[Relevant documents: The Government’s Response (Cm 8168) to the 2010-11 Annual Report from the Intelligence and Security Committee is relevant. The Justice and Security Green Paper (Cm 8194) is relevant in so far as it relates to the Intelligence and Security Committee.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House has considered the matter of the 2010-11 Annual Report from the Intelligence and Security Committee (Cm 8114).—(Mr Dunne.)
I am privileged, as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, to introduce this debate on not only the Committee’s annual report but the work of our intelligence agencies over the past year. It has been a particularly interesting year, in which we have seen a sea change in our intelligence agencies and the role that they play in the public debate of the nation: not only has the Justice and Security Green Paper been published by the Government, but only last week the Foreign Secretary, for the first time in our history, gave a lecture on the record—a public lecture—on the role of intelligence in foreign policy; over the past few months, the heads of the various intelligence agencies—the Secret Intelligence Service, the Security Service and GCHQ—have either given lectures or been interviewed on television or in the press about the work of their agencies and the role of intelligence; and the Intelligence and Security Committee has said in its annual report that we look forward to having, at least on one or two occasions, public sittings, for the first time in the history of the Committee, and we know that the Government see that to be appropriate. The fundamental reforms that we will be discussing today on the nature of the Intelligence and Security Committee and on the wider question of intelligence oversight mark a fundamental departure from the practices of the past.
Some might be entitled to ask, “Does this mean that secrecy is not as important as it used to be?” They might suggest that our secret services do not have to be as secret and that the secrets themselves do not require the same protection. Anyone who had that view would need correcting quickly and comprehensively. Of course there are secrets, and the basic role of these agencies is to carry out secret activities on behalf the nation as a whole.
I welcome what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said about this important matter. When the Select Committee on Home Affairs has sought evidence from the head of MI5 in the past, we have had to travel to its headquarters for a private briefing, sometimes with darkened windows. I welcome what he said about the fact that the heads of those agencies will be giving evidence to his Committee in public so that they can be cross-examined. Does he know when the first such sitting might be?
The heads of the agencies have been travelling to the Intelligence and Security Committee to give evidence—albeit in secret, not in public—for a good number of years, so precedent is not being broken. Some thought is being given to holding public sessions, and I certainly hope that will prove possible over the next few months. I cannot give an absolute commitment to that effect, but it is certainly what I would expect.
The nature of secret operations remains as crucial as ever. A much more mature approach is being taken to what Britain needs to remain secret and what is a legitimate question of public debate, even if the intelligence agencies are involved. When I first entered this House, and right up until the 1990s, the very existence of the intelligence agencies was never officially declared or admitted and those who led the agencies were very private figures whose identities were never revealed. Much has changed since enactment of the Intelligence Services Act 1994, but to this day some aspects of that approach remain very much in our eye. The question that must be asked is whether that is acceptable in a modern society. We have three intelligence agencies that collectively receive some £2 billion of taxpayers’ money each year. That is serious money that inevitably needs not only private scrutiny but a degree of public scrutiny, too.
Secondly, the very fact that they are secret agencies in an open society means that there is a need for Parliament and the public to take a serious interest not only in the private but, where possible, in the public way in which the agencies operate. Of course, there is a third consideration, which is that as the very activities of the agencies involve the power to intercept communications or carry out operations that, without the authority of a Secretary of State, would be unlawful, they have a privilege that is not available to the rest of the community. If one thinks that this debate is taking place in the middle of a hacking inquiry when exactly that kind of interception was carried out by those who did not have lawful authority, one can see a clear illustration of why the needs of the agencies should be subject to a degree of transparency.
The Chair of the Committee mentioned that before 1994, there was no debate—or at least no acceptance and acknowledgment by the Government of the day—of the security services. Does he accept that during the 1980s some of us pressed for parliamentary scrutiny and used every opportunity in debates to say that there should be such scrutiny by Members of Parliament?
I not only acknowledge that but can say that both the activity of the hon. Gentleman and many representations from other hon. Members and those outside this House led in the 1990s to the Government changing the situation. I was Defence Secretary at the time and was involved in the discussions within Government that led to the 1994 Act, which set up for the first time the independent oversight machinery. We are now trying to discuss and consider the radical modernisation of that machinery, which has existed since 1994.
It is worth also making the general point that at the end of the cold war there was a debate about whether we still needed intelligence agencies and whether they needed the funding, powers and resources they had been allocated during the cold war. The famous phrase about its being the end of history was quoted at that time. I have always been sceptical of that phrase; I prefer an alternative view, which is that as one door closes another slams in your face.
Although we accept that some radical change is clearly overdue, which will, we hope, be put in place, and accept that the change will be fluid because of the fluid international world in which we live, will my right hon. and learned Friend reiterate the importance of remembering that there will always be a need for certain information to remain secret? We do not want to throw everything out with the bathwater. There will always be a need for certain things to remain secret, even within this transparent 24/7 media world.
Yes, there are crucial requirements and anyone will understand why that is the case. The identity of intelligence officers can never be revealed. If it were, not only would they not be able to carry out their proper responsibilities but their very physical safety would be in danger. Intelligence operations and the ways in which intelligence is obtained, processed and dealt with should not become public knowledge. If they were, they would be available to our enemies and would cease to be available in that way in future. There would be no benefit in having intelligence agencies unless that fundamental secrecy applied—that covers all the areas that are relevant to the operational work they do and the benefits they provide for our society.
In the years since the end of the cold war, we have had the 7/7 bombings in London, which were very traumatic. Those terrible actions led to some deep soul-searching within the security and intelligence agencies. The perpetrators were British citizens who had been born in this country, but the agencies had not anticipated that event. In addition, there are problems with nuclear proliferation and cyber attacks, which might be aimed at Governments but cover a wide range of economic intelligence that is sought by foreign Governments and industrial interests. That is a matter of great significance.
Those new demands led the intelligence agencies to operate rather differently, which is a welcome development. The most significant point is that the intelligence agencies now work together far more than ever before. If one went to GCHQ on any day of the week one would probably find officials from the Secret Intelligence Service who had been seconded there for a significant period. The same would apply to the SIS and to each of the agencies in reverse. That is happening not because of some doctrinal view but because of the practical requirements of getting the best use of intelligence in this modern world and ensuring maximum public benefit. It is not too dissimilar to the way in which the Navy, Army and Air Force have increasingly realised that operations will involve all those services, or two of the three services, with joint activity becoming the norm rather than the exception.
The other big change, which I very much welcome, as does the Committee, has been the creation of the National Security Council. Not only does it provide an opportunity in general terms for strategic thinking, strategic planning and proper consideration under the Prime Minister, but for the first time the heads of the intelligence agencies attend meetings as of right and are able to ensure not only that they hear what is being said but that the intelligence they are providing is much more easily fitted into the requirements of Government so that the practical benefits of the intelligence is of much greater value.
My right hon. and learned Friend talks about the change in attitude and style in the work of our security services. Does he agree that after 9/11, in a bid to counter the asymmetric threats, the clandestine services lost their way for a period? I think of such things as Guantanamo Bay, water-boarding, rendition, dodgy dossiers and so forth. Does he agree that with the freedoms that were given to those services in a bid to try to find Osama bin Laden and hunt down the enemy we lost the moral high ground for some time and that it has taken a while for us to redeem ourselves?
I certainly agree that serious issues came to prominence during those years, some of which were the responsibility of the agencies and some of which were more the responsibility of government. However, I think we should get this into perspective. So far as I am aware, not a single British intelligence officer has ever been accused of personally being involved in water-boarding, torture or maltreatment of an individual. The issue—and it is a very serious issue—is whether they were aware of those matters and whether they might indirectly have colluded in such activity. I do not wish to diminish the seriousness of these matters but it is very important to make that point and get things into perspective because the same is not true of many other countries around the world. That is an important point that has to be made.
I want to speak briefly about four points in the report and then say something about the issues in the Green Paper, particularly about what is called the control principle, with regard to the handling of intelligence. Finally, I shall address the reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I shall try not to detain the House too long. The first of the four points in the report I want to address concerns the single intelligence account—the £2 billion that goes to the intelligence agencies. They have had a very large increase over the past few years but a cut is now being imposed—and understandably so—of 11% if one takes account of inflation over the next four years. The Committee has said:
“It is essential—given the fundamental importance to our national security of the Agencies’ work—that the settlement is kept under review and that there is scope to adjust it if there is a significant change in the threat.”
I know that every single recipient of Government funding would like to be able to say that, but I hope there is no dispute that when we are dealing with the fundamental issues of national security, if the threat were to change in a material way, it would not be acceptable to say that those resources could not be reviewed by a Government because that might in some way contradict public expenditure decisions. I have no reason to believe that the Government would take that view, but it is important to make that point, and that is what the Committee would like to stress.
The second point is the security that will be needed for the Olympics. The director general of the Security Service—again, I quote from our report—
“told us that he considers the Service to be well placed to manage the risks that the Olympics will bring.”
However, he added that
“the effort required to cover the Olympics will inevitably divert resources from the Service’s other work.”
The Committee would like to emphasise that the National Security Council must take such steps as are necessary to minimise that risk. Although we understand that the Security Service is not at present making representations and feels that the task can be handled effectively, it is too early to be certain that that will remain the case and it must be kept under consideration.
The third point relates to cyber security. In its reports of 2008 and 2009, the Committee drew attention to the increasing risks this country faces from cyber attacks. The Committee welcomes the fact that the Government have said that cyber is now a tier 1 interest in our national security strategy and have provided more than £600 million in new resources for that purpose.
The Committee’s concern is not those sums but the potential over-interest within Government in cyber matters. We note in our report that there are 18 units with responsibilities in this field across the three agencies— two law enforcement bodies and five Government Departments—and express our concern, which the Government share, about the risk of duplication. It is extremely important that these matters are looked at to ensure that, with such large sums and so many elements of Government involved, we do not do mischief to our own objectives.
I entirely endorse what my right hon. and learned Friend says. We feel strongly that there is a risk of duplication, with 18 bodies having some say in cyber security. We are grateful for the Government’s commitment and provision of certainty of financing over a four-year period—the £600 million to which he referred. However, if in 2007 we had asked about the importance of cyber, it would have been largely off the radar. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must be aware that if this becomes a much bigger problem not just in governmental and military terms, but in commercial terms, by the end of that four-year period considerably larger sums might be required, along the lines of the provision for the Olympics?
I am enjoying my right hon. and learned Friend’s speech immensely. In his Committee’s report, in recommendations K and E, the Committee identifies a wider technological problem facing our security services. In recommendation E the Committee says:
“We are concerned about GCHQ’s inability to retain a suitable cadre of internet specialists to respond to the threat”,
and in recommendation K it states:
“The Committee recognises that the Security Service needs IT specialists in order to deliver its major technology projects. However, spending on consultants and contractors continues to increase at a significant rate.”
Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my concern that although his Committee has identified this as a problem, the Government are not yet up to speed in providing the answer that his Committee seeks?
I very much welcome what my hon. Friend says. It is timely, because the Intelligence and Security Committee some months ago commissioned its own investigator to carry out a study of the use of contractors and consultants in the intelligence agencies. We found that they were used to a very high order and we have a number of recommendations, which we are analysing and will subsequently put to Government. I hope that many of them will be made public. Contractors and consultants can be very expensive and are not always the best way of using the resources available, but sometimes they have skills that the agencies could provide only at disproportionate cost to their wider interests. I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s comments.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the situation with cyber attacks is likely to get worse, rather than better? There are clear examples around the world of such attacks significantly disabling military installations and operations, so the Government must continue to regard that as a high-level threat. In contrast to what he has just said, it is the consultants working on this on the front line around the world who are likely to know the latest technologies, rather than those who have been employed by the intelligence agencies for some time.
There may be some truth in what my hon. Friend says, and obviously these matters must be taken on board. Given his comments, I will make the general point that we should realise that cyber technology can be a threat and an opportunity for this country and others. One need only think of the use of what has become known as the Stuxnet malware, which temporarily prevented the Iranians continuing with uranium enrichment, which might lead to nuclear capability. If that happened—obviously, the information available is limited—it is a positive example of how such technology might prevent military conflict or a war ever taking place. Technology is not peculiar to one side of the debate or the other, but we must protect our secrets and our information. I strongly endorse my hon. Friend’s comments.
That is one of the great dilemmas that Governments have faced and, I suspect, continue to face. It is not for me to comment on what the conclusion will be, but there has been some confusion on that. My hon. Friend will be aware that Baroness Neville-Jones at one stage had some responsibility for that within the Home Office, but she is no longer in government. It probably makes sense that the Cabinet Office has some sort of lead responsibility, but many loose ends still need to be addressed. If the Home Secretary or the Minister has any thoughts on those matters, I am sure that the whole House will be delighted to hear them when they reply to the debate, as it would deal with a problem that has been present for a considerable time and to which our report refers.
For the sake of clarity, before some reporter’s pen runs away with him, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that there was no suggestion in his remarks that UK intelligence services were responsible for the Stuxnet virus?
Even our worst enemies have not suggested that, as far as I am aware. I of course entirely confirm that.
My final detailed point on the report relates to a part of our intelligence community that is hardly even mentioned in this House or anywhere else: Defence Intelligence. It is part of the Ministry of Defence, but its contribution and role is greatly underestimated, if not entirely unknown, in the wider world, a point we draw attention to on page 51 of the report:
“Defence Intelligence provides the largest single all-source assessment capability within the UK intelligence community.”
As it is part of the MOD, it has perhaps been more subject to resource reductions than the other intelligence agencies. The report states:
“The prospect of further cuts—combined with the impact of cuts to BBC Monitoring, on which DI relies heavily—therefore has potentially very serious long-term consequences for DI’s ability to support military operations”,
which everyone tends to know about,
“and for the UK intelligence community as a whole.”
I hope that the Government can give some careful thought to how Defence Intelligence’s unique contribution to the UK’s overall assessment capability can be properly protected. I suggest that it perhaps needs a higher profile and status in the intelligence community than it has traditionally had so that there can be wider awareness of the benefits it brings to the national interest.
I deal now with the intelligence aspects of the Government’s Green Paper, particularly the control principle and the ISC itself. As far as the control principle is concerned, many Members attending the debate will be aware that what I am referring to, and what the Green Paper refers to, is how we deal with intelligence received from other friendly intelligence services. Anyone who has any awareness of the intelligence situation will know that that is crucial to the UK, particularly our relationship with the United States. If the special relationship means anything, it means a dramatic amount of intelligence, which has continued for around 60 years and benefited the UK enormously. However, it concerns not only the United States; to a lesser degree, we share and receive intelligence from other friendly agencies as well. Fundamental to the system is the deep principle that intelligence shared with another intelligence agency will not be made available to any third party without the consent of the agency that gave it in the first place. That principle has overwhelmingly been respected, but there have been individual exceptions that caused great concern. Following the Binyam Mohamed case, the Court of Appeal decided that such information should be released in a limited set of circumstances, and that caused great concern in the United States and elsewhere. I and the Committee greatly welcome the Government’s determination to deal with the matter in a way that strikes a proper balance between the national security requirement and the interests of justice, because that is the crucial debate in these matters.
Some might imagine that the Binyam Mohamed case was a one-off and that the Green Paper is an overreaction to the problem. With all respect, the Committee’s view is that it is not an overreaction. Although the Court of Appeal’s verdict might have been different in that case, we are today dealing with a situation that is very different from that which existed in the past. Information on this is given in the Green Paper, so I will share briefly with the House what the Government say. The Green Paper refers to judicial review, and not simply with regard to intelligence, but more broadly how it has increased over the years:
“Recourse to judicial review has increased significantly in recent decades, from 160 applications in 1974 to 4,539 in 1998. By 2010 the number of applications had reached 10,548.”
Judicial review and the overruling of the Government’s view—perhaps rightly in many cases—have become a major part of our judicial process, rather than an exception.
The raising of intelligence matters in court has also been transformed dramatically in recent years. The same page of the Green Paper states that
“in the first 90 years of the Security Service’s existence”—
“no case impacting directly on that Service’s work reached the House of Lords. In the last 10 years there have been 14 such case in the House of Lords or the Supreme Court.”
That is no longer an exception, but increasingly something we must be aware of and decide whether the previous balance is the appropriate one in the wider national interest.
Another point of interest, and one I was unaware of until recently, is that one of the circumstances in which these matters are being raised is not the release of sensitive documents to help in UK legal cases, as sometimes happens, but often the request for the release of this information to assist legal proceedings in other countries. The Green Paper states on page 7:
“The Government has strained key international relationships and risked compromise of vital sources and techniques in no fewer than seven court cases in which the applicants sought sensitive UK Government-held but very often foreign government-originated information for disclosure into foreign legal proceedings.”
Of course, Binyam Mohamed was such an example, because his appearance before a United States military commission led to the application in the first place.
Against that background and as the report states, I and the Committee very much welcome the Government’s proposals to modernise the procedure and their recommendation that the United Kingdom use the closed material procedure and involve special advocates, as already occurs in several areas, to deal with such cases. The only alternative, traditionally, has been the public interest immunity approach, but that is a blockbuster approach, and if one secures such immunity one finds that none of the information can be seen by anyone.
At least under the special advocate procedure, the special advocate—someone who has been vetted to be able to inspect such sensitive material—will have the opportunity to see it on behalf of his or her client, and, although they will not be able to reveal detailed information, they will be able at least to take it into account when advising their client on judicial proceedings.
That is greatly welcome and a step forward, but the Committee wants to make this point. If these proposals are implemented, the situation will improve considerably, but they do not provide an absolute guarantee that no information can ever be released at the insistence of the court, a fact that the Government acknowledge. Page 21 of the Green Paper states that closed material proceedings, involving a special advocate,
“reduce the risk of damaging disclosure of sensitive material.”
Such proceedings do not remove the risk; they reduce it. Likewise, on the following page, the Green Paper states that a decision to allow a special advocate to be available can
“be reviewable by the trial judge on judicial review principles if the other side decides to challenge the Secretary of State’s decision.”
We are therefore dealing with a very curious situation. If the Government’s proposals are accepted, the balance will change, and that is good and healthy, but the significant possibility will remain that in very special circumstances a judge might take a different view on such matters and the information could be released, with all the consequences that might flow from that.
Those who take the interests of national security very seriously indeed, as I certainly do and I am sure everyone here does, accept that, at the end of the day in a country that believes in the rule of law, the courts—in most circumstances, if not all—have to have the final word. I wonder, however, whether the Government ought to consider the argument that the provisions in the Green Paper need to be further strengthened: a belt and braces approach, which would not be inconsistent with the rule of law but would certainly provide added reassurance.
The Government have been good enough to refer in their Green Paper to the way that approach might be taken, and paragraph 2.78 on page 33 states:
“It would be possible for Parliament to provide the courts with clearer guidance in statute”.
The proposal refers to public interest immunity cases, but it could apply to special advocate cases, and the Government go on to state in the next paragraph:
“One such presumption”—
written into statute as a “rebuttable presumption”—
“would be against disclosure of sensitive”—
“material owned by foreign governments, obtained via intelligence relationships working on the basis of the Control Principle.”
That is exactly what we need seriously to consider. It would not be inconsistent with the rule of law, because at the end of the day it would be a rebuttable presumption, and the court would determine whether the presumption were rebutted.
As we have always known, the courts, when they interpret the legislation of this House, not only look at the words of an Act but try to identify, if they can, Parliament’s intention in passing it. If the statute stated that there were such a presumption against the disclosure of intelligence received from a foreign, friendly Government, the court would be able at least to take that into account before it reached a final decision, so I and the Committee hope that the Government give that proposal serious consideration.
One of the main parts of not only our report but the Government’s Green Paper concerns the future of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and although I note that it is a major issue I will not detain the House for long, as I hope to conclude my remarks in at most another 10 or 15 minutes in order to allow everyone else who wishes to speak the chance to do so. It is, however, a crucial matter.
Over a period of some 17 or 18 years, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 has become outdated: it no longer accurately describes how the Committee operates. That is part of the problem; another part of the problem is that the Committee, if it is to conduct its oversight effectively, needs additional responsibility and power.
It is worth remembering that when the 1994 Act was passed, the intention was not only that oversight would be provided for the first time, but that the public would be reassured that it was independent oversight—and to some degree that reassurance has not yet been achieved. The public, when they look at the Act, see a Committee that is not a Committee of Parliament, although it is a Committee of parliamentarians, because we are all appointed by the Prime Minister, we report to the Prime Minister, and only through the Prime Minister do our reports eventually reach the House. That obviously calls our independence into question.
The House has to give its view, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman, who also serves on the Committee and has done so even longer than I have, that the Prime Minister has the last word. Although Prime Ministers have in practice never overruled the view of the House, they have the statutory power to do so. The House gives its advice, thus illustrating the difficulty in terms of the public’s view. That is the first problem.
The Committee, in its report, recommends—we are delighted that the Government have accepted it in principle—that the Committee become a Committee of Parliament. It is a joint Committee of the House of Commons and House of Lords, with two distinguished Members of the House of Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Lothian, but we recommend that its appointment procedure be very similar to that used by the Standards and Privileges Committee or by all Joint Committees of Parliament. Names would be presented to Parliament, but Parliament would be able to veto them if it disapproved. If it disapproved, the names would have to disappear, and only when Parliament was satisfied with the recommendations would appointments be made. Parliament would have—in a way that it does not, and has never had—the last word on both the Chairman of the Committee and its members, and it would properly be a Committee of Parliament, albeit obviously required to operate under slightly different procedures because of the secret information that we deal with. That is the first reform of a fundamental kind.
On the second reform, the 1994 Act states that the Committee has responsibility for policy, resources and administration, but it does not mention operations, a subject in which there is overwhelming public interest and in which, on a simple literal reading of the Act, we appear to have no involvement. People who ought to know better have recently asked, “How can the Committee operate effectively if it cannot even look at operations?” In reality, it has been looking at operations over the past few years, whether on the treatment of detainees, the Binyam Mohamed case or the use of intelligence during the Iraq war.
The Committee has been able to look at the raw material and to question agencies about operations, but that role does not appear in the Act. That needs to be revised. We suggest that, instead of listing the issues that the Committee can look at, the Act should be reformed and simply state that “the Committee should have oversight responsibility for all the activities of the intelligence agencies”, thereby including operations.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. In making our recommendations to the Government—the matter is important to them as well—we acknowledge that we do not seek the level of responsibility that exists in the United States, where certain senior members of Congress have to be consulted in advance of an operation regarding what the intelligence agencies will be doing. They do not have the power to stop an operation, but they are informed about it, as they were, for example—so we understand—of that involving Osama bin Laden.
The ISC can see no public interest in such an approach. Having power without responsibility is bad enough, but to have responsibility without power is even worse. Our responsibility is to provide retrospective oversight, and the Government appear in principle to have accepted that, as long as we are dealing—as we agree we should be—with matters of significant national interest. That is right and proper. Many discussions will be needed about how that will be handled in practice, but the principle is of profound importance.
I have been thinking carefully about what my right hon. and learned Friend said regarding a change in the procedure for electing his Committee. Would a constitutional issue arise if Parliament summoned either him, as Chairman of the Committee, or a member of his Committee to give information that they knew but felt they were not entitled to reveal? What would happen in such a case?
I can give my hon. Friend a very straightforward answer: all members of the Committee are subject to the Official Secrets Act. We see the most secret information and we have therefore all been considered suitable for that purpose. Like any other United Kingdom citizen, we cannot reveal information that is in breach of the Official Secrets Act, which is an Act of this place and must be respected. In the unlikely event of the circumstances to which my hon. Friend refers, that would be the response.
The third major reform relates to the fact that the 1994 Act states that the Committee may “request” information from the intelligence agencies. If the Committee has the power to request, the agencies have the power to decline. I have to be fair and say that the agencies have never used that power, but they are able to decline and that is no longer acceptable. Our view, which we have recommended to the Government, is that the Committee should have the power to require information to be shared by the intelligence agencies, and only the Government, not the agencies, should have the power to override that if, for example, a Secretary of State or Prime Minister believe there is some overwhelming national interest in doing so. That would have to be reported to Parliament.
The power to require information is not just a change of words. At the moment, if the Committee wants information we request it and the agencies, which sometimes have massive files, produce a summary of the information. I am sure that they do it in good faith, but we are allowed to see only that summarised version. The power to require information will mean that we will have our own staff who can have informal discussions in a constructive and positive way with the agencies and see all the available information. Ultimately, they will decide what summary we might wish to see, which will enable us to put questions to the agencies if we decide to take evidence from them. That is a much more sensible procedure, which I am sure will work. However, it is obviously a very important change compared with previous practice.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has talked about balance in relation to the Green Paper. If there are to be more closed proceedings, is it not absolutely essential that there should be more rigorous parliamentary oversight? The Committee should therefore have more resources, not to aggrandise itself but to do properly the job that the Government are asking us to do
Yes. The right hon. Lady is a very senior member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. In the Green Paper, the Government have combined enhanced oversight with proposals for reform of the control principle precisely for the reason she mentions. In addition, even if there had not been a Green Paper and there were no Government proposals, I am sure the Committee would have taken the view that the time had come for a fundamental root-and-branch reform of oversight, and would have been making the recommendations we are discussing today to the Government. I do not know—and we will never know—what the Government’s reaction might have been. That would have been a different situation.
The final major change we are recommending relates, again, to the 1994 Act. The Act states that we have oversight of the Secret Intelligence Service, which is MI6; the Security Service, which is MI5; and GCHQ. That is all that is mentioned but, as the House will be well aware, the intelligence community is considerably wider than that. I mentioned defence intelligence a few minutes ago, and there is the Joint Intelligence Committee and the new National Security Council, which has a role partly concerned with intelligence. The reality is that, over the years, these additional agencies and parts of government have voluntarily subjected themselves to scrutiny by the ISC. That is right and proper, but it is time that the legislation caught up with the formal position. That has also been accepted by the Government.
In conclusion, the House might think, “Well, that’s all very well. We know what the Government’s view is and we know what the Intelligence and Security Committee’s view is, but what about the agencies themselves? How comfortable are they with these proposals?” I cannot speak on their behalf, but I can say that our relationship with the agencies is very positive and that they have sometimes publicly said that it is time for reform.
The agencies have taken an entirely constructive approach to the kind of issues we have been discussing today. Of course, there is a very good reason for that. Not only are the agencies great national servants operating in the national interest, but one of the big developments in intelligence oversight over the past 16 years has been that a Committee such as ours, whose primary role may seem to be to criticise agencies or the Government if something goes wrong, has also occasionally been the agencies’ champion if we conclude they are being unfairly attacked either in the media or elsewhere and are unable to defend themselves.
The obvious example of that is the 7/7 bombings, when serious representations were made that because the names of the people responsible for the bombings were on the Security Service’s files, what happened could surely have been stopped and it was all a disastrous mistake. I was not involved in that investigation, but our predecessors looked into the matter in enormous detail. It is significant that the conclusion they came to was in all material respects the same as that the coroner came to a few months ago: although various criticisms could be made, the Security Service was being unfairly accused on the central question of failing to stop that terrible event in the circumstances. The agencies have trust in the Committee partly because it has operated in a mature and sensible way. Although on many occasions the Committee may have criticised things the agencies have done, we are also prepared to speak on their behalf in public and private if we think the facts justify it.
Intelligence has been a hugely important issue for the United Kingdom for many years. The single most important intelligence achievement was Bletchley Park during the second world war, which had a material impact on our winning the war. More recently, how intelligence operates has changed fundamentally. However, the crucial aspects of intelligence remain the same: our national interest requires that intelligence agencies remain secret in their most crucial activities. That is how I started and that is how I conclude my comments. On behalf of the Committee as a whole, I commend our report to the House.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) for introducing his Committee’s report with his usual eloquence. I thank him and all the ISC’s members, a good number of whom are in the Chamber today, for the work they do throughout the year in overseeing our security and intelligence agencies. They play a very important role. Obviously, I will come on to the proposals to enhance the Committee’s role but, first, I would like to say that it plays an important and largely unseen role in overseeing the agencies. We are grateful to it for that. The quality of the Committee’s annual report underlines the unique and valuable role that it plays in the parliamentary oversight of the security and intelligence agencies.
We continue to face a number of serious threats to our national security. As the Committee’s report rightly sets out, those threats come from a range of sources. Foremost among them are international terrorism, particularly from al-Qaeda and its affiliates. We also face an ongoing threat from residual terrorist groups linked to Northern Ireland, from serious organised crime, and from traditional espionage against British interests. Added to those long-standing threats, we must now address the growing threat to our cyber-security from cybercrime and cyber-espionage.
On international terrorism, it is worth stressing that, despite the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda remains a threat. It is true that the organisation is now weaker than it has been at any point since 9/11. US military and intelligence operations, work by the Pakistani military and, of course, the enormous contribution that UK forces have made to the international effort in Afghanistan have all been key factors. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in praising the contribution of our armed forces, who are fighting so bravely many thousands of miles away in order to secure our streets back home from terrorism. However, threats from al-Qaeda, and from other groups that subscribe to its global jihad ideology, remain. We continue to arrest very significant numbers of people for terrorist offences—over 650 in the past two years alone.
The right hon. Lady is detailing the nature of the threat that we still face in this country. On that basis, she will recognise that the Olympic games is an area where there is clearly a heightened threat. Will she, even at this late stage, consider delaying the implementation of terrorism prevention and investigation measures, so that people who have been relocated out of London, who are some of the most dangerous people in this country, do not have the possibility of returning to London before the Olympic games?
The right hon. Lady is right to say that the security of the Olympic games is obviously a key concern and a key issue that we will be addressing over the coming months; indeed, it has been addressed by significant work that has been taking place over the past few years, since the bid was won. We all want to ensure that we provide a safe and secure Olympic games where people are able to endure—I am sorry, I mean enjoy; “endure” is probably more like the athletes enduring some pain during the games—the sporting achievements. We have been clear about our reasons for introducing TPIMs. We have been clear, as well, that the introduction of TPIMs, as the right hon. Lady knows, is accompanied by increased funding for the Security Service, and for the police in their counter-terrorism capacity, in order to provide for extra surveillance alongside TPIMs, which ensures that we are able to be reassured about the level of security that we can provide in relation to individuals who will be under those measures.
The leadership of al-Qaeda continues to plan operations in the UK. It attracts people for training, it has sections dedicated to overseas operations, and it radicalises and recruits. Even as its command and control infrastructure has weakened, al-Qaeda now seeks to inspire lone acts of terrorism organised and conducted without its guidance or instruction. We must now also pay more attention to the groups in Yemen and the horn of Africa, in particular, which are affiliated to al-Qaeda or support its ideology. These groups have independent capability. They can radicalise people in this country. Britons, Americans and Europeans are travelling to fight in Somalia with al-Shabaab and to train in Yemen with al-Qaeda.
Is that not why the National Security Council is so important? It brings together Cabinet Ministers and others—those who have domestic responsibility and Ministers such as the Foreign Secretary—in dealing with a country such as Yemen. What happens on the streets of Sana’a today may well affect what happens on the streets of London and other cities tomorrow.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. It is indeed the case that the National Security Council is able to bring together all the Government Ministers with an interest in matters relating to our national security—not only me and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary but the Secretary of State for Defence and others. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out that in looking at our national security we must also look at issues that arise abroad. As I have been saying, we must pay attention to the countries where people from the UK have the opportunity to travel to be trained and then to come back, perhaps to plot attacks here in the UK. What happens elsewhere matters for us on our streets, and he is absolutely right to say so. Indeed, when he intervened I was about to say that, of the people who are abroad in these areas, we know that some aspire to conduct terrorist attacks back at home.
The emergence of such groups is a stark reminder that the threat picture can change rapidly and that the factors that drive the terrorist threat to this country have not gone away. Recent attacks in Nigeria demonstrate the range of places around the globe in which western interests, including British interests, are now under threat. We also face a significant and ongoing threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland. There were 40 such attacks last year. That threat has obviously required increased effort and resources from the security and intelligence agencies.
The tragic events in Oslo this summer have also made us reconsider the threat from the extreme right. That is much less widespread and systematic than terrorism associated with al-Qaeda. However, contrary to some reports, our counter-terrorism strategy—CONTEST—already addresses that threat; that was a major change that we made to the strategy produced by the last Government. After Oslo, we will be allocating further resources to that work.
Traditional espionage continues to pose a threat—to the commercial sector, as well as to our diplomatic and defence interests. The foreign intelligence services operating in this country seek to obtain a wide range of classified and privileged information in the fields of defence, politics, government, energy, and science and technology.
The final threat that I want to mention is cyber-security. The national security strategy assessed cyber-security to be one of the highest-priority risks we now face. It is important to stress that this is not simply a risk for the future. Cybercrime is hitting British people, and cyber-espionage is hitting the British Government and British business, on a daily basis, right now.
All these threats must now be faced at the same time as we prepare for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games and the challenge of providing security for 10,500 Olympic athletes, 21,000 media and broadcasting personnel—double the number of athletes, I note—and the holders of some 10.8 million Olympic and Paralympic tickets. A question was asked earlier about the responsibility for cyber-security. That rests with the Cabinet Office, although that in no way detracts from the role of the Foreign Secretary in relation to GCHQ. The Cabinet Office is looking at a wide range of issues across Government in relation to cyber-security.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that the Cabinet Office leads on that, and that co-ordination is welcome news. However, do we not all have a responsibility to understand cyber-security? A generation is now growing up that is using Facebook, is yet to own a credit card, and has very different liberal values when it comes to using the internet. Some small and medium-sized businesses are perhaps reluctant to pay for the addition of cyber-security because it is a little costly and times are difficult. We all have a responsibility for this, not just the Cabinet Office and Government.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. There is an onus on all of us who are using the internet to ensure that we are aware of the responsibility that we have for our own security. One problem is that many people are unaware of what is available to help them to increase their own personal security in relation to these matters. That is a challenge that we all need to face and to rise up to.
All these threats require active and highly competent security and intelligence agencies to tackle them—and fortunately, in this country, that is exactly what we have. We should be proud of the agencies and of the work they do alongside their police colleagues. They work tirelessly, day in and day out, often at great personal risk to themselves, to keep the British public safe. They do this work without public thanks or public recognition, and we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. As the Committee’s report notes, those working in this field continue to excel at a very challenging task. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending them our thanks and our praise.
As the Foreign Secretary set out last week, those agencies not only defend us from threats to our national security and to the lives of British citizens but provide vital support to British military operations and diplomatic intelligence, which gives us a key national advantage in foreign and security policy. But it is precisely because of the importance of the agencies’ role, and because much of it must be kept away from the public gaze, that their work should be properly scrutinised. It is also important that, where there are any allegations of misconduct by the agencies, public confidence can be assured and retained by rigorous independent parliamentary oversight. That is why the oversight provided by the ISC is so crucial.
We sought in our Green Paper on justice and security to strengthen, clarify and modernise those oversight arrangements. For many years, successive Chairmen of the ISC have called for reform. We will answer that call. We therefore propose to formalise the role of the ISC, making it a statutory Committee of Parliament and allowing it to report to Parliament as well as to the Prime Minister. It will also be given a formal remit for oversight of the wider intelligence community. Crucially, our proposals will for the first time give the ISC the power to require information from the agencies.
I want to stress that, although the Green Paper proposes that we should consider the extent to which the ISC should oversee the operational activity of the agencies, no decisions in that area have yet been made. We need to consider carefully the consequences of creating such a broad power, including the impact on the operational effectiveness of the agencies and the additional resource burden that would be placed on them.
We are also looking at wider changes. We propose to consult on giving the intelligence services commissioner an expanded remit to monitor compliance with agency operational policies. We will also consult on more far-reaching proposals such as the introduction of an inspector- general to provide oversight of all agency business.
Separately, we have strengthened decision making on national security issues by creating a proper National Security Council, as was referred to by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, and appointing a National Security Adviser. Those are important and profound changes to the national security and intelligence machinery at the heart of Government and I am grateful that the Committee has welcomed them.
Robust oversight and accountability are not the sole requirements of effective intelligence agencies. They also need to be able to keep the public safe, without the risk of vital intelligence or essential international intelligence-sharing relationships being compromised. For that, they need a proper legal framework that allows them to present their case in the courts and to defend themselves properly. It cannot be right that at the moment sensitive material is excluded altogether, meaning judgment is not reached on the basis of the full facts. That is why the Green Paper proposes reforms to allow the right balance to be struck between protecting sensitive material and giving the courts the access to the material that they need to allow justice to be done.
The Green Paper makes proposals, to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington referred, to allow closed material procedures to be more widely available to the courts, to enhance the special advocate system, and to ensure that sensitive material, sources and techniques are protected. The overall aim is to allow cases involving national security to be heard fairly, fully and safely in our courts. I am pleased that the Committee welcomed those proposals and that there was cross-party support for them. I note that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)—not always one to praise this Government’s decisions—called them “elegant solutions”.
I stress that those are just proposals at this stage. I note the encouragement of my right hon. and learned Friend to strengthen that aspect of the Green Paper. We will consider other ideas if they come forward. However, our aim is and must be to strike the right balance between protecting sensitive material and protecting the fundamentals of British justice.
As well as robust oversight and the right legal framework, the other thing that the security and intelligence agencies need to do their job is, of course, resources. I am pleased with the Committee’s conclusion that the agencies have been given a fair funding settlement in the spending review. Like the rest of the public sector, the agencies will seek to make savings in their support functions and corporate services. Collaborative working across the three agencies is the key to that. What is clear is that the agencies have the funding that they need to maintain their current range of operational capabilities and to invest for the future. For example, much of the £650 million of funding for our transformative national cyber-security programme will fund activity by the agencies. There is no question of allowing our national security to be diminished to make savings. Although the agencies face pressures, as they always do, like the ISC, the Government remain confident in their ability to meet those challenges.
It is important to note, with the Olympics approaching, that the agencies’ plans for meeting the significant additional challenge of securing the games remain on track and that the Olympics security budget is protected.
The first duty and the overriding priority of any Government is the protection of the British public. Although great progress has been made in counter-terrorism and other areas in recent years, serious threats to our national security remain. That is why it is so vital that we have security and intelligence agencies that can continue to reduce those threats and help keep us all safe. Their work is among the most important carried out by anyone. It is right that there should be robust oversight, which is why we are modernising and strengthening the oversight arrangements. I warmly welcome the Committee’s latest annual report. Its recommendations are informing change as we speak. I look forward to future annual reports being even more useful in helping our world-class intelligence and security agencies to get even better at the valuable work that they do to protect the public.
I, too, welcome the Intelligence and Security Committee’s annual report and the work that the Committee has done this year, which was comprehensively set out by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).
It is 13 years since I last spoke in a debate on a report by the Intelligence and Security Committee. That was before the attacks of 9/11, before the London bombings of 7/7 and the damage done by al-Qaeda, before the most recent military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq and at a very different stage in the Northern Ireland peace process. There have been dramatic changes since then in the nature of the threats that Britain faces and in the nature of the work of the intelligence and security agencies to keep us safe. However, many of the principles that we debated then, such as the importance of accountability and managing the tensions between liberty and security and between democracy and secrecy, remain as valid and as pertinent now.
I join the Committee and the Home Secretary in paying tribute to those who work in the intelligence and security agencies, and I place on the record the gratitude of the Opposition and those we represent. Our intelligence officers and agents are not known. By its very nature, their work must go unsung. Some have even died in the course of their work and have been laid to rest quietly with no public tribute. They work tirelessly, sometimes in dangerous conditions, to find a piece of a jigsaw that will never be fully complete, but which could yet save lives.
In this debate, we must pay tribute from the Front Benches to the work of the ISC, as the Home Secretary has done. Its members take extremely seriously their responsibility to provide accountability, even though they cannot discuss or debate in public many of the issues that they pursue privately. There is a long tradition of cross-party working and consensus in the Committee, as indeed there should be, on many issues to do with intelligence and our national interest. I congratulate the Committee on its latest report. I also thank those who represent the Opposition on the Committee, my right hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) and for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), for their hard work on behalf of this side of the House and Parliament as a whole.
As the Committee and Ministers have made clear, the security risks that we face have become more diverse and technologically advanced than at any time in our history. Hostile attacks in cyberspace by other states and terrorist groups have the potential to cause serious damage to the security and prosperity of the UK. The Home Secretary has set out the continued threat from al-Qaeda and rightly paid tribute to the work of our armed forces. The work on international terrorism and counter-proliferation are becoming more closely connected. We are also dealing with new challenges, such as helping new states to emerge from the Arab spring. The older and more established threat from groups in Northern Ireland is now a growing concern.
Our security and intelligence agencies have expanded their work substantially over the past decade, supported by increased resources that were rightly provided over many years to keep Britain safe. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington was right to point to the increasingly mature debate on security and accountability. As a result, there are large areas of agreement across the Committee and across the House on security and our national interest.
The Committee has rightly welcomed the work done by the Government through the National Security Council and the growing focus on cyber-terrorism. It is right that the Government and the agencies are increasing investment and action in that area. I also welcome the ISC’s continued scrutiny of the Prevent and Contest strategies, which we have discussed on the Floor of the House.
Like the Committee Chair, I welcome the Government’s attempts in the justice and security Green Paper to address the difficult issues of the control principle and the use of sensitive material in civil cases. Those are not easy problems to solve, but they are extremely important given the chilling effect on international intelligence arrangements if sensitive material is at risk of being disclosed. I noted the important points that the right hon. Gentleman made about the detail, practicality and workability of measures, and we stand ready to work with the Government to get that right, because it is hugely important.
We welcome, too, the Gibson inquiry, which is important for maintaining confidence in the work of the intelligence agencies. The Committee may wish to look further at that matter in advance of the Gibson inquiry beginning its work, while there remain legal delays, to ensure that the inquiry can achieve its aims.
A number of concerns are raised as a result of the Committee’s report. In particular, in the face of the ever-changing threats, the Committee’s scrutiny of resources is extremely important. The report rightly identifies areas in which the agencies could make greater savings by, for example, exploring a consolidated approach to vetting. The Home Secretary should also take seriously the Committee’s concerns about the scale of the real-terms cuts that the agencies are facing, particularly in Olympic year. The increases in inflation since the spending review have increased those real-terms cuts. Ministers will be aware that the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service told the Committee:
“It’s quite hard to…maintain the capability of the Service when we face a 10% reduction in staff”.
Clearly all Departments and agencies need to make their share of efficiencies, but in the current circumstances it is vital that the Government accept the Committee’s recommendation that
“Given the importance of national security work, it is essential that the Spending Review settlement can be adjusted if there is a significant change in the threat.”
We are also concerned about the particular pressures surrounding the Olympics. According to figures from the Library, the real reduction in the single intelligence account next year alone will be £60 million. Next year is the year in which the eyes of the world will be on us for the Olympics, and the Home Secretary rightly discussed the Olympics in her speech. The evidence quoted in the Committee’s report shows the pressure that the agencies will face. The Security Service chief has said that
“there will be a large diversion of resource from other things into the Olympics. But I don’t think we’ve got any option about that.”
The Secret Intelligence Service chief has said that the Olympics
“will certainly have an impact on our intelligence operations and intelligence coverage of other targets during that period.”
The Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary must take seriously the Committee’s warning that it is
“nevertheless concerned that this will inevitably divert resources from the Service’s other work during this period, and thus expose the UK to greater risk.”
At a time when thousands of police officers are being lost, the Home Secretary and the Treasury should take the opportunity to review the level of resources available for security and policing next year to ensure that they are sufficient for the threats that we will face.
As a result of the Olympics, there is also an additional reason for the Home Secretary to re-examine counter-terror powers, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles has raised. The Home Secretary is aware of our deep concern that she is removing the ability to keep terror suspects out of London in Olympic year through control orders. The director-general of the Security Service told the Committee that under the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Bill and with additional resources,
“there should be no substantial increase in overall risk.”
Frankly, however, it is very hard for the House to understand why the Home Secretary should want any increase in overall risk, let alone one that is entirely a result of her own policies. The Committee is right to warn the Government about that and to raise the concern that the new regime does not offer the same level of assurance as control orders.
We know that the Government have themselves admitted that there are issues to consider in that regard. Indeed, the Home Office has recently written to the House of Lords to say that the transitional period between control orders and TPIMs will be extended from 28 days to 42 days in an amendment to be tabled in the Lords in response, I understand, to resourcing concerns raised by the Metropolitan police. However, would it not be wise to delay the implementation of TPIMs altogether, at least until after the Olympics have taken place? Frankly, it is simply not responsible for the Government to reduce counter-terror powers, as well as resources, at a time when we know the pressures are growing. I urge the Home Secretary to examine the Committee’s report carefully and think again.
Turning to the ISC’s proposals for its own reform, the current Chair called for those reforms even before he was appointed, and I welcome his continued commitment to them. The Committee has certainly evolved since the 1994 Act, as he rightly pointed out. It started with no investigatory resource, which changed after the debates in the late ’90s. Over the years, increasing levels of detail have been provided to the Committee, and also by the Committee to the public, including more information about overall budgets and information from other Departments and organisations. Although many people in the agencies viewed the Committee with a certain suspicion and anxiety in its early years, I believe most now agree about its importance and the benefits that the agencies are provided with by having accountability and independent scrutiny. The Committee can bust myths and counteract attacks on the agencies as well as challenge and explore problems without putting security at risk in any way.
However, it is time to go further, and both the ISC and the Government are right to want reform now. The Government are right to consider strengthened executive accountability and greater scrutiny of the agencies through the executive and judicial routes, and they are right to consider options such as an inspector-general, although I understand that considerably more work will need to be done on that approach. For many years, the tradition of the agencies was one of very little executive oversight. Ministers would decide the overall framework, but they did not have clear accountability for how operations took place. That executive accountability has increased over the years, with the roles of the different commissioners being strengthened, but I do not believe it is yet on a sensible long-term footing, and the Government are right to explore that further.
It is also right that we look further at parliamentary oversight. I believe that we should have gone further on that under the previous Government. It is right to consider creating a statutory Committee of Parliament with much stronger access to information. Of course, the Committee will always have to operate in a different way from other parliamentary Committees. The principle of its operating inside the so-called ring of secrecy is integral to much of its work, so it requires additional safeguards, including on how Committee members are selected. However, I believe that the Government could still go further.
The Home Secretary said that the Government were still cautiously considering the proposal that the Committee’s work should cover operations. Of course, it is not for the Committee to second-guess operations in advance, which is not what the ISC is proposing, but there needs to be parliamentary scrutiny of not only the policies and good intentions of the agencies, but operations. Ministers and the agencies actively resisted that when the Committee was first established in 1994, but in fact the Committee has already gone further in practice than was originally intended in legislation. It is important to support it now and give it the proper underpinnings that it needs to be able to examine operations properly and thoroughly where it is appropriate to do so, and where the Committee believes that a significant issue needs to be investigated. I urge the Home Secretary to make progress in that area and accept the principle of the Committee’s recommendations.
I also believe that there is a strong case for the Committee, or at least its Chair, to see more detail on individual cases. I have seen no convincing reason to deny the Committee, or its Chair, access to the full oversight reports on the agencies by the various commissioners, including the annexes, which are currently often withheld.
It would help the House, too, for the ISC—or, again, at least for its Chair—to have access to the detailed papers on individual control order cases as, for example, the commissioner currently does. Again, that would not be to second-guess current cases, but so that the House could reflect on the implications of those cases for legislation. For example, we may be asked to introduce emergency legislation on TPIMs or on extending pre-charge detention, yet it is a genuine problem for Parliament that the only person who has seen all the cases that justify changing legislation is the Home Secretary who proposes the new legislation. There are too few checks and balances in that system, which is bad for democracy but ultimately also bad for the Home Secretary and for confidence in national security. It would be far better for Parliament and for the Home Secretary to have another independent voice that can come to judgment on the basis of the evidence and advise Parliament. Stronger counter-terror powers can be justified, but I would like stronger checks and balances alongside them. The Opposition would prefer to retain control orders, especially in Olympics year, but we would also prefer greater scrutiny of the control order regime by Parliament, including the ISC.
Finally, I am astonished to find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who in last year’s debate argued that the ISC Chair should be an Opposition Member. There are significant advantages to the ISC following the example of the Public Accounts Committee, the Chair of which is a senior Member of the Opposition. That is not to cast aspersions on the current ISC Chair, who would make an admirable Chair any time in opposition, nor is it—perhaps more importantly —to cast aspersions on my right hon. Friends who did admirable jobs as ISC Chairs when Labour was in government. They would make excellent ISC Chairs now, but perceived independence and credibility is even more important for the ISC than for other Committees.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady for the additional comments that she has volunteered. The House might like to be reminded that there is nothing to stop an Opposition Member from being ISC Chair. In fact, there is a precedent. Tom King, now Lord King of Bridgwater, was the first ISC Chair and remained for a period after the Labour Government came into power in 1997. It is entirely available to Opposition Members, depending on who they are.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right that there are precedents. In fact, Lord King was Chair when I was a member of the ISC between 1997 and 1999, and he continued through to 2001. The principle of the Public Accounts Committee is that as a matter of course the Chair is a Member of the Opposition. The value of that is this: exactly because the ISC must operate behind closed doors, it needs to be seen to be independent and authoritative in its conclusions; and exactly because it cannot tell us the evidence on which its judgments are based, it needs to be perceived by the wider public to be independent of Ministers. That is important for the agencies as well as for the public.
In the 1998 debate, the then ISC Chair, Tom King, spoke of the importance of the Committee having a unanimous all-party voice and authority:
“When a situation arises that gives serious cause for public concern…We shall not be able to help matters unless we can say that we have investigated the allegations, with…access to all the relevant information”.—[Official Report, 2 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 594.]
Those words stand today. When I spoke in that debate, I said that accountability through the ISC lay at the heart of the tension not just between liberty and security, but between democracy and secrecy:
“We have certainly come a long way since the mere existence of MI5 and MI6 was denied. I believe that, sooner or later, we will travel much further. We will have to improve our system of accountability, for the sake not only of democracy but of the very secret agencies that the United Kingdom needs to function and to protect our modern democracy. If we do not improve our system of accountability, those agencies’ capacity to operate in the national interest will be threatened.”—[Official Report, 2 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 613.]
Those words, too, still stand.
The role of the ISC has become stronger since 1998 and it does vital work. Accountability has increased, but it has not yet gone far enough. The Government’s reforms are welcome, but they should be brave and go further, so that we continue to have effective agencies that have the confidence of the public in a modern democracy. Sooner or later, we will have that.
I begin by reassuring the shadow Home Secretary that, in my limited experience—I have been a member of the ISC for just over a year—such is the sense of cross-party common purpose on the Committee, I would have no difficulty in accepting as Chairman any of the Committee’s three excellent Labour members. However, such a thing is completely unnecessary given the outstanding chairmanship of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—[Hon. Members: “Hear hear!”] I am glad to hear Opposition Members’ endorsements.
In his opening remarks, my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned the totally discredited concept that history ended with the end of the cold war. Topics mentioned in the debate include the Olympics, cyber-security, general terrorism and the more traditional threat from more traditional enemies. In my somewhat disparate remarks, I shall try to touch on a few of them.
When dealing with any form of enemy of the democratic system, it is helpful to think in the ways and along the lines that they think—if we have such twisted minds, to which some of us must own up. Our initial reaction in respect of the Olympic games is to think, “There must be a huge extra effort to protect the games,” but what would terrorists planning a series of deadly attacks in the UK think? Would they think, “I must go straight away to the heart of the games, where the maximum security effort is bound to be concentrated,” or would they think, “There will be a huge concentration of effort on the security of the Olympic games in that fortnight, so there will be great opportunities to create mayhem in all sorts of other, less protected parts of the UK”?
Therefore, the problem facing the Security Service is that it cannot say, “With the extra effort we will put into protecting the Olympics, we will ease security measures elsewhere in the country.” The reality is that the holding of the Olympics in the UK is a considerable opportunity—I will not say that it is a heaven-sent opportunity, because it comes from a somewhat different direction—for terrorists to cause mayhem and to maximise the deadly effect of their perverted ideas carried into action. I often wonder whether it was sheer coincidence—it probably was—that the choice of London for the Olympics was announced just 24 hours before the 7/7 atrocities in 2005.
We need extra concentration because of what could be visited upon us during the Olympics, but there are also new technological threats, to which hon. Members have referred. Everybody has welcomed the increase in resources—£600 million net—to ensure greater cyber-security in future. There was concern in the past about a lack of ministerial responsibility for cyber-protection, so it comes as a great relief to the ISC and its members to know that the role will now be undertaken by the Cabinet Office, whose Ministers have a legendary reputation for the protection of sensitive information. Think about it. However, when we are considering—[Laughter.] They got there in the end. As Frankie Howerd used to say, don’t take a vote on it.
The Cabinet Office will be responsible for cyber-security, but that does not mean that it is the most suited Department to be responsible—nor has it been earmarked for the role—for the countering of the propaganda message that is used to generate recruits to the terrorist cause, which is closely related to cyber-warfare. We have heard a considerable amount about the attempts that have been made to decapitate al-Qaeda, which have enjoyed considerable success. However, we also know that attacks are increasingly lone-wolf attacks, when people self-start and trawl the internet, picking up messages and techniques that they turn into action, with deadly effect.
It is of the utmost importance that the Government seek to counter the message put out to mobilise, radicalise and turn into terrorists impressionable and sometimes unbalanced minds already in our society. It is incredibly difficult for a security service to track such people: it is much harder to track a lone-wolf potential attacker than somebody who is engaged with people abroad and part of an al-Qaeda-like organisation planning a much more sophisticated attack. We need to hear more—the Committee will make an effort to ensure that we do—of the efforts that the Government are making to neutralise the radicalising messages on the internet and put forward a counter-narrative so that people can understand the values of the society in which they live.
The hon. Gentleman is extremely knowledgeable in this field because of his experience before entering Parliament, but does he share my concerns about the work of the Home Office’s research, information and communications unit, which the Committee has decided to consider much more closely? It is essential work but at the moment we have little information about what it is doing and its effectiveness.
I am delighted that the right hon. Lady makes that point. It is too early to have concerns about the work of the unit because we have not been able to examine it yet. The work that such a unit is designed to do is, as she said, of the utmost importance, and if it carries it out successfully the public at large might not know how successful it has been in supporting themes and counter-narrative ideologies in the media and internet to the benefit of people in our society who might otherwise become disaffected. However, unless one can examine the organisation’s work—within what is commonly called the ring of secrecy—one cannot be sure whether sufficient work is being done or about its quality.
On page 44, paragraph 156 of our report, the Committee stated:
“The difficulty of measuring the success of PREVENT work is most notable in the work of the Research, Information and Communications Unit…which was established in 2007 with the primary aim of ensuring consistency, across government, on Counter-Terrorism and counter-extremism messages and developing a coherent narrative to challenge extremist ideology. RICU is jointly funded by the Home Office and the Foreign Office. It currently has 22 full-time staff and its budget in 2010/11 was £4.25m (of which £0.3m was spent on research and £2.7m was spent on communication campaigns).”
That does not sound like an effort on the scale needed if we are seriously to counter the radicalising message of the enemies of our way of life.
Democratic societies are inherently resistant to Governments propagandising against organisations involving their own citizens, in an attempt to get a message across to their own people; but sometimes we have to understand that there are forms of warfare besides open warfare—for example, the propaganda and counter-propaganda warfare that went on during the long confrontation with Soviet communism. During that period, in 1948, a Labour Government set up the Foreign Office’s information research department, which remained in existence until 1977 under Governments of both complexions, until unfortunately another Labour Government decided to do away with it. That organisation operated on a considerable scale, and its particular strength was that it made available to opinion-formers the detailed facts that enabled strong cases for what was good about British society to be made on a non-partisan, non-party political basis. I believe—I think that the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) shares my belief—that an effort on a similar scale might be necessary in the future.
On the Committee’s operations, I can reassure the Home Secretary: she said that we need to consider the resource implications of the Committee expanding its work to consider operational matters; but I am not sure that there are many resource implications, because as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington said, we are asking not to change what we do but simply to formalise what we already do. We are not asking to look over the shoulder of the intelligence and security services at what they are doing while they are doing it—in an operational sense—although they sometimes choose to give us glimpses of that, which obviously we treat with appropriate discretion. Instead, we wish to be assured that when something becomes contentious, the ISC can review the matter and decide whether proper procedures were followed, whether mistakes were made or whether we can help the security and intelligence services by giving them a clean bill of health.
I shall take an example at random. It is known that over the years the approach of Governments towards Libya changed completely. Under the Labour Government, there was a policy—I am sure that its proponents would argue that it was a legitimate line to pursue—of trying to bring Libya back into the fold. For example, when Libya declared its intention to abandon its chemical weapons stocks—we now know that it still had some, although we do not know whether that was because it had not finished getting rid of them or because it was concealing them and cheating on its promises—it was regarded as quite a coup, quite a triumph for the security and intelligence services
It now appears, however, that along the way the degree of co-operation between some of our agencies and some Libyan agencies might have crossed the line. If it did, for example in the rendition of two people, as has been reported, we will need a means of finding out why that line was crossed, which agencies crossed it, who, if anybody, was responsible—was it the Government, was it the agencies?—and whether there are lessons to be learned that we can help to articulate. If the Committee is not given the power to review such operations, many people will rightly ask, “What’s the use of having a Committee of parliamentarians, whose job is supposedly to supervise the security and intelligence services, if when something highly controversial appears to have happened, it cannot, does not or will not look into it?”
I want to refer to one or two of the slightly more traditional threats. It was interesting to hear that the agencies still think that we should not, in our rightful concern about international terrorism, forget that the country remains an intelligence target for countries such as Russia and China. One of the things that worry me the more I focus on it is the possibility that some countries could steal our technology, use it to undercut our competitiveness and then buy their way into our infrastructure in this country. This would be of great strategic value to them in future. I will say no more about that for the moment, but I hope that others might feel it appropriate to do so later in the debate.
Finally, I warmly welcome the proposal in the justice Green Paper to prevent the control order principle being breached. Irrespective of what piece of intelligence was disclosed in court, we must never forget that if we undermine the trust between ourselves and our principal intelligence allies on that issue, we undermine it on every issue. However, it also behoves us to remind our intelligence partners that when they engage in methods and techniques such as Guantanamo Bay and water-boarding, they open up not only themselves but their allies to challenges in court that make such problems much more salient, in respect of the evidence that a judge might feel had to be disclosed. It is a question of exercising two-way restraint: we do not wish to breach the confidence of our allies, but our allies must not breach the standards to which our intelligence services rightly apply themselves.
I am very grateful to be able to make a brief contribution to this important debate. Let me start by congratulating the Chairman, and the members, of the Intelligence and Security Committee. When I held that position some years ago, I was unable to open the debate, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has done so ably today. Indeed, I barely missed being constrained to 10 minutes because I was speaking from the Back Benches, so I am glad that addressing that issue was one of the first reforms to be implemented.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman made an excellent speech outlining the work of the Committee, touching on the important point that, inevitably, people outside—or, for that matter, inside—do not know exactly what members of the Committee do. By its nature, the Committee deals with secret business and secret matters, so it is inevitable that people will be simply unaware of the huge amount of work that goes into what it does. During my time on the Committee, the amount of work that the Chair and the members put in meant that they were virtually doing a full-time job. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and the Marquess of Lothian are the only two current Labour and Conservative members with whom I served on the Committee, but I know that the current members, from all parts of the House, do an excellent job. I pay tribute to them, as I do to the intelligence agencies and the great work that they do in keeping our country safe from terrorism and other important threats.
However, there is one thing in the report that disturbs me. The report refers to the terrorist attacks of July 2005. The House will know that the Intelligence and Security Committee issued two reports on that terrible event—one when I chaired it and the other when it was chaired by Dr Kim Howells, my successor but one. It is important for the House to understand the point that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington made about those reports, for which Dr Kim Howells and I were responsible, both of which came to the same conclusions about that event as the coroner: that the intelligence agencies could not have prevented what happened in 2005, because of resources and prioritisation. However, it disturbs me to read in the annual report—although I am pleased that the excellent director of the Security Service has indicated that he was sorry about this—that the information that the Committee received was not up to it, and that the work had not been done and the intelligence not looked at sufficiently well for the Committee to be properly informed about what had occurred.
I want to confine my remarks, however, to the important business of the reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee, a matter that has been before the Committee for at least four years, and rightly so. The Government are to be congratulated on the Green Paper, which was referred to earlier. My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) was right to emphasise that reform must come, as the Chair of the Committee said. However, we have to do that in such a way that we balance the significance of the Committee—by ensuring that secrecy is maintained—with the importance of ensuring that people in our country are aware that it is doing a proper job, and that is not easy. Every other Select Committee in this House can do all sorts of things—here in the Chamber, in the Committee Rooms and outside, even on visits—that the Intelligence and Security Committee cannot do. How do we square that circle? How do we ensure that people are sufficiently assured that the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are, in fact, doing the job that the House of Commons and the House of Lords have asked them to do?
There is a problem with trying to make the Committee exactly the same as any other Select Committee or Joint Committee of both Houses. We have gone down the right road by ensuring that this House and the House of Lords have the right to propose names. It is important that this should continue and that there should be a requirement that the Government respect the names put to them for membership. At the same time, however, the vital issue of trust—a word used throughout this debate —is critical, whether it be trust between our international allies or trust between the Committee and the intelligence agencies. If that trust breaks down, it will be a purposeless Committee that simply will not work.
It has been said—the Chairman of the Committee himself said it—that when the Committee was set up back in the mid-1990s, it was an extremely different creature from what it is today. It did not deal with operational matters, but simply with finance, resources, structures and so on; but now, of course, operational matters have been dealt with. It is important that the Green Paper recognises that this should be put into statute, with a legal requirement for the Committee to deal with operational matters. I agree with the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) that the Committee is obviously not going to walk across to the MI5 or MI6 buildings every day, knock on the door and say, “Let’s have a look at what’s happening now,” as may happen in other countries. That is not going to happen, nor should it. However, I am sure that it is the experience of the current members of the Committee, as it was when I was the Chairman, that when important issues arise, such as Libya or others that I can recall, the agencies will take it upon themselves to inform the Committee, and certainly the Chairman, of the significance of those issues. However, that has to be formalised, because at the moment we cannot insist that the Intelligence and Security Committee can deal with operational issues, which is a problem.
Ultimately, it all comes back to trust. Whatever the legalities, if the agencies do not trust the Committee, for fear of leaks or whatever, they will simply—and quite rightly—not discuss sensitive intelligence matters with it that could present a danger to our country. Incidentally, I do not think for one second that any current or previous member of the ISC would do that, but that is obviously an issue that the intelligence agencies have to consider. I am therefore very much in favour of extending the Committee’s remit.
As to whether the Chairman of the Committee should be an Opposition Member, it is quite interesting that the noble Lord King, who was referred to earlier, was a Government Member when he was appointed. It has rightly been said that when Labour won the election in 1997, he continued as the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. It is quite interesting that when I was appointed in 2005, he rather grizzled and grumbled about it and said in the House of Lords that I should not have been appointed because I was not an Opposition Member, but still a Government Member. My view is that, ultimately, we need the right person for the job. Although there is an analogy between the ISC and the Public Accounts Committee—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford who served on that Committee has made it—I think we need to be careful how far we go down that line. It is important that the person chosen has the respect and confidence of both sides of the House of Commons and also, of course, of the agencies themselves.
The other important issue that has been mentioned—I talk about it elliptically—is that of having consensus in the Committee. I cannot recall a single instance when a vote was taken in the ISC. It is not that there were no disagreements—there were many profound and deep disagreements about the members—but as a Committee we took the view that whatever our profound and difficult disagreements, we would have to find a way out of them. To my knowledge, only one single vote has ever been taken on the ISC—on whether a visit to particular place should be by plane or by train. That was the only real vote. Every other issue has been decided by consensus. It was obvious—no, perhaps it was not that obvious—that this place was in the United Kingdom. This shows that members of the Committee, usually senior Members who are there to serve their country in a special way, put aside party political allegiances and are on the Committee to do a particular job.
I think that a difficulty might arise if the ISC were exactly the same as a Select Committee. That needs to be considered when we think about how the ISC should develop over the years. There is unquestionably a need for greater accountability, and the ISC, the House, the Government and my Front-Bench colleagues must work out how to achieve it.
The other very important issue raised by my friend Dr Kim Howells when he chaired the ISC was the Committee’s independence from Government. I believe that this is critical. How do we achieve it? First, I do not think it was a good idea for the Committee to meet in the Cabinet Office. It should be removed from Government premises altogether and put somewhere on the parliamentary estate. The excellent people who work in the secretariat—they are indeed excellent—would work to Parliament rather than to the Government.
I do not undervalue for a second the significance of the Prime Minister’s role in this because he has ultimate responsibility for the security of our nation and has to ensure that these hugely sensitive issues and materials are dealt with properly. However, I still think that there is a lot of work to be done to ensure the Committee’s independence—removing it physically from the Cabinet Office, and perhaps also taking the food and rations, so to speak, away from the Cabinet Office to ensure a genuine independence in the ISC.
Work has been done and I am delighted to note the Government’s efforts in the Green Paper to ensure that we make progress. I was pleased with the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary and, as I said earlier, pleased with the excellent remarks of the current Chairman of the ISC. We all owe the Committee a great debt, just as we do to the intelligence services. There is a balance to be struck between accountability on the one hand and the security of our nation on the other. It is one that we have struggled with for a long time, but I think that we are getting there at last.
I echo the thanks of various Members to the members of the intelligence and security services for the work they do on our behalf to keep us safe. I also thank the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) for setting out in a lucid and measured way what his Committee has found, which has led in turn to a measured and lucid debate so far, consistent with what the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) said about members of the Intelligence and Security Committee putting aside party political allegiances. I welcome that, as we do not want party political differences to get in the way of the important security considerations that the ISC has highlighted.
Both the ISC in its response and annual report and the Government in their detailed response have provided a useful framework for formulating a small number of questions for the Minister who will respond later. I hope he does not take offence at that. Let me deal with the recommendations in the report.
Recommendation A deals with the savings to be derived from the single intelligence account. It talks about making the supporting functions more efficient and delivering new operational capability as a means of reducing the need for savings. I wonder whether a breakdown has been done to determine how the savings will be split between those two areas. The most certain way of achieving the savings safely is having a clear plan that identifies how those savings will be derived over future years.
Recommendation B deals with the spending review settlements and poses the question whether they can be adjusted if there is a significant change in the threat. A number of Members have referred to this issue, including the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). He is no longer in his place but spoke about the cyber-threat. The Government response states that
“the SIA will first look to reprioritise from within its existing work.”
The use of the word “first” suggests that the SIA might look to do something different secondly, but no second alternative is outlined, which makes me wonder what it is that the Government do not want to put on the record. What is clearly understood is that if a very large and significant new threat emerges, the Government would want to respond in a way that would involve resources. We would all expect that to be the case.
Recommendation D deals with information assurance and making sure that it has the required backing. The Government’s response states that
“the Deputy National Security Adviser will continue to work with the Communications-Electronics Security Group…to develop a suitable funding model that will ensure the long-term sustainability of their IA work.”
Is it clear at what point that work is going to be completed?
In a similar vein, in response to recommendation E the Government have rightly identified the need to take proactive steps to address the issue of retaining a suitable cadre of internet specialists. I hope the Minister will tell us what proactive steps have already been taken. I should state now—perhaps I should have done so at the outset—that the Minister, for clear operational reasons, might not be able to give answers to every question. Clearly, he will not respond if it is not appropriate for him to do so.
Recommendation G identifies the need for GCHQ to be able to account for lost equipment. The ISC made it clear that GCHQ should ensure that the problem does not happen again and the response noted that good work had been undertaken with the National Audit Office since 2008-09. I wonder whether GCHQ has been able to provide the Minister with the assurance that those incidents of lost equipment, and the potential risks associated with them, will not happen again.
Recommendation K deals with the Security Service’s need for IT specialists. A useful initiative has been set up with
“the three Agencies…engaged in setting up a single unified mechanism for hiring interim specialists and contractors.”
I suspect that this will make a substantial contribution to savings. I was hoping that a time frame might be identified for delivery.
Recommendation P refers to the overlap between the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism and the National Security Secretariat. Although that overlap is limited, I hope that the Minister will be able to explain how problems caused by the duplication of work are addressed.
Recommendation V refers to BBC Monitoring. I know that work is proceeding on that front, but the Minister may be able to tell us something about the intended time scale for the review.
Recommendation X refers to Shaker Aamer. Other Members may welcome an update from the Minister on any discussions that are taking place with the United States authorities.
Recommendation Y refers to the Consolidated Guidance to Intelligence Officers. I thank the Minister for a recent briefing that clearly identified the difficulties and complexity that surround those issues, especially when Government agencies or the intelligence services are having to deal with a range of agencies abroad.
Recommendation AA refers to the Government’s announcement of the publication of a Green Paper. That is very welcome, and I hope that the Green Paper will receive a wide response. Some parts of it may be deemed controversial, particularly those dealing with the use of special advocates and other aspects of the reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee. There is clearly a huge amount of expertise in the Chamber in that regard, and I am sure that Members who are present have already made an important contribution simply by giving their informed views, which can be read in Hansard tomorrow.
Recommendation GG refers to the vulnerability of some of GCHQ’s sites. It is not clear to me whether the necessary resilience already exists, or whether it is being developed and is expected to be rolled out at some point in the future. Perhaps some clarification will be possible either now or at a later date.
Recommendation HH proposes the establishment of a single SIA vetting service. That is, on the face of it, a sensible proposal. It has been under discussion since early 2010, and now, in late 2011, I should like to think that an end date is in sight.
I hope that the Minister will consider the limited number of questions that I have asked to be pertinent. Let me restate my support for the work that is being done by the intelligence and security community and for the work that the ISC has done in ensuring not just that we are safe, but that due scrutiny is given to the services that are responsible for our safety.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who, with his usual ingenuity, managed to give a number of written parliamentary questions an oral flavour. Some might well have served as essay titles. I noted that the Minister was writing furiously in preparation for his winding-up speech, and I hope that we shall all be able to obtain copies of his answers.
I shall speak briefly. First, let me join Front Benchers and others in congratulating the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) on the excellent work that he and his fellow Committee members have done in respect of the annual report. It was a change to be able to hear such a long and thoughtful speech from the Chairman of the ISC, rather than the limited contribution that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) used to have to make when he chaired the Committee. Things are certainly changing.
I also welcome the commitment that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made in saying that the Committee intended to take oral evidence from the heads of the security services at some time in the future. I always think it odd that, although we hear about magnificent speeches made by the heads of MI5 and MI6 containing important statistics about the security threat, no one in Parliament is able to question them. We used to be told that their jobs were so secret that no one knew what they looked like, but nowadays it is quite easy to find out what Jonathan Evans and John Sawyers look like by means of the internet. There is no secrecy about their identities any more.
In an intervention on the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, I described the annual pilgrimage of the Home Affairs Committee, in a people-carrier with blacked-out windows, to a building somewhere on Millbank whose address we were not allowed to know. On arrival, we would be taken up through the back of the building into a room that was not the office of the head of the agency, but a meeting room where we were able to ask questions. We were not allowed to make notes or include what was said in our reports, although inevitably some of it had leaked out into a Sunday newspaper by the time the Committee was able to consider matters a week later. The fact is that it is much better for the heads of those agencies—both of whom I have met, and both of whom are highly intelligent individuals—to appear before the ISC, and for members of the ISC to put questions to them and receive answers. That is the basis of parliamentary scrutiny, and it is a very important step forward.
I welcome the way in which the National Security Council has developed over the past 18 months. Its establishment was recommended by the Home Affairs Committee in the last Parliament. I tried hard to persuade the last Prime Minister to accept the recommendation. I told him that the NSC would be good for the country, because for the first time we should be able to co-ordinate all the various Government Departments. There would be a national security adviser who, hopefully, would give evidence to Parliament, and it would be a good way of dealing with issues relating to countries such as Yemen—foreign policy issues that also had a domestic resonance. I was pleased that, when the Prime Minister appeared before the Liaison Committee, he talked about the operation of the National Security Council. I welcome that co-ordination, and I think it important for us to hear more about what the council is doing.
Obviously, in terms of its composition, the NSC differs from its counterpart in the United States, which is the model that we used when we considered the report two years ago. I do not think that Peter Ricketts or his successor, Kim Darroch, will ever quite become Condoleezza Rice—a great figure who can be brought before Parliament and make important statements about national security. That will never happen, because we will always have a career civil servant in the job. It is a pity, because I think that Prime Ministers ought to be able to choose more widely when selecting their national security advisers, but we never know: in the future, a Prime Minister may decide to do that.
I want to refer to the excellent contribution of the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). He is entirely right to consider the threat that is facing our country. We must deal with those who are behind that threat, which is why I am so pleased that the Security Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire)—has agreed to speak at the Select Committee’s conference in Leicester in December, when we will consider the roots of radicalism. As the hon. Member for New Forest East pointed out, unless we confront the threat with a budget larger than that which currently exists in the units in the Home Office, we will never deal with it. The only way in which to deal with home-grown terrorism is to engage the communities involved. The previous strategy was about preventing: “Let’s try to stop them doing what they’re doing.” That cannot be successful, however. Instead, we have to engage; we have to get right down into the communities and work with them—with different mosques and organisations. We heard from a fair few of them in the Home Affairs Committee evidence sessions, and I think that, by engaging, we can deal with this threat.
This annual report is excellent, and we look forward to the next one, but we also look forward to its being even more transparent in respect of the issues it addresses, as the Committee and Parliament expect.
It is with great pleasure that I rise to make my first contribution to this important annual debate as a Back Bencher representing constituents who work at GCHQ. May I add my congratulations to those already made to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) on the crispness of the ISC annual report and the swiftness with which many of its recommendations have been incorporated into the Ministry of Justice Green Paper on justice and security?
As a member of Her Majesty’s diplomatic service at the time, I well remember the concerns that were felt among the agencies in the run-up to the Intelligence Services Act 1994. They were very concerned about the impact of coming in from the cold and into the limelight of parliamentary oversight. Those concerns were, of course, largely overcome by keeping that exposure away from operations. I think it is true to say that the agencies’ worries in terms of parliamentary limelight have not been realised, but two issues have emerged: the handling of reputational issues, and the increased number of challenges of Government actions in our courts. I shall deal with each of them in turn.
The Foreign Secretary rightly said only a few days ago, on 16 November:
“Secret Intelligence saves both military and civilian lives, protects our economy, stops criminals and makes a critical contribution to our diplomatic and military success.”
However, it is also true that the agencies depend hugely on their reputation—as, indeed, do all of us in this House. Reputation is everything, and I believe that, had the accusation of complicity in extraordinary rendition leading to torture been dealt with by an ISC with operational oversight, that reputational question mark would not still be hanging over the agencies. Nor would the ISC have faced the issues of poor record keeping that are identified in pages 70 to 73 of the annual report. That is a practical example of why the ISC remit should be “strengthened” to provide “more credible oversight” and
“greater assurance to the public and to Parliament”
by adding operations to its current remit of policy administration and finance. I therefore welcome that proposal and the Home Secretary’s positive response this evening, while also recognising that there will be much detail to resolve.
On the increased number of challenges to Government actions in the courts, I absolutely agree with the Justice Secretary’s comments in the Green Paper that we need to use closed material procedures in mainstream civil courts, as that is the only way to reconcile the two difficult challenges of both providing fairness to all and ensuring our secrets are kept secret.
I join the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) in paying tribute to the Government for their innovative move of creating the National Security Council. I am sure that it contributed considerably to the successful pursuit of the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Libya, and I was delighted to see in the ISC annual report recommendation M on the NSC, which pays tribute to the successful establishment of the organisation.
The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) referred to there being too few checks and balances, but where was she and her concern for checks and balances when her country needed her in the run-up to the Iraq war of 2001, when it appeared to many of us outside this Chamber that decisions were being made and dossiers prepared exclusively in No. 10? I believe that, had the NSC existed at that time, with its checks and balances, it would have changed the course of our involvement in Iraq. No doubt historians will, in time, ruminate on that.
Tonight, we have heard more detail on the ISC proposals, and we have heard the endorsement given to them by the Home Secretary. I have highlighted my strong support for two key measures: the more credible oversight provided by the ISC with a stronger mandate to include operational oversight, and the handling of secret intelligence in the courts so that the right balance between fairness and secrecy can be struck.
The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said not long ago that the Government have found “elegant solutions” to dilemmas that have faced successive Home and Foreign Secretaries in balancing the pursuit of openness with the requirements of secret intelligence. I agree, and I hope they prove to be practical solutions that will enhance the oversight of the work of our agencies, which are so important to all of us in this country.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). He spoke about his pride in his constituents who do such tremendous work at GCHQ, and I join him in praising those dedicated and important staff.
It is common ground among the main political parties that the Government’s top priority must be to protect the people of this country. Although we all want a law enforcement and criminal justice system that is as open as possible, in order to maintain public safety we must have some level of secrecy, and scrutinising the workings of that secret world is the core task of the ISC.
As ever, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) put his finger on the key issue when he talked about the importance of trust. I am sure that I speak for all members of the Committee in saying that it is a privilege that trust has been placed in us in respect of the access that we have to the agencies and confidential information. It is also a privilege to visit the agencies and meet the staff who do such important work. Some of them are long-serving and very experienced, and I pay tribute to them of course, but I have noticed during my first year serving in Committee that there are also many energetic and ingenious young people in these agencies, and they do tremendous work. What they do is a very important form of public service, and I pay tribute to them.
There is much to welcome in the ISC report on what has been done in the past year. Many Members have mentioned the NSC’s work and the coherence that it brings to national security. We all agree that that has been a very important step forward, not least because of the regular contact that it brings between senior Ministers and the heads of the agencies, as the ISC Chair, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), has pointed out. I am sure that that is helping to foster a greater degree of collaboration between the agencies, which is welcome.
I want to say a couple of things about resources. First, I welcome the additional £600 million that is being made available to deal with cyber-security and the cyber-threat. That is an important investment and, as has been suggested, it will almost certainly not be a one-off sum and will need to be followed up in subsequent spending periods.
On the funding of the agencies, the report says that the 11% real-terms cut is “a fair settlement”, which is a fair comment by the Committee. Given the rapid growth over the past decade in the funding available to the intelligence and security agencies and given the level of cuts right across government and the public services, it probably is a fair settlement. However, as page 15 of the report states, it is essential that the funding
“can be adjusted if there is a significant change in the threat.”
I have no reason to doubt the good intentions and good faith of the Government, but their response to the Committee’s report could be a bit more robust in the strength and clarity of the answer. We all accept that where things change we need to look first at reprioritising our resources. For example, the events in the middle east required a reprioritisation of the resources of the various agencies. Those agencies cannot expect simply to have new money made available if there is a new threat or a new need, but with the Olympics coming up, with the increasing threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism and with the continuing threat from international terrorism, Parliament and the public need to know clearly from the Government that additional resources will be made available, if they are needed.
On the Olympics, it is clearly recognised by government and by the Security Service that additional officers will be required by the Security Service. Some of those officers will be drawn from existing staff, but some will be new recruits. Last November, the Committee was told that the Security Service was
“seeking to recruit 100 new intelligence officers by November 2011”.
Subsequently, in May, the Committee was told that 90% of these officers are expected to take up their posts by November 2011. We are now in that month, and the House will be pleased to hear in the Minister’s winding-up speech that those staff have been recruited and trained and that they will be available well in advance of the Olympics.
Finally, on resources, I want briefly to comment on the Communications-Electronics Security Group. That little-known group operates out of GCHQ and performs an important service in providing information assurance right across government and all its agencies. The problem is that the importance of that service is not reflected in the enthusiasm of Departments and agencies in taking it up, and as a result GCHQ is out of pocket to the tune of £7 million over the past two years. We have been given repeated reassurances that a grip will be got of that situation. It is very important that that happens and that in the next financial year we have a funding model for the service that actually means that it can be provided without having to be subsidised from the GCHQ budget.
May I raise, as one or two of my right hon. Friends have done, the new counter-terrorism measures? The TPIMs are, as we know, intended to replace the control order system that went before. The Minister may or may not be pleased to learn that I do not seek to debate the principle of TPIMs as against control orders this evening, as we have done that often enough over the past few months. However, I remain of the view that the system that he is introducing is weaker, and I draw his attention to the remarks of the director general of the Security Service on page 46 of the report:
“Covert investigation does not deliver disruption”.
I do not wish to go over the principles again, but we are now six weeks away from the planned implementation of the new TPIMs system. As that system relies on additional resources being made available to the police and to the Security Service, we need to find out, in this timely debate, whether the additional officers that were to be recruited to provide the additional resource to the Security Service have been recruited and trained, and whether they will be available to work on the new system as soon as it is introduced, which will presumably be early in the new year.
I also wish to draw attention, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary did, to the director general’s comment in the report that
“there should be no substantial increase in overall risk.”
That of course implies that there may be some increase in the additional risk, and the Committee records that as being of concern to us. We will be taking an active interest in that in the weeks and months ahead. I am very grateful to the director general for his candid assessment of that situation, but Ministers will also need to pay close attention to whether or not the level of risk increases, and they must be prepared to act if there is any sign of an additional risk, be it substantial or otherwise.
Such action must mean either additional resources or a willingness to return to this House to implement emergency legislation, which the Government have spoken about, which they intend to subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and which would impose greater restrictions on those suspected of deep involvement in terrorist activity. My view remains the same as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who intervened earlier in the debate. We feel that delay would be far better than uncertainty and risk. I say again to the Minister, as plainly as I can, that this matter has gone way beyond party political squabbling, although it never was about that for me. I put it to him that if there is any doubt whatsoever, delay should be the first thing that he considers and that he would have the full support of Members on both sides of this House if he did the sensible thing.
Although I have been a member of the Committee for only the past year, it is fair to say that Northern Ireland has probably had a slightly higher profile in the Committee’s work this year than in the preceding two or three years. The Committee has been told that in 2008-09 the Security Service’s effort in countering Northern Ireland-related terrorism fell to some 13% of its overall effort total, which is not surprising given the progress in Northern Ireland. Not only was stage 1 of devolution delivered in 2007, but in July that year we saw the end of Operation Banner, which meant the end of Army involvement in Northern Ireland after 38 years. At that point, just a handful of dissidents remained. They were few in number, fragmented in their organisation, more interested in the proceeds of crime than in the politics of a united Ireland and technically inept in their capability. That has changed and their number has increased. Their expertise has clearly increased and now the threat level is “severe” in Northern Ireland and “substantial” in Great Britain. The director general reported to the Committee that although he has no reason to believe that an attack in Great Britain is imminent,
“I certainly believe it’s in their minds”.
We know that just in recent months the murder of police officer Ronan Kerr has occurred, a 500 lb bomb was placed near Newry and there have been other attacks, including on Derry’s UK city of culture office. These risks are real, and I again pay tribute to those who serve in the Security Service and to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in countering that threat.
Before the right hon. Gentleman moves on, he might wish to draw the House’s attention to paragraph 33 of the report, which states:
“The Security Service has told the Committee that the numbers of individuals involved with the current republican terrorist groups is around half the number that were active in the Provisional IRA”.
That is a very considerable number, is it not?
It is, although it is also fair to say that there are degrees of involvement. Although there may be some latent support at a fairly local level for certain individuals, the number of active people who are determined on violence in pursuit of their aims is probably still fairly limited. None the less, they are increasingly dangerous in what they do, and they need to be dealt with. That is why, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, the 34% increase in investment in the past couple of years in the Security Service’s work on Northern Ireland terrorism is welcome.
There have been some positive developments, and it is important to record them in this debate. The devolution of policing and justice, of course, was a very important step in April last year. The PSNI and the Security Service have worked very well together in a new relationship over the past few years, which has borne great fruit. Only recently—this is outside the period covered by the report, but it is none the less important—Michael Campbell was convicted in Lithuania and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment there. That was the product of some very good work, and those involved should be commended and congratulated.
I warmly welcome the Green Paper, which others have already analysed. Frankly, it takes political courage to come forward with such a Green Paper. The territory is complex and the document is hardly a vote-winner, but it is essential that we grapple with such issues and seek to try to resolve them on a cross-party basis, because they are important. The Binyam Mohamed case was clearly a major breach of the control principle and, as we have reported in our report this year, when we went to the United States and met our colleagues and counterparts there it was clear that they were shaken by this development. Although they reiterated time and again the value that they attach to the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom on intelligence and security, they made it absolutely clear that they must know that their intelligence is safe in our hands. If they cannot trust us, it would be a very negative development.
We all agree that we want a system of open justice. Article 6, on the right to a fair trial, is a vital part of our system. As far as possible, of course, defendants and suspects should have the gist of the case against them outlined and given to them, but the problem is that the “gist” is starting to become virtually the whole case, which makes things very difficult. When evidence includes highly sensitive information, there must be a way of protecting it. Ministers have an obligation to ensure that they uphold article 6, but they also have article 2 obligations to the people who are the source of the intelligence that enables Ministers to act. Those people must be protected, too, because if Ministers were to reveal such information and thereby the identity of the sources, who might then be imperilled, it would be a terrible development. It is vital that both sources and the wider public are protected.
I welcome the proposals in the Green Paper on the closed material procedures, but, as others have said, they must be made as tight as possible. In the end, the court will always have the last word and make the ultimate decision, but it is for Parliament now to make its views absolutely clear, through statutory guidance and through the consideration, as others have said, of the statutory presumption against disclosure of foreign intelligence material. All those safeguards should be considered, but, having had the courage to introduce this Green Paper and grapple with these issues, it is vital that we get it right. We will not get an early or easy second chance to do so, so it is essential that we make the best effort that we can now.
Let me make a final point on closed material procedures. We are familiar with the arguments about the control principle and more familiar with its application to immigration cases in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and to control orders—and TPIMs, when they are introduced. I caution the Minister, as we will increasingly need clarity on the recall of convicted terrorists who are out of prison on licence. I want to emphasise the importance of that. It is already an issue in Northern Ireland, and it will become increasingly important across the rest of the UK. When intelligence raises concerns about the continued involvement in terrorism of someone who has served their sentence and is now out in the community on licence, although that intelligence might not be able to be used further to convict that individual, it must be possible to use it to ensure that they go back into prison and continue their sentence so that the public are protected. That is another important test that the Minister will need to set himself when he comes up with the ultimate solution to the issues raised in the Green Paper.
Finally, I warmly welcome what the Green Paper has to say about the future role and remit of the Committee. I am not personally persuaded by the argument put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) that the Chair of the Committee should always be from the Opposition party, and there was a good exchange involving my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen in which the arguments were advanced. It is important that the individual who is in the Chair of the Committee should be respected by not only its members but more widely across Parliament and the agencies. The Chair should have the expertise and leadership to create consensus, which is at the core of all this work. We have that in our current Chair, and whether or not a future Chair is from the Opposition or Government party, those are the key credentials that that individual must have.
I welcome the proposal that the Committee should be a Committee of Parliament, with all the safeguards that have been discussed. There should be a limited number of public sessions, which would help to explain more about the importance of the work of the intelligence and security agencies as well as that of the Committee. The remit of the Committee should run across not only policy, resources and administration, but all the work of the agencies. That already happens, and we need to ensure that it is formalised for the future.
It is also important that the Committee can not only request information but require it. As we make that move, it will place greater obligations on the Committee to ensure that it gets the information and that it knows that it has it, as well as that there is nothing missing. That means that we will need a deeper investigative capacity in the Committee. The agencies should ensure in every case that we get all the information that has been requested the first time rather than the second or third time.
Speaking personally, my first year as a member of the Committee has been fascinating and very enjoyable. I certainly look forward to the year ahead and the many challenges that lie in it. There will certainly be no let-up in those challenges, particularly with TPIMs coming into operation and the Olympic games coming to our capital city.
I apologise to the House for my late arrival and for missing the opening speeches, but the Foreign Affairs Committee has been sitting tonight. The President of Turkey is in town on a state visit and the Turkish Foreign Minister and Baroness Cathy Ashton, the High Representative of the EU, have given evidence to us.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), who is one of the new members of the Committee. I had the privilege of serving on the Committee from 2005 to 2010 and I found it to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my parliamentary life. He is quite right that Northern Ireland has moved up the agenda in recent years and I agree with virtually every point he made in his speech.
As this is the first debate on such matters in this Parliament, may I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the staff of the ISC, who are of the highest possible calibre? There are not enough of them, but that is not their fault. I also pay tribute to the agencies for their hard work and the way in which they protect the freedoms that we all value. The Foreign Secretary rightly praised them in his speech last Wednesday and we can all join him in his praise.
I also want to thank the three Chairmen I served under during those five years. Although it is regrettable that there were three, they all discharged their responsibilities with diligence and enthusiasm and were all of a very high calibre. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is the only Chairman we have in this Parliament, as a degree of continuity is essential.
This is the first time we have looked at the report from the outside, so to speak, and one change I have noted—I do not know whether it is my imagination—is that there seem to be fewer redactions than in the past, which we recommended in the previous Parliament. We wanted reports to flow better, and I think that has been achieved.
I share the concern about the drop in funding—a 10% cut would concern anybody. The agencies do not seem to be alarmed, but a 10% cut in staff at the Secret Intelligence Service would certainly alarm me.
We host the Olympic games next year and I see that the agencies feel they are well placed to manage risks. However, that sits a bit awkwardly with the revelations in the past couple of weeks, after the report was published, that a review of security is under way.
I agree with the Committee’s conclusions about cyber-security. The national security strategy puts cyber-security as a tier 1 risk, but under the present strategy an uprising in north Africa is a tier 3 risk, so I do not know how much weight one can put on these things. At the moment, we just take the world as we find it and try to address things.
The Committee has noted that the Foreign Affairs Committee managed to get some of the World Service cuts reversed and would like to see the same happen with BBC Monitoring. I completely agree with that but I point out to members of the Intelligence and Security Committee who are present that the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recommendation was initially rejected and that it took a debate under the Backbench Business Committee procedure to raise it again before the Government took that on board. We have seen the growing influence of the Backbench Business Committee, and I do not know whether the ISC wants to get down to that level—get deep down and dirty, as it were—but it may be something it has to do.
I also welcome the conclusions of the coroner who said, in relation to the report arising out of 7/7, that the ISC’s conclusions were “detailed and thorough”. The coroner also made some interesting recommendations about the use of photographs. I note that the Committee found that any discrepancies would not have changed its conclusions. That shows the calibre of the work being carried out by the ISC—if the coroner can describe the work as “detailed and thorough” and it can be said that conclusions would not have been affected. That is an important point to make in relation to those who were so critical of the reports when they came out.
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with great attention and I think that another word of praise could be said for the services themselves in that context. In the past, when they have found that they have inadvertently overlooked some piece of information, in providing that information to the ISC, they have not hesitated to own up to that fact even if it opened them up to criticism. It is incumbent on us to encourage them to do that and not to be deterred from doing it because it is a slight blot on their record when they do not get things right first time.
I completely agree, and I have always been hugely impressed by the vast quantity of information. When there was just one needle in the haystack, they might not have found it the first time around but they did find it the second time around and quite rightly, as my hon. Friend says, produced it for the Committee.
On the Green Paper, may I support the point that was made about the handling of sensitive material, which I gather was mentioned by the Chairman of the ISC in his opening speech? The recommendations in the Green Paper are sensible and offer the best way of dealing with sensitive material, but I do not think it has to be instead of using a special advocate. It could well be in addition to using a special advocate and using the presumptions set out in the Green Paper.
Let me address the role of the Committee and the way it operates. Parliamentary oversight of a secret service is always going to have limitations. I do not think there is a silver bullet, regardless of whether the Committee is a Committee of the House. Let me give an illustration. The major foreign policy objective of our engagement in Afghanistan is to deny al-Qaeda and international terrorists a base from which to carry out their operations. During the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on Afghanistan, a number of witnesses told us that that is no longer a problem in Afghanistan, so at the Liaison Committee I asked the Prime Minister whether he was still receiving intelligence to that effect and he said he was. So, we are stuck with the same old problem that a major overseas deployment of the British Army and other armed services is based on intelligence that has not been subject to the scrutiny of the House. Those of us who were here at the time of the Iraq war know the problems that that can generate. This is an echo of the past. I have come up with a least-bad option and have written to the Chairman of the ISC to ask him to put it to the appropriate quarters when a suitable opportunity arrives and then to report to the House on the veracity of that information. I hope that, in the short term, that can be a way of dealing with the matter.
I am delighted to hear that because that presents a channel—certainly in the current circumstances, until there is a change in the law—through which the House can make inquiries. However, it irritates the hell out of a lot of Members that we have to do that. The fact that the ISC is not a Committee of the House has long been a bugbear. I remember debates in which Andrew MacKinlay used to go on and on about this and challenge the legitimacy of the ISC. We all love him deeply, but I think it is time to move on. It is wrong that the ISC has oversight of the Cabinet Office, which is the Department that administers the ISC. Those who are critical see the Committee as being somehow made up of Government lackeys, but that is an insult to the members of the Committee. Those who have served on the Committee know that we behave as though we were on a Select Committee; indeed, there is far less partisan behaviour on the ISC than on any other Committee I have served on. This issue can now be addressed.
We have to accept that classified information can be handled only by those who are subject to the Official Secrets Act. If one accepts that principle, it does not make much difference whether the Committee is a Committee of the House or not, but there is a good case for it becoming a Committee of the House if only to remove the suspicion that has prevailed over the years. In making the move, the devil will be in the detail. There are a number of issues to address, although I will not go into the detail now, such as the question of appointments and the fact that the Official Secrets Act does not fit easily with freedom of speech.
I think it would be sensible for the Committee to have powers to call for information that could be withheld only by the Secretary of State, rather than what happens currently. When I was on the Committee, the question “Have we seen everything?” was always at the back of my mind. It took two reports on the 7/7 bombings for us to satisfy ourselves that we had done everything. The fact that there was a second report illustrated that we had not seen everything the first time around. Another problem to address is how redactions will be dealt with by a Committee of the House, as the Government will not be able to threaten a veto on publication. Obviously, the report will be to the House, but what will it report? It is no secret that some evidence submissions to the Government never saw the light of day in the previous Parliament. How would that be treated if the Committee were to become a Committee of the House?
This issue is a minefield, but the Government have found a way through it in their Green Paper and I support them. It is very hard to have democratic oversight of a secret service, but I think we are on the right track.
I shall follow previous speakers to some extent, particularly the latter remarks of the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway). I see this as a continuation of the debate about the parliamentary accountability of the security services. Over a number of years I argued, with other Members—Labour Members—for adequate parliamentary scrutiny of the services involved in security. When I was looking up previous debates on the subject, I noted that 23 years ago, almost to the day, I argued that such scrutiny was important, and that it was therefore necessary to provide the mechanism for Members of Parliament to look into what the security services were doing.
Before the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which, as we know, established the Intelligence and Security Committee, a leading historian, Sir Michael Howard, observed in 1986:
“So far as official government policy is concerned . . . enemy agents are found under gooseberry bushes and intelligence is brought by the storks.”
In other words, children, Parliament and the public should not meddle in what were considered to be very adult matters.
At least we have a consensus that we need to move on from the limited parliamentary machinery that was established at the time. I welcome the fact that the Committee is in favour, as the Chair said and as the report makes clear, of expanding the role of the ISC. The Green Paper makes the same point.
I note that in its recommendations the Committee does not suggest public evidence, but the Green Paper does. I see no reason why such evidence should not, in certain circumstances, be given in public. If some members of the Committee immediately say, “Much of what we do can’t be revealed in public; it is confidential—classified”, I agree. When I spoke in 2008 and tabled an amendment, which I later withdrew, about holding public sessions, the then Foreign Secretary accepted that there was scope for holding some sessions in public and wanted to make progress on that. It was not made then, but I hope it will be now.
The then Foreign Secretary emphasised, as one would expect, the need to protect national security. Let me be clear: public sessions, yes, but most of the evidence and most of the Committee’s work would be in private. There would be limited scope, as I see it and as the Green Paper recognises, for public sessions.
In the past the heads of the two main security services, MI5 and MI6, were not mentioned, as though they and the organisations did not exist. The difference is that now we have become used to the head of MI5—the current head and his predecessors—making public speeches. There is nothing novel about that. It does not necessarily get great news coverage because, as I said, it has become quite common. Last October for the first time the head of MI6 gave a public speech. Parliamentary democracy survived. The intelligence services survived. Presumably, as in the case of MI5, the head of MI6 and his successors will continue to make public speeches, where appropriate. It is true, of course, that in giving such a speech, the head of MI6 was not giving evidence and being asked questions by Members of Parliament. That, I hope, will be brought about.
The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee made the point that when, from time to time, we have sessions with MI5—he mentioned MI5, so I will mention it as well—we are told that if we want to have such briefings, which obviously are private and remain so, we should go over to Millbank. I do not see any reason why we should do that any longer. If it continues, I for one, as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, would be most reluctant to do so. It seems to me that if MI5 is going to give briefings on a confidential basis, the director general should come to the House of Commons, not the other way round. It is not a major point, but it asserts the supremacy of Parliament.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), a former Chair of the ISC, and a very good Chair, as is the present one, spoke about Members. I hope all Members of the House are reliable and can be given information on a confidential basis. I am not putting myself forward as a candidate for membership as I do not particularly want to join the Committee. If it was said in the past—not, I hope, in the present Parliament—that there are some rogue elements among Members, the same applies to the Security Service. Peter Wright and other elements, a small minority of the Security Service, apparently believed that Harold Wilson was an agent of Moscow and acted on the instructions of the Kremlin. Let us be clear that in the past there have been rogue elements—a very small minority—among Members of Parliament, as in the security services.
Although what my hon. Friend says about some of the personalities involved is undoubtedly true, does he think it would give great cause for concern if there were rogue elements within the security services being overseen by rogue elements in the House of Commons?
Yes. I do not think it would help our national security. I hope that satisfies my right hon. Friend. I do not know what other answer I could give to that question.
In previous debates I have criticised the ISC. I do not believe, and I am hardly alone in this, that it has been robust enough about the allegations of complicity in torture. The present Chair of the Committee said that there is no allegation whatsoever that British security officials have in any way taken part in torture. I accept that entirely. I said in the previous debate that there is not the slightest evidence that such torture has been used by British security services, but clearly the allegation, which is a very serious allegation, is complicity in torture. In respect of what has been happening abroad—the water-boarding, 160 times in one instance, carried out by the United States on an individual, Guantanamo remaining opening, the practices that went on there, the Pakistan security service and so on—the allegation is that British security officials knew what was happening and took no action. That is an extremely serious allegation. Peter Gibson’s inquiry is therefore to be welcomed. I am not sure whether the inquiry is already under way or when it is likely to conclude and publish its report, but perhaps the Minister will clarify that when responding to the debate.
The question is whether the ISC was sufficiently robust when looking at the matter. In my view it was not. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, in a report produced last year, was critical of the ISC in such matters and expressed concern about the adequacy of the parliamentary mechanism for oversight of the intelligence and security services. I hope that there will be a different approach in future. It is very important that the ISC does not give the impression that it is simply the voice of the security services or that it is reluctant to criticise, because if that was its attitude it would not be doing its proper job. Unlike some Members, I have reservations about relevant sensitive material not being disclosed in court, and I will be very surprised if that is not the subject of further debate in the House.
In conclusion, I in no way underestimate the acute and continuing terrorist danger to our country. Sometimes critics such as me are accused of underestimating, not recognising or playing down, the terrorist danger, but I certainly do not underestimate the danger, and I take the point as well about republican dissidents in Northern Ireland. Even if 7/7 and what was attempted a fortnight later had not happened, I would recognise first and foremost that this country faces an acute danger from Islamists who clearly believe that murdering as many people as possible is the way to paradise. Hon. Members have today put various views and arguments on how we should deal with the terrorist danger, and that debate will continue for some time. However, the greater the danger and the greater the role of the security services in trying to protect our country from further atrocities and mass murder, the greater the need for effective parliamentary scrutiny of those involved. It is absolutely essential that the changes proposed by the Committee and set out in the Green Paper are implemented in the near future.
I should begin with an apology because it has been my misfortune to miss a large part of the debate owing to a prior commitment, which was on behalf of Parliament but outside the House. However, I have had the opportunity to listen to the debate and hear some very fine and perceptive speeches. I hope that I may be excused for singling out the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), who made a very wise contribution. I was also pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), with whom I serve on the Committee, because his four years in the Northern Ireland Office undoubtedly qualify him to speak with common sense and great knowledge of the problems Northern Ireland presents, not least in recent times. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Chair. I think that the Chair should be the best person for the job because any kind of preference, however well intentioned, could stand in the way of the Committee’s efficient working.
As for what the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) said, or at least implied, anyone who doubts the independence of the Committee over the years should come to the office and look at the photographs on the wall of the people who have constituted the Committee over 20 odd years. He will not find one of them, man or woman, who could be described in any way as less than fully independent. My experience as a relatively new member led me to believe from the very beginning that the quality I had to demonstrate most of all was independence.
Despite the independence of those who have served on the Committee, it is interesting to note the extent to which its role has been misunderstood, and often in circles where one would have hoped that its role would be much better appreciated. That is one of the most compelling arguments for the changes in the Committee that the Committee itself has recommended and that now form part of the Green Paper.
That is a matter of judgment. Members of the Committee sign the Official Secrets Act and are subject to constraints when it comes to any criticism directed at them either collectively or individually. Based on my experience, however, I have never seen any action—or lack of action—on the part of the Committee which suggested a lack of independence of thought.
I see members of the Committee, both past and present, nodding in agreement.
I talked about independence a moment or two ago, but two other elements are important to the Committee’s membership: experience and judgment. The assessment of these is of enormous significance and importance, and, given that the ultimate responsibility for security in this country rests with the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister ought to play a significant part in the formation of the Committee. We can argue about whether he should play a part after or in advance of an election, but that is a detail for another day. I am in no doubt about the principle, however, that as the Prime Minister answers to the nation—to the country—for the security of the country, in this matter at least he ought to have a determining role.
One other thing that has been brought rather remarkably to my attention is that the success of the three agencies depends on their co-operation. Those with longer—or perhaps not that much longer—memories than I will remember that there have been occasions in the not-so-distant past when the agencies have to some extent seemed at odds, when there has been a certain amount of competition and when they have found it difficult to share common objectives and, indeed, common information.
The greater effectiveness of the services collectively has come about because of increasing co-operation. In the four years or so that I have been a member of the Committee, I have seen that co-operation grow and blossom. Co-operation is necessary because no one agency can hope to be the fount of all intelligence wisdom any more than one country can. That is why our relations with our allies are of very considerable significance, and why the debate and, indeed, controversy about the control principle have become so salient.
I echo what others have said. When we last went to the United States, there was strong anecdotal evidence from people in positions of authority and responsibility that their anxiety about the control principle, or the lack of its application, might—if it had not already—inhibit the volume and quality of intelligence that they were willing to share.
If someone has that anxiety and concern, they have a simple way of dealing with it: they just stop giving significant information. The problem is that if ours is the country expecting to receive information of that quality, we have no way of knowing that they have stopped. The supplier can simply turn off the tap, and we have no way of knowing whether what we still receive is of quality or, indeed, the sort of worth that the arrangements between our closest allies have often provided.
It has been said—it is an entirely logical position to take—that if there is to be protection of information provided to us under the control principle, that enhances the argument for scrutiny at the instance of the Committee of the services. I certainly agree with that principle. That is why I hope that I am in the vanguard of those who support the proposal that the Committee become a Committee of Parliament, perhaps selected using the same method as that used by the Standards and Privileges Committee. However, as I have said, an important role and responsibility should rest with the Prime Minister.
Like some more long-standing Members, I remember the debates that surrounded the creation of the Intelligence and Security Committee and the atmosphere in which it was launched, which was very different from that now surrounding the Committee’s activities. Although I was not a member of the Committee at the time of its inception, I imagine that the atmosphere was also very different then between the Committee and the services. I do not doubt for a moment that the services were perhaps suspicious but certainly apprehensive about the extent to which the Committee might inhibit or create some kind of obstacle to their activities.
For that reason, we are entitled not only to change the form of the Committee but certainly to increase its powers. That is why the recommendation that we be able to “require” information rather than request it seems an essential part of the change that the Green Paper envisages. However, as others have said, the Committee staff is very modest in number. If the Committee is to fulfil this wider remit, it must have many more resources; otherwise it will have greater responsibility but less capability. That would be bound to reduce not only the quantity but the quality of scrutiny.
I am amused by the suggestion that rogue elements of Parliament might be keeping tabs on rogue members of the security services. It occurred to me that perhaps the best way to keep tabs on rogue elements of Parliament would be to employ the services of rogue elements of the security services. The latter proposition may prove more powerful than the first.
This is an annual debate of great importance. It is true that the quality of the Committee’s work depends to a large extent on the quality of the work done by its staff. That in turn depends on the quality of the activities carried out by those who work for the agencies. My experience of these people is that they are professional, unassuming and that they essentially live in the shade. There is no glory attached to what they do and there is hardly ever any public recognition. It is not the most generously remunerated occupation and it necessarily imposes considerable restrictions on personal life, on the ability to live in a normal way and even sometimes on someone being able to say what their occupation is. These are people of enormous quality. If one were looking for a fictional comparison, which is always dangerous, it is rather less like Ian Fleming and rather more like John le Carré.
The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East very properly paid tribute to the quality of the members of the agencies, and I would most certainly like to do so too. I also pay tribute to the leadership in the agencies, because that has not been expressly referred to. Daily challenges have to be faced. One substantial challenge coming down the track is the Olympic games. I am not an entirely impartial observer of that because I attend the Olympic Board under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and, indeed, the Mayor. The Olympics will be a very formidable challenge.
Let me say, in parenthesis, that everyone with any interest in sport remembers the horrific outrage of Munich. If anything of that kind were to happen in any other games, it would inevitably be definitive. Therefore, in the next 12 months or so these unassuming professional people will, perhaps from a domestic point of view, face a more severe challenge than they have ever faced before. I am confident that they will meet that challenge.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who has demonstrated the qualities that we have all come to respect in him: first, he has good judgment; and secondly, he is unerringly fair in the judgments that he exercises. It is a pleasure to serve with him. I think we are now the two old lags of the Committee.
In my case, yes. [Interruption.] We are both certainly young in our outlook.
I should like to echo the praise that the right hon. and learned Gentleman gave to the agencies and to the staff of the ISC, who are very open with us, very helpful, and enable us to do the job that we have been appointed to do. When we go to visit the agencies—sometimes we do have to make visits, like other Committees—or when they come to give evidence, those events are invariably well organised and well informed. Our most recent visit, which was to GCHQ, was no exception, and I learned a lot from it. It was well structured and well organised, and it is important to acknowledge that.
Before I move on to the three key issues that I want to cover, it is important to recognise that the impartiality, or independence, of the Committee is paramount and, in my experience, can be relied on. Michael Mates, a former member of the Committee who, until he retired at the last election, served on it from the outset, used to say that when the Committee meets, our political affiliations are left at the door. In my experience, that is the exactly the case. We are seeking not to score party political points, but to get at the truth and carry out the job of scrutinising the work of the agencies concerned.
That leads me on to my first point, which is about the reform of the Committee. A great deal has been said about that already, and I will not repeat it all, but I want to make two observations. First, I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) in that I am unconcerned about whether the Chairman of the Committee is a member of the governing party or of the Opposition party. I have served under four Chairmen—their downfall, in three cases, had nothing whatsoever to do with me—and I have found them all to be extremely capable and experienced. Whatever their political affiliation was, it never influenced how the Committee was conducted. The most important thing is that we get the right man or woman in the job. I hope, like the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), that we might have some continuity with the current Chairman during the course of this Parliament, because that is helpful.
Secondly, I support the reforms of the Committee set out in the Green Paper and covered in our report. Let us be brutally frank: there are now two Prime Ministers who have wanted reforms in this direction, and it would be a very foolish Committee that did not notice that they were both from different parties and that perhaps the time for change had arrived. I therefore have no problem with the reforms.
However, we need to be careful about one thing. We should not set up the expectation that these reforms will make the whole operation of the services and everything that they do a matter of public knowledge. As the Chairman of the Committee said at the outset, there is information that we are party to that we can never make public because we sign the Official Secrets Act and, by and large, retain the trust of the agencies. That is why we sometimes, reluctantly, have to put redactions in our annual reports. Principled critics of the Committee criticise it because we have access to privileged and secret information. States will always have secrets, and necessarily so. We should not lead anybody to believe that everything that we know will be made public as a result of the reforms of the Committee. I know that nobody is claiming that and I do not mean this as a criticism of the Government or other Committee members. However, it is important, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) made clear at the outset, that there will not be a free-for-all in relation to the information that the state has and what can be made public. The brutal truth is that a state secret that becomes public is no longer a state secret and is therefore useless.
My second point is about cyber-security. That issue has been covered extensively, but I want to cover it in a slightly different way. It is not a new issue. In June 2009, the Cabinet Office produced the “Cyber Security Strategy of the United Kingdom”, which rightly stated that it was an urgent, high-level issue that could not be ignored. More recently, in October 2010, the national security strategy cited
“Hostile attacks upon UK cyber space by other states and large scale cyber crime”
as a tier-one risk, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington has said. For several years, the importance of this issue has been acknowledged. However, for national security and diplomatic reasons, the UK has been coy about naming those responsible, at least until recently. I will say a little more about the recent developments where those responsible have been named in a moment.
First, I want to use this opportunity to emphasise how important this issue is for our country. Our annual report makes it clear that we generally approve of the cross-cutting approach that the Government are taking on cyber-security. It states rightly that the Government’s decision to move ministerial responsibility for the issue to the Cabinet Office, which is better placed to deal with such issues across Departments, is appropriate. That was a good move on the part of the Government.
It is also important that we seek better international cyber-security controls against cyber-attacks. I do not underestimate the difficulties that that presents. I am well aware that the Foreign Secretary is on the case and is raising this issue in international forums, no doubt discretely. I believe that we need to develop international protocols and controls over the coming years to make it easier to get control over what is going on across the world. I do not make that point in a spirit of criticism, I merely say that the matter has to be given some prominence. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), might be able to support that point of view when he winds up the debate. It is in the interests of our national security, and of businesses in the UK, that we take such an approach.
I wish to make one further point on cyber-security that is perhaps less driven by consensus than those that I have already made. It concerns the role and status of the Prime Minister’s official representative to business on cyber-security, Baroness Neville-Jones, who was of course Security Minister until May. Over recent years, our Committee has struggled with both the current and previous Government on whether those primarily responsible for attacks could be named in our reports. I am sure the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife would bear me out on that. Up until this year, we were losing that struggle. However, there has been movement. In his recent signed article in The Times, the head of GCHQ, Mr Iain Lobban, flagged up the importance of the issue, but sensibly declined to say which countries were responsible.
In our report, published in July, we went further, stating:
“The greatest threat of electronic attack continues to be posed by State actors and, of those, Russia and China are”
suspected of carrying out “the majority of attacks.” That form of words, carefully nuanced and the product of thorough negotiations between the services, the Government and our Committee, was the best way of putting it. Certainly the Government and the agencies concerned seemed to believe that that was the right way to describe the situation. However, when Baroness Neville-Jones was pressed in an interview on Radio 4’s “The World at One” about whether China and Russia were involved in such attacks, she responded, “They certainly are”. That is rather further than anybody else has gone.
The reason for highlighting that is straightforward. Either it is right to be circumspect about naming the states concerned, or it is not. It is not clear to me whether Baroness Neville-Jones speaks for the Government or whether she is, as it were, a free spirit in these matters. We need to know with what authority she speaks, and to what extent anything she says can be attributed to the Government or to the agencies concerned. Perhaps the Minister might be able to say a little about the noble Lady’s position, and what her status and authority is.
I turn to the use of intelligence material as evidence. The issue has arisen principally from the Binyam Mohamed case, and the Government have brought forward a way of dealing with it that may or may not work. I agree with the points made in our annual report about the matter, but what concerns me is that, no matter how Parliament may express itself on the issue, what guidance is given to the judiciary or what clauses are put in Bills, at the end of the day judges who will handle such cases will have to make a choice between, on the one hand, what is in the national interest and important for national security, and on the other hand the conduct of the court and the particular trial that is taking place. My fear is that the conduct of the trial and the proceedings of the court will, in some cases, as in the Binyam Mohamed case, take precedence over what Parliament intended, anything in any particular Act of Parliament, and the national interest. This is not an attack on judges. I have tried to think of this by asking myself, “What if I were sitting in that chair and had to make that choice,” but they might ask, “What am I responsible for?” The answer is that they are responsible for the good conduct of that trial.
Why is that important? Several hon. Members, including the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, who chairs the Committee, have made the point that it is hugely important that the co-operation we have with foreign Governments on intelligence remains something on which we can rely. In turn, it is vital that those Governments feel that intelligence that is passed to the UK will not be made public in court proceedings. I would go slightly further than the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife. I believe that the amount and quality of intelligence that we have received from the US since the Binyam Mohamed case has declined. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, that is a difficult case to prove, and I cannot within the confines of this debate give chapter and verse on it—certain issues of which I am aware cannot be discussed in public—but most well informed people who have made a judgment on the matter believe that co-operation between the US and the UK has declined.
That is important not from the point of view of the volume of information that we receive, but because incidents have been prevented on the basis of intelligence co-operation not only with the US, but with other close allies. The reputation of the UK could become such that foreign agencies and Governments feel they cannot share information with us because it will end up being broadcast all over the place in a court case. As has already been said, there is evidence that fishing trips are being made in the British courts to support cases elsewhere.
I am not necessarily saying that the Government have got it wrong. My point is that we need to think long and hard about how we will handle this, not because of any political matter that might attach itself to the problem, and not even because of day-to-day political relationships with other Governments, but because getting as much information as we can is in our national interest and the interests of the security of our people. I hope that will be addressed fully and sustainably as things develop and in legislation. It should be addressed in a way that does not leave the courts feeling that they can do what they like regardless.
As other hon. Members have said, it is an enormous privilege to be a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee—it is now six years since I was fortunate to be appointed to it. The Committee is sometimes criticised not for what we do, but for what we cannot say. We should be careful in how we deal with that. Hopefully, we are all big enough and experienced enough to know that we sometimes have to take a hit as a Committee and as individuals because some sections of the press and the media want to know what we know and we cannot tell them, but at the end of the day, being able properly to oversee the activities of the agencies and knowing why the public need to be protected overrides our concerns about any criticism we might get in the media.
It is a great pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), who has immense experience in intelligence and security matters.
I have only been a Committee member since the beginning of this Parliament, and this is the first annual report with which I have been involved. I want to put on the record my thanks to former members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), who have pursued challenging issues with great diligence, tenacity and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley has said, often while subject to criticism simply because the Committee was unable to share with the world at large the information on which it had based its judgments. In some ways, being on the Committee is a great honour, but in others it is a thankless task. Nevertheless, every member, irrespective of their political party, has done their job with tremendous pride and great results.
I also praise the leadership of our Chair, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). Since becoming a Committee member, I have noticed not only his ability to get the best out of everybody, which is the most important characteristic of any Committee Chair, but his personal focus, energy and determination to make progress. We would not have the proposals in the Green Paper on strengthening parliamentary oversight, or at least they would not be so good, had it not been for his personal commitment, so he can rest assured and sleep easy in his bed tonight—I am not after his job and I am more than content for him to carry on.
The Committee operates in a spirit of constructive consensus. There is a general sense of personal commitment from all its members—for example, we meet every week, which many members of the public do not realise. I have benefited from the experience of members who have served previously. We have members with extremely diverse experience—I have thoroughly enjoyed the contribution by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who, as I said in an intervention, had tremendous experience in these matters even before he came to the House. Such experience informs the Committee’s work. Furthermore, we have the undoubted wisdom of our two distinguished Members of the House of Lords, who, in their own ways, make a fantastic contribution.
I want to place on the record—this sounds a bit like an obituary—the work of our fantastic secretariat, which no one has mentioned yet. Its staff are few in number, which is a point I shall come to later, but their breadth of knowledge, their institutional memory and their tenacity in following the threads of an inquiry are extremely impressive and have proved invaluable to the Committee in pursuing our inquiries this year.
We are charged by statute with looking at the administration, expenditure and policy of the services, and much of our work is devoted to that, because we have to ensure that the services are operating properly, acting within the legal framework and seeking value for money. Several hon. Members tonight have talked about the tight budget settlement. It is a fair settlement, given the general economic situation, but nevertheless we must keep an eye on such pressures on the services.
I have been very impressed by the agencies’ openness and frankness with the Committee—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen has said, that is about trust. While we have that trust relationship, they are amazingly open with the Committee, not only on policy and administration matters, but, as has been mentioned, on operational matters. That is an important part of what the Committee does, because we cannot properly consider policy in isolation from the operations governed by that policy. If, therefore, the Committee is to do the job that it is charged with doing, it needs to look at those operations, albeit retrospectively, as hon. Members have said.
Recently, the agencies have given access to our investigator in a way that has been really positive. Owing to time restraints, the Committee inevitably cannot delve into certain issues in order to get to the detail, and our investigator has done some excellent reports on vetting and on the use of consultants and contractors. That is one reason why the proposal to give the Committee more investigative resources is so important. If we are to pursue a wider range of inquiries, we need the ability to do that to a high level of competence.
We have also visited the agencies, using the opportunity to talk not only with the heads of the services and senior officials, but with those operating at the front line on some of the most challenging issues, be they counter-terrorism here in Britain, support for military operations overseas or the development of technology to combat the cyber-threat. Like other members of the Committee, I have been hugely encouraged by the professionalism and commitment of those people in working to keep our country safe, often at great personal risk. Many are young people, and they are enthusiastic and amazingly intelligent. However, I am also heartened by the fact that they have such a well developed awareness that they have to operate within a legal and human rights framework that supports our democratic values both here and abroad. Some people think that there might be an almost cavalier attitude towards human rights in the agencies. However, from my discussions with the people involved in operational matters—the people charged with doing this work—I can tell the House that it is hugely refreshing to see that they are almost self-policing when it comes to the legal framework within which they operate. That should give us all some security and assurance.
I pay tribute to those in the services who have made the ultimate sacrifice. There are people in our services, whether on military operations abroad or in hostile circumstances, who have died while on duty serving the country. They cannot be acknowledged publicly—the services do their best, in what they can do, to acknowledge them privately—but it is important that we should pay tribute to those who have given their lives in the service of our country. We owe them a great debt.
In the world of secret intelligence, when people are operating in the most dangerous and hostile areas of the world, difficult decisions will always need to be taken, which is why the work of the ISC in scrutinising how the agencies operate is vital if we are to retain public trust in the agencies’ work. The most controversial issues arise when difficult decisions have to be made. It is essential that, while protecting our secrets, our agents and our techniques, we can assure the public that our intelligence agencies operate within the rule of law. The ISC has an important responsibility not only to provide scrutiny, but to perform the essential role of reassuring the public.
That is why we have begun to discuss having an occasional public evidence session. Clearly that cannot apply to the majority of our business, which has to be in secret because we must have that confidential relationship, but there is more to be done. In an age when information is everywhere and when the public are more sceptical about the work of authority in general, there is more to be done to reassure the public that the services are operating within the framework of the rule of law and within a robust human rights framework, too. That is why it is important that effective, independent and properly resourced oversight is available to us.
We have had lots of speeches this evening and, between us, members of the Committee have managed to cover most of the ground, as ever. However, I want to raise a couple of things in the annual report with the Minister and ask him some questions that he might be able to answer in his winding-up speech. He will know that I have long been concerned about the security threat at the Olympics. That is not a partisan issue, because we are all worried about it. We need to ensure that we do everything that we can to protect the public at a time of heightened risk. We have been told that we need 100 extra agents and that it takes a year to recruit and train them. I would welcome an assurance that by the time we get to the Olympic games we will have in place the resources that were promised and that we need to provide that reassurance.
I have to say to the Minister that the Government response to the issues that we raised about the Olympics in our annual report is a little obtuse. It says that the service will be able to
“build further capacity and strengthen the resilience of its processes,”
and that its response is
“designed to be scalable…to maximise agility in meeting surge requirements, while continuing to respond to business-as-usual demands”.
That sounds to me like something out of a corporate annual business report, so I would welcome a little more clarity—perhaps in plain English—about what the pressures are, what resources are in place and why the Government are reassured that the Security Service is able to manage at what will undoubtedly be a time of increased threat.
I have raised TPIMs many times with the Minister, as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins). I thought we had a very good Committee stage on the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Bill, with many more Members contributing than is usually the case, and the Minister was generous in dealing with the issues that we raised. I am afraid, however, that although he was generous, he has not managed entirely to reassure me. I still honestly believe that it is common sense simply to delay the implementation of the transition from control orders to TPIMs until the Olympic games have concluded. It is not a matter of the Government losing faith; it is not about backtracking; and it is not about moving away from the original policy, with which, incidentally, as the Minister knows, I do not agree. He seems intent on this policy, but to cope with the extra threat without adding extreme layers of risk into what is already a highly charged situation, he could simply say that the Bill will not come into force until October next year. That would at least get us past the Olympics. If he is not prepared to do that, will he tell us in his winding-up speech why he is not prepared to take that straightforward step?
Another issue was discussed by the hon. Member for New Forest East, but not by other hon. Members. This is the issue of the Prevent review and the role of the Research, Information and Communications Unit, which is dealt with on pages 44 and 45 of our report. The Prevent review was supposed to be published in January this year, but it was not actually published until July. That was too late for us to be able to examine its impact, so it is an issue to which the Committee will return. The Home Secretary promised time for a parliamentary debate on the Prevent review, but it has not yet happened. Will the Minister tell us when that debate will take place?
The key issue is to separate Prevent work, by putting it in the Home Office, from the integration work in the Department for Communities and Local Government. The integration strategy—again, long promised—has not yet materialised. It has been trailed in the press today, and if the press reports are correct, one proposal of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is to start a British curry college. I am not quite sure how that fits with an integration strategy, but I am ready to be convinced about the benefits of pakoras, onion bhajis and goodness knows what else! Levity aside, that integration strategy is absolutely key if we are to do the vital work of ensuring that young people feel very much part of British society, so that they cannot be groomed, radicalised and drawn into that world, which, unfortunately, has happened all too often in the past.
I tabled a series of parliamentary questions about the Prevent review, of which the Minister is aware, asking which groups the Government were going to work with, which previously funded groups will no longer be funded because they do not share our democratic values, how we will ensure that groups sign up to democratic values if we are going to work with them in future and what practical work will be done on the ground. I have to say with some regret to the Minister that the answers to my parliamentary questions were entirely unsatisfactory. I would go as far as to say, although not in an insulting way, that the answers were stonewalling. If the ISC occasionally cannot answer questions because of secrecy, the Minister seems to be rather expert at not answering my questions. I did not feel that the questions related to secret matters, so I ask the Minister to revisit my parliamentary questions and provide me with some answers.
The hon. Member for New Forest East talked about the significant budget for the Research, Information and Communications Unit, but we have no way of knowing whether it is appropriate, whether it helps to achieve the objectives that it should or whether further evaluation is necessary. I entirely accept that evaluation of Prevent, RICU, counter-radicalisation and counter-narrative is really difficult. I struggled with these issues when I was the Secretary of State with responsibility for this area of policy, but it is essential that we work on evaluation and know how effective we are at steering young people away from extremism. We must minimise the number of people who, unfortunately, are going to find themselves in this territory. There is nothing more pressing for our country. Heaven forbid that we should have another attack. I was a Minister at the time of 7/7. I feel a great personal responsibility on this agenda. Heaven forbid that another event happens because we have not done enough work to be able to identify people early, to steer them away from extremism, to give them a real sense of British identity and to be part of our community. That is why I press the Minister so heavily on these issues.
I think that the problem of detainees is one of the most significant with which we must deal. The Prime Minister has taken a number of actions: he has set up the Gibson inquiry; he has helped to secure a settlement in the Guantanamo Bay cases; he has issued consolidated guidance on the treatment of detainees; and he has drawn up the measures in the Green Paper. However, I feel that both public reassurance and the reputation and morale in the services are at stake.
Last week, in what I considered to be a groundbreaking speech on secret intelligence, the Foreign Secretary said that
“we also saw allegations of UK complicity in extraordinary rendition leading to torture. The very making of these allegations undermined Britain's standing in the world as a country that upholds international law and abhors torture. Torture is unacceptable in any circumstances. It is abhorrent, it is wrong, and Britain will never condone it.”
I think that every single Member in the House today would support that sentiment. The Foreign Secretary also said:
“As a nation we need to be an inspiring example of the values we hold dear and that we want to encourage others to take up.”
In the past—not when I was a member of it—the Committee has taken evidence about the treatment of detainees and allegations of complicity by our services in the maltreatment of detainees by foreign intelligence agencies. I believe that such matters corrode public trust and internal morale if they are allowed to endure, which is why I think it important for Sir Peter Gibson’s inquiry to be as open and transparent as possible—commensurate, of course, with the protection of our national security.
I want to hear from the Minister when we can get on with the inquiry. I know that there are problems involving police issues and witnesses, but delaying the start of the inquiry’s work and its reassurance of the public can only be damaging. I also know that some people are worried about the inquiry, because they want all the evidence to be published and to be open and transparent, which is a difficult issue. It is the same issue that arises in the justice and security Green Paper about how we should protect information from our allies when national security is at stake.
We are faced with an unenviable choice between completely open inquiries in which key material that would expose our secrets cannot be used and decisions must therefore be based on an incomplete understanding of the facts, and partly closed proceedings in which only members of the inquiry team, or a judge in a court case, have seen the secret material. Closed proceedings are, of course, unsatisfactory, but at least they ensure that decisions are based on all the relevant information. That is the dilemma that must be faced, and the choice that must be made. Do we want open proceedings in which judgments are made in ignorance of the facts, or are we prepared to allow limited, tightly controlled closed proceedings in which it is at least possible to obtain all the information before the person who makes the final judgment?
I do not think that that dilemma can be resolved to the absolute satisfaction of all parties, so compromises will be necessary. That is the real world with which must we deal in relation to security agencies, secret intelligence and the national security of our country. It is always a matter of balancing the risks and making difficult decisions. However, at least in a democracy such as ours, it will be for our elected Parliament to consider some of those matters in future legislation, when there will be the opportunity for a wide-ranging public debate.
In the case of al-Rawi in the Supreme Court, Lord Clarke said that he was not prepared to grant closed proceedings, and that those were matters properly for Parliament to resolve. We, too, need to deal with these issues. I want to hear from the Minister when we will have legislation if he proceeds with the proposals in the justice and security Green Paper. Will there be a separate Bill? Will it be a broad justice Bill? There is an urgent need, and an impetus, for such matters to be resolved.
We have heard a great deal this evening about the Binyam Mohamed case and the control principle. That ground is well established, but it is difficult territory. I commend the Government on the Green Paper, because it takes a great deal of courage to tackle such issues head on. Inevitably, some “voices off” will accuse the Government of being authoritarian and illiberal, while others will claim that they are not protecting information sufficiently to reassure our allies. It is a no-win situation, but at least the Government have gripped it. I merely wish to add my weight and to say, “If we are going to tackle this, let us get on with making it happen.”
We have a range of options. The option that the Government wish to pursue is that of closed proceedings. I well remember, as the Minister who dealt with the control orders legislation, how controversial closed proceedings and special advocates were at that time. That is a departure from our traditional legal system of open, transparent justice, where evidence is presented to the court, tested and cross-examined in front of a judge and a decision is then made. I do not think that we have found a better way of dealing with matters involving secret intelligence however, and although all of us would be reluctant to go down this path as it is not something we would want to do, I cannot see an alternative.
I ask the Minister to consider not only closed material proceedings, but the possibility of the presumption of exclusion in certain classes of cases, as proposed in the public interest immunity option, or the assertion of state secrets—again, that would involve a rebuttable presumption that could be put before the courts. In framing the legislation, it is important that the courts understand what the mischief is that we are trying to deal with, which is exactly what they will look at in respect of statutory interpretation.
I support all the Committee recommendations. I agree that we should look at operations retrospectively, as well as considering policy. The Home Secretary said that she is pondering whether the commissioner might look at the effectiveness of operational policy. My understanding is that the inspectors’ role is to look at compliance with policy and the law. Again, I ask the Minister to think very carefully about this, because the last thing we want is confusion between the role of parliamentary oversight in looking at operational policy and the role of independent oversight.
When I have visited the services and met the men and women—there are both men and women—working on our behalf, I am acutely conscious of the need to develop all our staff so they can achieve their potential. I believe that there are currently too few women at senior levels in our services. I have raised that with the agencies. I do not say that every woman is empathetic or a good listener, but women have skills that are vital to our intelligence services. I am the only woman currently serving on the ISC, and the Chair knows that I am pursuing these issues. It is important that we draw on every bit of talent, knowledge, potential and skill in our services, which includes men and women working together. I ask the Minister to reinforce that message.
I commend the report to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). She speaks with compassion and conviction, and she articulates her points very well. She is an asset to the Committee, and it has also been a pleasure to work with her on other Committees.
As the final Back-Bench speaker, I should consider what points are left to be made in what has been a very informative debate. It is important that the British public and Parliament have confidence in the agencies’ ability to keep us safe, and to do so within the framework of the law and our democratic values. I therefore add my congratulations to the Committee and its Chairman on the work they do in helping to realise those objectives.
The Committee has now been in existence for 16 years, since the Intelligence Services Act 1994, and it is clear that greater transparency has been introduced year after year. The security services have, of course, been in existence for much longer than that, but it is also clear that the public remain largely unaware of what they really do. It has been left to romanticised fictional characters, from James Bond to George Smiley, to portray the role of our clandestine services, apart from when information has occasionally spilled out into the public domain, such as the revelations about the Cambridge spies and the break-up of the Soviet spy ring in the 1970s. Indeed, so well are our secrets kept that it was not until the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) became Home Secretary that he discovered the existence of his own MI5 file dating back to his days as a student radical. That shows how well our clandestine services can keep secrets.
Our modern-day service dates back to 1909, when it was called the Secret Service Bureau, but intelligence monitoring, collection and interception dates back far further—all the way back to the 15th century. Thomas Cromwell ran secret agents in Europe on behalf of Henry VIII and the famous Sir Francis Walsingham, private secretary to Elizabeth I, developed expertise in secret interception and maintained a network of more than 50 agents abroad. For the sake of completion, we must not forget the masters of intelligence gathering: those in the Whips Office. The party enforcers have long developed that dark art of intelligence gathering and monitoring, not to mention a range of creative punishments lest Members drift astray.
On a serious note, we live in turbulent times and there has been a focus on our secret intelligence services since 9/11. More demands have been placed on them, as our nation expects them to prevent attacks by recognising where they are coming from and intervening before they get out of hand. As I mentioned in an intervention, I believe that after 9/11 too much unchecked power fell into those hands, and the very standards that successive generations fought hard to create, defend and preserve slipped. As the Chairman of the Committee rightly pointed out, there is no criticism of the British intelligence services or their methods of gathering intelligence. We should be more focused on how we use that intelligence, how it was portrayed by the politicians and the consequences of the actions taken after that. Given Guantanamo Bay, rendition, water-boarding, the justification for the Iraq war, dodgy dossiers and so on, hon. Members will recognise that in the so-called “war on terror” we lost our way. I am very pleased that the Chilcot inquiry has finally got off the ground and will report soon. It will provide testament to what went wrong during the justification for going to war.
As a nation, we need to be an inspiring example of the values that we hold dear and that we must encourage others to stand up for. Once damaged, our moral authority in the eyes of the world is very difficult to replenish, so I am very pleased that this Government are overhauling how the security services do business, are held accountable and marshal their resources in a way that serves this country’s overall objectives. Three themes have emerged today. The first is the importance of the strategic defence and security review in providing that strategic direction, which, sadly, was absent for so long under the previous Government. The second is that new guidance is in place so that the courts can be used more appropriately and the Justice and Security Green Paper aims to strengthen our legal arrangements involving cases that require Security Service comment. The third is, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) outlined passionately, the new era of openness and scrutiny that we now expect. I am pleased to see that powers will very much be coming to the Committee to allow it to continue that work. It seems strange that we can now talk about Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, Iain Lobban, the director of GCHQ, and Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5. In the past, those names would have been limited to a letter or would not have been known by us at all.
In the remaining minutes, I wish to discuss cyber-security, which I mentioned in an intervention. As the report suggests, this is a completely new dimension, which we have yet to master. It is constantly evolving and is introducing a complexity to security matters that we have not been able to appreciate before. It is also fuelling an explosion of new connections between Governments, economies and citizens. The use of cyber-world is overwhelmingly positive, allowing the transfusion of ideas, thoughts, economies and so on, but it is also a double-edged sword—there is a negative aspect to it. Aspects of the Arab spring have been attributed to the way in which Facebook has been used to communicate in a way that had not been allowed in the past. That of course is very positive, but the internet has been harnessed by terrorists, criminals and, in some cases, states to disrupt and attack. The question I pose to the Minister, which my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned in relation to cyber-security, concerns the number of agencies that have taken an interest in cyber-security. I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend talked about there being 18 units in all. That of course is very positive, because it simply means that every agency, organisation and Department recognises the need to understand and become an expert in this realm. Are we at a point at which there is the co-ordination we require, as illustrated on page 56 of the report, which lists the number of organisations with cyber-security interests?
I also mentioned in my intervention the changes in our society. The generation growing up today is living in a very different world from the one in which I grew up. The computer I first came to terms with was the ZX81, which would probably be found in an antiques store or even a museum now. I hear some chuckles from Opposition Members, and they probably recognise that name. Nowadays, everybody has a computer or has a mobile phone or iPad on their person. We are entering the digital world of the future—it is already the world of today. The liberal way in which youngsters today exchange information quite freely means that we need to ask whether, when they graduate to adulthood and become responsible for credit cards and information in small, medium and large businesses, they will have the same level of caution as we apply in using such technology. We are cautious because we are uncertain of it, because of the generation of which we are part.
There is also a concern about whether small and medium-sized businesses will have the intuition to recognise the importance of cyber-security. There is a worry that the financial crisis will mean that the last thing on any small business’s mind is the consideration of cyber-security and protecting their digital information. Of course, when we talk about cyber-security we have to remember that it is not just about terrorism but about criminality, too.
The impact on our society of the internet and of the digital age is, I would argue, bigger than the invention of the wheel or more significant than the printing press, such is the effect on the world and our lives. If knowledge is power, the internet means power now has no boundaries. The ability to simplify our lives through online banking and shopping is positive, of course, but the internet can be terrifying because of the risk of identity theft or, indeed, sabotage, which could lead to disasters such as a head-on rail collision.
If the Cabinet Office leads on cyber-security, we must then ask whether it—or another Department—should lead on educating businesses and the nation. If not, which Department should do that? It needs to be a priority for the reasons I have outlined. We have an opportunity now to harness such work to our economic benefit. We have an aerospace industry that is primed and ready to harness that capability. Can we now be the world leaders in providing protection in cyber-technology? Some of the recognised companies that we are dealing with, such as IBM and so on, are international operations—they are not British—but companies such as BAE Systems Detica and Logica are UK companies and when I spoke to them before the debate it was clear that they were concerned about university training. When we compare the university courses on cyber-technology, we see that only 15% of the content is consistent. That means that people are not sure and the universities are not in agreement about what needs to be taught in the future. There is an opportunity for leverage there.
Finally, it is important to work with our allies, as the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles stressed. The Foreign Secretary said last week:
“Intelligence…is like a jigsaw…we…rarely have all the pieces”.
The analysis of information and working with our partners enables us to piece together each snippet of information to create the fullest possible picture of the threats to our national security and to act against them. We cannot work in isolation on that; we must work with our allies, too. That means training our allies so that they can recognise and work to the same standards as we do, not just in the technology but in the moral standards I spoke about earlier. That allows us to develop links with parts of Governments in other countries and to build capacity and infrastructure support while strengthening our diplomatic and military relationships.
In conclusion, our security services have the skills to assimilate information beyond the reach of everyday diplomacy, filling in the blanks in our understanding of our enemies. So much of their work is unseen and therefore receives little praise. They are our early warning system against those who plot to sabotage us, steal from us or kill us. It is difficult to find a country where the clandestine community performs so well under such scrutiny within the confines of democratic process. By and large, we sleep safe at night, oblivious to the many threats we face as they are dealt with by the service we never see.
I pay tribute to all those who work in the security and intelligence agencies for the important work they do in keeping us all safe. I also extend that tribute to the very important work that the Intelligence and Security Committee does in scrutinising those agencies. It is clear from this evening’s debate that the past and current members of the Committee have been very high calibre and senior parliamentarians. The right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said that they were fully independent and had experience and judgment, and that view was echoed by my right hon. Friends the Members for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears).
The report is excellent and we have had a very good debate on its contents. The current Chair of the Committee, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), set out the key issues in a very accessible but detailed way at the outset. I should like to pay special tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), who made such a contribution to the development of the Committee’s work as its Chair. He let us into a secret this evening about the one vote that took place when he was chairing the Committee about which mode of transport the Committee should use on a visit. I am sure that does not offend against the Official Secrets Act.
The report covers the period from October 2010 to May 2011, and we have seen further developments since, including the Green Paper on justice and security. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) made it clear that there had been a long fight to get the Committee established in the first place. It operates under the Intelligence Services Act 1994, so it is now 16 years old. The world has moved on considerably in those 16 years, but so has the Committee. The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said that recognition of the need to make changes to the Committee was about formalising what it does already.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington talked about the radical modernisation of the Committee and mentioned public hearings. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles also commented on the need to look at operational issues as part of the Committee’s remit. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen drew on his experience to give some wise words about which of the proposed changes he supports. Recommendation JJ in the Committee’s report sets out in full the Committee’s concerns and the changes it would like to be implemented. The Home Secretary gave a positive response in her remarks to many of the proposed changes, including the recommendation about the Committee becoming a Committee of Parliament. We look forward to debates on all the recommendations and whether they will come to pass in the coming months.
I want to touch on the issue that my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary raised about who should chair the Committee, which provoked quite a lot of debate. The key issue is not about the person chairing the Committee being independent—there is nothing in that—but is more about the perception that the general public might have about an Opposition MP chairing such a Committee. The right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife made some very interesting points about the Prime Minister’s role in choosing or having some say in the selection of members in future.
There are a few key issues that many Members have talked about this evening. The first such issue I should like to address is the spending review. It is clear from the settlement for this area that there is an 11.3% cut to the single intelligence account, and a number of concerned Members mentioned the effect of inflation. Because inflation is running at a much higher rate than was previously thought, that figure needs to be monitored. The Chair commented that the Committee recognised the need to be flexible in reacting to any significant changes in the threat when considering the budget allocation that has been made.
The Government’s response was that they would reprioritise and make sure the National Security Council’s top requirements were given priority, with a reduction in the spend on lower priorities. It is clear that there may be unknown factors lurking around the corner. That should be kept under review. We must make sure that there is sufficient funding to maintain the security of the country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) made a powerful point about that.
It is interesting that the report identifies areas where savings could be made to meet the 11.3% cut, including more joint working and the possibility of a shared vetting procedure across all agencies. Other issues that should be examined include the use of consultants and internet and language specialists, and whether some of those could be shared across the services. The Chair of the Committee said there were already good examples of joint working.
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) highlighted important issues relating to assets, the £1 million worth of assets that had gone missing, and the need to ensure that that does not happen in the future. It is interesting to note that the Committee is investigating the value for money of projects it has been concerned about.
The Olympics have been mentioned by many hon. Members this evening. It is clear that the public are concerned about security during the Olympics. Over the past week we have seen much press coverage of the topic, including a parliamentary question about the use of surface-to-air missiles. In the press at the weekend there was mention of the deployment of snipers in helicopters. There was a report last week about the possibility of 500 FBI agents being brought over because the Americans were so worried about security, and the use of the Army to help protect the Olympics.
The report recognises how important this issue is. The Home Secretary said that we were on track, but that is against the background of the policing cuts, which we know are front-loaded and can affect the policing capability at the Olympics, and the knock-on effect on other security services. The hon. Member for New Forest East suggested that we put ourselves in the shoes of someone who wants to do harm. It may be that some other area is threatened, rather than the Olympics. This all has to be considered. I hope the Minister will be able to offer further reassurance on the matter.
On terrorism prevention and investigation measures, my right hon. Friends the Members for Salford and Eccles and for Wythenshawe and Sale East made a powerful case for the Minister to consider delaying the introduction of TPIMs until after the Olympics in order to offer a further layer of protection. I hope the Minister will reply to the queries about whether all the officers are trained and resourced, ready for the introduction of TPIMs if that happens in the next few weeks.
Cyber-security was mentioned by many hon. Members. We welcome the fact that it has been recognised as a tier 1 national security risk, and the £600 million of extra resources are welcome. I listened to what the Chair said about the number of bodies, law enforcement agencies and Government Departments that are involved in this area. Although the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) argued that it was an advantage that so many organisations were involved, there are questions about whether the response is as co-ordinated as it could be.
The control principle was talked about at length, and the Committee Chair gave a helpful explanation of why it is so important and the potential way forward, now set out in the Green Paper, for using the closed material procedures and the special advocate route. What my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley and the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife said about turning off the tap of information and whether that has already happened was very telling, and I think that that will be debated further.
Finally, I want to mention BBC Monitoring. I hope that the Government will consider the recommendations set out in recommendation EE of the report, which asks them to look again at funding in the period leading up to the transfer to the licence fee funding for that important area. We heard at length about BBC Monitoring and how important getting that open-source information is. I look forward to the Minister’s responses to all those points.
We have had an important and wide-ranging debate that has illustrated how important it is that the public should be confident that the Government’s national security work is being robustly scrutinised. Last week the Foreign Secretary said:
“I believe it is vital that the British public and Parliament have confidence in the Agencies’ ability to keep us safe and to do so within the framework of the law; and that they also have confidence in government using this capability wisely, and in accordance with our democratic values and principles of domestic and international law.”
That comment sums up well the Committee’s challenges and the themes that ran through this evening’s debate. I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for raising a number of pertinent points. We heard 16 speeches, and the debate has been considered and well informed. I fear that in the eight or so minutes available to me I will not be able to do justice to the contributions we have heard.
Before I address those points, let me first thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the Committee’s Chair, for the work he and his Committee have undertaken over the past year. The Committee and its staff continue to adopt a constructive and professional approach, for which the Government are grateful. It is vital that we have a strong framework for overseeing the work of the security and intelligence agencies. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said, the quality of the ISC’s annual report underlines the unique and valuable role it plays in this framework.
Several of the contributions we have heard this evening have focused on the justice and security Green Paper and the proposals it outlines to ensure that justice can be done in the full range of civil proceedings by allowing the courts to take full and fair account of all the relevant information, even when some of it is too sensitive to be disclosed publicly. The overall aim is to allow cases involving national security to be heard fairly, fully and safely in our courts, and I think that that sense of safety underpinned a number of the contributions we heard this evening. This will allow sensitive material to be considered in court proceedings without the risk of vital intelligence or essential international intelligence-sharing relationships being compromised.
Sensitive material is essential for UK national security. It is used to prevent terrorist attacks, disrupt serious crime networks and make the case for executive actions such as deportation and asset freezing. Closed material procedures are the central provision in the Green Paper. Extending their availability across all civil judicial proceedings will provide a framework that enables the courts to consider material that is too sensitive to be disclosed in open court but that protects the fundamental elements that make up a fair trial and UK national security. We welcome the Committee’s support for the proposals.
The other aspect of the Green Paper that has been the focus of much of today’s debate is the proposal to strengthen, clarify and modernise the arrangements for overseeing the work of the security and intelligence agencies and the wider intelligence community. The proposals are designed to ensure that oversight arrangements are as effective and credible as possible and to provide reassurance to Parliament and the public that the agencies operate in a proper and legal manner.
I am grateful to the ISC for the very active and constructive role that it has played in developing proposals for its reform. The Government and the Committee agree on the right approach to the vast majority of those proposals, including formalising the role of the ISC with regard to oversight of the wider intelligence community, making it a statutory Committee of Parliament and allowing it to report to Parliament as well as to the Prime Minister. The ISC would also be given the power to require information from the agencies.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said, however, although the Green Paper proposes that we consider the extent to which the ISC might in future oversee the operational activity of the agencies, no decisions have yet been made in that regard. Before making any decisions, we would need to understand the consequences of creating such a broad power, including the impact on the operational effectiveness of the agencies and on the Foreign and Home Secretaries’ own responsibilities for them.
A number of points have been made about the agencies’ resources and the ability to respond to threats. In addition to the real and serious threat from international terrorism, particularly from al-Qaeda and its affiliates, we continue to face threats from residual terrorist groups linked to Northern Ireland, as well as from cyber-attack and from traditional espionage—a point very effectively made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).
I welcome the ISC’s conclusion that the agencies have been given a fair settlement in the most recent spending review, which will allow them to continue their essential work of keeping us all safe, but of course they are not immune from the pressures of the wider economic climate, and delivering more support or back-office functions together will ensure that the agencies can play their part in making savings while prioritising resources to support the front line.
I am afraid that I will not, because I have three minutes left in which to get through a range of other points. I do apologise to my hon. Friend.
Let me make it clear: there is no question of allowing our national security to be diminished in order to make savings. The agencies have always prioritised their resources to meet the highest threats to our national security, and they will continue to do so. There is no clearer example of that than the Olympics, which throw up a number of security challenges, but agility and flexibility are core and established strengths of the British intelligence community. The agencies continue to enhance their capacity in preparation for the games, and their plans for meeting the additional challenges of London 2012 are mature and remain on track, including in relation to the recruitment of additional personnel.
A number of points have been made about cyber-security, and the Government welcome the ISC’s acknowledgement of the real and increasing risk to the UK’s national security from cyber-attack. It is one of the highest priority risks that we face, and the Government have allocated—I know that many Members recognise this—an additional £650 million of funding over four years to enhance the response to threats from cyberspace through a transformative national cyber-security programme. Much of that money will fund activity by the agencies, but we have sought to provide clear accountability on cyber-security through the Office of Cyber Security and Information Assurance and the role that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General plays in providing such oversight, while recognising the role that other Ministers and Departments have to play in that important agenda.
As well as providing resources, we are committed to providing the agencies with the powers that they need. That is why the Government have introduced the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Bill, combined with new resources for the police and security services to replace the current control orders regime, which is neither perfect nor entirely effective. TPIMs will provide robust and effective powers for dealing with the risks posed by suspected terrorists whom we can neither prosecute nor deport, and they are part of a wider package of work to ensure that we have the most appropriate and effective powers to address the terrorist threats. Arrangements will be in place to manage the transition from control orders to TPIMs effectively.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to the security and intelligence agencies for the enormous contribution that they make in ensuring that the British public are kept safe and properly protected. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for the fundamental and indispensable role that they play in keeping our nation safe.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the 2010-11 Annual Report from the Intelligence and Security Committee (Cm 8114).