Before I call the Minister without Portfolio to make his statement, I should say to the House that the subject matter concerns certain right hon. Members personally. I know that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) wishes to catch my eye. I have said to him that in these exceptional circumstances I am prepared to allow him latitude in phrasing his remarks and rather more time to make them than would be usual. Even so, I know he appreciates that brevity will assist, as this is not a debate.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on a report being published today by the former Court of Appeal judge, the right hon. Sir Peter Gibson, on the treatment of detainees. It may first be helpful to remind the House of the circumstances in which Sir Peter’s inquiry was set up.
In the statement he gave to the House in July 2010, the Prime Minister explained that questions had been raised about the degree to which, in the years immediately after the horrific events of 11 September 2001, British officers had worked with those from foreign security services who were treating detainees in ways they should not have done. The Prime Minister made it clear that it has never been suggested that United Kingdom intelligence officers were themselves directly responsible for the mistreatment of detainees. Nevertheless, the allegations of involvement had done harm to our reputation as a country which believes in human rights, justice and the rule of law and had called into question the robustness of the rules under which our services operate.
The Prime Minister then set out his determination and the determination of the whole coalition Government to get to grips with these allegations so that the security services could get on and do their vital job of keeping us safe. First, he announced that we would seek to settle the civil compensation cases brought against the Government by the former Guantanamo detainees. In due course, a significant settlement was agreed with them in November of that year. Secondly, he introduced vital reforms to improve the operational, parliamentary and judicial regulation of the agencies. Thirdly, he invited Sir Peter Gibson to hold an inquiry that would deal properly with the historical allegations. Sir Peter was asked to begin immediately with his preparatory work, and his inquiry was due to start formally when the police investigations into these matters had concluded. The Prime Minister made it clear that he expected the inquiry to take no longer than a year.
Sir Peter and his panel and the Government have been frustrated in their hopes of progress by how long the police investigations have taken. It was not until January 2012 that the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan police issued a joint statement announcing that there was insufficient evidence to bring prosecutions in the two criminal investigations that had been preventing the start of the inquiry’s public work, but at the same time they also announced that new investigations would begin into alleged renditions to Libya in 2004. Of course, it is important that these matters be investigated properly by the police, but it raised the prospect of a still further indeterminate delay before Sir Peter could begin to call witnesses and hear evidence.
With the panel’s agreement, therefore, I announced in a statement to the House that the detainee inquiry would produce its report based solely on its preparatory analysis. This report was to highlight any particular themes or issues that should be the subject of further examination. A classified version of the report was to be presented to the Prime Minister, and an open version was to be made public. Nevertheless, the report is a substantial piece of work and the product of extensive independent analysis of some 20,000 written documents, some of which have not been examined by any previous review. It finds no evidence in the documents to support any allegation that UK intelligence officers were directly responsible for the mistreatment of detainees held by other countries overseas, and no material has been referred to the police for further consideration, but it identifies 27 issues that require further examination, grouped under four broad themes: interrogation and treatment; rendition; guidance and training; and matters relating to policy and communications.
The period concerned was one in which we and our international partners were suddenly adapting to a completely new scale and type of threat from fundamentalist religious extremists, and many UK intelligence officers had to operate in extraordinarily challenging environments, subject to real personal danger. Everyone in the Government and the agencies accepts, however, that this bravery has to be combined with clear rules of proportionality and accountability to ensure that we uphold the values we are working hard to defend. So, while we accept that intelligence operations must be conducted in the strictest secrecy, we also expect there to be strict oversight of those operations to ensure that at all times they respect the human rights that are a cornerstone of this country’s values.
The questions raised by Sir Peter’s report, combined with the other reviews that have been conducted of the period, paint a picture of Government and agencies struggling to come to terms with the new level of threat faced by this country. It is now clear that our agencies and their staff were, in some respects, not prepared for the extreme demands suddenly placed on them. The guidance regulating how intelligence officers should act was inadequate. The practices of some of our international partners should have been understood much sooner. Oversight was not robust enough, and there was no mechanism in the civil courts for allegations against the security and intelligence services to be examined properly. Most of those problems related to a relatively short period of time in the early 2000s, but they risked some damage to our reputation as a nation that prides itself on being a beacon of justice, human rights and the rule of law. I believe I speak for the whole House when I say that if failures and mistakes were made in that period, it is a matter of sincere regret.
From its very first days in office, this Government have been determined to enact reforms that ensure that the problems of the past cannot be repeated. Those reforms, and changes made under the previous Government, mean that the framework within which our agencies now operate is very different from that during the period that Sir Peter’s report describes. We have finalised and published consolidated guidance, setting out very clearly how intelligence that could lead to a detention should be handled, and how detainee interviews overseas should be conducted. Compliance with this guidance is monitored by the independent Intelligence Services Commissioner who reports annually to the Prime Minister. We have made it clear that Ministers must be consulted whenever an intelligence officer involved in a planned operation believes a detainee is at serious risk of mistreatment by a foreign state, even if that raises the risk of a terrorist action going ahead. We have dramatically improved Parliament’s ability to oversee the actions of the agencies—we did that through the Justice and Security Bill, which I took through the House on behalf of the Government last year. The Intelligence and Security Committee is now a Committee of Parliament, fully independent of Government, and the Prime Minister can no longer appoint its Chairman. It can require information of the intelligence agencies, not just request it. It has a new statutory right to review past intelligence operations and, for the first time, the Committee and its staff will have direct access to agency papers.
Finally, the Justice and Security Bill, which is now an Act of Parliament, introduced new court procedures to ensure that if allegations are made that things have gone wrong, even the most secret intelligence activities can be examined by an independent judge in a civil court of law. The combination of these reforms means that a line has begun to be drawn under a difficult period of the past. Despite that, it remains important that we deal properly with the 27 issues that Sir Peter’s report raises. It would be wrong to leave those issues, many of which relate to matters of policy, unexamined for the unknown amount of time it will take for the police to complete their related investigations. Equally, it would be wrong to ask a judge to examine material which in any way could compromise a live criminal investigation. It is the combination of those police investigations and the fact that they thwart a judge’s inquiry that have led to the frustrating delay in this case, which is felt by everyone involved.
Therefore, the Prime Minister has discussed and agreed with the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament that it will inquire into the themes and issues that Sir Peter has raised, take further evidence, and report to the Government and to Parliament on the outcome of its inquiry. Additional resources will be provided to the Committee to undertake that work, so that it does not affect the work it is currently doing on the killing of drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich earlier this year, and its work on the following inquiry it has announced it will be undertaking into the necessary balance between privacy and security as regards communication interception.
To assist the Committee with its work, the Prime Minister has already asked the agency heads to provide him with full and detailed responses to the questions raised in the panel’s report for which they are responsible. He has also asked the Intelligence Services Commissioner to provide his views on current compliance with those aspects of the consolidated guidance that he monitors. Both of those reports will be made available to the Committee in full by the end of February next year.
I hope and expect that by the end of next year the ISC will have finished its report. I also hope that the police will have finished their investigations. It will then be possible for the Government to take a final view as to whether a further judicial inquiry still remains necessary to add any further information of value to future policy making and the national interest.
I thank the Minister for his statement and Sir Peter Gibson for his work and the interim report.
As I respond to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s statement, I should make it clear that I have not had sight of the redacted version of Sir Peter Gibson’s interim report, which is published today.
I am confident that I speak for the whole House when I say that MPs from all parties condemn all forms of inhumane, cruel and degrading forms of treatment. Our freedoms and the high standards we promote in protecting human rights distinguish us as a nation, and our influence across the globe is strengthened as a result. Those freedoms are fundamental to our society, and our security and intelligence services work on an ongoing daily basis to protect us and the freedoms we hold dear.
We owe those services a debt of gratitude for keeping this country safe from threats—work that is dependent on men and women taking grave personal risks on a daily basis. Again, I know I speak on behalf of Members from all parties and the public in thanking them for their crucial role. Notwithstanding the crucial work that the agencies do to keep us safe, any allegations of involvement by members of our security and intelligence services in serious breaches of the law need proper and full investigation.
Any acts that might contravene the law in the ways alleged would run counter to everything our nation stands for and believes in. For that reason, it is important there is a full and proper investigation, exposing any wrongdoing and bringing those responsible to account. We also need to ensure that the appropriate lessons are learned and that there is no repeat in the future. We need to do that in as independent, open and transparent a manner as possible, in a way that maintains the confidence of the public.
It is now almost two years since the Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and announced that his Government’s inquiry, led by Sir Peter Gibson, was to be abandoned because of ongoing criminal investigations. I have some questions for the Minister that I hope he will be able to answer this afternoon. Why has there been such a long delay in the publication of Sir Peter Gibson’s report? Of course, we understand why sensitive parts of the report need to be redacted, but who decided which sections were redacted?
The Minister was categorical in January 2012 that a future judge-led inquiry would be restarted at an appropriate time in the future. That is particularly important in light of the commitments made by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister that it had to be an independent judge-led inquiry. Bearing in mind that the interim inquiry by Sir Peter Gibson has identified 27 issues that require further examination, why have the Government changed their mind about the importance of the restarted inquiry also being judge-led?
There are recent examples of a judge successfully examining material in an inquiry without compromising criminal investigations. Will the Minister therefore explain why he has handed the inquiry into the issues that Sir Peter has raised over to the ISC rather than a judge? I have great respect for the Committee’s work and recognise that it has increased powers and increased resources, but does the right hon. and learned Gentleman believe that his original aspirations—and those of the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary—for the inquiry to be as independent, open and public as possible can be met by such an investigation?
Bearing in mind that much of the litigation in this area will inevitably be conducted under closed material proceedings, the scope and coverage of which the Government extended last year to include such cases, does the Minister agree that there is even more reason to ensure that any investigation is as independent and transparent as possible, and has the confidence of the public? Does the Minister believe that the public will have greater confidence in an ISC investigation than in a judge-led one? If so, will he explain his thinking?
Organisations representing detainees and their families had concerns that Sir Peter Gibson’s original inquiry was not compliant with articles 3 and 6 of the European convention on human rights. They chose to disengage from the process. I asked the Minister back in January 2012 what he intended to do to ensure that the inquiry’s legitimacy was bolstered by working to re-engage those groups and organisations. The interim findings, published by Sir Peter Gibson today, could have been used as an opportunity to show the non-governmental organisations and the public that the judge-led inquiry was working under its terms of reference to win back the confidence of the public. Does the Minister think that that is an opportunity missed?
My final question for the Minister is what additional steps he and the ISC will take to address the perception—fair or unfair—that today’s announcement of the ISC taking over the inquiry is a whitewash? Ultimately, the key aims are to get to the bottom of what happened and to ensure that lessons are learnt and justice is done, as well as maintaining public confidence. We will work constructively in any way we can to satisfy those aims.
First, I certainly share the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration with the delay, which was not contemplated by the Prime Minister or anyone in government when we embarked on this process. Indeed, we are extremely anxious to inquire as necessary as quickly as possible so that we can draw a line under this matter, learn lessons and ensure that the House can be totally confident that there would be no similar problems in future. The delay has been caused by the length of time taken for the police to investigate these matters. No politician has control over the police and it is right for them to inquire into issues where they believe it is justifiable to do so, but the result has been a timeless delay. Nobody has been able to proceed, in Sir Peter Gibson’s case, to the calling of witnesses and the taking of evidence, because that could compromise any criminal procedures and investigations that needed to take place in due course.
I join the right hon. Gentleman in praising the work of Sir Peter and his panel in producing this report, which, in the circumstances, is extremely valuable, but as the panel makes clear, it can come to no conclusions and make no findings of fact or conclusive allegations against anybody, and nor can it clear anybody conclusively, because it relied on documents that were frustrated when it came to calling witnesses.
Only one passage in the report is redacted. We did our best to reach agreement with the panel on the redactions and we were anxious to publish as much as possible, as was the panel. The redactions relate to a matter that is already subject to a public interest immunity certificate in the courts. In my and the Government’s opinion, there was no going back on that. Sir Peter and the panel acknowledge in the text that the redaction is of no significance to the general narrative and the issues set out in the report.
The Prime Minister was quite clear about preferring a judge-led inquiry. When he said that almost two years ago, I said we would set up the judicial inquiry once the police investigations were over and we could get the inquiry under way. That has not proved possible, however. Nobody contemplated at that time that in December 2013 we would still be trying to work out when we would be capable of proceeding.
A judge-led inquiry normally involves the publication of evidence as the inquiry proceeds, although in cases such as this the evidence is sometimes redacted. The whole process of a judicial inquiry could conceivably compromise a criminal investigation. It is true that some recent inquiries, such as that conducted by Lord Justice Leveson into a totally different matter, proceeded although criminal investigations were taking place, but Lord Justice Leveson avoided, very scrupulously, any areas that might compromise the criminal investigation. The trouble with Sir Peter Gibson’s scope is that the only matters that he is considering are the subject of criminal investigations, so the same situation could not arise. The Prime Minister has therefore come up with the solution of referring the issue to the Intelligence and Security Committee in the House of Commons.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can be persuaded that that is a very good way of proceeding. The ISC’s inquiry can start now, whereas a judge-led inquiry could not. Moreover, the House of Commons has greatly strengthened the ISC. When we debated these matters last year, Members in all parts of the House agreed that we should make the ISC independent, more powerful, and capable of calling for, rather than merely requesting, the information that it wanted. I think that we now have an opportunity to demonstrate that its work is a valuable addition to all the other requirements in our constitution to ensure that the activities of our intelligence services are properly accountable, and that, as far as is feasible, there is some democratic oversight of what can be done.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman reminded me that, two or three years ago, non-governmental organisations and perfectly reasonable lobbies had criticised Sir Peter Gibson and refused to co-operate with him because, in their view, his inquiry did not comply with article 3 of the European convention on human rights. I remember that exchange, which disappointed me at the time. The organisations concerned appeared to be arguing for a full-blooded public inquiry in which everyone would be represented—detainees present, press sitting in the gallery at the back—and in which a great deal of evidence would be produced that would be of enormous value to this country’s enemies. No country in the world would sensibly deal with matters in that way. I think that the process we are adopting, with the use of the ISC, is the best way of ensuring that our intelligence services remain as strong and effective as we all want them to be, that their bravery is respected, and that they are protected when they carry out work on behalf of all of us, while also ensuring that there is proper scrutiny and a proper inquiry so that we can be reassured that the highest ethical guidelines are being followed.
May I, through the Minister, give the House an assurance about the work that the Intelligence and Security Committee has agreed to undertake?
As Members will know, in 2005 and 2007 the Committee published reports on the treatment of detainees and on rendition. Those reports turned out to be unsatisfactory and incomplete, because the intelligence agencies had not provided the Committee with all the relevant information, which, at the time, they were under no statutory obligation to do. As the Minister has said, that has now changed: the agencies are required to provide all the information, and the Committee’s own staff can go directly to them and inspect their files. It is on that basis, and on the basis of the extra resources that we will be given to prevent our other work from being interfered with or delayed, that the Committee believes that it can fulfil this duty, and is very willing to do so.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for explaining why we gave the ISC more powers, and why that very powerful Committee, with its very strong membership, is capable of exercising its responsibilities and—we hope—producing the information that we require. The Gibson report did indeed indicate that when it had previously tried to conduct inquiries into detention and rendition, the Committee had not been given access to much fuller information involving all the incidents of detainee mistreatment that had been complained about, and the full internal investigations of rendition that had taken place. I have no doubt that my right hon. and learned Friend’s Committee will rectify that when it returns to the subject.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for allowing me a response at greater length than is usual. May I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his statement and the care he has taken in handling this matter, which I personally appreciate, and may I say that I share many of the sentiments he has expressed?
I greatly welcome today’s announcement that the Intelligence and Security Committee will now inquire into the questions raised by Sir Peter Gibson’s interim report, and that all relevant witnesses will be able to give testimony in person? Such a further inquiry is, surely, imperative given that the 27 sets of issues Sir Peter identifies have been based entirely on the available documents, and not on any statements, or oral examinations of witnesses?
May I tell the House that, as Foreign Secretary, I acted at all times in a manner that was fully consistent with my legal duties and with national and international law, and that I was never in any way complicit in the unlawful rendition or detention of individuals by the United States or any other state?
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware, as Sir Peter brings out in his interim report and has long been known more widely, that in early January 2002 I agreed that the UK should not stand in the way of UK nationals who were detained in Afghanistan by the United States being transferred to Guantanamo Bay, and that I did so after careful legal advice and because, at the time, it was the only practical alternative to their remaining in custody in Afghanistan? But will the right hon. and learned Gentleman also accept that we never agreed in any way to the mistreatment of those detainees or to the denial of their rights, that we made repeated objections to the United States Government about these matters, and that I was able to secure the release of all British detainees by January 2005?
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that we should never forget the context: that the period covered by this report was the aftermath of the world’s most appalling terrorist atrocity ever, on 11 September 2001, and that in this period there was a continuing and profound anxiety about further terrorist outrages to come—anxieties that were all too well placed, as we all discovered on 7 July 2005?
Finally, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that throughout this difficult period it was the exemplary professionalism and bravery of our armed forces and of the staff of our intelligence and security agencies which ensured that, in so far as was humanly possible, our nation and its people were kept safe?
I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Gentleman and I have considerable sympathy with him for the frustrating personal position in which he finds himself. There has been briefing around this matter and allegations have been made, and he has had no opportunity of appearing before Sir Peter and giving evidence, which he was anxious to do, and helping Sir Peter and the panel establish what actually happened during the period in question. He will now have the opportunity to do so when the ISC looks into these matters. Obviously, I cannot give any opinion on the issues the right hon. Gentleman raises because they relate precisely to what we are trying to get someone to investigate and reach a conclusion on, but it is certainly the case, as Sir Peter’s report makes clear, that one of the issues that will have to be looked at is whether Ministers were properly informed in full about what was going on and what necessary ministerial authorisation there was.
I also share the right hon. Gentleman’s final sentiment. I hope that all Members agree that we want the toughest and most effective intelligence services we can get and that we want our intelligence services to be at least as effective as those of any other nation. But we are a democracy and we also want to know that what they do is proportionate, complies with essential ethical standards and is authorised by a Minister, and that all the activities are carried out by people who are accountable to the Ministers responsible and to Parliament as well, when possible. That is the conclusion I hope we will eventually reach.
The security services do a great job and they deserve our support, but I do not think this statement will help them. It is truly shocking that Britain has facilitated kidnap and torture, and the decision to abandon this judge-led inquiry will, I think, come to be seen as a mistake. Does the Minister agree that it is as essential for the standing of the intelligence services, on whom we depend, as it is for the wider public that we get to the truth about the extent of Britain’s involvement, as only that way can we restore trust? The Minister has said that the ISC will complete this work, but what confidence can the public have in its conclusions when that same body wrongly concluded that Britain was not involved in 2007, only to be flatly contradicted by a High Court ruling the following year? Is it not the case that the ISC’s new powers about which we have just heard are in any case heavily qualified—papers may be withheld on grounds of sensitivity and the ISC’s remit on operational matters is only permitted in certain circumstances?
First, I share my hon. Friend’s determination that we get to the truth of these matters and that they are investigated. Indeed, I share his concern that anybody from the United Kingdom should be involved in unlawful rendition, and I used to support his campaigns when we were both in opposition. I disagree with him about the way we are progressing now. The judge-led inquiry cannot proceed with taking evidence from people and publishing evidence alongside continuing police investigations which may or may not lead to some further criminal proceedings if anyone is eventually prosecuted. The question is do we, frustratingly, just continue to wait—I think it is more than three years since the Prime Minister made his statement—or do we seek to demonstrate that we really have now got a parliamentary Committee with the powers and authority required to do the job and report back to this House and the Prime Minister on its findings and recommendations?
I am sorry that my hon. Friend is dismissive of the Committee’s powers. He took part in the debates last year. We have considered them and the Committee has far more powers than it previously had. One of the things it will be looking at is how, when the previous Committee investigated treatment of detainees and rendition, it did not appear to have been supplied with information that was in fact being shared with others inside the Government and which had been assembled by the agencies for their own use. I think it is highly unlikely that that will be repeated and I think the present Committee can be relied upon to use the powers to demand papers and to go to the offices and look through the records of the agencies in order to revisit its conclusions on those matters.
May I ask the Minister to confirm my understanding of what he has said, which is that Sir Peter and his team have identified a large number of questions, many of them fairly familiar, to which they have been unable to find answers in the documents they have studied, and that in consequence they have not drawn conclusions? I ask him to reaffirm that that is the case, because my strong suspicion is that there will be those who will try to draw conclusions nevertheless.
Given that somebody has been briefing in advance, which I give the assurance is certainly not me or anybody with my authority, it is already clear that people are drawing the conclusions that we would anticipate them drawing if they already happened to be on one side of the argument or another before we started, and that, I am afraid, will continue. The right hon. Lady makes an extremely important point, and Sir Peter makes it clear at least twice in the report he is publishing today that it is quite wrong, and indeed impossible, to make findings of fact, and certainly any findings concerning any individuals involved, before he has called evidence, called them before him if necessary, given them an opportunity to explain and completed these investigations. That is why this inquiry identifies issues, which the ISC will now consider and decide whether and how to pursue. It has not made any findings of fact. In this country it would be quite wrong to make findings of fact of any kind, or to draw adverse inferences against anybody, when nobody has given any evidence, nobody has been challenged, and nobody has been given a chance to give their own explanation of events.
May I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) that the agencies do not have the power to withhold sensitive material from the ISC, of which I am a member? If they wish to do so, they have to appeal directly to the Prime Minister. In every other respect, they have to give us what we want to see. May I also remind the House that the ISC has been keen to get to grips with this matter, and that it actually started its own investigation, which had to be stayed when the Gibson inquiry was set up? Finally, may I give the House a personal assurance that, notwithstanding the context of trying to bring Libya back within the comity of nations, there are members of the ISC—one third of whom are senior Labour Members—who, far from endorsing any whitewash, would take a great deal of convincing that it was ever reasonable, proportionate or justifiable to supply people to Colonel Gaddafi’s regime?
Is not the heart of the issue the lack of effective accountability of the security services, and the fact that the ISC is not an ordinary parliamentary Committee? It is appointed by the Prime Minister and reports to him. Are not the Minister’s proposals just a way of sidestepping the need for a serious examination of the accountability issue and for holding an independent judge-led inquiry rather than the process that has been set out?
I have addressed that point already, and I would have hoped that my earlier answer would have satisfy the hon. Gentleman. My starting point is the same as his. We need the intelligence services, and I share the gratitude that many have expressed for the bravery and determination that they demonstrate in protecting the citizens of this country from the undoubted threats to their lives and safety. I want intelligence services that work properly. Indeed, I hope that they will steal the secrets of our serious enemies. I also hope that they will alert us to what those enemies are proposing to do, and help us to frustrate them. It is the experience of quite a number of people in this House that that is exactly what the intelligence services do, and that they do it very effectively.
It is also important, as the hon. Gentleman says, that what the intelligence services do is proportionate to the scale of the risk posed, that they are accountable and that, when they start going in for subterfuge, it is authorised by a Minister who is democratically accountable to this House. That is what marks out our intelligence services from those of totalitarian regimes, and that must always be the case. Those standards must apply to all the activities involved, including collecting data, surveillance and the activity of the agencies in the field. I am afraid that, in the modern world, such activities will always be necessary to protect the safety of our citizens, so long as we are not damaging our values and so long as we can be confident that everything is accountable and authorised by the proper people.
The Foreign Affairs Committee published its human rights report in October. In it, we expressed our concern that no progress had been made in agreeing with human rights groups how a successor to the detainee inquiry might proceed on a more transparent basis. I have heard what the Minister has just said about human rights groups, but given that we owe a lot to their efforts—there would have been no Belhaj investigation without them, for example—will he initiate discussions to see whether any common ground can be established?
It is also possible that there would have been no Belhaj investigation if someone in Colonel Gaddafi’s entourage had not carelessly left their papers lying about when fleeing Tripoli. That is no doubt one of the matters that will be inquired into in due course. I have the greatest sympathy with the human rights organisations; they are on the side of the angels, and they expound principles with which I wholeheartedly agree. However, I continue to believe—as I stated when we were arguing about closed sessions in civil proceedings last year—that they are being wholly unrealistic if they think that the intelligence services can be effective while the details of all their operations are being discussed in open court. We are not here to feed the media, or to help people who are gathering evidence for whatever civil litigation they might wish to bring. We are here to ensure that we have truly effective, working intelligence agencies that protect the citizens of this country. We make them accountable, but we also need to exercise common sense and have regard to their safety as we go about inquiring into their activities.
I welcome the report, and I believe that the whole House will welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). We would expect nothing less from such a distinguished parliamentarian who has served the House and this country extremely well. May I reiterate the point that he made about the importance and desirability of oral evidence being taken? Much has been written about that, but perhaps we will now have the opportunity to set out the facts.
It seems curious that, if a judge-led inquiry cannot proceed while a police investigation is going on, an ISC inquiry should be able to proceed. Another, more interesting, issue is the question of democratic accountability. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is a man of deep experience, and we are lucky to have him in the House. If the time should come when he decides to step down, however, we will need procedures of democratic accountability. Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister look into implementing the proposal in the Wright report that there should be an elected Chair of the ISC, subject to prime ministerial veto, who is ideally a member of the Opposition?
As I said in my statement, the problem with a judge-led inquiry is that it is normal, having taken evidence from witnesses, for it to produce evidence as the inquiry goes along. The ISC can proceed in whatever way it wishes, however, and it is not likely to do that. So we can start to proceed with the ISC inquiry, whereas to proceed with a judge-led inquiry could be more difficult and would certainly give rise to some controversy. I do not think that one route is necessarily preferable to the other, so long as both are strong, independent and effective in coming to their conclusions.
Whether we have done enough to strengthen the ISC will no doubt be easier to decide when it has completed the three important reports that it is working on. It is now looking into the background agency information on the murder of Lee Rigby, as well as examining the whole question of collecting material, surveillance and the balance between security and privacy. And it is now going to look into the considerable matters of detention and rendition, although I presume that it will not undertake all those inquiries contemporaneously. We wish the members of the ISC well in their labours; they have taken on a considerable amount of responsibility. If, at the end, we decide that the Committee needs to be strengthened further, that will be the time to look into that. It will not be a matter for me anyway; it will be for the House to decide on the procedures for appointing the Committee.
My right hon. and learned Friend has already mentioned this point, as has the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), but may I reiterate how grateful we should be to the men and women of the security services? They often work in dangerous and lonely conditions, and they have to act with great gallantry, for which they get scant recognition. The House must recognise that fully.
I agree entirely with my hon. and gallant Friend. He understands how much the forces in the field, as well as the public in this country, depend on the accuracy of the intelligence available to them and on the ability of the people who work on our behalf to infiltrate the organisations with which we unfortunately sometimes find ourselves faced. I endorse all his sentiments in full.
My right hon. and learned Friend is to be commended for the candour and openness of his statement to the House today. Is it not clear that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) was dealing with unprecedented and extraordinary circumstances in the aftermath of 9/11, and many people, of all different political persuasions, looking objectively at the decisions he took, will conclude that he discharged his duties then with complete responsibility and acted with total integrity?
I would expect that, certainly, and absolutely nothing in this report casts doubt on that integrity at all. The right hon. Member for Blackburn has the misfortune of being named in it because he had that most responsible office at the time, but he has already given his statement, as it were, to this House and it is quite obvious that the problems he was dealing with were immense and unprecedented, and that a great deal was done while he was Foreign Secretary to protect this country from further harm.
Following on from the questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), will my right hon. and learned Friend be able to give an undertaking on behalf of the Prime Minister that the reserve power to refuse sensitive information to the ISC will not be used?
As there is that reserve power, I cannot give an absolute guarantee that it will be a dead letter when we start. The Prime Minister is as anxious to get these matters resolved—to draw a line under them—as everybody in this House is. So it is inconceivable to me that the Prime Minister will be persuaded to start using reserve powers just to cover up embarrassment or to avoid the thing going too far, and I certainly hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is reassured by that; it is not what the reserve power is for. Unfortunately, there are occasions when there are just disagreements about how dangerous it is, or otherwise, for particular information to be disclosed widely at all. The Prime Minister has the invidious task of making the final decision on that if a real conflict arises, but there is no reason to anticipate at this stage that the ISC and the agencies are going to be in any conflict that would give rise to that.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that perhaps the answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) is that the ISC’s proceedings will be covered by parliamentary privilege. Has an assessment been made of the effect of privilege on the course of the ongoing police investigation, as I suspect it would be helpful in making sure that the two inquires are kept separate?
It is certainly important that the two are kept separate. I seem to recall that when the ISC was given its new status there was quite a bit of discussion about the extent to which privilege would apply to this particular parliamentary Committee, which is of course set up by statute, which is not usual for most of the others. I assume that the ISC can afford the full protection of privilege to the witnesses who are called before it, and that, again, ensures that they cannot suddenly find that this is all being held against them if they find themselves later, by any chance, in the unfortunate position of having to give evidence about the same facts again.
I understand that there were junior operatives on the front line who were raising these issues quite early on and whose concerns were ignored by the management of many of the agencies. Can my right hon. and learned Friend reassure the House that procedures are now in place for those who have information to be able to blow the whistle and for their concerns to be taken seriously?
I will not try to paraphrase the report, but that is one of the things it raises; there were about 40 occasions when our officers were raising queries about the treatment of detainees they were involved with and sometimes joining in the interrogation of. The question is: how were the queries handled? Not all of them appear to have been referred to Ministers, but these are the issues that are raised. This does underline that the agents involved were perfectly alert, and had the usual sensitivities, to the fact that the foreign officers with whom they were liaising were not necessarily following the same standards that we would wish. The thing I should emphasise, and should have emphasised more as I have gone through, is that this is what the consolidated guidance put out by the Prime Minister underlined when he put it out; it provided absolute clarity, for the first time, about how such concerns should be handled, and gave much better and clearer guidance to the officers themselves about what they should do if they are becoming concerned about the conditions in which detainees are being held.
These matters are clearly difficult for the police to investigate. My right hon. and learned Friend, like everybody else, is clearly frustrated at the amount of time this is taking. In his discussions with the Home Office, has he come to the conclusion that this is due to a lack of resources, of leadership or of co-operation with other Governments? What can be done to speed up the police investigation?
I wish I could find some way of speeding up the police investigation—I have wished that several times in the course of the past two or three years. But it is a fundamental principle that police investigations in this country are not subject to political control, and it is just not possible for a Government Minister to start intervening and questioning or second-guessing what the police are doing. I am assured that the police are carrying out thorough investigations and I only have estimates of when they might finish. That is why we have come to the situation, which has dissatisfied some of my colleagues, where we really have to get on and inquire into this, and the best way of proceeding is to put our new ISC to the test.