Intelligence and Security Committee
1:55 pm

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House has considered the matter of the Annual Report of the Intelligence and Security Committee for 2007-08, Cm 7542, and the Government's response, Cm 7543.—( Mark Tami.)

1:57 pm
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Kim Howells (Pontypridd, Labour)

I have had the privilege of chairing the Intelligence and Security Committee since October last year and this is the first opportunity I have had to talk about the work of the Committee before the House. I believe that this is the first time that such a debate has been opened by the Committee Chairman.

I have been asked by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to offer his apologies for being unable to attend this debate. He is representing the Prime Minister at the Eastern Partnership summit in Prague. While we wish the Foreign Secretary well at that conference, I am sure that all present are delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary participating in today's debate.

On behalf of the Committee, I wish to put on record our thanks to my predecessors: my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, who was Chairman until January 2008 and my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, who was Chairman until October 2008. I am grateful to them for their excellent leadership.

In the period covered by the annual report, the Committee held 26 formal meetings and 25 other meetings—51 in total—and undertook a number of visits. Its members attended the vast majority of those meetings—well over 90 per cent.—so I want to thank them for their hard work and the constructive approach they brought to the Committee's work. I have certainly never served on any other Committee where attendance has been so high or its members have been so expert—an issue to which I shall return.

The Intelligence and Security Committee has a statutory remit to examine the administration, policy and finance of the UK's security and intelligence agencies. We report on these annually to the Prime Minister and meet him to discuss the details of the report. The report covers the period from December 2007 to November 2008. That is the period that we are looking at today.

Our most time-consuming task during that period was the completion of our review of the intelligence on the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005. That was the subject of a separate, detailed report, which was sent to the Prime Minister in July 2008. It could not be published then for legal reasons. A trial going on at the time has now concluded, and reporting restrictions have been lifted. To reflect recent developments, the Committee has updated the report—not in a rewrite, as some have suggested, but in a separate, additional annexe. We sent that update to the Prime Minister yesterday, and I am informed that he will publish both the report and update on Tuesday 19 May. I will not comment further on the report during this debate.

As the annual report makes clear on page 44, during 2008, the Committee also began investigations into a number of other areas—investigations that were continuing when the annual report was published. Some of the investigations have now concluded, and we will report on them in our next annual report. Properly, the annual report deals mainly with the nuts and bolts of the agencies' operations: their administration, policy and finance. I will provide an overview.

A wide range of threats, both terrorist and non-terrorist, continues to be posed to the United Kingdom.

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Tobias Ellwood (Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport; Bournemouth East, Conservative)

I do not wish to distract the right hon. Gentleman, but he draws attention to the report of one of his predecessors, Baroness Taylor. Back in 2002, she wrote that there remained a huge problem in the comparison between the compensation received by people affected by terrorism attacks in the UK, and that received by those affected by such attacks abroad. Sadly, I lost my brother in the Bali bombing, and the report made clear the double standard: families of those killed or injured in the UK were compensated through the criminal injuries compensation scheme, whereas no such support is provided in relation to those killed or injured abroad. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether too much time has passed—seven years—for that discrepancy to continue?

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Kim Howells (Pontypridd, Labour)

Every time I think of the hon. Gentleman, I think of his brother, who was so cruelly taken from his family by the terrible bombing in Bali. It is not the Committee's place to comment on compensation, but I assure him that a great many of us think about the subject, and I would like to see some of the unjustified disparities reduced.

The current threat from international terrorism is assessed as severe: there is a continuing high level of threat to the United Kingdom, and a high likelihood of a terrorist attack in this country. The threat of international terrorism comes from a diverse range of sources, including al-Qaeda and its associated networks, and those who share its ideology but do not have direct contact with it. Al-Qaeda and its followers are certainly not short of ambition. We have ample evidence of their willingness to carry out indiscriminate terrorist attacks, and the threat that they pose is likely to persist for a considerable time. That places great pressure on our intelligence and security agencies, together with the police, Government Departments and other key partners, all of whom are working to find those who are planning attacks and prevent them from carrying them out.

Counter-terrorism work is demanding and often dangerous for those involved. It is no exaggeration to say that they put their lives at risk to protect this country. They have achieved notable successes over the past year, with plots disrupted and individuals brought to trial and convicted. I record our thanks to them for all their hard work—not only the successes that are known about, but those that cannot be publicised. All three agencies, especially the Security Service, have continued to receive substantially increased resources earmarked for counter-terrorism work. Discovering plots and pursuing terrorists is vital, but the Security Service cannot guarantee to stop every plot; it is often playing catch-up.

Although the primary focus of the United Kingdom's intelligence and security agencies is necessarily on counter-terrorism work, a good deal of which has international links, they also dedicate resources to countering threats posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional instability, espionage, cyber attack and other challenges. In addition, the agencies continue to provide unprecedented operational support to United Kingdom military operations.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I pored over my right hon. Friend's report, and it contains no mention of cyber attacks, or what is known in the firm as "patriotic hacking". That is among the most serious threats to the United Kingdom and the west. Why is there no mention of this? Has the Committee not examined the threat? Why is it not being reported to the House?

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Kim Howells (Pontypridd, Labour)

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the gravity of the threat of cyber attack— [Interruption.] If he will contain himself for a moment and not explode on his bit of the Front Bench, I will tell him that we will report on cyber attack in our next annual report. I am sure he will be satisfied with that.

The Committee expressed concern that the necessary focus on counter-terrorism work has resulted in a reduction in the proportion of effort directed to non-counter-terrorism threats, possibly to our future detriment. In the Government's response to the Committee, they acknowledged that the proportion of work on other intelligence and security requirements has been reduced as a result of the continuing focus on counter-terrorism. The Government state that the agencies are nevertheless investing considerably in better IT and other capabilities, but it remains a source of great concern to the Committee that we might be storing up problems for the future if we neglect other areas of work, and we are adamant that more must be done.

In addition to examining work on counter-terrorism and on non-counter-terrorism threats, the report looks at administrative challenges: how agencies allocate resources; and how we can ensure that they provide value for money, and have effective business continuity plans and effective security procedures such as vetting. Although the Committee's remit covers the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ, it is clear that it cannot work in isolation. Given the challenges it faces, constructing close partnerships with the wider intelligence community is essential.

In overseeing such agencies, the Committee must also examine the work of the wider intelligence community. In addition, as the only parliamentary body allowed, by virtue of the Official Secrets Act, to access secret material, it is the only body that can hold the agencies and bodies dealing with such material to account: they include the Defence Intelligence Staff, some areas within the Office for Security and Counter- Terrorism in the Home Office, the intelligence structure in the Cabinet Office including the Joint Intelligence Committee and the assessments staff, the joint terrorism analysis centre and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure.

The Committee also addresses issues that affect the intelligence community as a whole. For example, we have expressed our dismay—the word is used carefully—that phase 2 of the SCOPE IT system has been scrapped. I assure the House that the ISC takes its job of holding the agencies to account very seriously. If we cannot always provide the detail of that in public, that does not mean it is not being done. The ISC remains completely objective in its deliberations on the issues and cases it chooses to examine. That is the only way members of the Committee know how to win and retain the trust of Parliament, the security agencies and the wider world.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)

My right hon. Friend talks about the importance of the Committee gaining the trust of the wider world. As he points out, the Committee is the only mechanism that Parliament has to hold the security agencies to account. There is widespread anxiety among the public that information obtained by UK security services has been used by other countries in committing torture against espionage suspects. Will he report to Parliament his Committee's view of such allegations?

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Kim Howells (Pontypridd, Labour)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I shall deal with her point in a moment, if she will be patient.

It is important to note that the membership of the Committee reflects the full range of attitudes taken by most people who think about intelligence and security matters. The Committee's members bring to its deliberations something additional and, in my view, something special. All of them are experienced, long-serving and well-respected Members of this House and the other place. Often, but not always, they have served as Ministers or shadow Ministers. Sometimes, but not always, they have served in Departments or on Committees that gave them first-hand experience of intelligence, security, defence and policing matters. Without exception, they bring with them the benefit of diverse experiences as parliamentarians, and, of course, as individuals who had important careers before entering either House.

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David Winnick (Walsall North, Labour)

I do not intend this to reflect in any way on the Committee's present or previous membership, but will my right hon. Friend comment on the Prime Minister's statement of 19 March 2008? In that statement, the Prime Minister spoke of a more "public role" for the Committee, and said that such a role should be

"more akin to the practice of Select Committees".—[ Hansard, 19 March 2008; Vol. 473, c. 926.]

While I realise that, as in the case of any democratic country, the bulk of the Committee's work will be done in private, has not the time come—as the Prime Minister has himself suggested—for some public hearings about the work of the security agencies?

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Kim Howells (Pontypridd, Labour)

Yes, and I can tell my hon. Friend that the Committee is thinking very seriously about how we can conduct such public sessions. It will not be easy. If we ask questions about operations or intelligence which, by their very nature, are secret and must remain secret, we shall certainly not be able to do so in public, and if we ask questions that do not relate to such matters and that can be asked by any Select Committee, we shall be accused of asking whoever is before us patsy questions. However, there are subjects involving the intelligence and security agencies that we may be able to employ in order to hold public hearings that will be useful and meaningful, rather than serving merely as decoration.

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Kim Howells (Pontypridd, Labour)

I will not give way again, because I know that many right hon. and hon. Members are waiting to speak.

In referring to the Committee's membership, I have given some of the reasons for the fact that it is the least leaky Committee, and the least prone to allowing party politics to colour the commentary on its reports and its albeit rare public pronouncements. I hope that I shall be allowed to depart for a moment from what has been protocol in the introduction of debates such as this. The material handled by the Committee is extraordinarily sensitive, and very important to the country's security. Three members of the Committee are not privy councillors, but ought to be because of the distinguished way in which they have served it. I refer to my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) and Richard Ottaway. I hope that the Prime Minister will consider that carefully, because it is something of an anomaly and I think it should be rectified.

The ISC has constantly to win and retain the trust of all sides in an area which, by its very nature, is prone to the most extreme forms of public speculation and concern, rumour, criticism, paranoia and conspiracy theories. It has to work within the circle of secrecy— [Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay allow me to finish? It has to work within the circle of secrecy, and yet convince the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public that the often clandestine systems, behaviour and operations that are important elements of the business of the agencies that we examine are organised and undertaken according to the laws laid down in this country. That applies to operations regardless of where in the world they are conducted.

There are additional difficulties. There is a tendency for some of those who are most often heard giving voice to the speculation, concern, rumour, paranoia and conspiracy theories that I mentioned a moment ago to assume that the ISC is there simply to prove them right—or, if we decline to do that in our reports—to whitewash the agencies and the Government. Let me state here and now that, as one who served as a Minister for more than 11 years and served nearly six years on the Opposition Front Bench—as well as on three Select Committees, including a particularly fearsome Public Accounts Committee—I have never encountered a more rigorous, tough and independently minded investigative Committee than the ISC.

Like any other organisation, the ISC has its weaknesses and limitations, not least the fact that it is under-resourced. It is served by a superb, hard-working secretariat, but one that is small in numbers and frequently tested to the limit in undertaking its duties. The ISC needs more money and staff, especially if it is to continue to undertake additional investigations of difficult and complex issues such as the London bombings of July 2005.

There is, of course, a body that exists to undertake investigations of individual cases. It is called the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, and consists of very senior members of the legal profession who are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen. It is guided by Lord Justice Mummery, its president. I hope very much that it will make its distinguished membership and its remit better known to the media and the public than they appear to be at present.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal will proceed with its vital work, but I have no doubt that pressure will continue to be applied to the Intelligence and Security Committee to undertake investigations of all manner of contentious issues, including the role and conduct of serving officers of our intelligence and security services in interrogating suspects and prisoners held overseas. That brings me to the question asked by my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart.

Over the past five years, as well as its annual reports, the Committee has produced a report on rendition, published in July 2007, a report on the London terror attacks of July 2005, published in May 2006, and a report on the handling of detainees by UK intelligence personnel in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, published in March 2005. As I said earlier, its second report on the July 2005 London bombings will be published on 19 May. If it is to continue to do justice to difficult and complex subjects of that kind, as well as fulfilling its remit to monitor the intelligence and security agencies, it needs adequate resources. I urge No. 10 to consider that plea carefully and sympathetically.

Inevitably, the Committee's agenda beyond its formal remit will continue to be influenced by events, reports and wider debates about intelligence and security issues. There will be themes that demand its attention. Let me briefly touch on one of those themes. It concerns issues that have arisen, for example, as a consequence of the allegations made by an individual who was not a British national, but who resided in this country for some time. Claims have been made that that individual was arrested in Pakistan and questioned by the Pakistani authorities and by the Americans before eventually being incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. Subsequently, the individual was released back to the United Kingdom without being formally charged by the Americans with having committed a terrorist offence.

The individual's lawyers allege that, before being flown to Guantanamo, the person was treated very badly by his captors, and that British intelligence was aware, at the very least, of aspects of that treatment. It is alleged that the individual was subjected to interrogation techniques that were contrary to the Geneva conventions and to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It is also alleged that the individual was subject to extraordinary rendition to a third country where torture allegedly occurred and where questions were put to the individual—questions which, allegedly, could only have come from the United Kingdom.

Those allegations have been the subject of rigorous and dispassionate examination by the ISC, and I do not intend to comment on them here in any way. What I want to do, very briefly, is draw attention to a fact that will, I am sure, be obvious to any serious and objective student of intelligence and security matters. It is this: the possible ramifications of recent cases, such as the one I have just described, on the future operational capabilities of our intelligence and security agencies could be very significant.

Paradoxical as it may seem in a world normally described by the likes of John le Carré and many other authors and filmmakers as one mired in betrayal and duplicity, in fact a high degree of mutual trust is required for intelligence services to be sufficiently confident to exchange their information across international frontiers. Where there is no trust, there will be little useful exchange of intelligence. Some of that intelligence—in the past, now and in the future—will have been gathered in the streets, police stations, prisons and holding camps of countries and conflict zones where Governments and regimes do not normally enjoy reputations as firm upholders of the Geneva conventions.

If our security agencies are informed by one of the security agencies of these countries that they have in their custody a detainee, or that they have information obtained from a detainee that could be crucial to protecting British people from a terrorist atrocity, what are they to do? Do they despatch officers to these places, knowing that subsequently they might find themselves subject back in the United Kingdom to a charge of being complicit in the serious maltreatment of the detainee? How ready will our agencies be to deploy officers to countries whose Governments are implicated in human rights abuses and torture, or even to admit that they have co-operated with the intelligence agencies of those Governments, given that there can be very few countries in the world that are able to offer cast-iron guarantees that terrorist suspects, detainees and criminals are protected from mistreatment of any kind as they are protected by our laws in the United Kingdom?

Should British agencies co-operate with countries that have been found guilty of breaking international conventions against torture? It might be instructive, before replying to that, to recall that Sweden, a nation justifiably well regarded for its human rights record, was found guilty of violating the international convention against torture in 2001 after extraditing to Egypt a terror suspect, Ahmed Agiza—a former member of Islamic Jihad—having refused to grant the man asylum. The UN Committee against Torture ruled in 2005, less than four years ago, that Sweden should have known that Egypt advocated and consistently practised the widespread use of torture methods against detainees. Can we guarantee that all our NATO partners, including our most important partner, the USA, are completely free of UN criticism? I doubt it.

The ISC visited Ottawa recently and learned that Canada—another nation properly held up as a paradigm of virtue when it comes to the humane treatment of suspects and detainees—was forced to pay more than 10 million Canadian dollars in 2007 in compensation to a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Mr. Maher Arar. He had been arrested in the USA on allegedly misleading intelligence supplied by the Canadian security authorities. The Americans in their wisdom flew Mr. Arar to Syria, where he alleges that he was beaten repeatedly and subjected to many months of inhumane prison conditions. Canada is one of our most trusted and steadfast allies. It has a robust judiciary that is every bit as ready as ours to uphold human rights and civil liberties.

Where do such examples leave us politicians, who are in Parliament to ensure, among other things, that our intelligence and security organisations undertake properly and lawfully the necessary tasks required to keep our streets safe from atrocities perpetrated by terrorists? As Chairman of the ISC, I can guarantee that the Committee will not flinch in our investigations and our reports will properly inform the Prime Minister and, with him, Parliament and the country at large, wherever and whenever we believe that laws have been broken and human rights have been abused. We will help to ensure that the guidance and advice given to our officers meets all our international obligations.

As Committee members, we are as aware as anyone in this country that those responsible for helping to ensure the safety of our citizens from the activities of those who would perpetrate terrorism and destruction must themselves act within the laws of the United Kingdom. That is how we prove to the rest of the world that the values that we uphold and fight for are civilised and humane. Few things can do this country's reputation more damage than being seen to be abusing human rights and tarnishing the values for which we stand. That was the great harm wreaked by the photographs and reports that emerged from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, among other places of detention and interrogation.

I believe that there are no circumstances where torture can be justified; nor am I convinced that the intelligence that emerges from torture cells is sufficiently reliable to warrant even that most equivocal of justifications—the one that says that torture is valid if it tells us how to find or defuse the ubiquitous ticking bomb.

We know also, however, that in this increasingly mobile world—in which people, plans, weapons, explosives, detonators and intelligence move and are made available with such speed—it is vital that the intelligence and security agencies of this country and those of its civilised and trusted allies are properly empowered to co-operate and exchange intelligence. As long as they do that within the laws laid down to guide their work, they should not have to live with the dread that, by the very act of co-operating with a close ally who may subsequently find themselves mired in a human rights abuse scandal, they might be tarred with the same brush. Living with such a dread is not a recipe for the efficient exercise of intelligence and security operations as central as ours are to preventing terrorist atrocities in this country.

That is why the work of examining exhaustively the allegations laid against intelligence and security agencies and officers must remain a priority. It is why the examinations should continue to be carried out within a political context that leaves no one in any doubt whatsoever that the United Kingdom Government's current refinement and consolidation of rules and guidance issued to intelligence and security officers will result in the maximum possible clarity. That is vital if we are to dispel all suspicions and allegations that our agencies and, by implication, our Government have been complicit in torture.

The men and women who work for our intelligence and security agencies are among the brightest and, sometimes, the bravest people that I have ever encountered. Their work is vital to keeping this country safe from the often murderous intentions of those, inside and outside these islands, who wish to harm us. Because of its very nature, much of that work must be secret. Its great worth often cannot be the subject of reporting or celebrating, even in the most broad fashion.

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Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

I totally support what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. It is very important to stress again that none of us would condone mistreatment and, in particular, torture. Does he agree that in our investigation of that we must respect the rules of confidentiality with other agencies abroad with which we share intelligence? Sharing intelligence is not a contractual matter; it is based entirely on trust. If that trust is either undermined or broken, we will not know that we are not getting the intelligence—because, unless we get it, we do not know what intelligence is available—but that could greatly damage the national security interests of this country.

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Kim Howells (Pontypridd, Labour)

I agree with every word of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's analysis. He is absolutely right, and that issue of trust is central to the points I am making.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)

Is our trust in our partner agencies not dependent on them? My right hon. Friend has highlighted a number of Governments who have inadvertently breached the human rights of certain people, but is not our trust in the sharing of information with other countries undermined if they consciously use that information in a way that abuses the human rights of suspects?

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Kim Howells (Pontypridd, Labour)

Yes, that is absolutely true, although I do not believe for one minute that any of this is cut and dried and crystal clear, because it never is. There are intelligence agencies across the world that we believe we can trust, but which for whatever reason—my hon. Friend used the term "inadvertently"—have been guilty of contravening some of the Geneva conventions. That has indeed sometimes been inadvertent. I spent a large amount of my time at the Foreign Office helping to negotiate the possible future extradition to their home countries of people who were being held in places such as Belmarsh. We might have been given every possible reassurance that those people would be safe, but our courts frequently did not believe those reassurances, so our attempts to send those people back home to their own countries were often stymied. These are very difficult areas, and there is no rule that says that, because we do something in this country with the best of intentions, it will not be contravened or broken somewhere else in the world.

I believe that the people who work in our intelligence and security agencies deserve the very best guidance, both political and practical, and that that guidance must be as clear and unambiguous as possible. It is this Parliament, and this Government, who must provide it.

2:31 pm
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Chris Grayling (Shadow Home Secretary, Home Affairs; Epsom and Ewell, Conservative)

May I begin by offering two different sets of thanks? The first is to all the people who work in our security services. I am sure every Member of this House would agree that they do a magnificent job for this country. We depend on them enormously at what is a time of great threat and great difficulty, and it is right and proper that our gratitude should go out to them. My second set of thanks is to Dr. Howells and his colleagues of all political parties who serve on the Intelligence and Security Committee. They too do a very important job of work for us; they carry out a challenging and important role on our behalf. That fact is underlined by the scale of the redacted information in this report. That inevitably makes it difficult for this House to have a full discussion about the scale of our commitment to the security services, so we rely on the ISC to be our eyes and ears in the security world, and I am grateful to the Chairman and his Committee for what they have done. I am sure we would also want to pass on our thanks to Margaret Beckett for her work on the Committee during the course of the year.

There is, of course, one element missing from the report. We have an annual report to consider, and we will spend today's discussion focusing on a document that has been thoughtfully put together, but which inevitably lacks some of the detail that might enable our debate to be more informed. Obviously, for security reasons key information cannot be made available to us. We can certainly discuss the role of our security services in the battle against terror, but one issue that I know will be followed from outside this House is the work carried out by the Committee on the London 7/7 bombings, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. We know that the research it conducted and the assessments it made have remained under lock and key because of the trial that has recently concluded. Even given the fact that that trial has now ended, we would all fully accept that the Committee has been given access to some of the most sensitive information in relation to what happened and that it will not be possible to make that information fully public.

However, I think Members in all parts of the House will be aware that there is an expectation among the families of those who were killed or injured that the report will be published in some form, and I think they will welcome the announcement the right hon. Gentleman has made today. They are certainly hoping that the report will give them some further explanation about what happened, and in particular what was known about the bombers. I have a clear sense from talking to some of those involved that they do not want there to be a blame witch hunt against anyone who may have made mistakes, but they do want clear evidence that lessons have been learned and procedures improved. All of us in this House can understand that desire, and we can only have the greatest admiration for the way in which the surviving victims and their families have dealt with the appalling situation they faced.

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Michael Mates (East Hampshire, Conservative)

I must be careful about what I say, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we have made huge efforts in this report to cut redactions to a minimum for the express purpose of trying to give as much information as we possibly can to the families and relatives he was talking about.

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Chris Grayling (Shadow Home Secretary, Home Affairs; Epsom and Ewell, Conservative)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those comments and I am sure they will be welcomed by the families, who are certainly seeking reassurance that everything possible is being done to ensure that no one has to face a similar tragic situation in the future. There is a duty on us to provide answers for those people as far as we can, with the caveat that we cannot compromise the future ability of the security services to combat the threat we face. I am sure that the families will be reassured by my right hon. Friend's comments, and I am delighted to hear that the Committee will be able to press ahead and publish that report. I hope that it provides the families with some of the answers they seek.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

Before the hon. Gentleman gets carried away in mutual congratulations between Front Benchers and prospective Privy Counsellors, I draw his attention to page 25 of the report, which states:

"SIS has now implemented the new civil service retirement age of 65 with the exception of senior staff...where the retirement age remains ***."

I find it incredible that that detail was of such importance to national security that it had to be left out. That is absurd, and it insults Parliament. I imagine some sort of Miles Malleson or Wilfrid Hyde-White character still in post at 106, and they are too embarrassed to say so. That is the only logical conclusion to draw.

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Chris Grayling (Shadow Home Secretary, Home Affairs; Epsom and Ewell, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and I was about to mention the scale of redaction. I remember dealing with a constituency case a few years ago in which an experienced counter-terrorism officer was being expected to retire because there was a set retirement age. At a time when we face a significant international threat, it is clearly bonkers to lose expertise unless people really want to retire—

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Chris Grayling (Shadow Home Secretary, Home Affairs; Epsom and Ewell, Conservative)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to ask the Home Secretary or a member of the Committee whether they can give him some hint on that.

Because of the need to avoid compromising the ability of our security services to defend the safety of our citizens, the detail in the report will always have to be limited, but we need to ask serious questions about the scale of the redactions. It is impossible for Parliament sensibly to debate value for money as most of the figures are replaced with asterisks. On page 13 there is even a footnote for the asterisks that explains helpfully:

"This relates to GCHQ's various activities ***."

That is not very helpful or enlightening. On page 9, a whole table is printed showing the overall resource and capital spending projections for the different agencies, but no amounts for each agency. I can see why it is important that information that is a threat to national security is not placed in the public domain, but I wonder whether the degree of redaction in this report allows Parliament to fulfil its role as examiners of the public purse. That is especially true given that the agencies are costing more and more to run.

For GCHQ, the SIS, the Security Service and what are termed "Additional elements", spending over the five years to 2011 will almost double from £1.2 billion to just over £2 billion. In total, spending on counter-terrorism will increase to £3.5 billion. What was originally a relatively small item of Government expenditure is expanding steadily to the point where it is close to the size of a small Department on its own. Clearly, we should not know or expose the full detail of that expenditure, and we face new challenges—the report rightly points out that the increased use of the internet by terrorists has become a priority for GCHQ, which will create a whole new set of challenges, requirements and investment needs. We accept also that the security services are operating in a difficult environment, but there are legitimate questions to ask about the overall value for money being obtained by them.

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David Winnick (Walsall North, Labour)

Perhaps the Chairman of the Committee believes that I would like to see much of its work done in public, but nothing could be further from the truth. Is it the Opposition's view that there is a public role for the Committee, including justification for some public hearings, to make it—in the words of the Prime Minister—more akin to a Select Committee, while recognising that we face an acute terrorist danger and much of the Committee's work must, by the very nature of such things, be private?

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Chris Grayling (Shadow Home Secretary, Home Affairs; Epsom and Ewell, Conservative)

We certainly support as much transparency as possible but while still allowing the Committee to work effectively, and in a way that does not compromise our national security and the work of those who are, in very many cases, putting their lives on the line to defend us. It is a delicate balance. I look to the Committee to try to push the margin as far as it reasonably can. It is closest to the information with which we are dealing and involves representatives from both sides of the House. I hope—I suspect that this is the wish of everyone in the House—that we will push the envelope as far as we can to achieve a sensible balance.

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Michael Ancram (Devizes, Conservative)

For four years, I made the same speech as my hon. Friend is making from that Dispatch Box. I too used to run through the redactions and ask how we could possibly do our job in Parliament when we could not see the figures. I have now served on the ISC for three years and have been taken through the reasons for the redactions, and so, without giving anything away, may I say to him that I think they are justified?

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Chris Grayling (Shadow Home Secretary, Home Affairs; Epsom and Ewell, Conservative)

I accept my right hon. and learned Friend's word in these matters. However, I am sure that he and his colleagues on the Committee will continue to make every effort to bring into the public domain matters that can be brought into it.

We know that a considerable amount of investment is taking place in IT across the security services, for reasons such as the increased use of the internet to which I have just referred. We also know that the Government have, on occasions, got things spectacularly wrong in IT across all different aspects of the public sector. The report quite rightly raises serious questions about the SCOPE project, which has clearly been another example of an unsuccessful major IT project. It is clear that that is a situation in which it is helpful for the House to hear as much as possible about how the Committee ensures that money is spent wisely and that we genuinely secure value for the investment, as well as what we do when things go badly wrong. I await with the interest the report that the right hon. Member for Pontypridd talked about putting together later in the year.

Therein lies the rub. I hear what my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram says, but people standing at this Dispatch Box—including him and my predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve—have argued that there is more scope to provide information to support the value for money issues, that not all the information needs to be classified and that we could demonstrate to the House and to taxpayers how we are securing a proper return for the taxpayer in what is inevitably now proving to be a fast-increasing investment for the taxpayer.

There is a balance to be struck. If we publish breakdowns that are too detailed, it gives those who are hostile to this nation information about where and when budgets are squeezed and about the areas in which we are investing and those in which we are not. Yes, there is a risk that we might give an indication of where the soft underbelly lies. Clearly, we do not want to do that, but I still suspect that more information could be provided without exposing us in that way. Of course, if we understand where there are pressures in the system and where there are financial issues, it makes it easier for right hon. and hon. Members to apply pressure and to ensure that soft underbellies do not appear to the extent that they might otherwise.

Let me now turn to some of the other detail of the report, which seems to confirm what my colleagues and I have said all along: the Government's national security strategy is in danger of simply being a descriptive laundry list and the Prime Minister's National Security Committee and National Security Forum are in danger of just being talking shops.

The Committee's report makes it clear that the Government have not taken the recommendations of the Butler report seriously, which could negatively affect the functioning of the central intelligence machinery and our analytical capability. It worryingly calls into question the Government's ability to find a way to allow intercept evidence to be used in terrorist trials—we have argued for that in order to reduce our reliance on the control orders regime. The report also highlights the costly failure of the SCOPE project, as I mentioned earlier, and reinforces our calls for a full, evidence-based review of the Prevent strategy.

Let me deal with some of the criticisms in turn. First, the Committee placed a question mark over the value of the national security strategy, saying:

"We have questioned whether the strategy will achieve any benefits in real terms or whether it is simply a paper exercise...The National Security Strategy does not create new areas of responsibility for the Agencies or the wider intelligence community. The Heads of the Agencies have indicated that they were consulted about the strategy and are broadly supportive of it, but that they do not envisage that it will result in any significant change in direction for them."

Then there is the National Security Forum. The Committee is clearly ambivalent about its role. It states:

"How the role of the National Security Forum will develop, and what value it will add, remain to be seen."

Then there is the issue of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The ISC welcomed the separation of the roles of JIC Chairman and Government adviser on intelligence and security matters. However, it said that it was

"disappointed that the grade of both posts was now lower than it had been when they were combined and effectively the position has reverted to its pre-2005 grade".

The Committee criticised the decision to subsume the role of the head of professional intelligence analysis within the role of JIC Chairman. It said that, given the importance of that role,

"we are very concerned by the plan to subsume it within the Joint Intelligence Committee Chairman's post as this may actually lessen the priority given to this crucial role."

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman is referring to paragraphs 134 and 135, which deal with the professional head of intelligence analysis. Paragraph 135 states:

"We are therefore very concerned that the post remained vacant since Jane Knight (the first post-holder) retired in...2007."

I found it breathtaking that that was not redacted, for reasons of data protection and also because every spook in London now knows who first held the post of professional head of intelligence analysis. The Committee puts that in, but when I ask for the name of the Clerk of the Committee, the Prime Minister says that I cannot be told—even though the name is in the civil service yearbook. These people are bonkers. Bonkers!

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Chris Grayling (Shadow Home Secretary, Home Affairs; Epsom and Ewell, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We look forward to his speech, if he manages to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The Committee rightly says that it is "appalled" by the decision to scrap phase 2 of the SCOPE system. It says:

"We sincerely hope that lessons have been learnt from the failure and that they will be used when plans for the future are being drawn up."

The Government must address that as a matter of urgency because, yet again, a major IT project has gone wrong, this time in a secure environment.

On intercept evidence, the Committee says:

"We welcome the fact that the Chilcot conditions meet our concerns that the Agencies' capability must not be damaged should their intercept material be adduced in court. We are concerned, however, as to whether it will be possible to met these conditions."

I think that there is a clear case for doing everything we can to ensure that intercept evidence can be used in court, when appropriate, especially given the pressures of the control order regime. We may need to re-examine the conditions to see whether they are right for the circumstances. I appreciate that this is a difficult matter, but it is one in which we should aspire to deliver results and make as much information as possible available, where it is possible to do so.

Finally on the criticisms in the report, the Committee refers to the need to improve understanding of '"the path to extremism"', and it

"welcomes the establishment of a new team analysing open-source and academic material in this field."

However, it also raised questions about where that sits within the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, and expressed concern about JTAC's capabilities being diluted by the change. I hope that the Government will look at that very carefully.

My worry, when I look at the Government's response to the report, is just how limited it is. So many of the responses to the points raised in the report are cursory. Of 17 recommendations, 11 get only a one-line response.

Of course, there are limitations to how much the Government can say in response to the points raised, but surely their response to point F on flooding could be a little more detailed without sacrificing too many secrets. In point H, the Committee considers how oversight of the agencies' work might be improved, but could the Government not do better than the one-line response that is given? Point N deals with the failings of the SCOPE project: the Government say that they will co-operate with the next report, but could they not say a little more about that?

On the Committee's final point about intercept evidence, the Government's response reflects the lengthy process that is being undertaken to enable them to make a decision about its use. The matter is, of course, complex, but it is a shame that the Government did not start the process a long time before they did. If they had, we might have reached a resolution by now.

Briefly, I shall set out for the House some of the areas in which we think improvements need to be made, and where we hope the ISC will apply its efforts to securing improvement. We remain concerned that the "National Security Strategy" is a descriptive document. A proper strategy would set the overall framework and direction for security policy across Government.

We have argued for a proper national security council, rather than an amalgamation of existing Committees. We think that such a council would provide strategic direction and drive national security policy. We need to look carefully at the role and grading of the JIC chair and the security adviser, who both need to have the requisite authority to carry out their important roles.

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Richard Ottaway (Croydon South, Conservative)

While my hon. Friend is on the question of reform, may I invite him to comment on reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee itself? His predecessor but one, my right hon. Friend David Davis, said that the Committee should be chaired by a member of the Opposition. Is that still our party's position for the future?

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Chris Grayling (Shadow Home Secretary, Home Affairs; Epsom and Ewell, Conservative)

First and foremost, I should not wish to cast any aspersions on the role of the current Chairman or his work. My hon. Friend makes a strong case, however, and given that there are a number of Committees that are non-partisan, include Members from all parts of the House and seek to do a proper job for the country, there is a case for having an Opposition Member lead them. I have no particular intention of deviating from the views that my predecessors set out; there is a strong case for what my hon. Friend says. In 12 months' time, of course, that view may permit the existing Chairman to carry on in his current role.

Although I understand the Government's aims for the preventing violent extremism programme, my colleagues and I have significant doubts about the effectiveness of many projects and the mechanisms for distributing and monitoring funding. There needs to be a full, evidence-based review of those prevention projects.

Let me conclude as I started by thanking the Committee and our security services for their work. They play a vital role in defending our citizens at home and abroad, and the money that we spend on them is vital. The Committee's work to ensure that we do the right thing and spend the money in the right ways and places is exceptionally important, but Parliament should be trusted to a greater extent with information about how that is done, even though that move should happen only within clear limits. Fundamentally, however, we will depend on a team of Members from all parts of the House serving on the Committee to ensure that we achieve value for money on behalf of this country's taxpayers. The Committee members' role is highly responsible, I thank them for what they have done and I commend them for it.

2:52 pm
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George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

I hope to be fairly brief and to cover just two points, because my right hon. Friend Dr. Howells, the Committee Chairman, made most of the points that the Committee would want aired in today's debate. I congratulate him on the leadership that he has shown, and the Minister for Housing and the Secretary of State for Wales on the leadership that they gave to the Committee. Indeed, I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd will be available to chair the Committee after the general election. The pattern seems to be that the Prime Minister recalls Members to the Government after they have chaired it, so my right hon. Friend may find himself a Minister again. That, of course, is when we win the next general election.

I shall cover two issues. First, there is the oversight of the agencies' finances. As Chris Grayling rightly said, when a series of organisations have had large budget increases such as they have had since 2005, great care must be taken to ensure that the money is spent appropriately and wisely. Like my right hon. Friend, I did a brief, and in my case probably undistinguished stint as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. One similarity with how the Intelligence and Security and Public Accounts Committees work is that they both take advice very strongly from the National Audit Office. The NAO provides us with a good brief when we interview the agencies, so that we can question them closely about how money is spent, and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell was right to draw attention to the fact that, at a time of expanding budgets, the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Government themselves must be careful to ensure that money is being spent properly.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the difficulty concerning intelligence relationships with the United States and the intervention of the courts in certain cases in this country. The issue concerns how the courts treat intelligence shared on the understanding that it may never be used in any public way, not even in a court case. The judgment of Lord Justice Thomas and Mr. Justice Lloyd Jones on 5 February 2009 dealt with that issue, which had arisen from a case to which my right hon. Friend has already referred. The judges concluded:

"In the circumstances now prevailing, the balance is served by maintaining the redaction of the paragraphs from our first judgment. In short, whatever views may be held as to the continuing threat made by the Government of the United States to prevent a short summary of the treatment of BM being put into the public domain by this court, it would not, in all the circumstances we have set out and in the light of the action taken, be in the public interest to expose the United Kingdom to what the Foreign Secretary still considers to be the real risk of the loss of intelligence so vital to the safety of our day to day life."

On occasions, I have been a critic of the courts, and sitting on a Committee with quite a number of judges for a while last year only confirmed my criticisms. However, the judgment that I have just quoted was very sensible. I say only that these issues are bound to continue and we know that more potential legal actions are pending. The matter is difficult. The judgments so far have been sensible in that they take into account the interests of justice balanced against those of national security and the need for a strong intelligence relationship with the United States. However, we need to be vigilant in making sure that the line is held as far as possible.

I have a further point to make. As my right hon. Friend said, the Committee recently visited Ottawa. We also went to Washington, where we met representatives from counterpart committees and some of the agencies. Without revealing too much about what was said to us on a more or less confidential basis, I can say that it is clear to me that these issues have exercised the American agencies, to the extent that future co-operation between us and the United States is being held open to question by them. I will not put it more strongly than that; I do not want to be alarmist. However, as the judgment made clear, if that relationship were to fracture and the important intelligence started to dry up, the risks would be enormous.

My right hon. Friend referred to the "ticking time bomb question", a phrase used by the Americans; in the UK, the more usual phrase is the "Canary Wharf question". Whatever it is called, the question raises serious issues. Hon. Members who have now left the Chamber raised the matter of potential collusion in torture. In no way would I justify any kind of torture; I agree with every word that my right hon. Friend said about that. However, we have to pose the ticking time bomb or Canary Wharf question. What if any one of us were a desk officer in one of the agencies, and intelligence came in saying that within the following 24 hours a major explosion or other incident would probably take place in a major city or town in this country and that the intention was to kill hundreds of people? Are they going to stop and question whether somebody, somewhere along the line, might have been subjected to sleep deprivation in order to arrive at that judgment? I will leave that as a question mark. It is an issue that we are working hard on and have some thoughts on, and I think that the intention is that we will publish something in the not-too-distant future.

This is a huge question. It is all too easy to say that one should never have anything to do with any intelligence unless one can be absolutely certain that it has been arrived at by the best possible means and meets all the very highest standards. In some circumstances one is, frankly, grateful for the information that one gets without asking too many questions about the circumstances in which it was produced. I accept that that is a factor in certain circumstances where it is possible to believe that somebody may, because of what they have been subjected to, said something that would not stand up to scrutiny. I also accept that there are all sorts of qualifications surrounding the question that I have posed. However, we sometimes need to be a bit more rigorous in the way that we think such questions through, as opposed to the yah-boo politics that sometimes applies. That is not intended as a point for the Opposition: it applies in all parts of the House.

The Committee is the only committee on which I have ever served where party political loyalties play hardly any part at all. I have as much praise for Opposition members of the Committee, including the Liberal Democrat Member, Sir Menzies Campbell, as I do for my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is hugely important that we function in that way, not only for the benefit of the House, but for the benefit of the country; and long may we remain to do so.

3:02 pm
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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington, Liberal Democrat)

I thank Dr. Howells for introducing the debate in very careful terms. I join other Members in thanking members of the intelligence services for the essential role they play in ensuring our security and protecting citizens here and abroad. I pay tribute to members of the Committee for the essential work that they are doing, particularly my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Beith, who served on the Committee and has now been superseded by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell, who is not in his place. I am sure that he, too, will play a very significant role on the Committee.

I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend Chris Huhne, who is unable to be here to lead for the Liberal Democrats in this debate. When he did so last year, he underlined the importance of debating these matters on an annual basis; on that occasion, there had been an interval of nearly two years. I welcome the fact that the annual cycle appears to have been resumed. These matters are so significant that we need to have an opportunity to discuss them regularly.

I welcome the fact that, during the period covered by the report, the Committee focused on 7/7, which clearly had very tragic consequences for those who were involved. I suspect that most, if not all Members will have been to a much lesser extent affected by what happened on that day, and will remember where they were in London and whether they were able to get into Westminster. I hope that the Committee's work on that—I look forward to the report being published on 19 May—will provide as many answers as possible for the families affected, given the limitation on putting into the public domain information that should be kept secure.

I shall not go over the ground that the spokesman for the official Opposition covered on redaction, but I reinforce his point about the difficulty for Members who are not on the Committee of making any assessment of the value for money of what is proposed. Explanations have been given of why it is necessary not to provide a certain level of information, but I hope that it might be possible to do so without revealing any confidences and that we will be given a little more flavour as to why it is not possible to give Members an understanding of expenditure at a high level.

I understand that if expenditure were broken down to such a level that it identified, for instance, that nothing is currently being spent on monitoring messages via Facebook or those being dispatched via Twitter or any of the other new technology that is available, that would be unhelpful to our security services and helpful to our enemies. I am sure that no one is suggesting that information should be made available to Members at that level of detail. However, it should be possible to provide us with some more information, or, if that is not possible, to explain why not. I cannot quite understand what our enemies would be able to extrapolate from high-level figures that did not break down expenditure to a lower level.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I wonder whether the Committee's Chairman might take cognisance of the following suggestion. There needs to be an indication of whether redactions are done by the Committee itself or by the Prime Minister. Perhaps there ought to be separate symbols that would indicate if the Committee thought something was okay but the Prime Minister objected. That should be indicated to us at the very least.

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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington, Liberal Democrat)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I do not know whether it will be possible for the Chairman to make any general comments, perhaps in an intervention, to clarify that point.

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George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

To enable the debate to continue properly after the intervention by my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay, I am not aware of any occasion on which the Prime Minister has asked for the redaction of anything. The process of redaction is one of agreement between the various agencies involved in the Committee.

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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington, Liberal Democrat)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

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Michael Mates (East Hampshire, Conservative)

What Mr. Howarth says is absolutely correct. Just so we all understand it, the system is that we produce a full report, which goes without redaction to the Prime Minister. When it goes around the agencies and, if necessary, to Ministers, they suggest some redactions.

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Michael Mates (East Hampshire, Conservative)

If the hon. Gentleman will just shut up for a minute, I will explain what happens.

It is then the Committee's job to go through those suggested redactions and ensure that every one is justified. In every case that I can remember, we have had the agencies back in and said to them, "Justify this. Justify that. Justify the other." They then withdraw their objections to some things, which are published.

The real point is that we have a deterrent. It has never happened in my 15 years on the Committee, but if there were a redaction with which we disagreed because we did not think it was about national security, we would put in the report, "We wished to publish this, but the Government refused to allow it." I do not think that any Government could live with that, and I am not making a party point. It is done by agreement, but we look rigorously at the whole issue.

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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington, Liberal Democrat)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which has provided some clarity. My reading of the report therefore suggests that there has not been a redaction in this particular annual report that the Committee felt was inappropriate and that it sought to challenge. I see that the right hon. Member for Pontypridd confirms that by nodding.

I would like to make some specific remarks about the Committee's recommendations and the Government's response. I was interested to note the comments about ethical counsellors and referrals to them. Around 12 referrals have been made since 2006. Footnote 56 on page 19 of the annual report refers to concerns about

"whether there were sufficient controls for sharing information with countries that do not comply with international standards for the treatment of those in detention and whether guidance for staff on these matters was sufficiently accessible and understood."

I doubt whether we will get more information about that, but it would have been helpful to know the response to that approach to an ethical counsellor, and whether there was deemed to be a problem.

It is also interesting to note that a complaint was made to an ethical counsellor about

"whether it was ethical for the Government to seek to alter the ideological views of its citizens (as part of its counter-radicalisation strategy)".

Today, Gallup published an interesting opinion poll, which states that 77 per cent. of Muslims identified with the UK—a much higher figure than that for the general population. That statistic is relevant to referral to an ethical counsellor.

Other hon. Members have referred to retirement age policy. Like Andrew Mackinlay, I am confused about the necessity to hide the current age at which retirement is set.

Recommendation F states:

"Following the floods in the summer of 2007, the Agencies have reviewed and improved their business continuity and resilience planning."

There is a little more information on page 27, which states:

"The Director General also told the Committee that he remained concerned that the Service's existing business continuity plans had not been fully tested and so a series of major exercises were planned for 2008."

Is it possible to say whether those exercises were successfully completed?

Chris Grayling referred to SCOPE. Clearly, lessons have been learned from failure and I hope that it might be possible today to explain precisely what they are, and what, if anything, has been implemented to try to ensure that the problems do not recur, given the unfortunate history of large IT projects going somewhat awry. One hoped that lessons had been learned from previous projects and implemented in projects such as SCOPE, but that has clearly not been the case so far. What lessons have been learned and have they been acted on already?

The Committee welcomed the fact that the Chilcot conditions

"meet our concerns that the Agencies' capability must not be damaged should their intercept material be adduced in court."

We have been supported the Chilcot review and the need to ensure that intercept evidence is available for use. There are several deadlines by which action was to be taken on that. The current deadline is June, by which time,

"testing the framework that has been developed to ensure that the Chilcot tests will be met in practice"

should have been completed. If it is appropriate, can hon. Members be updated today on whether that target has been reached? That would be helpful. Recommendation Q states:

"The Committee considers that maintaining the capability to intercept modern communications is of critical importance to the national security of the UK."

I am sure that all hon. Members agree with that.

I hope that in response the Government might explain what dialogue exists between the different commercial players in that field. I am aware that there is perhaps not a clear method for companies such as Microsoft to raise issues relating to the privacy implications of some of the developments that it is bringing to market. We might need to consider who such companies talk to about some of the issues relating to intercepting modern communications.

An issue that has been raised in Westminster Hall is technological developments and how the Government, the security services and others keep abreast of things such as Facebook. People have discussed whether sufficient co-operation, dialogue and exchange takes place between the commercial companies developing such technologies and the Government to ensure that if issues relating to security, or its counterpoint, privacy, need to be addressed, they are examined and dealt with as soon as possible and way before, or at least shortly before, any such technology is made more widely available.

The final point that I wish to raise relates to what the Committee had to say about rendition. Its Chair, who is not in his place, referred in some detail to a case. I checked with my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell whether there was any bar on referring to Binyam Mohamed and I understand that there is not, given that much of the case has been debated in open court. [ Interruption. ] The Chair has now returned, so perhaps he could intervene to explain why he did not feel able to mention Binyam Mohamed by name; I wonder whether there is a slight tendency to be over-secretive about a matter that is well and truly in the public domain and has featured prominently in many of our national newspapers. Some serious allegations have been made, and it was not clear to me whether the Chair said that the Committee's investigations into that matter are now complete or whether there are still further, ongoing inquiries. The report clearly states that there is further work to be done, but the Chair sort of indicated that things might be complete. I hope that he will intervene to clarify that point.

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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington, Liberal Democrat)

No clarity will be given then. If there are still matters to be debated and inquired into, I hope that such work will progress, so that we get to the bottom of what happened and of whether there is any truth in the serious allegations, and that the Committee will report on them in the near future in a way that is appropriate to the need both to protect confidentiality and provide security.

I wish to bring my remarks to a conclusion by saying that the Committee has clearly done sterling work in the past year or so, but there are many significant issues, such as what happened to Binyam Mohamed, that I hope it will continue to investigate to ensure that, as a nation, our citizens and communities are even better protected than is the case now.

3:19 pm
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Dari Taylor (Stockton South, Labour)

I wish to start, as I believe I have done in every debate on the Intelligence and Security Committee's reports, by putting on the record the fact that we owe a debt of thanks to the agencies. The absolute fact is that they are under considerable pressure to know the individuals who are actually or potentially involved in plots against our communities and to have adequate knowledge to prevent those plots from being carried out. Counter-terrorism is a highly pressurised and dangerous world—it is a 24/7 world—and it is particularly problematic for all who are on the front line. That debt of thanks is more than well deserved.

I also want to put on record the fact that, over the past year, the intelligence and security agencies have achieved a number of notable successes, disrupting plots and bringing individuals to trial and conviction. When we say where we are and when we say that the terrorist conditions are problematic and severe, it is critical that we hear the facts. There were 46 terrorism convictions in the first nine months of 2008, in 15 significant terrorism cases. We report that in our annual report. Since January this year, there have been 11 terrorism convictions, in six trials. Those are serious figures. We know that plots are disrupted and we know that we do not talk about them—we are a security Committee, and it is critical that we maintain our silence on some of the information that we know.

The fact for us all is that the current threat to the UK from international terrorism is assessed as severe. That means a continuing and high level of threat and supports the belief that there is a high likelihood of a terrorist attack in this country. It is daunting to say that, but it is important that we realise and accept it. In saying that, I am sure that some may accuse me of peddling the politics of fear. I am not. I am quoting the risk assessment—an assessment, I believe, that the majority accept and that the majority know requires adequate resourcing for our security agencies.

I intend to speak about the SCOPE project, as I have in two previous debates. In my first two speeches on SCOPE, I was enthusiastic and cautiously optimistic that, should it work, this effective IT system would be of serious value to the security of our country. Today my contribution will be less enthusiastic; it will be critical. The House will remember that SCOPE was set up as a major cross-government IT programme, with the aim of improving the intelligence community's secure communication. The first stage is working—secure information held by all the agencies can now be accessed by all agencies in the UK—but the second stage is not. The aim was to include all the user Departments and widen access to the international intelligence community.

The Committee, consistently and in a focused manner, asked all about the workings of SCOPE. We expressed concern that partner Departments lacked preparation, which we were convinced would put at risk the successful delivery of the project. Sadly, our Committee's concerns became a reality. We were told in 2008 that considerable work had been done to reduce the risk of further delays and that SCOPE II would be operational in late 2008 to early 2009. It is difficult to say that to the House, because hon. Members could ask, "What were you doing as a Committee? Didn't you think that you should've put stop processes in place?" However, we could not do that, because that is not our role. Our role is to question. The fact is that SCOPE II was abandoned. New routes of secure communication for the international members of the intelligence community are now being worked on. SCOPE II has been a mess.

The reason I have spent time detailing that is that it is important that the House knows that we were focused in our questioning. We were concerned to achieve an understanding and a sense of reality about whether the project would work. We know that international terrorism is assessed as severe. We know, too, that communicating effectively and securely in the current environment is a must. The risks are assessed as high. Consequently, we need to know whatever information would prevent an attack from taking place. That is essential. The Committee was told that secure international communication is necessary and deliverable. It is clearly necessary, but frankly, at this stage, it is not deliverable. We need to be very focused and to try to understand what we are talking about, because it involves complex technology.

The second reason why I am talking in these quite angry terms is that tens of millions of pounds have been spent. I expect that hon. Members know the actual figure—or the probable figure—involved, but I am simply going to talk about the tens of millions of pounds that have been spent on a project that has been scrapped. Seriously good scientists who had worked in IT for years were involved in it, yet we have ended up coming to the House asking, "What have we got from this?" The answer seems to be that lessons have been learned, and that when we plan future communications of this order, we will use those lessons. That is not good enough. We required stringent controls, financial accountability and more competent management, as we stated in our 2007-08 report.

Perhaps I have dwelt on the matter long enough, but it has been a costly and damaging experience, and there are further words to be added. We are talking about highly complicated communications technology and seriously complex science, and an absolute requirement that the system should be secure. I am using these words not as an excuse for failure but as a text for future success. The Committee will of course investigate further the reasons for this serious failure, and we will report on the matter in the forthcoming year.

My second task in the debate is to speak, perhaps in a confident way but certainly in a persuasively supportive way, about the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. The Contest and prevent strategy has more to it than we might be prepared to accept at present. We all want to know what its value is, and whether we can make judgments and determine its effects. The fact is that we are looking at an extraordinarily complex set of value judgments. We are trying to understand what causes the belief in some people in Great Britain today that the only way in which they can express their opposition is though radical, violent extremism. We need to do better than that, however.

Those involved in the contest and prevent strategy say that they want to drive cohesion and to see greater strategic capacity in the fight against terrorism. They want principles to inform the approach that is being taken towards being inclusive and integrated, and they want to see the policies working together. Is this just sweet language? I think that it is valuable language that tells us that Great Britain is a tolerant nation. We are a nation of people who want to understand, and we want to reduce violence in our communities when that is possible. I am not going to understate the value of that strategy.

The Committee is awaiting an update on the outcomes of that work, and we will be interested to see how, and whether, the new counter-terrorism public service agreements are working and what they are achieving. We will ask those questions and look at the development of a new capability to see whether we can detect emerging and future threats. This is valuable work. We have entered an extraordinarily complex era, in which we must understand difference and try to influence the outcome of the battle for ideas and beliefs. That is not easy, and I commend the Home Office for taking this work on board. It is an important part of the strategy to prevent radical extremism.

We speak regularly to those in the communities that we represent. I have a small Muslim community, which makes up about 2.7 per cent. of my constituency. I know that some of those people feel a sense of guilt that they are living a life that people back home in Pakistan think is an easy life. Those people in Pakistan have very difficult lives. There is frustrated anger, and some young people believe that the thousands of deaths of innocent people were a consequence of our deploying and that we deployed, in their terms, only because we were seeking preference or something better for our country. Invariably, they cite oil. Well, deploying in the Balkans was anything but that, yet it remains difficult to get those people to understand that we did not spark Iraq, suicide bombers and sectarian warfare. That debate is an important and valuable one. I see some of the youngsters in my community understanding that perhaps they do not have all the answers.

One of the most important elements of the prevent strategy is to look at the way in which many of the Muslim community come to believe that they are treated as lesser people who are valued less. That may or may not be a fact. As a woman in the labour movement, I have always been convinced that far too many white men in suits are in control, so perhaps my Muslims are thinking along exactly the same lines. It is important to understand that when people feel lesser or that they are an undermined minority, they might well want to kick against that.

As I said, this is a very complex bit of kit that the Government have put together and the Committee will be looking to see what it achieves. We will attempt to see whether the pilots for young people, women and seniors in our different ethnic communities contribute to change by allowing, for example, young people to be angry. The fact is that Muslims are often keen to say that young people do not have a right to a voice; of course they have. My father and mother could not possibly shut me up even as an 11-year-old who was demanding equal rights; and I am quite a diminutive young woman, as Members know. The Muslim community has a very clear set of ideas about who should or should not be speaking, so it is important to persuade them to allow us all to hear the anger when it is expressed. This project is all about reducing violent extremism, challenging the ideology behind extremism and supporting the mainstream. Let me say that among the 400 of my Muslim community I met last Sunday, about 99 per cent.—if not 100 per cent.—in the room were mainstream.

Photo of Patrick Mercer

Patrick Mercer (Newark, Conservative)

I am extremely interested to hear what the hon. Lady—the diminutive young lady opposite—has to say. All that we have heard about in the debate about Project Contest so far is the prevent strand, while the other three strands have not been mentioned in any detail whatever. What makes this House so obsessed with that strand? Is it because it is politically correct; is it because it is immeasurable; is it because it is nice, soft and easy? Why do we not talk about the other three strands, particularly the parts that are harder to pursue? Why has the hon. Lady chosen to concentrate so much on that strand?

Photo of Dari Taylor

Dari Taylor (Stockton South, Labour)

I have concentrated on it because that is what our report concentrated on. It is important that I have integrity and reference what the Committee has done, although the hon. Gentleman has raised important questions. We make it clear in our report that both contest and prevent are important, and the hon. Gentleman provokes the thought that even now, as a Committee, we should see how and in what way we could take evidence relating to pursue. I agree that we must look at the strategy as a whole. Of course, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that the Committee will do that; I can only try to persuade that it should. The Committee believes that all this is work in progress and the report states that the strategy is on a sounder footing and that we will monitor its progress.

In conclusion, I believe that the Committee is led very well. My right hon. Friend Dr. Howells—known in the locality, of course, as Ponty—leads with a serious and robust determination to achieve the best. I also want to put on record my belief that the whole Committee is not only hardworking, but has a very clear focus on what it is doing, which it believes is serious and important. It commands from all of us the commitments that we give. It is a privilege to be on the Committee and it is a privilege to tell the House today that I believe that our security agencies are the best.

3:35 pm
Photo of Michael Mates

Michael Mates (East Hampshire, Conservative)

I congratulate our new Chairman, Dr. Howells, on his thoughtful and thorough introduction to today's debate. It is good that we are having the debate in this form for the first time. Those of us who have served on the Committee for a while will remember the long opening ministerial speeches in previous debates, which were nothing like as focused as our Chairman's introduction has made this one. I also thank our staff, who are a smashing lot, and work very hard for us. I have had the privilege of chairing two Select Committees for 10 years, and the excellent service that we have always expected and received from the Clerks in this place is matched by that of the dedicated civil servants who work on the Intelligence and Security Committee.

I have been a member of the Committee since it started 15 years ago. As the Committee's dinosaur, perhaps I can put in perspective the demands that we hear from around and about, but mostly from the usual suspects, although one of them is clearly satisfied, as he has gone home, and I have no doubt we will hear from the other—

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Michael Mates (East Hampshire, Conservative)

I never doubted that either.

I want to put in perspective how much change has taken place over the past 15 years. Acts were passed in the early '90s, and when the Committee began in 1994, the process was very tentative for both sides, especially the security services, which had not even been acknowledged before that moment. GCHQ happened to employ half of Cheltenham and occupy an enormous piece of real estate by a main road, but it did not exist. We have moved from that to a position in which accountability—I am not being complacent, as it must improve further—is so much better. The first time we had the head of ISIS before us, he almost would not tell us his name. Now the security services are as pleased with the arrangement as they were initially suspicious of it.

I cannot remember for how many years—seven or eight—the National Audit Office refused to pass GCHQ's accounts. It could not find its equipment, did not know where its computers were, and had a lousy accounting system. Year after year, we questioned GCHQ, with the result that no fewer than three directors general have told us that without the Committee holding its feet to the fire, it would not have got it right. That is a concrete example of the good the Committee can do, although it does it in secret. The fact that Andrew Mackinlay cannot see the figures is neither here nor there. The fact is that the accounts and procedures are right, and the figures have been passed by the NAO and scrutinised by us. If he does not want to take our word for it, at least he ought to take the NAO's, because that is the only way it can be done.

The changes in the other services have been just as huge. It sticks in my memory that the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service told us in a meeting that one of the questions it asks itself now when planning an operation is, "If this goes wrong and it gets out, what are we going to say to the ISC?" Previously, he might answer to the Foreign Secretary, but not to anybody who would report to the House. The fact that the services must now do so is a constraint on them, first, to obey the law, secondly, to take the right proportionate action, and thirdly, to be thoroughly ethical in what they do. All those things have been achieved because the Committee exists.

We will never satisfy the many people who want us to look like a Select Committee. If we looked and acted like a Select Committee, we could not do the job we do. The two things are in contradiction—

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Michael Mates (East Hampshire, Conservative)

When the Prime Minister came into office, he said that he wanted to see some changes. I was going to come to that, but I will do so now, as the hon. Gentleman keeps trying to interrupt.

Yes, we would like to be more open. Yes, we would like to hold public hearings. Yes, we would like to be able to publish more. In each case, however, we must ask ourselves just one question: will what we do enhance or damage our national security? If it will damage our national security, with regret we do not do it; if it will enhance our national security, we try to do it.

Other Members may have their own views and their own observations to make about the question of public hearings. The right hon. Member for Pontypridd referred to it, as did Mr. Howarth. There is a wide range of views in the Committee. We would all like to hold public hearings. Some of us think that it will be harder than others do; some think that we must do it regardless of how difficult it is, because it is what the Prime Minister has asked us to do. We shall try to reach a conclusion, but I will say now that it would be pointless if we did it just as a PR exercise.

When we were discussing the issue, someone from outside the Committee whom we had invited to join our discussions said, "Of course, you could always rehearse it with the heads of the security services." Does any Member think that that would wash with our friends in the media for more than two seconds—that they would believe it was not a carefully staged exchange before we closed the doors and threw everyone out? In my view, it would be thoroughly counter-productive. We will try to find a way, but I cannot tell the hon. Member for Thurrock or anyone else whether we will succeed. It is not that we do not want to do this; it is just that there are some real practical difficulties, although if we can overcome them we will.

The next issue to discuss is where we are going. I am trying to demonstrate to the House that we have made some progress. Things are changing all the time, although, being a bit of a cynic, I must add that it may be a case of "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

The objection was raised—by, I think, the hon. Member for Thurrock—that the Prime Minister had hand-picked the Committee, and that we were the Prime Minister's puppets. Well, as one of the present Chairman's predecessors said rather tersely when that was put to her by a journalist, "Some of us were hand-sacked by the Prime Minister as well." There are two sides to every coin.

What happened, I believe, was that the usual channels produced a little list and gave it to the Prime Minister, and that produced the Committee. Now, because we have changed things, the usual channels give a little list to the Committee of Selection, the Committee of Selection gives it to the House, and the House approves it. So what has changed? We all know in our heart of hearts who runs the business of the House and our parties. It is run by the usual channels, which Enoch Powell once described as the parliamentary sewers. There was nothing rude about that—sewers are clean; it is what goes through them that is objectionable. But I do not think I shall go any further down that road.

The change has been made, and it seems to have pleased some people. If it has, so much the better. We are now having an annual debate, and we can have more than one. I hope that the House authorities will find that there is enough in our report on the 7 July bombings to warrant at least a half-day debate, so that Members outside the Committee can air their views. I issue a plea to the Government to try to make some time for that.

We can look forward to the possibility of evidence resulting from communications interceptions being made available to the courts. Others have referred to the Chilcot strictures; I merely say that it will be an extremely difficult exercise, not just because we cannot produce intercept evidence in court today, however it has been obtained, but because we—or they—are working on the next generation. The people who are responsible for trying to obtain our intelligence must keep ahead of the advance of technology. What could not have been dreamt of five years ago is now available to the terrorists, and we had better ensure that it becomes available to us damn quickly so that we know what is going on.

I have to tell my hon. Friend Chris Grayling and the House that the faster things move and the more the technology develops, the harder it will be to allow intercept evidence to be produced in court without someone asking "How did you collect it?" That, of course, is the key because terrorists and any criminal organisation must communicate and they do so in ways that they think are safe. As has been shown by recent trials, the ways they think are safe are not necessarily so. It is the job of our security services to make sure that they are not, but not to tell them what it is we are using to catch up with them, keep up with them and get ahead of them.

As we move forward and change, we must have security at the front of our minds. Tempting though it is for someone in Parliament and public life to say we should be more open and push the door a bit so that the public can know more, there are times—I know that this is not a good time to say this—when our politicians have to be trusted. We are very fortunate in the Committee in that there has not been a leak in 15 years and we are trusted by the security services, by Government Ministers and, I hope by extension, by the House. We are not party political; because we sit in private, there is no point in anybody grandstanding or making a speech. If that were to happen, half of us would go to sleep; it just does not happen.

Perhaps I can finish on a light note. When we were abroad, the Committee was entertained to dinner by an ambassador at his house and the conversation came round to party politics. We were asked whether we were a party political Committee. The Chairman of the day asked the ambassador to try to identify us. The ambassador, who should have read his brief more closely, got 90 per cent. of us wrong and I had to go through the rest of the visit having been called a socialist by one of Her Majesty's ambassadors, which I found a little difficult to take from my colleagues.

We must try to be more open and to make progress but above all we must ensure that our national security, which is so brilliantly looked after by our security services, is not damaged.

3:47 pm
Photo of Ben Chapman

Ben Chapman (Wirral South, Labour)

It is a pleasure, albeit a daunting one, to follow Mr. Mates. It is a pleasure to work with him and with colleagues from both sides of the House on the Committee. It is also a particular privilege to work under my right hon. Friend Dr. Howells. The precedent set today of the Chairman opening the debate is shown to have been as well judged as his remarks in doing so. I add my congratulations to our staff and of course to the agencies on their work.

It is not the most exciting subject under the sun, but I wanted to spend a little time on the finances and expenditure of the agencies. Chris Grayling stressed the importance of that, as did my right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth. It has to be the Committee that does the job of overseeing the expenditure and finances of the agencies, not least because it has a statutory responsibility so to do, but also because it involves, as has been said before in the debate, having access to highly classified secret material to do the job. We are assisted in our task by DV'd—DV is developed vetting—officers of the National Audit Office. Our resource, albeit a rounded one in terms of the experience of Committee members, taken with the excellent officers of the NAO, is none the less very limited, and in this respect and in others we could do with more resources.

The expenditure of the agencies, which has become a large sum and increased relatively over the years, could, especially in an organisation that operates largely in a covert way, become a very high-risk business. It could become the trigger for waste and inefficiency, and the Committee must try to ensure that that is not the case. That behoves us to spend quite a lot of our year's work looking at the agencies in this regard. It is right, of course, that the amount of resources devoted to the agencies should be increased in line with the increased threat, but these are very large sums. Under the 2007 comprehensive spending review round, the funding available to the agencies will increase from £1.1 billion in 2005 to just over £2 billion by 2010-11. Because the baseline increases year by year, in the current year, for example, much of this funding is supporting what is now baseline activity. None the less, although 78 per cent. of the additional amount that GCHQ receives will be used to consolidate the current position, 22 per cent. will be available for further expansion, and that is a large sum. For the Security Service, the situation is rather different: only 20 per cent. of the additional amount it receives will be in support of the baseline position, and 80 per cent. will be available for expansion and investment in new capabilities. The figures for the Secret Intelligence Service show that 31 per cent. of the funds are to be spent on the current position and 69 per cent. are available for expansion and investment. High levels of risk are involved, and high levels of monitoring are required.

GCHQ will spend its increased resources on strengthening its counter-terrorism effort, primarily through operational support in the UK to an expanding Security Service. The theme of the agencies working together has become well established both in UK operations and in theatre overseas. GCHQ will also carry out work against international terrorism-related targets. Importantly, it will develop its capability to combat extremist use of the internet in the UK and abroad, and it will improve its internet-related capabilities, and the remainder of its international counter-terrorism effort will focus on issues such as the cyber-terrorist threat.

The risks implicit in large-scale expenditure on major projects, and in particular on major IT projects, have been recognised in our debate. One of the heaviest demands on the GCHQ budget is its technology improvement programme, designed to maintain and enhance its signals intelligence—SIGINT—capabilities. That collectively comes together as the SIGINT modernisation or SIGMOD programme, covering IT infrastructure, internet programmes, better analysis and support to military operations. The amount of funding that is required for this is considerable and represents a significant proportion of the single intelligence account budget, but the Committee recognises that this investment in SIGMOD is essential if GCHQ is to keep up with, or even get ahead of, the complexity of the technological challenge.

The Security Service is, if you like, rather more of a people-based organisation than GCHQ. It spent its capital funds in the 2007 CSR on major technical accommodation projects, including a northern operation centre and new services building in Northern Ireland. On the revenue side, as it were, it will increase the impact and improve the effectiveness of the service's agent-running capability and increase the service's regional presence to reinforce its partnership with the police. Just as it partners with other agencies, it also partners with the police and other organisations. However, as it is a people-related organisation, its major funding increase will be staffing expenditure. It continued its rapid recruitment programme, so that by April 2008 it had a total of 3,400 staff, including secondments and attachments. Staff numbers are projected to grow to some 4,100 by 2011. Those are big figures. It may be a statement of the obvious, but recruitment has largely been at junior levels, with year-on-year growth of around 30 per cent. in those grades since April 2006. That has boosted the number of front-line staff involved directly in counter-terrorism work, co-ordinating investigations, running agents and conducting surveillance of targets. But there are risks in recruiting and growing so rapidly, especially at junior level, and those risks are related to vetting, with the potential for infiltration or problems with inexperience—sometimes wide inexperience across an agency. There are also the dangers of grade inflation. As far as we can tell, the agency appears to have handled those risks well.

The SIS's budget, from 2008-09 to 2010-11, will enable it to continue supporting the growing number of security service investigations of terrorist activity. It will involve both spotting and attacking operations originating outside the UK and terrorist networks overseas. We noted in our previous annual report the increased proportion of SIS staff working in joint operational teams with the Security Service—some 10 per cent. of staff in counter-terrorism teams are SIS officers, including officers co-located with the Security Service in regional stations and overseas. That closer working enables the SIS to improve its support for the Security Service on the overseas aspects of counter-terrorism investigations. It spent 9 per cent. more than in 2006-07 in the subsequent year, but that compares with the Security Service's 41 per cent. more over the same period.

In our last annual report, we noted the National Audit Office's comment that it had identified two cases in the SIS's 2006 accounts of errors in the reporting of payments to agents. We were assured that that would not happen again, but in one case it did to some extent. We now have assurances that the SIS has changed its procedures so that such expenditure is reflected accurately in its accounts in future, and we will of course check that.

The agencies all performed well in the 2004 spending review—SR04—in terms of efficiency savings targets, which were more than met, so—as is the way of the world—the targets have now been increased. The NAO viewed the financial management and control of the agencies as good, and so did we. While the economic circumstances surrounding the next comprehensive spending review round will be very different, the Committee has already expressed its concerns that attention to long-term challenges—those not related to ICT—such as counter-proliferation, regional stability, energy issues and espionage, may continue to receive less attention than they need. We have also expressed concern about the need to invest further in the capacity to intercept modern communication and deal with cyber challenges. There will be a need for major expenditure in that area of the agencies' work.

The Committee welcomes the work being done on establishing a new framework for monitoring the performance efficiency and financial management of the agencies and, in particular, it is considering, in consultation with them, ways in which oversight of the budgets can be conducted in a more timely way. That needs to be an in-year oversight, rather than an end-of-year oversight.

Finally, the threat level remains serious. Terrorism, in my view, works best where it is least expected. Terrorist organisations change, fracture, morph, franchise and copy, and they change and grow constantly. It is important that our agencies and intelligence machinery anticipate these changes and prepare for them. The demand for resources will remain considerable and the need for oversight of them will remain proportionate to that.

4:00 pm
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Patrick Mercer (Newark, Conservative)

I speak in this debate every year, and it is a pleasure to follow Ben Chapman. This is the first time that I have risen to speak as chairman of the counter-terrorism sub-committee. On that note, I thank the Home Secretary and draw attention to the outstanding work of a little-known organisation, which has, in fairness, been mentioned today—that is, the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. The sub-committee has recently been to visit it and we were all hugely impressed. Mr. Charles Farr, who is at the head of the office, deserves to be hugely congratulated on the work that he is doing.

The other thing that interests me, and I am surprised that it has not been mentioned, is that over the past few months, active terrorism inside this country has, of course, come not from the Islamist fundamentalists on whom most of us have concentrated—indeed I shall concentrate on them—but from the hands of republican terrorists in Northern Ireland. Anybody who has doubted the time, effort and resources that the security services have put into countering that threat has only to look at the series of successful arrests that followed the horrid murders outside Massereene barracks and elsewhere in Northern Ireland over the last few weeks. The arrests were a huge feather in the cap of the Security Service and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Dari Taylor

Dari Taylor (Stockton South, Labour)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we are discussing the 2007-08 report. The 2008-09 report will more than likely contain a section on all the issues that he is addressing.

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Patrick Mercer (Newark, Conservative)

Of course, and I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. The fact remains, however, that while we are doing parish notices some extraordinary work has gone on in Ulster and I believe that it deserves to be recognised. I underline the work of the OSCT, as well as that of the PSNI and others.

Let me return to the second 7/7 report and posit a number of questions that fall within the overall structure of the ISC report. I ask the Home Secretary and the Chairman of the ISC why a second report is being produced. I then want to ask the Chairman a number of questions and, if those points are not covered in any great detail, I suspect that there will still be many more questions to be asked.

May I quote Rachel North? Many of us in this Chamber will know who she is. She is certainly the most vocal of those who were injured during the 7/7 attacks, and is an extremely articulate young women who has made her views clearly known. She said:

"Two things are important to victims of terrorism, crime and violence: justice and truth.

There will never be justice in the 7/7 matters since the 4 murderers chose to die willingly by their own hand rather than face a jury and a Judge. The legal process has ended in acquittals, the police investigation has met with silence and acquittals. In the absence of justice, we must at least have truth.

What we have always asked for is an inquiry independent of government, police and security services with the power to compel and cross examine witnesses and call in documents, files and other relevant evidence such as computer evidence—an independent investigatory body that the public can have confidence in."

Those are the words of someone who was very seriously injured by terrorists. She was the closest person to one of the devices on 7/7 actually to survive. I ask the Home Secretary and the Chairman of the ISC to give us a broader view of the events of the last few years, and to start to come clean about why so much was left unanswered after the bombings of July 2005.

First, we had the Crevice fertiliser bomb incident of early 2004, and the subsequent trial. Then there was 7/7 itself, and the much-forgotten attempt on 21/7. After that came the airline plot of August 2006, which was followed by the Glasgow bombings of June 2007. Lastly, there was Operation Pathway, about which we cannot ask too many questions because I suspect that there is unfinished business there.

What are the links between those incidents? How much was known by the security agencies? Why were there such glaring omissions in the work of the Home Office and the security agencies, especially in relation to 7/7 and 21/7? Those omissions led to a successful bombing that killed 52 people and injured several hundred. If the subsequent bombing attempt of 21 July had gone ahead, I suspect that it would have killed many more than that.

Various questions need to be asked. First, after the initial bombings of 7 July, why were the Government so quick to claim that the people who died by their own hands were "clean skins"? Why did they claim that nothing was known about them when it subsequently transpired that Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer had been traced for several months beforehand? They were traced inside this country and they were involved with the Crevice fertiliser plot, but they were also traced as they travelled abroad to Pakistan and then back into this country. Why were the Government so keen to insist that all the individuals involved in 7/7 were new on the radar?

Secondly, why were we told that there was no apparent connection between 7/7 and 21/7, let alone between the Crevice plot and the London bombings of July 2005? How could the Government possibly be so ham-fisted as to claim that they were not connected, when the modus operandi in each was almost identical? The targets were very similar, the timings were uncannily similar, and many of the lessons from the 7/7 attacks—the things that did not work as well as the perpetrators would have liked—were implemented and put into practice by the bombers of 21/7. How on earth can the Government claim that the two incidents were not connected?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the ISC for telling us when the second ISC report will be produced. I shall be extremely interested to read it and to see what has changed between it and the first report.

The next question that I should like to be cleared up in some detail concerns Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the 21/7 plot. He had a criminal record, was awaiting trial on charges relating to terrorism and was being tracked by the Security Service. Why was he allowed out of the country, despite being stopped at Heathrow and being found to be in possession of large sums of money and terrorist-related documents? Why was he allowed to go to Pakistan? When he was out of the country, he missed his trial and a warrant was issued for his arrest. When he came back to Heathrow, he was wanted by the police—why was he not stopped, arrested and brought to justice before he was in a position to carry out the failed attacks of 21/7? That was an extraordinary omission. Unless the second report from the ISC covers every detail of what happened, we will continue to need to ask very serious questions.

Next, why was the alert level dropped just a few weeks before the bombings of 7 July? Even more remarkably, the alert level had risen by the morning of 21 July but it was about to be dropped back again on the very morning of a second series of attempted attacks. Why? That is not widely known to be the case, but it is the truth. That suggests one or two things: first, a complacency, which I simply do not believe, because I was heavily involved in the workings of the Government and the Opposition at the time; and, secondly, a hole in our intelligence. Why was it allowed to open up, particularly when so many individuals had been traced for many months beforehand?

The next question is about the involvement and the masterminding—the oversight—of terrorist incidents by Mr. Rashid Rauf. I ask the Home Secretary: where does he fit? Is he alive? Was he or was he not killed—do we know?—in the autumn of last year on the Waziristan border? If it is proved that he was the guiding hand behind all or some of the incidents that I have discussed, what debt of horror do we owe that man? If we know that he was sufficiently important to be arrested at the behest of the United States in Pakistan at the start of the Operation Overt inquiries in August 2006, why was he allowed to run fast and loose inside this country for so long and with such devastating effect?

It concerns me that after the horrors of the July 2005 bombings, the first Intelligence and Security Committee report, which was received then, needs to be revamped. However, I have huge faith in, and admiration for, the Committee, our security services and our police, but I very much hope that the next report, when we receive it, will answer all the questions that I have just posited. If it does not, I suggest that its parameters have been drawn too tightly, and that, instead of answering questions, it will simply place in the public domain more questions that need to be answered, and need to be answered urgently.

4:12 pm
Photo of Andrew MacKinlay

Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

It is always a privilege to listen to Patrick Mercer, and I hope that the questions that he has posed will be answered with some expedition, because they are very pertinent. I do not think that he will be offended by this, but I had not realised that he was Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee's counter-terrorism sub-committee. That is significant for me, because in that context I deem him to be not a Back Bencher but the Chairman of a significant parliamentary Committee, meaning in turn that I have the distinction, whether I like it or not, of being the only Back Bencher to speak in this important debate. [ Interruption. ] I am the only Back Bencher present who is not a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I am not getting killed in the rush to speak, and, from a parliamentary point of view, it is very worrying that there is insufficient interest in this most important and grave issue.

In case there is any misunderstanding about my subsequent comments, I should say that I fully acknowledge and accept the gravity of our national security situation. I am also keen to make it clear that, in our intelligence and security services, there are some very skilled, dedicated, diligent and, indeed, brave men and women. However, culturally, there is imbued in the security and intelligence services a degree of arrogance which threatens our democratic institutions; and in one or two cases I believe that there is abuse of power. We have a real responsibility in this place to do all we can to check and monitor the little bit of information—the little bit of light—that we are allowed on our security and intelligence services.

My later remarks will relate not to individuals—particularly not to colleagues—but to institutions, which brings me to the Committee Chairman, my right hon. Friend Dr. Howells. I readily say that when he was a Minister, not only did I have a high regard for him, but he did not have the hallmark of mediocrity that is characteristic of some Ministers. He was skilled and, contrary to his better judgment, courteous to me. He took up one particular issue for me; it related to the fact that the South African apartheid regime's chemical and biological weapons people had been entertained at Porton Down during the time of that regime. That fact was covered up, and continues to be so, by our security and intelligence services for reasons that are not entirely clear. It is still a matter of embarrassment and shame to them. My right hon. Friend tried to pursue the matter and assured me that Wouter Basson had never visited Porton Down, but I think that he was misled. Since I last had that conversation with my right hon. Friend, Wouter Basson has been on television acknowledging that he was given access to Porton Down on a number of occasions.

None the less, my right hon. Friend is a very fine Chairman, and he and his colleagues have diligently and to the best of their ability discharged their work in a Committee that should not exist. It should not exist because it is a fig leaf. It deceives people that it is a parliamentary Committee. To me, it is not a distinction without a difference, but absolutely fundamental. We have no parliamentary oversight of the security and intelligence services in this place, save for the time grudgingly granted this afternoon—time that we will probably not have again, to any great extent, for another year.

The Committee of which my colleagues and friends are members is not a parliamentary one. That is a serious flaw. If you care to glance at page 3 of the report, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will see that the Committee says that it

"attended the Conference of the Parliamentary Committees for the oversight of intelligence and security services within the European Union, held in Portugal".

I want to take it to task for that. Some might see it as a small point, but I do not think that the Committee had any right to be at that conference. In fact, the matter is potentially one of privilege; it is not a parliamentary Committee. I want to pursue the matter after this debate, because the Committee obviously gave the impression to people that it was a parliamentary Committee when it was not. We know that the Clerk of the House of Commons is not the Clerk of the Intelligence and Security Committee. That is not an unimportant point.

My right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth mentioned how the Chair of the Committee changes. Mr. Mates, quoting a previous Chairman, said that the Committee Chairs were "hand-sacked" by the Prime Minister. That is not a matter of levity; it makes an important point about the unsatisfactory selection and approval by the Prime Minister of the Chairmen of the Committee and its members.

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George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

My hon. Friend referred to the conference in Portugal. For the sake of accuracy, I should say that if he looks further he will see that my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett attended, rather than the whole Committee.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I am a bit dismayed, because that does not alter my point. The report tells us that the Committee was represented at a conference that was supposed to be for parliamentarians—and it is not a parliamentary Committee.

I do not want to lose sight of my other point, which is important and not a matter of levity. There is the fact that the chairmanship of the Committee changes with great frequency. That in itself is a serious flaw and handicap to the diligent discharge of its work. Similarly, there have been as many Ministers for Europe since Labour has been in office as there were apostles. No doubt the current chairmanship is due for another change.

I will tell you what happens, Madam Deputy Speaker. During a Cabinet reshuffle, Ministers are called in, and the Prime Minister—Mr. Blair or the current one—says, "I am awfully sorry, but I need your job." The Minister's face falls. Human nature being what it is, there is great disappointment. I do not mean this in any nasty way, but there is an immediate reduction in salary and the loss of all the privileges that go with ministerial office. The Prime Minister says, "Look, don't be so depressed." The Minister says, "Why not? I'm losing my job." The Prime Minister says, "Well, Porton Down has come up with a thing called Cabinet cryonics." The Minister says, "What does that mean?" The Prime Minister says, "Well, basically, you take a slug of this and for about 14 months you go into a freezer—the chairmanship of the Security and Intelligence Committee." "Then what happens?" "Then we give you this, you take it, and you emerge as the Minister of State for defence procurement"—or the Secretary of State for Wales, or the Minister for housing and construction. That is what happens, and it is very reassuring.

When my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, to whom reference has been made and for whom I have always had a high regard, was Chairman of the Committee, she presided over its reflections on the period when she was Foreign Secretary. It is breathtaking how ridiculous and stupid the system is.

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George Howarth (Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

I have been reflecting on whether my hon. Friend has partaken of any of the products he has just advertised and, if so, what effect that has had on his career.

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds to that intervention, I remind Members that we are discussing the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

Indeed we are. If you look at paragraph 11, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will see that reference is made to the Prime Minister's statement of March 2008, in which he promised that there would be more parliamentary debate on security matters. In fact, there has been no more debate on security matters since then. I understand that the Home Secretary is going to reply to the debate, so if I am wrong in saying that there has been no action on the Prime Minister's undertaking, she will no doubt detail why I am wrong.

In July 2008, the House altered a Standing Order to put in our regulations the words—this is on page 5 of the report—

"The Committee of Selection may propose that certain members be recommended to the Prime Minister for appointment to the Intelligence and Security Committee".

I am not sure if that has happened yet, because I do not know if there is a vacancy. However, I find the phrase "certain members" interesting because, to me, it means that they have to be somewhat safe. I do not mean that disparagingly. I am told that one has to be positively vetted to serve on the Committee.

I want to share something else with the House. When we had the debate on 42 days' detention, the Prime Minister sent for me twice in one afternoon. The first time I was flattered; the second time I considered it a shade impertinent. During those discussions, I reminded him that I could not support 42 days for a whole variety of reasons, one of which was that I considered that there was no oversight by Parliament of the security and intelligence services. He said, "We're going to change that." I said, "You said that, but you haven't brought forward any statute." I told him why I considered the Committee to be deficient. He then said to me, "Do you want to go on the Committee?" I said, "No, Prime Minister, you don't understand—I disagree with it." That also betrayed the fact that he had not understood the primary statute that creates the Committee, which means that the membership cannot be varied unless the Act of Parliament is amended. The Committee has 12 members—

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I stand corrected. Nevertheless, the legislation defines the numbers precisely, and there was no vacancy.

I objected to the Prime Minister's proposal not only because the Committee is not a parliamentary Committee, but because there is no way that I would get through positive vetting—I am pretty sure of that—and because one has to sign the Official Secrets Act, which would be anathema to me in the context of its driving a coach and horses through what I consider to be the priceless privilege of enjoying rights under article 9 of the Bill of Rights of 1689.

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Michael Mates (East Hampshire, Conservative)

It would be of help, particularly to anybody who is listening to the debate, if the hon. Gentleman got some of his facts right. He got the number wrong, and we are not positively vetted. I do not know why he makes these allegations as though he knew these things. If only he studied what we do, he could feel free to criticise us with the facts, not with his interpretation of them, which is so wrong.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I am surprised that I have rattled the right hon. Gentleman's cage. Seeing as nobody else in this place is quizzing and questioning the whole raison d'être of the Committee and its report, I believe that I have a duty to do so. I fully understand that the Committee is a creature of statute, and that the number of Members is prescribed. It is rigid, not flexible, and the Prime Minister cannot increase its membership. My understanding is that certainly nobody would be appointed who did not find favour with the security and intelligence services.

Paragraph 41 of the report, on page 13, states:

"GCHQ is retaining the current external branding of its services, since CESG is a well established organisation that has supported clients in both the public and private sectors for many years."

May I ask the Chairman of the Committee and/or the Home Secretary what is meant by the mention of the private sector? To whom is GCHQ providing a service, and on what basis? I think that there should be some clarification of that.

In paragraph 51, on page 16, we have the comments of the director general of the Security Service. I shall read them to the House, because I think that they are interesting. He states that one of the priorities is

"to try and know more about the people we already know about, rather than to find the people we don't know anything about. It would be nice to know about the unknown unknowns, but it is probably a less rich seam than knowing more about the people that we know are a threat to us."

Frankly, I think that that is a load of gobbledegook—it is sort of Donald Rumsfeld-speak, and I do not know what is meant by that diatribe. Perhaps one of the Members who will speak subsequently, or the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, might like to share with me and the rest of the House what is meant by those comments.

Paragraph 59 states:

"Another key non-ICT focus for the Service is its counter-espionage work...with particular focus on China and Russia."

When I read that paragraph, I was disappointed that there was no reference to the serious national threat of sabotage—that is the only word for it—by highly skilled IT people, particularly but not exclusively in the Republic of China. They are threatening all our communication systems in the UK, our systems for sewage and food distribution and our banking and financial system, and this House has not woken up to it.

I am conscious of the fact that the seat that I am standing in front of was the last in which Winston Churchill sat in his time in the House of Commons. In the '30s he warned time and again how complacent we were in not addressing certain threats. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence about the threat to us from those who are developing an intellectual weaponry to kill our communication systems. If those skills are developed, they will present a much bigger threat than there has previously been, because there will be instant proliferation, unlike with atomic weapons. Small states and non-states could gain the capacity to administer such a threat. It can target states in a way in which nuclear weapons clearly cannot because there is not fallout and collateral damage. I am surprised that we do not discuss that threat much more in the House. It is time we were given some assurances that great energies and resources are being directed at combating that most serious threat, which is equal to, if not more serious than nuclear weaponry.

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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington, Liberal Democrat)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is another argument for restricting the number of large databases in this country? If the hackers gain access to a centralised, large database, the damage that they could do would be much greater.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I agree. I cannot overstate my concern and dismay about the lack of discussion of the threat in this place or in the media. It is most serious and worries me enormously.

In paragraph 60, the director general of the Security Service states:

"It is a matter of some disappointment to me that I still have to devote significant amounts of equipment, money and staff to countering this threat."

I presume that he means the threat of China and Russia. I think that due diligence should apply when there is potential for espionage and getting our national secrets. However, I disagree with the director general when, on the few occasions he has spoken publicly, he used the term "political intelligence". I find it a serious threat to me as a Member of Parliament when the security services see it as their business to know whom I meet, where I meet and what I discuss.

By definition, I have no state secrets. I could attempt to predict when Prime Minister Tony Blair would retire and when the next general election might be; I also have a view about the outcome. Those are not state secrets but my views. When the director general makes it his business to know whom Members of Parliament see, that poses a serious threat to us. I have not made that up. I have told the House previously how the former Chief Whip approached me about the matter, and I believe that a previous Chief Whip tried to get me off the Foreign Affairs Committee soon after the last general election, probably at the whim of MI5. That poses a serious threat to our political process, with which I will not put up and in which I will not acquiesce by my silence.

Tom Brake rightly referred to paragraph 66, in which the Committee boasts that the Security Service has

"established an 'Ethical Counsellor' post to provide staff with an internal avenue to raise any ethical concerns".

The small print in footnote 56 raises some interesting and concerning issues. In fairness to the Committee, it considered them important because they have been included in the report, albeit in a footnote. The footnote states that matters raised with ethical counsellors include:

"whether the Service had adequate mechanisms to evaluate the mental and physical health risks to ICT agents; whether the Service should be involved in PREVENT work given the pressure it faces to tackle the terrorist threat directly".

I was interested in some of the comments that my hon. Friend Ms Taylor made about Prevent's work. I have an open mind about whether it constitutes core business for our security and intelligence services. The footnote also states that concerns had also been expressed to an ethical counsellor about

"whether it was ethical for the Government to seek to alter the ideological views of its citizens (as part of its counter-radicalisation strategy); and whether there were sufficient controls for sharing information with countries that do not comply with international standards for the treatment of those in detention".

That is a most interesting part of the report. However, I am not confident that an individual operative in our intelligence and security services would be treated fairly. I do not believe that sufficiently robust systems are in place to ensure that, by going to the ethical counsellor, operatives would not be disadvantaged in their career or worse.

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Michael Mates (East Hampshire, Conservative)

This is a serious and sensitive matter. What more can the Government or anybody in the security services do but provide somebody from outside who has complete access to all the security services, to whom anybody can come anonymously, who does not report back unless there are issues that the client wants to be reported back, and to whom such a person can unload any worries he may have in a very sensitive area about things he may be asked to do? This all came about as a result of the Dr. Kelly incident. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that this was a good thing to do, although he is saying it is no good. We have seen all the people who have been involved in this work; they do it conscientiously and I have no reason to think that they do not do it well. I know that those in the security services are very glad of this safety valve.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, because he has amplified on the work of the ethical counsellor. I invite him and his colleagues to beef this up a bit more in their next report, because Parliament should be told. I cannot be blamed for not knowing or understanding all these things, because I am not in on the club. My duty here is to probe and try to tease out some of the information, so if he thinks that the work of the ethical counsellor is very positive and that I have probably underestimated its status and veracity, and the great contribution it makes to reassuring staff, I invite him and his colleagues to amplify on that in their next report.

The backdrop to my comments is my deep unease about the stewardship of some of our security and intelligence services, particularly in relation to human resources, as I believe they are called, and their job of vetting. Paragraph 68 makes reference to what might be known as the Max Mosley case. I do not want to go over that, but as a Member of Parliament and a member of the public I found it breathtaking that an operative of the Security Service could have been so closely involved in this sting operation in relation to Max Mosley, given the nature of it. Clearly, the Security Service was also concerned about the situation subsequently, but the case raises questions about how good its positive vetting was. It was seriously flawed, which is why the case is demonstrably an example of where the organisation was complacent until this happened. Of course, there was also no desire to answer questions about this issue in the House. There comes a point where people are straining to argue that a national security consideration is involved and so the matter cannot be discussed. There should have been much more parliamentary discussion about the nature of positive vetting, rather than of the particular instance itself, because it did show that the organisation was not so very good on these matters as it would like to pretend.

Earlier I intervened, rather testily, in relation to paragraph 92, and we were assured by Mr. Ancram that he was totally satisfied that the redactions—these dot, dot, dots—were absolutely necessary. I am not going to let this go, because I find it fantastic that the retirement age for senior staff, which has remained the same, has been deleted. That is breathtaking in the extreme, and I think it takes the mickey out of Parliament and diminishes the effect and nature of this report.

This may not have been understood, so I readily acknowledge, again, that the report contains some very interesting issues, which I welcome. Reference was made earlier to paragraph 94. I am not sure that we all understood what impact the floods had on GCHQ, although if it has been discussed in the House before now, I apologise. It is amazing that the floods in 2007 disrupted GCHQ's work so drastically and dramatically. Indeed, it is alarming. Of course one cannot always foresee floods, but somebody, somewhere—no doubt they have retired early—should have been on the ball. It is amazing that such disruption could have taken place. We should be told how and why that happened. What were the consequences? Were people disciplined? Were they asleep? What happened was a serious threat to our country's capacity to analyse and absorb intelligence, to listen and then to advise our Government and our security and intelligence services. It could have happened at a time of international crisis.

There is a section on page 30 of the report, in paragraphs 111 and 112, about media relations. That interests me, because I understand that there are persons who act as interlocutors or intermediaries between the security and intelligence services and the press. The big national newspapers will have the name of someone whom they can approach—I imagine that it would be a retired security or intelligence officer on a stipend or per diem. He or she will then check things out with the security and intelligence services and come back to the paper, so that there is some way of insulating the press from face-to-face contact with operatives.

I would like to know more about that. I do not particularly mind the press talking to the security and intelligence services or vice versa, but it is unacceptable when they talk to the press, but not to ordinary Members of Parliament. There needs to be some oversight of the system, because I have reason to believe that carrots and sticks are used, with rewards for journalists when the security and intelligence services want to leak something. I simply do not believe that certain leaks are accidental and unauthorised. Some of them are authorised. Sometimes they are deliberate and on a few occasions they are done with malice, with the intention of rubbishing people who are irritants to the security and intelligence services.

More light should be shed on the ground rules for when the security and intelligence services talk to the media. Furthermore, I do not want the Chamber or the Committee to lose sight of this point: in a democracy, how can we justify the security and intelligence services talking to the press when they do not talk to Members of Parliament? We all know that, apart from the Intelligence and Security Committee, there is no interface between ordinary Members of Parliament and the security and intelligence services, unless they want an hon. Member to do their bidding. I find that extremely worrying and unhealthy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South talked about the Prevent programme, which is referred to in paragraph 116 and which I found most interesting. I am not sure that the programme is the core business of the security and intelligence services, but I have an open mind about that. I hope that we hear more about the programme's work next year and about whether it represents good value and use of scarce resources, which we are told—and I accept this—are essential to combating the threat of terrorism and so on.

In paragraphs 120 and 121, we are told about the ministerial arrangements for oversight of national security, international relations and development. The Cabinet Secretary tells us:

"as you can see from the number and frequency of the meetings, it is actually happening. This is much more real."

To give some context, that means in relation to what recently went before, when there was a committee chaired by the Prime Minister that met only three times in about one year. Full marks to Ministers and the Cabinet Secretary for meeting much more frequently, but perhaps we ought to know more about what was not happening just two or three years ago. The Committee that is reporting to the House today has been in existence for some time. Was it aware of this shortcoming two or three years ago? Did it report it to us? If it did, and if that had an impact on the Prime Minister, full marks to it. It would be interesting to have that position amplified.

I find it somewhat surprising that an individual, Jane Knight, is named in paragraph 135 of the report. She was until recently the professional head of intelligence analysis. I think that you have presided over these debates for a number of years, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have heard all the arguments about redactions, and you have probably heard me complain about how, when I asked the name of the Clerk to the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Prime Minister refused, in two parliamentary replies, to tell me what it was. I then found the answer in the civil service yearbook. This afternoon, we have heard all the arguments about why we need redactions, yet this poor lady, Jane Knight, is named in the report. I would have thought that that was highly irresponsible, because everyone will now know that, until recently, she was the head of intelligence analysis. Why is her name included, when all these other matters that are seen to be of paramount importance require redactions involving having dots everywhere, and when the Prime Minister will not answer a Member of Parliament's question? I think that this is indicative of the sloppy culture among some of the people who have oversight of our security and intelligence services.

If Members think that that is wrong, let me move on to stewardship. I give full marks to the Committee for its comments on SCOPE in paragraph 147 on page 40. I hope that some of the press will look at this. I am dismayed at the poor attendance here, but I have a sense that not many people are exercised by our debate this afternoon, and that not many have looked at the report. My right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd and his Committee should be given full marks for paragraph 147. I have listened carefully to what he and others have said on this matter, and if people look at the Official Report tomorrow, they will find that they have been very gentle with the Cabinet Secretary and the security and intelligence services in relation to SCOPE.

The report states that SCOPE is

"a major cross-government IT programme aiming to improve the intelligence community's secure communications."

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South told us about this, and she was refreshingly candid and clearly very distressed. I invite hon. Members to read her speech tomorrow in the Official Report. This is a monumental scandal. The programme cost millions upon millions of pounds of scarce resources, and I think that members of Her Majesty's Opposition have been too gentle about this as well. I am sorry that I am having to provide the opposition here. There should be a major demand for more information about this, because all that money was wasted.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South told us, all this happened against a backdrop of her and others being reassured that the programme was all on track. Then, all of a sudden, as the report states

"the Cabinet Secretary told us"—

that is, the Committee—

"that, despite all this work,"—

and millions upon millions of pounds—

"Phase II of SCOPE has now been abandoned."

The Committee goes on to quote the Cabinet Secretary as saying

"we know that the way they were planning to do [Phase II] won't work...So we are working actively on ways in which we can achieve those benefits, but probably through rather different routes."

This should be a matter for a major inquiry, and people should be sacked for it. It is a classic example of the culture in the country: the bigger the mess-up, the greater the cost, and the higher the rank of the person who presided over the mess-up, the greater the rewards. I have no doubt that the Cabinet Secretary will, in time, be awarded a seat in the House of Lords, and that some of the other people who presided over this either already have gongs or will have their names advanced on a subsequent honours list. If it had been a small man on a small amount, he or she would have been sacked. We should bear in mind the unprecedented language used when my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd says in his report:

"We have consistently reported concerns about SCOPE and are appalled"—

I repeat, appalled—

"that Phase II of the system—on which tens of millions of pounds have been spent—has now had to be scrapped."

He goes on to reassure the House:

"We will be investigating the reasons for the serious failure of this important project, and will report on the matter in the forthcoming year."

I think that reporting on the matter in the coming year is not sufficient. There should be a separate and immediate inquiry into this matter by the Committee, and the House of Commons should be allowed maximum disclosure.

I have detained the House on other occasions about the Wilson doctrine. I remind Members that it relates to the fact that in the 1960s Harold Wilson made it quite clear—he was a victim of bugging and unauthorised surveillance by the security and intelligence services, which abused their power—that there should be no listening in to what were then the landlines of MPs' telephones. An important issue that many people failed to understand was that when it came to the "overriding consideration" of national security, Wilson's doctrine stated that the matter must be reported to the House at the earliest opportunity.

About three years ago, there was an attempt by people in the intelligence services to get Tony Blair to alter the Wilson doctrine; to his credit, he said no. The Committee itself raises the Wilson doctrine in the report, but fails to tell us how much it probed into it. Particularly in the light of events surrounding what happened to Damian Green, I think that we need to be constantly reassured. I believe that this involved a serious attack on MPs and parliamentary institutions, so we must be reassured that there is no slipping in the determination of this Prime Minister to ensure that the Wilson doctrine is adhered to and brought into line with all the modern communications systems that now exist. I hope that when the Home Secretary replies, she will be able to provide some reassurances on this matter.

I particularly mentioned the hon. Member for Ashford because paragraphs 162 and 163 deal with the Official Secrets Act. We discover in paragraph 163 that the Home Secretary apparently told the Committee

"that recent case law has meant that the need for reform is now less urgent",

whereas there had previously been some talk about reviewing the Official Secrets Act. The most recent events—probably happening after the report had gone to the printers—have shown that there is actually a need to modernise the Official Secrets Act. I very much welcome the fact—I was always confident about it—that charges were not brought against the hon. Member for Ashford. I was also confident from my knowledge of the law that there were would be no prosecution of the man who leaked the information either. He committed a professional offence and it was certainly right for him to be dismissed from the civil service. Particularly in the light of even more recent judgments, however, there was never any prospect of a prosecution—and prosecuting the hon. Member for Ashford would have been wrong.

I put it to the Home Secretary, "Why don't you get real?" and recognise that it would be prudent for the House to revisit official secrets legislation, not with a view to ensuring a prosecution against an MP next time, but in order to ensure that the Act deals with the people who actually pose a serious threat to our national security rather than those who are a source of political embarrassment?

I have asked questions about the circumstances referred to in paragraph 177—the leaving on a train of top-secret Government papers by a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee. We were first told that the matter was being investigated, but the House, the Committee and I were then told that no real discussion could take place because there was going to be a prosecution.

A prosecution took place on 28 October 2008, and the person involved, who I take to be an MI5 employee, was subsequently fined. I do not want to labour that point, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd and his colleagues on the Committee were promised that once the matter had been exhausted in the courts, with some dispatch, they would be acquainted with the circumstances and allowed to investigate. However, to quote the report:

"At the time of writing, the Committee is still awaiting the sight of Sir David's report"—

that is Sir David Omand. I do not think that the Committee is a proper parliamentary Committee, but that quote shows contempt by Sir David for it. He has not bothered to write to the Committee, or to invite it in. It is the Committee saying that. The court case was concluded on 28 October. That is simply not good enough.

I am not surprised about Sir David Omand, because he is arrogant. However, I want to place it on the record that it is appalling that the Committee is being treated in such a way. We have been told by Committee members that their resources are inadequate for their investigations. I sat here muttering to myself that knowledge is power, and the Committee will not be given more resources. If it is to be given more resources, the Home Secretary can announce it this afternoon, but I bet she will not. However, the resources should be available if the Committee is to discharge its functions as it sees fit. Until such time as there is a proper parliamentary Committee, it is wholly wrong that it should be denied the necessary resources. I hope that the Home Secretary will reply to that at the Dispatch Box

I have a little ceremony: when I leave this place and go down to the pizza restaurant by Millbank tower, I pass Thames house and, to the dismay of my wife, pause, look up at the camera and say, "I am watching you too." I intend to go on doing so as long as I am in this place, and I do not care if I get ridiculed. We are threatened by not having sufficient oversight and control of our security and intelligence services. Some in those organisations are brave, skilled and diligent people, but some are arrogant and abuse power.

4:58 pm
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Jacqui Smith (Home Secretary; Redditch, Labour)

I am glad to have the opportunity to close this debate on the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee. As some other Members have said, this is the first debate taking place under the new arrangements, whereby it was rightly introduced by the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend Dr. Howells. As Mr. Mates pointed out, the House will today have the benefit of hearing from only one Minister—me—closing the debate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd pointed out, however, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would very much have liked to attend the debate, but he is on important business abroad, and he has communicated to me his wish for that to be made clear to the House.

As many Members have commented, our security and intelligence agencies play a crucial role in protecting the interests of the UK at home and overseas. They provide a first-class service to the country in often difficult and dangerous circumstances, and have had many successes. As my hon. Friend Ms Taylor pointed out, since 2001, with the help of the security and intelligence agencies, more than a dozen terrorist plots have been disrupted, and almost 200 people have been convicted of terrorism-related offences. Overseas secret intelligence has given us a vital edge in tackling some of the most difficult security challenges we face. We are safer, our families are safer and the British people are safer because of the work done by our security and intelligence agencies, and they deserve our thanks and support. I am pleased that that was reiterated by almost every Member who spoke today.

I thank the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee for their hard work over the past year, and for the grilling of which I was on the receiving end relatively recently. I also thank all the Members who made today's debate so constructive and useful. In particular, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, both for chairing the Committee and for opening the debate. I join him and others in paying tribute to the previous Chair, my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, and to Sir Alan Beith. Both of them have stepped down from the Committee over the past year, but their work over the year contributed to the ISC's 2007-08 annual report.

Let me respond to one of the points raised by my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay. The replacement for the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, Sir Menzies Campbell, was approved and appointed to the Committee in line with the new procedures that the House debated and approved on 17 July 2008. The suggested reforms ensuring greater parliamentary involvement in the appointment of Committee members have already been implemented.

It is worth putting on record the importance of those who undertake the necessary judicial oversight of the agencies: the Intelligence Services Commissioner, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, and the president and members of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. I thank them and their staff for their diligent and important work.

The challenge, as always, is to strike the right balance between the protection of security and the most important of human rights, the right to life, and the impact on the other rights that we and our democracy hold dear. I am convinced, however, that the right balance of mechanisms—legislative and ministerial, and in the form of the oversight provided by the Committee—exists to ensure that the agencies fulfil their lawful duties appropriately and effectively. It is essential for important matters relating to the national security of the country to be considered fully. Today's debate has provided an important opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of that vital area, and I thank all the Members who contributed so helpfully.

Let me deal with some of the points that have been raised. There was, of course, discussion about the nature of the Committee itself and the way in which recent reforms have worked. I am glad that the right hon. Member for East Hampshire corrected the suggestion that ISC members were subject to security vetting. He is right: they are not, although they are notified under the Official Secrets Act so that they are fully aware of their responsibilities.

As we have heard, this is a Committee with a strong cross-party membership. I am sure that ISC members past and present would rightly resent an implication that they were somehow in thrall to the Government. That certainly has not been my experience, as I made clear when I spoke of being on the receiving end of its interrogation; and, as Members will see if they read Committee's reports carefully, it has, when appropriate, criticised the actions of both the agencies and the Government.

There has also been some discussion of the nature of the redactions in the reports. I am sure that Members will appreciate how much of what our security and intelligence agencies do, and how they do it, must be kept secret so that the agencies can operate effectively and do the job that we want them to do. To avoid prejudicing that operational effectiveness, it is necessary to redact some of the material before publication. I am sure that Members appreciate that the Committee's reports have a global readership, which will inevitably include those with hostile intent who will be poring over every word and figure for clues as to our capabilities, weaknesses within those capabilities and ways to circumvent them. It is important that we maintain that capability and do not, in the very important job of scrutiny, undermine precisely the capability that we are scrutinising.

There was some important discussion about the role that public sessions may play. I know that the Committee is giving serious consideration to how those public sessions can be organised. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself have both already agreed that we would be perfectly content to be questioned by the Committee in public session, but it is important that those are meaningful sessions in which, quite rightly, the important job of accountability and scrutiny can be carried out in a way that gains public confidence.

There have been calls for the right amount of resources for the Committee to carry out its very important role. The Cabinet Office has worked, I believe positively, with the Committee to ensure that it has the resources that it needs to fulfil its remit efficiently and effectively. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock asked me to outline the increases in resources that the Government have made available. In response to the reform package approved by the House, the complement of the ISC secretariat has been increased from six to eight, bringing the staffing up to the level enjoyed by comparable Select Committees. A general investigator to support the work of the Committee is in the process of being appointed and arrangements have been brokered for the Committee to have access to independent confidential legal and financial advice. I understand that notwithstanding the tightness of resources, to which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred last year, resources are in place to finance all those measures and to ensure that the increase in resources is available to the Committee to do its job.

During the debate today—certainly it forms an important element of the report—the issue of ensuring that the considerably increased resources that are being provided by the Government to the security and intelligence agencies are gaining the greatest value for money has rightly been an important area of focus. Recognising the demands that the current threat situation makes on what we expect from the agencies, the Government have significantly increased their funding to over £2.3 billion by 2011 in the current CSR settlement—an increase of over £1 billion since 2003-04. That level of funding is an indication of the Government's commitment to national security and our strong determination to counter threats from international terrorism.

I know that one of the issues that, quite rightly, has exercised the Committee—it is represented in the report—is the way in which that increased resource is allocated, the priority that is given to international terrorism and the extent to which that may impact on other important priorities. Counter-terrorism is necessarily the highest priority for the agencies, but resources are finite and it is necessary, given the scale of the threat from international terrorism and the unique role of the agencies in countering that threat, that work on some other non-counter-terrorism intelligence requirements should be appropriately re-prioritised.

The important point here is that although some other areas of work may well, in terms of the proportion of overall resources allocated, have seen their allocation decrease, because of the additional commitment made to the agencies, actual spend on them has increased. There is still substantial and successful effort against those non-CT target areas. Capabilities that have been funded and supported by the Government, and developed precisely to deal with the issue of counter-terrorism, often result in increased flexibility and capability that can then be used in other areas of the agencies' work. That is a very important element of the agencies' work to ensure that they are flexible and can respond to sudden or unexpected threats, whether from terrorism or other international events. That has been one important aspect of using the increased investment in the agencies.

In holding the Government and the agencies to account, the Committee has rightly challenged us on value for money, particularly in relation to our work on counter-terrorism. For the first time, we now have a public service agreement to ensure that we are achieving the objectives that we have set out, not only in terms of the agencies but more widely. That is an important way to ensure that the increased funding delivers the objective of reducing the terrorist threat.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South and other Members have raised the SCOPE project, and particularly their concern about the abandonment of phase 2. The Government take this issue extremely seriously. We are very aware of the loss of any public funds, and especially at the current time. That is why the Cabinet Office has given the ISC a detailed memorandum outlining all aspects of the programme. The financial details have yet to be finalised. The decision to terminate the contract, which was not taken lightly, was reached after detailed consideration and legal and technical advice. We are co-operating fully with the ISC's inquiries into SCOPE, and it will rightly continue to question the Government on that.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay

Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

Who is to blame—the Cabinet Office or the security and intelligence services? I realise that asking this question might be in vain, but what scale of cost and loss was involved in this scandal?

Photo of Jacqui Smith

Jacqui Smith (Home Secretary; Redditch, Labour)

I am sure that my hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I am not going to start talking about the sums of money involved as extremely sensitive negotiations are currently taking place. This programme was co-ordinated centrally through the Cabinet Office. That is why the Cabinet Office has been responding and, I believe, providing considerable detail about the programme, and what is being done with regard to it, to the Committee, and it will continue to do so.

Several Members, including the ISC Chair, rightly identified the fact that, the reporting restrictions now having been lifted, on 19 May the Committee will be able to publish its review of the intelligence on the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005. I welcome that. I share the view of Members that that will be very important not only in order to answer questions, but also—and not least—for the families who lost loved ones and for those who were injured in the attacks. I know that the Committee has worked extremely hard to ensure that the concerns of the families and some of the questions that have been raised today have been tested and pursued. This is, of course, the second review, which was prompted following the conviction of the 2004 fertiliser bomb plotters. I note that the Committee reported in May 2006 that nothing could have been done to prevent the attacks, but it is right that it has taken the opportunity to update and reconsider that work, and I am sure that many people are awaiting the publication of the report with interest. However, I am also sure that Members, including Patrick Mercer, would recognise that it would be inappropriate to comment on the contents of that report before it is published on 19 May.

Chris Grayling raised the issue of the national security strategy. That has not only provided an overview of the work of the intelligence and security agencies, but taken a much broader view of the entire range of issues that impact on the security of this country in a complex and changing world. An update of the strategy is being developed, and it will be launched before the summer recess. It will demonstrate how Government thinking has developed on all the threats facing the UK. It will take into consideration the work of the National Security Forum which is now up and running. It met in March, chaired by Lord West. Among other things, it discussed the national security implications of the economic downturn and of scarce energy resources. The forum brings together a wide range of participants from both the private and public sectors.

The update will cover the use of cyberspace as a means for individuals to act to harm the UK. Several hon. Members commented on that issue as an important feature of the threat that we face. I hope that they will be reassured that the Government will focus on that in the update of the national security strategy. We will also publish a UK cyber security strategy separately.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock questioned the role of the Communications-Electronics Security GroupCESG—within GCHQ. It is the national technical authority for this country and provides information assurance to Government, as well as working across the critical national infrastructure to keep networks and information secure. It is important both in setting standards for the way in which information is assured and in working to mitigate some of the threats that my hon. Friend identified.

The shadow Home Secretary also raised the issue of intercept as evidence. As I pointed out in my written ministerial statement on 12 February, we remain committed to using the best evidence available to enhance the ability to bring forward prosecutions in cases. That is why we endorsed the recommendations of the Privy Council review report on the introduction of intercept as evidence. That is also why we set up the working group to develop the methods through which it might be possible to use intercept as evidence and to test them against the nine operational tests identified in the Privy Council review report to ensure that those can be met—especially the protection of national security and the need to ensure that the agency's capabilities are not damaged by any change in the law to permit intercept as evidence.

I was slightly surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman suggest that those nine operational tests should be challenged. If he thinks that they are no longer important, perhaps he should take the point up with Mr. Howard, who is working on the Privy Council advisory group on the development of this work. I believe, as do the Privy Counsellors, that they are important operational tests that need to be met. Work is now focused on testing the viability of using the model that has been delivered, including role plays of trial processes, and when that has culminated and we have received final advice from counsel, we will be able to make a final assessment of whether and how intercept as evidence should be implemented.

The recent controversy about the involvement of the security services in detention activities was also mentioned, and that has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent months. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his statement on 18 March made it clear—as the Government have done at every possible opportunity—our complete condemnation of the use of torture for any purpose. It has no place in a modern democratic society. We will not condone it and nor will we ever ask others to use it on our behalf. It could not, of course, be used as evidence in our courts—quite rightly—as we have seen tested in some recent court cases.

To protect the reputation of our security and intelligence services and to reassure ourselves that everything was being done to ensure that our practices were in line with UK and international law, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set down four things that we will do. First, we will publish the guidance to intelligence officers and service personnel about the standards that we apply during the detention and interviewing of detainees overseas. Once that has been consolidated and, importantly, reviewed by the Intelligence and Security Committee, it will be put into the public domain. That will enable some of the difficult questions and the challenges posed by the circumstances in which our agents operate to be aired. Some of those questions were raised by my right hon. Friends the Members for Pontypridd and for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth).

Secondly, we will invite the Intelligence Services Commissioner to monitor compliance with the guidance and to report to the Prime Minister annually. Thirdly, to ensure that the systems are robust and to be certain that any lessons have been understood, we have asked the ISC to consider any new developments and relevant information, since its very important reports on detention in 2005 and on rendition in 2007.

Fourthly, we have made it clear that wherever allegations of wrongdoing are made, they are taken seriously. I referred to allegations that came out in the judicial review of the Binyam Mohamed case last year to the Attorney-General and she has asked the police to investigate. If further cases of potential criminal wrongdoing come to light, the Government will refer them to the Attorney-General. In addition, several of those previously held in Guantanamo Bay have chosen to put their allegations before the civil courts, where they can and should be tested.

Another important issue that was quite rightly mentioned is the protection that we need to put in place and maintain for the terms of trade of our intelligence relationship with our international partners and particularly with our closest and most important intelligence partner, the United States. We would not expect sensitive intelligence that we had shared to be disclosed in a foreign court and that is the basis on which the case has been made in the current legal case about maintaining in closed summary some of the intelligence that has been received from our partners in the US.

Our intelligence relationship is fundamental in protecting British people. It is worth defending and, as Mr. Ancram made clear, it is a precious relationship that we will not know that we have lost until we do not receive the sorts of intelligence that, I am convinced, have on occasion enabled us to save lives in this country and abroad. That is the significance of the relationship that we are protecting.

Several hon. Members raised the Government's overall approach to countering terror. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Newark, in his role as chair of the sub-committee of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, praise the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, which he called a little-known organisation. I disagree with him on that. It is, of course, an important organisation set up as the strategic lead across government two years ago and, as he recognises, it is playing a very important role in bringing together the Government's approach to countering terror. It was responsible for the production of the Contest strategy, which I recently reported to this House. That strategy was based on an analysis of the threat that we face from international terrorism and spelt out in an unprecedented open way the approach that we were taking to counter terror.

The strategy is based on the four Ps: how we pursue and disrupt terror plots; how we protect against terrorist attacks; how we prepare in the event of terrorist attacks; and, importantly, as the Committee has identified, how we prevent people from turning to violent extremism and terrorism in the first place. That of course goes far wider than the community programmes mentioned by the shadow Home Secretary. I have spoken before about how the inspection and evaluation of those programmes will enable us to show that the money involved is being well spent on countering and reducing the threat from terrorism that we face in the long term.

We have had a good and important debate today. I commend the ISC on its work in scrutinising what the Chairman called the nuts and bolts of the security agencies. The agencies are more effective for being subject to the Committee's detailed consideration. My hon. Friend Ben Chapman, in rightly saying that the Committee undertakes detailed work in scrutinising the agencies' administration and effectiveness, made it clear that it plays a very important role.

The debate has also made it clear that the agencies' work raises challenging questions about the balance between openness and their ability to carry out work that, by its nature, needs to remain covert and protected. I believe that the debate, and the structures that we have put in place, enable us to strike the right balance.

We are fortunate to have the best intelligence and security services in the world. There are people of the highest integrity and bravery in all of them: I am honoured to be able to work with them, and it is vital that we support them in acting to protect our country. We must do that in a way that is consistent with our values and our commitment to human rights. I am confident that we do so, and believe that today's debate has assisted us in that regard.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of the Annual Report of the Intelligence and Security Committee for 2007-08, Cm 7542, and the Government's response, Cm 7543.