Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to introduce this debate on the work of the committee since 2015. These debates used to be a lot more regular, but, for some reason, this is, I think, our first since that time—so a very large body of work is in front of us if we wish to discuss it. I say “we” because your Lordships’ House is represented on the committee not only by me but by the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, who will share with me today the introduction to the work of the committee, which since 2013 has been independent and self-tasking.
The ISC oversees the seven organisations that make up the UK intelligence community. As members, we are all subject to the Official Secrets Act and are cleared to have sight of highly classified information. We meet in private and all evidence we take is given in complete confidence—trust in which confidence is essential to the highly sensitive security subjects that we work on. Noble Lords who follow our work in some of the reports that we put forward will realise that large portions of it consist of asterisks. I am not sure how one expresses an asterisk orally, so today I shall avoid getting into those areas of detail.
The ISC oversees the whole gamut of the work of our intelligence and security agencies, from international counterterrorism, Northern Ireland-related terrorism and cybersecurity to oversight of administration and expenditure. We examine their priorities and how they allocate efforts and resources. Issues such as recruitment and staffing are important, because intelligence, even in this technological age, is essentially still a people business. We need therefore to make sure that we have the highest-quality people.
Our remit allows us to look at the security and intelligence aspects of the subjects that we investigate, which by definition cannot fall within the remit of parliamentary Select Committees. In this debate, I propose, along with the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, to look at the main work carried out since September 2015. We have agreed to share this task between us.
I shall start with our report on the UK lethal drone strike, which we published in April 2017. In it, the committee addressed intelligence issues relating to the conflict in Syria, and in particular the lethal UK drone strike against Reyaad Kahn on 21 August 2015. This strike was exceptional in that it was the first time that the UK had conducted a lethal drone strike against a terrorist target outside of participation in a military campaign.
In investigating the strike against Reyaad Khan, the committee’s focus was on the intelligence on him and the resulting assessment of the threat he posed. Other parliamentary committees had considered the legal, policy and military aspects of the strike, but were unable to scrutinise the intelligence basis, given that the intelligence was highly classified.
Our committee did not seek to reach conclusions as to the legal basis for the strike but was able to determine that, in terms of the severity of the threat posed by Reyaad Khan, the intelligence reports and assessments we were shown would suggest that Khan was a prolific recruiter and a successful attack planner. While we were in no doubt that Reyaad Khan posed a very serious threat to the United Kingdom, there was nevertheless a question as to how the threat was finally quantified and assessed.
Regrettably, the committee was unable to consider how Ministers made that assessment, since we were denied sight of the key ministerial submission. This was despite the fact that our work is carried out within the ring of secrecy—and anyway, where necessary for national security reasons, is always subject to redactions. This failure to provide what we considered to be the relevant documents was profoundly disappointing, and we hope that the Government will give serious consideration to changing this approach in the future, because oversight depends on primary evidence. It is therefore essential that the Government open up the ministerial decision-making process to secure scrutiny on matters of such seriousness.
I turn now to our detainee report, which we published in June 2018. This was a major inquiry into detainee mistreatment and rendition during the period 2015 to 2018, which we were originally invited to undertake by the Government. In the end, we published two reports: the first covered the period 2001 to 2010; and the second, the current situation since the publication of the Consolidated Guidance in 2010. This entailed the committee taking 50 hours of oral evidence, reviewing 40,000 original documents and devoting over 30,000 staff hours to investigating the actions of the UK agencies and Defence Intelligence in respect of detainees and rendition.
Our report on the historic issue of detainee mistreatment and rendition concerned the period 2001 to 2010. It contained 27 conclusions and outlined some serious concerns. While we did not find any evidence that UK agency officers or Defence Intelligence personnel directly carried out physical mistreatment of detainees, we did, for example, find incidents where UK personnel witnessed at first hand a detainee being mistreated by others, or were told by detainees that they had been mistreated by others. Some cases were investigated, but not all. The committee also found cases where United Kingdom personnel continued to supply questions or intelligence to liaison services, even after they knew or suspected mistreatment. There were also instances where UK personnel received intelligence from liaison services that had been obtained from detainees whom they knew had been mistreated.
The inquiry uncovered new material that had not been presented to or considered by any previous inquiry or review. However, we wished to examine certain matters in greater detail; in order to, we wanted to hear from officers who were involved at the time. In 2017 the Government, much to our regret, denied us access to those individuals, and we were therefore able to publish only the information we had found up to that point, leaving, in our view, our report sadly incomplete.
Turning now to the current report, covering the period from 2010 onwards, one of our key recommendations concerned what is generally referred to as the Consolidated Guidance. We have consistently suggested, since it was first published in 2010, that it should be renamed. It is not guidance, and to call it so was misleading. We made this point in 2018, and I am delighted that it has now been renamed Principles. So we made some progress there. The new Principles are overseen by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner and reflect the important changes we recommended in our report. These include, for example: specific reference to extraordinary rendition, alongside torture and what is known as CIDT—cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; the application of the Principles to joint units and non-state actors; regular review; and that the agencies must follow the spirit of the Principles and not just the letter. This is a major step and it was most encouraging to see that there has been real change as a result of our recommendations.
The story of rendition has been less positive. Our inquiry found that there had been little improvement since we last reported in 2007. There is still no clear policy, and not even agreement on who has responsibility for preventing United Kingdom complicity in unlawful rendition. It was particularly surprising that Her Majesty’s Government have still failed to introduce a process to ensure that allies cannot use United Kingdom territory for rendition purposes without prior permission. Given the clear shift in focus signalled by the present United States Administration, the current reliance on retrospective assurances and the voluntary provision of passenger information are completely unsatisfactory.
Further, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office position that the United Kingdom is absolved from complicity in permitting transit or refuelling of a possible rendition flight because it has no knowledge of what the aircraft has done or is doing, is not acceptable to us. We are unconvinced that the Government recognise the seriousness of rendition and the potential for the United Kingdom to be complicit in actions which may lead to torture or CIDT.
Our report made a formal request that the Government should publish their policy on rendition within three months of publication of this report: that was September 2018. Sadly, we are still waiting, and we find the Government’s bland assertion that there is no need to be wholly unsatisfactory. It is to be hoped that the Government appreciate that, where they refuse evidence, bar witnesses or delay in making information available, they merely enhance suspicions in the minds of those who believe that the Government have something to hide.
While the committee’s primary output tends to be through its inquiries, we also address intelligence issues as and when they arise. In relation to Syria, for example, we examined the intelligence that led to the decision to conduct co-ordinated strikes, undertaken by British, French and American forces, on three sites in Syria on 13 April last year, with the aim of degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability. We examined summaries of the evidence that had been considered by the Government, including assessments by the Joint Intelligence Committee and its post-strike analysis.
While the committee was reassured that the intelligence available supported this action by the United Kingdom against the Syrian regime following its strike on Douma, we also identified a worrying divergence in views within the intelligence community on the impact of the strikes. On this occasion, we reported our findings in our annual report of 2017-18, which was published in November 2018. The ability of the committee to probe and question the intelligence community on matters such as these is, I believe, invaluable to the agencies and to related organisations. It proves that robust oversight is an important mechanism for them, as well as for the wider public.
These reports show the breadth of the committee’s work over the three years since 2015. We have since been working on a number of other inquiries. While I cannot go into detail regarding the committee’s current work programme, I am able to confirm that our inquiry into Russian activity against the United Kingdom is ongoing. The committee agreed to begin this inquiry in 2017 and we commissioned evidence from the Government in December 2017. The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March 2018, and the subsequent attribution of the attack to Russia by the United Kingdom, highlighted the importance of this inquiry. We irritatingly did not receive the final evidence until 30 June 2018 and could only begin taking oral evidence that July. The committee nevertheless hopes to publish its Russia inquiry shortly.
In conclusion, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the committee’s staff, who work so diligently to provide expert support to the committee, and indeed to pay tribute to our chairman, the right honourable Dominic Grieve MP, for steering the committee through what has been a busy and productive period. I believe that we have achieved much. However, the committee’s resources are stretched and we are woefully underresourced by comparison with our international counterparts. This is an issue that we have been keen to discuss with the Prime Minister. It is a matter of deep regret to members that, despite making a number of requests, we have not had a meeting with the Prime Minister since 2014. We used to have them annually.
Finally, I would like to end by paying tribute to the men and women who work in our intelligence community. They work tirelessly, often under enormous pressure and in very challenging circumstances, on behalf of us all. We applaud the vital work that those in the intelligence community are doing to safeguard our national interests. We are grateful for their dedication and courage. We owe them not only our thanks but our undying admiration and respect. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, not only for this debate and the fine speech we have just heard but for his Global Strategy Forum, at which I have learned so much. The debate is timely—indeed, it is overdue, considering that, according to Andrew Defty, an authority on intelligence oversight to whose research I am indebted, the House of Commons last debated the ISC in 2011 and the House of Lords in 2010.
The security and intelligence agencies are only peripherally relevant to the everyday work of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, in which capacity I had the privilege of serving for six years until 2017. However, from 2014 I was commissioned by the Government to conduct a number of extra reviews focused on the work of the SIAs. These include A Question of Trust, a comprehensive report on investigatory powers, the Bulk Powers Review, which assessed the operational case for bulk collection of data, and a quality assurance of the steps proposed by MI5 and Counter Terrorism Policing to improve intelligence-handling procedures after the terrorist attacks of 2017. In each of those assignments I drew on the work of the ISC and found its members and staff unfailingly helpful. I declare a further interest as a miniature oversight mechanism myself—the Investigatory Powers Commissioner for Guernsey and Jersey.
There are many reasons why effective oversight of security and intelligence agencies is needed, even when those organisations have a strong internal compliance culture, which is what really counts. Informed scrutiny can identify systemic errors and ingrained misconceptions, challenge groupthink and bring different perspectives to complex issues. At the political level, it can help formulate and scrutinise policy in relation to such delicate issues as 5G suppliers and offensive cyber. By pressing for, and indeed providing, an appropriate degree of transparency—perhaps in this field it should be called “translucency”—active and forward-looking oversight can promote informed public discussion of such controversial matters as the ethics of intelligence, the exercise of bulk powers, the efficacy and intrusiveness of current and future data-driven intelligence techniques and the impact of technologies such as blockchain and quantum computing. Such discussions should be conducted dispassionately on the basis of trustworthy information and assessments provided in good time. That is far preferable, not least for the agencies themselves, to what we saw in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations: stolen or leaked information prompting an emotional debate and a drop-off in co-operation, causing potential harm to national security.
More generally, detailed and unsparing scrutiny can serve to reassure an often suspicious public that the money and intrusive powers devoted to intelligence work are properly used. I refer not only to the British public—who are rightly conscious of our fine intelligence heritage and warm as instinctively to the history of Bletchley Park and Operation Double Cross as they do to the fables of James Bond—but to the international public. If the United Kingdom is successfully to defend before national or supranational courts its drone strikes, data sharing or covert interception of international cables, or indeed to secure the data adequacy determination from the EU that is likely to be required after Brexit, assurances from government are not enough; independent and hard-hitting assessments are called for.
The positive findings of such independent assessments were helpful to the Government in the recent Big Brother Watch judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on bulk collection of data by intelligence agencies. The United Kingdom was rewarded also for the massive exercise in transparency, independent approval of warrants and beefed-up oversight that was the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, when the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Privacy, Professor Joe Cannataci, opined last year after a fact-finding visit that, after what he called,
“significant recent improvement to privacy laws and mechanisms”,
“is now co-leading with that tiny minority of EU states which have made a successful effort to update their legislative and oversight framework dealing with surveillance”,
“can now justifiably reclaim its leadership role in Europe as well as globally”—
not bad from a UN rapporteur.
Parliamentary oversight of intelligence, which is now standard in most democracies, brings another important benefit: it ensures that the parliamentarians who conduct it, on the basis of access to highly classified material, are sufficiently versed in intelligence matters to understand the implications of proposals that come before Parliament, and thus to speak with authority on the issues under debate. Nor, I need hardly say, would the interests of the agencies in any way be served were we to see the appointment of compliant rather than critical overseers.
I spoke once to a Green Party member of the G10 Commission, the German parliamentary body responsible for the scrutiny of surveillance warrants. I have no doubt that his initial reservations, and the way in which he had overcome them when shown the evidence, had been helpful in influencing his colleagues and in formulating his party’s policy along practical and realistic lines.
Noble Lords will be pleased to hear that there is no time for me to address the form, mandate, membership, powers or resources of the ISC. However, it seems to me that, since the reforms of 2013 for which its then chair Sir Malcolm Rifkind fought so hard, the ISC has compared favourably in a number of these respects with its parliamentary counterparts elsewhere in the Five Eyes.
The ISC’s recent work has been, to my mind, generally impressive, both in itself and as an accompaniment to the other principal UK mechanisms for intelligence oversight: courts and tribunals, including, in particular, the specialist Investigatory Powers Tribunal, and the super-regulator and approval mechanism for warrants—IPCO—which is now assisted by a high-powered technology advisory panel, which has been given an energetic and successful start by the outgoing Investigatory Powers Commissioner, the appellate judge Sir Adrian Fulford.
The ISC has looked at subjects with strong policy elements to which a parliamentary body is particularly well suited: for example, in its privacy and security report and its current inquiry into national security issues relating to China. It has also displayed a forensically detailed approach, on a smaller canvas, in its reports into the intelligence relating to the murder of Lee Rigby, lethal drone strikes in Syria and the changes required after the 2017 attacks in London and Manchester. Not everyone will agree that a parliamentary body is best equipped for such close work. After all, even the international benchmark in this area, the 6,700-page American enquiry into CIA torture, was adopted in 2012 only after a vote on which members of the Senate Intelligence Committee divided largely on party lines.
The ISC has avoided such partisanship, so far as I know, but in other respects its wings have been clipped. Though there is much of value in the two detainee treatment and rendition reports of last year, the Government’s refusal to give it access to those who had been on the ground at the time prevented the ISC, in its own words, conducting an authoritative inquiry or producing a credible report. If the ISC is to be hobbled by such a restrictive interpretation of its powers—and I hope it is not—the case is strengthened for entrusting future reports of such a forensic nature to a serving or former judge, whether within IPCO or outside it, with the ISC concentrating its efforts on the policy-heavy subjects for which its political expertise gives it a comparative advantage.
I shall end with a few suggestions which I hope the Minister might be prepared to consider. First, something must be done to improve the speed with which new members are appointed. In the three years 2015 to 2017, a period much marked by terrorism in the UK, France and elsewhere, the ISC was not constituted for almost 12 months. This is plainly unacceptable. Secondly, the ISC’s reports should be published without delay and responded to fully by the Government. Delays in publication are said to have become worse in recent years, and the publication of responses to annual reports has been patchy. Thirdly, as I have already indicated, the ISC needs to be able to see any relevant document and to interview any relevant witness in closed session. As the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, said that must include access to relevant ministerial advice.
Fourthly, the resources of IPCO could be more often requested and made available to supplement those of the ISC staff. Those resources include the reports of the expert technology advisory panel, which I understand is proving a most useful addition to IPCO’s armoury, and the services of IPCO’s expert inspectors who, among other things, know the agencies from the inside. Fifthly, the ISC should do more to invite genuine dialogue with civil society groups, as IPCO has done, for example, in relation to its work on the Consolidated Guidance. They should, after all, be on the same side when it comes to holding the intelligence agencies to account. People active in international NGOs in this area have told me that this is more evident when dealing with parliamentary committees in some other western European states than it is here.
Sixthly, oversight mechanisms such as the ISC and IPCO need the involvement of lively minds from outside the worlds of security and the Civil Service. The refusal of security clearance to such persons should be capable of appeal to the Security Vetting Appeals Panel, as it is when clearance is refused to a civil servant or a contractor. That is the best way of avoiding the real or apparent conflict of interest inherent in a potential overseer being refused clearance by the bodies which they are applying to oversee.
Seventhly, any legal or practical gaps in oversight, whether by the ISC, IPCO or others, need to be identified and remedied, not as an ad hoc response to litigation, as is so often the case, but on a considered basis. Candidates for consideration are: intelligence work abroad that does not need authorisation under Section 7 of the Intelligence Services Act and is not caught, for example, by the Fulford principles; enhanced use of machine learning, artificial intelligence and behavioural analytics, particularly when data is managed, as is increasingly the case, outside the SIAs’ own systems; and the use of overt surveillance and insufficiently regulated techniques such as facial recognition, gait recognition and lip-reading technology. Many of those techniques are of course used not just by the SIAs but by the police and others: oversight, similarly, should not be exercised in silos, and the remit of the relevant bodies should reflect this—as indeed is the case with IPCO.
Finally, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the House of Commons recently recommended that Parliament’s committees should be given access where possible to the most relevant information that has informed the Government’s decisions about foreign affairs, military action and intelligence. This will also need consideration.
I hope that it is no longer the case, as according to the Snowden documents it once was, that intelligence officials could present it as a “selling point” to the National Security Agency that “We have a light oversight regime compared to the US”. Good progress has been made in recent years, by legislative advances in 2013 and 2016 and by the enhanced professionalism of oversight work. Few of us welcome our auditors with unalloyed pleasure, and, given the vital importance of the work that our intelligence personnel do, scrutiny should be no more resource-intensive than necessary. But, in my judgment, the SIAs are sincere when they tell me that the continued acceptance of what they do by the public, both here and abroad, depends on active, thorough and forward-looking oversight. I commend the ISC and our other oversight mechanisms for their first-class work and look forward to hearing any immediate reaction that the Minister may have to my suggestions for improving them further.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Anderson of Ipswich, and I pay tribute to his work both as the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation and on the extra reviews that he carried out during and after that period. I too thank the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, for securing this debate. It is a long time since we have been able to have this kind of discussion. I regret that it is not on the Floor of the House, but I welcome this opportunity to put on open record some comments on the recent work of the committee, which inevitably conducts its business in secret.
Before doing that, I follow directly from where the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, ended his speech, by putting on record my admiration for and gratitude to all those who work in the intelligence community. The noble Marquess mentioned the dedication and courage of those working under great pressure and in challenging and sometimes dangerous circumstances. I wholeheartedly endorse those sentiments. In doing so, I also add a particular word for the families of those who serve in our agencies. They face their own blend of stress and pressure, day in and day out, in supporting their loved ones who work in the agencies. They too deserve our thanks.
My colleague, the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, commented on some of the reports published since 2015. I offer comment on some of those reports that he did not have time to mention. In particular, the importance of the committee’s oversight role is perhaps most effectively captured by the issues addressed in our annual reports. The 2016-17 report was a particularly full one and, among other subjects covered, highlighted the importance of detecting and countering high-end cyberactivity, which is and must remain a top priority for the Government. The current cyber threat to the UK is an issue that remains an important focus for the committee—a threat that ranges from individual criminals to organised crime groups and from terrorist organisations to state actors such as Russia, China and Iran. One notable development since the publication of our report has been the attribution by the UK over the past year of malicious cyberattacks to these state actors, notably the Russian GRU and APT10 acting on behalf of the Chinese Ministry of State Security.
The committee also took evidence on the administration and expenditure of the agencies, as it does annually. We questioned the heads of agencies and organisations about their spending, on their resources and priorities for investing in people, capabilities and major projects, and on areas such as IT and accommodation. This is an important part of the committee’s scrutiny role. Issues such as the use of contractors and consultants, or the percentage of staff working in certain areas, are important to our oversight of current spending.
Last year, the committee published its findings on the state of diversity and inclusion across the intelligence and security communities. We found that there had been significant progress recently and were impressed by the work being done by staff of the intelligence community through their own staff networks, as well as through strong and effective partnerships with organisations such as Stonewall. However, as many we spoke to during our visits acknowledged, there is still much to do. At senior levels in particular, the intelligence community is still not gender-balanced and does not fully reflect the ethnic make-up of modern Britain. There is a particular lack of black, Asian and minority-ethnic staff at senior levels across the community. We also drew attention to the vetting process, which appears to be bureaucratic, takes too long, and is widely considered by many of the staff we spoke to as an inhibitor to diversity. It is imperative that the intelligence community continues its focus on creating a diverse and inclusive workforce which reflects our society.
Also in 2018, we published a major report on the 2017 terror attacks in the UK. Countering the threat of terrorism remains a primary focus for all seven organisations that we scrutinise. The scale and pace of the terrorist threat continues at an unprecedented level. This challenge was brought into sharp focus by the terror attacks of 2017. The committee undertook an inquiry into the attacks on Westminster, the Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Finsbury Park and Parsons Green. MI5 and the counterterrorist police launched internal reviews in the immediate aftermath of these attacks, and this process was overseen by my noble friend Lord Anderson of Ipswich. The committee commended MI5 and the police for taking the initiative but, nevertheless, regarded it as essential to ascertain for ourselves whether mistakes were made and to ensure that the changes and improvements required had been identified.
We considered each attack in depth, with the exception of the Parsons Green attack, where, despite numerous requests, the Home Office failed to provide full evidence in sufficient time for it to be included in the inquiry. As we said at the time, the committee found this unacceptable. From what we did see, there appeared to have been failings in the handling of this case by the Home Office, the police and Surrey County Council. For the four remaining attacks, we considered the actions of MI5 and counterterrorism policing in relation to a number of cross-cutting issues that played a part in the actions of two or more of those who perpetrated these attacks. These issues included: extremist material online, extremism in prisons, vehicle hire, chemicals and explosives, joint working, closed subjects of interest, travel, disruptive powers, families and Prevent, protective security and data and information. That is quite a shopping list, and I just want to focus on one or two of those areas.
Our inquiry found that there continued to be issues with communication service providers. Following the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, the ISC was the first to draw attention to the failure of communication service providers to stop their systems being used as a tool for extremism and terrorism. Those loopholes were again exploited by the perpetrators of the 2017 attacks, and the Government need to continue to work on ways to inhibit this insidious use of the internet.
Extremist contact in prison was another area which the committee highlighted in its report. Abedi, the Manchester Arena bomber, visited an extremist contact in prison on more than one occasion, but no follow-up action was taken by either MI5 or CTP. In our opinion, known extremist prisoners should not be able to maintain links with those vulnerable to extremism, and we recommended that the approved visitors scheme be extended to all extremist prisoners.
In relation to explosives, we found that the system for regulating and reporting purchases of the ingredients to make explosives was out of date in dealing with the threat posed. Although the committee welcomed the changes subsequently made to the system and the Government’s intention to improve co-operation and information sharing between retailers and law enforcement, with the benefit of hindsight, this should have been done sooner and must now be kept under review.
The Manchester Arena bombing also highlighted deficiencies in MI5’s systems for monitoring individuals of interest not currently under active investigation. The perpetrator, Abedi, had in fact been flagged for review, but MI5’s systems moved slowly, and the review had not happened prior to him launching his attack. The question of how closed or peripheral subjects of interest are managed, which has been the subject of previous recommendations by the ISC, remains of crucial interest. This has indeed been a focus of the review of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson.
The report also noted that, despite Abedi being known to MI5 from 2014, he was at no point considered for a referral to the Prevent programme. This failure to use the Prevent programme is not a new issue, and we would have expected lessons to have already been learned. We welcome the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, to undertake a review of Prevent, and he is due to report on his findings next year.
The noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, commented on some of the items for future work. I should like to touch briefly on the China inquiry. On 6 March, the committee announced that, following the current inquiry into Russia, its next inquiry would be into international security issues relating to China. Among other issues, the inquiry was to examine the role of Huawei in the UK telecommunications infrastructure. In view of the considerable parliamentary and public interest concerning the Government’s deliberations on Huawei, the committee decided to prioritise that aspect of its inquiry and issued a statement in July on the issue of 5G suppliers.
Our statement noted that the National Cyber Security Centre has been clear that the security of the UK’s telecommunications network is not about one country or one company. The network has to be built in such a way that it can withstand attack from any quarter, whether that be malicious action from someone within the network, a cyberattack from actors outside, or simple human error. We should therefore be thinking of different levels of security rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
This is essentially about resilience. The NCSC has said that this can best be achieved by diversifying suppliers, as it is important to reduce overdependence and increase competition. However, the telecoms market has been consolidated down to just a few players. In the case of 5G, there are only three potential suppliers to the UK: Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei. Limiting the field to just two would result in less resilience and lower security standards. It therefore follows that including a third company will result, somewhat counterintuitively, in higher security.
However, the committee recognised that this is not just a technical issue but a geostrategic issue of great significance. There are clearly a number of factors to weigh in the balance, including our intelligence-sharing relationships with our closest allies, in particular our Five Eyes partners, and the importance of our economic and diplomatic relationship with China. The committee expressed the view that this debate has become unnecessarily protracted and urged that a decision should be taken as soon as possible on which companies will be involved in our 5G network.
In concluding, I add my thanks to the committee’s staff, who work so hard to provide expert support. I also thank our chairman, the right honourable Dominic Grieve MP, for steering the committee through what has been a busy period. I believe that, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, so eloquently said, the committee has a vital role to play in ensuring the legitimacy of our intelligence agencies. Effective scrutiny of their work by a body trusted by Parliament and the public is crucial in giving them their licence to operate effectively, under the rule of law, in a free, open and democratic society.
Holding organisations to account means looking for errors, questioning judgments and probing procedures—all inevitably and advantageously with the benefit of hindsight. This is difficult and very time-consuming for those in the intelligence community under scrutiny, but it may never go far enough for those with concerns about the legal and ethical boundaries of intelligence work.
I hope that the ISC gets the balance about right, within the parameters set for us. It is very important that we do, as I am convinced that the UK’s oversight system contributes both to the effectiveness of our intelligence community and to the esteem in which it is held by the rest of the world.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, for securing this debate, which gives me the opportunity to speak about intelligence matters for the first time since I joined your Lordships’ House. I follow three speakers who have eminent credentials for commenting on these matters. Mine are far more modest. I was, as a member of the Diplomatic Service for 40 years, an enthusiastic consumer of the intelligence community’s products, and I had some oversight of their activities twice: first as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee in 2000 and, more recently in 2010, as National Security Adviser, when I also oversaw their budgets, and indeed wrote the annual appraisals of the heads of the intelligence agencies. It was a singular privilege.
Having worked very closely with the intelligence community throughout my career, I regard the men and women of the agencies as one of the greatest assets we have in the British public service. They are quite rightly held accountable to the very highest standards, largely by the ISC itself. I am perhaps the only person here who has had the privilege of appearing in front of the ISC in various capacities—although perhaps my noble friend Lord Anderson has. Inevitably, the agencies’ triumphs are not well known to the British public, while their failings and shortcomings come under intense scrutiny.
Things were in a fairly bad patch when I became the National Security Adviser in 2010. There had been a great deal of adverse publicity around rendition. The agencies were engaged in the grinding civil litigation brought by the Guantanamo Bay detainees, which was absorbing a huge amount of resources, but they were handicapped by the fact that the Government could not produce in court the secret evidence to support their case. It is very encouraging to see how successfully a line has now been drawn under that period. Credit for that goes to the Cameron Government, and particularly to the then Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, who was willing to legislate to make exceptional arrangements for the agencies to be able to defend themselves in court where necessary.
A good deal of credit for the turnaround in public confidence in the agencies and in the morale of agency staff goes to the ISC. Its work on detainees and rendition absorbed an enormous amount of time and effort and there were frustrations at not being able to bring it to a final conclusion. None the less, the 2018 report shed as much light as was possible on what went wrong and why. Like others who have spoken, I believe that establishing the facts and being honest about failings is important in re-establishing public confidence. The committee’s report makes it very clear that the staff of the agencies were working under intense pressure, at a time of real national emergency, in the months and years after 9/11. True to their values, they have learned from their mistakes.
It is vital for all of us that we have a self-confident and well-respected intelligence community, and I believe that we are in a much better place now than in 2010. Given the high level of terrorist threat that the country has been under in recent years, it is pretty remarkable that so many plots have been thwarted. However, there are always lessons to learn when things go wrong. Here, the committee’s report on the 2017 attacks and what needed to change was exemplary, both in helping the public to understand the incredibly difficult context in which the agencies work and in bringing forward useful and practical recommendations for future improvements.
I will not comment further on counterterrorism while in the presence of such a distinguished specialist as my noble friend Lord Anderson of Ipswich. Instead, I offer two comments that look forward and will perhaps help inform the committee’s judgments about its priorities in the coming years.
The first is on the impact of Brexit on intelligence work and co-operation. It will be important for the committee to keep this under review in the months and years to come. My feeling is that this is one area of Britain’s national security which is unlikely to be seriously impacted by Brexit. While Britain’s overall international standing and weight is bound to be diminished by leaving the EU, our key intelligence relationships should not be damaged. That is clearly true of the Five Eyes community, which operates well outside any EU context, and will largely be the case for co-operation with our main European partners, which exists almost entirely outside EU channels.
That is in sharp contrast to the position of law enforcement and judicial co-operation, where a no-deal Brexit risks very serious and immediate damage to connectivity to databases, the alerting systems and the European arrest warrant instrument that we need for our security. I was worried to read in my Financial Times this morning a suggestion that in the current round of discussions in Brussels being held by Mr David Frost, international security and defence is going to be given less priority in the negotiations. That seems worrying. The Minister may be able to help us on that aspect. If the connections we have with our European counterparts through the EU are severed from one day to the next by a no-deal Brexit, that is bound to make the job of law enforcement more difficult. The relevance of that to this debate is that however good intelligence work is, it normally requires flexible, agile law enforcement work to give it effect and to stop the threats that that intelligence illuminates.
My second and last point is more general. Throughout my career, I have seen that the intelligence community has been able to refocus as the threat changes. For the first 40 years of the post-war period, it was the confrontation with the Soviet Union, and for a lot of that time it was the effect of IRA terrorism. After 1989, we saw the intelligence community very effectively refocus on regional issues to back up western interventions in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. After 9/11, counterterrorism obviously became the central issue, particularly for the Security Service, but the threat moves on. For example, cyber is now rightly a very high priority. It is excellent that we have a first-class National Cyber Security Centre under its director Ciaran Martin, in whom I have the fullest confidence.
I hope the committee will keep in mind the need for the intelligence community to reflect the fact that great power competition is rising as a challenge to this country. It is very encouraging that the committee has been looking at Russia, and I welcome the inquiry into China, Huawei and telecoms security. I hope the committee may be able to untangle for us all whether Huawei indeed represents a national security threat to this country or whether it may not be more about industrial competition and protectionism from some of our allies. There is an issue about whether the intelligence community has the human skills in the right place to deliver this new focus on the emerging threat of great power competition, given that we are likely to face a post-Brexit world where we have nationalist powers increasingly feeling that they can ignore international rules with impunity.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, for the way he introduced this debate. He was ably supported by the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, on the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee. This has been an enormously well-informed debate, to the extent that I feel completely underqualified to make any meaningful contribution, but in preparing for our debates on the Investigatory Powers Bill, now the Investigatory Powers Act, I was privileged to visit MI6, to be briefed by MI5 and MI6 and to visit GCHQ. I associate myself with the remarks of other noble Lords. They were summed up by the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, who described our security and intelligence services as one of our greatest assets. I am in awe. I was lucky enough to be told of some of the work that they were undertaking. What they do and what they can achieve is quite mindboggling.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, talked about the rigorous internal measures within the security services to ensure that everything functions properly, but said that they were no substitute for scrutiny and independent, hard-hitting assessments, as he put it.
The noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, talked about the fact that these debates used to be far more regular than they are now, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said that the last debate on this subject in the House of Lords was in 2010. The theme running through the contributions was about a weakening of parliamentary oversight of these important issues. The noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, talked about how the committee is cleared to see highly classified information, yet in its report on the use of lethal drone strikes, for example, it said:
“Oversight and scrutiny depend on primary evidence: without sight of the actual documents provided to Ministers we cannot ourselves be sure—nor offer an assurance to Parliament or the public—that we have indeed been given the full facts surrounding the authorisation process for the lethal strike”.
If people cleared to the highest levels to see classified information are still denied the evidence they need in order to provide effective oversight, something is clearly amiss—something the Government need to address.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, comprehensively set out the benefits and necessity of external scrutiny. While I was hoping to get through a debate without mentioning Brexit, he quite rightly pointed out that, should we leave the EU, we would have to get an adequacy certificate from the European Union to continue to share data with it, and effective scrutiny and oversight is part of what the European Union will consider in deciding what to provide. The Government should be indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, for his comprehensive range of recommendations, which the Government would be well advised to take note of.
The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, talked about the lack of diversity in the intelligence community. We are talking here not about political correctness but about ensuring that the very best people are employed in our security and intelligence services. If there is any way in which any community or group is finding it more difficult to access positions within those services—perhaps because of an overlengthy and bureaucratic vetting process—that is to the detriment of the ability of the security services rather than anything to do with political correctness or reflecting the community more generally. The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, talked about what the committee will look at in future: the involvement of Chinese companies in the development of the UK’s 5G network. That shows how important and relevant the work of the committee is.
The noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, was able to provide an independent assessment of the independent assessment provided by the ISC. He described its report on the 2017 attacks as “exemplary”. He made the important distinction between the impact of leaving the European Union on law enforcement and judicial co-operation and the impact on intelligence co-operation, which tends to be on a bilateral rather than an EU-wide basis.
Not least because I am not qualified to comment, I do not intend to comment on the work of the committee, but I will comment on this apparent erosion of parliamentary oversight by the committee and the apparent contempt in which the Government appear to be holding the committee. The Government’s response to the 2016-17 annual report was received only on 23 July 2018, but I understand that under the memorandum of understanding it should have been published on 19 February 2018 because the Government’s response should come within 60 days of the publication of the committee’s report. The report states that further questions arose over government action in response to the committee’s other inquiries. The report also talks about the committee’s work being interrupted by a general election and the exceptionally long time after it for the committee to be reconstituted. Parliament was dissolved on 3 May 2017 but because of government delays in appointing new committee members it was not until 23 November 2017 that the committee met again, so nearly six months passed with no parliamentary oversight of the intelligence and security communities.
As I have mentioned, the report states that,
“effective and robust oversight of the intelligence community, entrusted to—
the Intelligence and Security Committee—
“is too important to have been left in a vacuum for so many months”.
We now have another period, albeit a shorter one of five weeks, where there will be no oversight by Parliament because it is being prorogued for an unprecedented and unacceptable length of time. With another general election likely after Parliament returns, there is likely to be another extended period with no effective oversight of the intelligence and security communities provided by Parliament. It is not just a matter of Parliament not sitting during a period of prorogation; it is all its committees being unable to sit to call for evidence and to interview witnesses.
All this points to a Government who are showing contempt for Parliament and its oversight of the Executive, not least in this extremely sensitive area. The important work of this committee and the importance of not having extended periods of prorogation where the committee ceases to function was highlighted in June this year when the Investigatory Powers Commissioner stated that MI5 had handled large amounts of personal data in an “undoubtedly unlawful” way. According to Liberty, MI5 has been holding on to ordinary people’s data illegally for many years. In a High Court action brought by Liberty, lawyers for MI5 stated that they could not explain the exact nature of the breaches in open court because of “serious national security concerns”. The former Home Secretary stated that MI5 had taken “immediate and substantial steps” to comply with the law but, again, national security concerns meant that he could not give any details.
This is exactly the kind of issue that the Intelligence and Security Committee can and must be dealing with because its members are security cleared and can be told the exact nature of the security breaches and what steps have been taken to comply with the law—although, from the sound of things, this Government under this Prime Minister seem to think that complying with the law is optional. As Parliament is to be prorogued for five weeks, there will be no effective parliamentary oversight, as the committee will not be allowed to call for evidence or examine witnesses.
The work of the committee is becoming increasingly important as the powers of state are increased, as they have been substantially and against our objections, by the Investigatory Powers Act. For example, as we argued at the time, tech specialists, security chiefs and former Security Service personnel have argued that measures such as storing internet connection records will create cybersecurity and privacy risks.
We are in danger of increasing the powers of the state to spy on us while weakening Parliament’s oversight of the intelligence and security communities. I look forward to the Minister’s counter to our concerns.
My Lords, I thank the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, for tabling this Motion for debate today. I join the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, in feeling totally unqualified to take part in the debate, but, given the eloquent and clear contributions made by other noble Lords, I feel that I can comment on the points that have been raised.
This is a welcome opportunity to discuss the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I want to begin by joining others in paying tribute to the staff of the various security and intelligence agencies for the important work that they do to keep us and the UK safe. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.
The committee itself provides important oversight of the work of the intelligence community and has done for the last 25 years. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, that it is regrettable that we have not had more frequent debates. I would have liked this debate to have been on the Floor of the House, where I am sure many more speakers would have been involved. I hope that when Parliament comes back, the next debate can be on the Floor of the House.
I am very supportive of the committee and the work that it does. It strikes the right balance between detailed parliamentary oversight in camera—in private session—and a more general annual report that we can debate and can be discussed in public. The committee itself contains a good balance of members who have had considerable experience in relevant fields or have held high ministerial office.
Looking at the annual report of the committee, there are important items summarised in the appendix regarding the finances, expenditure and administration and policy in general. I noted that those were not particularly referred to in the report, but I know that the committee had a number of inquiries to deal with. I am sure that there was proper oversight of these important matters in the meetings, despite them not being referred to in the report.
The committee has undertaken work that is summarised in its annual review and I will comment on some of those issues. Many noble Lords have mentioned diversity and inclusion as being very important. We select men and women of the highest calibre to undertake this work—people in whom we place our trust with the task of safeguarding national security. It is not just politically correct: I am of the view that to get people of the highest calibre we must have diversity and inclusion at the heart of that process. I know that is what we mean by that. The committee has been doing important work and it is important that that continues, so that we build a diverse and effective workforce. As the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, said, this is still very much a people business. The intelligence agencies are not only dealing with data: they are dealing with people.
The terrorist attacks in 2017 were horrific events and the police and other emergency responders, on the night and afterwards, along with the security services, acted with immense skill and bravery. However, it is reassuring that not only were there internal reviews of these agencies and the one overseen by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, but the committee itself considered primary matters relating to the attacks provided by the police and MI5. I very much concur that it is for the committee to establish whether mistakes were made and to ensure that all changes and improvements required have been identified. For me, that is the committee doing its job and providing for both Houses and the wider public a greater degree of scrutiny, examination and reassurance—an independent committee examining the facts and drawing its own conclusions.
The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, made several points about those susceptible to extremism being able to visit extremist prisoners and on the issue of regulations around explosives. I would welcome the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, on those points.
I welcome the committee’s inquiry into China, and in particular Huawei and the 5G network. I agree that the network has to be built to withstand attack, from wherever it comes, and diversity may be one of the ways that we can achieve that.
The noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, referred to the work done in respect of Syria and the activities of terrorists. I agree that it is regrettable that certain matters were denied to the committee. This is a committee of privy counsellors, subject to the Official Secrets Act, and it would be good to hear the Minister’s response to the points made by the noble Marquess in that respect.
It is concerning that staff from the UK intelligence services have witnessed abuse, or been told of abuse, and have been supplied questions to ask to detainees. These are very serious matters. Rendition has been an issue for many years and needs to be addressed.
The noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, referred to how successful the services have been in foiling terrorist plots. That is another example of the great debt we owe to the dedication and skill of our security agencies. I share his concern about the risk of a no-deal Brexit to the sharing of databases, the European arrest warrant and close co-operation with our European allies.
I also share the noble Lord’s concerns about the risk of cyber threat that no deal might bring. It would not have been an issue many years ago, when we did not talk about cyber at all, but today, everything in life—food and energy production, defence, manufactured goods and services, and transfers of money and data—requires the use of detailed digital and electronic signatures. It is very important that we get this right. The cyber threat is probably the most serious thing we face, in terms of widespread attacks to the UK.
As the report outlines, there has been some concern in the West about the activities of Russia. I was pleased to learn from the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, that the work on Russia continues. The Skripal poisoning, which has already been mentioned, has been attributed to agents of the Russian state, and there is suspected interference in elections and referendums in the West. The report refers to the previous Prime Minister’s Mansion House speech in 2017, when she accused Russia of planting “fake stories” to,
“sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions”.
I also note the guidance issued in May 2017 by the National Cyber Security Centre to political parties, local authorities and their staff to protect their digital systems. This area is extremely serious and I hope that the committee will keep these matters under review.
The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, agreed with me many times in the House when I raised issues about elections. We agreed that election procedures and rules are not fit for purpose. We have allegations all the time of bots—as I think they are called—stealing our votes with lies, smears, fake news and all sorts of other nonsense. This must be addressed before we get to a general election. I will be the first to co-operate to get a Bill through Parliament to deal with outside interference, fake news, lies and smears, and then have our election, whenever it comes. I hope that the Intelligence and Security Committee shares my view and that of many others. I have made those representations to the Prime Minister and I hope that we will put country before party.
I have had positive meetings with the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham, Lord Hayward and Lord Gilbert, Chloe Smith MP from the Conservative Party, my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley, and the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler, from the Liberal Democrats. We all agreed that something must be done about elections before we have a general election. This is a really serious problem. I wrote a paper on this issue last year, which I gave to all noble Lords present, and everyone agreed with me—I think I sent it to the Intelligence and Security Committee so that it could look at it as well. We need to deal with this issue to ensure our election is not stolen from us.
In conclusion, I am most grateful to the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, for bringing this Motion for debate today, and for the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee in providing the required scrutiny and oversight of our intelligence services, which need our backing, support and confidence in all that they do.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, particularly my noble friend Lord Lothian for securing it. He and many noble Lords made the point that the committee has not had an opportunity to discuss this, and in my time as Home Office Minister, I have not had the opportunity to reply to the committee until now. I hope that, in the future, the committee requests more regular debates. I will certainly be happy to respond to them.
Before I proceed, I echo the comments of my noble friend Lord Lothian in praising the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, and the work that he does, and the committee, which does the most incredible work. When I listened to some of the comments from the committee today, I felt quite humbled by the expertise we are so lucky to have in your Lordships’ House and the contributions that the committee has made. I also join noble Lords from the committee in thanking the right honourable Dominic Grieve QC for his leadership and direction of the work of the committee since 2015. Security and intelligence have featured heavily in public discourse over recent years, and it is to the credit of the chairman and the committee members that parliamentary oversight of the intelligence community has been so effectively maintained, even when the pace of events has been extraordinarily fast.
Noble Lords from the committee talked about its output since 2015 and managed to divvy up various contributions so that they were entirely different and focused on different aspects of the committee’s work. The committee has taken evidence on numerous occasions from Ministers and senior officials, conducted a number of inquiries and published several comprehensive reports on a variety of issues.
I shall take a moment to focus on some of the notable achievements of the committee. First, its report into the terrorist attacks in 2017, to which several members of the committee referred, was well researched with tangible recommendations that will help to improve the safety and security of our country. The Government’s official response to that report made clear that the police, the Security Service and the Home Office are all implementing improvements based on it.
Secondly, the committee’s reports into current and historic issues relating to detainees in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts were the result of several years of hard work by the committee and its staff. Those reports were extremely thorough and highlighted a number of important findings.
Thirdly, we must commend the committee’s efforts in looking into how the intelligence community can become even more diverse and inclusive. It was interesting that a number of noble Lords made that point. Again, the report included useful recommendations that build on the significant work that the agencies have already done to make their organisations more diverse and inclusive places to work. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, rightly pointed out that inclusivity and diversity is not just a “nice to have”: it enhances the workforce at hand. I am very glad that the committee gave that issue equal standing with the other topics that it has examined.
Finally, the annual reports demonstrate the breadth of its remit and the wide-ranging nature of its oversight role. The conclusions and recommendations of those reports are always noted with interest by the Government and the agencies.
I have so far acknowledged the vital work that the Intelligence and Security Committee conducts to ensure that the UK’s oversight of its security and intelligence agencies is world-leading, but of course, like other noble Lords, I want to put on record the excellent work that the agencies do. As the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, mentioned, their families support them in their work, and one must not underestimate the strain that that probably often puts them under.
I turn to the various points that noble Lords made, starting with the point made by my noble friend Lord Lothian and others on lethal drone strikes in Syria. A precision airstrike against a British citizen is one of the most difficult decisions a Government can take. However, if there is a direct threat to UK citizens, such as that posed by Reyaad Khan, this Government will always be prepared to act. In 2015, there was no alternative to a precision airstrike in Syria. There was no Government who the UK could work with and no military on the ground to detain Daesh operatives. There was also nothing to suggest that Rayeed Khan would desist from his desire to murder innocent people in the UK. The Government had no way to ensure that all of his planned attacks would not become murderous reality without taking direct action. As the then Prime Minister informed the House in September 2015, a rigorous decision-making process underpinned the airstrike. A direct and imminent threat was identified by the intelligence agencies and the National Security Council agreed that military action should be taken. The Attorney-General was consulted and was clear that there would be a clear legal basis for action in international law. An air strike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attack planning, so it was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK. On that basis the Defence Secretary authorised the operation, which was conducted according to specific military rules of engagement that complied with international law and the principles of proportionality and necessity.
The ISC announced on 29 October 2015 that it would be,
“investigating the intelligence basis for the lethal strikes”.
The ISC was provided with all the relevant information in this respect, and we are very grateful to the committee for its work. The decision-making process was not part of the review’s remit, which meant that the committee was not provided with a number of documents, including what the ISC has referred to as the “key Ministerial submission”. More generally, I assure noble Lords that the Government take all ISC requests for information very seriously and respond in line with the memorandum of understanding between the Government and the committee.
My noble friend Lord Lothian, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and others talked about the detainees and the committee saying its inquiry was neither authoritative nor credible because of government restrictions. The Government and the agencies fully and willingly co-operated with the committee and the earlier Gibson inquiry. The Government provided all relevant documentary evidence to assist inquiries into this issue, including the committee’s. The committee had access to the Government’s material provided to the Gibson inquiry and the agency heads’ responses to the 27 themes issued by Sir Peter Gibson in his preliminary report. As the committee said, it took 50 hours of oral evidence, reviewed 40,000 original documents and devoted over 30,000 staff hours to its inquiry. The only sticking points were the committee’s request to interview junior staff and staff subject to ongoing legal proceedings.
The point about Russia has been well made, and we look forward to reading the committee’s report on Russia when it is published.
My noble friend Lord Lothian asked why the Prime Minister has not met the committee and whether it is a statutory requirement. The Prime Minister takes the work of the committee seriously and will provide evidence to it at an appropriate point in the future.
My noble friend also asked me about air strikes in Syria outlined in the 2017-18 annual report. All indications were that this was a chemical weapons attack, and we were and are clear about who was responsible. Both the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ interim report on the Douma attack and the UN commission of inquiry’s most recent report support the Government’s conclusion that a chemical weapons attack was carried out on Douma on 7 April. While we do not comment on specific targeting decisions, targets were selected on the basis of rigorous intelligence and were extensively examined and assessed to ensure that our objective was achieved while protecting civilian life.
The action we took has had a disruptive effect on the Syrian regime’s capabilities. There should be no doubt as to our resolve regarding any future use of chemical weapons. As the then Prime Minister said at the time:
“It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria”,—[Official Report, Commons, 16/4/18; col. 42.]
and we will continue to work with partners, including through the UN and other international organisations, to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used. The Syrian conflict has been one of the most destructive in recent human history, and we reacted with our largest-ever humanitarian response. Our priority now is for the war to end as quickly as possible through the UN-facilitated political process reaching a lasting settlement to the conflict that protects the rights of all Syrians.
I will move on to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich. The Government welcome the assurance that the noble Lord has provided in order to monitor the progress of the work of MI5, CT policing and the Home Office. As he highlighted, it is of great importance that MI5 and CT policing improvement programmes continue to be scrutinised. It should be noted that as part of the ongoing scrutiny, the Government are providing six and 12-month updates on a number of the recommendations in the committee’s recent report, The 2017 Attacks: What needs to change?
The noble Lord talked about the reconstitution of the committee and the speed, or lack thereof, with which appointments were made. As he will know, the Justice and Security Act 2013 devolved more of the appointments process to Parliament. Candidates for membership of the committee are nominated by the Prime Minister, after consultation with the leader of the Opposition, and Parliament then votes to appoint them.
The noble Lord talked also about the lack of speed in publications. The Government aim to publish our response to ISC reports within 60 days, as set out in the MoU, but I will defer to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who seems to think that one of them was not responded to. We aim to do so within 60 days.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, also referred to the IPCO, civil society and wider expertise. I thank him for his suggestions about IPCO resourcing, the involvement of civic society and the opening up to wider expertise. These suggestions will be considered by government.
On the same theme, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, mentioned that the committee cannot sit during Prorogation, which is right. Both Prorogation and general election campaigns unfortunately do not provide for that process to continue.
I will move on to the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin. Rightly, his first point—
Before the Minister leaves those comments, I wonder whether I might press her a little further on a point that was raised a number of times. We have heard in this debate of no fewer than three reports—on drone strikes, a detainee inquiry and Parsons Green—in which the committee has not been allowed either to see relevant documents or to speak to relevant personnel. That seems to be something of a pattern. Could the Minister explain how the public can have the necessary confidence that we have comprehensive intelligence oversight when the overseer itself complains that it is not being given the tools it needs to do the job? What guarantees can we have that this situation will not recur in future ISC inquiries?
I am saying—I will be corrected if I am wrong—that there may be occasions when it is not possible for that information to be provided. But, for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, I will go back and interrogate each event that he mentioned and confirm that in writing to the committee if that is the case—but I suspect that is the reason why sometimes documents cannot be provided. I know the noble Lord does not look happy about that.
Moving back to the point about diversity and inclusion, I said that better workforces are more diverse workforces, and the other point I wanted to make was about flexibility in working styles to allow for more inclusivity within the workforce.
The noble Lords, Lord Janvrin and Lord Ricketts, talked about 5G suppliers. The UK Government have recently conducted a comprehensive review to ensure the security and resilience of 5G in the UK. We published that review earlier this month. Our response to the review is based on evidence and a hard-headed assessment of the risks. We will never compromise security in our pursuit of economic prosperity. I think we can have both. I stress that no final decision has been made about Huawei. The US entity listing is a new and relevant factor for the findings of this review, with potential implications for the market as a whole. The Government will further consider the position regarding high-risk vendors and make a decision in due course.
The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, referred to Prevent and the Abedi case. As with all the other issues relating to the 2017 terrorist attack, the Government have looked for lessons learned relating to the Prevent programme. Abedi was not referred to the Prevent programme following the closure of investigations into him in 2014 by MI5 or CT policing. The investigations were closed because he was thought to be an individual seen acting suspiciously with a subject of interest, but he turned out not to have been that individual and therefore was judged to be low risk. He was also not referred separately to Prevent as part of the operational improvement review. Investigators must now give thought to referring an individual to Prevent upon the closure of an investigation.
The noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, made a point about how Brexit might impact on intelligence sharing with our EU partners. We work exceptionally closely with our European counterparts on intelligence sharing, joint operational work and sharing experiences of the developing threat. National security is outside the EU purview, but the noble Lord made the point that when we leave the EU the whole dynamic will change.
The light is flashing. I hope that noble Lords will be content for me to continue for another minute.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked why the purchase of chemicals used in the Manchester and Parsons Green attacks was not picked up and why it took an attack for the Government to realise that the suspicious activity reporting regime was out of date. Terrorists diversify their methods, including their methods of acquisition, and therefore our methods need to adapt over time to maintain that correct balance. Since the attacks we have refined our comprehensive strategy for preventing and detecting terrorists’ acquisition of explosives precursors to make our activities smarter and more efficient. The Government are actively working with retailers to design out the threat by substituting products with safer alternatives that cannot be used in an attack.
The noble Lord also made the point about the Manchester attacker visiting a known terrorist prisoner in prison and asked why that was allowed. All offenders of extremist or terrorist concern are managed actively as part of the comprehensive counterterrorism case management system. We are currently scoping work to strengthen controls around communications and visits for TACT and TACT-related offenders that could continue to pose a risk to the community irrespective of their prison security category. This process will be part of the wider review of all contact and transactions between people in the community and extremists in prison, and it will include addressing arrangements currently in place under the approved visitors scheme.
Finally, the noble Lord made a point about bots—about what is real news and what is fake news. I have to say that the past week has led me to wonder what is real in the world; so much is going on on Twitter. The noble Lord made an important point about elections because we need them to be based on what people have actually voted for rather than on what might have been influential over the internet. We have the Online Harms White Paper and will be doing further work on what appears on the internet, but the noble Lord makes a valid point in which I know that DCMS will also be very interested.
I thank noble Lords for their patience—the light has now been flashing for three minutes—and particularly my noble friend.
My Lords, this has been an excellent and highly-informed debate which I have certainly learnt from. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, made a typically modest speech in which he paid tribute to everybody except himself, but his reports informed much of the work that the committee did. They were immensely valuable, and I thank him for that.
I am also grateful to the Minister for her response. She knows that there are certain areas where we did not find that we were of a common mind. I hope that she will take them back and reflect on them. I raised them only because they make it more difficult for the committee to do the work that I think essentially Parliament expects us to do. It is worth the Government reconsidering them.
I hate to admit that I have been on the committee since 2006. It is only in the past three years that a Prime Minister has refused to meet us. We have found those meetings exceptionally useful because a lot of the criticisms that I have brought up today we could quietly bring up with the Prime Minister and, very often, they were resolved by doing so. I hope that we will go back to the habit of meeting the Prime Minister annually. I thank everybody for partaking in this debate.
Committee adjourned at 5.07 pm.