Security Service

Petitions – in the House of Commons at 10:45 pm on 29 March 1993.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 10:46, 29 March 1993

Let me say at once that I am campaigning for effective parliamentary scrutiny of the security services—mainly MI5—and am not questioning the need for such organisations. I accept entirely the necessity for a security service, and that would remain my position even if we were not plagued by the curse of terrorism. To the best of my knowledge, all democracies have some such service, for the same reason as this country does—to protect the security and safety of the state and its citizens.

As we know, the Security Service—that is to say, MI5—has recently been placed on a statutory footing, and I was involved in the proceedings in Committee on the Security Service Act 1989. The Security Service Commissioner makes an annual report to Parliament, to which I am sure the Minister will refer in his reply. I have looked at two of the commissioner's reports, and he states in both that neither he nor the Security Service Tribunal has yet found in favour of a complainant.

The Home Secretary has stated that a Bill will be introduced this Session to place the Secret Intelligence ServiceMI6—which is answerable to the Foreign Secretary, on to a statutory basis. However, the Government continue to resist strongly all proposals for making the security services subject to parliamentary scrutiny—hence my Adjournment debate.

Since the matter was last debated in the Chamber, MI5 has taken on a wider remit. As we know, that organisation—instead of the police—now has the lead role in intelligence gathering and related matters regarding the Provisional IRA and, I assume, other terrorist groups. The ending of the cold war was bound to change the role of the security services both in Britain and in other democracies in western Europe.

The other change that has occurred since the subject was last debated in the Chamber is the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which, as the Minister is aware, recommended that MI5 should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I welcome that, and I hope that many hon. Members welcome it as well, although it is not the Government's position, as we shall learn shortly, that the recommendations should be implemented.

The Select Committee refers to the practice in other countries, where the security services have some accountability to their national Parliaments. They include Canada, Australia, Germany and the United States. Although the Home Secretary gave the impression, in so many words, in his evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that the efficiency of those services had been harmed—although he did not perhaps use that word—I do not suppose that the Governments of the countries to which I have just referred take that view. I imagine that they are perfectly satisfied that the security services are carrying out their rightful functions, but have a degree of parliamentary scrutiny that is lacking in this country.

Photo of Mrs Barbara Roche Mrs Barbara Roche , Hornsey and Wood Green

My hon. Friend referred to the comments of the Home Secretary when he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee. In his comments, the Home Secretary said that it was difficult to distinguish between policy and operational control. Will my hon. Friend comment on the position of the police authority for London? At the moment, the Home Secretary is the police authority and he organises policy control, but operational control lies in the hands of the commissioner and the police. That is an exact analogy with the kind of scrutiny proposed by the Select Committee.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

My hon. Friend has made a valid point. I studied the evidence to the Select Committee and its conclusions very carefully. The emphasis is that a Committee, be it the Home Affairs Select Committee or any other Select Committee, would not examine the day-to-day operations. No one would expect such a Committee to do that. However, the overall policy matters and financial aspects would rightly be subject to question.

I do not want to go over the ground of previous debates on this subject. However, it is necessary to remind the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who is standing in for the Home Secretary tonight, of the serious concern that has been expressed over various happenings in recent years.

The response of the Minister tonight, or of other Ministers, may be that everything that I am going to mention in passing occurred before MI5 was placed on a statutory basis. That is undoubtedly the case, but it does not alter the fact that these incidents occurred, and not so many years ago.

If a quarter of what Mr. Wright said was true—much more may have been true, for all I know—that shows that, instead of combating subversion, senior officials of MI5 were actually engaged in it against an elected Government who did not meet with their approval. That was unforgivable. As I have said, that organisation has a job of work to do to combat subversion, but all the stories seem to confirm, to a certain extent, much of what Mr. Wright said. Senior officials, although we do not know how many or at what level except that they were certainly senior officials, were involved in what can only be described as subversive action against a Government whom they did not happen to like politically.

There were also investigations by the F branches—F1, F2, F3 and sub-branches of MI5—and allegations by former MI5 employees such as Cathy Massiter. As I have said before, that person who worked in MI5 is to be congratulated. No prosecution has been brought against her, and rightly so. No one has really disputed what she said. She worked in MI5 and concluded that some of the activities were not in any way necessary, but were against the spirit of what should be the work of the security services.

Photo of Mr Rupert Allason Mr Rupert Allason , Torbay

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Cathy Massiter's allegations about telephone tapping were investigated by the independent judge and rejected? While recognising that specific decisions by the judge, does he recognise that there is a failure in the 1989 Act—that is, the inability of the tribunal or the commissioner to investigate complaints which originate before December 1989?

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

I shall come to the first point in a moment. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said—he was part of the controversy which occurred during the passage of the legislation—anything which happened before 1989 cannot be investigated. The commissioner also makes that point in both of his reports.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) and Patricia Hewitt were subject to investigation—this is not disputed—and they took their case to the European Court. At the time, they were the leading paid officials of the National Council for Civil Liberties. Have any hon. Members suggested that my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham is some sort of subversive? What nonsense! What lunacy could have occurred that she should be the subject of such investigation, together with Patricia Hewitt, whose name is well known in the House?

Cathy Massiter said: Anyone who was on the Executive of the National Council for Civil Liberties, who worked for the organisation, was an active member to the degree of being, say, a branch secretary of the organisation, would be placed on permanent record and routine inquiries were instituted to identify such people and police inquiries were sought. Can that be justified? It is nonsense. That is why there is understandable concern about some of the work clone in the past against perfectly bona fide organisations and people who are no more subversive than any hon. Members in the House.

Recently—to bring the matter up to date—the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress complained that his communications were being intercepted by the intelligence authorities. I understand that Campbell Christie has made a complaint to the commissioner of the Security Service. The complaint was not upheld, so the press said, and he is taking his case to the European Court. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that compensation will be paid by the Government in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham and of Patricia Hewitt.

Parliamentary scrutiny in itself will not prevent abuses. No one has suggested anything of the sort. If MI5 was subject to some accountability other than simply to the Home Secretary, the tribunal and the commissioner, there would at least be the feeling that their activities would need to be justified. It is interesting to note that, in paragraph 13 of his second report, the commissioner, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, said: There can be no doubt that the very existence of the Tribunal as a body empowered to investigate complaints provides the Security Service with a strong additional incentive to ensure that its procedures are designed to eliminate the chance of a complaint being found justified. Effectively, he is saying that his existence and that of his tribunal are some sort of deterrent against abuses of the sort which I have mentioned. How much more a deterrent would there be if the Security Service knew that a parliamentary committee existed which monitored its activities but not its day-to-day operations?

Photo of Mr Michael Stephen Mr Michael Stephen , Shoreham

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why scrutiny by a Committee of the House is likely to be more effective than scrutiny by the independent tribunal?

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

The hon. Gentleman knows the answer. Effectively, to say that the House and its Select Committee—be it the Select Committee on Home Affairs or any other Select Committee—would be no more effective than a commissioner is to say that parliamentary scrutiny does not add up to much. If one takes all the subjects which are being investigated by Select Committees, one might as well use the hon. Gentleman's argument and say, "If there was a commissioner or a tribunal investigating social services or the Treasury, it would be no less effective than a Select Committee". The hon. Gentleman knows full well the answer to that question.

It is rather important to have the parliamentary scrutiny which exists in other democracies. Why should Britain be an exception? There have been various rumours, true or otherwise—who knows?—that the Government will concede at some stage in the near future, perhaps when the next measure comes along, that there should be parliamentary scrutiny, but that there will be no question of the Home Affairs Select Committee or any other being given the remit. A small committee of perhaps four or five members will be set up consisting entirely of Privy Councillors. I have seen reports somewhere that they would report to the Cabinet Office. That would not be acceptable. If the Government insist, they will get their majority, but the controversy will continue.

The idea that Members of Parliament who do not happen to be Privy Councillors are not trustworthy is sheer nonsense. I would find it surprising if such a measure was accepted on a free vote. The Home Affairs Select Committee discussed that option and rightly rejected it.

I conclude by quoting the final paragraph of the Home Affairs Select Committee report: The Home Secretary raised the bogey of a secret service that was not secret. The Committee wants no such thing. The work done by the Security Service is delicate, and much of it is necessarily of the highest confidentiality. We do not believe that there is any general right or need to know what the service does on a day to day basis. But we do believe that establishing a form of parliamentary scrutiny of the service would meet an important public interest and help to protect against any possible future abuse of power. That is certainly my view. I have held it for a long time. I am pleased that, after all these years, the Home Affairs Select Committee, albeit with a Conservative majority, has made the point powerfully.

Although I know that the Minister has no authority—I am not being patronising—to change policy which has been laid down by the Home Secretary, I hope that the campaign will continue. I hope that, however long it takes—I hope that it will not take too long—we will establish that degree of democratic control and parliamentary accountability of the Security Service which is practised elsewhere and is much needed in Britain.

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle 11:01, 29 March 1993

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on obtaining this Adjournment debate and on raising the important question of the accountability of the Security Service. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman has strong views on the need for oversight of the work of the Security Service. The Government entirely agree with him. In a parliamentary democracy, it is of the utmost importance to ensure that the agency which is given responsibility for protecting national security is subject to proper oversight in carrying out its necessarily secret work. The Government differ with the hon. Gentleman in his analysis of the reasons why such oversight is needed, as I shall seek to develop in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman anticipated what I might or might not say. I shall deal with some of the subjects that he raised, but I hope that he will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases, as he perhaps rightly anticipated. Nevertheless. I commend him on the interest that he has consistently maintained in this important subject.

As the House will recall, the nature and extent of the arrangements which were required for ensuring that the Security Service was properly accountable for its work were fully debated in the House a few years ago during the passage of the Security Service Bill. At that time, the House spent a full day in Committee debating the nature of the arrangements which needed to be put in place to secure the right balance.

The Opposition, no doubt including the hon. Gentleman, argued then that it would be right to place the Security Service under the scrutiny of a Select Committee of the House in the same way as ordinary Government Departments. Other hon. Members argued that, because the task of overseeing the work of the Security Service would not simply be akin to that performed by Select Committees in scrutinising other Whitehall Departments, a specially constructed Security Service review committee was needed. That suggestion, I suspect, drew heavily on the experience of the Canadians, as the hon. Gentleman said a few moments ago.

The Government took the view that, even though such a system might well suit conditions in Canada, this House needed to decide on a system of oversight which was right for this country and which reflected the responsibilities of the Security Service, the threats to our citizens from which it is the duty of the Security Service to provide protection, and the duties of Ministers in the House.

After a full debate, Parliament agreed with the view of the Government that the difficulties of principle and practice in the way of establishing an effective mechanism of direct parliamentary oversight were such that the better course was to rest on the approach which had previously been followed, by which the Security Service was accountable to Ministers for its work and Ministers were in turn accountable to Parliament. That is not to say that the Security Service Act 1989 denies any role to Parliament.

In passing the 1989 Act, Parliament set out the framework within which the Security Service operates, established the functions of the service and provided for safeguards against any abuse, whether by members of the service or by Ministers. I remind the House that Parliament also receives the annual report made to the Prime Minister by the commissioner appointed under the Act. In general, however, the House agreed in 1989 that ministerial accountability for the work of the Security Service was the right model for this country.

More recently, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North has reminded us, the question of the accountability of the service has been raised in a report by the Home Affairs Select Committee. I notice the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) in her place, and I know that she is a member of that Committee. In preparing its report, the Select Committee once again carefully reviewed all the arguments about accountability. It acknowledged the significant moves which have been made in recent years towards removing unnecessary secrecy surrounding the work of the Security Service.

The passage of the Security Service Act was an important step in that direction, and has been followed by: the announcement of the appointment of Mrs. Stella Rimington as director-general of the service; the statement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary on 8 May last year concerning the transfer to the service of the lead responsibility for intelligence-gathering in Great Britain in respect of Irish Republican terrorism; and the acknowledgement that Thames house, on the Embankment, was to be the service's new headquarters. I am pleased to acknowledge the Select Committee's recognition of those very positive steps.

The Select Committee also recognised, quite rightly, that, whatever arrangements may be put in place for ensuring the proper accountability of the service, they must be such as to avoid damaging in any way the effectiveness of the service, or putting lives unnecessarily at risk—the very point that the hon. Gentleman made early in his speech. However, the Select Committee went on to conclude that the work of the Security Service should be suject to parliamentary oversight in just the same way as any other aspect of the working of government, and that the Home Affairs Select Committee itself, perhaps unsurprisingly, should undertake that task.

It would not be right for me now to anticipate what the Government will say in their response to the Select Committee's report. To do so would be discourteous to the Select Committee, or to the other members of it who are not in their places. But this brief debate tonight will be of assistance to the Government as we consider the terms of our response to the report, which we hope to publish shortly after Easter.

There will, of course, be a further opportunity to debate all this when the Bill which the Government have promised to bring forward in due course, to place the Secret Intelligence Service and Government communications headquarters on a statutory basis, is presented to the House. That Bill will, as the Government have already said, be introduced in the lifetime of the present Parliament. The hon. Gentleman said that he expected that to be in the current Session, and I think that the Select Committee understood the same thing, but the Government have not said that. The Bill will be introduced as soon as the necessary parliamentary time can be made available, but I cannot promise when that will be, other than that it will be during this Parliament.

Often, it is the implicit theme in the claims made by those who criticise the Security Service that it is not subject to any form of effective oversight of the way in which it carries out its work. I have already referred to the system of safeguards established under the Security Service Act 1989. Similar safeguards exist in respect of other intrusive methods of investigation under the Interception of Communications Act 1985. Between them, those Acts create an effective system of judicial oversight of the work of the service, as partially described by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Rupert Allason Mr Rupert Allason , Torbay

In regard to the safeguards within the 1989 Act, while I welcome the existence of a commissioner and people's ability to make complaints, can my hon. Friend tell the House why it is apparently undesirable to disclose to the public or the House how many complaints have been received annually by the commissioner?

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle

That is information that should be imparted not directly but to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, who is accountable to the House.

Under the Security Service Act 1989 and the Interception of Communications Act 1985 there is a commissioner with power to review the use made by the service of the most intrusive methods of investigation, and a tribunal with powers to investigate or refer to the commissioner complaints made by members of the public who believe that their rights have been infringed. Both commissioners and tribunals take their responsibilities very seriously, and I know that the Security Service takes equally seriously the need to ensure that the commissioners and tribunals have total freedom of access to the records of the service and its staff so that they may satisfy themselves that the work of the service has properly been carried out.

Furthermore, as Minister with authority over the Security Service, as given to him by the 1989 Act, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is accountable to Parliament for the work of the service. Of course, in matters relating to national security, the Government have a particular duty to safeguard information which, if divulged, could help those who are ill disposed towards this country. Thus, while Parliament may wish to question the Home Secretary on this as in other areas, there are bound to be limits to what he can safely say.

This limitation was recognised by the Home Affairs Select Committee in its conclusion that nothing should be done to damage the effectiveness of the Security Service and that operational matters affecting the service would not be revealed publicly, however great the interest there may be in seeing these affairs discussed openly in the House and in the media. There is a distinction to be drawn between what would be of interest to the public and what is in the public interest, but the fact that essential considerations of secrecy may place limitations on what can be said on the Floor of the House about the service and its work does not in any way alter the principle of ministerial accountability to Parliament.

Nevertheless, the Government recognise that there is genuine interest in the House in the question whether the existing approach to oversight, as reflected in the terms of the 1989 Act and which I have just outlined, is the right one. Against the background of the Government's commitment to greater openness, there is a need for us to consider again whether there may be a case for looking afresh at those arrangements.

As I have said, I will not anticipate the Government's response to the Select Committee's recommendations, but I want to make it clear that the Government have no sympathy whatever with the argument—not made by the Home Affairs Committee, and certainly not by the hon. Member for Walsall, North, but often made by critics of the service—that a system involving more direct and intrusive oversight of the service is needed in order to prevent it from acting in a fundamentally undemocratic way and infringing the civil liberties of individuals to no good purpose.

No effective security service can ever routinely deny the many wild and inaccurate stories which are almost bound to circulate in the media from time to time about what it is alleged to have done. If it, or Ministers speaking for it, were to deny such stories on some occasions or outline cases on any occasion on which it was judged not right to issue such a denial, the very fact of silence would be taken by some as confirming the truth of the allegation. Even where subsequent events prove that the allegation was ill founded, what would remain in the minds of the public would be the allegation, not the fact that it had turned out to be unfounded.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

I do not disagree with much that the Minister has said about day-to-day operation, but in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) and Patricia Hewitt, surely the Government conceded the point by what they said before the European Court and by the compensation paid. I did ask the Minister whether he would confirm that.

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle

I said at the outset that I would not comment on individual cases, and I believe that the hon. Gentleman heard that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned "Spycatcher", or at least Peter Wright. Many people recall the allegation contained in "Spycatcher", to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, that the Security Service had engaged in a plot against the Labour Government of the day. Mr. Wright subsequently retracted that allegation on television, but that received far less publicity than his initial claims.

The idea that, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary put it during the debates on the Security Service Act, the Security Service is rather akin to an untamed and possibly dangerous animal which has to be placed in a cage with a bright light shone upon it, and that a keeper has to be employed to go into the cage and announce to the world at every stage what the animal is doing, is quite simply not a view of the Security Service that the Government accept. Nor is it a view that we would be willing to have play any significant part in influencing the shape of any oversight mechanism in respect of the service.

If the House decides, in due course, that it is right to establish a different framework for the oversight of the service from that which has existed up till now, it is vital that the change should be made for the right reasons. Any change would have to strike the right balance. On the one hand, there is the need to ensure that the work of the service, with its undoubted potential for infringing on the civil liberties of individual people, should be carried out in a way which ensures that the service is properly accountable for all that it does; on the other, there is the need to ensure that the vital work which the service carries out in the national interest should not be rendered more difficult or impossible by the public disclosure of its operations or other matters which must remain secret if the service itself is to remain effective. There is always a balance to be struck between those two competing aspects.

It will not surprise the hon. Member for Walsall, North that I cannot say tonight whether the Government will, in due course, decide that, with the passage of time since 1989, it is appropriate to propose a change to the current arrangements. But we do recognise that this is a matter of quite proper concern to many members of the public and to hon. Members. I can assure the House that whatever view we reach on this most important matter will not be reached without the most careful consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Eleven o'clock