Intelligence and Security Committee

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:41 pm on 18th March 2010.

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Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee) 4:41 pm, 18th March 2010

I might turn out to be in a minority of MPs who have spoken in this debate-not only will I be here for the winding-up speeches, but I am not retiring.

Having mentioned retirement, I pay tribute to Andrew Mackinlay. Many people may disagree with what he has said in his time-one could sense that in the Chamber today, from one or two quarters-but the fact is that he has been an extremely independent-minded MP, a parliamentarian of the best sort and a tremendous colleague to have around the House. I should add, while I am at it, that Dr. Howells has done a tremendous amount of good work in the House of Commons in the period when we have overlapped. In a moment, I will make a few remarks that he might construe as critical, but I do not want him to feel that that detracts from what I have just said. Finally, I would like to refer to a constituent of mine sitting on the back row, my right hon. Friend Mr. Mates. He gave an outstanding and very detailed speech, which may be his last contribution in the House. We will remember it for a long time.

That was the first point I wanted to make. I am the tail-end Charlie from the Back Benches this afternoon, and having sat here listening to the debate it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a great deal of behind-the-scenes machinations has been taking place over the guidance-much more than has been revealed-but the fact that what has been surfacing has surfaced, in the context of the Committee's independence from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office, is itself extremely corrosive of public confidence in the ISC and the security services. I regret that very much.

I am a strong supporter of the ISC. We can all sense the dedication with which parliamentary colleagues on it go about their work. It is composed of senior and very dedicated people trying to do their best, and a number of them are in the Chamber this afternoon. We need to sustain confidence both in them and in those working in the security services, who are trying to protect us. I hope that it will be in that context that hon. Members will take some expressions of concern, which I shall make in a moment, about the extent to which the ISC might have been unable to get to the truth on some of the issues that it has investigated, and also my conclusions about the need for reform of the ISC and for a judge-led inquiry into rendition.

Our intelligence services certainly do a vital job, and they are doing it, at the moment, in very difficult circumstances, so they deserve our full support. We need strong security services to protect us from the threat of dangerous extremism, and of course much of what they do must necessarily remain a secret, as has been said. In this area, we need-almost uniquely-accountability without full transparency. It will, and should, always be thus, which is why the work of the Committee, and the trust that we want to be able to place in it, is so important.

We have had a string of revelations and allegations in recent years about the intelligence services' complicity in extraordinary rendition-the practice, which was greatly extended by President Bush after 11 September, of kidnapping people and taking them to places where they may be maltreated or tortured. On the basis of what I have seen and heard, I am confident that our services do not want to be involved in such practices. From what I can tell, the services themselves believe that the practice is counter-productive for intelligence gathering, and, in any case, revelations of possible involvement sap their morale. They want and need the public to have confidence in them, and accountability is for their benefit as well as for ours. That is why we do them a disservice if we fail to investigate credible allegations when they are made.

I created the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition in December 2005 to try to get to the bottom of the issue of rendition, and of any possible UK involvement in it. After careful thought, I made a number of specific allegations. The first was that the UK had facilitated or been complicit in rendition. The second was that Diego Garcia was being used for that purpose. The third was that the UK's armed forces might also be involved in rendition. It is worth recalling the blanket denials with which those points were met.

First, I shall quote the then Foreign Secretary, Mr. Straw, who likened what I and others were suggesting to conspiracy theories. He said:

"Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States...there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom had been involved in rendition".

In a subsequent Westminster Hall debate, the then Foreign Office Minister responsible for policy in this area said that to suggest that Ministers might not know all the facts was the usual "conspiracy theory mantra". That Member is now the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the right hon. Member for Pontypridd, sitting on the other side of the House.

Each of my allegations has been either supported by a court judgment or admitted in subsequent correcting ministerial statements. I hope that the work of the all-party group on extraordinary rendition has made a contribution towards getting to the truth behind all the allegations, but it really should not be down to us to find out the truth about this stuff. The ISC should be the body of parliamentarians with the job of getting to that truth and giving us confidence that it has done so.

I was delighted when the Committee finally responded to my repeated requests for an inquiry into rendition by launching one, and its report was eventually published in July 2007. But did the Committee succeed in getting to the truth? The courts have recently suggested that it did not. It seems, from the High Court and Appeal Court judgments in the Binyam Mohamed case, that the ISC did not know what was going on. The relevant quotation from those judgments is:

"The ISC Report could not have been made in such terms if the 42 documents"- that is, the key documents involved-

"had been made available to it".

The judge's conclusion sits oddly with that of the Chairman of the Committee, who, as recently as August 2009, said that he was "confident" that the ISC knew what was going on in regard to rendition. He made that claim in an interview on the "Today" programme, a transcript of which I have, although I shall not read out any more of it now.

Baroness Manningham-Buller's recent extremely interesting contribution contained the conclusion that the ISC was likely to be reformed to become a full Select Committee of Parliament. There are certainly many people who want that, and we have heard support for that view around the Chamber this afternoon.

I have not supported that proposal-and I still do not support it-for a number of reasons, but primarily because I am not yet convinced that the benefits in bolstering public confidence will not be more than offset by the loss of trust between Parliament and the services, and the reduced access that could result from that, which would reduce the Committee's opportunities to get to the truth. Full congressional committees in the US-not special committees-do that sort of work, but we do not have their strong investigative tradition to draw on, backed by the courts and underpinned by the separation of powers. Perhaps we should, but that would entail a much broader reform of the constitution, which nobody at the moment is seriously entertaining, and nor do I support it.

Having said all that, I think that we must have reform of the ISC. Even the Government more or less accept that in their response to the most recent annual report, and so, of course, does the ISC in its report, with its proposals for greater independence from the Cabinet Office. As has been pointed out, by the hon. Member for Thurrock among others, it is wholly unacceptable, as well as being a reflection of the need for reform, that the 2009-10 report should have been published only a few hours before this debate. The same goes for the Government's failure to publish the interview guidance for those operating overseas.

I have not had time to digest either document, and that includes the ISC's proposals for reform and the Government's response to them. None the less, it strikes me that the Committee might be mistaken in its principal proposals and that the Government might be right in their response. I have only had the opportunity to see this in the past few hours, but as the Government pointed out, it would be "unusual", to say the least,

"for a scrutiny body to have its funding linked to the function it scrutinises".

That is a valid point.

As for the need for yet another departmental reshuffle, that would take a lot of justifying, particularly in a week when the Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office has strongly criticised the unprecedented number of central Government departmental reorganisations, which, on average over the past four years, are now running at more than 20 a year. The CAG concluded that such reorganisations cannot be justified on value for money grounds. Perhaps the reorganisation proposed by the Committee can be justified, and perhaps, even if it costs more, it can be justified on other grounds-I do not know, and I could not possibly be in a position to judge that, sitting where I do now-but the proposal gives me pause. Rearranging the chairs in Whitehall might not be the most fruitful approach to bolstering public confidence. The ISC's proposals are probably not the right way forward, therefore, and they are certainly not enough to give the public confidence that the ISC remains sufficiently independent and capable of getting to the truth.

For some time I have been arguing for a change that would help on both counts-that is, on increasing independence and on giving the public confidence that the Committee can get closer to the truth. We need to address the fact-this cannot be avoided-that whatever the reality, the appearance is that the Committee is not sufficiently independent of the Prime Minister and the Executive, a point that is reinforced by the report that has just been published.

In recent years, a string of appointees have come out of senior positions in the Government to chair the ISC, only to return to the Front Bench immediately afterwards. That is true of at least three, if not four, of the last five Chairman. I am not impugning the integrity of any of the people involved, and experience of government, particularly in a relevant area, is of course extremely valuable in chairing the ISC. However, the revolving door between the chairmanship of the ISC and the Government cannot and should not be the norm, if we want the public to have confidence that the ISC and its work are wholly independent of Government. In any case, once the appearance of independence has gone-whatever the reality-so has the point of having the ISC in the first place. Something must be done.

I served on the Wright Committee, whose primary purpose was to bolster public confidence in Parliament in a much broader context. The Committee adopted my proposal that the Chairmen of Select Committees should be elected by secret ballot of the whole House, for which I had been campaigning for more than a decade. I also won support for my proposal that the Chairman of the ISC-which, of course, is not a Select Committee-should be elected in the same way as Select Committee Chairmen, subject to a prime ministerial veto at the nomination stage. I can think of no good reason why that relatively modest proposal cannot be implemented immediately, and nor could the members of the Wright Committee. Its implementation would at least block the revolving door, and that would bolster public confidence a little.

I believe that much more needs to be done, but I shall now confine myself to the subject of rendition. If we want to achieve closure, we need the maximum possible disclosure. Neither Ministers nor the ISC appear to have known the truth about this matter, and we have to ask ourselves whether the tools of parliamentary scrutiny have been adequate. More than two years ago, I reluctantly concluded that in order to plug the gap in relation to United Kingdom involvement, we needed a brief judge-led inquiry on rendition.

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