GCHQ

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:07 pm on 10th June 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Shadow Foreign Secretary 4:07 pm, 10th June 2013

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it this afternoon. The House will be aware that on Saturday the Opposition, along with other Members of this House, called for the Foreign Secretary to address Parliament today, and we welcome his decision to do so in recognition of the depth of public concern that has arisen in recent days.

I begin my remarks by echoing the words of the Foreign Secretary and put on record the support and admiration of the whole House for the important—indeed, vital—work that is done by our country’s intelligence and security services. Theirs is some of the most important but inevitably least recognised work undertaken to protect the security of our nation, and it is right that we take the opportunity to offer our thanks and praise for their efforts. Our intelligence agencies’ work would be made more difficult if levels of concern about the framework under which they operate were to compromise the active support of the public for their efforts. In light of that, I shall quote back to the Foreign Secretary his words in a BBC interview yesterday:

“if you are a law abiding citizen of this country going about your business and your personal life, you have nothing to fear—nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies listening to the contents of your phone calls or anything like that.”

This assertion, however, assumes that the state is either incapable of error or incapable of advertent or inadvertent wrongdoing.

Surely, on reflection, the Foreign Secretary will accept that law-abiding citizens of this country also want to know and be assured of the fact that the agencies of government are themselves law-abiding. Back in 2011, the Foreign Secretary seemed to recognise the importance of this point when in a speech on the role of the Security Services he said:

“the need for secrecy places additional importance on the Foreign Secretary’s accountability to Parliament for GCHQ and SIS. This is one of the indispensable foundations of public confidence, and one that I will personally strive to strengthen.”

Today presents him with a clear opportunity to deliver on that pledge, and I hope that in his answers to my specific questions he will be able to do so.

The Foreign Secretary is right to assume that lawyers, some law-makers and the members of the ISC may be very familiar with the framework of legality and accountability, but the general public, for understandable reasons, are not. In light of that, will he take the opportunity of his response to remind the House of the steps we in Parliament have taken to preserve privacy, and set out whether all steps taken by our agencies are, to the best of his knowledge, compliant with those laws? It is in this spirit, not of condemnation but of concern, that I would like to ask the Foreign Secretary some questions about the recent allegations first revealed by The Guardian on Friday of last week about the existence and operation of the so-called Prism programme administered by the NSA.

Let me first make it clear that the Opposition support the principle of information sharing across international borders with allies. Indeed, the people who want to do harm to the UK work across international borders, and those people working to keep us safe have to be able to work with allies across international borders if they are to tackle these threats effectively. But that needs to be within that established framework of both law and accountability. The Foreign Secretary is right to say that full disclosure on this issue is not possible nor appropriate, so let me focus my questions not on the specific operational aspect of the allegations, but on the broader legal and policy frameworks that would apply in these circumstances.

Earlier this morning, the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, gave his account of the legal framework that would govern British intelligence agencies’ use of intercept data. He said:

“If the British intelligence agencies are seeking to know the content of emails about people living in the UK then they actually have to get lawful authority. Normally that means ministerial authority. That applies equally whether they are going to do the intercept themselves or whether they are going to ask somebody else to do it on their behalf.”

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether that account of the current legal framework is both complete and accurate?

In his statement, the Foreign Secretary has just stated: “Any data obtained by us from the United States involving UK nationals are subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards, including the relevant sections of the Intelligence Services Act 1994, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.” Will he now set out the relevant sections of those Acts, and confirm whether this explanation means that any data obtained by us from the US, involving UK nationals, are authorised by ministerial warrants and overseen by the intercept commissioner, as set out by RIPA?

Specifically, what legal framework applies in the following two cases? First, when a request is made by the UK to an intelligence agency of an international ally for the interception of the content of private communications, will he confirm whether this process is governed by individual warrants signed by the relevant Secretary of State and approved by the intercept commissioner as set out in part I of RIPA? Secondly, will he address the specific issue of when a request is made by the UK to an intelligence agency of an international ally, not to seek intercept, but instead to search existing data held by that agency on the contents of private communications, and, in particular, the legal process that will be adopted in such an instance? In that circumstance, will he confirm whether this process is also governed by individual warrants signed by the relevant Secretary of State and approved by the intercept commissioner as set out in part I of RIPA?

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that, with respect to intelligence sharing with allies, the UK Government operate on the basis of the assumption that information held by, for example, the US Government, has been obtained in accordance with the law of that country? If that is the case, what steps he has he taken, or will take, to confirm that any processes currently in use by the NSA continue to adhere to this legal safeguard?