I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I commend the Bill in its present form to the House.
The first point to reflect on, in considering the Bill in its entirety, is the debt we owe to our security and intelligence services. Unfortunately, we face unprecedented threats at different times from various enemies, both at home and abroad. It is extremely important that we have highly efficient intelligence and security services to protect the lives of our citizens and the normal civilised business of the country. We have to support the intelligence services on which we rely so heavily.
Secondly, this country upholds the highest standards of human rights in this area of its activities, as in other areas. We all expect those who work in our intelligence and security services to have the same regard to the values that we are defending as everyone else does—that we do have regard to the rule of law. The British Government are, and, as far I am aware, always have been, firmly against the use of torture, firmly against unlawful and extraordinary rendition, and firmly against practices on which some of our allies take a more relaxed view. I would like to think that the British intelligence and security services are not only among the best in the world, but uphold much higher standards in the way they conduct themselves than is true of the vast majority of the nation states of the world.
The vast majority of Members agree that we are grateful to the security services, and that it is important that they are held as accountable as everyone else. We follow another principle that the Government, as far as possible, hold dear, which is that of transparency: avoiding unnecessary secrecy wherever possible, and being as open in our dealings with the public in every aspect of our public life. Plainly, that has to be modified to a certain extent to protect the absolutely essential secrecy that our security services need, and which the people who co-operate with them, the agents who help us and the various people we have to rely on throughout the world, need.
I believe that the part of the Bill that we will look back on with greatest pleasure is the considerable steps we are taking to give extra powers to the Intelligence and Security Committee. In ensuring that the security services are held accountable, accountability to Parliament is extremely important. I will not rehearse all the arguments, which have taken most of today, but the Committee is now to be truly a Committee of Parliament. The House of Commons will be able to elect the membership—on the nomination of the Prime Minister, but members will be appointed by parliamentary vote. The Prime Minister’s nomination is a necessary precaution in case some unknown feature of a Member of Parliament’s background might make him or her a less suitable member of the Committee than would otherwise be the case.
As we have seen over the years, the Intelligence and Security Committee is one of the most important Committees of the House. Its membership, not surprisingly, tends to comprise heavyweight individuals from all parts of the House of Commons, with a membership that is highly respected in all parts of the House for the work it tries to do. However, I will not repeat what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department set out in the debate. We have examined in detail the various processes that we now have in hand to enable the Committee to require evidence to be given to it and to hold the security services thoroughly to account, in all the sensible circumstances that can be managed, while at the same time ensuring that no risk is posed to national safety and national security.
The most controversial part of the Bill is the one we debated on Monday, in which we seek to make the security and intelligence services more accountable to the judiciary and courts of this country, particularly as in the last few years a growing number of people have alleged before our courts malpractice against the security services and sought substantial damages for events in which they say our security services were complicit. Things are plainly unsatisfactory as they stand, and we have all quoted many distinguished members of the judiciary to illustrate that. Opponents persuade themselves that they are so against the principle of closed proceedings of any kind that they wish to keep the present law, which they regard as satisfactory.
I am afraid I am still at the stage where I do not see how on earth we can say that the present law is satisfactory. People bring claims and are prepared to give evidence, as they are perfectly entitled to, in support of them.
The nature of the evidence that the security and intelligence services and the Government would wish to produce to defend some of those claims is of the kind that cannot possibly be given in open court. The courts have made it clear that sometimes there is indeed scope for closed proceedings, but that they cannot be held through an ordinary civil action unless Parliament has decided the circumstances in which these should be allowed.
We already have closed proceedings in this country in several areas—there are about 14 instances of different jurisdictions where we have closed proceedings, largely in the immigration field. It is of course less than perfect justice, because the only possible challenge to the evidence is from special advocates who have been security cleared, and they are not as free as they would be in an open court case to take full instructions from their clients. Everybody knows that, but in fact they have more weight as advocates than most people appreciate. Given the circumstances, most judges are prepared to listen to challenges, realising that they have to bear in mind that they need to be particularly scrupulous, because there are limitations in how far the evidence is being tested before them.
The best test is that special advocates win in closed sessions—I have been fond of citing one or two instances as these proceedings have gone along. The last case that the Government lost—that of Abu Qatada, which caused a tremendous public controversy and still is—was lost before a judge, Mr Justice Mitting, who does not have the reputation of being a melting-heart liberal. Abu Qatada won in closed proceedings in a British court, defeating my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Government in our attempts to remove him for a trial in Jordan. Obviously the judge was not satisfied that torture would not play a part in the proceedings if Abu Qatada was sent there. The idea that Ministers have the ability to present things to a judge in circumstances where the closed advocates have no hope is mistaken. What we will get is a judgment, whereas what we get at the moment is silence.
In the main, we have been attacked by people who say how much they deplore secrecy and silence, yet the effect of being granted a public interest immunity certificate, which is the only course open to Ministers wishing to withhold evidence that could damage national security, is total silence. The evidence cannot be used by the claimants, cannot be taken into account by the judge and is not available to the defence. As we all know, cases are being brought with increasing regularity in which the Government have no alternative but to offer no defence, because no evidence can be called, and then to start negotiating the amount money to be paid in compensation.
I have never given exact figures for the compensation involved—although some have appeared following interviews with me—because the claimants usually want to enter into confidentiality agreements on the settlement. However, there is no harm in telling the House that millions of pounds are being paid out to claimants whose cases have never been tested or challenged. I make no apology for repeating my suspicion—one that is held by most objective people—that there is a serious risk that some of the money is finding its way to very undesirable quarters, and probably to terrorist groups in the case of certain plaintiffs. I am not talking about all of them, and I will not say which of them this applies to—that was never decided by the courts—but some of those people will have links to organisations that will have some of that money on them. I do not think that the public understand why the Government cannot defend themselves. That gives rise to genuine disquiet among perfectly intelligent liberal members of the general public.
We have had a long, satisfactory debate, during which the Bill has been transformed in both Houses. We are still not in total agreement on the wording, but we agree on the principles. The judge will have the widest possible discretion to decide that he is going to hear evidence in closed proceedings only when it is relevant and has to be heard to decide the case, and when it would damage national security if it were given to the wider world. Furthermore, the just and effective administration of justice will have to be served by hearing it in private. I will not repeat all the arguments that were put on Monday.
The overall effect of the Bill will be to improve the reassurance that we can give to the public and to the world that we uphold the highest standards in this country, and that we seek to maintain them by holding accountable those who work on our behalf. I believe that the outcome is not only legally sound but an eminently sensible common-sense solution to the obvious practical problems that arise when we wish to combine the rule of law with the protection of national safety and security. I commend the Bill to the House.