Chilcot Report

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 6th February 2008.

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Photo of Gordon Brown Gordon Brown The Prime Minister, Leader of the Labour Party 12:30 pm, 6th February 2008

The Government are today publishing the results of work on the use of communications intercepts as evidence. Those results are contained in the report of the committee of Privy Councillors drawn from the three major parties that was chaired by the right hon. Sir John Chilcot. I am grateful to Sir John, Lord Hurd, Lord Archer, and Mr. Beith for that report. It is thorough, measured, detailed, and unanimous, and it properly reflects both the seriousness and the complexity of the questions that their committee was asked to address.

Let me again pay tribute to our security agencies for all that they do, quietly and effectively, in the defence of our country. I have met and listened to those who lead our agencies, as well as many who serve in them. I praise the expertise, professionalism and courage that they show, often in the most testing and dangerous of circumstances but always in the best interests of our country. I acknowledge, as I believe that all here acknowledge, that what they do defends our freedom, protects our security and saves lives.

The use of intercept in evidence characterises a central dilemma that we face as a free society: preserving our liberties and the rule of law while at the same time keeping our nation safe and secure. In July, in the first statement that I made on security to the House, I said that I favoured the principle of using intercept material as evidence in criminal cases if, but only if, a way could be found to do so while protecting the higher interests of national security. I therefore invited the cross-party Chilcot committee to advise on

"whether a regime to allow the use of intercepted material in court can be devised that facilitates bringing cases to trial while meeting the overall imperative to safeguard national security."

Today, I am publishing a version of the Chilcot committee's report. The committee itself has prepared this version, which omits—in the interests of national security—certain sensitive facts and arguments. Its main conclusions and recommendations, however, are exactly those of the full report.

Briefly, the report examines in detail both the potential benefits of accepting intercept as evidence and the risks that might arise from such acceptance. However, it concludes that it should be possible to find a way to use some intercept material as evidence, provided—and only provided—that certain key conditions can be met. Those conditions relate to the most vital imperative of all: safeguarding our national security. The Government accept that recommendation, and take the accompanying conditions very seriously.

Intercepts are strictly controlled under the 2000 legislation. Interception is allowed only if it is necessary to obtain information that could not be acquired in another way, and any interception must be proportionate to what it seeks to achieve. The relevant decisions of Ministers are overseen by a senior judge and by the interception of communications commissioner, who reports at least annually. In addition, an investigatory powers tribunal exists to consider complaints from the public, and it has powers to order appropriate remedies.

The most recent figures for numbers of interception warrants are in the interception commissioner's annual report, which was published on 28 January. A total of 1,435 intercept warrants were issued in the last nine months of 2006 and that compares with 2,407 in the previous 15 months.

The Chilcot report notes that there are already limited circumstances in civil and terrorist proceedings where intercept can be used in evidence. Each of those instances includes appropriate protections, such as closed proceedings, to ensure that the use of intercept does not put our national security at risk. For any new regime, the Chilcot report sets down conditions. It starts from the proposition that

"any material risk to the strategic capability of the UK's intelligence agencies would be unacceptable", and that

"Any disclosure of interception capabilities could have a profound impact on national security".

That is right. The report also says that any resulting reduction in inter-agency co-operation

"could have a profound impact on law enforcement agencies' ability to combat serious crime and terrorism", and the Government also agree with that assessment.

The report sets out nine conditions in detail. They relate to complex and important issues, and include: giving the intercepting agencies the ability to retain control over whether their material is used in prosecutions; ensuring that disclosure of material cannot be required against the wishes of the agency originating the material; protecting the current close co-operation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies, which is crucial; and ensuring that agencies cannot be required to transcribe or make notes of material beyond a standard of detail that they deem necessary.

The committee that reported to us acknowledges that further extensive work is needed to see whether and how those and other conditions—intended to protect sensitive techniques, safeguard resources, and ensure that intercept can still be used effectively for intelligence—can be met. That is a unanimous recommendation that the Government accept, so we will proceed to develop a detailed implementation plan under which material might be made available for use in criminal cases in England and Wales, strictly subject to all the Chilcot conditions being met. The report is clear that if the conditions could not be met, intercept as evidence should not be introduced, and the Government accept that.

Similarly, the committee recommends that in the event of a regime being introduced that later fails to meet the Chilcot conditions or otherwise threatens our security, that regime should be removed pending the introduction of another, under which the conditions can once again be met. The Government also accept that recommendation. The report also states that the committee has seen no evidence to suggest that the need for measures such as control orders would be reduced by the introduction of intercept as evidence.

Designing a regime to meet the Chilcot conditions will require, as the committee notes, a substantial programme of work, covering legal, operational and technical issues. The work must involve and engage the intelligence agencies, Government Departments, the legal system, and those responsible for communications. The Chilcot team have made it clear to me that the necessary work should be led by an implementation team within Government, which should move ahead comprehensively and quickly. However, the Chilcot team also told me that they would not expect the work to be concluded in time to inform the Counter-Terrorism Bill currently before Parliament.

The Government strongly believe that it is in the national interest to draw on a wide range of expert external advice. The cross-party nature of the Chilcot report has been of great value. I am therefore grateful for Opposition parties' agreement that Sir John Chilcot, Lord Archer, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and another member to be nominated should advise on Privy Councillor terms during the next stage of the work.

The Chilcot report also notes that communications technology is changing rapidly; there is a switch towards internet protocol communications, with the clear implications that that brings for our security. Accordingly, we have launched the interception modernisation programme to update our capability to ensure that, under those new circumstances, our national interests will continue to be protected. The new regime for intercept as evidence must be designed to work safely and effectively for that new capability, too.

As the Chilcot report states, the challenges ahead are complex and must not, and will not, be underestimated. The Government acknowledge and endorse the valuable work of the committee, and are grateful for the committee's support in our continuing efforts to meet the double challenge that we face as a nation. The challenge is at all times and without fail to protect our nation's security while advancing the rule of law. This we will always seek to do. I commend the statement to the House.