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Intelligence and Security Committee

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That Fiona Mactaggart be appointed to the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament under Section 1 of the Justice and Security Act 2013.—(Tom Brake.)

Let me make it clear that I have no objections to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) joining the Intelligence and Security Committee. I think we would all agree that she is a person with quite an independent mind, and certainly a strong personality, and no doubt she will make a useful contribution to the Committee. This is nothing personal, and I am sure she did not expect there to be any criticism along those lines.

However, I am far from satisfied that the method of being nominated in the name of the Prime Minister is the best way for a Member to join the ISC. It is going back to former times. The Leader of the House looks rather puzzled, but he knows full well that a system existed in the previous Parliament whereby names appeared on the Order Paper and we would agree to them or otherwise, as the case may be. I take the view that the ISC should be subject to elections. Fortunately, that is not only my view. In paragraph 158 on page 62 of the Home Affairs Committee report on counter-terrorism, which was published last week, it says:

“we recommend that the Commons membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee should be elected like other select committees and that the Chair, who should always be a member of the Commons, ought to be subject to election of the whole House, as is the case for Select Committees.”

It is interesting to note that there has been a great deal of competition as to who should be the Conservative Chair of the Defence Committee. We receive a good deal of correspondence on that subject. While that post is subject to a great deal of competition, and we will decide on it accordingly in the democratic way on Wednesday, for membership of the ISC there is no election whatsoever. A name is put before us and we either accept or reject it.

I simply want to say that whenever an opportunity such as this arises, I will make my views known. This is not an acceptable way to proceed—the Home Affairs Committee agrees—and membership of the ISC should be subject to election. I would hope that at least the Deputy Leader of the House—a Liberal Democrat—would also take that view. Having made my position clear, I do not oppose the motion, but I will use every future opportunity to make my views known.

I have the greatest respect for the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick). He is a man of great seniority in this House and we always, rightly, listen very carefully to what he has to say. There is one—and only one—reason why his proposal runs into difficulties. The simple point is that this particular Committee, unlike any other, has access to highly classified information up to the range of top secret, strap-2 level and occasionally higher.

Some people believe that this country should have no secrets at all and that if we had no secrets, there would be no classified information and no case for treating the membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee differently from that of the Defence Committee.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks, but does he accept that, in the 1980s, before the ISC was formed—I was on the Standing Committee that led to its formation—it was very difficult to get the matter raised at all when I tried to initiate debates on the Security Service? I am in favour of such a Committee and I am certainly in favour of the security services—even more so in the face of acute terrorism—but I want accountability, and I think that is the main difference between the hon. Gentleman and me.

I hope to show that the difference between us is as small as possible. I was certainly not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman was not in favour of this country having security and intelligence services or, indeed, highly classified secrets. It was as a result of the work that he and his colleagues did back then that it became possible to open up the intelligence and security agencies to much greater scrutiny. Their activities can now be examined and debated considerably. To a large extent, that happens in the open—in the public arena of Parliament—but when it cannot be done in the open, it can now, thank goodness, be done in the closed and secure environment of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

I will move on quickly, because I do not wish to detain the House for longer than is necessary. Some people think that we should have some secrets but that there is not a single hon. Member of this House who could not be trusted to know them. If that is one’s view, there would not be any argument against the membership of the ISC being elected just like the membership of any other Committee. However, the membership of this House reflects society in all its varied shades, phases, types and categories. The fact is that I do not think there are many people who would say that, out of 650 Members, there are not at least some who are not quite, shall we say, discreet or tight-lipped enough to share in the most sensitive secrets of the security and intelligence agencies. If one makes that concession, one has to admit that this Committee, if it is going to see such material, has to have some sort of screening process and cannot simply be subject to the ordinary process of election, unless we are content that any single elected Member of this House can, by definition, be trusted not to do something foolish if given access to highly sensitive information.

We all know, of course, of the hon. Gentleman’s own history of pretending to be someone else—namely a Labour supporter—in order to infiltrate the Labour party. I would not suggest that, because of his action then, he should be debarred from membership of the ISC.

I am delighted to know that. I have to admit to the hon. Gentleman that one of the reasons I put myself forward for a place on the Committee was to test the water and see if any of my past nefarious activities, as he would regard them, would result in my being black-balled. I came to the conclusion that I was appointed for one of two reasons: either it was thought that I was so discreet—

Order. I fully appreciate the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but however exceedingly interesting they may be, they do not entirely relate to the very narrow motion before us.

Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. If I may, I will just conclude that sentence by saying that I came to the conclusion that it was regarded as a suitable Committee on which to put a troublemaker who could not talk about what the Committee was discussing.

In conclusion, most people think that where highly classified material is concerned—material covered by the Official Secrets Act—some people are better suited than others to be allowed to see it. It is not acceptable or compatible with that for the whole House simply to vote for any Member to be a member of the Committee, because the Committee would not be allowed to continue to receive such material. However, I hold out a smidgeon of hope for the hon. Member for Walsall North in that a case could be made on the basis of the argument that once all the members have been appointed, the objection would fall in relation to the Chairman. Once all the people who are regarded as appropriate to see highly classified information are known, I cannot see why the whole House could not then decide which of those cleared Members should be the Chairman, but perhaps that is for another occasion.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). Indeed, I agree with everything he said, in so far as it related to the motion.

To be perfectly honest, I am slightly confused about why my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) chose to speak in this debate, although I do not doubt his right to do so. There can be only two reasons for someone to object to the motion: either they object to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—but he said that he does not object to her—or, alternatively, they object to the motion itself and the procedure on which it is based. As the House will know, the motion relates to section 1 of the Justice and Security Act 2013. I suspect that he spoke against that provision when the Bill went through the House and was defeated. If he objects to the provision, I find it confusing that he said he would not object in any meaningful way. I am not quite sure what the point of his speech was. Ultimately, he will not object to her being put on the Committee, but at the same time he will not object to the procedure, so I am at a bit of a loss to explain why he chose to detain the House tonight, but perhaps he can explain.

I am puzzled that my right hon. Friend is puzzled. No, I have no personal or political objections to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—why should I?—but as I thought I had made perfectly clear, I am opposed to a system in which, in the name of the Prime Minister, a Member’s name is simply put before us and we say yea or nay. Let me make it quite clear to my right hon. Friend that I am in favour of democracy and of people going on Committees subject to election, and that includes the ISC.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already made his point—in my judgment, he has made it clearly—and he does not have to repeat it.

I think that I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, but it did not take us any further. I do not intend to address it any more, because it did not take his argument any further. Having said that, I conclude by congratulating him on the one overriding quality that I have observed him to possess over the years: he is consistent; it is just that he is consistently wrong.