I beg to move amendment 56, in schedule 1, page 16, line 31, leave out ‘(6)’
and insert ‘(5)’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendment 57
Amendment 75, page 17, line 38, leave out from ‘ISC’ to end of line 43.
Amendment 73, page 18, line 34, leave out from ‘private’ to end of line 3 on page 19 and insert ‘from a person subject to the Official Secrets Act 1989.
‘(2) The ISC may only publish or disclose the information—
(a) by way of a report under section 3,
(b) if the ISC and the Prime Minister are satisfied that publication or disclosure would not be prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions of the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, the Government Communications Headquarters or any person carrying out activities falling within section 2(2), or
(c) if publication or disclosure is necessary for the ISC to comply with any enactment or rule of law.’.
Government amendments 59 and 60
Amendment 76, page 19, leave out from line 4 to end of line 7 and add—
‘Protection for proceedings of the ISC
6 No part of the proceedings of the ISC, including evidence given to the ISC may be used in any civil, criminal or disciplinary proceedings, except in the case of evidence given in bad faith.’.
Government amendments 61, 62 and 55
Amendment 71, in clause 2, page 2, line 29, at end insert—
‘(4A) Subsections (3) and (4) do not apply where a plausible claim has been made by or on behalf of an individual to the ISC that the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service or the Government Communications Headquarters has disseminated any information to any recipient concerning any person that appears to be—
(a) materially false; and
(b) harmful to the person defamed.
(4B) In any case where subsection (4A) applies, the ISC shall fully and expeditiously investigate the claim and, where the claim appears to be well founded, shall ensure that the misinformation is expeditiously corrected.’.
Amendment 74, page 2, line 29, at end insert—
‘(4A) The ISC shall consider the proposed appointment of the following, including by questioning the prospective appointee at a meeting of the ISC—
(a) the Head of the Security Service;
(c) the Head of the Government Communications Headquarters; and
(d) such other persons as the Prime Minister may direct.
(4B) The ISC may consider the appropriateness of holding hearings considering each prospective appointee’s proposed appointment in public.’.
Government amendments 63 and 64.
After that interesting debate about the basis for the important reforms that are taking place to strengthen the scrutiny, and perhaps some of the principles behind measures in the Bill relating to the parliamentary ISC, we will now consider a number of amendments that touch on procedural matters relating to the functions and operation of the ISC. I apologise to the House in advance that I will touch on a range of different points. I know that a number of other amendments have been grouped for this debate, so I will touch briefly on those and then reflect on points made in the debate. If time allows, I hope to respond to any further points that may arise.
Amendments 56 and 57 were originally tabled on Report in the other place and Lord Taylor highlighted that one possible consequence of the change in the Bill to refer to the Intelligence and Security Committee “of Parliament” could be that the ISC would have the power to take evidence on oath. However, further analysis concluded that the consequence of changing the ISC to a statutory Committee of Parliament would be that the ISC may, in future, take evidence on oath. Our view was that, when taken together, the Parliamentary Witnesses Oaths Act 1871, which concerns the power of Committees of the House of Commons to administer oaths, and its Lords equivalent, the Parliamentary Witnesses Act 1858, would give the ISC the authority to administer oaths.
However, the House services raised a concern with the Government about that provision and disagreed with our analysis that the change to “of Parliament” would give the ISC the authority to take evidence on oath. They believe that the Bill should contain an express power for the ISC to take such evidence. Following further discussions in response to that point, and with the intent of putting this issue beyond doubt, we have decided to address the concern of the parliamentary authorities by tabling amendment 57, which puts the ISC’s power to take evidence on oath beyond doubt.
The amendment makes it unnecessary to specify in the Bill who has the power to administer oaths on behalf of the ISC, as there is no longer any need to displace the provision in the relevant statutory authorities. Amendment 56 makes procedure in relation to the ISC hearing evidence on oath a matter for the ISC to determine, pursuant to paragraph 2(1) of schedule 1.
An amendment was agreed in Committee that places restrictions on the ISC’s ability to publish material that it receives in connection with the exercise of its functions, other than through its reports. We had a useful debate in Committee, which highlighted some of the issues and challenges and recognised the need for safeguards to ensure that sensitive material was not inadvertently disclosed, as well as the need for the ISC to be able to fulfil its duties.
The amendment addresses a consequence of the ISC being a statutory Committee of Parliament. In that context, the ISC will have a general power to publish information, which will sit alongside its express power to publish reports to Parliament. Absent the restriction, which is now contained in paragraph 5 of schedule 1 to the Bill, under that general power the ISC would have been able to publish evidence it has received other than through its reports to Parliament. Following concerns raised by my hon. Friend Dr Lewis, I was able to provide assurance that it was not the Government’s intention that the amendment would inhibit or limit some of the existing practices of the ISC, and made a commitment to look at the language to see whether there was any way of giving further assurance. I have considered that matter and, as a consequence, we have tabled amendment 60.
Amendment 60 would provide a further gateway allowing publication or disclosure where the Prime Minister and the ISC agree that this would not cause prejudice to the functions of the agencies or other Government security and intelligence bodies. This is the same criterion that is used in clause 3(4) of the Bill which allows the Prime Minister, after consultation with the ISC, to require that the ISC must exclude a matter from any report to Parliament.
The consequence of amendment 60 therefore would be that the ISC would be able to publish informally—for example, in an open letter—any information which, ultimately, it would be permitted to include in its reports to Parliament. As I have said, the criteria are exactly the same. I recognise the concern to ensure that the existing arrangements for the ISC and the steps that it takes are maintained, and that is in part reflected in amendment 73, tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind with the support—I believe—of the existing members of the ISC. While I am sympathetic to the intentions, and have had several discussions with my right hon. and learned Friend to work out some suitable language to address the issues, our view of amendment 73 is that it would have some unintended consequences. In its current form, the amendment would widen the net in a way that I suspect the ISC had not anticipated.
I shall return to the principle after I have gone through some of the technical issues that have been identified. The amendment refers to information received by the ISC
“from a person subject to the Official Secrets Act 1989.”
While I appreciate the intention behind the amendment, that phrase suggests that the prohibition should apply to any person inside or outside Government who had ever known, or been in a position to know, any classified information. Unfortunately, the effect of the amendment would be slightly different. The Official Secrets Act 1989 contains prohibitions of general application, most notably in section 5, and it extends to the whole UK. It even apparently covers some acts done outside the UK by British citizens or Crown servants. It would therefore cover information beyond the purview and structure anticipated. It would cover all information supplied by a person who has, at any time, been in a position to have access to classified information. Information supplied to the ISC by such a person will be covered by the prohibition whether or not it is in fact classified information, and whether or not it even came to that person in connection with the role in which they had or could have had access to classified information.
I accept the validity of what my hon. Friend says, but the problem is that in that formulation the ISC was trying to do away with a similar problem with the Government’s wording, which suggests that all information that the ISC receives in private is subject to these restrictions. The whole point of what we are trying to say is that it should only apply to classified or sensitive information that we receive in private. Other information that we receive in private, such as from victims of the 7/7 bombing, should not be restricted in that way. Even though my hon. Friend makes a valid point against the wording that we have offered, the same point still applies to the Government’s wording.
My hon. Friend, in his customary way, has highlighted the genuine challenges that both the Government and ISC members have had in seeking to frame legislation, which can be a challenging mechanism within which to express matters effectively. He rightly points out the evidence given by the families of the victims of 7/7 and those who were sadly caught up in that terrible event. There have also been discussions of the evidence taken from communication service providers during the ISC’s recent inquiry into communications data, including whether the information provided was sensitive. It is a challenge at times to analyse evidence from third parties to decide whether evidence is sensitive and thus not suitable for disclosure. Sometimes that is clear, but sometimes it is not.
I am following the Minister’s argument closely, and I acknowledge that it is difficult to get the right legislative framework for this area. I wish to reinforce the point made by Dr Lewis that part of the change we are seeking to achieve is to make the Committee more independent. The consequence of the provision that all information in private will be covered means that the decisions can be made by the Government rather than the Committee. We must have a clear delineation of information that belongs to the Committee, which can then decide what to do with that information. No matter how hard this is, I hope that the Minister will be creative and ingenious enough to provide clarity. Such information is not the Government’s information: it is for the Committee to decide.
I hear the point that the right hon. Lady makes. The intent of the changes in the Bill is to underline the greater scrutiny and the import of the ISC as a Committee of Parliament in fulfilling its work, and therefore ensuring that it has an appropriate mechanism for the publication of information relating to its deliberations. As we have already discussed, sometimes there are challenges on evidence given, perhaps in private, and we had some useful debates in Committee on public hearings. We hope that we will be able to work with the newly formed ISC to have public evidence hearings for some evidence that has previously always been held in private. I acknowledge that most evidence would probably still continue to be heard in private because of the very nature of the materials provided, but we want to look at ways to make hearings more public to show the important scrutiny that is provided by the ISC, and thus to enhance visibility, transparency and confidence in the scrutiny role.
Perhaps I might endorse the Minister’s enthusiasm for the public hearings, which would constitute a complete departure from what has previously been the case and provide an interesting opportunity for that greater degree of public interest and public understanding. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind has had to leave because of another commitment, but it is my understanding that he has been in informal discussions with the Minister about the issues raised by amendment 73. Am I right in understanding that it is possible for those discussions to continue and that consideration may be given in another place to an amendment that would satisfy both the Government and the Committee?
Informal discussions have taken place to work through the detailed and technical issues that need proper consideration and ensure we strike the right balance. I welcome that dialogue. Before I return to the substance of my right hon. and learned Friend’s point and respond formally, I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend Mark Field.
I hope the Minister will recognise that the concern expressed by all of us as members of the Intelligence and Security Committee is that the terms of the Bill are far too broad. If the Government remain unwilling to go along with amendment 73, will he give some consideration to these issues being dealt with in detail in the memorandum of understanding? It may be that some of the technical difficulties to which he referred would be more appropriately dealt with in that forum.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. There is scope to deal with this further in the memorandum of understanding. I reiterate that it is not the Government’s intention to try and stop the ISC from continuing to do things in the way that it does at the moment as a consequence of the changes contemplated in the Bill, and I am content to reflect on providing further clarity in the memorandum of understanding to address some of those technical points. We have a framework in the legislation. While we may have found it challenging to get the precise legal wording right for an amendment because of those technical areas, I am willing to reflect on how we can seek to encapsulate the existing arrangements, under which the ISC conducts its affairs, in the memorandum of understanding.
These exchanges highlight some of the difficulties in putting changes in the Bill in a rigid way. In some ways, because of the nature of the evidence, they probably lend themselves to being addressed more effectively in the memorandum of understanding. If it will help the House, I am happy to give that commitment on how we may best address those challenges in greater detail in the memorandum of understanding. I hope right hon. and hon. Members will accept the spirit in which that commitment is given.
In the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, may I say how grateful the Committee is for the attitude displayed by the Minister? We await the resolution with interest. We have a common intention; it is just a question of making sure we frame it in a way that satisfies all other criteria.
I understand. I look forward to continuing informal discussions, and hope that agreement on the memorandum of understanding on the operations of the ISC in Parliament will be resolved quickly.
Government amendment 59 is a technical, clarificatory amendment that makes clear how paragraph 5(2) of schedule 1 will operate. The insertion of the word “otherwise” puts beyond doubt certain technical issues that have been highlighted, so I will not take up the House’s time and go through it in detail.
On Government amendments 61, 62 and amendment 76, in Committee, a Government amendment was agreed to provide protection to witnesses before the ISC. It will prevent evidence given by a witness before the ISC from being used against them in any criminal, civil or disciplinary proceedings, unless it was given in bad faith. The provision, now in paragraph 6 of schedule 1, replicates an important part of the protection that witnesses before a Select Committee would have, by virtue of a Select Committee’s proceedings being subject to parliamentary privilege. In doing so, that will encourage witnesses appearing before the ISC to be full and frank in the evidence that they provide. It is perhaps worth stressing that witnesses before the ISC currently enjoy no special protections with regard to the subsequent use of their evidence.
The amendment made in Committee was therefore an important change to ensure that the ISC is able to perform its oversight function even more effectively, because the fuller and more candid the evidence the ISC receives, the more effective it is likely to be in supervising the security and intelligence community. During the debate in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East and Diana Johnson questioned whether the protection went far enough. In response, I made a commitment to reflect carefully on the points that were made. I have considered whether further protection could be given to witnesses’ evidence, preventing its disclosure for the purposes of any legal proceedings; in other words, not merely legal proceedings where the evidence would be used against the particular witness. I am happy to confirm to the House that, while we concluded that such a protection would be problematic in terms of compatibility with the European convention on human rights in relation to criminal proceedings, we are satisfied that it will be compatible for civil and disciplinary proceedings.
Government amendment 61 therefore introduces a statutory protection for evidence given by witnesses to the ISC, preventing its disclosure for the purposes of any civil or disciplinary proceedings. That protection applies not merely to civil and disciplinary proceedings where the evidence would be used against the particular witness, but to all such proceedings. As a result, the existing prohibition on the use of evidence against the witness needs only to deal with use of evidence in criminal proceedings, since the wider protection given by the provision introduced by Government amendment 61 will cover use of evidence against a witness in civil or disciplinary proceedings. Government amendment 62 makes the necessary consequential changes.
As amended, paragraph 6 of schedule 1 will therefore provide a statutory protection for evidence given by witnesses to the ISC, preventing its disclosure for the purposes of any civil or disciplinary proceedings. In addition, evidence given by a witness before the ISC will not be able to be used against that witness in criminal proceedings. Of course, evidence that is deliberately misleading is of no assistance to the ISC. Accordingly, the protections do not apply to evidence given in bad faith. It is important to explain the context in which the drafting has been framed.
It may be that others will argue that this further protection, while welcome, does not go far enough. Indeed, I note that Yvette Cooper has tabled an amendment that would extend the protection even further, and no doubt the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North will wish to speak to that. All I will say at this stage—obviously, I will listen to what the hon. Lady says in her speech—is that we believe there is a significant issue of compatibility with the European convention on human rights. For example, it is possible that criminal proceedings against an individual could hinge on the testimony of a particular witness who has given inconsistent evidence to the ISC about broadly the same matters. If approved, this protection in the proposed amendment would prevent the inconsistent evidence given before the ISC from being used by the defence in the criminal proceedings to discredit the witness.
That would lead to obvious unfairness for the defendant in criminal proceedings. We do not believe that our preferred protection on this issue runs into that problem, because of the nature of its framing and the protections against self-incrimination. The ECHR has recognised that the privilege against self-incrimination lies at the heart of the notion of a fair trial. By providing the accused with protection against improper compulsion by the authorities and thereby avoiding miscarriages of justice, the existing protection secures the aims of article 6, whereas we judge that amendment 76 would run into challenges and issues in that way.
Amendment 76 would also provide a blanket protection from disclosure covering any material that can be considered part of the ISC’s proceedings. It would cover not just evidence received by the ISC in the course of its proceedings, but records of the ISC’s deliberations and records of the questions asked of witnesses by ISC members. The amendment would even cover the reports that the ISC lays before Parliament, which will of course be public documents in any event. That is an extremely wide scope. Interestingly, I note from one of the pieces of advice given to me that the nature of any such protections afforded would also go further than those for minutes of Cabinet.
There is a judgment to be struck. I recognise some of the issues that are being raised, which concern what a statutory Committee is. The ISC is a statutory Committee of Parliament but, because of those issues, it is not afforded all the protections of parliamentary privilege. The Government have worked hard to frame a number of protections to take the Committee as close as possible to a full parliamentary Committee—if I can use that rather inelegant language—that would be captured by parliamentary privilege. However, we believe that amendment 76 would run into significant legal issues.
On the issue of proportionality—which I will finally come on to—there are a considerable number of matters that make the amendment problematic, although I understand the intent behind it.
Does the Minister agree that this is a similar dilemma to the one we faced on the question of publicity? The Opposition’s amendment might go too far, but we on the Committee feel that what the Government propose does too little. It protects witnesses against their evidence being used against them, but falls short—as the Minister seems to be conceding—of the protection the Committee would have if it were a Select Committee. Will he undertake to come back with something else at a later stage—perhaps in the other place—that would be a better compromise between those two positions?
I fully respect what my hon. Friend has said. We have given careful consideration, at length, to the statutory protections afforded to the ISC through this Bill. He will remember the debates we had in Committee about issues under the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act, along with a number of other statutory provisions, which we believed needed to be addressed to afford the ISC a number of additional protections. Although I very much hear what he says, the Government believe that we have taken this as far as we can through our amendments—and within the remit of article 6 of the ECHR, for example—to afford those protections and frame the provisions. I note the concern he has raised; all I would say is that the Government have taken some additional steps—on things that the existing Committee does not currently have—in how the Bill is framed to move the Committee as close as we can, within the framework of law, to provide the relevant protections.
As members of the ISC who are here today will recognise, consideration was given to how one might approach the issue of parliamentary privilege. Indeed, there was a lengthy debate in the other place on that issue. There is a broad recognition that trying to define parliamentary privilege in statute would open a whole new array of issues. Indeed, I do not think this House would welcome an attempt to frame the privileges that reside in this place by way of an Act of Parliament, which might be subject to further litigation and challenge, which not only might have an effect simply on the ISC but could have a limiting effect on parliamentary privilege for broader issues in this House. When considering this issue, everyone involved in the examination of the Bill thought that that would be a very unfortunate step to take. Therefore, the Government have thereafter sought to approach the issue by framing matters within existing legislative frameworks.
I just want to advise the Minister—who might not need advising—and the House that there is a Joint Committee of both Houses wrestling with precisely the problem he has just outlined, and it would not have made a great deal of sense for this Bill to proceed in a way that pre-empted any conclusions reached by the Committee.
I entirely agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman; hence the reason the Government have taken the approach they have.
Let me turn briefly to amendment 55, which concerns the ISC’s ability to oversee operational matters. With the amendments, the Bill now provides for three routes by which the ISC may consider particular operational matters. The first is where the Prime Minister and the ISC are agreed that the matter is of significant national interest and not part of any ongoing intelligence and security operations. The second route is where the Government request the ISC to consider a matter notwithstanding the fact that those criteria are not met. The third is where the ISC’s consideration of an operational matter is limited to considering information provided to it voluntarily by the agencies or another Department.
That additional route was provided to meet a further concern of the ISC—that the requirement that both the ISC and the Prime Minister should be satisfied that the criteria for oversight of operational matters had been met risked slowing the provision of information to the ISC on routine operational matters. Obviously that already happens now; the concern was that not framing the third limb might hinder it. We therefore made an amendment in Committee to address that third point. The key issue is that, as has been highlighted, for the first two categories there is the ability to require further information to be given, whereas for the third limb—because, in essence, information is provided without being compelled—those further requirements did not operate. That is why the structure has been framed in this way.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East expressed some concern about the term “voluntarily”. I think his point was that this was in some way a presentational issue—that we understood what we were talking about when it came to information that would ordinarily be provided to the Committee. We have reflected on that point; hence the reason for a further amendment to try to clarify rights of access.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his explicit recognition of the fact that the Committee has had access to operational information for some considerable time, despite the fact that no such provision is in the current legislation. The Committee remains concerned about the use of the word “voluntarily”, and I had hoped that the Government would withdraw it from the Bill. It goes against the whole spirit of the direction in which we are moving, from the right to request information to the right to require it. That is a small change on the face of it, but it is actually a big, transformational step. I do not think that the word “voluntarily” is necessary in the Bill; it is superfluous and its retention goes against the direction of travel, in that the agencies will voluntarily be able to decide whether to provide information. That is not the relationship that we currently have with the agencies, let alone the one that we want for the future. I ask the Minister to think again. Why does he want the word “voluntarily” in there when we acknowledge that for the issues in question, this is a matter of requesting information just as we do now?
As the right hon. Lady says, the Committee already receives information on ongoing operational matters, and that would fall short of the requirements in the first two limbs that I have described. She will have seen the Government’s amendment that seeks to reflect the existing work that takes place and the information that is provided. As always with legislation, this is a question of the wording and the way in which matters are interpreted by lawyers, as well as by Members of Parliament. The provision is in no way intended to cut across the Committee’s existing work or the existing flow of information when a request for further clarification has been made. It is intended to provide a distinction between the first two limbs, which will contain an element of further requirement, and the third limb, in which information will be provided because it has been requested rather than required, and in which further investigations will be limited to using the information that has been so provided.
I am following the Minister’s argument closely. It would be helpful if he told us how he envisages a situation being resolved where an agency decides voluntarily not to provide information that the Committee feels is important. There might be a mechanism for doing that but, off the top of my head, I am not sure what it is.
This relates to operational matters and inquiries by the Committee. We have had discussions about the exploration of operational matters—this is a new aspect of the Committee’s work, as the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge—and about how to frame that. Detailed consideration has been given to the specific matters that an inquiry may cover, and that is supplemented by the memorandum of understanding in respect of the first two limbs. Clause 2(3)(c) is intended to cover the ordinary information that is being provided. I think it was accepted in Committee that that paragraph dealt with the concerns of the ISC about ordinary matters that would be provided in that course. It states that
“the ISC’s consideration of the matter is limited to the consideration of information provided voluntarily to the ISC by” the agencies, following those kinds of inquiries. These are issues that have customarily been dealt with by the Committee in its ordinary course. A relationship is established between the Committee and the agencies, and information is provided in that ordinary course, and we have sought to reflect the current practice.
The Minister will have gathered from the contributions from the right hon. Members for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) that the Committee currently goes well beyond the constraints of the original legislation. Does he recognise that the use of the word “voluntarily” will give rise to concern outside this place that the Committee remains the poodle of the Executive or, to a certain extent, of the security services? He is right to suggest that it will make relatively little difference to general day-to-day operations, but one of the ideas behind the Bill was to make it crystal clear that we are not a poodle of the Executive or the Prime Minister of the day, and that we are not under the control of the security services. The whole idea of this is that we should be in a position to demand, and ensure that we get, material, rather than being at anyone else’s beck and call.
I absolutely agree and direct my hon. Friend to the provisions in schedule 1, particularly the part on access to information, which sets out clearly the rights of the ISC to obtain further information. That clear reform has been taken forward through the Bill. I would certainly endorse and underline my hon. Friend’s point. The ISC has not been a poodle in any sense in its existing format and that position would be strengthened even further under the Bill. The ultimate purpose of the reforms it contains is to ensure that scrutiny is enhanced further—for the very important reasons we have discussed.
I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Lady, but then, because of time considerations, I should let other right hon. and hon. Members contribute.
I take note of that point, but let me take the right hon. Lady’s intervention before I respond. She is likely to make a similar point, so I might as well take the two together.
The Minister is likely to face a unanimous view on this issue—certainly from members of the Committee. The use of the word “voluntarily” creates entirely the wrong impression of the direction of the Bill. It is superfluous; the Government do not need “voluntarily”. In the past, the ISC has sometimes received partial information from the security services that has affected the Committee’s decision-making. Voluntarily means “you can if you like; and if you don’t want to, you don’t have to”. Use of that word in the Bill is superfluous to requirements and sends out entirely the wrong message.
In their contributions this afternoon, members of the ISC have clearly underlined the robust scrutiny that is provided. These provisions relate only to operational matters—the new element added to the overall purview of the ISC that will result from the Bill. I have already highlighted the importance of clause 2(3)(a) and (b) for the two limbs, which covers the ability to require the provision of further information. If other more general inquiries take place, the provisions for the third limb are intended to denote the fact that the request to the agencies would not fall under the first two elements of the three limbs. It is a separate category.
The Minister has been generous and is providing an excellent defence of his position, but he does not need to be defensive because we know he is not being obstructive and is genuinely trying to find a way forward. He really should consider carefully, however, taking out the word “voluntarily” and then setting out his concerns in the memorandum of understanding. It is quite clear that it could be done in that way, so I urge him to consider doing it.
I hear the clear statements, but I have sought to respond in an equally clear fashion on why we judge that the need for that word still remains. Right hon. and hon. Members have argued loudly and clearly across the House in what I believe has been a good public demonstration of the clear and robust challenge that the ISC provides to Ministers and to members of the security agencies. I welcome the exchange we have had to underline the clear and focused challenge that will no doubt be given and enhanced as a result of the provisions.
I note that Caroline Lucas has tabled amendment 71. Rather than delay her presentation further, I will if I may respond to the points she raises in my summing up, although I have already taken up a great deal of the House’s time. With those comments, I support Government amendment 56.
Amendment 75, tabled by me and by my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, would remove the Government’s ability to refuse to disclose information to the ISC when it is information “not proper” to be disclosed to a Select Committee under the Osmotherly rules. The Bill currently allows a Minister to withhold information if
“it is information of such a nature that, if the Secretary of State were requested to produce it before a Departmental Select Committee of the House of Commons, the Secretary of State would consider (on grounds which were not limited to national security) it proper not to do so.”
What Ministers are able to disclose to Select Committees is governed by those famous Osmotherly rules, which we discussed in Committee. There are three reasons for withholding information: disproportionate cost, the fact that the information is sub judice, and the fact that it relates to a previous Administration. Our amendment would rule out the use of the Osmotherly rules altogether, although we would be happy for an agreement on cost to be included in the memorandum of understanding, which would achieve the same result.
The so-called Osmotherly rules were devised by the Executive but were never accepted in any form by Parliament, and were not considered by Parliament’s Committees to have any binding force.
That is an interesting point, but because of the way in which the Bill is drafted and because of the references that have been made to the use of the Osmotherly rules, we think that there is a case for excluding them completely from the Minister’s decision making.
We do not think that sub judice information should be excluded from the ISC’s hearings, because that might may prevent it from seeing particularly important information. As significant procedures exist to ensure that information will be protected, we should not worry about the ISC seeing the information if it would assist it. We also feel that the ISC should have access to information held by previous Administrations, for two main reasons. First, the matters that the ISC investigates are rarely politically sensitive, although they will be sensitive in other ways. Secondly, the ISC will often be able to investigate an issue only after a change of Administration. Its role is usually retrospective, which means that there will often be a long delay before it can begin an investigation.
The ISC has, on occasion, sought permission from Ministers in a previous Administration to obtain access to material, and indeed has been given it, only to find that current Ministers decline to give permission on other grounds.
It is helpful to know that. However, time is pressing, so I shall move on to amendment 76. The Minister spent a fair amount of time discussing the amendment and the issues that he considered arose from it. It would exempt all proceedings of the ISC from civil, criminal or disciplinary proceedings¸ which would protect members of the Committee, staff of the Committee, and evidence held by the Committee. In that respect, it extends the protections that the Government inserted in the Bill in Committee, which have now been refined in their amendments 61 and 62.
Before I go into the details of the difference between amendment 76 and the Government amendments, I should establish why these protections are important.
They are important because we want witnesses to be able to give full and frank evidence to the Committee, and we want the Committee to be able to receive evidence in confidence. It may be helpful to compare the provisions governing the ISC to the provisions governing Select Committees. Evidence given to Select Committees, whether written or oral, is subject to parliamentary privilege, which means that the evidence cannot be used in any court proceedings against the witness or anyone else.
This is a central tenet of our democracy and allows witnesses to give the frankest possible answers without fear of reprisals. Witnesses giving evidence to the ISC are likely to be particularly mindful of the legal obligations on them. Evidence is likely to be covered by the Official Secrets Act and, technically, an offence would be committed every time a witness exceeded the explicit permission they had been given, which could be frequent.
This may not be the only restriction on a witness’s ability to give evidence. Restrictions are likely to be contained within the witness’s employment contract and the civil service code. Such restrictions have the potential to pose two problems to the ISC. First, they could slow down or prohibit witnesses where there is no genuine need for them not to be able to divulge evidence but it is not clear they have the legal authority. Secondly, they could prevent the Committee from taking evidence from whistleblowers. In recognition of these difficulties, in Committee the Government tabled amendments introducing statutory protection for witnesses, exempting evidence they provided to the Committee from civil, disciplinary or criminal proceedings. Amendments 61 and 62 refine that. They maintain the complete exemption from civil or disciplinary proceedings, but limit the exemption in criminal proceedings to action taken against the witness.
The Opposition welcomed the introduction of these protections and accept the refinements made today, but it is important that the House realises that these protections fall far short of those enjoyed by Select Committees and leave many unanswered questions. It is also important to realise that because these are statutory protections and not privilege, it would be possible for the Government or an agency to obtain an injunction preventing a witness from appearing before the Committee.
As I have stated, parliamentary privilege covers all the proceedings of a Select Committee, and it is important to realise what that means in practice. It means the evidence presented to a Select Committee is covered by privilege. That is not any document submitted to the Committee, but documents accepted by the Committee as evidence. Privilege also covers all proceedings of the Committee, including advice given by the Clerks to members of the Committee and actions of members while serving on the Committee.
I highlight these areas because it is not at all clear to me what alternative protections are given to the ISC in such situations. I would like to ask the Minister about a hypothetical situation where the ISC receives classified information relating to serious wrongdoing on the part of an element of the security agencies. Let us say, for example, the ISC were anonymously to receive Secret Intelligence Service transcripts indicating an agent had committed torture. I am not saying this has ever happened; I just want the Minister to say what would happen if it were the case.
It is questionable whether the ISC would be able to act on the evidence it received. That would depend on the provisions in clause 2. These documents may be directly related to an investigation the ISC was already undertaking, but that is not the question I want to focus on here: I am asking whether the ISC is even in a position to accept these documents.
I have tabled this amendment because I am not satisfied that the provisions the Government have proposed so far offer the type of protection that this Committee needs. I heard what the Minister said, and his response seemed to be that the amendment was drafted too broadly. I do not have the back-up of learned counsel in drafting amendments, and I want the Minister to explain what kind of protections are available and what their effect would be in the circumstances I have described.
It is questionable whether the ISC would be able to act on evidence it received. I hope the Minister will address that point and explain the impact of the clause 2 provisions. The documents might relate to an ISC investigation, which might be relevant to whether it would be possible to put the documents forward and examine them.
ISC staff members will be signatories to the Official Secrets Act. It is my understanding that parliamentary Clerks would be protected as soon as the document was taken into evidence, but no such protection is available to the ISC Clerk. Is that correct? If a staff member who received documents decided to pass them on to the Chair of the ISC, will the Minister confirm that they would be doing that without lawful authority and would therefore be in breach of the Official Secrets Act?
Will the Minister also confirm the position for members of the Committee who consider such documents? Would members of the ISC be committing an offence under the Official Secrets Act by possessing those documents? It is important to remember that Members of Parliament have privilege in fulfilling their role as MPs and sitting on parliamentary Committees, but as I understand it, privilege does not protect them in their role on the ISC.
Finally, I want to ask the Minister about the status of the hypothetical document to which I referred. Evidence accepted by a Select Committee is not admissible in a court of law, but what about evidence given to the ISC? The Government’s amendment protects witnesses, but in the case to which I was referring the witness would not be identifiable as the information would be given anonymously. That is often the case with whistleblowers: they are protected in the Select Committee system because their evidence is privileged, but under the Bill as drafted they would appear to be protected only if they had been recognised by the ISC as a witness. If they were not identified as the witness who provided the evidence, the evidence given to the ISC could be used against them in proceedings. That is why the Opposition have tabled amendment 76. Although we do not pretend that it will confer parliamentary privilege on the proceedings of the Committee we feel that it should confer some statutory protections, including on the Committee’s members, staff and evidence.
Amendment 74 is about pre-appointment hearings for agency heads. The previous Labour Government introduced pre-appointment hearings for a range of public sector roles and we think that that should be extended to agency heads. Select Committees now hold pre-appointment hearings for a range of positions, and in keeping with our desire to make the ISC have some similarities with Select Committees, we would like to give it that role.
Long gone are the days when heads of agencies were secretive figures; today they are well known and have a strong profile, which is all part of efforts on the part of the agencies to open themselves up. We should try to help in that and we should applaud those efforts. As the noble Baroness Manningham-Buller said in the other place, any person who is capable of running a hugely complex organisation, taking difficult decisions and juggling competing interests should be able to give a competent account of themselves and their organisation in front of MPs.
Another positive consequence of introducing pre-appointment hearings is that it will encourage senior members of the agencies to foster strong relationships with the Committee in preparation for their possible future hearings. Such hearings were suggested in the other place and we discussed them in Committee, too. I believe the responses from the Minister in the other place and in Committee were rather weak. The Governments argued that such hearings were not necessary because agency heads were essentially civil servants and subject to the normal civil service recruitment rules.
Although that argument might be technically correct, it fails to realise the two special characteristics of agency heads. First, they have far more autonomy than most civil servants not only in how they structure their organisation but in operational matters. The decisions they make are of a different order of magnitude from those made by normal civil servants. They make decisions that can be a matter of life or death, either for their staff or for people in the UK.
Secondly, there is a more confusing line of accountability. If the permanent secretary of the Home Office makes a decision or a mistake, the Home Secretary will be required to answer for it. She appears before Parliament on a regular basis and the decisions made by her Department are in the public eye. There is no such clear line of accountability for agency heads. As the noble Lord Henley explained in the other place, the Prime Minister has overall responsibility within government for intelligence and security matters and for the agencies. Day-to-day ministerial responsibility for the Security Service lies with the Home Secretary and that for the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ lies with the Foreign Secretary. The Home Secretary is accountable to Parliament, and therefore to the public, for the work of the Security Service; similarly, the Foreign Secretary has his accountability. Only rarely are any such figures called on to account for the work of the agencies, however, so we must put greater emphasis and scrutiny on the person doing the implementation behind the scenes. I shall therefore want to test the opinion of the House on amendment 74.
On amendment 57, the Under-Secretary sets out in a letter written to members of the Committee dated
While the Minister is clarifying the position on oaths, I would appreciate it if he could clarify the ISC’s ability to call witnesses to come before the Committee. As I understand it, the ISC needs the permission of the Prime Minister and the agency heads before hearing from a member of staff of either agency. Nevertheless, I understand that an individual, who may or may not be a member of an intelligence agency, can volunteer to appear before the ISC and the Prime Minister or agency head would require an injunction to prevent them from appearing, although this person may be subject to various legal constraints, as I mentioned earlier.
My current concern centres on the ability of the ISC to compel a witness to attend. There is already a limitation on its ability to call witnesses employed by one of the agencies, but what about witnesses not so employed, such as a retired agent, a member of the police or an ordinary citizen? Can the Minister explain what powers the ISC has to compel such people to give evidence?
Amendment 73 and Government amendment 60 deal with the publication of reports. A strong message is clearly being sent to the Government and I was pleased to hear what the Minister said, with assurances given and an undertaking to consider a memorandum of understanding as a way forward. On Government amendment 55, it would be helpful if, in his final comments, the Minister could respond to the points raised by Members today.
Finally, amendment 71 appears to give the ISC a significant new role and appears to allow individuals to make requests to the ISC, which I believe is unprecedented, and it also appears to give the ISC a role in addressing wrongdoing—possible torts committed by the agencies against individuals—and providing some form of redress to those individuals. I am not clear about the purpose of the amendment, but on the face of it the Opposition do not support it.
Order. There are four Members trying to catch my eye on this set of amendments and the knife falls at 4 o’clock, so I ask Members to be conscious of the time that they take to make their case in order to allow the Minister to respond.
I shall be brief. On amendment 73, in the light of the undertaking given by the Minister to my hon. Friend Mark Field that the publication issues will be addressed in the memorandum of understanding, I am say on behalf of colleagues that we do not propose to press that amendment.
On the question of taking evidence on oath, I think I speak for colleagues on the Committee in saying that we are entirely happy with what the Government propose.
On the use of the word “voluntary”, I can only re-emphasise what has been said by many other colleagues. The Minister endeavoured to explain to the House why this applies only to that part of our duties that relate to operational matters. All I can say to him and to the Government is that we will be spending an awful lot of our time trying to fend off critics who, wilfully or otherwise, choose to interpret the presence of the word “voluntarily” on the face of the Bill as implying that we do not have the ability to force the agencies to comply with our requests, when in most cases we do. There must be a simpler and less emotive term that can be used to express the same purpose, without leaving us open to such unjustified criticism.
On the question of privilege, I am still concerned, as are the Opposition, that sufficient measures have not been taken to empower the Committee and protect the Committee to anything like the same extent. For example, when the Committee discusses people’s possible involvement in serious criminal activity, could we end up in a situation in which some of our proceedings that involve statements —not from witnesses, but from Committee members—that in the ordinary course of events might be regarded as defamatory may result in court proceedings being taken against members in a way that would not be possible with members of a Select Committee in analogous circumstances? If we could end up in such a situation, the Government need to consider that problem very seriously indeed and do something about it at a later stage. I hope that the Minister will refer to that in his closing remarks.
On the question of pre-appointment hearings, I do not believe that the Committee has taken a corporate view as such, but one point must be made, and made strongly: this would add to the work load of the Committee’s staff. The Committee, as has been made crystal clear today, is already grotesquely understaffed by comparison with comparable committees and organisations in this country and in Europe. Therefore, were we to take on that further burden, we would definitely need better proposals for resourcing it than those that are currently ready.
The Opposition are quite right to resist amendment 71, because individual complaints against the agencies, such as that involving Binyam Mohamed, are not the responsibility of the ISC; they fall within the statutory remit of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. That is the correct body to deal with such matters.
Finally, on the question of the Osmotherly rules, I am glad that the matter will be dealt with one way or another. We would prefer it to be set out in the Bill, but otherwise in the memorandum of understanding, because the ISC frequently needs access to the papers of a previous Administration, for example, or has to deal with matters that are sub judice, and we cannot row backwards from that situation. Subject to those comments, we are very pleased with the progress the Bill has made thus far.
Amendment 71 seeks to provide some form of recourse for people who have been defamed by the UK security services and to ensure that part of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s remit is to investigate such claims and, where necessary, ensure that they are corrected. I listened with interest to what Dr Lewis said about this not necessarily being the right forum. I am happy to be advised on that, but right now it feels that there is no appropriate forum. The situation of Shaker Aamer, for example, which I will set out in more detail shortly, demonstrates that. If the hon. Gentleman can enlighten me on how we can make existing forums work more effectively, for example in this case, I would be very interested to hear what he has to say.
The ability of the security services effectively to say what they like about anyone, often resulting in serious consequences for the individual concerned, is at present largely unchecked. As John Cooper QC said in a legal opinion on precisely that issue, the security services are “presently allowed to literally say what they will to achieve their own ends, whether or not those ends are legal, democratic or in accordance with the rule of law. In addition to this, those who indulge in these activities are completely unaccountable to the citizen, to the Government, and even to a quasi-regulator or body charged with their oversight, such as the ISC. What is more, the victims of such defamation are likely to be the most vulnerable individuals, most likely detained under the most restrictive of circumstances. In essence, they are prisoners defamed by their controllers and captors. That is neither right, nor acceptable.”
I want to give a real-life example to help illustrate why I believe that this is so important. British resident Shaker Aamer, whose wife and children are British citizens and live in south London, has been held in Guantanamo for more than 11 years, despite having been cleared for release by both the Bush and Obama Administrations. The Foreign Secretary has raised the case with the US on several occasions, and the Foreign Office has made it clear that
“The government remains committed to securing Mr Aamer’s release and return to the UK.”
Given that the US has cleared him for release, a complicated process including multiple federal agencies, and the UK Government have made it clear that they want him to come home, one cannot help asking why Mr Aamer remains detained in Guantanamo, never having been charged or tried for any crimes. The conclusion that his US lawyer has reached is that Britain’s intelligence agencies have been defaming Mr Aamer to the US, passing on false information and accusing him of extremism, and that is what is holding up his release.
Mr Aamer is being deprived of his liberty on the basis of lies being told about him that he is unable to challenge. He has therefore begun defamation action against the security services—action that could be pushed into a secret court under part 2 of the Bill, leaving him once again unable to confront his accusers or to challenge the evidence used by the Government against him. I would argue that, at the very least, it is important that a duty be placed on the Intelligence and Security Committee fully to investigate such claims. That would not be a solution in itself, but it could provide some small measure of recourse for those such as Mr Aamer who find themselves in the gravest of positions as a result of information passed behind their back.
I will be very happy to hear if there are other ways of addressing this problem, but right now the advice that I am receiving from some of the legal people involved in the case is that they are not aware of any measure that would do so.
Perhaps some of my right hon. Friends will explain to the hon. Lady the powers that exist to deal with such cases, and deal with them shortly, one hopes. Does she think it would be right for a Committee of Parliament to act in a quasi-judicial or even wholly judicial role, which would be the effect of her amendment?
I am not convinced that the Committee would be acting in a quasi-judicial role; I would share the right hon. Gentleman’s reservations were that to be so. I am honestly searching for a solution to the problem, and perhaps this is not the right one. However, I want to put on record the real concern that exists about the situation that Shaker Aamer finds himself in. If nothing else, I hope that if this is not the right route to take, Government Members will direct me towards the appropriate measures, because this case has been going on for very many years.
I wish to be helpful to the hon. Lady, and I think that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal is the body that she has in mind. All these tribunals, including those for communications issues and for complaints such as this one, are headed up by senior judges. I think she would find that they are a much more appropriate route. However, it is obviously very interesting to hear what she has to say about these worrying cases.
In the interests of time, I will leave the matter there and pursue it via other avenues. I am grateful for the opportunity to have aired this really important case.
I am entirely sympathetic to what Caroline Lucas has said about that case. However, a statutory avenue is already available under the Regulation and Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which set up the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. Further to the intervention by Mr Howarth, a fellow member of the Committee, one might not be able to describe the proposed power that she wishes to provide as quasi-judicial, but it might possess a hybrid relationship in being both investigative and judicial, or in a position of seeking to create redress.
Apart from that, there is a fundamental statutory point. The hon. Lady’s proposed subsection (4A) refers to a situation in which
“a plausible claim has been made by or on behalf of an individual to the ISC that the Security Service…has disseminated any information to any recipient concerning any person that appears to be…materially false; and…harmful to the person defamed.”
The breadth of that goes far beyond even the jurisdiction of any court in the United Kingdom of which I am aware. Proposed subsection (4B) says that
“the ISC shall fully and expeditiously investigate the claim”— so it does involve an investigative function—
“and, where the claim appears to be well founded, shall ensure that the misinformation is expeditiously corrected.”
But by what means? The ISC is not in a position to implement any such action. The amendment is not legally well-founded. In any event, as has been pointed out, its scope goes far beyond anything that the Committee’s staff and resources would permit. Moreover, there is no indication of how the powers would be exercised or how they could ever be implemented.
I want to consider briefly the restrictive wording of parts of clause 2 and the voluntary issue that has been raised by a number of Members.
I served on the Intelligence and Security Committee for about 11 years from its very beginning. It was a slow and painful task to get the first generation of heads of agencies and civil servants from Departments to understand the Committee’s need for a deep understanding of the relevant matters in order for us to do our job effectively. Subsequent generations of heads of agencies were ready to involve the Committee more closely and to bring up operational matters, whatever the statute said. It did not take me long to realise that it was not possible for members of the Committee to do their job properly unless they understood how various kinds of operations were conducted and the constraints and problems faced by the agencies. In particular, it was not possible to discharge an important responsibility without an understanding of operational matters.
One of the purposes of the ISC, where Members of both Houses of Parliament look closely at the work of agencies, is to give people on the outside—both in this place and in the community at large—a sense that Members who are there by democratic means are observing the agencies sufficiently closely to give confidence that their work is within the framework not only of the law, but of the ethics and principles by which we try to run our country. The background is that agencies were often accused of doing precisely the opposite in years gone by. Unless we can give people that confidence and say, “Yes, I have looked very closely at this matter and I do not think you need to be concerned about it,” the Committee will not be discharging properly one of its most important roles. We found that we had to look very closely at operational matters and that became easier as time went on.
The work sometimes involves what are, in effect, ongoing intelligence operations. In some fields, the work never stops and an operation to do with a particular recurrent problem does not have a simple end, so the provision in clause 2(3)(a)(i) is restrictive.
I fully understand how the Government have arrived at the word “voluntarily”. It would have been absurd if the wording had prevented the Committee from continuing to work closely with the agencies in the way it has done in recent years. That would have been ridiculous, so the word is there for a perfectly respectable reason. Indeed, things have been improved by the insistence that, if the Committee requests something, that does not by definition make it involuntary. However, I still think, as Dr Lewis said, that that is not the kind of language we want to see in the Bill. Nor does it give people outside the confidence that this Committee will be able to find out whether something is going wrong when it needs to do so, or that it can be relied on when it seeks to give assurance that all is reasonably well.
The task of getting this right is by no means over. The memorandum of understanding may be able to deal with those issues better, but, even then, words are being put on paper and when that happens, as we have discovered, simple, practical and sensible ways of doing things may appear to be precluded. Moreover, when there is friction or tension, it becomes easier for the head of an agency or, at least as often—indeed, perhaps more often—a Minister or civil servant to say, “This goes beyond the memorandum of understanding. It is outwith the terms of the statute.” We have heard such language and Paul Murphy, who is a previous Chairman of the Committee, will remember how rigid some people in the relevant Departments could be from time to time.
Ministers need to make it clear, as they have done to some extent in these discussions, that it is in the interests of the democratic accountability of these extremely important and valuable agencies that the public have confidence, not only in the agencies, but in that process of democratic accountability, circumscribed as it is by the need to protect the work of those agencies.
This has been a useful debate underlining the importance the House attaches to the scrutiny provided by the ISC and how it is being enhanced by the steps contemplated as a consequence of the Bill. Sir Alan Beith, the Chairman of the Justice Committee, made the point about the scrutiny so far seen in the House and how we are seeking to strengthen it further.
I shall respond first to Caroline Lucas and her amendment 71. As others have said, the essentially judicial function she seeks does not sit well within the ISC, which is intended to be a Committee of Parliament. It is not for the ISC to consider, much less determine, individual complaints about the intelligence services, especially given that there is already a body that can consider these matters and which we believe is well equipped to do so. Right hon. and hon. Members have highlighted the work of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which is the appropriate route through which complaints should be made.
The hon. Lady referred to the case of Shaker Aamer. I assure her that his case remains a high priority for the UK Government and we continue to make it clear to the US that we want him released and returned to the UK as a matter of priority. We continue to work with US counterparts to consider the implications for Mr Aamer’s case of the 2013 National Defence Authorisation Act. Discussions continue with senior officials within the US Administration. The Foreign Secretary raised Mr Aamer’s case numerous times with former Secretary of State Clinton and will continue to do so with Secretary of State Kerry. As the Foreign Secretary told Parliament last October, he and the Defence Secretary also made representations to the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta last June.
I appreciate the Minister’s rehearsing the Government’s commitment to getting Shaker Aamer back from Guantanamo. I have no doubt about that, but does he understand what the obstacle is? The US says he can come back here and the UK Government say we want him back. What, then, is the obstacle? Does he have any idea?
I can only say that decisions about the release of Mr Aamer rest entirely with the US Government. I underline that the British Government remain committed to engaging with the US with the aim of securing Mr Aamer’s release and return to the UK as soon as possible. To conclude my remarks on the hon. Lady’s amendment, let me say that we believe there is an appropriate mechanism by which she or others can bring complaints to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.
On amendment 74 and pre-appointment hearings, I do not wish to go back over the lengthy debate we had in Committee on this issue. I can only restate several points I made then: pre-appointment hearings are a relatively new phenomenon in the UK; the Cabinet Office has published guidance on the process to be followed for such hearings; and at the moment the list of posts subject to those hearings relates to public bodies, such as the chair of Ofcom or the Social Security Advisory Committee. The pre-appointment process has never been used for the appointment of civil servants. The heads of the intelligence and security agencies are permanent secretary-level civil servants, so the recruitment process is expected to follow the process for the appointment of civil servants of such seniority. We judge that this continues to be the appropriate mechanism.
On the Osmotherly rules, I made the point in Committee that the powers to withhold information from the ISC have been used sparingly and that we expect them to continue to be used only in exceptional circumstances. The Osmotherly rules set out categories of information, including information on officials’ personal views, as distinct from the views of Ministers, on policy options; information that could be supplied only after carrying out substantial research or at excessive cost; information about matters that are sub judice; and the papers of a previous Administration. The provisions in the Bill are necessary to safeguard the long-standing conventions that are reflected in the Osmotherly rules. We judge that the provisions, although they have been used only sparingly, remain appropriate.
Diana Johnson posed various questions. She asked whether the ISC can accept material and evidence anonymously. It can, but it might have doubts about what weight should be given to such evidence if it cannot be corroborated.
The hon. Lady talked about the protection of members of staff. The staff of the ISC all go through developed vetting. They are therefore able to handle protectively marked material. That is a central part of their job, in the same way as it is for members of agencies and Departments.
Agency heads are accountable to Parliament in the evidence that they provide to the ISC, including through oral evidence sessions and the upcoming public evidence sessions. Agency heads are accountable in the same way that permanent secretaries to Ministers are accountable for the decisions of their agencies.
On amendment 76, the hon. Lady asked whether whistleblowers would be protected. They would not be protected, but it is important that we strike a balance between encouraging the flow of evidence to the ISC and giving effective immunity for individuals who breach legal obligations, including under the Official Secrets Act 1989.
The hon. Lady asked whether the ISC can choose which witnesses can be called and whether it can compel witnesses to attend. At the moment, it cannot compel a particular individual to be a witness. However, the important element in the Bill is the power to compel information to be provided to the Committee. That is a powerful provision and an important step. In practice, the ISC, the agencies and others discuss and agree on who is the appropriate person to appear and give evidence on a particular point. The current practice is for the ISC to have regular oral evidence sessions with Ministers, agency heads and other senior officials.
I have heard clearly the points that have been made about the word “voluntary”. The Government believe that our amendments provide clarity. We are in no way seeking to suggest that the powers of the ISC are not significant or that the steps in the Bill are not important in providing what this House wants to see, which is enhanced, robust scrutiny of the agencies and broader security issues across government. We believe that the Bill provides effective new powers that will enable enhanced scrutiny, provide confidence and add to the approaches that the ISC already takes.
I want to put on the record my recognition of the work of the ISC in carrying out its duties. We believe that that work will be strengthened by the Bill and the Government amendments. I therefore encourage the House to support them.
Amendment 56 agreed to.
Amendments made: 57, page 17, line 4, leave out sub-paragraph (6) and insert—
‘(6) The ISC may take evidence on oath, and for that purpose may administer oaths.’.
Amendment 58, page 17, line 6, at end insert—
‘Funding and other resources
2A A Minister of the Crown—
(a) may make payments to either House of Parliament in respect of any expenditure incurred, or to be incurred, by either House in relation to the ISC,
(b) may provide staff, accommodation or other resources to either House of Parliament for the purposes of the ISC,
(c) may make payments, or provide staff, accommodation or other resources, to the ISC, or
(d) may otherwise make payments, or provide staff, accommodation or other resources, to any person for the purposes of the ISC.’.
Amendment 59, page 18, line 39, after ‘not’ insert ‘otherwise’.
Amendment 60, page 18, line 42, at end insert—
(za) the ISC and the Prime Minister are satisfied that publication or disclosure would not be prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions of the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service, the Government Communications Headquarters or any person carrying out activities falling within section 2(2),’.
Amendment 61, page 19, line 5, at beginning insert—
‘(1) Evidence given by a person who is a witness before the ISC may not be used in any civil or disciplinary proceedings, unless the evidence was given in bad faith.’.
Amendment 62, page 19, line 6, leave out ‘, civil or disciplinary’.—(James Brokenshire.)