Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the Annual Report of the Intelligence and Security Committee for 2006-07, Cm 7299, and the Government response, Cm 7300.
Copy and paste this code on your website
The protection and preservation of national security are the first and foremost responsibility of any Government, and the House will need no reminding of the grave threats that we currently face. In combating terrorists and other threats, we are extremely well served by our security and intelligence agencies, which do an outstanding job in difficult and often dangerous circumstances. I am sure that the House would wish to join me in thanking them for their unstinting efforts to preserve the security of the nation and its citizens.
The agencies have vital roles in supporting the Government's national security policies, and the Government therefore has a duty to ensure that they have the resources necessary to do so. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the House last October, spending dedicated to counter-terrorism and intelligence across government will rise to more than £3.5 billion by 2010-11—a clear indication of the Government's commitment to national security and their strong determination to counter threats from international terrorism.
The activities of the agencies are governed by a body of legislation, and ministerial engagement in itself provides Executive oversight. Legislation also provides for judicial oversight of the agencies by commissioners who report annually to the Prime Minister on their work and whose reports are laid before Parliament. However, in addition to ministerial and judicial oversight, it is essential that Parliament and, through Parliament, the wider public can be assured that the security and intelligence agencies are fulfilling their lawful duties efficiently and effectively. That is the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee—the ISC.
I think that I am the only Member in the House who sat on the Committee that, in the early 1990s, considered the Bill that set up the Intelligence and Security Committee. It struck me then that the Committee was a poodle of the Prime Minister of the day, and it remains a poodle of the Prime Minister of the day. If it is to be truly accountable to the House, should not its position be regularised in some way? Should not it be a Select Committee of the House, rather than a creature of the Prime Minister?
As I will argue, the experience of the Committee's operations has in no way suggested that it is a poodle. Although I do not agree that my hon. Friend's argument is wholly correct, I am nevertheless going to identify where we can improve the Committee's transparency and accountability.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to invite the House to consider the ISC's annual report for 2006-07 under the first of the motions in my name. In doing that, I want to place on record my thanks to the Committee for its valuable work, which its members undertake with commitment and distinction. They carry a heavy weight of responsibility, and they and other hon. Members should be in no doubt that the Government take the Committee's conclusions and recommendations very seriously.
Will the Home Secretary explicitly address the issues raised on pages 1 and 5 of the Government's response? On page 1, the Committee complains that its work has been hampered—its words, not mine—by
"government departments failing to keep the Committee formally informed of changes relevant to its work."
On page 5, it says:
"It is now over *** years since the Intelligence and Security Committee first requested access to the relevant information", but notes that the Government still declined to provide it. What sort of transparency is that? What confidence can we in the House of Commons have when the Government fail to answer even this hand-picked Committee when it makes representations to them? Will the Home Secretary address those two points, please?
My hon. Friend will know that we made it clear in our response that where information should be provided to the Committee, all Departments have a responsibility to make sure that it is provided in a timely way. There have been only a small number of occasions—this relates to the second recommendation that he identified—on which the decision has been taken not to make certain information available to the Committee, and he refers to one of those.
I do not propose to dwell at length on the recommendations, not least because, as we have heard, the Government have already published their response. Hon. Members will have seen that the Government welcome and widely endorse the Committee's views. Where the need for further action has been identified, this has been taken forward. The ISC notes, for example, that the increased funding for the agencies over the next three years is commensurate with the increased threats that the UK faces and the requirements of the agencies to counter them.
However, the Committee also expresses concern that aspects of key intelligence and security work are suffering as a consequence of the focus on counter-terrorism priorities. I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the House that both the Government and the agencies remain very focused on the range of threats to the UK. Although the increase in agency funding was driven largely by the need to respond to the terrorist threat, we continue to resource capabilities to counter other threats effectively. Moreover, capabilities developed to counter terrorism can often be deployed against other targets, and technological advances have led to newer, smarter and more flexible ways of working, which have enhanced our ability to respond to these or any other sudden, unexpected threats.
Obviously, the amount of detail in the report is, of necessity, limited. However, there is at least some indication that anxiety has been expressed about the possibility that the proper emphasis on the counter-terrorism work that is taking place might be undermining some of the work that needs to be done on counter-espionage. To what extent can the Home Secretary provide the House with reassurance that that issue is being addressed, if, in fact, more resources are needed by the Security Service or the Secret Intelligence Service, whose budget has gone up very much less than that of the Security Service?
I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will recognise that it was to provide that reassurance that I identified the concern in the report, and the view of the Government and the agencies, that the considerable increase in resources, while directed at supporting the counter-terror effort, nevertheless enables the agencies to build capability and flexibility. That means that although the amount of resource spent on, for example, counter-espionage is perhaps proportionally less, we can nevertheless be reassured—because counter-espionage work will be able to make use of the capability and resources that have been put in, particularly with respect to the Security Service—that those risks are being covered.
Just to be quite clear, is the Home Secretary saying that the security services are not still worried that they are unable to put as much resource as they would wish into counter-espionage, because I am sure that she has been advised to the contrary?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to the extent that the Committee highlights the difficult decisions that need to be made about priorities. However, I am reassured that the sorts of decisions being made about the investment of those resources are being made explicitly with the intention of ensuring that that extra resource—not only human resource, but resource in terms of capability and functions—will enable the flexibility to shift between priorities, if and when that becomes necessary.
The ISC's reports are produced in accordance with the Committee's remit, as set out in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which is to examine the agencies' expenditure, administration and policy. The Committee's remit is therefore identical to those of departmental Select Committees, but it was established under different arrangements, as we have heard, because of the unique and sensitive nature of its work. Those arrangements were carefully constructed to balance effective oversight of the agencies with the overriding need to preserve national security.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall certainly praise the work undertaken by MI5 and other security agencies. Does she agree that the allegation, which has been denied, that a British citizen was tortured in Pakistan and that British security not only was aware of that, but interrogated that British national while they were held by the Pakistani security authorities, is a very serious one? Would that not be a useful matter for the Committee to investigate, so that if the allegation is false, it can be cleared up once and for all?
With respect to the latter part of my hon. Friend's intervention, I am sure that the Chairman of the Committee is better placed to respond than I am. Let us remember, however, that there has been a categorical denial of the allegation that my hon. Friend mentioned. This country and its intelligence and security agencies abhor torture and neither condone nor support the ability of others to carry it out.
The ISC's remit often requires it to have access to highly classified information, which, if disclosed in public, would be gravely damaging to the national interest and could put individuals at risk. The ISC therefore operates in a ring of secrecy, with a legislative regime governing appointments to the Committee and the disclosure of information. Those arrangements have led to some commentators to argue—we have heard this today, too—that the ISC is insufficiently independent. As I suggested earlier, I am sure that such charges are viewed with justifiable indignation by ISC members past and present, all Members of one House or the other. I pay tribute to all who serve or have served on the Committee for their professionalism and, speaking as someone who has appeared before them, for their spirited independence, too.
My right hon. Friend cannot get away with this. Whatever we might say in this place, it is no reflection on our colleagues; the important point is the principle of the thing. Just yesterday evening, Lord Campbell-Savours approached me about that specific point. When he was a member of the Committee, he challenged, both inside and outside, the nature of its selection. He says that it is flawed, and I believe that that is the view of some of those in the Chamber this afternoon who serve on the Committee. They think that the method of selection is wrong—in many respects it is an embarrassment—and they agree that the ISC should become a parliamentary Committee. My right hon. Friend should not try to divide us on this.
Heaven forbid that I might suggest that my hon. Friend would ever be divided from any of his colleagues. I am coming on to the reform of the selection of the members of the Committee, which forms part of the function of the motions standing in my name. "The Governance of Britain", which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched last year, provided a new context in which to consider whether parliamentary oversight arrangements could be made more accountable and transparent. The Government concluded that significant improvements could be made and set out specific proposals in the White Paper published in March this year; the second motion standing in my name invites the House to endorse them. The aim is to bring arrangements governing the ISC and its operation as closely as possible into line with those governing departmental Select Committees.
For the reasons of national security that I have mentioned, a legislative framework is essential. The White Paper describes changes that will achieve the aim within the existing legislative framework and which can be implemented immediately. The Government have not ruled out the possibility of legislative change in the future, but believe that the package of measures outlined in the White Paper will significantly increase the Committee's transparency and accountability to Parliament.
The Home Secretary says that she has not ruled out statutory reform. When the Green Paper was published, the Prime Minister said in his statement that he thought that the Committee should have a strengthened capacity for investigations. That cannot be achieved without statutory reform. The Home Secretary's language rather suggests that that commitment is fading. Will she clarify the position one way or the other?
I was just coming on to the point that we can more quickly ensure that there is the sort of investigative resource that the Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, is keen to have in place so that it can carry out its role. I do not believe that increasing that investigative capability does involve legislation. I think that we can do it more quickly than if we needed to legislate. Let me describe the proposals in greater detail.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the oversight arrangements in Congress are very different from those of the Intelligence and Security Committee and that, in particular, the congressional bodies are not given access to anything like the level of information that our ISC is?
My right hon. Friend, who speaks from experience, refers to the very important balance that we have to achieve. In my view, it is fundamental to the Committee's role that it has the fullest possible access to classified material in order properly to carry out its functions. That, in itself, creates a constraint on the extent of the openness that is appropriate. It is a careful balance that we wrestle with whenever we consider the nature and reform of the Committee.
Let me explain in greater detail how we propose to move towards greater transparency and accountability. First, on the appointment of ISC members, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 contains the explicit provision that ISC members are to be appointed by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. It is the Prime Minister who is ultimately responsible for national security matters, so he is accountable for them to the House. It is therefore right that he should retain the ultimate say over who is admitted to that inner ring of secrecy. Within that framework, however, there is scope for giving a much greater role to Parliament. The White Paper proposed adopting a process similar to that for Joint Select Committee appointments. Following that model, the Government propose that future nominations for membership of the ISC should be put before the House by the Committee of Selection. Members will then have the opportunity to vote on the nominations that will be put to the Prime Minister for appointment. This model will ensure the full participation of Parliament in a transparent appointment process. It requires a new Standing Order of the House, which is the subject of the third motion in my name. The Government will seek to put comparable arrangements in place for Lords ISC members.
Further measures will assist members of the ISC in fulfilling their statutory duties and add further emphasis to their independence. With the Committee, we will explore how some hearings might be structured to allow unclassified evidence to be heard in open session, as is generally the case with most Select Committees. Given the nature of most of the evidence that the Committee hears, evidence sessions have hitherto been conducted in private. That was, and on most occasions will remain, a prudent requirement for the protection of national security. The Government believe, however, that the public would welcome the opportunity to understand better how the Committee works. There could be no better way than to see it in action.
We and the Committee will therefore look for opportunities when the subject matter would allow Ministers or agency heads—the chair of the Secret Intelligence Service, the director-general of the Security Service and the director of GCHQ—personally to give evidence in public briefing sessions.
Perhaps I have interrupted the Home Secretary in mid-flow and prematurely. I am supportive of the Government's approach, as I will make clear in my remarks, but is there not a danger that if such public hearings are to take place, they will have to have a bit of meat in them? Otherwise, an impression will be conveyed to the public that the hearings are merely a rehearsal in front of the public—a show without substance. Although I will not object to the proposal, I have an anxiety that that might be the consequence, in which case people might end up more dissatisfied than they are at present.
The hon. and learned Gentleman rightly identifies the risk and the challenge. Of course we must not put national security or the safety of individuals at risk, but we must also find a way of allowing for genuine and substantive public examination of the issues. Within those constraints, the Government would welcome such a move towards greater transparency.
To return to the point made earlier, we will also explore how we might provide the Committee with additional support to enhance its abilities to conduct investigations. The ISC has employed its own investigator in the past, and the Government and Committee will draw on that previous experience to consider resources for future appointments and appropriate terms of reference. We will also explore how we might reinforce the ISC's independence by finding alternative secure accommodation outside the offices of the Cabinet secretariat. There should be no suggestion that the current co-location in any way compromises the Committee's independence. In the interests of transparency, however, a move would be preferable, and we are already exploring such options.
As the Home Secretary knows, most if not all members of the Committee agree with the recommendations that she is making. There is a concern, however, that we will be asked to do certain things, but not be provided with the financial resources to enable us to do them properly. Will she assure the House that that will not be the case?
The Committee and its secretariat have rightly been in discussions with the Cabinet Office about ensuring that such resources are in place. Although all areas of government rightly face constraints, I hope to reassure the Committee that we recognise the resource implications of both the move and, for example, the investigators, and that those requirements will be met.
One further issue has led some to question the independence of the ISC. As specified in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, its reports are submitted directly to the Prime Minister, whereas Select Committees report to the House. The Government do not propose a change to that arrangement. The ISC must have the ability, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth said, to draw on its access to information of the highest classification when compiling its reports. But that means that its reports, too, contain highly classified information. Therefore, it is essential that the Prime Minister, as the ultimate guardian of national security, is the first to see the Committee's reports in their entirety. Subsequently, of course, a version of each report is prepared for publication and laid before the House. That version contains visible redactions, but only when publication would be damaging to national security. However, we believe that there is scope for further enhancing the independence of the ISC by ensuring that its Chairman opens debates on its reports in the House in future rather than a Government Minister.
Although I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience of opening the debate today, I am pleased that in future that role will—rightly, in my view—be played by the Chair of the ISC herself. Again, that will bring ISC practice more into line with debates on Select Committee reports. In addition, the Government propose that there should be a new opportunity for debates on ISC reports in the House of Lords, opened by an appropriate ISC member.
The Intelligence and Security Committee fulfils a vital role for Parliament and the wider public. That is evident from the report that the House is considering today. "The Governance of Britain" consultation outlined two aims for enhancing that role: increased transparency and greater accountability to Parliament. We believe that the proposals in the White Paper achieve those aims and they are reflected in the motions, which I commend to the House.
I thank the Home Secretary for her presentation of the Government's position and for opening the debate on the report. It gives me great pleasure on a day when we have crossed swords across the Dispatch Box to have the opportunity to agree with a large part of everything that she has said.
The report's position and the debate that we need to have this afternoon raise difficult issues. I have considerable sympathy with some of the things that Andrew Mackinlay is trying to achieve. There is no doubt in my mind that the position from the point of view of this House on the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee is by its very nature rather unsatisfactory.
We have been given the opportunity to send some of our Members into the inner circles of intelligence to be provided with information. That might be of use to the Prime Minister, but it is fair to say, and this is not a criticism of the Committee or the Government, that when one comes to read an annual report such as this—the criticism might apply rather less to some of the more specific reports that are produced—it is a very anodyne document. The meat of what we would want to consider is largely absent and redacted out, affecting our ability to have a sensible debate on the Floor of the House. The issues about whether we are getting value for money from the agencies and whether the agencies are focusing on the issues that should be of primary concern to our country are largely impossible to address. I accept that, and I suspect that the Home Secretary accepts it, too. That is not to say that setting up the ISC was a bad idea nor to suggest that we cannot find valuable things in its work.
Before I turn to the structures, I intend to attempt to focus a little on what the report actually says. It seems to me that unless we focus a little on some of the points, we might not be able to get clarity on the direction we ought to be travelling in as we try to improve the Committee's work and its methods of reporting. Let me turn briefly to what the report contains. The first thing that has become very striking—the Government will have to keep this in mind in the future as regards transparency —is that the agencies are costing more and more money. Within three years, as I understand it, £2.147 billion of public funds will be spent on the agencies' work. I think I am right in saying that that is more than the budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. What was originally a small area of Government expenditure is increasingly becoming a major area of expenditure or, at least, sufficiently large to focus Parliament's mind on the financial issues. That is particularly the case when one makes the link to the fact that what was previously regarded as work on counter-espionage now has work on counter-terrorism as its primary function and is, thus, a very live issue for this House and the public.
I must say to the Home Secretary that there must be a question mark over whether further information could not reasonably be supplied to Members of Parliament. For example, paragraph 15 of the report provides us with the total breakdown of resources and capital for the entire intelligence agencies, but, for reasons that I understand, we are denied a breakdown between the services. There is an unsatisfactory element to this. Elsewhere in the report we can ascertain that, in terms of the rise in the number of personnel, the Security Service has benefited a lot in comparison with the Secret Intelligence Service, yet we know that much of the work on counter-terrorism that must be done to protect our country is being done abroad—indeed, that is hinted at elsewhere in the report. I am sure that the Home Secretary will appreciate that if it were possible for the House to be given further information about how the budget breaks down, we would find that immeasurably useful in playing our role as the scrutineers of public finances. I am, however, mindful of the difficulty that the Government have on the topic.
My hon. and learned Friend will know that when the Committee started, no figures were published. We are pushing away at this door and making some progress. I want to reassure him that we will continue to push at this door, because I agree that the more we can put into the public domain, the better. However there are restraints: if we were to publish the breakdowns, we would show where the shoe was pinching and we do not, and should not, want those who are not friendly towards us to know that.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's comments, and I have no difficulty in agreeing with everything that he said. Our enemies would be interested in knowing where the shoe is pinching, but, equally so would Parliament, because it might conclude that more funds should be made available or that the way in which the funds are prioritised does not provide the best value for money. Such a debate would, in an ideal world, be of interest to the Government, because history shows that when Governments are taken to task and held to account—politely, I would hope—in such matters, it often leads to improvements, whereas if such matters remain concealed within the Departments concerned, it makes life rather more difficult.
I am mindful that we are very reliant on my right hon. Friend and the other members of the Committee, both those who are present today and those who are not, for their good sense in bringing to bear what pressure they can on the Government on these matters. Equally, it is right to point out that the Committee's members do not have, as an ordinary Select Committee has, the force of the House behind them in making those representations. We cannot simply ignore those issues.
It may help the hon. and learned Gentleman if I were to tell him that the Committee does play a role in examining the value-for-money aspect of the agencies. We are advised by the National Audit Office on the issues of concern that we should pursue. For some of our sittings in any given year, we take on a role that is, in many ways, not dissimilar to that of the Public Accounts Committee.
I am very much aware of that, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the work that is being done. I simply say that there remains a blank sheet of paper in respect of the House's ability to make such an assessment.
I shall give an example of how it might be possible to revisit matters. We know that regionalisation policy in respect of the Security Service has been very successful. The Government say so and the Committee says so, and I have no reason to doubt that. However, we still have not been told where the regional centres are. I should say that I am satisfied that I know exactly where the regional centres are—and I have not been given leaked information—because the information is in the public domain, although kept out of the report. A sensible trawl of some of the information that is not being made public might reveal that much of it is easily accessible to anyone who wishes to discover it. That might enable a little more to be said publicly than is said at the moment.
One of the issues that I want to see greater debate on is the respective roles of the Secret Intelligence Service and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The report says that increasingly it might be possible to place greater reliance on the SOCA in counter-insurgency work, especially because of its involvement in counter-narcotics work. The point is also made that the Secret Intelligence Service has an important role in that and that some aspects of that have to be maintained as a priority, partly because of the work it does with our international partners. That is a fertile area for debate. SOCA is a legitimate subject for debate in the House, and indeed some anxieties have been expressed about whether it is functioning correctly. It will certainly be difficult for us to have any sensible discussion about an area that concerns crime prevention as much as it does national security unless further information can, from time to time, be provided that fleshes out the subject. It is only hinted at in the report.
The report also says quite a lot about financial and resilience issues, and about GCHQ and the flooding that took place in Gloucestershire last year. It remains deliciously opaque whether the problem is with the disruption of personnel going to work or whether we have invested a large amount of money on a building located on a floodplain. That is a relevant consideration in view of the amount of money that we have sunk into it. I hope that we may have some further clarity on that.
I do not want to labour these points too much, but I have serious anxieties about what emerges from the report—and what is not said—about the SCOPE programme. SCOPE 1, which is a major piece of Government investment in providing the software to enable the rapid exchange of information between different agencies, has apparently been successfully carried out. The report tells us that SCOPE 2 has been held up. In the last couple of days, The Guardian has told us that, in fact, SCOPE 2 has been shelved, but the Committee's report tells us that it is an important project to enable information sharing. Given the Government's record on IT projects—although to be kind to the Home Secretary, I could say the same about every Government's track record on handling IT projects—that should be an issue of major concern to the House. I wonder whether the Minister who will respond to the debate can give us more information on that point without breaching security, because there is a clear difference between those two reports. Given the importance of SCOPE 2 in the context of the Government's overall strategy to make information readily exchangeable between agencies, it would be useful if we could have more information.
I have conducted a quick trot around what is a dense report—I shall try to read it in greater detail to conjure up what might be hiding behind the asterisks—but I wish to turn to the issues on which we shall vote this afternoon. I entirely welcome the Government's concessions as set out in the White Paper, "The Governance of Britain". We will support them: they are welcome and, although they do not go far enough to meet the very understandable anxieties of the hon. Member for Thurrock, I am sure that he would be the first to accept that they go somewhere in the right direction.
I think that they are a charade. Many hon. Members think that they amount to a major change, but no such change can be made until the next general election. An undisclosed codicil to the St. Andrews agreement means that the Democratic Unionist party could get a seat. If that happens, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalist party are also entitled to one. The Government have to bring primary legislation to the House before they can make any of the proposed changes. That is the truth, and the House needs to know it. I think that it is section 10 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994 that limits the Committee's membership to nine. Moreover, the fact that the Committee contains only one Member of the House of Lords makes it difficult for the Home Secretary to find appropriate representation for the other place.
Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. I certainly was not suggesting that these are major changes, and he is right that some of them are more statements of intent. However, to the extent that a statement of intent is better than nothing, I suppose that there might be a meeting of minds between us that the Government seem to be taking a step in the right direction. I am a great believer that such matters have their own dynamic. Once one starts freeing the logjam and accepting that the way in which a Committee operates is going to change, at least at some time in the future—and we will definitely keep pressure on the Government to honour their commitments in that respect—it is likely to follow of itself that those changes will generate pressure to bring about more change. The direction must be towards openness, and the Government would have to come up with some very good reasons indeed if they were not to ensure that.
I shall listen very carefully to what the hon. Member for Thurrock has to say, but we take a rather pragmatic view. One difficulty that we share is that we are not privy to all the information on which a decision about whether his idea is a good one will be based. That may seem obvious, but it is the truth. We are sympathetic to what he is trying to achieve but we are not in a position to say to the Government that the problems that are identified with his proposals are not real.
To an extent, we are guided by what members of the Committee say, although I am always conscious that there is a danger of them going native and ceasing to be the upholders of the interests of the House. When that happens, it is because they are lured magnetically into a world where the fact that rooms and secret information are made available to them gently and subtly affects their judgment. They are grateful for being made privy to matters that are not available to other people. That said, I would not in anyway wish it to be suggested that members of the Committee do not do a very valuable job—indeed, the very reverse: I have a very high opinion of their work.
I think that it almost certainly will. That is one of the inherent tensions in the different roles that one plays in Government and in the House. We cannot escape that, and it is wiser for the House to accept it openly and to tease out the consequences. The risk that I have described exists but we are fortunate that, over the time that the Committee has been operating, its reports and approach have consistently commanded widespread respect throughout the House. I am very grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for the work that is being done, and I am sure that everyone else is too.
As I said, I shall listen to the hon. Member for Thurrock with great care but, for the reasons that I have set out, it seems to me that the points raised by the Home Secretary have some force. The danger that I foresee can happen very easily, even with Select Committees, and the danger is that if we start putting in place structures because the agencies involved no longer have confidence that the Committee is working in a way that will not adversely affect their operational capacity, the result will be that the information will start to dry up. At that point, we have the problem that the Committee can no longer do its work as well as it may be doing it at present.
There is a dilemma here and I do not pretend to be able to resolve it, but I am grateful for the opportunity that we have had this afternoon to debate these matters.
This may be a slightly unfair question, given that my hon. and learned Friend has only been in his job for a couple of weeks. The Home Secretary said that she did not rule out statutory reform in the future. Is that still his position? What is his approach to statutory reform?
I probably failed to make that clear. We would, in government, look to see whether statutory reform could be introduced. Indeed, I go further: we would look to the issues that have been raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock to see whether they can be properly implemented, and whether we can create a Select Committee on much more traditional Select Committee lines. That is our view. But as I said, I do not have the information at present on which I could make such a decision. All I can say to the House is that that is an undertaking that I am quite happy to give.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I seek your advice? As I understand it, the Foreign Secretary is winding up the debate. We have now had the opening speeches by the Home Secretary and by my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve, and presumably whoever winds up the debate will be winding up on the basis of what they have heard in the debate, so I was wondering whether the Foreign Secretary is actually going to pop into the debate during the unrolling of the contributions by Members.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Foreign Secretary has been inadvertently detained. I, of course, will ensure that the Foreign Secretary understands all the very apposite points that have been made so far in the debate, and I understand that he is on his way.
Clearly, the most satisfactory situation is one in which the Minister winding up has heard the proceedings during the debate. It is not a matter for the Chair to decide which Ministers respond to debates, but the whole House will have heard the points, and also the points that the Home Secretary has put on the record.
I have had the privilege of chairing the Intelligence and Security Committee only since January this year, but I would like at once to record my own thanks, and that of all my Committee colleagues, I believe, to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, who is now Secretary of State for Wales, for his excellent leadership of the Committee from July 2005 to January 2008.
The Committee's annual report focuses on its statutory role of examining the administration, policy and expenditure of the three agencies—the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters. It also examines matters relating to the wider intelligence community, such as the Joint Intelligence Committee and the defence intelligence staff. During the period covered by the report, the Committee held 49 formal meetings and 19 informal sessions and undertook a number of visits. It took evidence from Ministers, the police and senior officials, including the heads of the agencies and the chief of defence intelligence.
I should like to put on record my very sincere thanks to the members of the Committee, from all parties and both Houses, for their continued hard work and commitment, as evidenced by—
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Lady. I should have reminded the House—I am giving her time off for this—that there is now a 10-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches.
I am very conscious of it, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Committee members' hard work and commitment is evidenced by something—I hope that people will not take this amiss—that I feel few Select Committees can boast of: a more than 90 per cent. attendance at meetings. I also thank Committee members for the constructive and non-partisan way in which they approach their work.
Since the report deals with the period before I joined the Committee, I will not seek to discuss its detail; in any event some members of the Committee, on both sides of the House, may wish to do so. But I want to point out that it identifies some ongoing concerns, such as anxiety about non-counter-terrorism work or about the potential impact of any attempt to use intercept material as evidence, and some issues that were then current, such as the BAE Saudi Arabia case.
During 2006-07, the security and intelligence agencies faced a tremendous work load in their efforts to counter the international threat from terrorism. They had a number of successes: they disrupted an alleged airliner plot in 2006 and another plot to kidnap and murder a Muslim soldier in the west midlands in 2007. There were also a number of successful convictions, including those of five men involved in a fertiliser bomb plot and seven men associated with Dhiren Barot who were involved in planning attacks.
The Committee would like to record its thanks and praise to the staff of the agencies for those and other unpublicised successes, but to reiterate that, despite hard work and increased resources, there is no guarantee that attack planning will always be detected and all attacks prevented in future. Some 200 extremist networks—of those that we know about—remain currently under investigation. Given that very real threat, it is an important part of the Committee's role to make public as much information as we can about the work of the agencies and to try to dispel some of the myths.
There will always be limits on what we can say without putting at risk lives or operations or damaging the agencies' capabilities by revealing their methods, and we do not believe that the public would want that. So, as has been mentioned—I understand the concern—we redact or withhold sensitive information from the reports, replacing it with asterisks, but we also say that we have investigated the issues and whether we are satisfied or not satisfied, as the case may be.
It is often alleged—we have touched on this today in the debate—that the asterisks in and omissions from the report mean that the Committee is not doing a proper job. There is an opposite argument: the asterisks are evidence that the Committee is doing a proper job, because they show that we have seen the evidence, are looking at all the information and reaching our conclusions based on the full facts. The fact that we cannot reveal all information in a public report is, as has been repeatedly said in the debate, perhaps an inevitable consequence of the subject matter with which we deal. If we published all that we were told, we could not provide proper scrutiny, because we would be unlikely to be given the information in the first place.
The Committee is not, of course, the sole source of oversight. The interception of communications commissioner and the intelligence services commissioner check that the agencies act within the law, how powers conferred on the Secretaries of State are exercised and that warrants and authorisations are correct, proportionate and exercised correctly, so that they do not accidentally target the wrong person. They, too, report to the Prime Minister every year, and the Prime Minister lays the reports before Parliament.
The investigatory powers tribunal was set up under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. It exists to investigate complaints against the agencies from any person, regardless of nationality, and can investigate anything that an individual believes has happened to them, their property or their communications.
My right hon. Friend probably heard my intervention on the Home Secretary in which I mentioned the serious allegations that a British national had been tortured by Pakistan's secret service and MI5 was aware of it, which has been denied. I do not want my right hon. Friend to commit herself, but will the Committee consider looking into those allegations and investigating accordingly?
As I have already indicated, individual cases are matters for the tribunal. The Intelligence and Security Committee investigates the policy and, indeed, the implementation of the policy by the agencies; the tribunal looks at individual cases. However, I assure my hon. Friend that the Committee is aware and very mindful of the serious concerns that he has raised.
Not being a member of the tribunal, or—I fear—having yet closely studied its work, I am not sure. However, complaints are a matter for its very serious judgment and I am sure that it weighs them carefully, as all such bodies would.
The commissioners to whom I referred check that the agency's actions are within the law. The tribunal investigates individuals' complaints, and the Intelligence and Security Committee examines administration, policy and expenditure, as do departmental Select Committees. The Intelligence and Security Committee itself was established by the Intelligence Services Act 1994. It set its own work programme, and that work has grown and developed over the years. The Committee produces not only an annual report but, as has been mentioned, ad hoc reports, most latterly on the subject of rendition. The Committee is composed of experienced parliamentarians who value their independence and work on a non-partisan basis to deliver rigorous scrutiny.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, however, after so many years it is definitely time to take stock of how the Committee works. When the Prime Minister first broached the issue of reform in the Green Paper "The Governance of Britain", he invited my predecessor to advise on how the Committee should be reformed—strengthened to enable even more effective oversight, while seeking to increase parliamentary accountability and public understanding.
In many ways, the Committee's operations already parallel those of departmental Select Committees. It is the nature of the material that Committee members examine that means that we sit behind closed doors, as much of it, as has been said, cannot be put into the public domain. However, if today's motion is carried, the Committee will consider in the next Session whether there are areas of its work that can be discussed in public—for example, in relation to the national security strategy or the threat assessment. We hope that that will give greater insight into how the Committee works and reduce the level of secrecy when secrecy is not necessary.
Another proposed change to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred is the proposal to re-explore the use of investigators. The Committee has used an investigator to examine administrative matters such as the vetting system and postal arrangements. However, I must emphasise that the Committee will nevertheless continue to conduct major inquiries itself. We all feel a responsibility to examine the evidence first hand on important issues such as rendition or the
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We feel that responsibility, but we believe that a pool of expert investigators such as those used by departmental Select Committees would be a welcome additional resource to help with our work. The Committee also welcomes the proposal that its reports be debated in the other place, because its membership is drawn from both Houses and it is important that debates are held in both Chambers. It is also important that there should be an opportunity to debate not only the Committee's annual reports, but all its infrequent ad hoc reports—not least because those ad hoc reports often generate the most interest. Debates on them would also increase awareness of the Committee's work among Members of both Houses.
However, I want to stress the point made by members of the Committee in the debate and to which the Home Secretary responded. The changes that we are discussing cannot be implemented without additional resources. Indeed, welcome for the proposals has to be conditional on such resources being available, in what I completely recognise is a tight financial climate, to strengthen the secretariat, who are already very hard pressed and work very long hours. If the Committee is to maintain—let alone expand—its work load, that has to be taken into account.
That said, I believe that the proposals will enhance the Committee's role, provide a greater role for Parliament and offer the public greater visibility of our work. It is vital—and this view is clearly shared across the House—that there should be rigorous and independent scrutiny of the agencies, and the Committee will continue to provide it.
I apologise to the Home Secretary for missing the beginning of her speech. I am pleased to follow Margaret Beckett and to know that the Intelligence and Security Committee is in her good hands; she has had experience in Government of dealing with many parts of the relevant agencies.
We support the provisions in the White Paper, "The Governance of Britain". We will also support the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), which add to the transparency and accountability and, to some degree, clarify the separation of powers, which has become somewhat muddled in this area. We also welcome the Committee's authoritative and detailed annual report for 2006-07. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Beith on the Committee. Members might be aware that he is not present today because he is recovering from successful treatment for a heart problem. I am sure that all Members of the House wish him a speedy recovery. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]
I should also like to put on record on behalf of the Liberal Democrats our support for the brave work of the intelligence services in protecting the lives of our citizens and the safety of our communities. I very much hope that, in line with the right hon. Member for Derby, South's suggestion, we shall be able to have debates on the ad hoc reports of the Committee—as they sometimes highlight the very useful work that the intelligence services do—as well as on the annual report.
I also note that the last ISC report was produced more than two years ago, and it is perhaps regrettable that we have not had a chance to discuss this matter before. The report that we are discussing today covers the period up to October 2007, and was published in January 2008. I hope that, in future, we can return to an annual cycle, because describing this as an annual report puts us at some risk of contravening the Trade Descriptions Act.
We support the measures to bring the appointments procedure in line with standard practice, as set out in paragraph 237 of the White Paper, "The Governance of Britain", and the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee's standing order. It is right that Parliament, and not the Prime Minister, should have the primary role in nominating members of the Committee, if only to preserve some form of separation of the legislature from the Executive. The ISC must be independent of the Government, and it must be seen to be independent if its reports are to have the standing that they deserve. I believe that the intelligence services see the merit of that argument from their point of view as well, understandable though their concerns are about putting information that might be of use to our enemies into the public domain.
We welcome the moves to explore alternative accommodation options for the ISC, with the necessary private, secure environment, away from the Cabinet Office. I hope that these are not just empty words, and that the Foreign Secretary will be able to give us more information on any progress in that regard when he replies to the debate. Perhaps in our debate on these matters next year, we will be able to have a report on the successful conclusion of that move.
The issue of independence is at the heart of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Thurrock. Obviously, the sensitive nature of the information being handled means that the Committee requires heavily security cleared and trusted staff, but I do not believe that such staff cannot be under the authority of the Clerk of the House. In fact, I can think of few people more highly regarded and trusted by Members on both sides of the House. It is also vital, especially as the ISC expands its investigatory work, that there is no question of the Executive having improper influence over the staff of the Committee.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that public briefings by agency heads or Ministers are no replacement for a properly constituted public Committee meeting. We recognise that some meetings—indeed, probably the great majority of them—will need to be held in private. However, the ISC should have the option of meeting in public, and I was delighted to hear that possibility being mentioned by the right hon. Member for Derby, South. For this reason, we will support the amendments.
In the debate on the previous report, my right hon. Friend Mr. Clegg expressed the Liberal Democrats' support for the regionalisation programme within the Security Service. We are delighted to hear that it has been such a success. I very much share the sentiments expressed by Mr. Grieve, who said that the excessiveness of the secrecy applied to the reports is demonstrated by the availability of the information on public websites. It might be sensible if, before the next report is sent to the House, the redactor checked exactly what is available in the public domain on websites; it tends to be rather more than we might like.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the Intelligence and Security Committee published its report in December 2007. It is now summer 2008. Since December 2007, much information has appeared in the public domain that was not previously available, so there is a time gap.
I take the hon. Lady's point, and any information that was secret at the time of the report, but that has since become public, is not covered by my injunction. Nevertheless, I suspect that if the exercise that I suggested were carried out before the redaction of next year's report, the hon. Lady would still be surprised to discover just how much information was available on public websites. That is true with regard to many matters, not least Members' addresses. It is quite astonishing what one can find out on 192.com, without having to ring up a member of the Security Service.
I cannot resist taking this opportunity to say that although the hon. Gentleman thought he would be able to get my address on 192.com, I checked it out, and he would not have succeeded. The main point is that there is a difference between something being available on some unauthorised site on the internet, and something being confirmed in an official publication.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, and I will not try to transgress the boundaries of what is relevant to the debate any longer. I take what he says on board.
Members will be aware of the Liberal Democrats' long-standing concern about the decision to halt the Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE Systems' dealings with Saudi Arabia. I do not wish to repeat our position, which my hon. Friend Dr. Cable has made clear in numerous debates in the House, but it disappoints us that the ISC was refused sight of the minute from the Prime Minister to the Attorney-General that accompanied the note, "The Saudi contribution to our domestic and international efforts to combat terrorism". That whole episode has done great damage to our reputation at home and abroad. I note that the Committee states that it
"is satisfied that...there were serious national security considerations which contributed to the Serious Fraud Office's decision to halt the investigation".
Obviously, I can only take the Committee at its word, but the fact that investigations into corruption must be stopped for that reason does not, in the public's mind, reflect well on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Government or the security services.
Mr. Grieve was careful to say that although we want to push the envelope, as far as transparency and accountability are concerned, we do not want to risk second-guessing things that we do not really know about. Are not Chris Huhne and his Front-Bench colleagues already crossing that line?
I do not believe that I am crossing that line in relation to the issue of whether to intervene in a legal investigation, because there are wider considerations than those that are of concern to the intelligence services, not least among which is the reputation of British businesses. How many of them will lose business as a result of clients' fears that if they do business with British businesses, it might be taken as a sign that they are in receipt of corrupt payments or bribes? There are wider considerations, and although the Foreign Secretary, whom we welcome to the Chamber, is chortling at that, I assure him that in many parts of the world it is significant for clients to know that business contracts are being signed for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
I note that the Committee has reiterated the importance of intercept evidence, while respecting the point that we await the result of the Government's deliberations on the Chilcot review. We hope that a resolution can quickly be found that allows for the successful prosecution of terror suspects by using intercept evidence while protecting the needs of our security services. We know, for example, that that has been done successfully in the United States and Australia, both of which are in close intelligence relationships with our intelligence services. Liberal Democrat Members therefore see no reason why we should not proceed.
In July 2007, the ISC produced its special report on rendition, which shows the important work that the ISC must be allowed to perform on the operations of the intelligence services. I pay tribute to the Committee for that work.
Reports such as this seem to show the importance of having an investigator with extensive powers. It is disappointing that the Committee has been without an investigator since 2004, when the then investigator, John Morrison, appeared on "Panorama", after which his contract was—perhaps unsurprisingly—not renewed. It is surely possible for the Committee to find an investigator whose contractual terms ensure that they do not pop up on prime-time television. Although we welcome the commitment in the reform proposals to appoint an investigatory team, I hope that the skills and experience of that team are well used and allow greater scrutiny.
Overall, we welcome the report and the suggested reforms. We hope that debates will become annual and that the independence of the ISC will be cemented by the acceptance of the amendment. We also congratulate the staff of the intelligence services on their work.
It is pleasing to hear that the Government attach importance to the work of the ISC. The belief that the Committee provides independent and effective parliamentary oversight is gratifying. We spend hours and hours on that work: I make no complaint, but it is worth putting on record that we spend as much time as it takes, and more, if we think that the answers that we have been given are not as complete as they should be. [ Interruption. ] I am no poodle, and I think that the House recognises that fact.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy chaired the Committee in 2006-07, when the report was compiled. His chairmanship was often humorous, always purposeful and much appreciated. Today, we are chaired by my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett. The House has witnessed her detailed grasp of the issues today, and it is a privilege to serve under her chairmanship.
Like all ISC members, I want to express my thanks to the ISC staff. The staff are half the size of that of most Select Committees, but they are competent and manage an enormous work load. It is a long time since the Committee took evidence from the agencies for the 2006-07 annual report. Even so, the belief remains fresh in my mind that Britain has security agencies that are adaptive and innovative in dealing with the challenges presented by some very difficult times.
The evidence makes it clear that we should all acknowledge two factors. First, intelligence is invariably fragmentary and partial, rather than a complete picture. It is information gained against the wishes, and usually without the knowledge, of targets. Complex analysis is required to evaluate intelligence. Secondly, intelligence is never an end in itself. It serves to inform an understanding of risks and threats, to provide warning and to define the need for investigation or disruptive action. That is the complex area in which our agencies are working. Following the Committee's purposeful evidence sittings with the agencies, I am confident in saying that the staff of the agencies understand the complexities of the various roles that they must perform and energetically and enthusiastically manage enormous tasks.
I do not know whether I should be grateful to my hon. Friend. I referred to the Committee, having sat on the Committee that set it up, as a poodle of the Prime Minister of the day. If there was any inference against individual members of the Committee, I join my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay in saying that there is no reflection on them—it is to do with the concept of the Committee itself.
In light of my hon. Friend's encomium for the security services and their sagacity in all matters to do with our security, does she appreciate that, since the sexed-up dossier, and before that, many people do not see them like that? In her view, what has changed in recent years, since that tremendously tragic mistake, to reinforce our faith that they would not repeat that kind of wrong analysis?
I wish that there were an answer that would reassure us that there will never again be a 7/7, but sadly, as my hon. Friend knows, that answer cannot be given. Terrorists have to be right once; the agencies, and all of us, have to be right all the time if we are to protect ourselves. Frankly, the question was inappropriate.
I will not give way at the moment, but I will shortly.
In the 2006-07 report, many of the agencies commented that there was a level of satisfaction about the finances provided by the Government. Mr. Grieve, who is not in his place, made the appropriate statement that a significant amount of money is being spent, which must be monitored at all times. I entirely agree with that, as, I believe, does every Committee member. I would add, however, that when we talked about the resources that the agencies have, the former director general said:
"my main concern has been, and still is, we do not have enough people to do the job".
I have never interpreted that statement as referring to the number of people they employ, which has grown considerably; I interpret it as referring to the scale of requirements.
Over the years, certainly since 7/7, we have become much more aware of the growth of potential terrorist activity. The agencies know that 200 extremist networks are currently under investigation, some with the intent and capability of carrying out attacks against the UK. Special branch has added to that by stating that there are 2,000 individuals in the UK about which it has concern—a very careful use of language—and that those people often have multiple identities. Worse than that, the situation is so different from that which we had to face in Ireland. The people involved are part of informal networks, not formal ones that we could recognise, and did recognise—and, of course, there are others about which little or nothing is known.
Serious concern is being expressed that there are not enough people to do the job. That has to be seen in the context of the scale of requirements. We have to acknowledge the complex nature and size of the problem that fundamentalism represents. The agencies have an enormous job to do in achieving a safe Britain.
That was a very positive question about something that the Committee should consider in greater detail. In fact, we have done some work in this field, and it is a mistake that we have not referenced it. I will comment on that a little further in my speech if I have time.
There is a positive response to the work load that the agencies face. People who have read the report will know that there is an increasing determination to work collaboratively. I see that not simply as valuable, but as invaluable and essential. I am sorry that it has taken the agencies so long to get to the point where they are working much more collaboratively. There has clearly been less competition between them, less exclusivity of knowledge and less scoring points off each other. Perhaps we would all have anticipated that after 7/7; there is no longer any room for such boys' games, if the House will excuse the expression.
It is not just that the agencies' way of working is much more collaborative. We have supported collaboration. We heard from the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield about SCOPE. He was cautiously but clearly critical about the fact that the overseas project has still not been fielded. We have also been critical about the slowness with which SCOPE has delivered. The intentions of SCOPE are excellent; the delivery programme has been less so.
Again, it is important for us to see the matter as it is. SCOPE is a secure electronic communication system transferring known intelligence, and inevitably we would all see that as totally appropriate. We know that Departments and agencies can ask for information and that it is delivered in 15 minutes—previously, it took 12 hours. There is no doubt in my mind that it is an excellent piece of kit, which we have to support. I am confident that, although the way in which it is used internationally has slipped, it will be used and it will be of considerable value.
I would like to refer to another bit of technical kit that is of incredible value. GCHQ has been modernising SIGINT—signals intelligence. This programme, across the piece, for all agencies, enables the efficient and effective management of a vast bulk of information. It supports collaboration. Reference was made from the Front Bench to the worry that counter-terrorism operations have taken over, and that counter-espionage programmes are now less and less well funded. Again, the Committee shares that consideration, and it is resolved to monitor the comprehensive spending review settlement for 2007. We hope to come back to the House to report that counter-espionage is covered as well as it should be.
I would like to return to a particular use of language that worried me throughout the time we did the report—we do not have enough people to do the job. The House should realise that a different factor is involved. The agencies, with a vast increase in moneys and a determination to increase their staff—exponentially, it appears at times—are selecting from the same pool, which is getting smaller and smaller. That presents the risk for all of us that they could be selecting the wrong people. Significantly, in addition, we could be relying more and more on less and less experienced operatives. Worse than that, with reference to what was said by my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice, it is clear that this group could be receiving less and less training, which is certainly problematic. The Committee most certainly needs to carry out another investigation into that area.
The agencies work very hard. I sound very confident about that, and I may sound too confident and too defensive about their work. I am as abrasive with them as I probably sound to the House this afternoon. I acknowledge the enormous work load that they have to accommodate because it is added to by a requirement, outlined in the report, to increase coverage and operational capability in key countries. That is an important part of the work that the Secret Intelligence Service and MI5 must do. It is fundamental to ensuring that we understand where terrorism could be tracked and could hit Great Britain. They must not only widen their scope and involve key countries, but ensure that they understand the factors that influence radicalisation. Of course, regional teams have been developed.
I feel privileged to serve on the Committee. It is hard and interesting work. The Committee works effectively, objectively and independently. I would hate it if others thought otherwise.
It is a pleasure to follow Ms Taylor. Let me pick up on her point about recruitment and experience. I do not believe that we risk recruiting the wrong people—the standard is extraordinarily high—but the consequence of the speed of expansion is that people with experience of a year or 18 months are doing jobs that would previously have been done by those who had been in the services for three or four years. The heads of the services have acknowledged that risk. It has to be accepted because of the necessity for the vast increase in staff.
Mr. Kilfoyle may not have got his earlier question across clearly. He asked how the intelligence failure that led to the sexed-up dossier could be prevented from happening again. I had the privilege of serving on the Butler review. It was not the intelligence but the use that was made of it that was the problem. If the hon. Gentleman examines the Butler review, he will find that we commented robustly that the dossier went to the limit, if not beyond, of what the intelligence could bear.
I disagree because I believe that the report analysed that. The intelligence was honest and straight. The use that was made of it is the subject of political debate, but it is not for today.
I shall be brief—I want to make only two main points. First, I do not support the amendment that Andrew Mackinlay tabled, not because I am a poodle or part of a gone-native club, but because of the practicalities of his proposal.
If the Committee came under the authority of the Clerk of the House, it would have to be staffed by Clerks, none of whom, as far as I know, is as deeply vetted as all the staff of our Committee are. If one were absent, he could not be replaced unless someone else were deeply vetted and that takes a long time. We have restrictions on accommodation because we see the most secret intelligence, for which there are strict rules. They could not be followed with any ease in the House of Commons, where there is constant public access, without having a place with separate security and separate guards, 24 hours a day, as happens in our current accommodation. It is therefore not the principle so much as the practicality of the proposal to which I object. I would like the Committee to become as normal as possible, but the key word is "possible". [Laughter.] I do not know what I have said that is so funny. Everything must be compared with the strict security requirements under which we currently operate. That is why I do not support the amendment.
Secondly, redactions are an old chestnut, which come up every time we debate the matter. We have to redact some things from our report, which must go first to the Prime Minister. That cannot be changed. If the Committee were an ordinary Select Committee, any evidence given to it would become the property of the House, as the hon. Member for Thurrock knows. One cannot do that with secret intelligence. If the position were forced on the Committee, we would not get any more secret intelligence and that would render us ineffective. However, we report everything that we have discovered to the Prime Minister, who sees the report complete and unredacted. Indeed, I think that I can tell the House that there were reports a long time ago that were never published, because the subject matter was too secret. However, the Prime Minister needed the information; he needed to know that the money had been properly spent and administered and that we had got value for money. It took the Committee a long time to look into such things, and we reported them to him, but we can take none of the credit, because nobody knows what we did. Again, that is unavoidable when one is dealing with the sort of subjects that the Committee has to deal with day in, day out. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve that when we redact, we must always push the envelope and have a robust exchange. Clearly, the Government and the agencies say, "You can't possibly say that," but we test them, we move them a little and we sometimes move them a lot.
Ultimately, nothing has ever been left out of one of our reports without our agreement. The statute says that nothing can be put into one of our reports that might damage national security or the operation of the security services, and that has always been the case in the 14 years that I have been on the Committee. Let me tell the Foreign Secretary with all the power that I can muster—I hope that he will tell the Home Secretary, who I had hoped would be here as well—not to break that convention. If the Government were to do so, that would damage severely relationships and put the relationship between the Committee and the Government in quite a different light. That relationship has always worked until now. We have honoured the Government's need for security, and the Government must consider the issue very deeply before they decide to go against what has been a thoroughly worthwhile convention.
I will not go into the report, because lots of others want to speak, and they will have read it. However, I stand by it and I disagree completely with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Thurrock.
I want to make some points about changes to the Committee. First, let me say that I recognise the work that the Committee has done. I am sure that its members have carried out their duties conscientiously. I have read the Committee's reports regularly, not only this year, but in previous years.
The work that the security agencies carry out to prevent acts of mass murder is recognised by all of us. There is no doubt that there are extremists who want to repeat 7/7 and what was attempted a fortnight later; they want to carry out mass murders, atrocities and the rest. None of us can have the slightest doubt that the situation remains as it was three years ago and that there are violent extremists with a religious agenda, and it is pretty obvious what they would like to do. Dealing with such individuals and locating their plots must be more difficult for MI5 than its previous work in dealing with extremists with no religious agenda whatever.
In speaking about the need for changes, I want to remind hon. Members of what happened before the security agencies were established on a statutory basis. I had one or two debates in the 1980s in which I suggested that there should be some parliamentary accountability for MI5. The ministerial response at the time, which would no doubt have been the same under a Labour Government—I have no illusions on that score—was that it was simply impossible to have such parliamentary accountability and that the very nature of the work of the security services was such that there could be no question of establishing any kind of committee. I was always told, as other critics were, "Don't worry overmuch. The security agencies are accountable to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, who in turn are responsible to Parliament." I was told, in effect, "Why worry about the matter at all?"
The changes that came about for various reasons—in 1989, MI5 was placed on a statutory basis, as MI6 was later, and in 1994, the Intelligence and Security Committee was formed—were all welcome steps; certainly I welcomed them. I pointed out—I was hardly the only one—that the Committee functions and the method of appointment should be somewhat different. I argued that it should be a Select Committee of the House of Commons—not a normal Select Committee, but along those lines—but that was obviously rejected.
I hope that the Foreign Secretary will not misunderstand me when I tell him that, long before he arrived here, when a measure relating to that issue was considered during the Committee stage upstairs, the Labour Front-Bench spokesman argued more or less what I have just been saying. The story goes that when John Smith, the then leader of the party, heard about it, he said to my colleague who led for us, "Why on earth did you say all that? We have no intention of doing that in government." That is how the story goes. Nevertheless, we put the case in Committee, but we were not surprised when the Government took the line that they did.
I felt that the formation of the ISC was undoubtedly a step forward. There would be some limited—yes, limited—parliamentary accountability, which had not existed before. I welcomed that. I was not too critical, as my hon. Friend Mr. Kilfoyle was a moment ago, about those who were appointed—not selected—by the Prime Minister.
I obviously did not make myself very clear, so can I lay this one down once and for all? I have never criticised the individuals concerned, any more than my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay has. It is the Committee itself, from its inception, that I have called a poodle.
I take my hon. Friend's point entirely, but I do not go along with him, because I do not think that the Committee is a poodle. It has carried out useful work, although I at least agree with him about the method of selection.
On selection, the Government's proposal to involve the Committee of Selection is welcome, but let us not be naive. The Committee of Selection decides on the recommendations made by the Whips. That has been the situation in the House of Commons for at least 100 years, and it is not going to change in the next Parliament or the one after. It is therefore pretty clear that—I think that this is the wording—those who are going to be recommended by the Committee of Selection to the Prime Minister will be precisely those who at present are appointed by the Prime Minister. I do not really have any doubts about that; nevertheless, if the formalities are observed, there will at least be an opportunity for a debate to take place, on the Floor of the House if necessary, which cannot happen now. That is a step forward.
If the Committee of Selection were to appoint on that basis, would the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee not be more secure and even more independent? We all recall the kerfuffle when the Government of the day tried to get rid of the then Chairmen of the Select Committee on Transport and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. It was this House, in its indignation, that ensured that they remained in situ.
Indeed, that incident, which was a compliment to the House of Commons, took place precisely seven years ago yesterday. I agree with my hon. Friend that if the Chairman is appointed as proposed, he will be strengthened accordingly, and I am all for that.
"the option to meet in public (including, if Parliament agrees, in the Houses of Parliament)".
To avoid any distortion of what I am saying, it is necessary to point out that I entirely accept that most of the Committee's work will be in private: it must be in private and I doubt whether anyone would disagree in any way, shape or form. It is important, however, that at least some of the Committee's work—on the financial aspects, for example—be done in public.
I welcome the fact that the director general of MI5 gives a public address and that, unlike in previous years when the identity was known but kept a secret, everyone knows who it is. That being the case, with the director general going public like the present occupant and their predecessor, why on earth should it be inappropriate for certain sittings, where there is no danger to national security, to be held in public? All that I am saying in the amendment was outlined in the Green Paper, but the White Paper has unfortunately fallen short of that position to some extent.
It is one thing for the director general to make a speech when he knows what he is going to say, he says what he wants to say and he clears it in advance if necessary, but it is quite another for him to appear before a Committee where he would have to answer questions. The questions would be very difficult to ask and they would probably have to be rehearsed to ensure that no breach of national security would arise from either the question or the answer. I suspect that that would very soon come to be seen as something of a charade. I am not saying that it should never happen, but questioning the heads of the services would be a very difficult operation.
I do not deny that there will be some problems, but I must say to the right hon. Gentleman that very similar points were put to me before MI5 and MI6 were placed on a statutory basis, when we were told that this, that and the other reforms were out the question. If public sessions do indeed take place, as they may, according to the Home Secretary and the Chairman of the Committee, it is unlikely that we will revert to a situation where no public hearings would ever occur again. It is, of course, a question of balance. I am the first to accept that certain matters should not under any circumstances be dealt with in public, but I believe that other matters could and should be. We are moving along those lines.
At the end of the process, we want Parliament to have a direct role in the work of the ISC. To some extent, that has already arisen; after all, we are having a debate that arises from the annual report. We need to go a little further—not as far as possible, perhaps, but more than at present. I understand the comments of my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the ISC Chairman to indicate that public hearings are not being ruled out and that there is a possibility that they will occur in the near future, which is a welcome step.
I will deal with some of the points raised by Mr. Winnick. I believe that there is an element of truth in what he is saying, but that he is missing out certain aspects of the problem. I hope that it will not spoil the career of Mr. Kilfoyle if I say that I am a bit of a fan, but I do not consider myself a poodle and I do not think either that he was accusing me of being a poodle.
I welcome the annual report. There is nothing unusual in it. Its main feature is the growth of the agencies in response to the post-9/11 era—an inevitable fact of life. Earlier in the year, we produced an important report on rendition: Members have alluded to it and it has been widely discussed. However, it is on the proposed reforms that I would like to concentrate my remarks.
I do not belittle any of the reforms; I support them. I took part in the debate inside the Committee. Appointments by the Committee of Selection are a good idea, but let us not kid ourselves that they will produce a fresh set of characters. The system will continue, and the usual types will surface. To that extent, the process is largely cosmetic.
It is right and proper that the Committee Chairman should introduce the debate, but it will not change the tone of the debate much, other than that she will get more than 10 minutes in which to make her speech. The Committee already has the power to appoint an investigator. In truth, the problem lies more in the question of resources, which was raised by the Committee Chairman, Margaret Beckett, and in the physical cost of accommodating and managing an investigator.
On the issues raised by Mr. Winnick, it will be a change to have public hearings, but my right hon. Friend Mr. Mates was absolutely on the button when he said that the scope will be limited. It will happen—I am pretty sure that there is a determination to do it—but let us not get carried away about how effective and revealing the hearings will be. To that extent, again, the change will be somewhat cosmetic.
Let me touch on the statutory reforms that have not been discussed today. In 2007, the Green Paper said that the Act
"should be amended to bring the way in which" the ISC
"is appointed, operates and reports as far as possible into line with that of other select committees".
So far, so good. The Prime Minister went on to say that the ISC should have a "strengthened capacity for investigations". Listening to the Home Secretary today, I thought that that commitment was fading a little. In his statement on national security strategy, the Prime Minister spoke of current reforms in advance of future legislation, but what that would be was not elucidated. A couple of weeks later, "The Governance of Britain" White Paper made no reference to statutory reforms.
Statutory reforms should be considered in a number of areas. If we are to have the Prime Minister's "strengthened capacity for investigations", the first area to consider is documentation. In response to my intervention, the Home Secretary said that the Committee will be able to have an investigator, as if that were the extra, strengthened capacity. As I said, however, we already have that power, so nothing much is coming on that front. Documentation, and that on which we can draw, needs to be considered.
The reports on rendition and 7/7 are extra-curricular—they sit outside the legislation. The invitation to the Committee to conduct the reports carries with it the implied request that the agencies should supply us with whatever documentation is necessary to do the job. In the wide range of our activity, the Committee should have the power to request whatever is necessary to do the job. As we consider reforms, that should be the default setting.
Secondly, we need to look at the issue of the witnesses who come before us. Again, I do not have a precise, concrete proposal, but I have the feeling that one wants to call people whom we do not have the power to call at the moment. That extra power is needed. Consideration should be given to the way in which witnesses can be brought before Committees.
I will return to that point in a moment, but I want to touch on the difference between the ISC and a Select Committee. As Andrew Mackinlay knows, I have served on both—I have been on the ISC for three years, and I was on the Foreign Affairs Committee with him when we investigated the war in Iraq. We had the Gilligan report, David Kelly being put before us by the Government, his subsequent suicide, and the Hutton inquiry. It was not exactly a low-profile Select Committee. In fact, for those of us on it, it was a fairly unforgettable experience.
So, if the ISC were to become a Select Committee, its members would have to be notified under the Official Secrets Act 1989, which would immediately take it out of the Select Committee system. It would have to meet wholly in secret and could not report to Parliament without redactions. All those points have been well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire. The Clerks of the House and of the ISC are of the highest calibre, and they would perform an identical function, so it would not make any difference to that extent, but Clerks would have to be vetted and cleared. The evidence would have to be given by the agency heads in secret and we cannot get away from the fact that that information could not be published.
It is perhaps worth pointing out to Andrew Mackinlay that when we last appointed a Clerk, one of the candidates was from the body of the Clerks of the House. We could perfectly well have chosen him. He did not, in our view, turn out to be the best candidate, but we are not prevented from using the resources of the Clerks of the House. If someone applies for the job, we are perfectly able to appoint him.
My right hon. Friend makes a perfectly good point.
Let me go back to the point that I was making a second ago about evidence. The key difference is that the Select Committee on Transport, for example, has employees, businesses, users, passengers, station masters and so on coming before it. One simply does not get that in the intelligence world, as there is no equivalent. There are plenty of conspiracy theorists out there, but there is not enough time to address all their arguments. In truth, our input is predominantly from agents. If we were sitting as a Select Committee, that input would be limited.
When I joined the Committee, I was fairly sympathetic to the idea of its becoming a Select Committee after my experience on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Having been on it for three years, I have simply reached the conclusion that that would not be an improvement, that the situation would probably be worse and that it would be less effective. We should focus on making the ISC as similar as possible to a Select Committee, which is what we are trying to do, subject to the reforms that I am suggesting.
I feel most uncomfortable with the question about the precise role of the ISC. Is it with the agencies or against them? Does it provide oversight or a check or balance? The Committee's job is defined, as is the job of a Select Committee, as the provision of oversight of policy, finance and administration. That definition is wide and vague, and can be broadly or narrowly interpreted. During my time on the ISC, I have seen a narrow interpretation. A Select Committee has more freedom to range and is wide-ranging in its scope. My third proposal for statutory reform is a clearer statutory definition of the role of the Committee combined with powers to deliver on it.
Let me conclude with the point made by the Chairman of the Committee about resources. The ISC has fewer resources than a Select Committee has. It has fewer staff. If we are to up our game, we have to bite the bullet and give more resources to the Committee. Without those resources, no serious progress can be made. Let me allude, too, to the issue of accommodation for the Committee. The White Paper said that the Committee should not sit in the Cabinet Office. When the Foreign Secretary is winding up, will he mention whether he feels that we should move out of Cabinet Office facilities, by which, of course, I mean the wider Cabinet Office estate? Does he feel that the wider Cabinet Office estate is an appropriate setting for the Committee's location?
I am grateful for having caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me make it clear that I acknowledge that the intelligence and security community has had enormous successes on behalf of all of us in combating terrorism, and I wish it well in that continuing role. I have more of an open mind on another of its aspects—combating organised crime—because part of my thesis is that inadequate information is available to Parliament to evaluate its stewardship, conduct and competence in this regard. In respect of espionage, I have some doubts, because it seems that the same cold war rhetoric—the reference to diplomats as spies—is used in London and in Moscow. It sometimes does not seem mature, given that we recognise that every person in the Russian embassy has been allowed by the Foreign Secretary to be there and that the same thing happens in Moscow. A lot of energy is used on that, rather than on combating espionage, which I am all for. The cold war rhetoric impedes our foreign policy and our building the necessary relationship with the Russian Federation.
Against that backdrop, I referred in the House on
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I shall not, because other hon. Members wish to speak. Some people treat the matter that I am discussing with levity, but it is desperately serious. I just wanted to place that on the record.
I come to the motions. I have listened carefully to the interesting comments of hon. Members, both those who are members of the ISC and others. There is demonstrably now a mood to revisit the Intelligence Services Act 1994, and the Government motions invite us to do that. If we adopt the Government's motions tonight, nothing will appreciably happen immediately; any change will take place after the next general election. Their motions would require an amendment to the 1994 Act, as would my amendment.
I listened carefully to what Mr. Grieve said, and I was grateful for his invitation to give him reassurance. I believe in gradualism in these matters. If my modest amendment were adopted tonight, it would not immediately alter things; it would clearly be the subject of further discussions between the security services and Parliament, and it would have to be enacted by primary legislation. That is why I invite the House, if it is favourably disposed in principle, to increasing the parliamentary status of the work done by the ISC, to support my amendment as an expression of will. I think it would help because this is a question of public confidence.
As has been said by Richard Ottaway and others, including, even Mr. Mates, the ISC will always be a special Committee. Its accommodation may have to be in a different place, but to have the Clerk of the House of Commons providing the secretaryship would send an enormous signal to increase public confidence—this is most necessary. I tabled a question asking who the ISC's Clerk is, but the parliamentary reply said, "We won't tell you; its a secret." That is indicative of the obsessive secrecy that exists, and I do not think it is healthy in a democracy.
I listened and learned this afternoon. I realise that the Committee has to deal with some big-picture stuff, but there is therefore a void—a flaw—that is not being met by our parliamentary institutions. Let me give an example of that. Although we had a statement on the loss of data on the Waterloo train, Parliament should investigate that event. At the least, we need to know that a Committee is investigating it—we are not told what the ISC is doing—yet this relates to the stewardship and management of our security and intelligence services. I have no confidence, and I do not think that anyone else does, that this is being dealt with properly.
Some people might consider this a trivial point, but because I am interested in the stewardship, conduct and management of those services, I cheekily asked how many members of the Joint Intelligence Committee had been given honours in the new year's honours list. I cannot be told that, because it is a secret.
The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong again. If the ISC looked into an incident such as the loss of documents on a train, which is a very serious matter, we would be in exactly the same position as any other Member. The incident is being investigated by the police and by an internal disciplinary process, and no Committee of this House would ever interfere in the matter or would question those proceedings until they were over. When those proceedings are over, a decision may have to be taken.
That may be, but we are devoting a mere three and a half hours to a most important subject—and that will be our lot in one and a half years. We have been told that the report is now six months old. The House is abdicating its responsibility to keep security and intelligence under scrutiny and it is a sham that we have such a short time. Scrutiny is totally inadequate, so even if we did investigate the loss of data, we would not have time to probe the matter properly.
I support the Government's motions, but their importance is exaggerated. Even if they are agreed tonight, we will still need primary legislation. We know that the Democratic Unionist party has, rightly, been promised a seat on the ISC, as part of the St. Andrew's agreement and because responsibility for national security in Northern Ireland has been taken from the Police Service of Northern Ireland and given to MI5. Why do we not come clean and expedite legislation that would increase the membership? Only one member comes from the House of Lords, for example.
Nor have we used this occasion to probe the working of section 7 of the 1994 Act. On the only occasion that I ever went to Vauxhall Cross, I was told by the head of MI6 that section 7 allows his organisation to do things abroad that are unlawful in the UK. We have a duty to examine that, and if it is a matter for the ISC, we should at least have the reassurance that the issue is considered by it on a regular, ongoing basis.
We have not had an adequate response to an issue that is mentioned in the Government's response on pages 1 and 5. The Home Secretary skipped over that, and I think that her response has been inadequate, bearing in mind the minimal scrutiny that this Parliament is giving this matter this afternoon, for the first time in one and a half years.
The Clerk of the House and his colleagues act as colleagues of the Chair of Select Committees. They ask the Chairperson, "Would you like me to do this?" or "Would it be a good idea to do that?" That may happen in the ISC, but one cannot escape the fact that whoever provides the secretariat for that Committee is in the Cabinet Office, and that is unhealthy. It provides no reassurance that the role of the Clerk is the same as it is for other Select Committees. We could make special arrangements for the Clerk, such as deep vetting, as the phrase has it.
Incidentally, one of the questions I asked about deep vetting concerned an MI5 operative whose spouse was involved in what is referred to as the sex industry. I asked about the vetting in that case, but I did not get an answer because it is secret —[ Laughter. ]
That may well be, but how can we be reassured, in a free and democratic Parliament, that the conduct, stewardship and oversight of our intelligence services are satisfactory? The present arrangements are wholly inadequate.
I urge hon. Members to consider what I hope is a modest amendment, under which the Clerk of the House would provide the secretariat for the Committee. Many things would flow from that, and it is clear that there would have to be much more discussion, as well as amending legislation, but I contend that it would constitute a great advance. I therefore hope that colleagues will support me on this House of Commons matter in the Division Lobby this evening—assuming that the Government do not accept the amendment in principle.
I want to say a few words about the intelligence agencies' financial accountability. It may not be the most exciting part of their operation, but it is an important one none the less. I want to say something about resource allocation and, if time permits, something about the cyber challenge.
Our report shows that there has been a substantial real-terms increase over recent years in the single intelligence account, which funds all the agencies. That is set to continue: according to the 2007 comprehensive spending review, the SIA for this purpose will increase from £1.85 billion in 2008-09 to £2.15 billion in 2010-11. Obviously, those are very large sums of money, but I welcome the increased investment by the Government in this important matter. It is a necessary response to the continuing and pervasive threat posed by international terrorism.
The Security Service has estimated that there are at least 2,000 individuals in the UK who pose a direct threat to our safety and public security because of their support for the al-Qaeda form of terrorism. That figure has increased since 2005, and I expect it to continue to do so. Evidence suggests that attack planning in Europe has increased over the past 12 months and there has been recent media coverage of a number of foiled plots. It is said that the threat will last for at least a generation.
These can be fragmented terror groups that plan random plots, but they are often co-ordinated, sometimes from abroad. They boast sophisticated technical know-how, and they are united in their pursuit of extremist ideological ends that are anathema to basic tenets of our democracy. Their willingness to kill indiscriminately, en masse and without prior warning makes this a more extreme form of terrorism than anything that we have experienced previously. Given that the threat posed by terrorism is an amorphous and changing one that franchises, morphs and spreads, there is a question about the most suitable structures through which our response is to be channelled.
I shall leave that question to one side, though, as it is clear, however one slices it, that this is a serious and sustained threat. It is important that the agencies continue to receive adequate financial support as their work becomes more complex and challenging. They are literally in the business of saving lives.
The unprecedented increase in funding means that it is more appropriate than ever that suitable mechanisms of accountability are in place. We are, after all, dealing with public money. The sensitive nature of the agencies' work should not, of course, preclude them from being subject to appropriate management and financial disciplines. In any organisation, major increases in resources can lead to inefficiencies and waste rather than value for money and discipline. Expenditure projects that previously did not quite come up to the mark and were found to be below the line can now be dusted off and, relatively speaking, found to be above the line and brought forward.
The annual report that we are discussing notes the Committee's satisfaction, with some caveats, that public money has been put to the best use and subject to appropriate auditing practices and efficiency targets. However, whether the efficiency targets are appropriate is another question, which again I shall leave to one side for the moment.
By its nature, the ISC is the only body that can take the oversight role. To ensure that money continues to be appropriately and well spent, I think that we need to take an even more hands-on approach in that regard. We need to review constantly, rather than retrospectively, the financial situation within the agencies and how money is spent. We are in discussions about how we do that, but there is obviously no point in closing the stable door. One option, in line with the Government's proposals for reform of the Committee, would be to include a special financial investigator as part of the pool of investigators, and that would strengthen the research capacity of the Committee in that regard.
I think there is scope for liaison. We do, of course, draw on the resources of the National Audit Office in our work of oversight. We need vetted people to help us and there are a limited number of those in the NAO but none, to the best of my knowledge, in the PAC.
The point is also relevant to the more general question of resource allocation and whether funding is sufficient. I suspect that the question about whether the funding is enough is probably unanswerable, but given the gravity of the threat faced by the UK, we must be confident that additional funds are appropriately distributed and targeted. We must be careful to ensure that, in rightly focusing resources on the threat of terrorism, we do not neglect to think carefully how best we can use total funds. For instance, the Committee, and hon. Members earlier in the debate, have expressed concern that the recent recruitment drives launched by the agencies—a significant reason for the increased expenditure—may lead to a dilution in the quality of staff and to grade inflation. Over 2007-08, for example, the Security Service aimed to supplement its existing 3,200-strong work force with an additional 690 officers—an increase of 20 per cent. We obviously should not prize quantity above quality, but again we are assured, and we accept, that the issue is being managed effectively. The report notes the Committee's concern that while the agencies' focus on countering the threat of terrorism is both necessary and understandable, it has resulted in a
"proportionate reduction in resources dedicated to tackle other areas".
I want to elaborate on that, not necessarily from a Committee perspective but from a personal and open-source point of view.
The end of the cold war was supposed to mark the end of traditional rivalries between nation states, as we slipped into an era of liberal democratic peace. In many ways 9/11 reinforced that trend, as the more amorphous threat posed by Islamic terrorism came to be seen as the primary threat to our national security. The national security strategy announced in March reflected that in its focus on the dangers posed by terror networks and other non-state actors. It had very little to say on state-led threats. I worry that pooling all our resources into the war on terror may have taken the focus away from more traditional forces of threat.
Over the past year, there has been a growing number of warnings about the extent of covert activity by foreign intelligence organisations in the UK. In his Society of Editors speech last November, the director general of the Security Service said that his agencies had been forced to defend the UK against
"unreconstructed attempts by Russia, China and others, to spy on us."
There has been a spate of unconfirmed—
The date was
How was it that I was warned by the Chief Whip not to meet a Russian diplomat? I find that highly unacceptable in a democracy. This is going on, and it is menacing.
It is not for me to comment on that, but I am sure that the point has been recorded and will be noted.
There has been a growing number of warnings over the past year about the extent of covert activity by foreign intelligence organisations in the UK. There has been a spate of unconfirmed stories about the hacking of sensitive computer networks in Whitehall Departments, in parliamentary offices and UK businesses. It is said that 30 agents are operating out of the Russian embassy and trade mission in London—the same number as during the cold war. That has been referred to in some respects. Much of that is tied to the increased competition between nation states over resources, whether energy, technology or information. That seems set to define the 21st century.
Despite the changing nature of the security environment since the end of the cold war, it is dangerous to ignore the more conventional threats. The Security Service currently spends only a small percentage of its resources on counter-espionage. The majority of the agency's resources go into combating terrorism at home and abroad—that is right—but at a time when other countries are increasing the sophistication and reach of their espionage activities, we may need to rethink that division of resources. Our report suggests that
"consideration may need to be given to separate, additional funding" for aspects of intelligence and security work other than counter-terrorism. Of course, I agree with that.
Again speaking from a personal rather than Committee perspective, I want to mention the looming danger posed by cyber threats. I have to say that I defer to no one in my lack of knowledge in that area, but it seems to me that that term broadly describes the intent to defend and attack information and computer networks in cyberspace. The appeal of that form of post-modern, asymmetric warfare is obvious; it is a low-risk strategy, since it is generally difficult to trace the origins of cyber attacks and to apportion blame, but it is high yield in the sense that it gives states or individuals the opportunity to offset the superiority of an adversary's forces on the conventional battlefield. Smaller players can level the playing field with larger opponents in the cyber arena, because of the relative ease of access to the technology.
Given the dependence on information technology in not just our military systems but the whole infrastructure of modern society, a successful cyber attack could pose a severe threat to national security and economic prosperity. This is a developing issue in inter-state relations, but one that is unlikely to go away in an age when information superiority is paramount. It is vital that this issue is given the requisite attention. At the very least, perhaps we need to think about the allocation of more resources from the single intelligence account to counter-espionage, to guard against complacency, particularly in relation to the cyber challenge.
May I say what a pleasure it is to follow my hon. Friend Ben Chapman, particularly his lucid explanation of post-modern, asymmetric warfare? I am sure that the whole House is now far better informed on that subject than we were a few moments ago.
I want to address some of the issues that have been raised variously by my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). In an ideal world, the secrecy involved in the various agencies and the collection of intelligence would not be so wide ranging as it must be in the world in which we live. Therefore, greater openness would be perfectly possible, because a smaller amount of information would need to be dealt with.
As many hon. Members have said, the threat in the post-9/11 world from those who are influenced by Salafi ideology, which was born in Egypt but has been assimilated by groups such as al-Qaeda, is such that we need to have extensive coverage of what is going on in the UK and in countries such as Pakistan and other countries in the middle east and elsewhere.
If we are to deal with a lot of intelligence information that is by its nature secret, it is not possible for it all to be discussed openly or for us to conform with all the democratic requirements that rightly apply to other areas of policy. We are not dealing with the health service or education; the information is of a completely different kind and it has to be dealt with differently.
My hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that that is exactly what we are discussing here today. I shall move on. I shall probably answer his substantive point slightly differently in a moment.
My view is that as far as possible everything should be as out in the open as is reasonable. It is appropriate that, through the Green Paper, the Government have considered how we scrutinise and how we can do more things in public. I shall not cover that ground too much, as my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, who chairs our Committee, dealt with it in great detail and in a way that represents the views of most, if not all, of the Committee's members. Some things we can do in public and some we cannot. The obvious example—the national security strategy—was raised by my right hon. Friend. As that is a public document, it seems reasonable that much of any interview that we have with the heads of the agencies or those responsible for them should be public; I have no problem with that.
My point is that there is a trade-off: the more that we do in public as a Committee, the less we will get to know. I cannot go into detail, for obvious reasons, but in one of our recent investigations, for example, we looked at some raw intelligence information. It goes without saying that if, as is sometimes necessary, we have the ability to do that, we cannot suddenly grill someone about that information in public. A big element of what we do has to take place behind closed doors; Mr. Mates made that point very effectively, so I will not take it any further.
In the three years during which I have been a member of the Committee, we have had the opportunity to talk to the members of other oversight committees from other parts of the world—Spain, South Africa, Australia, Canada and others. I should add that most of the time they come to see us rather than the other way round, in case anyone thinks that we spend all our time travelling around the globe. One of the points that has come out of a lot of the dialogue that we have had with people on other oversight bodies is that they envy the extent to which we can go into greater depth and look at information that they simply would not be allowed to consider. They have often made the point that we are probably more effective because we are more behind closed doors than our equivalents in other parts of the world.
I had intended to say a lot more, but time forbids. I also want to address briefly the review of counter-terrorism strategy; our report refers to that from page 27. I am thinking particularly of the Contest strategy, and, within that, the Prevent strand. One of the great lessons that we learned from the London bombings of three years ago is that some young, and in many cases British-born, Muslims are so alienated—that is probably the wrong word; "detached" is better—from their own predominantly Muslim community and broader British society. There are all sorts of reasons for that, but I do not have time to go into them now. The agencies are well aware of those reasons, and I know that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is also pursuing that agenda.
It is hugely important that we better understand the process that often leads young Muslim men—it is almost exclusively young Muslim men—to move from a point at which they might be considered radical to a point at which they are willing to strap on explosives, go on to the public transport system and kill and maim hundreds of people. At some future time, it could even be thousands of people. There is a very good book on that process by an American academic and former employee of the State Department, Marc Sageman, called "Understanding Terror Networks". It is important that that kind of open-source information should be taken into account by the agencies as they increasingly try to understand what is going on in our own community.
A further point on the radicalisation and conversion to terror of young Muslims is that we need directly to engage with them. There are some who would be described by them as apostates—for example, Hassan Butt and Ed Husain. Those people have held that ideology and then rejected it, and are now doing a very brave thing in raising these issues, having come to an understanding of how wrong they were. They are writing articles, making speeches and giving lectures on this subject. They and others in the Muslim community who are moderate in their interpretation of Islam must be strongly encouraged. If we are to prevent more and more young Muslim men from becoming terrorists, almost nothing is more important than that engagement. I know that the agencies recognise that fact, but I hope that we all recognise that we have a responsibility to engage with those people and to understand their genuine issues and grievances while, at the same time, being firm in pointing out that terror and blowing people up are not acceptable in this country and will never be condoned simply because they take on a religious colour.
I shall take only a couple of minutes. I came here to support my good Friend Andrew Mackinlay, but I might make one or two other observations, having listened to the debate.
My Friend Ms Taylor talked about the agencies selecting from a smaller pool of people. That was very delphic; I really wondered what she meant by that. I find myself thinking that the report is very disappointing when it comes to staffing and recruitment issues. Mr. Mates told us that it is not about recruiting the wrong people but about getting enough of the right people, yet there is nothing substantial in the report about recruitment methods or turnover. We know how many people there are in the three agencies. We are told that it is 3,200, and that there has been an explosion in numbers, with another 690 being recruited in 2007-08. Presumably that recruitment will continue into the future, so long as there is this terrorist threat. We also know that there are concerns within the agencies about the civil service retirement age increasing to 65 over the coming years. And that really is about it.
My substantive point is that the staff at GCHQ—in fact, the staff of all the agencies—are civil servants, but they do not have all the rights of civil servants. There is no requirement, for example, to appoint according to merit. That is at the core of the United Kingdom civil service, but GCHQ and the other two agencies could just drag someone off the street and appoint them. GCHQ staff cannot take their concerns to the Office of the Civil Service Commissioners, or any other outside body.
The hon. Gentleman is plain wrong about that. In the Committee's lifetime, a special person has been appointed to whom any member of any of the security services can, in confidence, take any ethical, professional or other concerns, without going through their line management. That has been working extremely well. He ought to get his facts right.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I wonder whether that system is sufficient. In 2004, when the Government published a draft Civil Service Bill, in response to the draft Civil Service Bill produced by the Public Administration Committee, it included reference to GCHQ, but in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill currently before the House, which is being considered by a Joint Committee, GCHQ has disappeared in a puff of smoke. When the first civil service commissioner, Janet Paraskeva, came before the PAC in April, she voiced her concerns about that. I am left wondering why the thousands of staff in the intelligence agencies are the only civil servants not to be covered by the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. My invitation to the right hon. Member from East Hampshire and his colleagues on the Committee is that they should consider the issue, not close their minds to it. He should perhaps ask the Committee to take a view on the subject.
This has been a constructive debate. I start with a few words of tribute for the members of the agencies. We are dealing with a body of extremely dedicated public servants. They work hard on tasks of vital importance to our safety and the safety of our constituents. Many members of those agencies will, at times in their careers, have to risk their life and safety to protect our national interests. When they have successes against the enemies of this country, the thanks almost always have to be given behind closed doors, and the celebrations have to be held in secret. It is right that hon. Members on both sides of the House should express their thanks and pay tribute to the services today.
On behalf of Conservative Members, I thank Margaret Beckett and her Committee for their work. It is probably accepted by everybody, at this stage of the debate, that criticisms about the limits on the powers of the Committee have not been intended as criticisms of the dedication or professionalism of the right hon. Lady and the members of her Committee. Having had the opportunity to shadow her a few years ago, I can vouch for the fact that she always behaved impeccably in respecting the traditions, conventions and powers of the House of Commons.
I thank the hon. Members for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), and for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), Mr. Howarth, my right hon. Friend Mr. Mates, and my hon. Friend Richard Ottaway for the work that they do, which, as we have heard frequently this afternoon, is unsung and unpublicised, although I am sure that it takes many hours and a great deal of concentration and effort.
I want to touch on a subject that has not been mentioned much, although Chris Huhne referred to it and it is discussed on page 4 of the report, namely rendition, which was the subject of a special report by the ISC in July 2007. I welcomed the Foreign Secretary's statement on
The Foreign Secretary's statement was welcome, but I wonder whether the Government will provide further reassurance by taking action to ratify the international covenant for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006. In a written answer on
This afternoon, the debate has centred on the extent to which it will be possible to strengthen parliamentary oversight of the Committee's work. To some extent, as my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve said, we must accept that activities involving the intelligence and security agencies now involve other agencies whose activities fall under the remit of parliamentary Select Committees.
My hon. and learned Friend cited the case of action against organised crime. Paragraph 32 of the ISC report states that the Secret Intelligence Service is transferring resources away from organised crime in order to focus on the priority of counter-terrorism and that it is transferring greater responsibility for such work to the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Paragraphs 37 and 38 of the report describe how the SIS and SOCA are co-operating against drugs traffickers and the global narcotics network. Such activity is certainly in this country's national interest, but there is a discrepancy. SOCA is subject to oversight by the Home Affairs Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, but the SIS is not subject to a departmental Select Committee or to the PAC.
Another anomaly concerns Northern Ireland, where the Police Service of Northern Ireland works closely with the Security Service at a new base in Belfast. Those PSNI officers are, through their chief constable, accountable in law to the Northern Ireland Policing Board. When the appropriate legislation was going through this House, we were told that there were to be protocols to define how the information and work shared between the Security Service and the PSNI should be handled when it came to accountability before the Policing Board. It would be interesting to know whether those protocols are operating successfully. There is an expectation, particularly in the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, that responsibility for policing and criminal justice will be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. If that comes to fruition, the PSNI will include in its ranks officers working with the Security Service, which will report to a policing Minister in Northern Ireland, who might, at some stage in future, be a member of Provisional Sinn Fein. That illustrates the fact that, to some extent, the boundaries between the areas that are regarded as secret and subject to the ISC and those that are subject to other parliamentary or regional Assembly bodies are becoming a bit blurred.
I welcome the reforms that the Home Secretary announced, but the question is whether they go far enough. I agree with Andrew Mackinlay that three and a half hours' debate in 18 months on the vital work of the agencies is inadequate. I hope that Government business managers will take note of that and provide further opportunities for such debates to take place in the House more regularly.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South that the ISC's investigative capacity and resources should be enhanced. The more that the resources and investigatory powers of the ISC come to match those of the Public Accounts Committee, the better it will be for effective scrutiny by the ISC of the agencies, above all given the enhanced budget and increasingly important role that those agencies are playing.
The central question in much of the debate was the extent to which the ISC's proceedings can be made more open. Conservative Members accept that the key principle is that we must protect the effectiveness of the security and intelligence agencies in doing their job on behalf of the people of this country and in defending the national interests of the United Kingdom.
I hear the hon. Gentleman saying that we can all agree on that central principle.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield pointed out that nowadays a diligent researcher is able to use the internet, or perhaps access the archives in Washington, to gain access to information that is being withheld from publication in the public version of the ISC's report. Mr. Winnick reminded us that in the past 20 years we have come a long way from the time when even an explicit mention of a meeting with the director general of the Security Service had to be written in code on the Home Secretary's diary sheet. I hope that, in the context of a proper statutory reform of the ISC, we can push the envelope further and move, step by step, towards even greater openness than that which we have today.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have made this a constructive and useful debate. The ISC is, in a way, a very British institution as regards how it works and tries within the limits of our own practice to get the right degree of rigour in the scrutiny of Government and the agencies without compromising the vital work that they do. Let me put it on record that from the Government's point of view it is in our interest, never mind the country's interest, that that scrutiny is as rigorous as possible given the limits that need to exist.
I want to associate myself strongly with the remarks of all right hon. and hon. Members. Whether they have supported the Government's proposals or expressed qualms about them, all have praised the dedication, bravery and intelligence of our agencies, and I would like to second that very strongly. These people and the organisations that they work for have, for a long time, played a critical role in the defence of the country and the defence of the interests of every citizen of this country, and we are lucky to have them.
Overseas secret intelligence, which I obviously have more to do with than domestic intelligence, has given us a vital edge in tackling some of the most difficult security challenges that we face; Mr. Lidington spoke about bravery, and he was right to do so. Very briefly, I would like to put it on record that I have known Alex Allan for 11 years now, and a couple of hon. Members referred to his recent illness and passed on their best wishes to him. I am delighted to say that he will be able to recognise the warmth and strength of that feeling when it is passed on to him in hospital. I am sure that we all wish him a speedy and full recovery from his illness.
I would also like to thank sincerely all members of the Committee that is led by my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, and my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend Ms Taylor, for his efforts. The rigour with which they approach their task is important for the Government and the nation, and we are developing a balance of challenge and support that is appropriate for the difficult issues that we face.
I would like to pick up on as many as possible of the comments made by hon. Members without trying the patience of the House. In case hon. Members are worried, I am not planning to take us up to 6 o'clock—this will not be a Castro-length peroration, tempting though it is to engage in such a peroration about the reforms. Richard Ottaway suggested that the reforms could not be classified as revolutionary, which is right, but that is partly because the system has strengths, and we want to build on those rather than up-end the system.
The Intelligence and Security Committee differs from parliamentary Select Committees for a simple reason: in order to carry out its work it needs access to highly classified materials. Unlike Select Committees, its deliberations, or at least most of them—I shall come back to the amendment of my hon. Friend Mr. Winnick in a moment—need to take place in a secure environment, behind closed doors. Its reports inevitably contain highly classified information, which is why the Prime Minister is the first to see them in their entirety and why versions laid before the House are redacted—a point that I shall also return to.
I shall start with the Government's proposal for a new Standing Order that would change the process of appointing hon. Members so that they would go before the House by means of the Committee of Selection, and right hon. and hon. Members would get to vote on them before their names were put to the Prime Minister for agreement. The Prime Minister will retain the final say on membership as he is ultimately responsible for and accountable to the House on matters of national security. It is right to make this reform in the interests of the openness and parliamentary accountability that hon. Members have referred to.
I do not think that the Foreign Secretary was in the Chamber for this part of the debate, but is there any reason why people cannot be nominated, elected and then vetted? Why does it have to be the other way around? Surely, that effectively means that the Prime Minister would retain the right to veto potentially for political reasons, not because someone is in some way unreliable.
The House will be able to judge clearly the merits of the case put to it by the Committee of Selection, and if a capricious decision were made after that, the House would be able to see it. The reform makes sense, and answers the case that has been made.
Let me address the point about the openness of hearings by heads of agencies, and the notion of such hearings taking place in open session. That process will not be straightforward, and Mr. Mates, among others, has referred to that. We cannot put issues of national security or the safety of individuals—I underline that second point—at risk, and nor do we want to limit the type of evidence that the Committee can hear in order for it to operate in public.
The Government believe that there is scope for holding some sessions in public, and we want to make progress on that. However, we must protect national security, and in that context, the Government must consider when it is appropriate for evidence to be taken in public. Given our commitment to explore the matter with the ISC's Chairman and its members, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North will not press his amendment, but hold us to account for our progress in developing some open sessions.
Next there is the anomaly of the ISC annual report being debated only here and not in the other place. That must change and I do not believe that anyone objects to that. Providing that the Chairman of the ISC should open the debate in the House is a worthwhile innovation.
Some questions have been asked about the ISC's resources. They have doubled in the past five years, but I heard the comments about the commitment of hon. Members of all parties to giving the ISC the resources that it needs. Obviously, they cannot be infinite, but we are committed to ensuring that the Committee has what it needs to carry out its duties effectively. We are happy to work with the Committee on an independent investigator.
Let me consider staffing and amendment (a), which my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay tabled. Appointments are made to the secretariat through free and fair competition. As the right hon. Member for East Hampshire made clear, it is open to a Clerk of the House or anyone else to apply for a job with the ISC. All staff, whether ISC or not, would be on civil service terms and conditions. However, we cannot accept the amendment because it would not be appropriate for staff who work for a Committee, which reports directly to the Prime Minister rather than to Parliament—as is essential, given the nature of the ISC and its work—to be under the authority of the Clerk of the House. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will not move his amendment. Once we have agreement about the fundamental basis of the ISC, I do not understand how his proposal is practical.
If my amendment were accepted, it could clearly only flag up what must be included in primary legislation. All the difficulties that my right hon. Friend raises can be overcome by discussion, so that the Clerk remains the Clerk of the House of Commons, but the Committee could still answer directly to the Prime Minister. I shall not trespass into that argument.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's attempt to find common ground, but he is effectively saying that we do not need to accept the amendment to continue thinking about whether primary legislation is necessary. On that basis, I look forward to his not moving the amendment and to continuing the constructive discussions.
Offices have taken up more of the debate than I expected. The ISC needs secure accommodation to carry out its duties. We have no proprietorial commitment to its meeting in the Cabinet Office or elsewhere, but we are examining the matter with an open mind.
Let me deal with some individual points. Several hon. Members referred to reports in The Guardian about UK complicity in the torture of UK nationals detained in Pakistan—an extremely serious charge. The Security Service has checked for any relevant information in the light of the media allegations and informed me that there is nothing to suggest that it has supported torture in Pakistan or anywhere else. The Government's position is clear: we unreservedly condemn the use of torture. We take allegations of mistreatment extremely seriously and would follow up all such allegations very carefully. Of course, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South said, individuals who feel that their human rights have been infringed by the intelligence services can take their case to the investigatory powers tribunal.
Redaction has also been mentioned. The right hon. Member for East Hampshire said that no redaction has ever been made without the Committee's consent. The Government are committed to ensuring that that always remains the case. It is a positive development and there is no reason for it to be compromised.
On the SCOPE computer system, phase 1 provides an operational shared service to a range of Departments, including the intelligence agencies. The enhanced SCOPE infrastructure will continue to play a central role in the way in which the Government share sensitive information securely. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said and the ISC noted in its annual report, the programme has already delivered significant benefits to the wider community through phase 1 and has been instrumental in improving policymaking and operational efficiency.
My hon. Friend Ben Chapman made an interesting venture into electronic cyber-attack—I think that he knows more about that than he let on; let us put it that way—but he did not mention the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, which is available to the private sector from the Government and to Government through GCHQ, and which co-ordinates a range of briefings and efforts to ensure that we are protected.
In respect of the focus on terrorism, which I do not think any hon. Member has questioned, I have seen no evidence to suggest that our efforts to secure our country have been compromised in other areas as a result of that focus, although that is obviously something that we must continue to watch.
Finally—I hope that I am not getting on the wrong side of the deputy Chief Whip here—Mr. Lidington, who speaks for the Opposition, asked about rendition. Although I am tempted to wait for another 35 minutes and see whether those in the Box can produce an answer to his question about the UN convention on enforced disappearances, I am afraid that one has not yet arrived. I hope that he will allow me to write to him with details of where in the Foreign Office's pending tray the issue lies. Subject to that, I am happy to admit that I am unable to provide him with an immediate answer.
The House is agreed that the intelligence agencies play a vital role. We are agreed that we need strong and rigorous independent questioning and scrutiny by the ISC. We are agreed that Parliament should play a greater role—
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary and I apologise for interrupting his peroration. I appreciate that, for good reason, he was not in the Chamber when I raised the SCOPE project— [ Interruption. ] In that case, I apologise to him; neither I nor my hon. Friend Mr. Lidington heard him mention it.
It is understandable when someone who is not in the Chamber does not hear what is said; it is more worrying when someone who is in the Chamber does hear what is said. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman was neither talking to his neighbour nor snoozing through the most gripping part of my speech, but perhaps I did not enunciate it clearly enough.
The system that we have is one that we should build on. It is one that the Government are determined to reform. We want to reform it with the support of the whole House, as I think has been demonstrated today. I commend our proposals to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the Annual Report of the Intelligence and Security Committee for 2006-07, Cm 7299, and the Government response, Cm 7300.