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Volume 564: debated on Monday 10 June 2013

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the work of the Government Communications Headquarters—GCHQ—its legal framework and recent publicity about it. As Foreign Secretary, I am responsible for the work of GCHQ and the Secret Intelligence Service—MI6—under the overall authority of the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is responsible for the work of the Security Service, MI5.

Over the past few days, there have been a series of media disclosures of classified US documents relating to the collection of intelligence by US agencies, and questions about the role of GCHQ. The US Administration have begun a review into the circumstances of these leaks in conjunction with the Justice Department and the US intelligence community. President Obama has been clear that US work in this area is fully overseen and authorised by Congress and relevant judicial bodies, and that his Administration are committed to respecting the civil liberties and privacy of their citizens.

The Government deplore the leaking of any classified information, wherever it occurs. Such leaks can make the work of maintaining the security of our own country and that of our allies more difficult, and by providing a partial and potentially misleading picture they give rise to public concerns. It has been the policy of successive British Governments not to comment on the detail of intelligence operations. The House will therefore understand that I will not be drawn into confirming or denying any aspect of leaked information. I will be as informative as possible, to give reassurance to the public and Parliament. We want the British people to have confidence in the work of our intelligence agencies, and in their adherence to the law and democratic values, but I also wish to be very clear that I will take great care in this statement and in answering questions to say nothing that gives any clue or comfort to terrorists, criminals and foreign intelligence services as they seek to do harm to this country and its people.

Three issues have arisen in recent days that I wish to address. First, I will describe the action that the Government are taking in response to recent events. Secondly, I will set out how our intelligence agencies work in accordance with UK law and subject to democratic oversight. Thirdly, I will describe how the law is upheld with respect to intelligence co-operation with the United States, and deal with specific questions that have been raised about the work of GCHQ.

First, in respect of the action we have taken, the Intelligence and Security Committee has already received some information from GCHQ and will receive a full report tomorrow. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, is travelling to the United States on a long-planned visit with the rest of the Committee. As he has said, the Committee will be free to decide what, if any, further action it should take in the light of that report. The Government and the agencies will co-operate fully with the Committee, and I pay tribute to its members and their predecessors from all parties.

Secondly, the ISC’s work is one part of the strong framework of democratic accountability and oversight that governs the use of secret intelligence in the United Kingdom, which successive Governments have worked to strengthen. At its heart are two Acts of Parliament: the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

The Acts require GCHQ and the other agencies to seek authorisation for their operations from a Secretary of State, normally the Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary. As Foreign Secretary, I receive hundreds of operational proposals from the SIS and GCHQ every year. The proposals are detailed: they set out the planned operation, the potential risks and the intended benefits of the intelligence. They include comprehensive legal advice describing the basis for the operation, and comments from senior Foreign Office officials and lawyers. To intercept the content of any individual’s communications in the UK requires a warrant signed personally by me, the Home Secretary, or by another Secretary of State. This is no casual process. Every decision is based on extensive legal and policy advice. Warrants are legally required to be necessary, proportionate and carefully targeted, and we judge them on that basis.

Considerations of privacy are also at the forefront of our minds, as I believe they will have been in the minds of our predecessors. We take great care to balance individual privacy with our duty to safeguard the public and the UK’s national security. These are often difficult and finely judged decisions, and we do not approve every proposal put before us by the agencies. All the authorisations that the Home Secretary and I give are subject to independent review by an Intelligence Services Commissioner and an Interception of Communications Commissioner, both of whom must have held high judicial office and report directly to the Prime Minister. They review the way these decisions are made to ensure that they are fully compliant with the law. They have full access to all the information that they need to carry out their responsibilities, and their reports are publicly available. It is vital that we have that framework of democratic accountability and scrutiny.

I have nothing but praise for the professionalism, dedication and integrity of the men and women of GCHQ. I know from my work with them how seriously they take their obligations under UK and international law. Indeed, in his most recent report, the Interception of Communications Commissioner said:

“it is my belief…that GCHQ staff conduct themselves with the highest levels of integrity and legal compliance.”

This combination of needing a warrant from one of the most senior members of the Government, decided on the basis of detailed legal advice, and such decisions being reviewed by independent commissioners and implemented by agencies with strong legal and ethical frameworks, with the addition of parliamentary scrutiny by the ISC, whose powers are being increased, provides one of the strongest systems of checks and balances and democratic accountability for secret intelligence anywhere in the world.

Thirdly, I want to set out how UK law is upheld in respect of information received from the United States, and to address the specific questions about the role of GCHQ. Since the 1940s, GCHQ and its American equivalents—now the National Security Agency—have had a relationship that is unique in the world. This relationship has been and remains essential to the security of both nations, has stopped many terrorist and espionage plots against this country, and has saved many lives. The basic principles by which that co-operation operates have not changed over time. Indeed, I wish to emphasise to the House that although we have experienced an extremely busy period in intelligence and diplomacy in the past three years, the arrangements for oversight, and the general framework for exchanging information with the United States, are the same as under previous Governments. The growing and diffuse nature of threats from terrorists, criminals or espionage has only increased the importance of our intelligence relationship with the United States. That was particularly the case in the run-up to the Olympics. The House will not be surprised to hear that our activity to counter terrorism intensified and rose to a peak in the summer of last year.

It has been suggested that GCHQ uses our partnership with the United States to get around UK law, obtaining information that it cannot legally obtain in the United Kingdom. I wish to be absolutely clear that that accusation is baseless. Any data obtained by us from the United States involving UK nationals are subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards, including the relevant sections of the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act 1998, and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Our intelligence-sharing work with the United States is subject to ministerial and independent oversight, and to scrutiny by the Intelligence and Security Committee. Our agencies practise and uphold UK law at all times, even when dealing with information from outside the United Kingdom. The combination of a robust legal framework, ministerial responsibility, scrutiny by the intelligence services commissioners, and parliamentary accountability through the Intelligence and Security Committee should give a high level of confidence that the system works as intended.

That does not mean that we do not have to work to strengthen public confidence whenever we can, while maintaining the secrecy necessary to intelligence work. We have strengthened the role of the ISC through the Justice and Security Act 2013, to include oversight of the agencies’ operations as well as their policy, administration and finances. We have introduced the National Security Council so that intelligence is weighed and assessed alongside all other sources of information available to the Government, including diplomatic reporting and the insights of other Government Departments, and all that information is judged carefully in deciding the Government’s overall strategy and objectives.

There is no doubt that secret intelligence, including the work of GCHQ, is vital to our country. It enables us to detect threats against our country ranging from nuclear proliferation to cyber attack. Our agencies work to prevent serious and organised crime, and to protect our economy against those trying to steal our intellectual property. They disrupt complex plots against our country, such as when individuals travel abroad to gain terrorist training and prepare attacks. They support the work of our armed forces overseas and help to protect the lives of our men and women in uniform, and they work to help other countries lawfully to build the capacity and willingness to investigate and disrupt terrorists in their countries, before threats reach us in the United Kingdom.

We should never forget that threats are launched at us secretly, new weapons systems and tactics are developed secretly, and countries or terrorist groups that plan attacks or operations against us do so in secrecy. So the methods we use to combat these threats must be secret, just as they must always be lawful. If the citizens of this country could see the time and care taken in making these decisions, the carefully targeted nature of all our interventions, and the strict controls in place to ensure that the law and our democratic values are upheld, and if they could witness, as I do, the integrity and professionalism of the men and women of our intelligence agencies, who are among our nation’s very finest public servants, I believe they would be reassured by how we go about this essential work.

The British people can be confident in the way our agencies work to keep them safe. Would-be terrorists, those seeking to spy against this country or those who are the centre of organised crime should be aware that this country has the capability and partnerships to protect its citizens against the full range of threats in the 21st century, and that we will always do so in accordance with our laws and values, but with constant resolve and determination.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it this afternoon. The House will be aware that on Saturday the Opposition, along with other Members of this House, called for the Foreign Secretary to address Parliament today, and we welcome his decision to do so in recognition of the depth of public concern that has arisen in recent days.

I begin my remarks by echoing the words of the Foreign Secretary and put on record the support and admiration of the whole House for the important—indeed, vital—work that is done by our country’s intelligence and security services. Theirs is some of the most important but inevitably least recognised work undertaken to protect the security of our nation, and it is right that we take the opportunity to offer our thanks and praise for their efforts. Our intelligence agencies’ work would be made more difficult if levels of concern about the framework under which they operate were to compromise the active support of the public for their efforts. In the light of that, I shall quote back to the Foreign Secretary his words in a BBC interview yesterday:

“if you are a law abiding citizen of this country going about your business and your personal life, you have nothing to fear—nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies listening to the contents of your phone calls or anything like that.”

This assertion, however, assumes that the state is either incapable of error or incapable of advertent or inadvertent wrongdoing.

Surely, on reflection, the Foreign Secretary will accept that law-abiding citizens of this country also want to know and be assured of the fact that the agencies of government are themselves law-abiding. Back in 2011, the Foreign Secretary seemed to recognise the importance of this point when in a speech on the role of the Security Services he said that

“the need for secrecy places additional importance on the Foreign Secretary’s accountability to Parliament for GCHQ and SIS. This is one of the indispensable foundations of public confidence, and one that I will personally strive to strengthen.”

Today presents him with a clear opportunity to deliver on that pledge, and I hope that in his answers to my specific questions he will be able to do so.

The Foreign Secretary is right to assume that lawyers, some law-makers and the members of the ISC may be very familiar with the framework of legality and accountability, but the general public, for understandable reasons, are not. In the light of that, will he take the opportunity of his response to remind the House of the steps we in Parliament have taken to preserve privacy, and set out whether all steps taken by our agencies are, to the best of his knowledge, compliant with those laws? It is in this spirit, not of condemnation but of concern, that I would like to ask the Foreign Secretary some questions about the recent allegations first revealed by The Guardian on Friday of last week about the existence and operation of the so-called Prism programme administered by the NSA.

Let me first make it clear that the Opposition support the principle of information sharing across international borders with allies. Indeed, the people who want to do harm to the UK work across international borders, and those people working to keep us safe have to be able to work with allies across international borders if they are to tackle these threats effectively. But that needs to be within that established framework of both law and accountability. The Foreign Secretary is right to say that full disclosure on this issue is not possible nor appropriate, so let me focus my questions not on the specific operational aspect of the allegations, but on the broader legal and policy frameworks that would apply in these circumstances.

Earlier this morning, the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), gave his account of the legal framework that would govern British intelligence agencies’ use of intercept data. He said:

“If the British intelligence agencies are seeking to know the content of emails about people living in the UK then they actually have to get lawful authority. Normally that means ministerial authority. That applies equally whether they are going to do the intercept themselves or whether they are going to ask somebody else to do it on their behalf.”

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether that account of the current legal framework is both complete and accurate?

In his statement, the Foreign Secretary has just stated: “Any data obtained by us from the United States involving UK nationals are subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards, including the relevant sections of the Intelligence Services Act 1994, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.” Will he now set out the relevant sections of those Acts, and confirm whether this explanation means that any data obtained by us from the US, involving UK nationals, are authorised by ministerial warrants and overseen by the intercept commissioner, as set out by RIPA?

Specifically, what legal framework applies in the following two cases? First, when a request is made by the UK to an intelligence agency of an international ally for the interception of the content of private communications, will he confirm whether this process is governed by individual warrants signed by the relevant Secretary of State and approved by the intercept commissioner as set out in part I of RIPA? Secondly, will he address the specific issue of when a request is made by the UK to an intelligence agency of an international ally, not to seek intercept, but instead to search existing data held by that agency on the contents of private communications, and, in particular, the legal process that will be adopted in such an instance? In that circumstance, will he confirm whether this process is also governed by individual warrants signed by the relevant Secretary of State and approved by the intercept commissioner as set out in part I of RIPA?

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that, with respect to intelligence sharing with allies, the UK Government operate on the basis of the assumption that information held by, for example, the US Government, has been obtained in accordance with the law of that country? If that is the case, what steps has he taken, or will take, to confirm that any processes currently in use by the NSA continue to adhere to this legal safeguard?

Order. The shadow Foreign Secretary has now exceeded his allotted time, so I feel sure that he is in his last sentence.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

To conclude, all of us in this House have an interest in sustaining public confidence in the work of the intelligence agencies. Those agencies, each and every day, do outstanding work on behalf of and for the sake of us all. That is why Ministers and the ISC now have a heavy burden of responsibility to oversee and scrutinise their work, so as to reassure the public.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and pleased that he began his remarks by expressing the support and admiration across the House for the work of the intelligence agencies. Many former Ministers from the previous Government—indeed, there are some specific ones here today—know that well. He was right to say that the work of those agencies is among the most important and least recognised that goes into protecting this country, so there is strong common ground across the House on that.

The right hon. Gentleman said that we should be able, now and in future, to give people assurances about the law-abiding nature of the work of the agencies, which of course is a large part of the purpose of what I have just explained to the House. I am not saying that the agencies, anyone who works in them or, indeed, Ministers are incapable of error—that can happen in any organisation—but I am arguing that there is a strong system of checks and balances. A combination of ministerial oversight, independent scrutiny, parliamentary oversight, the legal framework and the strong ethical framework of the agencies themselves minimises the chance of errors happening in any sinister way.

Sometimes people can get the impression, when reading discussions in the media about this, that there is a danger of a “deep state” that is in some way out of control. There is not that danger in the United Kingdom. Of course everyone is capable of error, but the protection of this country’s citizens from such error is very strong indeed. I must stress that there will always be ways of improving procedures—many improvements have been made in recent years, under successive Administrations—and there are always new situations that arise in intelligence gathering that require additions to or the refinement of the legal basis of what we do and the practices and procedures by which we do that work. I do not argue at all that everything is definitely perfect, and certainly not for all time, with regard to whether in future there could be any improvements in procedures in some areas, because I am sure that there could be. The Intelligence and Security Committee will be able to look at that and make recommendations if it so wishes, and of course within the Government that is something that is constantly looked at and subject to change.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is no reason why the general public would be familiar with the framework I have set out for the House. I was the first Foreign Secretary to make a speech, in November 2011—it might have been widely unnoticed in the House—about the role of secret intelligence in foreign policy, in which I set out for the public what the guarantees are and what the legal framework is. This, in a way, is an opportunity to set that out clearly to the country.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that he supports information sharing with our allies. The position on the legal framework is exactly as I set out in my statement: any data obtained by us from the United States about UK nationals are subject to the full range of Acts, including section 3 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the RIPA provisions, set out in sections 15 and 16, which regulate that information gathering must be necessary and proportionate and regulate how the agencies must handle information when they obtain it.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s further questions about how authority is given, I cannot give him, for reasons that I cannot explain in public, as detailed an answer as he would like. I would love to give him what could actually be a very helpful answer, but because circumstances and procedures vary according to the situation, I do not want to give a categorical answer—in a small respect circumstances might differ occasionally. But I can say that ministerial oversight and independent scrutiny is there, and there is scrutiny of the ISC in all these situations, so, again, the idea that operations are carried out without ministerial oversight, somehow getting around UK law, is mistaken. I am afraid that I cannot be more specific than that.

Nobody in this House, and certainly not me, would dispute the value of well-targeted intelligence. Central to this issue are the US FISA—Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—laws, which distinguish between American citizens, who receive rigorous protection of their privacy, and all other foreigners, including British citizens, who receive, in essence, no protection. When the Americans are concerned about assaults on their citizens, they pursue this with an aggression that would make Lord Palmerston proud, most obviously through the extradition arrangements, for example. Has the Foreign Secretary made any representations to the American authorities about the protection of innocent British citizens’ privacy under their FISA laws?

We apply our own laws. The United States decides its own laws and applies its own laws in the United States. We do so in the United Kingdom as well. That is the central point that I am making about this. All the Acts that we have passed in this Parliament relating to the gathering of intelligence are applied to data supplied from other countries. While I cannot give my right hon. Friend a specific answer about specific discussions, of course we regularly discuss with the United States the framework for these things to make sure, as best we can, that our values and our legal frameworks are upheld and that the strong emphasis on the privacy of the citizen is always there. As he will have seen in the statements of President Obama, the United States is very, very tough about that as well. When the UK and US both work together, each with a strong legal framework, the combined effect is a very strong and protective one.

Does the Secretary of State accept that many of our allies, leaving aside the United States, are astonished by the degree of control and supervision of our system of ministerial oversight, oversight by judicially qualified commissioners and oversight by the ISC, which surpasses that of most other western democracies?

Does Secretary of State also accept that those in the agencies face an impossible dilemma? When things are relatively calm, suspicions, fantasies and sometimes paranoia can take off about the so-called secret state, but the moment there is a serious threat or actual terrorist outrage, often the very same people and newspapers turn on a sixpence and demand to know not whether the safeguards were operated but why there has been a failure by the agencies to track, through intelligence of all kinds, the miscreants involved.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; as a former Foreign Secretary he is very experienced in these matters. I argued in my statement that, as he knows very well, the system of checks and balances and scrutiny that we have is among the strongest in the world; it could be the strongest in the world. Yes, he is right that the agencies easily come in for criticism when anything goes wrong and yet have to ensure at all times that they are gathering all the information they ought to be obtaining. They undertake a task for which they are not thanked and recognised often enough. They have achieved a great deal in frustrating attacks on this country, including, in recent years, planned terrorist attacks on this country, some of which we cannot talk about as they are not known to the public. It is therefore difficult to give them the recognition that they deserve. That is the scale and the importance of this crucial work.

I declare a strong constituency interest.

Veterans of Bletchley Park, such as my own parents, were and are widely described as heroes for the secret victories that we can now talk about, they having kept their secrets for many decades. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that GCHQ, as Bletchley’s successor, does equally vital but equally secret work, and that hon. Members might have to exercise just a fraction of that kind of self-restraint in allowing some of the perfectly legitimate questions about Prism to be answered in private to elected members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which we have set up for precisely this purpose?

My hon. Friend has spoken well about GCHQ and the work of his constituents, which he and I both greatly admire. Of course, the Intelligence and Security Committee is able to look at any aspects, including secret and top secret ones, of this discussion. The ISC, for those outside the House who may not be aware of it, is a cross-party Committee of Members who are already very familiar with so many of the issues surrounding secret intelligence. That is the proper place for these issues to be gone into in detail. I am sure this House will show the necessary restraint in its questions and comments, and that they will be fitting for today’s discussion about secret intelligence.

May I reinforce what my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has said and confirm from my own experience what the Foreign Secretary has said about the legal and ethical framework and the safeguards? I know that to be true, and it is from that background that I ask this simple question. Yes, we need to dampen down fear and reinforce the fact that we are engaging with international cyber-attack and the dangers of international global terrorism; but, in reassuring people about how we handle their data, could we take a closer look at how other agencies, including the NSA and our friends and colleagues in the United States, use material gathered from network and service providers and offer it, rather than having it sought from them, in a way that makes authorisation extremely difficult?

Like the right hon. Member for Blackburn, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) speaks from his own experience of the highly professional work of the agencies. The point he raises reinforces the importance of our agencies applying and upholding the laws of the United Kingdom regarding the data they obtain from other intelligence agencies around the world. As I said earlier to the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), there may well be occasions over the coming years when we will need to update and improve those procedures, to take account of changes in technology. I do not exclude that at all, but it re-emphasises the importance of applying our law in our country, which the agencies can be relied on to do.

People will have great confidence in hearing what my right hon. Friend has said about requests for intercept and operations in this country having to be so very rigorous. Does he also agree that the highly complex nature of modern communications inevitably means that, from time to time, privacy may have to be breached in the interests of the security of our country and its people?

Yes, of course: a would-be terrorist cannot rely on their privacy and nor can someone at the centre of organised crime. It is these decisions that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I and, sometimes, other colleagues have to make. We take extra steps and extra care on privacy. The law explicitly requires us to make sure that our actions are necessary, proportionate and targeted, but we go beyond those requirements in assessing the impact on the privacy of individuals in order to try to make sure that it is only when absolutely necessary that we invade that privacy.

One of the key motivations for the reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee was to help with transparency and to engage with the public and give confidence. Can the Foreign Secretary say whether any ISC report on Prism will be published, containing redactions that are as limited as possible?

I cannot give an assurance that reports on these issues will be public because, as I argued in my statement, there is an important role for secret intelligence. Our deliberations about that must therefore be secret. The ISC makes a variety of reports, some of which are published and redacted, as the hon. Lady says. The ISC will have to consider the format of its report, but I cannot guarantee that its findings will be public.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an excellent statement to the House in which the British people should have every confidence. Does he agree that, notwithstanding the reservations of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), the protection of the British people relies hugely on co-operation between the United Kingdom and the United States? Both countries face threats from China. In that regard, I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has any comments to make to the House about the illuminating report by the Intelligence and Security Committee last week?

I am largely grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and for his strong support for the Government’s position. He is right to underline the extreme importance to our national security of our close and unique co-operation with the United States. It has been my general approach, as he knows, not to publicly point fingers or fling accusations at other countries about intelligence activities. Despite his tempting invitation, I will not do so today.

As a former chair of the ISC, I have nothing but admiration for the work of GCHQ. The Foreign Secretary agrees that the ISC should investigate the allegations. Will he encourage the ISC to report swiftly to the Prime Minister, as is its custom, and then, if it is possible within the constraints of national security, to report to the House of Commons?

The ISC should of course report to the Prime Minister. I do not want to pre-empt any decision that the Committee or the Prime Minister may make about the nature of any reporting to the public or to Parliament. I reiterate the cautionary words that I issued a moment ago. I am sure that the Committee will want to undertake its work swiftly, but only as swiftly as proper consideration of all the issues allows. We all want it to consider such questions thoroughly. That is the most important requirement.

I very much welcome the statement by the Foreign Secretary. On the sharing of intelligence by GCHQ, will he clarify whether the United Kingdom provides location intelligence to the United States in relation to drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

As I explained in my statement, successive Governments have not commented on the details of how we use intelligence information. My statement was about the legal framework that governs such matters and the values that we uphold. I cannot and will not comment on what intelligence we share with other countries.

Given the rather different approaches to privacy and data protection in Europe and the United States, what assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the potential for this controversy to impact on the successful outcome of the EU-America free trade deal, and what are the Government doing to prevent it from having such an impact?

I have no evidence of any such impact. Over the coming days, the Government and our European partners will be putting great effort into ensuring that rapid progress is made on a transatlantic trade and investment partnership. I see no reason why the questions raised in the media over the past few days should have a significant impact on that.

The Foreign Secretary was right to say that in democracies it is important that some things are kept secret. However, it is equally important that Members of this House are free to have discussions without fear of interception by the Government. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that no Member is having his phone tapped or his e-mails intercepted?

There is a long-standing convention, named after a former Labour Prime Minister, which has always been upheld, so my hon. Friend and Mrs Bone can be assured of that.

Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that the Security Services have all the necessary tools to keep our citizens safe, even though at times that may mean the sacrifice of personal freedoms?

They do have the tools. I said earlier that those tools need updating over time. I did not refer in my statement to the discussions on a communications data Bill, but there is a strong case for updating the tools we have at our disposal. Means of communication are changing more rapidly than at any time in the history of the world, which means that the range and nature of threats change. We must be careful to do that work, and the whole House should give fair consideration to such proposals.

My right hon. Friend has confirmed that the Government and the intelligence services have no interest in random snooping into the private affairs of British citizens, but can he confirm to the House that, when well-founded security risks are identified, sufficient powers and freedoms are in place to undertake the investigations that may be necessary, or is it his opinion that enhanced freedoms and powers are now required?

In my experience, we are well-equipped to conduct necessary investigations, but I return to the answer I gave to the previous question. There will be a constant need to update what we are able to do, without being diverted from the basic principle of ensuring that our intelligence gathering is on what is necessary, and that it is proportionate, targeted and always legal. Our laws do not provide for indiscriminate trawling for information through the contents of people’s communications. We do not need to change those basic principles, but we sometimes need to change aspects of the legal framework and where we are able to get information from. That work must go on in the coming years.

Considering all the dangers for the individual concerned, why should we believe that the American whistleblower is telling a pack of lies? If a lot of what he is saying is true, then surely law-abiding citizens who are a million miles from any threat involved with terrorism should indeed be fearful.

As you will have noticed, Mr Speaker, I have not commented on the individual concerned. I am not going to get into a running commentary on this or any other leak. It is not possible for any Government to do that while respecting the need to maintain the secrecy of our intelligence work. I do not want to get into that now, but I stress again the very strong legal framework in this country. I believe people can have confidence in that.

All our constituents should be grateful for the work of the Security Services, and some will owe their lives to their professionalism. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that one of the biggest threats to our national security is stolen identities? Surely GCHQ has to be ever more innovative to stay one step in front.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. Part of the work of GCHQ is to make it easier for us to combat serious and organised crime. In many ways, the privacy of the citizens of this country benefits substantially from the work of our agencies, because of what they are doing to protect the country. There is a strong argument to be made about that, rather than that their privacy is invaded. So that is a growing threat, and in many cases it is up to the private sector, working with GCHQ, to ensure that we are well equipped to defeat it.

As one who continues to campaign for the young US-British soldier Bradley Manning, and exchanges e-mails and telephone calls with his defence counsel, can I assume that I am free from any surveillance, either from the United States or Britain?

I can only reiterate what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) about the Wilson doctrine, and I believe that the right hon. Lady can be confident in that.

Many British people use the online tools affected by Prism and many British companies will have commercially sensitive data on there—many people in government as well. The Americans are partly protected, but what rules are there on the collection of British data by the NSA or the uses that those data can be put to after they have been collected?

The House will understand that I cannot speculate about the content of any leak or what has been argued in newspapers over the past few days, but we do have our own clear legal framework—the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Human Rights Act 1998, all of which apply to data obtained by this country through co-operation with the US, just as they apply to any data we obtain ourselves. I think that people can be confident about that.

Given that EU data protection laws currently offer no protection against backdoor US surveillance of this sort, will the Foreign Secretary commit to pushing for stronger measures in the current EU proposals, or does he agree with the Justice Secretary, who is reported to have said that plans to strengthen protections for UK citizens and businesses from such unwarranted spying are “mad”?

I think that the hon. Lady might be quoting the Justice Secretary slightly out of context, in that he will have been referring to other aspects of the proposals. I cannot give her any guarantee that these controversies make it easier to agree proposals for EU directives, but I will go with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary on these matters.

Could the Guardian’s non-story be summed up as: foreign Government monitor international terrorists and share intelligence with their allies? Will the Foreign Secretary join me in paying tribute to our allies, who share intelligence so that British citizens remain safe, both here and abroad?

I absolutely join in the tributes to our allies. We depend on the United States a great deal for our national security, particularly in intelligence matters, and they also depend on us. This is an important two-way relationship, greatly assisting the security of both nations, and reaffirms what an indispensible relationship this is for the UK.

I think that 99% of the British public would agree that this is not about gathering information on terrorists. It is about the little fella—the fella who might be organising a demonstration against a rotten Government policy, or a trade unionist such as Len McCluskey or even Bob Crow organising a strike. I was involved in the 1984 miners’ strike, mind, and there was some funny intelligence work done then.

I can only speak about the legal framework operating now on the basis of two Acts of Parliament, in 1994 and 2000, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if the Home Secretary and I were signing off interception warrants on political grounds, we would be in a great deal of trouble with the intercept commissioner and the ISC. The hon. Gentleman can be reassured about that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our relationship with the US is a cornerstone of our national security infrastructure; that the exchange of material works both ways, aiding the US as well as the UK; that those who work on the paranoid assumption that this or some other programme is there to spy on UK and US citizens are wrong; and that a large proportion of the data collected is against third-party citizens in third-party countries?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, including about the importance of the relationship and about how inevitably the vast majority of work done together by the UK and US intelligence agencies is to guard against threats from elsewhere in the world.

Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) said, and the fact that GCHQ has been involved in trade union disputes for a long time, can the Foreign Secretary give me an assurance? He will not explain precisely how this interception takes place on the advice of a Minister; but surely, if the Prime Minister of the day in 1984 said that the miners and the NUM were the “enemy within”, would that not give the green light to GCHQ to intervene in every single coalfield? Because that is what we believed.

We are in a different century now—we are 13 years into the 21st century. The challenges are different and the focus of the intelligence agencies is different from decades in the past and very different, of course, from during the cold war. It is important for Opposition Members below the Gangway to start to move with the times.

Has not our national security relied for centuries on the effective intercept of communications? The Spanish armada was said to have been averted as much by the pen of Francis Walsingham as by the Royal Navy. Surely what has changed is the nature of those communications. The threat to the public comes not from the intelligence agencies, which have no interest at all in the communications of members of the public; but they will not be able to intercept communications if those data are not retained by providers.

Since I refused to go back into the miners’ strike, I am reluctant to go into the Spanish armada, but the wider point that my right hon. Friend makes is of course absolutely correct. Two cross-party Committees in this House have looked at proposals for a communications data Bill, for instance, and said that changes are necessary, and he is adding to that point.

Can the Secretary of State spell out to the House the precise difference between the legal framework applicable to the obtaining of intercept data by our intelligence services and that which applies to the use by our intelligence services of information obtained by their counterparts overseas?

The legal framework is the one I have set out. The Acts that I have referred to, passed by Parliament, apply to all the intelligence gathered by the agencies. The hon. Gentleman will know that, for instance, section 3 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994 confers particular powers and roles on GCHQ, so these things are governed by the same Acts of Parliament. Procedures differ, of course, in many different situations. It is because I cannot describe all those situations in public that I cannot go into exactly what that means for procedures in every case. I therefore cannot go as far in reassuring the hon. Gentleman or the shadow Foreign Secretary as they would like, but if they could see the full details of what happens, I think they would take an enormous measure of reassurance from it.

Given the comments of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and other former Cabinet Ministers on the Opposition Benches, can the House reasonably infer that there has been no change in policy with regard to GCHQ and information sharing from the last Government—in other words, that the system that prevails at present is identical to that pertained when Labour was in government?

The challenges of gathering intelligence change over time, so I would not want to give the House the impression that all practices and techniques are exactly the same or used in the same way. I can say, as I said in my statement, that the general framework remains the same—the principles of our intelligence sharing with the United States and the general framework for it certainly remain the same. The values on which it is based also remain the same, as under successive Governments.

We know that the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and all his right hon. Friends in the Conservative party Cabinet want the retention of large swathes of personal data, and he is prepared to compromise our civil liberties to obtain that, but does this episode not demonstrate what could go wrong if we had a home-grown snooper’s charter?

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to the draft Communications Data Bill, which I have already mentioned in earlier answers. Two parliamentary Committees have considered the draft Bill and concluded that there is a need for legislation in this area, and the Government are committed to bringing forward proposals on that in the near future.

We are actually at cyber-war at the moment. Since 2000, the cyber-attacks on this country have multiplied some twentyfold. The Chinese held an exercise last week that they called a digital technology exercise at divisional level, involving men in uniform who are designed specifically to attack the west. Hacking can be far more deadly than a gun. May I encourage the Foreign Secretary and all his colleagues to ensure that GCHQ is as close to the National Security Agency as possible in the future?

As I have said, GCHQ has a unique relationship with the National Security Agency. My hon. Friend is right to say that cyber-attack is an increasing threat in many different areas of government and of life in general. That is why the Government decided, in the strategic defence and security review three years ago, to invest an additional £650 million in our cyber-capabilities over a four-year period. The United Kingdom is one of the world leaders in cyber-defence and cyber-capabilities, and we are determined that we will remain in that position.

For clarity, will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether he was told how the NSA collects this information, and on what date he was made aware of the Prism project?

I go back to what I have said about being unable to confirm or deny leaked information. I am not commenting at all on information that has appeared in the newspapers. There might be leaks in the future from who knows what agency, and I would take the same view in such circumstances. We cannot conduct ourselves in these matters by commenting on every leak that takes place. The Intelligence and Security Committee will be able to look at these questions, but I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman in public the answers to the questions that he is raising.

Because this type of secret operation involves not just a legal problem but a difficult balancing of security and liberty, we should do more to explain what we are doing. An American citizen would have the right to an answer to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) asked about location information being offered for American drone strikes. Unless we begin to explain more to the public, secret operations will not be sustainable in the long term. The public must understand and, through understanding, consent.

I go a certain way with my hon. Friend on this. There is a need to explain to the public in this country more than we have done for decades about the role of secret intelligence, its purpose and what it achieves. However, I do not think that will mean that we are able to describe in detail how our co-operation with other countries works on operational matters, for many obvious reasons. It would make it more difficult for us to protect this country if other people knew the exact techniques that we used. Also, other countries would be less willing to share their intelligence with the UK if they thought that we were not good at keeping it to ourselves. But we certainly need to raise public awareness of the need for what we do, and I started to do that in my speech on this subject in 2011. Perhaps today’s statement will also have that effect.

The Cathy Massiter case proved that, 50 years after the last war, intensive surveillance of peace activists, trade unionists and left-wing parties had failed to turn up a single spy, but it was discovered that in that same period, more than 20 members of the Secret Intelligence Service were spying for the Soviet Union. Since then, we have had untruths on weapons of mass destruction and a Government cover-up to this House on the handing over of prisoners to oppressive regimes to be tortured. Is the Foreign Secretary telling us today that the only people now under surveillance are the guilty? How does he manage that?

I am telling the hon. Gentleman and the House about the many checks and balances and the strong legal framework. On all the controversies that he lists about the past—and they are controversies rather than necessarily facts—it would be fair to point out that there has been a constant process under successive Governments of improving how the intelligence agencies work. After the controversies over the use of intelligence in the Iraq war, for instance, we saw the Butler report, which has substantially changed the way intelligence is presented to Ministers and the way that Ministers decide. I referred in my statement to the creation of the National Security Council and to intelligence being given its due but proper weight alongside other information and considered in the round. The hon. Gentleman should take heart from the fact that such improvements take place.

It is good to know that our legal framework is not lost on the Foreign Secretary. He tells us that there are no grounds for suggesting that GCHQ obtained information from the United States that it could not obtain legally in the UK. Is it also the case that there are standard procedures in place sufficient to prevent that from happening?

What I have argued is that the idea of GCHQ setting out to circumvent UK law by co-operation with other countries is baseless. UK law is applied to the data it receives, even if it is received from the United States, because ministerial oversight and independent oversight is all there. Part of the purpose of that oversight is to ensure that the misuse of the powers and the role of GCHQ does not take place.

The term is always used that the intelligence services always operate within a “legal framework”. Is the Foreign Secretary certain that “legal framework” always means ethically and within the law, and that peaceful democratically elected political parties in the UK are not involved?

Well, yes, it does mean those things. It means that the legal framework is properly applied and what the agencies do has to be targeted, necessary, proportionate and authorised. It also has to be for the purposes set out in the relevant Acts of Parliament in the interests of national security, the country’s economic well-being or the prevention of serious crime and the protection of the country from it. These are the purposes of our intelligence agencies—and they stick to them.

Is the Foreign Secretary absolutely confident that, if a member of staff working at GCHQ had real concerns about wrongdoing among colleagues, the channels exist for that member of staff to have their concerns heard without needing to go to the media?

Yes, absolutely. In such a case, concerns can be raised through the management structure. There is also the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, to which members of the intelligence services can take complaints or concerns without having to do so in public.

We are sorry the hon. Lady is taking her leave, but we will hear from her on other occasions. [Interruption.] She has nothing for which to apologise. I mistakenly thought she was trying to contribute. She should take her leave; we will give her a cheer [Hon. Members: “Hurray.]We will hear from her again soon. She is a very regular contributor.

May I commend my right hon. Friend for his statement, for his personal grip and command over this issue and for the work that the security services do? I imagine that from the nature of the work they do and the people they are, our security services people are reticent about talking of their successes. At a time of heightened tension over international and domestic terrorism, will the Foreign Secretary encourage our security services wherever possible to put into the public domain the success stories in countering threats to our national security?

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that we should be able to celebrate the successes of our security services. Unfortunately, however, we shall have to continue to celebrate those successes in fairly general terms. As my hon. Friend will understand, if we proclaimed some of our most successful intelligence operations in public, it would be very difficult to repeat them. Unfortunately, we have to protect this country against the same type of threat again and again, and from terrorism in particular. I therefore cannot, at the moment, offer a more specific statement about what the security services have succeeded in doing, but my hon. Friend can take it from me that there is much that is not known in relation to the protection of this country from terrorism in particular, but also from organised crime, that the country would truly celebrate if it knew about it.

I join the Foreign Secretary in praising the professionalism and dedication of the staff of both the SIS and GCHQ. Edward Snowden, the CIA official who leaked the information, said that had he leaked it because he wanted to stand up against oppression and stand up for liberty. Is there not a perverse paradox that that gentleman made those claims not from Washington or London, but from the People’s Republic of China?

Having earlier set myself the rule of not attacking the conduct of other nations, I am not going to break that rule now, but other people will be able to comment on this particular individual and his role. It is, of course, important for everyone who works for the agencies to remember that part of their responsibility is to uphold the laws of their country, and that in the case of the United States and the United Kingdom, those laws are designed to protect the lives and liberty of the citizens of those countries. That seems to have been too easily forgotten over the last few days.

NATO suffered a suspected 2,500 cyber-attacks on its network last year. Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether there is a similar level of suspected cyber-attacks on GCHQ ?

There are undoubtedly cyber-attacks against all western intelligence agencies, including GCHQ, but GCHQ is particularly well adapted to defend itself against such attacks, and to have some idea of where they are coming from and when they are coming. I will not go into any more detail than that, but people would be quite fortunate to mount a successful cyber-attack against GCHQ itself.

As we have heard, the rigour, quality and sheer scale of American intelligence is second to none. Given the threats that the UK currently faces, may I urge the Foreign Secretary to continue his robust public defence of the UK-US intelligence relationship?

I feel suitably earthed by my hon. Friend, and by many other Members. It is always worth reminding ourselves again of the indispensable nature of that relationship, although we cannot give many of the details about it. It is a fundamental part—a cornerstone, as one of our hon. Friends said earlier—of maintaining the security of this country.

I welcome the reassurances given by the Foreign Secretary. I merely seek clarification of one point. If the UK is intercepting e-mails of British citizens, it requires a warrant from the Secretary of State, but that vital check is not in place when communications are received under Prism. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that Prism can be used quite legally to sidestep the level of safeguards that apply to UK-sourced intercept? How do we mitigate that risk?

Again, I do not want anything that I say to be taken as a comment on information that has been leaked over the last few days, but the Intelligence and Security Committee will be able to study the issues raised by it, including the issues raised by my hon. Friend. That is the proper forum. I have already stressed the way in which ministerial and independent oversight applies to our relations with other intelligence agencies, including those in the United States, and my hon. Friend should therefore not jump to any conclusions about the absence of such oversight and authority.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the concerns raised by some Members of this House demonstrate the limitations of the current RIPA system, which has failed to keep up with modern technological trends, and that there is a need for new measures, such as the draft Communications Data Bill, as amended by a Joint Committee of the Lords and the Commons, to ensure that our legislation is up to date, has parliamentary oversight and covers all the concerns raised?

The case for the draft Communications Data Bill rests on its own merits. My hon. Friend refers to some of those merits and the Government will bring forward proposals in the near future on that subject.