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Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Volume 678: debated on Monday 13 July 2020

I beg to move,

That Chris Grayling, Sir John Hayes, Stewart Hosie, Dame Diana Johnson, Mr Kevan Jones, Dr Julian Lewis, Mark Pritchard and Theresa Villiers be appointed to the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament under Section 1 of the Justice and Security Act 2013.

I rise to speak to the motion in my name—in the Prime Minister’s name actually—on the Order Paper. Under the terms of section 1 of the Justice and Security Act 2013, members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by the respective House. The Prime Minister has nominated the members, following the required consultations with the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. The House is now being asked to make the appointments in accordance with the Act. I commend this motion to the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for bringing forward the motion. It has been the longest time taken to set up the Intelligence and Security Committee; I think the last time it has taken so long was in 1994. He will know that I have raised this at business questions several times, so setting up the Committee today cannot go without some acknowledgment of the delay, and perhaps an apology to the House. That would be much appreciated.

We have heard from eminent Members of this House, such as Dominic Grieve, the former Chair, who warned that

“the effective and robust oversight of the intelligence community, entrusted to us, is too important to have been left in a vacuum for so many months.”

Lord Ricketts said:

“It was a fundamental part of the deal when the intelligence agencies got more intrusive powers to combat terrorism that at the same time Parliament got stronger powers of oversight”,

and the Intelligence and Security Committee is that “oversight”. Four important inquiries were going on and of course the Russia report, which has been on the Prime Minister’s desk for six months. Can the Leader of the House say when that will be published?

I am pleased by the Opposition team. As the Leader of the House said, the Opposition nominate their members, and we have a fantastic team in my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and Lord West. They are assiduous parliamentarians, and they will do their work diligently. I also want to place on the record my thanks to David Hanson and Caroline Flint for their work on the Committee.

With this Committee, we are able to preserve the balance between liberty and security. The robust and continuous oversight of the intelligence and security community is both necessary for our democracy and vital for our national security. Her Majesty’s Opposition support the motion.

This motion has been brought forward only after considerable pressure from Opposition Members. Two weeks ago, I tabled an early-day motion, which received widespread support. I am far from being the only MP who has been campaigning for the Committee to re-form, yet it has taken the Government until this week—nine days before the summer recess—to act. It has been widely reported that the Prime Minister has put forward a candidate to be appointed Chair of the Committee. This says a lot about how the Government see the role of Parliament. The role of Chair is a matter for the Committee to decide.

It is obvious that the first order of business for the new Committee needs to be the publication of the report into alleged Russian interference in our democracy. In the UK, we value democracy, so why does all of this matter? Because serious questions need to be answered about foreign interference in our democracy. Can our elections be bought with money from abroad? The idea that our democracy could be compromised is deeply disturbing. The report was meant to be released before the last general election; it was not. What does this tell us about the 2019 elections? Parliament must come to terms with this very simple question: has there been interference in our UK democracy? The public have a right to know.

Otherwise, the question is: can we trust our current Government with our democracy? It is far past the time when both the MPs and the public have a right to see the full contents and any conclusions that are made. To insist that this is normal practice is an insult to the intelligence of both Opposition MPs and the public in general. Previous generations understood, often to their cost, that democracy has to be fought for. It is something we hoped we would never have to do again, but democracy always has to be fought for. How does it start? When elections are tampered with. Were our elections being compromised, and are the Government trying to hide the truth? This is just the beginning of a long struggle. I do not expect allies on the Government Benches, but for all of us on the Opposition side of the House, fighting for open, accountable Government is our fight.

I welcome this motion to form the Intelligence and Security Committee. The only two survivors of the Committee that sat in the last Parliament are myself and the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), if the House agrees to the motion. It is right to pay tribute to the Members who served on the last Committee, including Dominic Grieve, the Chairman. He might be a Marmite figure on the Government Benches, but he was a good Chair, a fair Chair and someone who not only worked collegiately with Members across the House and political parties but took a keen interest in the subject of security and intelligence. I pay tribute to Richard Benyon and Keith Simpson. Keith is a loss because he was our resident historian on the Committee. I wish all three of them well. I would also like to pay tribute to my two Labour colleagues, Caroline Flint and David Hanson, for their service to not only the Committee but the last Labour Government, as two very fine Ministers.

I entirely endorse what the right hon. Gentleman just said about the Committee’s previous members. Although many of us on the Government Benches had some points of difference with Dominic Grieve in his last few months in the House, I worked with him over many years, and he was a very distinguished Chair and a very distinguished parliamentarian.

I am sure that he will welcome those comments.

I want to pay tribute to two peers who will no longer sit on the Committee. The first is the Marquess of Lothian, who had sat on the Committee since 2006. He was not only a great fount of knowledge but took a keen interest, and having that historical knowledge on the Committee was very important. The second is Lord Robin Janvrin, who also took a keen interest in the Committee and worked very hard. Being a Cross Bencher, he brought a different perspective from the party political point of view, and he made a huge contribution. Both should be recognised for the work they did on the Committee.

The shadow Leader of the House raised the length of time it has taken to form the Committee. It concerns me, because this is not the first time. In the last Parliament, it took an inordinate length of time to form the Committee. Independent oversight of our security services is an important part of our democracy, and we perhaps need to revisit the legislation to require the Committee to be formed within a certain period after the election of a Parliament. If we have these long delays, we are missing parliamentary oversight, and if we want to build public trust in the work of our security services, that oversight is important.

The Committee has completed three reports, although only one seems to get a lot of mention. The first is the annual report from last year, which is ready to be published. The second is the report on the procurement of the National Cyber Security Centre at Nova South. The third, which is obviously of interest to many, is the report on Russia. All three need to be published as a matter of urgency. It is important—and I will argue this if the House agrees to my appointment—that the Russia report is produced before Parliament goes into recess. There is no reason why it should not be. It has been through the Committee, agreed through the redaction process and agreed by Government. I would like to see it published at the earliest opportunity, and possibly next week.

In closing, I want to thank the secretariat, who work very hard to service the Committee, and put on record my thanks and the thanks of the whole House to the men and women of our security services, who work day in, day out to keep us safe.

I shall answer the points that have been made, but may I begin by thanking the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for his characteristically charming speech—it is why he is so highly regarded across the House—and for the way he paid tribute to the former members of the Committee? It is right that we thank those who have given public service. From my experience, I would say that Dominic Grieve was one of the most intelligent men I ever met in Parliament and he is someone I hold personally in the highest regard. I happen to disagree with him on what turned out to be the most important political issue of our time, but that does not mean that one does not both like and admire somebody. The right hon. Gentleman was right also to pay tribute to Keith Simpson and Richard Benyon, as well as to his own colleagues, Caroline Flint and David Hanson. They were all public servants who did their duty on this important Committee. I will not exclude the Lords: the Marquess of Lothian, better known as Michael Ancram, who is a very distinguished servant of the Conservative party and has always played an active role in public life—some might think a model of what a Marquess ought to do; and Lord Janvrin, who also played an important role on the Committee. This is a time to thank those who are no longer going to serve, but also to recognise the many abilities of those looking to serve.

I very much agree with the comments about how it is important to have proper democratic oversight of the way our security services work, but until relatively recent times the operation of our security services was entirely secret; it was unknown to anybody. The opening up of the scrutiny of our security services is to the public good. It ensures that we know what is being done in our name. I am grateful that my neighbour, the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), tabled an early-day motion, because that shows that Parliament is taking this level of scrutiny seriously.

That leads me to the point about the time it has taken to set up this Committee. A Committee of this importance needs to have the right people on it. Discussions were involved when a number of people had to leave. The two Labour members were not returned to Parliament, and Keith Simpson and Richard Benyon both retired from Parliament, which meant we had to form a very new Committee. That took time, as we needed to ensure that the right people, with the right level of experience and responsibility, could be appointed, and that they would agree to their appointment. I think we have an exceptionally distinguished Committee provided from this House: one in which we can all take considerable confidence.

I end with a note on foreign interference in elections. I think that has been a matter of concern to politicians since the Zinoviev letter, which is widely believed nowadays to have been a fake. Fear of foreign interference will come and go, but for any Government, and particularly for Her Majesty’s Government as currently constituted, it is and will always be an absolute priority to protect our democratic and electoral processes. During the last election, the Government took steps to protect the safety and security of our democratic processes. I do not believe that this House would expect anything less, and I do not think any Government of any colour would ever do anything that would endanger the security of our elections. I ask the House to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.