parliament.
The Foreign Secretary is praising the Government for having given us an investigator—we will gloss over the fact that it took about seven or eight months to get him on parade. However, what does he think of the fact that the Committee asked the Cabinet Office to let the investigator, in the interregnum between this Committee and the next, pursue two totally uncontroversial items—developed vetting and how it is handled in a different way by all three agencies—but the Cabinet Office said, “No. It wouldn’t be proper for the Committee to do that until after the election”? Once again, that has been kicked into touch.
Let me look into that. As the right hon. Gentleman will know from the numerous appearances that I have made in front of the Committee, I think that a culture of saying no to an idea because it has not been thought of before is absolutely hopeless in that regard. If, in fact, the knee-jerk reaction is always to say no, we must change it. I did not actually know of the case he mentioned, but in my experience, when Ministers are presented with such questions, they do not want to go with the knee-jerk reaction and say no, but want to go with the drive to have a strong accountability system. That is certainly what the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and I want.
In its latest report, the ISC made some administrative proposals about which I know there are strong feelings—after listening to the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, I realise that they are stronger than I had thought. Those will be seriously considered and discussed, but they raise some quite tricky issues of practice and principle. For example, the proposal to link the ISC budget to the intelligence agency budgets is novel—our information is that that does not happen anywhere else. I believe that that could tie us in knots. Surely the baseline is to take seriously the commitment not only to independence, which I will come to later, but to the proper resources to do the job. If there is a compelling case that the resources are not available to do the job, the resources should be given to the Committee, whether that is to do with the expertise of the staff or overall funding.
I was struck today by the force with which my right hon. Friend made the case about the allegedly baleful influence of the Cabinet Office on the Committee’s proceedings. There are hard-working staff on the Committee and in the Cabinet Office, many with genuine expertise. We will look further at the question of whether changing the administrative label to the Ministry of Justice would have the impact that he suggests.
My right hon. Friend makes two points about our suggestion. The first is in relation to the budget. There is probably no exact formula that would fit the situation, but there must be—this is why we support that particular formula—some relationship between the level of resources and work that the agencies do and the need for them to be supervised. That is how we came up with that formula.
As for the relationship with the Cabinet Office, our case is not that we do not respect the various officials who work in the Cabinet Office—although that may be true in some cases—it is that we are beholden to a Department while at the same time responsible for supervising part of its activities. That is not a healthy relationship.
The agencies that the Committee holds accountable are responsible to me and to the Home Secretary. GCHQ and the SIS report to me and then to the Prime Minister, and the Security Service reports to the Home Secretary. However, I take the point of principle that my right hon. Friend makes, and I assure him that the Government have no interest in sticking to a relationship that does not work. If the relationship is not working satisfactorily and seriously, we have to address it. That is the basis on which I will consider our next step with colleagues.
The Foreign Secretary will, I think, agree that the speech by the Chair of the Committee about what he described as the interference in the independence of the Committee was the most severe public condemnation of interference that I can recall in the whole 16 years that the Committee has operated. I am not a member of the Committee, but will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that there must be a real issue for the Chair to have expressed himself publicly in such severe and unambiguous terms in this debate? He made it clear that it was not the agencies whom he was accusing of that interference, which made it obvious whom he was accusing. Will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge the seriousness of what has been raised today and give some indication of how he proposes to respond to it?
I see my right hon. Friend nods. I said earlier that there are hard-working staff in the Cabinet Office as well as on the ISC. There have been particular administrative issues this year that have added a lot of tension to the relationship, and members of the Committee know that, as do the Government. We need to ensure that the Committee is not diverted by matters of administrative feuding, but is instead able to focus on the job at hand.
The Foreign Secretary will know that in the Government’s reply to the annual report for 2009-10, the Government state:
“The Government is absolutely and fundamentally committed to robust and rigorous independent scrutiny of the intelligence and”
scrutiny committee. It so happens that in paragraphs R and S and the replies to them, there are severe strictures that the Chairman of the Committee did not mention regarding the independence and the distinct and separate role of the professional head of intelligence analysis. In the Government’s reply and in an attempt to justify the situation, they say:
“While it is true that the same individual holds both positions, the roles are distinct and can be performed in parallel without damaging the independence of the Deputy PHIA”.
Does the Foreign Secretary not realise that that is a very serious criticism, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has said, and can he say why it is that the Government and the Committee are at loggerheads over this very important question?
I am glad that the right hon. Member for East Hampshire agrees. We have taken the right lessons in the way in which we have taken the issue forward. The independence of the Committee is a separate point, and the Government are absolutely committed to that independence. It must have the resources and the freedom to do its work. It must have the ability to question Ministers and agency heads without fear or favour, and that is what the Government are determined to achieve.
Given that the Foreign Secretary has told the House that there has been administrative feuding and given that this country now has more not fewer enemies, when will he come back to the House with his conclusions about the current relationship between the ISC and the Cabinet Office and whether it needs to change?
What I actually said was that administrative feuding should not divert the Committee from the vital work that it has to do. I take seriously what the Chairman has said about the relationship with the Cabinet Office. We have further work to do in this Parliament, and no doubt we can cover that, among other topics to which I shall now turn.
I want to move on from the process of the Committee to the issues with which it deals. The Government are determined to defend the rights on which our freedom depends and to protect the safety and security of our citizens, and the Chairman discussed both those concerns. The threat we face is real and ongoing, and no one denies that. In response to several serious allegations about the intelligence and security agencies, the Prime Minister announced last year that the Government would consolidate and make public the guidance we provide to the agencies’ officers and military personnel who may become engaged in handling detainees overseas. That is both to protect the reputation of those officers and service personnel and to set out to the British public the responsible way in which we approach these difficult issues. This is an unprecedented and extremely difficult step and the process has taken much longer than we envisaged or would have wished. It has taken that time because the approach has been thorough and serious.
As the ISC has recognised and articulated so clearly, it is vital that our intelligence officers and military personnel have the clearest possible assurance that, when they engage with their counterparts in other countries—as they must do to protect national security—if they follow their guidance they can have good reason to be confident that they will not incur personal liability. There is an issue of personnel practice here as well as of Government policy. We have been discussing legal issues with the Committee as well as policy ones. I welcome the positive and intense engagement that we have had with the ISC on the draft guidance since it was first sent it in November 2009, and I am very grateful for the detailed and thought-provoking advice that it has recently provided.
That advice highlighted a number of areas warranting further work or clarification by the Government with the Committee. I will discuss those issues further with the Committee in the relatively near future. The Government share the Committee’s desire to bring this issue to closure and remain committed to doing so at the earliest possible date. It is precisely because of the seriousness with which the Government regard this issue and the respect we have for the views of the ISC that we want to ensure that there is no room for misunderstanding our policy, and that we use the Committee’s thinking to ensure that the guidance is comprehensive, appropriate and correct.
I want to repeat unambiguously what I and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary have said before. The Government absolutely condemn torture. We do not practice it, we do not condone it and we are not complicit in it. Where wrongdoing is alleged, it is seriously investigated. When passing information to another country that might lead to suspects being detained, when passing questions to be put to detainees or when directly interviewing them, our agencies are required to seek to minimise, and where possible avoid, the risk of any form of mistreatment. Enormous effort goes into assessing the risks in each case. Operations have been halted when the risk was judged to be too high. But it is not possible to eradicate the risk altogether. Judgments must be made if the British people and British forces are to be protected. It is right that Ministers should make those judgments.
The intense interest in the guidance on torture and mistreatment is entirely understandable, but it should not obscure the fact that much else in the two ISC reports—or one report and another one in brackets—is worth attention. I am sure that hon. Members will want to raise other issues, and we will respond as fully as we can. The reports make clear the variety of threats to our national security that we face, of which international terrorism is the most prominent and the one that most obviously occupies our attention and that of the agencies. It is due in large part to their dedication and skill that this country has not suffered another successful attack of the sort we tragically experienced on 7 July 2005. At the same time, the fact that we have disrupted a number of major terrorist plots since 2005—there was the near-success of the attempt to bring down a transatlantic airliner over Detroit on Christmas day—shows that we cannot let down our guard.
I would like to take the Foreign Secretary back to the guidance. He says that he wants to publish it at the earliest possible opportunity, but can he say a little more about what that means, in terms of actual dates, and can he assure the House that when it is published, it will be so without any redactions?
I can say that we will meet as soon as possible, given the travel commitments of the Committee, which is away next week, and those of myself on the Monday and Tuesday of the week after. Certainly, however, the guidance will be published without redactions. It is very important that it is published without redactions, because it is there for officers, and to give them clarity. There will be no redactions in the guidance when it is published.
The staff of the agencies are also addressing an increasing range of other threats. Their work provides vital support on a daily basis to the safety of our troops in Afghanistan: they are actively countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; helping the fight against the trafficking of drugs and other forms of international organised crime; and supporting our efforts at conflict prevention and stabilisation around the world. The Government’s recent Green Paper on defence emphasised the uncertain global political and economic environment. When uncertainty and unpredictability are key features of the international picture, policy makers’ need for good intelligence to help us to understand the dangers and chart a course is all the greater.
The Government have responded to that challenge by increasing the resources available to the agencies, as we have discussed. As the ISC’s latest report makes clear, the single intelligence account was increased by 15 per cent. in 2008-09, and by a further 8 per cent. in 2009-10, and it will increase by a further 7 per cent. in the next year. Hon. Members will recognise that these are very substantial sums and visible evidence of our commitment to the security and safety of all our people.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way; he is being very generous. Will he not accept, however, that the ISC report also suggests that there is not enough resourcing for counter-espionage activity? Why is that the case, given that such activity has increased, according to the confession of the director general of the Security Service himself? Will the Foreign Secretary look into that and ensure that it is put right?
As I have said in the House on a number of occasions, the fact that the budget is increasing does not mean that there are not choices to be made. There is no question about where our priorities have been focused over the past year or two. The counter-espionage issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are serious, and as I have discussed with the Committee, we take its strictures very seriously in that regard.
Let me end on a note of—I think—unanimity. Whatever their level of financial resources, the agencies’ success depends on their staff. That is important in respect of the guidance. I want to pay tribute to their skills, dedication and commitment to public service. They hold themselves to exceptionally high standards, and it is important to say that they are as committed as any parliamentarian to upholding the laws and ethics of the country. Their work is necessarily largely unknown and unsung, and they are unable to defend themselves when faced with often ill-informed criticism. I know from my own travels how much they are respected across the world by our friends and allies, and I am sure all hon. Members will agree that they deserve our gratitude.
I welcome this opportunity to acknowledge the valuable role performed by the Intelligence and Security Committee and its members from all parties, in particular those retiring from the House—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) and, of course, the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). I salute the latter for his chairmanship of the Committee, his memorable speech today, to which I wish to return, and his 21 years in the House. He and I are parliamentary twins—we might not look like it, but we came into this House in a pair of by-elections 21 years ago, and we have been good friends ever since, fortified by a common interest in foreign affairs and a passion for everything Welsh. I, personally, will miss him very much in the Chamber.
This is a very important and interesting debate. I apologise in advance, however, because, given that I have to give a speech this evening, hundreds of miles away, I will not be here for the winding-up speeches. However, the Committee’s annual report for 2008-09, and now for 2009-10, reminds us of the sheer breadth of the responsibilities of the UK’s intelligence and security agencies. As the Foreign Secretary has said, they protect this country against not only terrorism in all its forms, but espionage, weapons of mass destruction, cyber-attacks and threats from unstable regions. They also support UK military forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
We owe a great deal to the members of these agencies. In the recent words—it was a good summary—of a distinguished former director general of the Security Service, they are
“men and women of different backgrounds, beliefs and ethnicity who wish to work, without any chance of personal fame, or recognised success, because they believe in the UK, its rights and freedoms and because they wish to protect it, as far as they are able against threats”.
That we have so many people prepared to work on that basis is a great asset to this country, and we could not do for an hour or a day without them.
The scale of the threat from terrorism has perhaps made it inevitable that the Committee has devoted an increasing amount of time in recent years to that issue, with four reports having been published: a March 2005 special report into the handling of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, a special report three years ago into rendition, and two—I think—unpublished reports into the Binyam Mohamed case and the treatment and interviewing of detainees overseas.
I think that the House will agree that the wider issues thrown up in the course of these inquires—about the nature of our irreplaceable intelligence relationship with the United States and the balancing of the needs of national security with the requirements of accountability in our democratic society—go to the heart of the protection of the security of our nation. We therefore welcomed the commitments made by the Prime Minister a year ago today—on 18 March 2009—when he said that the Government would take action to
“protect the reputation of our security and intelligence services and to reassure ourselves that everything has been done to ensure that our practices are in line with United Kingdom and international law”.
Such action was clearly needed, and we have supported the Government in giving the Attorney-General time to review allegations of complicity in torture, as well as respecting the role of the Committee in assessing and reporting on developments. We have also recognised that there are current legal proceedings that have to be taken into account by the Government. However, it seems extraordinary that they have been so slow—a theme of Government slowness now runs through this debate—in fulfilling the Prime Minster’s commitments to the House. Those were commitments that he said were important to
“put beyond doubt the terms under which our agencies and service personnel operate”.—[Official Report, 12 March 2009; Vol. 489, c. 55WS.]
This slowness is part of a pattern of unfulfilled commitments, extreme tardiness, administrative confusion and evidently threats to the independence of the Committee, for which Ministers must be held responsible.
The first of the Prime Minister’s commitments was to publish the guidance given to intelligence officers—the Foreign Secretary has just been talking about this—and service personnel about the standards that we apply during the detention and interviewing of detainees overseas. He said that the guidance would need to be consolidated and reviewed by the Committee before publication. Yet the right hon. Member for Pontypridd has described how it took a full eight months for the Prime Minister to allow the Committee to see the guidance, despite his repeated requests. It will be a matter of concern and surprise to the House that the guidance was only handed over on 18 November last year, well after the date on which the Committee would have been able to scrutinise it as part of this annual review—a delay that Ministers have not even attempted to explain, except to say that it is a difficult process.
The Foreign Secretary spoke, throughout his speech, about the need for a strong and robust Intelligence and Security Committee, but recently the Government have not been treating that Committee as being entitled to be strong and robust. The most immediate consequence of the delay is that Parliament is not only debating this issue today without having been able to examine the detainee guidance, which has still not been published, but is doing so without having the benefit of the Committee’s assessment of that guidance.
In his statement just last week, the Chairman said that his Committee had been assured by the Prime Minister that both the report and the guidance would be published “in good time” before today’s debate. I imagine that, having made a public statement to that effect, the right hon. Gentleman is now a little disappointed that these assurances have not been kept. The fact that they have not been kept merits more explanation from Ministers about the delay.
The Foreign Secretary has just said that the guidance will be published at the earliest possible opportunity, but he then went on to point out that the Committee would be away all next week, and that he would be away for the first two days of the following week. As I understand it, the House will then go into recess, and the election will be called the week after that, unless it is not going to happen until June. The earliest possible opportunity is therefore not going to be very early. Only a week ago, however, the information was to be provided before today’s debate. The Government’s proceedings are not only slow but incompetent. They continually make these commitments, but this does not fortify public confidence in their approach to the work of the Committee or in the way in which our intelligence services operate.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point, and he has our full support on this matter. Is there not also a serious issue of substance behind the fact that, without the new guidance coming into force, our security services are working under the old guidance? Presumably, that guidance is no longer comprehensive, which could raise further questions.
I am very happy to do so. The Committee has raised some very important issues about the way in which the guidance is organised and phrased, and we want to ensure that we take them fully on board. I am going to meet the Committee again, with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and it seems to me that that is the right thing to do. The most important thing is to get this guidance right, and that is what is determining every single aspect of the Government’s work on this issue.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that, but, if I may, I shall offer my own translation of what he has just said. My hypothesis is that the Government did not want to publish the Committee’s report because it was highly critical, and that the detainee guidance is now in the process of being frantically rewritten. Of course it is important to get it right, but if that is the situation, the Prime Minister should not have told the Chairman of the Committee a week ago that it would all be published in good time for this debate. Clearly, the work is not going on to bring it to a conclusion at the earliest possible opportunity.
It is also surprising and, in my view, potentially damaging, that references to the guidance have been published in the FCO’s human rights report—also published this morning; it is extraordinary how many things have been published this morning—because that will lead to many questions being asked about the guidance without it actually being available. I was surprised to see those references being published in the human rights report without the details being made available.
Another result of the delay—in addition to the consequence that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has just pointed out—is that the Prime Minister’s second pledge designed to restore public confidence, which was to task the intelligence services commissioner with monitoring compliance with the guidance and reporting to the Prime Minister annually, has not even got under way. I learned in a written answer from the Prime Minister three weeks ago that the commissioner cannot begin this work until the guidance has been published.
It would not have been unreasonable for the House, having heard the Prime Minister make his pledge a year ago, to have expected the commissioner to produce his first report by about now. At the current pace, however, there will be no report to Parliament by the commissioner on this issue until some time in 2011, which will be at least two years after the Prime Minister’s statement. That is why this extreme tardiness is more than just tardiness; it reveals incompetence right in the middle of the Government. There does not appear to be any effective ministerial control of these issues, taken as a whole.
As my right hon. Friend is quite likely, in a few weeks’ time, to be sitting where the Foreign Secretary is sitting now, will he give the House an assurance that among his first priorities will be the publication of the guidance, as well as giving the work of the Committee the priority that he is quite rightly drawing to our attention?
The House would benefit from a little more openness about what the problem is. There were eight months between the Prime Minister’s statement and the Committee receiving the guidance. There were a number of good reasons for that: it is very complex, and it had to go round the Law Officers and all the other Departments. We then got stuck into it, took evidence, and published to the Prime Minister our report on that guidance, with recommendations. So the draft guidance and the report both exist, and they are the property of the Prime Minister.
The problem is that there is a difference of opinion about something that we have written in our report, which needs to be resolved. That is not going to change our report, however. Whether it changes the Government’s guidance or not is another matter. I hope that that helps the House to understand where the dilemma is, because that is at the heart of the matter. We have reported, and that report must, at some stage, be published. Further interviews will take place with the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary in 10 days’ time, and if that changes something that we write, it will be an addition, not a substitution, because the Committee has unanimously signed off the report that has gone to the Prime Minister. I hope that that is helpful.
It is very helpful. Indeed, we have just learned more from my right hon. Friend in a couple of moments there than we learned from the Foreign Secretary in several attempts to gain information over the past 20 minutes. It is an entirely legitimate process for the Committee to have taken those hearings, done that work and given a different view from that of the Government. It is legitimate for work to be done to try to reconcile those views or to see whether the Committee’s advice should be taken. The problem clearly lies in the eight-month delay before all that started. That reflects the lack of urgency in the process, which did not correspond to the strong statements by the Prime Minister a year ago.
In the context of what we have just heard, and without in any way criticising the Chairman of the Committee, may I say that it is becoming abundantly clear that the information that is being elicited by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is greater than that which we were given by the Chairman of the Committee? Without making any criticism of the current Chairman, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a need to ensure that the chairmanship of that Committee is occupied by an Opposition member?
I am not going to join in any criticism of the Chairman of the Committee, because he gave a trenchant and powerful speech and, as I explained earlier, he has been a good friend of mine for 21 years, and I am not going to be nasty about him just as he is leaving the House. I would not do that anyway, because he was clear in his speech about the difficulties that the Committee has been facing. I have no dogmatic view about where the chairmanship of the Committee should lie. In a Committee of this kind, I think that that depends much more on the individual than on the party that they belong to. Also, I am not sure that the Opposition would necessarily want to take the chairmanship of this Committee, if that meant that they would lose a chairmanship elsewhere in our Committee system. I have no fixed view about that, however, and we can listen to representations about the matter in the future.
I should like to proceed with the procession of tardiness that I was going through in my speech. An even better illustration of it is the fact that the 2008-09 report that we are debating today has already been superseded by the Committee’s next annual report, which it submitted to the Prime Minister a week before he allowed this one to be released, and which was made available to Parliament at about 10 o’clock this morning—at least, that is when I received it, only a couple of hours before this debate began. That is insulting to the House of Commons, to the intelligence services and to the Committee. It is another example of the mounting incompetence that the Government have demonstrated on these matters.
I note that the right hon. Member for Pontypridd has complained about the delay, pointing out that the 2008-09 report is considerably out of date as a result, which also does little to reassure the public and Parliament that we are being kept fully abreast of any relevant issues. In his comments in the report published only this morning, he also complained that it has been
“a matter of grave concern to the Committee”
“independence has been threatened over the last twelve months”.
That is a striking thing for the Chairman of the Committee to feel constrained to say. None of the members of the Committee, from any part of the House, strikes me as being an unreasonable or strident person, so the fact that they could become so angry about a matter that is generally approached in a cross-party spirit of working together speaks volumes about the conduct of Ministers or ministries in that regard.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the tardiness of the Government on the issue might be interpreted incorrectly outside this House as the tardiness of the security services, which would be most unfortunate indeed, given the praise that the Foreign Secretary himself rightly gave?
It would be most unfortunate, although I hope that people would not think that, because they should not. Knowing what I do about our intelligence and security services, and knowing what I do about the Cabinet Office and one or two other Departments, I am 100 per cent. clear where the delay lies, and I assure my hon. Friend that it will not be with the people working in our security and intelligence agencies.
Taking those things together, the Government will continue to be suspected—and quite rightly in many quarters—of wishing to suppress difficult issues or to delay their consideration until after a general election. The intelligence services and the country as a whole will suffer from the Government’s failure to draw a line under the issue. The whole House agrees that, as the Foreign Secretary quite rightly said, torture and complicity in torture are utterly unacceptable under any circumstances. They are contrary to our international legal obligations and contrary to what Britain stands for. The continued allegation that Britain might have been complicit in torture, even in isolated cases, is used against us by those who serially commit human rights abuses and violations.
We have always argued for full investigation of all credible allegations of UK complicity and for action by the Government to draw a line under this episode, but it is much harder when the guidance has not even been published. There is a clear need to find a way to ensure that the problems of recent years have been investigated and addressed—and to do so as expeditiously as possible—and to draw a line, so that the UK intelligence and security agencies can focus on the present and the future, without having to look back to the past all the time. This is a difficult issue, but in that regard we would be inclined to have a judge-led inquiry to ensure that the lessons have been learned and that processes have been changed, where appropriate. The timing of such an inquiry would have to take current criminal proceedings into account and ensure that there is no risk of such proceedings being jeopardised. I know that the Foreign Secretary disagrees with that and is worried about it, but the Government have failed to find any other way of drawing a line, thereby helping the services and agencies to move on and satisfying the public that the issues have been addressed.
Let me turn to some of the issues raised in the 2008-09 report. The most significant development since the House last debated the Committee’s work is the Court of Appeal’s decision in February to order the disclosure of seven paragraphs based on US intelligence information describing aspects of the detention of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mr. Binyam Mohamed. We have always held that the intelligence co-operation relationship between the US and the UK is unique in the world and of immense value to both countries, and that its disruption would have serious consequences for our national security.
As the Foreign Secretary will recall, we have argued in this instance that we could have tried to uphold the principle of control of intelligence while seeking an exception from the United States in the specific case of Mr. Mohamed. We do not know whether that would have succeeded, but it remains our view that it would have been a better course of action than having the matter dragged through the courts, which had the effect of fuelling the accusation that the UK was withholding evidence and exposed our relationship with the US to particular strain. I hope when the Minister winds up that he will comment on whether the Government see the need to take any further action to reassure the House and the United States about upholding the principle of control.
Given all that Ministers have said about the importance of the intelligence relationship with the US—sentiments that we endorse—it is all the more extraordinary that some parts of the Government, albeit not Foreign Office Ministers, have shown something of a cavalier attitude to that relationship in recent months. Commenting on the Detroit bomb plot, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said to the press that
“there was security information about this individual’s activities…that was shared with the US authorities.”
That was interpreted as implying that Britain had shared information that could have averted the attack, breaching the principle that we do not comment on intelligence matters and eliciting an embarrassing dispute about whether information was passed or not.
That is not the way to co-operate with the United States, and nor was the bungling of the Downing street statement of 2 January, in which it was claimed that the Prime Minister had agreed with President Obama to launch a new initiative to tackle al-Qaeda in Yemen. However, the next day, after a senior Obama official said that he was
“unaware of any new joint effort,”
the Prime Minister admitted that the proposal was not new, that
“the truth is we’ve been doing this for some time,”
and that he had “not directly” spoken to Obama since the failed bombings. In our view the relationship with our closest ally needs to be handled in a competent way, in Downing street, as well as by the Foreign Office and our embassies, yet it has not been handled in that way on those intelligence matters in recent months.
On a closely related issue, the report contains significant criticism of the Government’s handling of allegations of rendition flights suspected of leading to torture. We have taken the view that rendition flights leading to torture are unacceptable—of course—and held the Government to the repeated assurances provided by the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) in 2005 and 2006, that
“the US had at no time since 9/11 rendered an individual through the UK or through our overseas territories”.
However, we accepted in good faith the Government’s explanation of events when it was discovered that those assurances had turned out to be false, and that the US had in fact rendered individuals through Diego Garcia twice in 2002. When the Foreign Secretary informed the House of that two years ago, he gave clear assurances that
“For the avoidance of doubt,”
a full list of all flights of concern would be compiled and specific assurances sought from the United States that
“none of those flights was used for rendition purposes.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2008; Vol. 472, c. 548.]
It is therefore extremely concerning that the 2008-09 annual report describes the Foreign Office as
“unable to respond adequately to allegations of UK knowledge of, or involvement in, US rendition flights,”
“there is no guarantee that the information uncovered to date is in fact complete,”
and going on to say:
“This situation is clearly unsatisfactory”.
The report also reveals that the Foreign Office told the Committee that
“records on flights transiting Diego Garcia were only kept for three or five years and are therefore no longer available.”
Given that concerns about rendition flights were raised in 2005, that suggests that records relating to flights in and out of the territory may have been destroyed while Parliament and several Select Committees, including the Intelligence and Security Committee, were scrutinising these issues. Surely it would have been right and proper for the Foreign Office to issue an instruction about record keeping and insist on additional scrupulous recording during that period. Do the Government accept the Committee’s recommendation that
“the UK must be more robust in verifying”
assurances given about the use of Diego Garcia in future, and if so, how will this be done?
On funding, the whole House will be concerned by the Committee’s finding that particular areas of concern are not sufficiently resourced, in particular counter-espionage, and it will want to heed the Committee’s warning that it
“would be concerned if the Agencies were to suffer real-term cuts in the short or medium term.”
The Minister might wish to say at the conclusion of this debate whether the Government accept that counter-espionage is not getting sufficient attention.
The Committee’s report describes “painfully slow” progress—what a surprise!—in implementing the national security reforms announced by the Prime Minister two years ago. It says that the Government’s national security strategy has had
“little direct impact on the focus or nature”
of the work of the intelligence services. The report points out that the national security forum announced by the Prime Minister in March 2008 did not have its members formally appointed until 2010, and questions whether the forum is in fact a necessary part of the national security machinery. Those findings confirm our view that a proper national security council approach is needed, to avoid making decisions and creating committees in such a haphazard way and with such a questionable impact on the overall machinery of government.
As for the work of the Committee itself, we note that
“the Committee has requested a change in host Department in order to ensure that there is a clear separation and to safeguard its independence.”
That request should not be rejected out of hand. The Foreign Secretary said that he would look at it, but it is a bit late to notice that it needs to be looked at. The Committee has been making the case for some time, and there may be only nine or 10 sitting days left before the Dissolution of the current Parliament.
We believe there is a need for greater parliamentary oversight from a strengthened Intelligence and Security Committee. We have presented our own proposals, but there are many variants of those proposals, some of which have been identified by other Members. I think that, after the coming election, any Government will need to take them all into account.
The report that we are considering is very important, as is the other report that appeared this morning. There is an urgent need for the publication of all withheld reports, and indeed for the guidance for which I, along with other Members, have asked. It is probably too late in the current Parliament for Ministers to get their act together on the wide range of matters on which they and their Departments have been criticised in today’s debate, which probably adds to the case for them to make way for Ministers who will. Even if such Ministers were in place, however, they would still have to get their acts together, because the Government have not handled their relations with the Committee, and their dealings with its reports, with any distinction over the past year.
I am very pleased to be able to take part in the debate, because for three of the five years of the current Parliament I had the privilege of chairing the Intelligence and Security Committee.
I echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and others in paying tribute to the ISC’s staff, who do a sterling job. They are committed and dedicated, and I want to put on record the House’s gratitude. I also pay tribute to the retiring members of the Committee: the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman). I count them all as personal friends, and I wish them well in their retirement. I believe that the House of Commons owes them a great debt, and that it will be a poorer place without them.
Obviously I want to mention my successor-but-one as Chairman of the ISC, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary have already spoken of the commitment and dedication that he has given to the job of chairing this important Committee, but we should also bear in mind the work that he has done in Wales for more than two decades as the Member of Parliament for Pontypridd and the work that he did for well over a decade as a Minister in a host of Departments, the last being the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I shall miss him dreadfully, and I know that the House will as well.
An article in The Guardian yesterday—there have been other articles too—suggested that my right hon. Friend might not be independent of Government, but the last hour or two of debate does not reflect that view at all. His speech could hardly have been regarded as that of—to use his word—a patsy. It was a very good speech, critical when necessary and supportive when necessary. Anyone who remembers, for example, his comments on the Lebanon when he was a Foreign Office Minister, or the comments that he has made about Afghanistan over the past few months, will know that it is nonsense to suggest that he is a Government stooge.
A number of Members, including my right hon. Friend, have mentioned the important issue of the independence of the Committee, and I am sure that others will as well. The Committee has nine members, four of whom are members of Opposition parties: the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, and the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway). It strikes me as nonsensical to suggest that a Committee with such members will not be properly critical of the Government or the agencies when necessary. The Committee is not, by any stretch of the imagination, partisan. It does not indulge in party politics for the sake of it. It is composed entirely of distinguished—not yet extinguished—Members of the House of Commons and, indeed, the House of Lords, whose job is to ensure that there is proper scrutiny of the security services and various aspects of Departments of Government, including the Cabinet Office.
The Foreign Secretary will have attended some of the sessions of the Committee in which interviews were held, and he, like other Ministers, will have been interviewed himself. I know from my three years as Chairman that the interrogation—a better word than “interviewing”—of witnesses is extremely robust. It is not discourteous, but it is robust, and it is effective. Having been a member of a Select Committee many years ago, I would say that it is as good as, and sometimes better than, most questioning of witnesses, be they heads of services, Ministers or anyone else. Unfortunately, because the questioning takes place in private, people will have to take our word for it that those sessions are effective and important.
That brings me to the question, which has already been raised, of whether some of the sessions should be held in public. We considered that difficult issue when I was Chairman of the Committee. My personal view is that one or two sessions could be held in public, but by no means all. It would be crazy for all of them to be held in public, because that would destroy the Committee’s effectiveness at a stroke. Some high matters of policy, however, could be discussed in public without any Government secrets being revealed. I understand that such sessions are held in Australia and the United States.
The relationship between the Committee and the House of Commons, and indeed the House of Lords, has changed over the past few years. For instance, the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, opened today’s debate. When I chaired the Committee, I had to wait for the Minister and the shadow Minister to speak before I was given an opportunity to speak myself. On one occasion when speeches were time-limited, I was given only 10 minutes in which to present the whole case for the ISC. That nonsense has rightly been ended, and the Chairman of the Committee now opens the debate, as my right hon. Friend did so effectively today.
I think that there should be more debates on the ISC. Apparently the House of Lords is to have a debate on its report, which is right and proper, but other matters affecting the Committee could surely be debated on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall. There is now an investigator, although it took a long time for the investigator to be appointed. The Commons also has a different relationship from five or six years ago in respect of the appointment of Committee members. Committee members now have to be approved by the House of Commons through a vote, even though they are, of course, subject to the approval of the Prime Minister, who appoints the Committee members who are not Government members on the advice of the Opposition leaders.
I found the host Department issue intriguing. I have read the Committee’s second report—rather belatedly, as it came out only this morning—and it contains the recommendation that the Cabinet Office should no longer be the host Government Department. That would be wise, as certain parts of the Cabinet Office are subject to a degree of scrutiny by the ISC. It would be sensible for another Department to deal with the pay and rations, so to speak, of the Committee and its staff. The appropriate other Department may be the Ministry of Justice, in which case I would not necessarily suggest there would be an improvement in efficiency in respect of pay and rations. When I left the post of ISC Chairman and became Secretary of State for Wales, whose pay and rations are also dealt with by the Ministry of Justice, it did not pay me for a month or two. When I inquired about that, I was asked whether I was a magistrate’s clerk. I said I was not—although I have nothing against magistrates’ clerks. The system the Ministry of Justice had in place was not particularly efficient, but that is not the point: the point is that no part of the host Department should come under the scrutiny of the Committee. I also take on board the point about the budget; that should be dealt with in a similar manner.
If Members read the report, they will learn that parliamentarians from across the world come and look at how the ISC works. When I was Chairman, there were visitors on almost a weekly basis, particularly from newly developing countries in Africa and eastern Europe. They would come and look at how we in the UK deal with the scrutiny of our intelligence agencies, and some of their agencies used to operate under communist, and sometimes fascist, regimes. It is therefore very gratifying to see that the ISC model has been copied across the world. That point must be put on record as well.
It is true that the Committee is critical of not only the Government in office but the services when necessary. There are, I think, 26 conclusions and recommendations in the first report—the report of 2008-09—and at least 12 of them are, to varying degrees, critical of the agencies and Government. It would therefore be wrong to suggest that there is not proper accountability and, when necessary, criticism as well.
The report also says that our agencies do a remarkably good job; in my experience, Committee members have always believed that to be the case. The agencies protect us from death and destruction, and it was my experience as a Northern Ireland Minister that they played a huge part in preventing outrages and death. They have an admirable record of uncovering plots against our people.
There will always be a case for proper scrutiny and criticism when necessary, but the case should always be made that the safety of all those whom we, as Members of this House, represent is hugely enhanced by the effectiveness of our services, and the scrutiny of them is hugely enhanced by the ISC and its members.
May I begin by joining other Members in praising our security and intelligence services? As somebody who has raised concerns over the Binyam Mohamed case and other allegations of complicity in torture, I want to put firmly on the record my party’s support, and also my personal support, for the fantastic work our security services do—whether at GCHQ in examining the vast amount of electronic and other data that have to be analysed, at the Security Service or the Secret Intelligence Service, or through other elements of the intelligence machinery. As other Members have said, the work of our intelligence agencies is increasingly complicated. They do a fantastic job in supporting our troops in Northern Ireland and, through the defence intelligence service, in Afghanistan where they try to work out what the Taliban and the insurgents are doing—real front-line work—or to foil al-Qaeda plots. It is important that this House speaks as one on that. We must make it absolutely clear that our agencies have full cross-party support in performing their critical role.
That is why I welcome this report and this debate. Both the ISC’s reports are very good, and the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) made a powerful speech. I agree with Members who have said it would be very difficult to read the record of this debate in Hansard and then to suggest there are not independent people serving on this Committee holding our intelligence services to account. We need to bury that lie here today.
May I join the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) in giving my apologies in advance: I may not be present for the winding-up speeches. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is raising his hand, too, in which case all three of us will be guilty in that regard. However, I shall read the record of the winding-up speeches with interest tomorrow.
I shall not repeat all the points made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, but I, too, have concerns about the Government’s tardiness in responding to this Committee and to this House. The Government are not delivering on the Prime Minister’s promises of a year ago, and that really is not acceptable, particularly given all the different allegations and adverse press comment, to some of which I and others in this House have contributed. It is not good enough for the Government not to deliver on their promises. Delivering on them would allow us to move forward with much greater public confidence and confidence in this House.
Before I come to some of the more controversial issues, I wish to deal with some of the nuts and bolts of this report. What is so excellent about the work being done by the Committee is that it deals with some of the nitty-gritty that has to be done. Although the ISC should not be an ordinary Select Committee, I am talking about it doing the sort of the work that an ordinary Select Committee actually gets done, including the work on finance and resources. We have heard from the Chair how the support that the Committee gets from the National Audit Office to examine those issues is incredibly important, not least because the amount of money being spent in this area has increased dramatically in recent years. It is important that that is examined.
Other concerns about the nuts and bolts that the Committee reports mention have not been touched on yet, but they include the way in which the staff are recruited and trained. That is fundamental to the workings of the intelligence services, and there is a need to build up the competences and capacity over a longer term. If there is a hint of criticism in the report, it is that an overly short-term approach has been taken in the past to certain areas, such as the defence intelligence services in respect of language competence and so on. That is having to be put right quickly now, and a lot of relatively inexperienced officers are coming into the services. They are doing an incredibly important job without necessarily having the wisdom of more senior people who have spent a longer time in the services. Getting that right and not making the mistakes of the past is important.
I was surprised not to see in the Committee’s report any indication of the co-operation with other services; perhaps aspects of the control principle and other things are going on there. However, I would have thought that given the global threat of terrorism and the fact that tackling it is such a major part of the services’ work, the relationships between our services and those of other countries is important. I am talking not about the allegations of complicity in torture, but about the day-to-day nuts and bolts working. There is a bit about this in the report but if, as I did, one goes to see an organisation such as Europol and the fantastic work that it is doing to bring together the analysis of the threat of terrorism from different organisations, one expects to find more comment on this.
I think that the hon. Gentleman may be referring to the previous report. If he were to look at the 2009-10 report, he would find that a specific section is headed “The exchange of intelligence”. It begins at paragraph 52 and covers precisely the points that he said the Committee did not cover.
I stand corrected although, in my defence, I should point out that the report only came out at 10 o’clock this morning and we have all been running to catch up. I think that the right hon. Gentleman makes a point that his Front-Bench team should take into account.
A theme of the debate so far has been how we reform the Committee. I agree with other right hon. and hon. Members who have said that the issue of independence is not critical, although we could examine it and that aspect could be improved—indeed, the report looks at that. I am talking not only about the appointment of members, although that is clearly important, but how the budget is put together. We could also examine the issue of public hearings, but I do not think that that is the crucial point.
I come to the interventions that I made on the Chairman and the Foreign Secretary now, because I think that resourcing is crucial. Although I welcome the fact that we now have an investigator, that is just one investigator. We have already heard from a very distinguished member of the Committee, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), that what one would assume to be relatively run-of-the-mill investigations have already had barriers put in their way. Thus, there is a concern about not only the resources for the investigatory powers and abilities of the Committee, but how they are viewed by the security services, the Cabinet Office and others who have a say on how resources can be deployed. It is important to come back to that issue, because if the public are to have confidence in the work—if we across the House are to have confidence in it—we need to know that the people we are entrusting with this incredibly important job have all the tools that they need to do it.
Lest people run away with the idea that I am completely uncritical of the Committee, I can say from the experience of supporting one of my constituents that I do not always agree with every word written in its reports. You would perhaps be surprised if I did, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A constituent of mine, Bisher al-Rawi, was in my view illegally rendered from The Gambia, where he was on a business trip, to Bagram airport, where he spent time in a dark hole and suffered torture. He then went to Guantanamo Bay and was there for four years. He was never told what he was supposed to have done and was eventually released.
I worked with my constituent’s family, and eventually with my constituent, from 2002. It was an informative experience. At first, my relationship with the intelligence services was very good, and the officers with whom I dealt were as helpful as they possibly could be, given the restraints and restrictions they were under. I pay tribute to them. However, I felt that when the ISC considered the case of Bisher al-Rawi, which is especially important given the issues and debates around renditions, it was a bit reliant—this came out in the report—on what it was being told by the secret services and it was not really able to question through investigation.
The issue in Bisher’s case was British complicity in his arrest and subsequent rendition—whether the British secret services tipped off the CIA in The Gambia and told the Gambian authorities to arrest him; he had been arrested at Gatwick airport and investigated by the British authorities. In a way, the ISC report gave our services a clean bill of health. I looked at the evidence—
I will let the right hon. Gentleman intervene in a moment. All I would say is that I am sure that reasonable people could consider the same evidence and form different views, but I would love the Committee to have the resources to go after such things. I believe that the Committee was wrong in its conclusion.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The Committee did look at the matter; it looked at all the documents; it looked at the secret signals that were sent on this subject; and it was roundly critical of the United States authorities, because they broke an undertaking, which appears on the bottom of such secret reports, not to divulge them to anyone else. That criticism was as strong as we felt it needed to be, but stronger than some Ministers wanted, because we did not want to upset—[Interruption.] Yes, it is in the report. We concluded that the Americans had broken a long-standing tradition, for which we criticised them. That does not mean that our people were to blame. If the hon. Gentleman has another reason for criticising our security services, that is another matter.
I welcomed the part of the report that criticised the Americans, because no doubt they were at fault in many respects, but I was not completely convinced about our authorities. I shall move on, however, because this is obviously an individual case and I secured an Adjournment debate on it. I used the case to show that, while the ISC does a great job, it needs extra resources to do an even better job.
The House has already heard a number of statements from the Foreign Secretary about issues regarding allegations of complicity in torture. That relates to the debate about guidance. Those of us who are pushing the issue are doing so in the interests of our intelligence services. Much of the concern involves the fact that their reputation is being undermined. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks and I want to pursue the matter to ensure that it is dealt with and a line drawn under it so that we can move on.
Many of us who have had experience of our intelligence services believe that their reputation deserves to be restored and that the criticism levelled at them needs to be answered. I have seen no evidence at all that UK officers have ever been engaged in torture themselves. I am not sure whether that has been mentioned in the debate so far, but let us be absolutely clear: such allegations, which we sometimes see in the press, are completely false. I have never seen any evidence to back them up. Indeed, I have seen evidence that our officers have worked very hard to avoid being complicit in torture, but there are a number of serious allegations. We know about Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer, but there are 12 legal cases before the courts. We have heard about the police investigations with witness B, for instance, and about the second investigation into the MI6 officer. There appears to be evidence—it needs to be questioned and examined—that suggests that there are concerns.
When the seven paragraphs were printed, it was clear that other people in the security service knew about them. It is not absolutely clear when or who, or whether Ministers knew about them, but it seems to me that these are reasonable questions to pursue
I have a slight problem with the Chairman’s criticism of the judiciary in his initial remarks. When senior judges such as the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chief Justice make the points that they have made, it is incumbent on this House to look at them and take them extremely seriously.
An extraordinary statement is contained in paragraphs 151 and 152 on page 43 of the 2008-09 report.
“The Security Service officer who interviewed Mr. Mohamed on 17 May 2002 said that he could not recall whether or not he was aware of the information prior to the interview.”
The reference is to information supplied to our people to the effect that Mr. Mohamed
“had been intentionally deprived of sleep by his captors while in detention”.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to comment on that statement because, frankly, I find it incredible. I simply do not believe it.
The Foreign Secretary shakes his head, because he is obviously about to say that we are debating future guidance. However, the point that I wanted to come to is that the past guidance is not going to be published and so it will not be available to us. In answer to a question that I put to him on Thursday 11 March, the Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that the Government have no intention of publishing the previous documents, even in redacted form. It may be that the members of the ISC have looked at this matter and that they have asked questions and taken legal advice about it, but it is clear that many people both in this House and outside—including very senior lawyers and judges—are concerned that the previous guidance in operation was inadequate and could have exposed some of our officers.
Of course I shall not go into the details of the police investigation, but one point is really important in that context. If officers have acted against the guidance, they may be in a difficult situation: however, if they operated within the guidance and the guidance is found to have been faulty, the heads of the various intelligence services and the Ministers who signed off the guidance have legitimate questions to answer. I asked the Foreign Secretary about that when he made his most recent statement on Binyam Mohamed, but he made it clear that he was going to avoid such questions. This is a very important matter, and those of us who want to ensure that the reputation of our intelligence services is restored and that individual officers are not hung out to dry need to get to the bottom of it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is equally important to ensure that officers are aware of the guidance? In the past, the ISC has had to draw attention to their lack of awareness of it. The task goes beyond determining whether they had been shown the guidance at some point—or, possibly, that they had not been shown it. We need to be sure that they are aware, when they are in a situation in which these issues can arise, that their work must be covered fully by the guidance and that it falls within it. That means that the guidance needs to be agreed quickly, and that this delay must be brought to an end.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are two basic questions about the guidance. First, is it legal and does it ensure that officers who follow it are meeting Britain’s domestic and international legal obligations? Secondly, is it being enforced, in the sense that officers are made aware of it and are trained in it? We must make sure that the operational guidance flows well from the overall policy guidance framework. We may not need to know the operational guidance that officers use on a weekly basis in different theatres, but we must be sure that it is in tune with the overall strategic policy guidance.
I have no doubt that, in due course, the new guidance will meet all our legal obligations and that officers will be trained on it, but the allegations that we know about all relate to the past guidance, so I am concerned that Ministers seem to be dodging that one, and at some stage we will have to get back to it. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said that he was inclined towards some sort of judge-led inquiry, and I am delighted that he has repeated that, because he knows that we share that approach. Yes, there may be issues about its timing, but that is the only approach that will draw a line under this. I do not believe that the alternatives—ISC inquiries or the Investigatory Powers Tribunal—meet the test that will be needed to ensure that all the questions that I have raised are fully answered.
I want to make one or two brief remarks on substantive issues raised by the report. The first concerns intercept evidence and whether that could in due course become admissible. I think that in the 2009-10 report, which I had a chance to scan, there is a suggestion that the work on this is going into the quicksand, and that the Committee feels that it will be all too difficult. If so, I am quite worried, and I would like to hear more of the reasoning behind it. Perhaps those Committee members who speak can justify such comments, but as I understand it, when Sir John Chilcot considered that issue when he was leading a slightly different inquiry from his current one, he said that he thought that it would be possible to make intercept evidence admissible as long as certain problems were dealt with. He seemed to imply that they could be overcome. If something has changed, it is such an important issue for the way in which we debate counter-terrorism policy that we need to learn more about it.
My final point again concerns Binyam Mohamed, but it is about some of the issues that the ISC looked at in relation to generic lessons. It slapped the wrists of the intelligence services for poor record-keeping, and it is quite likely that there has been poor record-keeping. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and others have commented on this over a period of time, but the way in which the papers were not given to the ISC seemed to be not simply a question of poor record-keeping. The Prime Minister himself stepped in to ensure that it did not get all the papers that the courts were getting, but I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he can assure us that that did not happen. However, the distinct impression that we have had from previous debates is that obstacles were put in the way of the ISC getting all the information that it should have received. That would have been a real problem, so I hope that the Minister will reassure me on that point.
That was never the case as far as records were concerned. We looked very hard at this and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that although the record-keeping was very poor, people kept digging back into previous computer systems and discovering material, some of which was hopeless. Eventually we got everything, or at least we assumed that we got everything that there was on the subject. I would not be surprised if stuff turns up in the future, but that would be because of the nature of the record-keeping, not because things were kept from us.
I am happy to take the right hon. Gentleman’s word on that.
This is an important debate. I hope that in the new Parliament we can have a rather quick follow-up, both to allow us to debate the 2009-10 report properly once we have had a chance to look at it, and to debate the guidance, which I hope will be published at the earliest opportunity.
May I begin by echoing the sentiments that have already been expressed about the members of the Committee who are retiring, not only from the Committee but from the House of Commons? The right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who, as my right hon. Friend the Committee Chairman said, is the Committee’s longest-standing member, has been an enormous source of guidance to me during my time on the Committee. I have appreciated his wise counsel and sometimes his convivial company, too.
The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), with his great legal knowledge and ministerial experience, has also been a great addition to the Committee and will be sorely missed. I shall personally miss my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman)—he is a great personal friend but he has also been a fantastic member of the committee. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) is retiring from Parliament, too. I have known him since before he was a Member of this House, when he was an employee of the National Union of Mineworkers at the time of the strike. One thing that can never be said about him is that he is not his own man. In every circumstance in which I have ever known him, he does what he thinks is the right thing to do. He has demonstrated that again today.
I have to say that my hon. Friend can occasionally be funny; on this occasion he was not.
It was also good that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) took part in the debate. He led the Committee very well, with his often understated way of presenting himself. He was a great leader of the Committee and, I am pleased to say, he will still be with us after the next general election, subject, of course, to the electorate re-electing him.
I also want to echo the comments that have been made about the secretariat of the Intelligence and Security Committee. It has gone through a difficult period over the past few months and I do not intend to trail through the entrails of that, but each and every one of its members provides us with a fantastic service. They put in huge numbers of hours above those that they are contracted to, and to preserve the independence of the Committee they have, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd said, put their careers in jeopardy on occasion—not because they have done anything wrong, but simply because they have stood up for the independence of the Committee. I hope that, as my right hon. Friend said, when the Dissolution of Parliament takes place—I hope that the Minister takes note of this—it will not be seen by some senior civil servants as an opportunity to get rid of the current secretariat and put somebody else in before a new Committee is formed. It is important both for the integrity of the future Committee and as a matter of fairness that that does not happen.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) almost invited me to speak on the question of intercept as evidence. I am not saying this as a criticism—I realise that it was difficult for anybody to get to grips with all the information in the time that they had to read the 2009-10 report—but at paragraph 58 on page 19 there is a whole section headed “Intercept as evidence”. The most important thing to draw to his attention is the fact that the Home Office carried out a trial of a system—indeed, some members of the Committee were able to attend sessions of that trial—in which it tried out some cases in a synthesised situation to see how it would work if intercept were used as evidence. As a result, the Home Secretary produced a report, the conclusion of which was:
“The collective view of the departments, intercepting agencies and prosecution authorities engaged in the work programme is that despite best efforts to design, build and test the model, it does not provide a viable basis for implementation, without breaching the operational requirements set out by the Privy Council.”
It is, therefore, not true to say that they threw their hands up and said, “It’s all too difficult.” It was as a result of trying to make a system work that it was concluded that it probably could not.
As one who is still engaged in overseeing the work being done in the Home Office and with the agencies on how effect can be given to the Government’s declared wish to see intercept used as evidence, perhaps I ought to make it clear that there are several models for doing that. The right hon. Gentleman rightly points out the part of the report that states that one particular model, when tried, did not prove to be effective or workable, but work has continued on a range of models.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman who, as Chair of the Justice Committee, has good reason to have in-depth knowledge of the subject. Previously, he was a very distinguished member of our Committee. I am sure that there are alternative models that could be trialled, but it was concluded that the one that was trialled was not workable. I am sure that it is open to the Home Secretary to try other models in the future, but as matters stand, it is not a case of people saying, “It’s all too difficult, we can’t go there.” It is on the basis of evidence that they have arrived at that conclusion.
The first of the two further points I want to make today relates to the whole business in a free society of having secrets. I am reluctant to prod my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), but I shall do so none the less by saying that it is perfectly possible to construct a theoretical argument that a state should never hold any secrets, and I suspect that he might hold that view.
I am glad to see that my hon. Friend does not think that. However, the underlying assumption of many of the writers of the articles criticising our Committee over the recent past seems to be that states should never hold any secrets—or that if they do have any secrets, there should be some means of making them public. I do not know how we could function in that way.
No doubt more will be said about this during the debate, but it has already been pointed out that in reality, in the dangerous world we live in—a world where people are willing to strap on explosives, go into London’s transport system and blow themselves up, along with anyone within a reasonable radius—public safety, state secrets and what we know about what people intend to do are of paramount importance. If we cannot protect that information we are, to be frank, a less safe nation. That may seem a trite and obvious thing to say, but the tone of much of the media criticism levelled against our Committee seems to start from the presumption that it does not really matter whether the state cannot keep its secrets. Well, I beg to differ.
On occasion, we have been given evidence about incidents that might have happened but, mercifully, information was intercepted. That evidence has made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in fear of the true potential for such an incident happening in this country. The state has to hold secrets.
The question then is how we oversee the organisations that hold those secrets. There has been an argument about whether we should use a Select Committee model, or whether the model we have is the right one. I think that there are real reasons why John Major’s Government set up the Committee the way they did. It was not that they did not want effective oversight. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) told the House earlier that they thought long and hard about the matter, giving it a great deal of consideration. What they wanted was an effective way of overseeing what the agencies do, while ensuring that the confidential, secret nature of much of the material was protected. It is because we work in that way that I sometimes think we are unfairly criticised.
I shall describe a few characteristics of our work in order to explain that point better. First, and uniquely, members of our Committee have to sign the Official Secrets Act. I do not think that any other Member, sitting on a committee of any description, is in that position. We do so freely, and we are not complaining, but it provides some indication of not only the personal commitment we have to make but what follows from that—the fact that we have access to classified material, which often cannot be discussed in public, bearing in mind the point that I have already made about the state’s right to hold secrets.
The second point, to which I think the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton referred in an intervention, is that we meet in premises that are suitably secure. We do not meet in the House; we meet in offices that are suitably secure, as my right hon. Friend described them, so that the dialogue that we need to have with the agencies can take place.
The third point for which we draw some criticism is that our reports often contain redactions: things are blanked out. Often, they are figures. We as a Committee try to minimise the number of redactions, because we think it is in everybody’s interest if we publish as much as we can. Indeed, the more that is published, the more people might be reassured about what is going on. However, we recognise that some figures and material of which we are made aware cannot be put in the public domain. The legislation requires that our reports go, first, to the Prime Minister, so we have to inform him of everything that we know, even though that means that, for public consumption, some sections of the report have to be redacted.
I understand why, for a journalist looking at such matters, it must be hugely frustrating to pick up one of our reports and find out that the information that they would love to know and write about simply has not been published. I can understand why Members feel frustrated on occasions, too, but the alternative is to give a less than complete picture to the Prime Minister, and it would be a dereliction of our duty if we did not bring to the attention of the Prime Minister everything that we thought he needed to know—even though some of that cannot be made public.
On the question of whether we should be more like a Select Committee, I would have no difficulty with some of our sessions, when appropriate, being held in public, although I share my right hon. Friend’s concern that, on occasions, they would look rather staged. Let us be honest: there would not be a full, free and frank exchange of information between ourselves and our witnesses, because they would not be able to say in public the things that we would have to discuss in private. Nevertheless, we could do a couple of things in public, and, after the election, were I still to be a Member of the House and a member of the Committee, I would be open to conducting such experiments.
The right hon. Gentleman made a very important point about redactions and the frustrations that exist, and it is worth repeating—I have said it before in this place—that the Committee has the final say on redactions. The statute allows the Prime Minister to seek to redact anything that might affect national security, and only that, but the Committee has to agree. If the Committee were not to agree, it would make that fact public, and no Government would want made public the fact that we insisted on having published something that they did not want, because then the matter would not be about national security; it would be about embarrassment. I make this point because that is precisely what will have to happen with the report we have just submitted to the Prime Minister about the guidance. He cannot take out the bits he does not agree with, because they have nothing to do with national security.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is perfectly correct in his description. It is worth adding that when the Committee is at the stage of discussing with the agencies, or even Government Departments, what should and should not be redacted, we do not take those decisions lightly. There can often be weeks of interchange between the Committee and the relevant agencies as to what is and is not published or remains unredacted. As I said, we have tried very hard to avoid, as much as possible, the need for redaction in the reports we have published, safe in the knowledge that where national security is involved, and we can be convinced that that is the case, that device has to be available to us.
I want to move on to whether we should be a Select Committee. I certainly do not think that we should. In the past few weeks, among the great cacophony of voices that have called us everything from useless to unworthy of the position—many of them I do not hold in a great deal of regard anyway—I was concerned to hear the voice of Baroness Manningham-Buller, who is a distinguished ex-director general of the Security Service. I had no criticism to make of the noble Lady when she fulfilled those duties. She was an outstanding leader of her service, and I admired her enormously. Whenever she met the Committee, she bowed to nobody and gave nothing away in the defence that she mounted on behalf of her service, and we all admired that quality in her. When we needed to be put straight as a Committee—perhaps we had misunderstood something or were simply getting it wrong—she never failed to tell us. We took a great deal of notice of any evidence that she gave. I was therefore surprised to find that she recently suggested that perhaps the time was coming when the Committee should become a Select Committee. On no occasion that I can remember did she make such a suggestion when she gave evidence to our Committee. Indeed—other members will correct me if I am wrong—I seem to recall that on several occasions she praised our work. I find it a little surprising and disappointing that somebody I regard highly and respect makes that suggestion now; had she made it to the Committee at the time, we would have taken it very seriously.
The final point that I want to discuss is our relationships and intelligence sharing, particularly with the United States. In the Binyam Mohamed case—I think the right hon. Member for East Hampshire is likely to cover this in more detail—information that was owned by the United States was sequestered by British courts and then used in evidence. Concerns have been expressed that that might affect the important relationship that we have with the United States in terms of intelligence sharing. Indeed, as recently as this month, the United States director of national intelligence said:
“The protection of confidential information is essential to strong, effective security and intelligence cooperation among allies. The decision by a United Kingdom court to release classified information provided by the United States is not helpful, and we deeply regret it.”
That is a diplomatic way of saying, “We’re very concerned about this, and it may affect the co-operation between us in future.”
Some 12 months ago, an official in Washington put it rather more bluntly to the Committee, saying, “Well, the way things are, we’ll tell you if they’re about to blow up London, but beyond that we’ll have to take it on a case-by-case basis whether we share things with you or not.” [Interruption.] I do not say that to be humorous. It means that the US could hold information about matters that could in the long term lead to a serious incident in this country, but because of what happened in the recent case there would be a reluctance to pass that information on to the UK. That is a serious problem that has to be addressed, and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was right to refer to it.
If my right hon. Friend reflects on what he has just told the House, which I am sure is 100 per cent. correct, will he not pause to think that what he has conveyed is a deliberately menacing message from some official in the United States? We should be told who it was, because it is a threat to the United Kingdom. The US should be reminded that it works both ways.
Will my hon. Friend let me answer in my own way? The second point was made by a senior official who spoke to the Committee on terms of privacy, and I am not going to going to break those terms in the House of Commons or anywhere else.
It is significant, however, that the relationship between us and the United States has deteriorated over the current case to such an extent that the Committee has heard evidence from heads of agencies that they have recently noted a significant decrease in the amount of information that the United States is providing. It is impossible to say whether that is because there is a significant decrease in the information available or whether it is a result of the concerns that have been expressed. Nevertheless, we need to be concerned about it and it worries me greatly. The net consequence is that something could be going on that we do not know about, which could otherwise be prevented. That is a serious matter.
I hope that what I have said has not sounded self-serving and protective of the Committee’s work. I wish to say in conclusion that of all the committees I have been involved with in my political career, which stretches back quite a long way, including some that I might prefer to forget I was ever a member of, the Intelligence and Security Committee is the most meticulous, fair-minded and hard-working. I hope that whatever happens in the general election, it remains that way afterwards.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), with whom I have been happy to serve on the Committee for the past five years. As has been said, I have been on the Committee since it was formed in 1994—16 long years—and I am very proud indeed to have been able to contribute to it over that time. I have enjoyed it and found it stimulating, and it really is good to work with.
I have seen five Chairmen come and go, and I am happy that two of them are here today—from both parties. The point about the Committee is that there is practically no party politics whatever. We are there to do a serious job that is not normally in the party argument. We try to come to the right conclusion having been given a lot of information that no other Committee gets. I happily pay tribute to my two Welsh colleagues and friends, the right hon. Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), for their handling of the Committee in their periods in office.
It is a sadness that this last year of the 16 has been the most difficult, in terms not only of what has been happening, but of a distinct change in the attitude of the authorities in the Government—I will not say Ministers—to what the Committee does and how it goes about its business. I could not set those difficulties out better than the right hon. Member for Pontypridd, but I trust that what he and others said will put an end to the thought, which is much too active in the media, that Committee members are simply puppets or, as one hon. Gentleman said, poodles, of the Prime Minister. I have been described as many things in my life, but never yet as a poodle, and I do not think it is particularly apposite.
I shall speak about that difficulty only briefly, because the Chairman covered it in much more detail, but there has also been a lot of terrorist activity to report on. However, the most difficult matter has been the question and dilemma of torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, to which I will refer as CIDT to spare my teeth. Reading the press, one would think there was no difference between torture and CIDT, because they write only about torture. Torture is absolutely out: we are all clear about that. One must not do any physical harm to anybody in one’s custody if one belongs in a civilised society. The Government do not tolerate it, their predecessors did not tolerate it, and no member of our security and intelligence services tolerates it. That is a given. I hope that nobody doubts those words.
However, CIDT is another matter. Obviously, there are degrees of CIDT, and it is not clearly defined in law, which gives everybody a problem. Some months ago, one judge said that slopping out in jail was CIDT. Slopping out might be degrading, and it might be part of an antiquated Prison Service that is trying to improve itself, but we cannot in any way liken it to torture or talk about it in the same breath. I do not think that anyone would be found guilty of partaking in, or allowing, CIDT if a prisoner who was under investigation had to slop out their cell. There are many gradations of CIDT, which is what has given so many people so much difficulty.
CIDT is not legally defined, but because a case is before the courts, it has been very difficult for the Committee to say much about it—we have been unable to report or comment on it in anything like as much detail as we would have wished. Again, that has led the media to say that we are not speaking out simply because we are puppets. I know that I am not going to persuade some hon. Members, but nothing could be further from the truth, and I hope that when people look at the criticisms in both reports, they will see that when we feel we need to criticise the security services for serious failures, we do so.
Of course my right hon. Friend is right to distinguish between torture and CIDT, but I hope that he would also want to use this occasion to emphasise that the latter is not only about slopping out a prison cell. Cruel and inhuman treatment can amount if not to torture, then to something that is morally repugnant and counter-productive as a means of obtaining reliable truth. That must also be excluded from legitimate activity by the agencies.
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. I have simply said that there is a dilemma, and I shall come to that dilemma later in my remarks.
Before that, I shall address the other fundamental problem, which is that we are sponsored by the Cabinet Office, which provides our staff on secondment from other Departments. This arrangement was fine in 1994, when we started, but since then the development of the supervision of intelligence and the way in which it is administered in government has changed so that more and more parts of the Cabinet Office have been involved in what we oversee and we do indeed oversee some parts of what it does. Matters have come to a head this year, and that has led us to believe that the situation should change. That is why we made a formal request for a change in our sponsor Department. We put it to the Prime Minister who instructed that this should be looked at in detail and this has been followed up with exploratory talks as to how best we could achieve what should be perceived as further steps towards showing our independence.
A small group of us—we are all in our places—including the Chairman, the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and I, met the head of human resources in the Ministry of Justice, which seems a logical Department for us to move to. Although it has no oversight of any of the intelligence and security services, it does have a certain familiarity with what is going on and it is also used to handling several other independent bodies, such as the Supreme Court and others, on which no one could doubt its independence. Being linked to those would have helped.
All have now concluded that there are no practical difficulties that could not be overcome. That is what the Government have said. But what is needed is the political will to make the change. We have urged that it should happen this side of the general election so that the successor Committee—this has been at the forefront of our mind—can get off to the best possible start in the next Parliament without becoming involved in procedural matters and old arguments. It is to my great regret—and, I am sure, that of every other member of the Committee— that the Government’s response today to our 2009-10 report, in which we specifically made these proposals, is simply that issues must be looked at and that they will do so in the future. In other words, they are saying, “Let’s kick the issue into the long grass, wait until after the election and hope it goes away.” That is thoroughly unsatisfactory.
On the issue of the guidance, it seemed to me that we were going round in ever-decreasing circles and starting to dance on the head of a pin because nobody knew what its status was, and I raised that point in an intervention on the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). Let me say—because these are facts and do not need to be hidden—that the guidance was given to us in November. Yes, it took a long time, and there are some reasons for that. It was amazingly complicated. We spoke to the Attorney-General, the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary about it, who are all concerned with it. We also understood how difficult it had been to set out guidance for the security services that would hold water and not be subject to legal challenge, and would also be of practical use. The whole Committee worked very hard on this and we turned it around as quickly as we could. We sent the draft guidance and our response back to the Prime Minister, who had himself said that he was keen to get the guidance out and that we must not mess about any longer. There we were, not 10 days ago, in the Cabinet room with him, when he asked his staff, “Can this be done?” The Cabinet Secretary said, “Yes, it can be done.” Well, it has not been done. That is a matter of great regret to us all because we cannot now debate or consider it, because it is not yet there.
I shall not say what the differences are, because that would not be right, but the fundamental reason is that the Government disagree with one of our conclusions. To be fair, the Government have said that they think that this conclusion misrepresents something that a Minister said to us. That is as maybe, and were it a matter of national security, they would have every right to say, “We’re not publishing this.” I can tell the House, however, that it is not a matter of national security in any way, shape or form; it is a disagreement, which is going to be there because the Committee has signed off the report, and if, as a result of further evidence, which the Foreign Secretary mentioned, we come to another conclusion, or additional conclusions, they will have to be published separately. What the Government refused to publish today will have to be published as it is, because there is no alternative—that is what the statute says.
What a shame it is that publication has been put off just because certain people think that it would be embarrassing. In my view, it would not be embarrassing. There is no harm in having a healthy disagreement with a group of parliamentarians who have looked at a subject and come to a different conclusion from the Government. The real point is that the guidance is still not in the public domain—the public are the real losers. If it gets altered as a result of what the Committee has said, we will all say, “Hallelujah!” Then the public and the House of Commons will be able to see what the original guidance was, what our comments were and what changes were made.
The right hon. Gentleman has described the situation accurately. However, is it not also the case that none of our essential judgments about the guidance and how it should be dealt with from hereon in have been challenged? Ours was a conclusion about how to interpret certain phrases made to us in the past. That is what it is really all about.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The conclusion will not be affected, unless of course the Government choose to change the draft guidance, and if they do, our successors—it will be them now, alas—might well want to come to different conclusions. It is a mess, and it is a pity—and, I have to say to the Government, it was also absolutely unnecessary to go to these lengths to put off what is nothing more than an honest difference of opinion between people on both sides of the House doing their best to get this absolutely right.
On the case of Binyam Mohamed, the guidance, and all that goes with it, is at the heart of what some people suspect happened, what others seem to know happened and what I can tell them did not happen. In our report to the Government in response to the guidance, we included a letter that we wrote to the Prime Minister on 17 March last year. We were concerned about the delays in setting out what was going on as this case rolled on through the courts. We included that letter with our initial findings on the allegations, including in Mr. Mohamed’s case the allegation of complicity in torture, and that letter has been annexed to the review, which stills awaits publication.
The Committee’s letter includes some of the details of Mr. Mohamed’s case in so far as it sheds light on the wider policy issues. Complaints such as Mr. Mohamed’s are, of course, properly a matter for the Investigatory Powers Tribunal to investigate. We advised Mr. Mohamed’s lawyers of that, and I am still surprised that he has apparently chosen not to take up that route. I would also say to all those now calling for a judicial inquiry that that is exactly what we have—a senior judge, Lord Justice Mummery, and his tribunal, which was specifically set up to look at individual cases.
But if that judge is not independent, which judge is? If we are to put the matter in the hands of a judge to make a decision, we have to accept, whoever they are, that they are going to be independent. That judge is ready and willing, but he has not yet been asked.
Yes, but that does not take away from the point that if an individual says that he was mistreated by the intelligence and security services, that is a matter not for our Committee but for the tribunal. The tribunal is ready and waiting, and anyone out there who thinks that they have a complaint can put it to the tribunal.
The Committee looked at the detail of the allegations raised by Mr. Mohamed, but we did not reach any premature conclusions regarding the Security Service or, in particular, regarding witness B. We recognised that the Attorney-General was considering the allegations, and that she might refer the matter to the police. She subsequently did so. If terror suspects are to be considered innocent until proven guilty, we owe that same standard to officers in our intelligence agencies. We must therefore await the outcome of the police investigation before leaping on to the bandwagon of trial by media.
Our letter did, however, severely criticise the agencies’ record keeping, and recommended that certain types of case be referred to Ministers rather than delegated back to officials. We also raised a number of key policy questions that we believe the Government must address—not least the need to make clear to the public the difficulties that officers in our security services face as they try to balance the risk to detainees with the need to safeguard the security of the UK and its citizens. It is a great shame that the letter has got lost in our review, because I believe that what we said in it would have been of help to the House and others and would have put an end to a great deal of uninformed speculation. We could then have had a serious debate on this matter.
I mean that it is in the report that has not been published. It is not lost, but it has got lost in the wash. It will come out when the report comes out, but it is a pity that we do not have it today, because we could have had a more informed debate about all this.
There have been recent allegations that the Security Service has been complicit in torture. The allegations are not that MI5 officers have tortured, but that an individual detained by another country has been mistreated by officers of those countries and that the Security Service was aware of that, and therefore complicit in it. The position is not helped, of course, by the lack of any legal definition in UK law of complicity. The allegations raise key legal, political and ethical questions. Individual allegations are, as I have said, a matter for the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, and not for us. That is a common misunderstanding. We have previously referred individuals to the tribunal. That being said, individual cases sometimes point towards policy failings, or towards structural or systemic failures within the agencies. Those do fall within our remit, and that is why we took this matter up.
There is one further aspect that deals not with facts or evidence but simply with allegations. Mr. Mohamed alleges that he was subjected to extremely serious physical torture in Morocco. We must be clear that the courts have not said that the UK had any involvement, direct or indirect, in that mistreatment. However, the agencies did pass questions to the Americans without knowing where Mr. Mohamed was being held, and there is a question as to whether that involves them, however indirectly, in how he was treated, wherever he was. First, however, we do not have the facts. Secondly, this is, sadly, an unavoidable problem. We do not get told where detainees are being held or how they are being treated by other Governments. The only way in which we could ensure that we were not implicated in any mistreatment, however indirectly, would be not to deal with anyone, and that would leave the UK unable to protect itself.
I do not think that I have ever before commented on—let alone criticised—the remarks of a member of the judiciary. They are as proud of their independence as we should be of ours. However, the remarks of Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, in a judgment that received much publicity, are worthy of comment. The House will recall the huge controversy that arose when the first draft judgment and the counsel for the Foreign Secretary’s letter were leaked to the press, and I shall not go into that further. In the final draft judgment, Lord Neuberger said that
“some security services’ officials appear to have a dubious record relating to actual involvement and frankness about any such involvement with the mistreatment of Mr. Mohamed when he was held at the behest of US officials. I have in mind in particular Witness B but the evidence in this case suggests it is likely there were others”.
As Jonathan Sumption QC said in his letter to the court, that was an astonishing thing for a judge to say without giving anyone a chance to explain themselves. I hope that if I ever found myself before Lord Neuberger and I made allegations, he would require me to substantiate them with evidence. I hope, too, that if allegations were made against me, I would be given a full opportunity to answer them and to produce evidence to the contrary before he came to make a judgment. How those remarks can fail to have some effect on the case of witness B, should it come to court, is another matter. That he has already been linked by so senior a judge with having “a dubious record”—
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but we obviously have to be careful about matters that are sub judice. I trust that he is aware of that and is taking it into consideration.
I am indeed aware of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I am not talking about the case; I am simply talking about the judgment made about the release of information. I have come to the end of my speech, but Lord Neuberger has alleged that witness B has “a dubious record” and has lacked “frankness”, which is a strange way of keeping people’s minds open in the outside world, as a case potentially comes before a court.
Let me finish by saying that I hope that over the 16 years of its life the Committee has shone some light on the way that the services necessarily have to operate. Over those years, in many visits and in many parts of the world, I have never found a set of men and women more dedicated to the defence of our country. Long may they continue that dedication with our help, not our interference.
I shall follow up some of the remarks made by the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), but first let me make an apology. As I have informed the Chair, I have to leave at 4.15 pm for a constituency engagement. I regret that I will not be here for the winding-up speeches or to listen to other hon. Members, and I apologise for that.
The Chairman of the Committee made some critical remarks about some Members of Parliament, the media and the judiciary for criticising the security services. I only say that I would not wish to live in a country where that freedom was undermined in any way whatever. As Members of Parliament who are not on the Committee, we have a responsibility, along with the media, to criticise when we consider it appropriate to do so, and we are all responsible for our remarks. As I might be considered something of a critic, let me make it clear straight away that I am not criticising individual members of the ISC. However, I have a number of reservations about how the Committee was formed in the beginning and about how it continues. I would like the Committee to conduct its activities somewhat differently, something to which I shall return in a moment.
However, at no stage would I want to give the impression that I minimise the acute terrorist threat facing this country. Even if 9/11 in the United States or 7/7 in this country had not occurred, I would certainly recognise that there is an acute terrorist threat. As we know, it is also an ongoing threat, and there is no guarantee—far from it—that the horrors and atrocities of 7 July 2005 could not be repeated. It is difficult to make a distinction, and I do not see any reason why one should, between one form of mass murder and another. The IRA terror campaign, which took the lives of so many innocent people, whether service personnel or civilians, as in the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974, involved crimes and atrocities. What is different about the latest terrorist threat is that we are dealing with religious fanatics who actually glory in death, and who believe that paradise will be reached through mass slaughter. No one, I hope, could accuse me of minimising the terrorist threat.
Of course I accept that the security services carry a heavy responsibility in trying to prevent such atrocities. Even if we were not faced with terrorist threats, as we have been over the past 30-odd years, it would be right for our parliamentary democracy, like other democracies, to have agencies to help and defend the country against those whose purpose is the destruction of our rights and liberties—not necessarily through terrorism, but politically.
I was critical to some extent when I spoke in the debate on the annual report two years ago, but what concerns me particularly on this occasion is the mention by the right hon. Member for East Hampshire of allegations of torture. No Member has suggested that British security officials have been directly involved in torture; no one has made any such accusation. Torture certainly took place in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, and we know only too well how counter-productive it was. As many Members have said, including Conservative Members, it served as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA. This is a different accusation: that British security officials have engaged in a form of complicity when torture has taken place and people have been detained, be it in Pakistan or the United States.
The right hon. Member for East Hampshire quoted the judgment of the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger. Let me do so as well. Lord Neuberger said:
“Yet that does not seem to be true: as the evidence in this case showed, at least some SyS officials”
“appear to have a dubious record when it comes to human rights and coercive techniques”.
Of course we must take that seriously. The right hon. Gentleman was critical of the Master of the Rolls, but I am not at all critical of him. He must have reached his conclusion on the basis of evidence in his possession. It is not likely that he would make such remarks lightly, so he must have had a very good reason to make them. That is why I believe that the right hon. Gentleman was wrong to criticise him.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will listen a little more carefully when I repeat what I said. I did not criticise Lord Neuberger’s remarks; I criticised the effect that his remarks would have. He said
“I have in mind in particular witness B”.
Witness B is a person who has not yet been charged with anything, and who is under investigation by the police and the Attorney-General. No one has heard his side of the case, least of all Lord Neuberger. This is what I am saying. What effect will that have should witness B come to trial?
Order. Obviously I am not as well versed in these matters as the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), but let me again counsel that we tread very carefully on matters that may eventually be dealt with in a trial.
I understand your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the right hon. Gentleman said that he was not criticising the judge for his remarks, and he must have been criticising him. He said “Look at the effects that that may have on the security services.” As for Binyam Mohamed—not witness B—the allegation that he made was not a matter of sleep deprivation. It was accepted by a judge in a federal court in Washington that Binyam Mohamed was telling the truth about the tortures that had been inflicted on him, including mutilation of his genitals. Is that not a matter of the most serious concern? That is why a number of Members and the media have been asking questions over the past few months. We believe that they are very important questions indeed. What degree of complicity, if any, did British security officials have in such incidents of torture? What knowledge did they have? These questions will continue to be asked.
The former head of MI5, Lady Manningham-Buller, said last week that the Americans did not let on what was being done to suspects. She also mentioned that someone had been waterboarded 160 times. We all agree that that amounts to torture, although we do not know whether British security officials from MI5 or MI6 knew about the case.
Whether or not all or any of the suspects are innocent is not the relevant point. I do not know whether any of these people who have been detained are innocent or guilty, and it is not my job to know. It is to be hoped that that is for a court of law to decide. That is not the issue here, however. The issue is not their guilt or innocence. The issue is to do with torture and whether our country—in one form or another, and however indirectly—has been complicit in that torture. That is why this issue is so important.
Paragraph 147 of the 2008-09 report contains a quote from Lady Manningham-Buller, in which she said to the Committee that “with hindsight” she regretted not seeking full reassurances over Mr. Mohamed’s case. That is a rather interesting observation from a former head of MI5. All is not fine, therefore, even though the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, the Chairman and members of the Committee might give us the impression that that is the case—that there is no need to worry, that all the information was given to the Committee accordingly, and that the rest of us should not be at all concerned.
I was one of the Members who argued before the ISC was established that there should be some parliamentary accountability of the security services. There was a Conservative Government at the time, and I was told that that was out of the question and that the work of the security services was confidential because they were dealing with terrorism and so forth. I was told it was simply unrealistic for Members such as myself to argue for parliamentary accountability. Some of these debates may have taken place before my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) entered the House; that was, I believe, in 1986 or thereabouts. I was, of course, very pleased when, in due course, MI5 and MI6 were placed on a statutory basis. That was a very good step. I was also pleased when the ISC was formed. I served on the relevant Standing Committee at the time, and Labour Members argued that the new Committee should be more like a Select Committee, although we knew very well that that was most unlikely to happen—some of us realised that it would not happen under a Labour Government, too.
Given this history, however, when some of us argue that the ISC should move somewhat further in that direction by having public sittings, for instance—and that there is, perhaps, a case for having a Select Committee—our views should not be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, the former head of MI5, Lady Manningham-Buller, has suggested this. I accept, as I said in an intervention, that the bulk of the work must undoubtedly be undertaken by a Committee in secret session; even if there were a Select Committee, I would not, for one moment, suggest that much of the work scrutinising the security services should be done other than in private. However, I believe, rather strongly now given what has occurred over the past 12 months, that there is a pretty strong case for public sessions. I find it a bit odd that the head of MI5 can write an article in The Daily Telegraph, the Chair of the Committee can respond favourably and other comments can be made, yet at the same time we are told that these sorts of views cannot be put before a Committee publicly. If the head of MI5 can write an article putting forward the views of his organisation and defending his organisation, as one would expect him to do, why cannot he do that in Committee in a public session? It is difficult to see why that should not be done.
I do not think that any of us would argue that the director general of the Security Service should not have the ability to express a view in public, either in speeches he may make or articles he may compose. The argument is that those are, self-evidently, issues that can be discussed in public whereas a lot of the evidence he may give to our Committee amounts to things that ought not to be discussed in public. We draw a simple distinction between the two, and I do not think that my hon. Friend disagrees with us on that.
Perhaps not, but I do take the view that there is a sort of consensus—I am not sure whether it includes the Chairman of the Committee or the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, but it perhaps includes the Foreign Secretary—that the Committee needs to move on. If we accept, as I do, that the bulk of the work should be done in private—even my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) would, in the main, agree with that assertion—and if we are going to move on, we should give careful consideration in the new Parliament as to how the ISC should function.
I started by saying that I do not have any criticism of individual members of the Committee; my criticisms relate to the Committee itself and the perception that it has. There is a need for the public and certainly for parliamentarians to recognise that it is doing the work that it was established to do—providing scrutiny of the security services. That should be done in a way that ensures that we have more confidence that the Committee as a whole—this is not a matter of individual members of the Committee—is doing the work that is essential in a parliamentary democracy. I look forward—I may still be here—to a new Parliament that gives much further and serious consideration as to how the Committee functions accordingly.
May I begin by making it entirely clear, and perhaps creating a precedent, that I have every intention of being present for the wind-ups this evening? Our intelligence agencies have much in common with intelligence agencies in other parts of the world, but there are certain differences. Baroness Manningham-Buller made a very good speech a couple of weeks ago, in which she said:
“The head of the French intelligence service made a speech…in which he…complained that the British…had a glamorous and seductive word for the covert collection of information. The British called it ‘Intelligence’ whereas in France…at least one of the security intelligence agencies laboured under the dull title of ‘General Information.’”
I can only express my relief, in the interests of transparency, that we are not discussing the report of the general information committee—that at least is to be welcomed.
I wish specifically to examine the question of alleged complicity by the security services in certain unacceptable behaviour. My starting point is the Committee’s report, which indicates that when the Committee originally considered the question of rendition in 2007, it did not receive information that subsequently, in 2008, the Security Service, followed by the Secret Intelligence Service, suddenly discovered. That is made quite clear in the report, which says that that information was made available only because the papers had been discovered when MI5 and MI6 were preparing for judicial review by the Court of Appeal, or by a court.
That raises the question as to why, when MI5 and MI6 were about to have to defend themselves in a court of law, where anything potentially improper or any misinformation to the court would have had extremely serious consequences, they appeared to take the time and trouble to establish from their internal records what information they possessed. However, when they gave evidence to the ISC, that somehow did not occur. The Committee has made it clear that, in its view, there was no deliberate intention to withhold from it the information in question.
I do not know whether it is true; I hope it is. I was rather puzzled that the director general of the Security Service said in response to those concerns, “I cannot fully explain”. I can understand that he did not know to start with, but I would have thought that, by the time the matter had been investigated, he of all people should have been able to “fully explain” why those matters had not been identified in the initial search and put to the knowledge of the Committee.
This problem involves not just this particular case. If this were purely an isolated matter, one might not need to spend too much time on it, but if the reason given by the security services as to why those papers were not identified is that their internal information retrieval systems are so poor, in such disorder and so disorganised that these things just happen, and if the security services cannot either prevent them from happening or, in the longer run, explain why they have happened, we must assume that this arises not just in the case of Mr. Binyam Mohamed. If we are to accept what the security services have said, this must be a general problem that refers to all the information that they hold.
I note that that is what the security services have said. I very much endorse the view expressed in the Committee’s report, which is:
“The Agencies’ operational work is about knowledge and information, and the ability to retrieve such information is central to the work with which they are charged.”
It goes without saying that an intelligence agency that spends a huge amount of time, resources and effort in collecting information, but then says, “We are unable to identify it within our own records,” when it might be operationally desirable to do so has a lot of explaining to do. This matter should never have been allowed to reach that stage. If the agencies say that that problem is now in the past, I very much hope that that is right. If it is not, they need to be given the help, resources and support to ensure that their retrieval systems are so improved—within weeks, not years—that such a problem will not recur. That is a crucial consideration.
I come to the second of the three areas that I wish to comment on, which is very much in line with what my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) said: we have to get the problem of whether there has been any complicity in improper behaviour into perspective. We are taking part in this debate in the aftermath of the Bush Administration in the United States quite explicitly giving authority to their interrogation officials to perform what was euphemistically described as “coercive” interrogation—similar language was also used—which by any normal standards meant “torture”.
Enhanced interrogation, coercive interrogation—various phrases were used to try to avoid saying the dreaded word “torture”. However, when there is waterboarding and a series of other such practices and when it is stated that as long as permanent, irreversible physical damage to the person concerned is not inflicted, such behaviour does not constitute torture, that is an absurd use of language and they are matters of some alarm.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire and others have said, it is a matter of huge satisfaction and relief that there is not the slightest suggestion from any quarter that employees of this country’s agencies have ever tortured anyone or carried out cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. There is no suggestion either that they have asked for that to be done by other people, but the ISC report nevertheless sets out two problems identified by the documents that were eventually released in the case of Binyam Mohamed.
The first was that the UK agencies had information that Binyam Mohamed had been subject to extreme sleep deprivation. That was obviously a matter of some concern, but the more important and disturbing problem is revealed in paragraph 152 of the report. Although the UK agencies had received the information about Mr. Mohamed, the Committee states:
“There is no record that the Security Service took any action on receipt of this information”.
However, the report goes on to say not only that the service
“continued to provide US liaison with background information”
but that it provided the US authorities with questions that it wished
“to be put to Mr. Mohamed, up until April 2003”—
that is, the following year.
If the report is correct, it suggests that our security services were aware that Mr. Mohamed had been subject to what presumably would be described as cruel and degrading treatment but that it was willing to ask for questions to be put to him, even though it did not know that the treatment had been concluded. So far as the security services knew, the treatment might have been continuing: if it was, then there is a case to answer with regard to the question of complicity. I very much hope that those are not the facts of the situation, but they would be consistent with the ISC report.
I happily respond to my hon. Friend. Our security services might know that a detainee who continues to be detained had been subjected to torture or cruel or degrading treatment in the past. However, if an opportunity were to arise for one of our security service officials to put questions to that detainee, I do not believe that that should be ruled out simply because of past behaviour by personnel who are citizens of other countries working on behalf of other agencies in other parts of the world. If there is any doubt about whether such treatment is still going on, however, that introduces the question of complicity. That is quite a different matter, and that is where the line needs to be drawn.
That brings me to the third and final area that I wish to comment on. It is that, whatever judgment we make on the matters that have been discussed so far, we will always face a huge dilemma about sharing information. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire has said—and it is not a matter of dispute—the UK security agencies are a crucial part of the equipment that we have to prevent acts of terrorism in this country. They therefore have to be able to co-operate, and the sharing of information is a crucial part of their armoury. It just so happens that, for those of our agencies that are trying to deal with al-Qaeda or forms of Islamic extremist terrorism, the other intelligence agencies that are most relevant and likely to have information of real value are those of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—not to mention the US itself. Without doing enormous damage to the objectives that we have asked our security services to carry out on our behalf, we cannot have a blanket ban on co-operation with other intelligence agencies just because it is well known that many of them torture those under their control, or carry out activities of another kind.
How do we get the balance right? What do we do to square the circle and reconcile these two conflicting objectives? Baroness Manningham-Buller said that we have to ask for assurances and that she sometimes wishes that more had been asked for. I have no doubt that assurances are important, but I hope that I am not misunderstood when I say that it would be very unwise to rely too much even on assurances. If I were given absolute assurances by the Saudi, Pakistani and Egyptian intelligence agencies that they never tortured their prisoners or a particular detainee, frankly I would not believe it, because it is contrary to the huge amount of evidence that exists that that is precisely what they do in many cases when they think it appropriate. Simply asking for assurances might be thought to cover oneself if they are forthcoming, but the reality is that they are not worth very much. No intelligence agency will say, “Well, seeing as how you ask, yes you are quite right, that is exactly what we have done. We have tortured the prisoners under our control.” They will not say it. Why should they, from their perspective?
I therefore come back to the approach that is required, and it has two ingredients. First—I will qualify this in a few moments—we have to trust the agencies. Those who work in the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service are people of the highest quality, and, I believe, overwhelmingly, of the highest integrity and professionalism. When we have people of such calibre, we have to trust them to a very significant degree to carry out their responsibilities in accordance with the rules, requirements and norms of a civilised society. All the evidence we have is that that is overwhelmingly what happens. Secondly, and perhaps in their own interests—undoubtedly in their own interests—they have to have guidelines. They have to be given by the Government, by the country that they serve, and set the framework within which they need to operate. Not only do they have to receive guidelines, but the guidelines have to be published. They have to be a matter of public knowledge so that the country is aware of what is happening, what might happen and what should not happen. With such a framework, we would be reassured.
The right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) paid a deserved tribute to his fellow members of the ISC. As I mentioned earlier, I was involved with the then Prime Minister, John Major, in the deliberations that took place when the Committee was first established. While it is indeed the case that we concluded that it was more appropriate to have a Committee separate from the Select Committee system and to go down that alternative route, there was a reason for that, which I do not believe is as persuasive a reason now as it was then.
Within only a relatively short period, the very existence of the intelligence and security agencies, MI5 and MI6, had been declared for the first time. For them to be told that they would also be subject to oversight by a Committee of MPs posed a real question as to whether they would feel sufficiently confident that they could open up in a significant and comprehensive way with such a Committee if it was seen as merely part of the Select Committee system that the House had at that time. Therefore, giving it a distinctive identity, making it a Committee of parliamentarians that was not answerable to the House in the same way as other Committees, and having its membership essentially appointed by the Prime Minister, with all the other safeguards that were introduced, created the reassurance at that time, 16 years ago, that this was an innovation worth introducing that did not pose a threat to the security agencies.
We now have the benefit of the experience of those 16 years. I am second to none in paying tribute to the independence of the members of the ISC, including its current membership, who, for reasons that have been mentioned by others, have demonstrated by their own actions, as have their predecessors, their independence and determination to carry out their responsibilities in a way that everyone would give them credit for. However, there is an additional objective and that is that the Committee must be seen by the British public and by all with a legitimate interest in these matters as an independent Committee. I think that it is, but I can understand why some question that and why some perceive the matter to be unresolved.
I do not think that the intelligence agencies would be unduly concerned if the Committee, which has evolved in a significant way already over the past 16 years, was to continue to evolve in a way that recognised the point I made a few moments ago. I do not think that anyone would dispute that the members of the Committee, for example, should have to continue to sign the Official Secrets Act. They should have been chosen in such a way that ensures that, as individuals, they have a reputation for integrity and independence that will be a reassurance to the Prime Minister, the Government and the agencies. The rules under which they operate should mean that in the vast majority of cases it is right and proper that their evidence is taken in private. That does not necessarily mean that they cannot make up a Select Committee with ultimate responsibility to this House.
We have it within our power when we create a Select Committee to agree the constraints under which it should operate. If a particular committee needs all the safeguards that the ISC has but, instead of it being a Committee outside the structure of this House, it is ultimately answerable, albeit with the constraints to which I have referred, I would not see it as a threat to the security agencies or as an impediment to their full co-operation with the Committee. It gives that little bit of significant extra reassurance to the outside world—by which I mean the citizens of this country—that these matters are being dealt with.
At a time when Parliament is spending more time than ever before seeking to reassert the importance of Parliament against the Executive and to win back some of the powers that have been lost to the Executive over the years, I see no obvious reason why, with the qualifications that I have enthusiastically accepted, the Intelligence and Security Committee should not be part of that reform process. I hope that those who have expressed a different view will not have closed minds on this subject and will at least be willing to explore how this could be done in a way that would meet the real and legitimate concerns that they expressed in their remarks.
In the years that I have been in the House of Commons, I have taken part in most of these debates—more or less annually, but there have often been some large gaps between the publication of the reports and time being found to discuss them in the House. They have been a very important part of my parliamentary calendar.
I think and hope that this will be my penultimate speech to the House of Commons, as I hope to have another opportunity to speak. It allows me to reflect on the period I have been attending these debates. I have always caught the eye of the occupant of the Chair, because they are not very well attended—yet one of the most critical areas of our role and responsibility in the House of Commons is to scrutinise this work. Fortunately, as I say, there is always room to get in.
I want to make it abundantly clear—I am amazed that somehow people infer some doubt about this—that I fully recognise the outstanding professionalism, dedication and courage of hundreds of men and women in our security and intelligence services. I say that without qualification. I accept that parliamentary colleagues spend an enormous number of hours deliberating in the Committee and on their preparatory work, and I respect that. I have never, ever doubted it. However, there are areas for criticism and for encouragement to change, not just in relation to the Committee. There are also areas where we must scrutinise and severely criticise the stewardship of some aspects of our security and intelligence services by persons whose names, by definition, I do not know but whose conduct, in my view, requires further and ongoing scrutiny.
Having said that, it would be remiss of me not to dwell for a moment on something that we in the House of Commons should jealously safeguard. I raised this point earlier with Sir Alan, who clarified the position, but it still needs to be said. It really is outrageous that the 2009-10 report was published this morning, and that there was a presumption—made largely by the Privy Counsellors in this place—that everything could be scooped up and debated together: the debate outlined on the Order Paper, on the 2008-09 report, could be conflated with the debate on the 2009-10 report and the two dealt with at the same time.
I put the problem simply: approximately 600 MPs do not know of the existence of the 2009-10 report because they are not here in the House of Commons today. When I went to our own dear Vote Office—I make absolutely no criticism of its staff—to ask for papers for today’s debates, I was given the 2008-09 report; only when I came into the Chamber and listened to the Chairman of the Committee did I realise that there was another document worth looking at.
It is a mickey-take of Parliament when that sort of thing happens and I just wonder who is to blame. Will anyone own up to that cavalier handling of Parliament? We need to watch that in the future. To be candid, I think it is indicative of the cavalier way in which the scrutiny of our security and intelligence services has been dealt with by a number of people, including Ministers and, I have to say, my colleagues on the ISC. They could have kicked up rough, protested and raised the matter earlier today with the Leader of the House of Commons, saying that Parliament had not had enough time to consider the 2009-10 report. Of course, the vein running through everything I will say is the culture in the security and intelligence services of treating this place with contempt and bouncing things through. That is the real problem. Many of the remarks made by others, although they have not said that, buttress my case that there is an unhealthy, dangerous and undemocratic culture in our security and intelligence services. I will amplify my argument and justify it in my comments today.
I hope that my hon. Friend is not assuming—he would be wrong if he did—that the Intelligence and Security Committee was party to the late delivery of the report to this House. We were informed by the Prime Minister that it would be delivered yesterday, in good time for Members to read before this debate. It was not delivered, but it is not the Committee’s fault that it was not delivered. I very much hope that he will take that seriously.
I most definitely do take it seriously, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for intervening. He says that he had a promise that the report would be available yesterday, but does that make it any better? The fact is that the document should have been available for a reasonable period. It was not available— with full knowledge and consent, he knew that, so why did he not kick up rough with the Leader of the House, who was here earlier, and say that the situation is outrageous? Why were we bounced into acquiescing in this disregard for parliamentary procedure? If he reflects on his intervention, my right hon. Friend will see that it buttresses my point, rather than gives some legitimate excuse for what has happened.
Why do I say that there is a culture of secrecy and contempt of Parliament? It is worth revisiting something I have told the House before, about the time I put down a question to the Prime Minister asking who is the Clerk of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The reply came back, “We’re not going to tell you. It’s a secret.” In fact, late one night, as I was reading the civil service handbook, as one does, it fell open and I found that the Clerk was named there. This story is treated with a degree of levity, and I have laughed at it myself, but there is a serious point: what happened is indicative of that secret culture.
Did others notice that, earlier, the Foreign Secretary let out the fact that Intelligence and Security Committee is going to be away next week? Now, certainly a few years ago, it would have been considered unbelievably reckless for him to declare that.
The hon. Member for Kensington Pentlands, or something or other, says, “It still is.” I thought so, too, but then other people compounded the fact, so everybody knows that the Committee is away next week somewhere. I remember being at the Members’ entrance a few years ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) was there, along with a few other people. I passed pleasantries. They were all looking rather sheepish, and they got into a white van. I thought it rather amusing and wondered where they were going. I discovered, of course, that they were going off on Committee business.
That secret culture makes the whole thing a nonsense. People should focus on the things that really matter—real security, of which I am very mindful at this time of grave peril to our national security. I need no lessons in recognising that there is a very grave situation internationally. The threat of terrorism is real both from al-Qaeda and similar groups and also in terms of Northern Ireland. I am very concerned about the gravity of the situation, but sometimes people play games and do not focus on what really is important.
I have acknowledged the work load of my right hon. Friend’s Committee and the dedication and diligence of its members, but a theme of this afternoon’s debate has been whether it could or should be a Select Committee. If we were to revisit these annual debates in which I have taken part, we would find that, very early on and for many years afterwards, when I even suggested that it become a Select Committee, there would come from the direction of Hampshire a reaction implying that I was stark staring bonkers. I see a chink today, because other people have talked about the Committee possibly being a Select Committee. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who is not in his place now, rightly said that it is not the title that matters, but the Committee’s function.
All that I have said, consistently, has been much in line with the things that some Members have uttered today but did not before. Of course we would have special ground rules for any Select Committee that absorbed the ISC’s function, and of course much evidence would be given in private, and so it should be, but what has been refreshing today is the acknowledgement by some sensible Members that there is scope—I think that is the word—for some hearings to be held in public.
I am sorry, but I hope the hon. Gentleman was not trying to put words in my mouth. I would never have used the phrase “stark staring bonkers” in his context. All I would say is that he has been absolutely consistent in his arguments—despite all the facts that we have. That is my criticism of him. If we were able to construct a Select Committee, would we not advocate it, given the grief that we have had from the Cabinet Office over the past year? We have considered the proposal, and there are many factors about which the hon. Gentleman, who is becoming impatient to reply, does not know or, if he does, does not accept. If it were possible to construct a Select Committee, that would be fine. He might now refer to me again with that phrase, but I still do not think that the proposal would be possible or make the Committee any better than it is.
The right hon. Gentleman is incapable of recommending that, because although he is a very nice man he is deeply conservative. He has reaffirmed my view that there is resistance, although it is notable that some of his colleagues have departed from his view this afternoon.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I think that you have presided over similar debates, so you will remember how I have referred in the past to a “dotty document”. Some years ago, there was a document that was almost 30 per cent. dots; now, the dots have greatly diminished and progress is being made. I rejoice in the fact that, at this stage, things are beginning to change and there is an argument for greater scrutiny. The very important thing that the Committee Chairman and even my good friend, the conservative right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), have acknowledged is that the new Committee needs a new home and the Cabinet Office should not provide its secretariat. However, I take encouragement from the hon. Member for Westminster—
Kensington and wherever, yes. Pentlands, isn’t it? He spoke very well in saying that the Select Committee approach could be taken. If we are on a journey to that destination—I am sure, as night turns into day, that it is going to come about—there is the question of the secretariat of the Committee. The right hon. Member for East Hampshire talked about finding a new home at the Ministry of Justice. Why not leapfrog that so that the matter lies with the Clerk of the House of Commons? The secretariat may well need special accommodation, but that can be removed from the Charles Barry building—the parliamentary estate can be wherever one likes, with all the modern technology and security devices as regards eavesdropping, security of documentation and so on. It would be a wonderful leap forward if its location were vested in the Clerk of the House of Commons, with all the obvious reassurances to the intelligence community that there would be security. That could be achieved. Why go to the Ministry of Justice? Why not bring it to the legislature, which would be so healthy in reassuring those of us who feel concern as regards the democratic test in relation to these areas?
Surprise was expressed that when Baroness Manningham-Buller became a Member of Parliament, she expressed the view that the Committee could be a Select Committee. One of our colleagues, in the way that I interpreted the tone of his comments, seemed to be saying, “That’s a bit much.” He seemed quite hurt that she had never uttered that comment when she was on the other side and under scrutiny in the Committee. But it was not her role to do that. I just think it is wonderful that she now says that it can be a parliamentary Committee: what a healthy development that is.
I said that I wanted to deal with the nature of the Committee and our rubrics today, which are wholly inadequate in that we are being bounced into also considering the other document, the 2009-10 report. The other area that I want to touch on is the work that our colleagues have done, very enthusiastically and diligently, in terms of scrutiny. We have heard that some files were lost, and that is mentioned in some of the documentation. In using the term “files” I am referring to electronic data and so on. It is breathtaking and inexcusable that the intelligence agencies do this. I also have to tell the House that I find it unbelievable.
One of my colleagues remarked in response to something I said from a sedentary position, “The hon. Gentleman is sometimes funny, but that is not funny.” I did not mean what I said to be funny; I was referring to the fact that there is a culture in the security and intelligence services—there always has been, and I believe that it endures today—that is really quite menacing and threatening to our democratic values. It does not apply to everybody, but there is a minority. This year, there have been inspired smearings of people such as the late, great Jack Jones and the late, great Michael Foot, trying to imply that they were somehow less than patriotic. We demonstrably know from archive material that that was being said, but I think that it is even being pump-primed today, for reasons we can only guess.
I believe that a very small minority of people in the security and intelligence services think they are omnipotent —that they can decide what is in the interests of the United Kingdom exclusively, without regard to parliamentary and other values. Let me buttress my case, because people might say, “Mackinlay, you can’t just say extravagant things like that.”
However, I say to those people that they should look at the speeches of Mr. Evans, the head of MI5. He has made a number of speeches on various states that are active in gathering political intelligence. What is political intelligence? I fully accept that some research, development and attempts to find out what our potential adversaries are doing are essential to our national security—that is intelligence; it is core business. What is not core business, for Mr. Evans or anybody else, is when he tries to decide whose views people in a democracy should seek, what they should read and when they should meet people, particularly when those people are members of a legislature. That is an affront to democracy, and Mr. Evans needs to have his knuckles rapped.
Parliament needs to ask another question. There is no interface between Members of Parliament and the security and intelligence services, save the Committee in question, which is not a parliamentary Committee. However, Mr. Evans and his colleagues have a complicated but interesting rubric whereby they talk to the press. It is all right for them to talk to, communicate with and meet the press, but never Members of Parliament. That is wholly indefensible and very dangerous to our body politic and our democracy, and I hope that it might one day be addressed by either the existing Committee or its successor parliamentary Select Committee.
I wish to refer to one or two matters that our colleagues have drawn to our attention in the report with which we should be dealing exclusively—the annual report of 2008-09. Page 8 states:
“The Committee had previously been told that it was ‘very unlikely’ that GCHQ would ever be able to meet the performance targets agreed with the Security Service. We are therefore reassured that GCHQ now believes it is able to meet Security Service key requirements.”
Wonderful news but for the fact that the Committee was told at first that it was very unlikely that GCHQ would ever be able to meet the performance targets. How did the sudden transformation take place? Were the person or persons who communicated that view in the first place telling us porky pies? Were they being deliberately incompetent or misleading? Why the sudden change? I think we are entitled to know. Certainly it justifies further amplification.
On page 10, our friends draw to our attention the fact that the National Audit Office
“criticised the results of GCHQ’s 2008 laptop computer audit. This showed that 35 laptops were unaccounted for”—
35 laptops belonging to one of our security and intelligence agencies. That is just amazing! In any other circumstances, there would be a major carpeting of somebody. There would probably be disciplinary action and, in some cases, dismissal. That body deals with our national security, and I find it amazing that we cannot be told more about what was the cause of the problem and what happened.
That case is particularly amazing against the backdrop of the previous report. I have just checked and found out that you were in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, on 7 May 2009 when we debated the 2007-08 report. Paragraph 177 of that report drew our attention to top-secret Government papers left on a train by a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee. It was reported that a prosecution took place on 28 October 2008, and the Prime Minister appointed Sir David Omand to investigate the matter. The Committee told the House:
“At the time of writing, the Committee is awaiting sight of Sir David’s report”.
I said that I thought that that was very wrong and was very strong in my criticism of Sir David for not having produced that report. A rather hurt Sir David Omand wrote to me after the debate, basically saying, “You’re unfair and you’re rotten, Mackinlay, because it’s not my fault. My report has been delivered to the Prime Minister. It’s not my property.” That is the position, and it was in parliamentary documentation last year. Does any member of the Committee want to intervene to tell me why the report was not mentioned this year if the Committee referred to it last year and said, “We haven’t received it yet,” and if there was implicit—if not explicit—criticism of that? Why has the Committee not given us an update? Surely we are entitled to an update on such a serious matter.
If I did Sir David wrong last year, I give him an unqualified apology, but I would have liked him to write to me to say, “Mackinlay, I understand the report has now been delivered to the Committee,” because it might otherwise seem as if the report is still being sat on. People are looking not at me, but at their documents, because they are obviously feeling a bit uncomfortable about this. They have failed in their duty to Parliament. What is the answer? Will any member of the Committee seek to explain to me where Sir David’s report is? Has the Committee received it? The silence speaks volumes.
The answer is that the matter was decided in the courts. The court came to a judgment, the person concerned received the appropriate punishment and Sir David put it down to what it clearly was: human error. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, who laughs, will tell me how we will get human error out of the system. We will not.
The right hon. Gentleman misses the point. The point is that when the Committee reported to Parliament last year, it—not me—complained that it had not seen the document. Is it unreasonable for us to think that the Committee would explain in this year’s report that it has received Sir David’s report, or at least to allude to his conclusions and findings? I rest my case on that.
Page 21 of our colleagues’ report states:
“The loss of Secret Intelligence…data and its subsequent appearance on eBay represents a clear breach of data security procedures, combined with a lack of adequate guidance and enforcement. Although this happened some years ago, the Committee is nonetheless disappointed”—
that is an understatement—
“that data was not being handled securely.”
There is a catalogue of mishandling and incompetence by individuals in the security and intelligence services, and we use adjectives such as “disappointed”! I am told time and again, particularly in answer to parliamentary questions, that we do not discuss security matters. I actually understand that, but there seems to be a cavalier, lackadaisical attitude in some parts of our security and intelligence services, and the Committee that is supposed to have oversight says it is “disappointed”. I find that amazing and breathtaking.
A number of colleagues have referred to Diego Garcia. Page 41 of the report states:
“While the then Prime Minister’s specific assurances to this Committee in relation to Diego Garcia—
Whatever. The important thing is what the report says, which is that the Prime Minister received specific assurances
“on the basis of firm assurances from the United States”
“these recent developments have demonstrated that the UK must be more robust in verifying such assurances in the future.”
As colleagues on both sides of the House have said, it is correct that we need to be more robust in verifying assurances. Indeed, we want more than assurances. We need to have absolute confidence that what the US tells the British Prime Minister has total veracity. This particular incident suggests that the US is beginning to take us for granted. As the House knows, without consulting the United Kingdom, which had sovereignty, the US put some people from Guantanamo into Bermuda. The other week, Secretary of State Clinton also sent the message that somehow the United Kingdom should negotiate with the Argentines on the sovereignty of the Falkland islands.
We can read her comments for ourselves and decide what her intention was or whether it was just a careless statement.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) spoke well on the issue of paragraphs 151 and 152. I note that they contain a lot of dots. Paragraph 151 states that
relating to the interrogation of Mr. Mohamed—
“had been provided to the Security Service and SIS in May 2002, before the Security Service officer interviewed Mr. Mohamed. This information made it clear that Mr. Mohamed had been intentionally deprived of sleep by his captors while in detention in Pakistan. For example, one of the *** telegrams states:
We should be told what those dots represent.
The most worrying aspect, because it relates to stewardship and conduct by our security and intelligence services, comes in paragraph 152, which states:
“The Security Service Officer who interviewed Mr. Mohamed on 17 May…said that he could not recall whether or not he was aware of this information prior to the interview.”
Again, I do not believe that. He would either be emphatic and say, “I was denied this information and I am indignant and angry about that” or he would recall it. It is an unhealthy and dangerous fudge.
Is my hon. Friend aware that he is referring to a court case involving someone known as witness B who may be charged with an extremely serious offence? Is it not immensely irresponsible for my hon. Friend to say that he does not believe witness B, when he has read none of the documents and knows none of the evidence, and will not that do a great deal to jeopardise witness B’s trial if he ever comes to trial?
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) was objecting not to what my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) read out, but the interpretation that he put on it, which could indicate that he was prejudging the case. It is very serious when someone uses this House to cast doubt on evidence that we have put in our report when a court case may be pending.
Absolutely, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I intend to move on. The only thing that I would say is that Judge Neuberger has made statements that are comparable to what I have just said in the House.
My final point, to which I have alluded before, is that we know that some areas of our security and intelligence services have in years past been involved in collecting intelligence in industrial disputes. At some point, we need a reassurance that people are not freelancing or undertaking unauthorised action, without ministerial cover or approval. I think that danger still lurks there. People have, in the past—and now, I believe—been subject to arbitrary and what in other jurisdictions would be called unconstitutional oversight and examination, and their legitimate private interests have been examined by unauthorised freelancers in our security and intelligence services. That threat has been borne out by evidence as and when things have been leaked through archives and so on. If that was happening in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s—during the miners dispute—why should we assume that it is not happening today? That needs to be addressed by Parliament very soon.
In conclusion, I am pleased to have taken part in these debates over the years and today. Apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), I feel that on many occasions, including today, I have been alone on this matter. Even Horatius had two fellas with him! Nevertheless, I am pleased that I have been able to amplify my views in these debates, because this is a vital area that needs to be looked at by Back-Bench Members who have not been picked by the Prime Minister and who will express the views and anxieties of minorities in the way that I have been able to do.
I might turn out to be in a minority of MPs who have spoken in this debate—not only will I be here for the winding-up speeches, but I am not retiring.
Having mentioned retirement, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). Many people may disagree with what he has said in his time—one could sense that in the Chamber today, from one or two quarters—but the fact is that he has been an extremely independent-minded MP, a parliamentarian of the best sort and a tremendous colleague to have around the House. I should add, while I am at it, that the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) has done a tremendous amount of good work in the House of Commons in the period when we have overlapped. In a moment, I will make a few remarks that he might construe as critical, but I do not want him to feel that that detracts from what I have just said. Finally, I would like to refer to a constituent of mine sitting on the back row, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). He gave an outstanding and very detailed speech, which may be his last contribution in the House. We will remember it for a long time.
That was the first point I wanted to make. I am the tail-end Charlie from the Back Benches this afternoon, and having sat here listening to the debate it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a great deal of behind-the-scenes machinations has been taking place over the guidance—much more than has been revealed—but the fact that what has been surfacing has surfaced, in the context of the Committee’s independence from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office, is itself extremely corrosive of public confidence in the ISC and the security services. I regret that very much.
I am a strong supporter of the ISC. We can all sense the dedication with which parliamentary colleagues on it go about their work. It is composed of senior and very dedicated people trying to do their best, and a number of them are in the Chamber this afternoon. We need to sustain confidence both in them and in those working in the security services, who are trying to protect us. I hope that it will be in that context that hon. Members will take some expressions of concern, which I shall make in a moment, about the extent to which the ISC might have been unable to get to the truth on some of the issues that it has investigated, and also my conclusions about the need for reform of the ISC and for a judge-led inquiry into rendition.
Our intelligence services certainly do a vital job, and they are doing it, at the moment, in very difficult circumstances, so they deserve our full support. We need strong security services to protect us from the threat of dangerous extremism, and of course much of what they do must necessarily remain a secret, as has been said. In this area, we need—almost uniquely—accountability without full transparency. It will, and should, always be thus, which is why the work of the Committee, and the trust that we want to be able to place in it, is so important.
We have had a string of revelations and allegations in recent years about the intelligence services’ complicity in extraordinary rendition—the practice, which was greatly extended by President Bush after 11 September, of kidnapping people and taking them to places where they may be maltreated or tortured. On the basis of what I have seen and heard, I am confident that our services do not want to be involved in such practices. From what I can tell, the services themselves believe that the practice is counter-productive for intelligence gathering, and, in any case, revelations of possible involvement sap their morale. They want and need the public to have confidence in them, and accountability is for their benefit as well as for ours. That is why we do them a disservice if we fail to investigate credible allegations when they are made.
I created the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition in December 2005 to try to get to the bottom of the issue of rendition, and of any possible UK involvement in it. After careful thought, I made a number of specific allegations. The first was that the UK had facilitated or been complicit in rendition. The second was that Diego Garcia was being used for that purpose. The third was that the UK’s armed forces might also be involved in rendition. It is worth recalling the blanket denials with which those points were met.
First, I shall quote the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who likened what I and others were suggesting to conspiracy theories. He said:
“Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States…there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom had been involved in rendition”.
In a subsequent Westminster Hall debate, the then Foreign Office Minister responsible for policy in this area said that to suggest that Ministers might not know all the facts was the usual “conspiracy theory mantra”. That Member is now the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the right hon. Member for Pontypridd, sitting on the other side of the House.
Each of my allegations has been either supported by a court judgment or admitted in subsequent correcting ministerial statements. I hope that the work of the all-party group on extraordinary rendition has made a contribution towards getting to the truth behind all the allegations, but it really should not be down to us to find out the truth about this stuff. The ISC should be the body of parliamentarians with the job of getting to that truth and giving us confidence that it has done so.
I was delighted when the Committee finally responded to my repeated requests for an inquiry into rendition by launching one, and its report was eventually published in July 2007. But did the Committee succeed in getting to the truth? The courts have recently suggested that it did not. It seems, from the High Court and Appeal Court judgments in the Binyam Mohamed case, that the ISC did not know what was going on. The relevant quotation from those judgments is:
“The ISC Report could not have been made in such terms if the 42 documents”—
that is, the key documents involved—
“had been made available to it”.
The judge’s conclusion sits oddly with that of the Chairman of the Committee, who, as recently as August 2009, said that he was “confident” that the ISC knew what was going on in regard to rendition. He made that claim in an interview on the “Today” programme, a transcript of which I have, although I shall not read out any more of it now.
Baroness Manningham-Buller’s recent extremely interesting contribution contained the conclusion that the ISC was likely to be reformed to become a full Select Committee of Parliament. There are certainly many people who want that, and we have heard support for that view around the Chamber this afternoon.
I have not supported that proposal—and I still do not support it—for a number of reasons, but primarily because I am not yet convinced that the benefits in bolstering public confidence will not be more than offset by the loss of trust between Parliament and the services, and the reduced access that could result from that, which would reduce the Committee’s opportunities to get to the truth. Full congressional committees in the US—not special committees—do that sort of work, but we do not have their strong investigative tradition to draw on, backed by the courts and underpinned by the separation of powers. Perhaps we should, but that would entail a much broader reform of the constitution, which nobody at the moment is seriously entertaining, and nor do I support it.
Having said all that, I think that we must have reform of the ISC. Even the Government more or less accept that in their response to the most recent annual report, and so, of course, does the ISC in its report, with its proposals for greater independence from the Cabinet Office. As has been pointed out, by the hon. Member for Thurrock among others, it is wholly unacceptable, as well as being a reflection of the need for reform, that the 2009-10 report should have been published only a few hours before this debate. The same goes for the Government’s failure to publish the interview guidance for those operating overseas.
I have not had time to digest either document, and that includes the ISC’s proposals for reform and the Government’s response to them. None the less, it strikes me that the Committee might be mistaken in its principal proposals and that the Government might be right in their response. I have only had the opportunity to see this in the past few hours, but as the Government pointed out, it would be “unusual”, to say the least,
“for a scrutiny body to have its funding linked to the function it scrutinises”.
That is a valid point.
As for the need for yet another departmental reshuffle, that would take a lot of justifying, particularly in a week when the Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office has strongly criticised the unprecedented number of central Government departmental reorganisations, which, on average over the past four years, are now running at more than 20 a year. The CAG concluded that such reorganisations cannot be justified on value for money grounds. Perhaps the reorganisation proposed by the Committee can be justified, and perhaps, even if it costs more, it can be justified on other grounds—I do not know, and I could not possibly be in a position to judge that, sitting where I do now—but the proposal gives me pause. Rearranging the chairs in Whitehall might not be the most fruitful approach to bolstering public confidence. The ISC’s proposals are probably not the right way forward, therefore, and they are certainly not enough to give the public confidence that the ISC remains sufficiently independent and capable of getting to the truth.
For some time I have been arguing for a change that would help on both counts—that is, on increasing independence and on giving the public confidence that the Committee can get closer to the truth. We need to address the fact—this cannot be avoided—that whatever the reality, the appearance is that the Committee is not sufficiently independent of the Prime Minister and the Executive, a point that is reinforced by the report that has just been published.
In recent years, a string of appointees have come out of senior positions in the Government to chair the ISC, only to return to the Front Bench immediately afterwards. That is true of at least three, if not four, of the last five Chairman. I am not impugning the integrity of any of the people involved, and experience of government, particularly in a relevant area, is of course extremely valuable in chairing the ISC. However, the revolving door between the chairmanship of the ISC and the Government cannot and should not be the norm, if we want the public to have confidence that the ISC and its work are wholly independent of Government. In any case, once the appearance of independence has gone—whatever the reality—so has the point of having the ISC in the first place. Something must be done.
I served on the Wright Committee, whose primary purpose was to bolster public confidence in Parliament in a much broader context. The Committee adopted my proposal that the Chairmen of Select Committees should be elected by secret ballot of the whole House, for which I had been campaigning for more than a decade. I also won support for my proposal that the Chairman of the ISC—which, of course, is not a Select Committee—should be elected in the same way as Select Committee Chairmen, subject to a prime ministerial veto at the nomination stage. I can think of no good reason why that relatively modest proposal cannot be implemented immediately, and nor could the members of the Wright Committee. Its implementation would at least block the revolving door, and that would bolster public confidence a little.
I believe that much more needs to be done, but I shall now confine myself to the subject of rendition. If we want to achieve closure, we need the maximum possible disclosure. Neither Ministers nor the ISC appear to have known the truth about this matter, and we have to ask ourselves whether the tools of parliamentary scrutiny have been adequate. More than two years ago, I reluctantly concluded that in order to plug the gap in relation to United Kingdom involvement, we needed a brief judge-led inquiry on rendition.
No, I did not say that. I said that they had not been able to get to the truth. For example, I consider it indisputable that Ministers were unable to get to the truth when I was given blanket denials on the issue of Diego Garcia. For whatever reason, they were unable to tell me, or the public, what had been going on.
We must make sure that we get this point right. As my hon. Friend says, neither the ISC nor the Government got to the truth about Diego Garcia initially. Both we and the Government asked questions of the United States Government, who are in control there. They gave us a flat and definitive answer—they were not in any doubt—which we therefore accepted. If my hon. Friend is telling me that a judge would have got a different answer out of them, that is one thing; but what subsequently happened, to the embarrassment of the Foreign Secretary, the Government and, indeed, all of us, was that the United States Government changed their story. We were never going to get to the truth of what the Americans were doing on an island which is within our sovereignty but totally under their control until they told us the truth. How would any form of judicial or extra-judicial inquiry have got that out of the Americans before they chose to tell us?
I think that my right hon. Friend misunderstands the purpose of an inquiry. The purpose would not be to suggest that we could have done much better if we had taken some other route, but it would bolster public confidence if all the information about rendition were available to us, so that we could form a judgment, draw a line under it and then move on. That case and other cases have created a sense that there may be other things which we do not know and which should be known, which is itself corrosive. I have absolutely no idea whether that is true, and I am making no specific allegations, but I do not think that my right hon. Friend has fully understood the motivation of those who call for a judge-led inquiry.
Incidentally, I am not alone in calling for such an inquiry. I am supported by Lord Carlile, the Government’s own independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, by the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties and by a wide range of other experts in the field. This is not a bizarre, heretical view; I could even argue that it is now the mainstream view, which was certainly not the case when I first proposed it. I also have to say that, fairly or unfairly, many people have been led to call for this at least in part because of the appearance of shortcomings in the ISC process.
I have not got a problem with a judge-led inquiry, if it is designed to try to reassure the public that we have now got all the facts out, but I certainly do not agree that either the ISC or Ministers lacked the means of getting to the truth at the time. What we did not have at the time was the evidence from the Americans. I would not have stood up in the Chamber and said I was absolutely certain about our having the means to get to the truth at the time, if I was not absolutely certain about that. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that we may think we have got all the facts now, but we cannot be certain, because other facts may emerge in the future. One wonders when these successive judicial inquiries will finish, and I might ask this question: was that not why we were elected to this place? Were we not elected to this place to make decisions and to do that work ourselves as best we can, and to learn from our failures and to do better next time?
There were a lot of points in that intervention and I shall not try to answer them all—indeed, I am not quite sure that I can remember them all. The first point that I took from the right hon. Gentleman’s comments was that he is happy with the principle that we should have a short judge-led inquiry to draw a line under this and to give the public the confidence that we are moving forward in the right way. The right hon. Gentleman’s second point was that he could not have done any better and he was acting on the basis of all the information that was available. I do not doubt that; I am quite sure that he did not look at some document and say, “Well, I think I’ll keep that under wraps.” I am not suggesting that for a moment, but I am suggesting that there might have been something defective in the way we set about finding out what is going on and making sure information is properly reported to Ministers. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) also made that point, with specific examples.
The right hon. Gentleman’s third point was to suggest that we are supposed to be doing this work ourselves, rather than having a host of judge-led inquiries, and that was precisely the point I was about to make. It is important to draw a distinction in respect of what has been going on in the courts—between what is or is not sub judice. I have been surprised at some of the rulings on that, in that either something is sub judice or it is not sub judice, and the police are investigating things all the time. It strikes me that that process should, and will have to, continue. I have never been a strong supporter of the view that the only way to solve this is by going around trying to find as many people as we can to prosecute. Besides, it seems to me that the fact that there is the threat of prosecution may in some cases make it more difficult to get to the truth, because people will be extremely cautious about what they say or divulge.
My view is that a short judge-led inquiry might provide a way for us more quickly to draw a line under this than we can through a much more protracted process in the courts. That protracted process might also, whether fairly or not, lead to a further degradation of respect for both the intelligence services and the ISC. I want this process to be brought to an end as soon as possible. Reading between the lines of Baroness Manningham-Buller’s speech, I had the impression that she and I were not a long way apart on that point.
The right hon. Gentleman’s final point was about judicial inquiries substituting for Parliament. I completely agree that it is a sad reflection on the apparent inadequacy of parliamentary scrutiny that we have had a string of failures by Select Committees to achieve what we expect of them and that we have had a string of inquiries such as Hutton, Butler and Chilcot.
My overriding conclusion is that rather than leave this area to Parliament, the need to get to the truth trumps any constitutional concern. In my view, an inquiry is not only necessary, but almost inevitable, not least because I suspect that if we can get round the problems triggered by evidence to it generating prosecutions —that was the point I made a moment ago—the security services may soon conclude that they would benefit from this as a means of drawing a line as quickly as possible. Only by drawing that line can we move on, and to do that we must get to the truth. Of course I recognise that parts—perhaps quite a bit—of such an inquiry would have to be conducted in private, but once we have accomplished that we can rebuild confidence in the security services and maximise their ability to protect us within a framework of law. It is with that in mind, above all, that I have come forward with the proposal that we should have an inquiry.
I add my salute to members of the Intelligence and Security Committee and, in particular, to the four members who have announced that they intend to leave the House at the forthcoming general election: the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman); my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram); my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who I suppose we must term the “father” of the ISC—
The Minister says the doyen, but I suppose he is more continentally minded than I am. Above all, I pay tribute to the ISC’s Chairman, the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). Listening to the tributes during today’s debate, he must have at times feared that he was in a dream and listening to the eulogies at his own funeral. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I must say that the Chairman delivered a formidable demonstration of independence in his opening speech. When I from time to time debated against him from our respective Front Benches, he occasionally came out with a comment from the Dispatch Box along the lines of, “My personal view is”, at which point one could see the shudder spreading along the row of civil servants in attendance to support him as they wondered quite what their Minister was about to say next.
This debate has centred very much on how to strike the balance in our country between secrecy and the accountability of the security and intelligence services, and I wish to discuss that theme a little later. The debate also touched upon many aspects of the work of the security and intelligence agencies, and the report goes into rather more detail about that. I wish to allude briefly to some of those aspects.
The report contains quite a lot about how the agencies set about establishing relative priorities and how the priorities for intelligence-gathering change over the years. For example, I believe that some 15 per cent. of the work of the Security Service is directed towards tackling threats from east Africa, and Somalia in particular. I hope that the successor Committee in the next Parliament will take forward that work and will also examine what demands are being placed on our services by concerns about terrorism within Yemen, which has been in the news a lot recently. I also noted the increased concern expressed by the Committee, on behalf of the agencies, about the worrying resurgence of dissident terrorism in Northern Ireland. That is clearly something in which the House needs to take a continuing interest and I hope that the successor Committee will pursue it.
I am sorry that this afternoon’s debate has not covered at all the threat from cyberterrorism. One worrying point that emerges from the Committee’s report is the plethora of acronyms—the number of different Government bodies charged with addressing the threat to cybersecurity. The Committee expressed doubts about whether the Government’s approach to cybersecurity was being co-ordinated effectively. Those of us outside the curtain who rely on media reports still know enough from what is in the public domain about the growing threat to this country’s interests from cyberterrorism to believe that that should be a prime area for the Committee’s work in future.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire rightly talked about the central importance to the effectiveness of British intelligence and security agencies of their being able to share information in confidence with allies—in particular, our critical intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States of America. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made clear during his speech, Conservative Members regard the integrity of that intelligence-sharing relationship as of the highest importance to the security of the United Kingdom.
We support the control principle, and I reiterate the question that my right hon. Friend posed to the Foreign Secretary. In the light of the recent court judgments, do the Government believe that, regardless of the circumstances of any particular case, there is a need either for legislation or for some other means to assert the principle of control of intelligence by its originator and to ensure that that is protected against conceivable future challenges, or do they believe that the recent Court of Appeal judgment upheld that principle to such an extent that they can have confidence that it will not be threatened?
Having read through the reports, I came to the view that one important aspect of the ISC’s work is the Committee’s concern about the stewardship of resources by the various agencies. Perhaps with the exception of the hon. Member for Thurrock, who touched on performance targets, we have not really debated this today, but that element of scrutiny is significant. It was concerning to read that the Committee was dissatisfied with the amount of detail to which it was being given access over GCHQ’s SIGMOD—signals intelligence modernisation—project, given that that involves the expenditure of many millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
The saga of the SCOPE interdepartmental IT project is also disturbing. According to the Committee, that major project was initiated in 2001. By January 2008, it had clearly run into problems, but the Cabinet Office said that concerted efforts were being made to deliver it successfully and on time. Yet the implied note of exasperation comes through from the Committee’s comment that, just three months later, the Cabinet Office announced that the project had been abandoned altogether. The Committee relates that that has probably meant the loss of tens of millions of pounds.
We know that the Committee has investigated that apparent debacle, but no report has yet been made publicly available. I do not know whether one will be, and it appears that contractual disputes between the Government and the contractor or contractors involved are delaying that further. I hope that those long-dragged-out arguments can be resolved quickly, because it is in the public interest that we know as much as it is possible for us to be told about how mistakes came to be made in the management of such an important contract, and what lessons can be learned and applied for the future.
In paragraph 18 of the 2009-10 report, the ISC quotes all three agency chiefs as saying that they know that their agency is entering a period of financial austerity in which difficult decisions about resources and priorities will have to be made, despite the overall increase in expenditure that I am happy to acknowledge. Given that financial stringency, it is all the more important that Parliament makes sure, through the ISC reports, that the money being made available is stewarded properly and that the taxpayer and the British public get the best possible value for it.
To nobody’s surprise, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) spoke at length about the unhappy saga of extraordinary rendition. I should like to congratulate him on his dogged—and, in the early months and years, rather lonely—persistence in following this issue through. There is no doubt in my mind that this business damaged the standing of our security and intelligence services in British public opinion. It has also harmed the reputation of the US, a development that I believe is very unwelcome indeed.
Given the importance of being able to put the episode behind us and draw a line beneath it, I am surprised that the Government have baulked at the sort of judge-led inquiry to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester alluded, and that they seem to be dragging their feet when it comes to subscribing to the UN convention on enforced disappearances. The former Minister, Lord Malloch-Brown, championed that international instrument when it was agreed back in December 2006, but as yet the Government have neither signed nor ratified it.
After I had been pressing this matter, the Foreign Secretary wrote to me in October 2008 to say that the Government were considering their position with regard to signature and ratification. He said that the FCO was consulting other Departments, but he also said:
“As the UK does not hold people incommunicado, or subject any person to enforced disappearance, we had not considered the ratification of this treaty an urgent priority against other business.”
Now I am no lawyer, but it seems to me that what we now know about the renditions through the UK territory of Diego Garcia leaves open the possibility, at the very least, that we would have been in breach of our international obligations, had the UN convention been in force. I hope that the Minister for Europe will be able to assure me—either now, or when he replies to the debate, or perhaps in writing later on—that the Government are now showing rather more urgency in addressing this matter than they have up to now.
The core of the debate has been the question of how we strike the right balance between secrecy and accountability. Critical to that is the independence of the ISC, and its relationship with the Government and Parliament. I am more than willing to agree with the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) that the state has matters that it must keep secret, in all our interests. That is completely unavoidable and any grown-up involved in politics has to accept it. However, it is also inevitable that secrecy breeds suspicion and mistrust, especially in an age when people are no longer deferential and when they are much less inclined to take on trust anything said by any kind of public agency. People are also now used to being able to access and collate vast quantities of information instantly through the internet.
Allegations of torture and mistreatment in particular do untold damage to the UK’s reputation, not only here but worldwide. When a senior foreign visitor to the UK was detained and temporarily imprisoned the other week, it was striking that within a matter of hours international satellite television channels were reporting that this man was being denied consular access, visits by relatives and legal advice as though it were fact. I do not want to stray into the details of that case, but it illustrates how quickly this country’s reputation can suffer around the world, and not just among our own people.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pointed out that when we are dealing with the issues raised by allegations of torture or mistreatment, we need to look not only at the detail of individual cases, but at processes, at habits of working by the agencies, both internally and in their relationships with agencies in other countries. We have to assure ourselves, largely through the Committee, that we have been able to draw a line under previous allegations and that we have the systems in place to ensure that we are true to the values and standards that we champion in the world and to which we urge others to adhere. Our inclination to support a judge-led inquiry derives from our concern to draw a clear line and to allow the agencies to get on with their job on behalf of all of us in the future.
Parliament and the public need the confidence that the ISC has all the access it needs to do its job, that it will be given all the information it seeks from the agencies, that Government will respect its independence and respond fully to its criticisms, and that Ministers will publish reports without undue delay and then take action and carry through the reforms that they have publicly promised to make.
It does not give me pleasure to say this—because this above all should be an issue where we should be able to count on the maximum level of cross-party consensus—but all through the debate we have heard from both sides of the House a catalogue of examples of delay, incompetence and failure to co-operate fully with the Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire spoke about the Government’s failure to fulfil their promise to make available the Committee’s report on the guidance on treatment during the interview of detainees overseas and to publish the guidance by the promised date. I think he said that publication was put off because certain people would find it embarrassing. The Foreign Secretary, in response to an earlier intervention from my right hon. Friend, seemed completely unsighted on the proposal for an investigation into vetting. I hope that the Minister will have brief available when he replies to the debate, but it struck me as extraordinary that Ministers charged with the supervision of the intelligence and security agencies apparently did not know that such an investigation was being proposed.
Most trenchantly, we had the opening speech from the right hon. Member for Pontypridd, the Committee Chairman. He gave an account of his battles with the Cabinet Office, and denounced the “Whitehall insiders” who were trying to thwart the efforts of his Committee to do its job and the unnamed officials who refused to co-operate with the Committee or who even sought to intimidate the staff assigned to work directly for it. Frankly, if that were happening in any part of Government I would regard it as scandalous, but it is a national disgrace for it to be happening in respect of a body whose independence is so critical to public confidence in our secret agencies. It is the responsibility of the Ministers in the Government of the day to know what is going on, to take appropriate action to put things right and to ensure that certain behaviour ceases without further delay.
The right hon. Member for Pontypridd argued for measures to entrench the independence of the Committee, including a move from the Cabinet Office to another Department. Whoever forms the Government after the next general election should address seriously and urgently the proposals that he made and the proposals that have come from other Members of the House who have contributed to the debate.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, the agencies are the first to realise that they benefit most from rigorous scrutiny and from being seen to be accountable, through his Committee, to Parliament and to the British people. The safety of every family in this country depends in considerable part on the professionalism, dedication and, in many instances, raw courage of the people who work for our security and intelligence agencies. They cannot respond to criticisms or challenges. We collectively owe it to them to protect their public reputation, and that imposes on us the duty to ensure that we have effective, trusted arrangements for scrutiny and accountability and that Parliament and Government do a better job than has, as the report makes clear, been the case in the past two years.
Let me start by paying another full set of tributes to my right hon. Friend—and, indeed, my right hon. neighbour—the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). When I was first chosen as the Labour candidate in the Rhondda in the year 2000, my right hon. Friend and, for that matter, his lovely wife Eirlys were very welcoming to me in a kind way. I think of him as something of a mentor in this House.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done. It is a tribute to Parliament and to the principles of Britain that a man who led the May 1968 student sit-in and was the first person to break the cordon outside the US embassy when protesting against the Vietnam war should end up chairing the ISC. There is a particular beauty to the fact that a former member of the Communist party should assume that responsibility. One thing that has not yet been mentioned in this debate is a key difference between this Committee and many others—the Chairman of the Committee is unpaid. One cannot say that this is a Committee chairmanship that is the result of the patronage of the Prime Minister. We all want to pay to tribute to him for the work that he has done in this capacity and in many others. He has also provided some of the most enlightening criticism of modern British art and other matters in history, but I shall not recite them.
I shall try to answer directly as many of the points that have been raised by right hon. and hon. Members as possible—[Interruption.] Unfortunately, I hear a Whip coughing at that. I shall include the points raised by Members who are no longer in their places. That is a growing tendency and it is probably one that needs to be deprecated.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) raised several matters. First, and perhaps most importantly, he effectively made the allegation that because the consolidated guidance has not yet been published, agency staff are, in some way or another, working either according to old guidance, which would be inappropriate, or in some kind of vacuum. Of course, that would be wholly and utterly inappropriate, and it is not the case: there is no policy vacuum. Officers and agency staff are all working under a clear set of guidelines. The Prime Minister’s commitment was to consolidate and publish that guidance, and we should not overlook the fact that that is a remarkable thing to do. Not many other countries in the world have published guidance and it is a first step for this country, so it is significant and not something that we should do lightly or without serious thought. We are keen to make sure that we do that as swiftly as possible, commensurate with getting the policy right. I heard what the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) said. His interpretation of the process that we have gone through is not entirely a set of events that I recognise.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks asked about the control principle—the principle that intelligence belonging to another country and that has been created by another country should not be released without the agreement of that country. We believe that that is absolutely essential to maintaining our own security. Otherwise, why would any other security agency in the world volunteer its information to us? That is a matter of ongoing concern, but the situation is always complicated. We have a very close relationship with a small number of intelligence agencies in countries around the world—they are known to the House, I am sure, but the list starts with the United States of America—and we have to proceed on the basis of trust in that relationship, because otherwise the relationship would not be worth having and nor would the intelligence. We are committed to protecting the intelligence received from our partners and maintaining that control principle, but we are also keen to make sure that, particularly when dealing with agencies where we are less certain of the processes and procedures used, we take a robust line on ensuring that there has been no abuse. The right hon. Gentleman said that, broadly speaking, he agrees with us on that point. I wholeheartedly agree with this point made in the Committee’s report:
“The Committee is concerned that the publication of other countries’ intelligence material, whether sensitive or otherwise, threatens to undermine the key ‘control principle’ of confidentiality, which underpins relations with foreign intelligence services”.
I think we all agree.
The right hon. Gentleman expressed a great deal of scepticism, not to say sarcasm, about the national security forum. In contrast, I believe that it is an important body. The forum consists of a group of independent experts, who are able to provide intelligent advice to Ministers on a series of national security issues in a way that would not necessarily come through to the individual agencies through their Departments. Seven meetings of the forum have taken place since it was set up in March last year, and we believe that those meetings have been valuable and useful.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of Diego Garcia, as did several other right hon. and hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd made it clear that, when he made the comments he did as a Minister, speaking at the Dispatch Box, he did so in good faith. I do not think that anyone can doubt that the categorical statements that we were given, and that we were therefore in no position to say other than, were given—by ourselves anyway—in good faith. The question for us now is how to make sure that such situations cannot arise in future. We are keen to ensure that we are as diligent as possible in respect of Diego Garcia and any other overseas territory.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks insisted that there should be full investigation in all cases, and he is absolutely right—of course there should. Several speakers this afternoon have referred to the fact that several civil cases are going through the courts, and there are two Metropolitan police investigations. However, I was disappointed by the comments made by the right hon. Gentleman and, for that matter, his hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), because I thought they used weasel words.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to being “inclined” to hold an inquiry as long as the timing could be got right, and I do not think that that really satisfies the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) at all. Then I noticed that the hon. Member for Aylesbury said, first, “We support the idea of a judge-led inquiry,” and then, “Er, we are inclined to support” such a proposition. I have a sneaking suspicion that that means that somebody is trying to provide themselves with a vast amount of wriggle room, because they know that in opposition sometimes people say one thing, whereas if they were in government they might say another.
The Minister is letting election fever get the better of him. Our position is that we are strongly inclined in favour of a judge-led inquiry, but we know that, first, there are possible legal proceedings that would affect, or probably affect, the timing of any such inquiry; and secondly, if my party forms the next Government, we would have access to information, and it would be possible to make to us representations that are not possible when we are in opposition. We are simply saying that, if we form a Government, we want to ensure that we take a decision on the basis of all representations and all information that is available, quite properly, to the Government of the day. Our approach is exactly as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks described it.
If I were to look up “wriggle room” in the dictionary, I would be provided with exactly what the hon. Gentleman has just said, so I am grateful to him for deliberately un-clarifying the situation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy)—this has been something of a Welsh debate—was a much respected Chairman of the Committee. I shall not praise him as fully as I have others, because he is continuing as a Member. He raised the issue of whether some sessions of the Committee could be held in public, and that issue has been much discussed this afternoon. I note what was said earlier about when Ministers say, “My own personal view,” but my own personal view is that there must be occasions when it would be possible to hold some elements of the Committee’s deliberations in public, but, as nobody has denied, it is also absolutely the case that the Committee must have the power to reserve the large proportion of its sessions for deliberation in private; otherwise, it simply would not be able to consider secret material. There is more or less a consensus in the House on that.
My right hon. Friend asked whether the Committee should move from the Cabinet Office to the Ministry of Justice, where he said he did not get his pay for a month. That is what trade unions are for, of course—to make sure that one does get one’s pay in time. However, I am unconvinced that the move from the Cabinet Office to another Department is the most important element of the reforms that will need to take place. Although I fully accept that the Committee’s recommendations in relation to the Cabinet Office have some merit, not least because in terms of security issues the Cabinet Office has taken on a much more significant role than it had when the right hon. Member for East Hampshire joined the Committee, I do not think that where it is based is the single most important issue that we need to address.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) spoke about a series of different issues and, in particular, about intercept evidence. The committee said in its report:
“There has now been a comprehensive examination of the issues involved in allowing intercept material to be adduced as evidence in the UK. That it has failed to provide a viable model is unsurprising, given the complexities of the issues involved. We await the outcome of the further work now being done. We recommend that if this too fails to provide a workable solution then the issue should be considered closed.”
Many of us have always hoped that a magic wand would allow intercept evidence in the British justice system to become a valuable tool for securing more convictions and appropriate evidence, but I have yet to see a single instance, in any prosecution in the world, of the intercept evidence that has been allowed in that country making any difference to the prosecution.