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Project Tempora

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 20 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government which Minister first authorised GCHQ’s Project Tempora; when that happened; and why they did not disclose the existence of Project Tempora to the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill.

My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will understand that it would not be appropriate to discuss the specifics here. However, I can say that GCHQ and all other security and law enforcement agencies operate within a strict legal and policy framework, as set out by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in the other place on 10 June.

I thank my noble friend for the Answer that she was required to give. In a democracy, wholesale untargeted state intrusion into the private lives of all the people, such as Project Tempora, is unacceptable unless it has the informed consent of the people via their Parliament. However, Parliament has not been informed and has not given its consent to Tempora; nor has the Cabinet, the National Security Council or even, it seems, the ISC. Will the Government acknowledge that the much vaunted oversight of the security services has failed spectacularly, as underlined last week by the feeble public performance of the ISC? When will the Government at last join the global debate about limiting state surveillance of its innocent citizens?

The noble Lord makes an important point but I assure him that secret does not mean unaccountable. We have a system where any intrusion of the sort to which he refers has to be necessary, proportionate and carefully targeted. We have a number of oversight mechanisms, including political and judicial, the commissioners and of course Parliament through the Intelligence and Security Committee.

My Lords, when Malcolm Rifkind was recently interviewed on television, he seemed to suggest that the ISC, which he chairs, knew of Tempora but not by that name. If it did, would one not have expected it to have perhaps recommended a tightening up and clarification of the law?

I hope that the noble Lord will appreciate that these are not matters into which I can go in any detail at the Dispatch Box. I cannot go into any detail of what the Intelligence and Security Committee was or was not aware of. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on how the noble Lord interpreted the comments made by my right honourable friend Malcolm Rifkind. I hope that the House appreciates that I am incredibly frank and robust when I appear at this Dispatch Box. In fact, probably much to the annoyance of my officials, I go beyond what is normally in the brief, but this is not one of those occasions on which I can comment on these matters.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned how important accountability is but there is a very unfortunate issue here: Menwith Hill is Little America, albeit that it is in the north of England. Ever since 1994, Parliament has been asking for, but never receiving, any information about what goes on at Menwith Hill. I appreciate that there have been several visits by the ISC, although I gather that they were very uninformative. How can my noble friend imagine that that situation will become more accountable when that place is accountable only to the United States Government?

I go back to what I said at the outset. Accountability in relation to these sensitive matters takes a number of different formats. We have laws in this country which are completely compliant with the Human Rights Act and which set out the parameters and the remit of the intelligence services. Some of the highest politicians in this land—the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary—have to sign off on each and every warrant presented before them. We have parliamentary accountability in the form of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Again, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on what its views were after its visits. We also have the tribunal, where individual cases can be presented.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that GCHQ was candid to the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill about the unclassified aspects of what it can and cannot do in collecting communications metadata, and candid with the Intelligence and Security Committee about the classified aspects of it?

The noble Lord makes an important point. The Intelligence and Security Committee conducted a thorough review of the Draft Communications Data Bill. This was done at the same time as a review by the Joint Committee. It is right that it is the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee, rather than other parliamentary committees, to look at sensitive information.

My Lords, of course the Minister cannot go into details on these very sensitive matters. We all accept that. However, for the life of me, I do not see why she cannot answer a straightforward Question about which Minister authorised the project and why the existence of the project was not disclosed to the Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill. These are not sensitive issues. They are pure matters of fact, surely capable of being answered.

It is interesting that the noble Lord interprets it in that way but I think he would also accept that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on intelligence matters, which includes any comments on the project.

Will the Minister take back what is troubling so many of us, which is that there has not been an acknowledgment yet by the Government of the need for a major discussion about the way we exercise oversight? It is not just the issue of accountability; it is also because of the almost terrifying fact that something like 60,000 files were available to some 800,000 people. This is supposed to be secret, even top secret. It is a nonsense and dangerous from that point of view, as well as the accountability. Please can she tell her colleagues in government that we need a full discussion on the accountability and the way we are doing it, because at the moment it is not working.

I assure the noble Lord that these discussions are taking place, although not necessarily in the format he would like. Indeed, only this morning I had a round table with a number of NGOs and human rights activists who work in the area of freedom of expression on the internet and how that overplays with these kinds of allegations. These conversations are ongoing, and part of the appearance of the three intelligence chiefs at the Intelligence and Security Committee meeting was to do with that. I think the noble Lord would also accept that this is about perception —that leaks and the kind of information we have seen create a sense in the mind of the public that something is not quite right. It is wrong therefore for us to in any way play up to that by starting to comment on individual intelligence matters.

My Lords, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is plainly inadequate to deal with the situation caused by the advances in interception technology. Does the Minister accept that there is now an urgent need for full and proper post-legislative scrutiny of RIPA?

I probably should just refer the noble Lord to the 2012 annual report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner, which was published on 18 July this year. In it he said that RIPA had weathered well and the system of oversight it laid down has been, he believes, effective.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that we all agree that GCHQ and the intelligence and security services do very important work to protect us from many threats but that effective democratic oversight is absolutely vital? With no disrespect to my noble friend Lord Lothian—I call him my noble friend—or indeed the noble Lord, Lord Butler, recent events have shown that the Intelligence and Security Committee, as currently constituted, is not really effective. Can the Minister give us some assurance that, in the new structure of the Intelligence and Security Committee that we are considering, we will have a robust membership accountable to both Houses of Parliament?

The noble Lord will be aware that the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee has been up for discussion. I will ensure that his views are fed into that.