The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Rushanara Ali, † James Gray
† Bell, Aaron (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
† Eagle, Maria (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
† Elmore, Chris (Ogmore) (Lab)
† Everitt, Ben (Milton Keynes North) (Con)
† Hart, Sally-Ann (Hastings and Rye) (Con)
† Higginbotham, Antony (Burnley) (Con)
Hosie, Stewart (Dundee East) (SNP)
† Jones, Mr Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)
† Jupp, Simon (East Devon) (Con)
† Lynch, Holly (Halifax) (Lab)
McPartland, Stephen (Minister for Security)
† McDonald, Stuart C. (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
† Mann, Scott (North Cornwall) (Con)
† Mohindra, Mr Gagan (South West Hertfordshire) (Con)
† Mumby-Croft, Holly (Scunthorpe) (Con)
† Phillips, Jess (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
† Sambrook, Gary (Birmingham, Northfield) (Con)
Huw Yardley, Bradley Albrow, Simon Armitage, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 6 September 2022
[James Gray in the Chair]
National Security Bill
I welcome the Committee back to consideration of the National Security Bill. I understand that the Government Whip wishes to move a motion to vary the terms of the Order of the Committee of 7 July.
I beg to move,
That the Order of the Committee of 7 July 2022 be varied by the omission from paragraph 1(e) of the words “and 2.00pm”.
May I put on the record my great sense of regret and disappointment that the Committee is not progressing today? There is a great deal of support for the Bill, because we all recognise that our security services need the new measures to keep our country safe. At every opportunity, we the Opposition have sought to be constructive and to undertake our due diligence in providing the level of scrutiny that should come with the powers in a Bill such as this.
We have sought to work with the Government, but it is disappointing that we will now have a fourth person acting as Minister in a Bill Committee on the matter of national security. We very much look forward to meeting again on Thursday so that we have the appropriate opportunity to scrutinise and debate every last bit of the Bill and the new clauses, ensuring that the security services have what they need from us. Despite a real sense of disappointment, we look forward to ensuring that we meet again on Thursday to progress without any delay.
I am surprised by the difficulties caused for the Committee by what has happened. I have before me the letter by the Minister for Security, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), which he has kindly placed on Twitter. After all the niceties, and saying that he will not carry on, he signs off his letter by saying quite clearly:
“I will continue to serve until a new Security Minister is appointed and look forward to supporting our new Prime Minister.”
So where is the Minister? A new Security Minister—if one is to be appointed—has not been appointed. The hon. Member for Stevenage is still the Minister, and in his letter indicating his wish to resign in due course, he has undertaken to continue to serve until a new Security Minister is appointed. We have business this morning on one of the most important Bills before the House in the current Session—one that has been delayed for years because the Government had not got on with producing it.
Not only that, but we started Committee stage in chaos, when a former Minister suddenly resigned. The poor old Whip, to whom I extend my greatest sympathies —it is not his fault; he is just doing his job—has now been placed in an utterly invidious position on two occasions in one Bill Committee. We started out with a Minister resigning, and now this Minister has indicated his intention to resign but has made it quite clear in that letter that he intends to continue in post until a new appointment is made by the new Prime Minister. Let me remind the Committee that that appointment has not yet been made, although we expect that to happen later today.
So where is the Minister? Has he been asked not to turn up by the Government, or has he chosen not to turn up? If the latter is true, he is not doing as he undertook to do—continue in post until a replacement is appointed. It is an important part of any Minister’s job to take a Bill through the House and answer the questions of the Opposition and their own Back Benchers. This Minister has been working on that; I have no doubt he will have spent the whole of August reading through the Bill and getting his head around it in a way that he had perhaps not quite managed in July, when he was quite honest about being new to it. He will be an absolute expert on it by now. He could have been here this morning, and this afternoon, for us to make progress on it.
I would like the Whip, because he is a Minister, to explain to us in replying, which I hope he will, whether the Minister for Security was asked not to turn up today or whether he chose not to. If the latter, it is a dereliction of duty; if the former, Opposition Members would like to know why. I for one deplore the way in which the Committee has been treated by the Government. We are trying to consider a very important Bill, which is about the future security of this country, and we have been treated shabbily. Government Back Benchers have been treated shabbily, the Committee has been treated shabbily, and the House has been treated appallingly. The Government should resign en masse and let us have a new Government. Then we might be able to make some progress on the Bill.
This is not just an ordinary Bill. Although every Bill should be important, the idea that we are again delaying a Bill on our national security troubles me, as does the way in which the Bill has been dealt with. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood said, we are now on to four Ministers, including the Whip, who have been involved in the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, there is a degree of consensus on the Bill, in the sense that we want to support national security—certainly I do, as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee—and ensure that we give our security services all the tools that they need to combat those people who would do ourselves and our nation harm.
Certainly when I was in Government, this would have been one of those situations where we would work very closely with the Opposition to see what we could agree on, what we disagreed on, and whether there were things that needed to be tweaked, as there are with all Bills. The present Government have continually presented Bills as though they are the finished item. Well, they are not. The drafting of Bills since I have been here has frankly got worse, in terms of not only mistakes but points being missing completely.
Order. The right hon. Gentleman is ranging very wide of the topic of discussion. Perhaps he might bring himself back to the motion.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point. The Government act as if they are presenting the finished Bill, but we have had the worst of both worlds: there have been significant additions to it at quite late stages of the Committee, in addition to the Ministers changing throughout the process. We are really keen to work with them. Give us everything that we need to be able to do that.
Mr Gray, I will come back to the point like a boomerang, as you know I always do. My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is the other side to the Bill. Foreign agent registration was announced the other day; why that was not done on Second Reading is baffling. It is not as though the Bill has not had a long gestation period; that has been longer than an African elephant’s. It has all been worrying for those people who treat national security with importance.
Let me say publicly that I understand from speaking to some people in the civil service and others that they want the Bill to make progress. I cannot understand the delay. When the Bill was introduced it was incomplete, but somehow the Government had the attitude that it was the final product. No—scrutiny in Committee is very important. I predict that if the Bill does not go through some changes in Committee it will be absolutely carved up when it gets to the other place, because there are bits in it that we know will not survive that process. We could have avoided that by consensus. I am committed, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax—
Order. The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me for interrupting him twice. We are simply discussing whether the Committee sits this afternoon. A wider debate regarding the way in which the Bill has been considered may be important, and I am glad to have heard what he has to say. None the less, perhaps we should return to the question of whether we should sit this afternoon.
It is important that we have time to do that. We lose two sittings today and are supposed to finish next Tuesday. That also depends on when a new Minister is appointed. I assume the Cabinet will be done tomorrow, and I understand that there is a debate about whether the post of Security Minister will be a Cabinet appointment, so it might be made today or tomorrow. However, if it is not done by late tomorrow, that basically means Thursday for the Minister—whoever he or she is—to read themselves into the Bill. As I say, it is not just a small Bill, so it will be quite a task. I suspect, therefore, that we will get to Thursday and Thursday will be lost, which leaves us with one day next week.
There are some major issues about ensuring not only proper scrutiny of the Bill, but time for certain of the amendments tabled by me and others to be heard. One day next week will not be sufficient. I am looking to the Whip for an indication of whether the Government, if we lose today and potentially Thursday, will add an extra day next week. That would at least ensure that we have the number of sittings we were promised, although if we lose Thursday as well, we would need two extra days.
Again, I do not understand why the Minister is not present. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halesowen said—
Halewood, sorry; I am getting mixed up. I do not know who I have insulted most—Members for the west midlands or Members for Merseyside.
The Minister is still in post, so why is he not here this morning? To be fair to him, the hon. Member for Stevenage picked the Bill up at a difficult time and worked hard to master the detail. His civil servants must have been pulling their hair out about some of the questions. I have known him for many years: he will not take everything as fed in front of him, but will ask questions. The civil servants might be relieved to get rid of him. But that is not the point. If he is still in post, as we are led to believe, why is he not in Committee this morning?
It is important for us to consider this Bill. I just hope that we will get back on track, because the other thing that is needed quickly—whoever the new Minister is—is early engagement on this type of Bill with the Opposition, to see what we can get through uncontroversially and what areas need changing. Lo and behold, some parts of the Bill might then need changing yet again. The Government will have to do something that I do not ever agree with, which happened when we were in government and increasingly with this Government: leave major changes to the Lords.
The Lords has somehow become the great oracle that listens to everything and changes things that we cannot spot; the only reason why things are not changed here is that successive Governments have got into the habit of railroading things through here and making concessions there. That diminishes the House of Commons and does not lead to proper and good scrutiny. It is not a failure of a Government to admit in a House of Commons Committee that there are problems in a Bill and to change them. Unfortunately, it is seen as such, so it is left to their lordships’ House to change things. With that, I shall resume my seat.
It is a good job that the Bill is not about anything important. I say that to start, because it reminds me of going to the Department for Education with a headteacher from my constituency. As he walked out, he said, “Thank God they aren’t in charge of anything important!” What the Committee is discussing today—what we should be discussing—is deeply important. Instead, we are discussing adjournments, different rules of the House of Commons and whether we should have this debate. Something else worries me.
I give massive credit to the Security Minister, who not only picked up the detail very quickly but quickly built relationships with members across the Committee to ensure that the right scrutiny was going on and that people felt they were being given information. I give credit to him for that, as he picked up the Bill at a very late stage.
Apart from the two other times when the Minister was replaced on this Committee, I have never been in a situation where I am debating this sort of motion, so I ask the Chair for some guidance. Is the Whip—my sympathies go out to him—who is taking the Minister’s seat required to respond to our questions?
The motion is simply that the Committee will not sit this afternoon at 2 o’clock. Therefore, the Whip responsible may or may not reply to the Committee, at his own discretion.
I think he is a man of honour, so I will fire out the questions anyway. On whether we should go ahead and whether the Minister could be found somewhere in this building, where I am certain that he is, and pick up his very capable and able management of the Bill as he has done throughout, the fundamental question is: what faith are we meant to have that, on this very detailed and far-reaching—in some places, too far-reaching—Bill, the person who arrives on Thursday morning, who may have just been given their job, will be across that detail? Will they be able to answer my questions, as the Minister did and I hope the Whip will in his stead? What hope is there that a new Minister will be able to answer the intricate questions that, certainly, I have about issues largely in part 3?
It feels like giving in to say that we should not carry on examining the Bill, in all honesty, but we will return on Thursday as a lesser Committee. That is, in essence, what will happen, unless—I do not know because anything could happen these days: perhaps one of the civil servants who wrote the Bill will become the Security Minister, having been put in the House of Lords. They might stay in post for three months and resign afterwards. Stranger things have happened—in fact, that has happened.
Would we tolerate what has happened today from any of the services that we are debating? If they said, “Sorry, the head of counter-terrorism police has been dealing with a case and we’re just going to give it to Alan. He’s in court this morning and he’s picking up the case, but he doesn’t have any of the details”, we would not tolerate that. Yet that is what we are being asked to tolerate. This is very important legislation. It is greatly regrettable that it has been so poorly managed from beginning to end.
I have listened intently to the points made from the Opposition Benches. My first port of call after this will be the Chief Whip’s office to discuss the arrangements for the programming of the Bill and the sittings that we currently have. That is what I will do after I have sat down, and I hope we can now adjourn.
There can be no Division on this motion. If any Committee member were to object, the motion would lapse and the Committee would sit this afternoon at 2 o’ clock.
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.