GCHQ

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

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Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 4:07 pm, 10th June 2013

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and pleased that he began his remarks by expressing the support and admiration across the House for the work of the intelligence agencies. Many former Ministers from the previous Government—indeed, there are some specific ones here today—know that well. He was right to say that the work of those agencies is among the most important and least recognised that goes into protecting this country, so there is strong common ground across the House on that.

The right hon. Gentleman said that we should be able, now and in future, to give people assurances about the law-abiding nature of the work of the agencies, which of course is a large part of the purpose of what I have just explained to the House. I am not saying that the agencies, anyone who works in them or, indeed, Ministers are incapable of error—that can happen in any organisation—but I am arguing that there is a strong system of checks and balances. A combination of ministerial oversight, independent scrutiny, parliamentary oversight, the legal framework and the strong ethical framework of the agencies themselves minimises the chance of errors happening in any sinister way.

Sometimes people can get the impression, when reading discussions in the media about this, that there is a danger of a “deep state” that is in some way out of control. There is not that danger in the United Kingdom. Of course everyone is capable of error, but the protection of this country’s citizens from such error is very strong indeed. I must stress that there will always be ways of improving procedures—many improvements have been made in recent years, under successive Administrations—and there are always new situations that arise in intelligence gathering that require additions to or the refinement of the legal basis of what we do and the practices and procedures by which we do that work. I do not argue at all that everything is definitely perfect, and certainly not for all time, with regard to whether in future there could be any improvements in procedures in some areas, because I am sure that there could be. The Intelligence and Security Committee will be able to look at that and make recommendations if it so wishes, and of course within the Government that is something that is constantly looked at and subject to change.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is no reason why the general public would be familiar with the framework I have set out for the House. I was the first Foreign Secretary to make a speech, in November 2011—it might have been widely unnoticed in the House—about the role of secret intelligence in foreign policy, in which I set out for the public what the guarantees are and what the legal framework is. This, in a way, is an opportunity to set that out clearly to the country.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that he supports information sharing with our allies. The position on the legal framework is exactly as I set out in my statement: any data obtained by us from the United States about UK nationals are subject to the full range of Acts, including section 3 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the RIPA provisions, set out in sections 15 and 16, which regulate that information gathering must be necessary and proportionate and regulate how the agencies must handle information when they obtain it.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s further questions about how authority is given, I cannot give him, for reasons that I cannot explain in public, as detailed an answer as he would like. I would love to give him what could actually be a very helpful answer, but because circumstances and procedures vary according to the situation, I do not want to give a categorical answer—in a small respect circumstances might differ occasionally. But I can say that ministerial oversight and independent scrutiny is there, and there is scrutiny of the ISC in all these situations, so, again, the idea that operations are carried out without ministerial oversight, somehow getting around UK law, is mistaken. I am afraid that I cannot be more specific than that.