Security Services (Commission)

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 3:51 pm on 3rd December 1986.

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Photo of Dr David Owen Dr David Owen , Plymouth, Devonport 3:51 pm, 3rd December 1986

I beg to move, That this House believes that it is desirable that a Joint Committee of both Houses, to be known as the Special Commission on the Security Services, be appointed, and that the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records. We all know that debates on the security services involve issues that are not easy to handle. It might help the House if I try to spell out what may well be common ground on some of the issues. At a time when there is intense terrorist activity worldwide, let alone the problems of East-West relations, we need our security services, and they have to operate with a high degree of secrecy.

It has hitherto always been accepted in the House that it is an inappropriate mechanism to call the security services to account by a systematic question and answer exchange on the Floor of the House. I believe that that is still the position. However, there has been growing concern that it is no longer possible, in view of the revelations concerning the security services, for Parliament to remain the only forum in the nation that is not discussing some of these questions. It is bizarre when the newspapers, television and radio are frequently discussing these issues in considerable detail but there is no mechanism for parliamentary scrutiny.

I am sorry that the Prime Minister is not in her place, because I wish to raise certain issues. It is fair to say that it was the Prime Minister who, for understandable reasons, in 1979 broke with the precedent of not revealing information about the security services. The situation is exceptional. The Blunt case was, by any standard, an issue on which the nation would not have accepted that there should be no discussion in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister keeps quoting precedent and saying that she is abiding by it, but she must face the fact that she was the first Prime Minister to come to the Floor of the House of Commons to reveal so much information. The Prime and Bettaney cases followed and, again, more information was revealed than was previously the practice.

As in the United States and in most democratic countries, in this country more and more people have realised that the old system of totally trusting the Ministers concerned will not satisfy Parliament or the wider public. There is a strong case for us devising a mechanism whereby the House can feel confident that the security services are scrutinised and at the same time it can protect the essential confidentiality and secrecy of much of their activity. It is because of that that we have tabled this motion.

The motion is deliberately designed to involve Members of both Houses. Given the range of experience, there is positive merit in such a commission having its membership drawn from this House as well as from the House of Lords. That would also allow this House, if we thought it prudent, to have a commission chairman who was not a party political figure, or perhaps to appoint somebody who was obviously no longer in the front line of party politics—a former Prime Minister, for example.

It is also a virtue to have the potential to involve senior service men from the House of Lords or senior civil servants. A similar thought must have passed through the mind of the Government when somewhat reluctantly they accepted during the Falklands crisis the principle of having an examination to see what had gone wrong. They did that by establishing the Franks committee. The membership of that committee was drawn from the House of Commons and the House of Lords and also contained somebody from outside who at the time of appointment was not a member of the Privy Council but was made a member. That committee had available to it all forms of intelligence, security reports and internal working documents of Government, and for that reason it was thought right that its members should be Privy Councillors.

We strongly believe that the members of the commission we propose should be Privy Councillors. That is because it has hitherto been accepted that Members of Parliament are not positively vetted and that membership of the Privy Council enables one to have access to confidential information. That has been accepted by our friends and allies. We do not specifically mention that in the motion because we think it sensible that the House should be able to appoint to such a body someone who is not a Privy Councillor but who, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, may become one on appointment to this commission. That would follow precedent. That may go some way towards avoiding the charge that people who would serve would only be former Ministers or people who, if you like, are "part of the club" or "in the know". If the Leader of the Opposition or the leader of any of the other parties wished to nominate somebody who had not served in government or was not a Privy Councillor, they would be free to do so, provided there was some understanding of the nominee's overall acceptability.

Such a structure would command a good deal of support in all parts of the House, although I do not expect that to be reflected in the Lobbies at the end of this debate. Such a commission will come; the only question is when. The sooner it comes, the less will some quite serious information be divulged that is damaging to the security services. That happens because of the way we presently conduct our proceedings. Under such a system, we will not abuse the Order Paper by naming individuals in the way that has been done in recent weeks. Judging from the amendment that has been tabled, the Home Secretary does not accept this motion, but I hope that he will ponder hard on the questions that I have posed.