§ [Relevant documents: Intelligence and Security Committee Annual Report 1998–99, Cm 4532, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4569;
§ Intelligence and Security Committee's Report on the Security and Intelligence Agencies' handling of the information provided by Mr. Mitrokhin, Cm 4764, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4765;
§ Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1998-99, HC 116, on Sierra Leone, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4325;
§ Third Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 1998–99, HC 291, on Accountability of the Security Service, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4588; and
§ First Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 1999–2000, HC 300, on Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive (paragraphs 90 to 92), and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4737 (paragraph 56).]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]1.23 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
Today is the second occasion in this Parliament that we have had the opportunity to debate intelligence and security issues. The three agencies together make a valuable and unique contribution to the safety and security of our society and, in an international context, to that of our allies.
The agencies provide us with a vital edge in tackling some of the most difficult problems that we face. They play a significant role in our efforts against terrorism, drugs and serious crime and in defence of our national security. Because of the necessary secrecy of their work, their contribution often goes unremarked and unacknowledged. Much of what they achieve cannot be given the recognition that it deserves. To do so would give those against whom the agencies work the opportunity to sidestep their efforts. It could very well also undermine the protection of those who already carry out their service to this country, sometimes at considerable personal risk.
Among other things, today's debate provides a welcome opportunity to thank the agencies and their staff for their valuable contribution. All of us who have had contact with the agencies—Secretaries of State and members of the Intelligence and Security Committee over the years—will readily acknowledge that they are world-class services.
The reports before the House are two from the Intelligence and Security Committee, one from the Home Affairs Committee, one from the Foreign Affairs Committee and one from the Liaison Committee. Of these, the one that inevitably has attracted the most immediate attention is that of the Intelligence and Security Committee on Mitrokhin. For the convenience of the House, I shall deal with that report first.
On 13 September last year I announced that, with the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I had invited the ISC to examine the policies and procedures adopted within the security and intelligence agencies for the handling of information supplied by 471 Mr. Vasili Mitrokhin. The Committee's report was published earlier this month alongside the Government's response and a parliamentary reply from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
My right hon. Friend and I are very grateful to the ISC, and not least to its Chairman, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), for their readiness to take on the additional work thrown up by the handling of the Mitrokhin material and for the thoroughness of their report. The right hon. Gentleman has also generously acknowledged that his Committee was afforded unparalleled access to material beyond that of a Select Committee in order to carry out its inquiry.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that through his willingness, when pressed, to make available to the Committee all information, including advice to Ministers, he made possible the thoroughness of the report; that it would not have been possible for the Committee to reach conclusions on some matters had it not had that degree of access; and that lessons ought to be learned for the Committee's future access?
§ Mr. Straw
I certainly recognise the substance of the right hon. Gentleman's first point. As I and my right hon. Friends acknowledged, it would otherwise have been impossible to arrive at both a proper understanding of the story as it unfolded and proper conclusions. I also accept his other comment, without entering into any commitments about the exact boundary that we should draw, as a result of this experience, as to the extent to which the ISC should have access to material. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, from his long membership of the Committee, that there are some very important operational matters that the Committee itself acknowledges it would not be appropriate for it to have access to. I also believe that it would be inappropriate.
The main criticisms made by the Committee were of the failures of the Security Service in not referring cases to the prosecuting authorities in a timely manner and of failures by officials in the provision of advice to Ministers. However, there was no suggestion of any attempt to mislead Ministers. In the ISC reports, there was no criticism of Ministers in previous Administrations, nor of Ministers in the current Administration.
As the inquiry report made clear, and as the Government acknowledged in their response, mistakes were made in the handling of this material, not least in the decisions that were made and not made as to whether or not individuals should be prosecuted. The agencies as well as the central Departments concerned—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office—have learned a great deal from the report and this experience, and I believe that the lessons have been identified and accepted.
§ Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)
Can the Home Secretary shed any light on paragraph 60 of the report, which records that in his statement on 13 September 1999 he had the opportunity to reflect on the Security Service's view of the significance of Mrs. Norwood's 472 activities but did not do so, and that, as a result, the public perception of Mrs. Norwood is that, in the words of the paragraph,she provided a real contribution to the Soviet atomic bomb developmentwhen in fact, in the view of the Security Service, she did not?
§ Mr. Straw
I shall do my best to answer. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his warning to me that he was likely to raise the matter.
The explanation is an unusual one but is entirely accurate, as indeed everything I say in this House is. It is that in the preceding week I had had an operation on a damaged cartilage in my knee and had undergone a general anaesthetic. I was on crutches and groggy for the rest of the week. On the Saturday morning, when I was telephoned to be told that various allegations had been made in The Times that, for example, I had blocked a prosecution of Melita Norwood, which was completely untrue, I was still coming round from the effects of the anaesthetic and was hoping for a quiet lie-in, although, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the prospects of that if one is Home Secretary are random and infrequent.
I returned to London from my constituency on the Sunday, having decided that I should issue a statement as soon as I had been able to go through the material. Officials worked on the Sunday to pull together all that I had seen over the period since May 1997. My recollection is that, as I was not in a position to make a proper judgment about whether or not Mrs. Norwood's position as a spy had been either of huge or of any significance, and as the public would not have taken comfort if I had merely repeated what I was being told, I decided that it was better left alone. That is my explanation.
With the benefit of history, we know that less damage was done by Mrs. Norwood's spying than might otherwise have been the case; in the event, as the report says on page 23, the Soviets copied American designs that they had obtained. However, during the time that she had access to highly secret material and was passing it to the Russians, her behaviour was damaging both because it was treacherous and because it had the potential to be extremely damaging to the interests of this country.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
Although there has been great concentration on the nuclear secrets that Mrs. Norwood may or may not have passed on, it is worth noting that she remained active for a considerable period after she had ceased to be directly involved in that area. It is alleged that she recruited another defector as late as 1969, which makes it clear that she was still considered to be of value to the Soviet Union.
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, whose point suggests that my befuddled caution on Monday 13 September was well placed. He is quite right. Although it was clear, as I made plain in my public statement at the time—Parliament, of course, was not sitting—that Mrs. Norwood's direct access to highly classified material had ended in 1951, she remained active and was obviously seen by the Russians as having some importance. 473 We should not forget the positive points identified by the ISC's inquiry. They include confirmation of our success in obtaining Mr. Mitrokhin's material, which was, and remains, of huge significance to us and our allies. In addition, it confirms success in exploiting his material at home and abroad, and confirms that a decision to allow publication of a book on the material was correct and that much of the publication process—although not all of it—was sound. Finally, the report serves to highlight a point arising from the Mitrokhin material—namely, the effective work of the security and intelligence services in countering the significant and potentially damaging intelligence threat posed by the former Soviet Union.
The House will recognise the significance of the success of the ISC's inquiry. It demonstrates both the developing role of the Committee and its maturing relationship with the agencies. I am glad that there was no suggestion that the statutory accountability of any agency is inadequate, or that proper oversight and internal management are not taking place. By definition, the work of the agencies cannot be open. Proper mechanisms for scrutiny are, therefore, all the more important.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, since he entered the House in 1974, and I, since 1979, have been among Members of Parliament on both sides of the House concerned about the lack of a proper statutory base for the intelligence and security agencies and for the part of their operations to do with the interception of communications. A series of measures put that right: the Security Service Acts 1989 and 1996, for the Security Service, and the Intelligence Services Act 1994, for the Secret Intelligence Service and for the Government communications headquarters.
Those Acts, together with the Interception of Communications Act 1985, provide for independent scrutiny by commissioners of the actions of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself in respect of the agencies for which we are responsible, and for scrutiny of the actions of the agencies themselves. Each officer in each agency has a duty under the law to provide the commissioners with the information they need.
I pay tribute to the work of the previous commissioners, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith and Lord Nolan, for their contribution as commissioners and for the important scrutiny role that they played. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) will confirm that the work of Lord Nolan—the interception commissioner—was very thorough indeed. The Home Secretary has the bulk of the responsibility for telephone interception—although the point also applies to successive Foreign Secretaries—and were any Home Secretary ever to think about approving a warrant without proper consideration, he would be brought up sharp by Lord Nolan. That fact would be made public—and quite right too. I am glad to say—on behalf of the right hon. and learned Gentleman and myself—that, so far, that has not happened.
Both commissioners retired from their role earlier this year. On behalf of the Government, the agencies and previous Ministers with whom they worked, I thank them warmly for their contribution.
474 We achieve accountability of the work of the agencies through the scrutiny of the ISC whose reports form the bulk of the subject of our debate.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Is it not of interest that when David Bickford, the former legal adviser to the security and intelligence services, gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee last year, he said that the credit for oversight was due to the cases of our right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and our hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce. It was because they had been targeted by the security services and had taken their cases to the European Court that it was decided that some oversight was essential. Perhaps we should acknowledge the important role played by our two parliamentary colleagues.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
Does the Home Secretary agree that, from time to time, it is inevitable that the Security Service will look at the activities of people who subsequently become Members of Parliament? Bearing that in mind, what would he recommend as an appropriate recourse for such people if they were anxious to find out whether they had been wrongly targeted? Does he agree that it would be unacceptable for them to be able to demand to see their files and that perhaps someone else should do the job on their behalf? Will he take this opportunity to state that the request of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), for such access will be refused?
§ Mr. Straw
As far as I am aware, no request has been made to me by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) is waving a piece of paper at me. If he says that such a request has been made, I take his word for it. I am trying to satisfy him with the answer that I am about to give, so there is no need for him to wave something that has been pulled off the internet—even with my eyesight, I cannot read small type at that distance. I do not believe that Members of Parliament should be treated differently from anyone else before the law. That applies to cases of corruption, immunity from prosecution and matters relating to the security and intelligence agencies.
The House knows that the Security Service held inquiries into me over a period of years and that it holds a file on me. On one occasion, as I think the House knows, I was shown the file by a properly authorised officer of the Security Service, but I saw only one part of its contents. That was its decision; certainly not mine. I learned of that when I was positively vetted—successfully, I might say—in 1974 and I decided that I would never make public the facts that I had learned. Someone else decided to make the information public, but I have never sought to have access to that file. It would have been wholly improper if I had sought to do so, and 475 a reply in the negative will be given to any Member of this House who asks to see his file. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.
§ The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)
Make an exception of the hon. Gentleman's file.
§ Mr. Straw
I do not know whether there is a file on the hon. Gentleman.
There has been some debate—the matter has been raised by the Home Affairs Committee over the years—about whether scrutiny of the intelligence and security agencies should be carried out by a Select Committee of the House or by a Committee of the kind that has been established. It needs to be made clear that that Committee is a parliamentary Committee and that, in some ways, it has clearer and stronger powers than a Select Committee because it has been established by an Act of Parliament.
I have always been relatively relaxed about what the Committee should be called because of two realities. First, the members who would be appointed to any Select Committee would be appointed in a similar manner to the way in which the members of the current Committee are appointed. Secondly, any Select Committee that was going to do its job properly would have to operate in a similar way to the Intelligence and Security Committee. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of how it could operate in any other way if it were to be able to carry out the thorough inquiry that the ISC conducted into the Mitrokhin matter.
Although I know that the Mitrokhin saga has been uncomfortable for the agencies—one understands that—there is a silver lining. The case has emphasised the strength of the mechanisms that Parliament as a whole has agreed for the accountability of the agencies. It was a huge relief to me when I was faced with the situation over a weekend in early December that, instead of having to establish a specific inquiry led almost certainly by someone from outside the House, I was, with the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, able to telephone the right hon. Member for Bridgwater. I said that the case seemed to be exactly the type of issue on which Parliament would expect his Committee to conduct an inquiry. We had an altogether much more thorough inquiry than we might have had. It certainly commanded greater public and parliamentary support than one conducted by someone specifically brought in from outside.
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
On the issue of Select Committees, I have a copy of the Government's reply to the third report of the Home Affairs Committee on "Accountability of the Security Service". I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a Home Office comment that reads:The Government is not convinced that there is a strong case for change in the fundamental structure of these arrangementsand the word "now" is added at the end.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
If so, I am thankful. I understand that the word "now" was the subject of intense debate. Because I cannot debate the matter today with someone from the civil service, will my right hon. Friend explain why it was added?
§ Mr. Straw
I hope that no one has cigarette papers in the Chamber.
It follows that every word of the response has been carefully drawn and is subject to collective responsibility. I cannot remember whether it was I or someone else who inserted the word "now", but the point is clear: we arenot convinced that there is a strong case for change in the fundamental structure of these arrangements now.It would be absurd to say that there should never be any change in the arrangements. We should always consider such matters in the light of experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has been a member of the ISC for some time. The experience of the Mitrokhin report demonstrated the inherent merits of that Committee. That does not mean that we should never adopt the Select Committee path, but doing so is not as urgent as some once thought. I hope that that provides a helpful definition of what the Government meant by the word "now".
The work of the Committee has been strengthened by the appointment of an investigator to assist the Committee with its scrutiny. The investigator allows the Committee to pursue its inquiries in greater depth than would otherwise be possible and to follow up specific lines of inquiry in more detail. He operates within the same legal framework as the Committee, with the same level of access, but he also has the opportunity to discuss issues directly with the staff of the agencies.
The Government's response to the Committee's annual report welcomes the Committee's involvement in many of the areas covered. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I fully endorse its confirmation of the importance of continuing high-quality intelligence and security services for our country. Both to those involved and to the formulation of Government policy, reliable and timely intelligence will remain as important now as it has ever been.
The Government are taking an important step to update and improve the framework that regulates the use by the intelligence and security agencies—and others—of certain intelligence-gathering and investigative techniques. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill proposes an appropriate framework for when the Human Rights Act 1998 comes into force, one that is consistent with that Act. It contains provisions regulating the use of investigatory powers including the interception of communications, intrusive surveillance, directed surveillance and covert human intelligence sources. The Bill clearly sets out who can use each technique and for what purpose, levels of authorisation required, oversight of the use of the 477 techniques, and a complaints procedure. Members of the judiciary will act as commissioners overseeing the use of the powers, and a new tribunal will be established to provide a single point of contact for those who want to complain about the use of the powers. The nature of the agencies' accountability to Parliament has long been a matter of debate in this House. There is no need for me to explore that matter further.
Let me now go on to discuss some wider issues relating to the agencies' work.
§ Mr. Mates
The right hon. Gentleman says that the security services felt uncomfortable about the criticism expressed in the Mitrokhin report; no doubt that is true, but does he not agree that the report should be seen in context? Even though we are only extremely rarely able to report the agencies' successes, we know about them. Although in the Mitrokhin report we criticised the things that went wrong, the members of the Committee are well aware that things go right on many occasions, but that, because of the nature of the work, the outside world cannot be told.
§ Mr. Straw
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those words, which carry the greater authority coming as they do from a member of the Committee. Those of us who work directly with the agencies day to day would agree strongly with him. It is true of any organisation that its mistakes are more often noticed than its successes celebrated, but it is all the more true of the agencies because of the secret environment in which they operate.
The unpredictability of the post-cold-war era has thrown up different challenges, such as the global concerns of terrorism, weapons proliferation and drugs. Keeping up with, and setting up a credible defence against, today's dynamically changing threats and targets is a tough challenge. The agencies have approached those new priorities with imagination and dedication.
The agencies have scored real successes. Their achievements include helping the law enforcement agencies target drug trades, frustrating the ambitions of those regimes that seek to acquire the technology for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons achievements and frustrating those with terrorist agendas, all of which have been significant and effective as well as crucial to saving lives.
The Security Service has demonstrated great flexibility in responding to existing threats to national security and adapting to new challenges. We must all be encouraged by developments in Northern Ireland, but the recent attack on Hammersmith bridge demonstrates that the threat from dissident republican elements intent on wrecking the peace process remains real. Countering that threat therefore continues to be a high priority for the service, which makes an essential contribution to frustrating the aims of such terrorist groups and other terrorist organisations that pose a threat to UK interests.
The Security Service is a key player in countering the threat to the critical national infrastructure posed by malicious electronic attack. The National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre was established in December 1999 to provide a single point of access to the 478 Government's arrangements for encouraging improved defences against electronic attack. I am confident that the Security Service is an effective organisation and that accountability and oversight of the service's activities are adequate. During the three years that I have held my office, I have come to admire greatly the many staff of the service whom I have met, and the leadership of its director general, Stephen Lander, who was knighted in the birthday honours.
It is appropriate at this point to take the opportunity to inform hon. Members that the Prime Minister and I have agreed with the Director General of the Security Service that his term of appointment be extended to October 2002. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad to receive the approbation of the House, and am sure that members of the ISC will commend this arrangement.
As the House knows, although I am responsible for the Security Service, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is directly responsible for the two other intelligence services, the Secret Intelligence Service and Government communications headquarters, Cheltenham. GCHQ has played an increasing, and increasingly effective, role in the war against organised crime, co-operating closely with the law enforcement agencies. It too has a prime role in safeguarding the critical national infrastructure that I mentioned earlier.
The SIS relies for its effectiveness on a world-leading reputation for secrecy and trust, as well as for great expertise and professionalism. That reputation is the service's most effective tool in convincing those who might help this country—sometimes at risk to their own lives, often at risk to their livelihoods and in dangerous situations—that their secrets and personal security are safeguarded. The SIS continues to make a special, and often vital, contribution to a range of international challenges faced by Government. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will, of course, speak at greater length about the work of the agencies for which he is responsible when he comes to wind up the debate.
I know that many hon. Members want to contribute to this important debate, and it is right that we have set aside parliamentary time for them to do so. I commend the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee to the House, and look forward to continuing to work with it to ensure that we draw the right balance between scrutiny and secrecy, which is essential to maintain the effectiveness of these unique and crucial national assets.
§ Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)
I should like to add the agreement of the Opposition to the Home Secretary's tribute to the men and women who work in our intelligence and security services. As he rightly observed, the vast majority of them do so behind the scenes without public recognition. Their task is difficult and sometimes dangerous, yet, for reasons that we all appreciate, the full story is not told, and sometimes never can be. I also congratulate Stephen Lander on his honour, and on the extension of his contract.
The security services' work is of the utmost importance, and recent events have shown that we must remain vigilant. The murder of Brigadier Stephen Saunders in Athens was a dreadful reminder that terrorist organisations continue to flourish, even in the member states of the European Union. The Hammersmith bridge 479 bomb and yesterday's explosion in Belfast pointed to a possible resurgence in terrorist activity connected to Northern Ireland.
As the Intelligence and Security Committee's latest annual report states, the threat to this country and its armed forces from the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in the middle and far east, remains significant and is growing. The agencies also have important roles to play in the fight against drugs and organised crime, which, sadly, remain significant forces of evil in our society. That is the national and global context in which the services and their staff have to operate.
I also pay tribute to the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee and to its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). We are indeed fortunate to have such an accomplished and experienced person as my right hon. Friend serving in that position. It is particularly encouraging that the Committee has won, and retained, the confidence of the services themselves. No doubt my right hon. Friend, when taking up his post, did not envisage the high media profile that the job has brought him in recent days, and I shall now turn to the reason for that media interest in the security and intelligence services.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are grateful to the Committee for the way in which it conducted the Mitrokhin inquiry, and I should also like to put on record the Opposition's heartfelt thanks to Vasili Mitrokhin, who undertook his work at tremendous risk. I wish to associate the Opposition with the Committee's conclusion that Mr. Mitrokhinis a man of remarkable commitment and courage, who risked imprisonment or death in his determination that the truth should be told.It is to the credit of the Secret Intelligence Service that it realised the value of the material that Mr. Mitrokhin was offering, and brought him and his family to this country. However, the way in which his valuable intelligence material was subsequently handled by this country's security and intelligence services gives cause for concern. It is said that the US President may have known about that British intelligence coup before the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major).
There are lessons to be learned from the Mitrokhin inquiry report, and I personally find it regrettable that confessed traitors such as Melita Norwood will never be prosecuted for betraying their country. There were undoubtedly serious failings in the system, and we can all hope that those will not recur.
In a November 1998 debate, the Home Secretary refuted the assertion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) that it was unusual for Whitehall Departments to work closely together. My right hon. Friend mentioned the Pinochet case in that respect, but his comments are borne out equally well, if not more so, by the Mitrokhin case, despite the Home Secretary's denial.
One of the most unfortunate aspects was that we had to learn about the whole affair through leaks to the media, and there are still a number of unanswered questions. Will the Home Secretary now—I shall give way to him when I have finished this point, as I do not think that he has answered it fully on previous occasions—tell the House why, despite the fact that he knew in December 1998 that 480 details of the Norwood case would be published, he failed to make a statement to the House until those details had already been made public?
When I put that question to the Home Secretary on 26 October 1999, he argued that he could not have made a statement because he was waiting for the Attorney-General's decision on whether to prosecute Mrs. Norwood. He said that he was askedwhy I did not inform Parliament when I was first told of plans to publish the Mitrokhin archive. As I said, I was told that in December 1998.He went on to say:before the Attorney-General and the prosecutors could decide, she—that means mewas inviting me to announce that consideration of prosecution was in train. That … would have been wholly improper.—[Official Report, 26 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 830–31.]However, the Attorney-General's decision, in so far as it was a decision, was made on 22 March 1999, so for six months we heard nothing whatever from the Home Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman—and, for that matter, the Foreign Secretary—must have known that the matter would shortly come into the public domain via the media, but publication was allowed to take place before a statement was made to the House. Indeed, the information was drip-fed to us by the press—as I put it at the time, we were practically having a spy a day—when the House could have been informed much earlier.
Does the Home Secretary think that the House and the country had a right to know about those matters from the Government before details of the Mitrokhin archive and the Melita Norwood case appeared in the newspapers? I ask that question not to make a partisan point, but to try to clarify the Home Secretary's view on the important issue of the procedure in such cases.
It is amazing that the Prime Minister, who, after all, has overall responsibility for those matters, was not even told about the Melita Norwood case until the day before the story broke in The Times last September. Whatever the Home Secretary may say, there appears to have been a complete lack of co-ordination. Why was the Foreign Secretary informed of the publication project in October 1997, the Prime Minister in December 1997, but the Home Secretary not until December 1998? Was there any co-ordination between their offices—or, indeed, between them personally?
It appears from paragraphs 22 and 56 of the Committee's report that the relevant chapters of the book were not cleared by the Home Secretary or the Attorney-General, so why did the Foreign Secretary approve the book for publication on 21 April last year? In doing so, did he seek the views of the Home Secretary or the Attorney-General, or was he misinformed that the passages had, in fact, been cleared? It is also a matter of concern that the publication criteria set down in 1996 by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the then Foreign Secretary, were not followed. That was one of a number of significant failures in the Departments of State themselves.
481 I find it hard to believe, as paragraphs 59 and 60 of the report state, that when it was realised last summer that the details would come out in the press, themedia lines to take were being developed by the working group with support from the FCO and the Home Office. The Home Secretary saw the press lines in the week prior to the … story appearing in the Times. The Foreign Secretary did not see them.Once the story broke Ministers were unable to use the prepared press lines because they were inadequate.That simply beggars belief. It is clear from the Committee's report, which is excellent and does it credit, that there were many serious failures—but we need not go further over the details.
It is doubly unfortunate that the failures involved sensitive, indeed unique, material such as that provided by Mr. Mitrokhin. Those failures have distracted attention from Mr. Mitrokhin's actions, which, as I have said, deserve the highest praise. In the light of the Committee's report, the Government have decided to put in place measures to try to rectify the deficiencies, and I can only hope that the situation that has been described to us will never recur. It did no one any credit.
§ Mr. Straw
I shall try to be as gentle with the right hon. Lady as I can, but the simple truth is that as soon as the matter broke, she reached conclusions about it. She says that they are correct, but they are not supported in any particular by the conclusions of the Intelligence and Security Committee. She concluded that there had been a major lapse by current serving Ministers. There had been lapses, but not by Ministers. If there had been lapses by Ministers, I would hope and expect that members of the Committee would have said so, and said so publicly. They did not.
It is a matter of record, and is stated in paragraph 64 of the report, that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was told on 22 March 1999 that theSecurity Service are clearing the detail contained in those chapters … with the Home Secretary (who was briefed on the project in 1998, and is supportive) and the Attorney General.That is what my right hon. Friend was told, and he had every reason to believe that it was correct. As it turns out, it was incorrect. That has been brought to the attention of the House and the Committee. Of course it has been accepted that there were failures. The Government have accepted in our response that there were failures in the Home Office, in other Departments and in the Security Service, but there was no failure, as the right hon. Lady implied that there was, by Ministers.
If there is a next time—we always learn from experience, but we cannot avoid such things—I suggest that the right hon. Lady does not make such intemperate statements as the one she published on 13 September, in which she stated that I must publish the legal advice that I claim makes a prosecution impossible and explain why I kept it secret from Parliament and the public for more than eight months.
If the right hon. Lady is suggesting that, as a matter of Opposition policy, she is now committed to publishing the legal advice available from the Law Officers in every case, or in any, she had better say so now, because a 482 fundamental aspect of the work of the Law Officers is that their advice to Ministers is never published. Government could scarcely operate if it were.
§ Miss Widdecombe
That is a fascinating defence to accusations that I have not even made. I quoted direct from the Intelligence and Security Committee report. I am very sorry indeed that the right hon. Gentleman did not realise that, but I shall not weary the House by quoting it again. He will find that I quoted specific paragraphs about the utter failure of co-ordination between Departments. If he takes that personally, perhaps there are reasons. I do not know about that, but I do know that every criticism that I have just made has been made in a report praised by both sides of the House as an extremely thorough piece of work.
The right hon. Gentleman may also recall that the final announcement of the decision not to prosecute Melita Norwood was not made to the House, but leaked to the media half an hour before the answer was laid, for which an apology had to be made. Not for a moment can he try to pretend that the handling of this issue—by politicians, by officials or by the various services concerned—has been all that it might have been. Very generously, I noted that the Government have agreed to put in place measures to try to rectify the deficiencies, and hoped that those measures would be effective.
On another aspect of the work of the security services, there is widespread concern at the intention of the former director general, Dame Stella Rimington, to publish her memoirs. It is vital that the men and women who work for our security and intelligence services can feel utterly secure in the knowledge that they and their work will never be compromised by the publication of such books. I hope that the Government will take those concerns into consideration. In his winding-up speech, will the Foreign Secretary tell us more about the Government's intentions, and, perhaps, what stages have been reached in the clearance process?
We were all shocked, and, I believe, deeply disgusted, bearing in mind the origin of the tragedy, by the death of the 58 illegal immigrants in Dover on Monday. Both sides of the House condemn the organised criminal racketeers who feed off human misery and suffering. The introduction to the Committee's report covering 1998–99, which we are debating, stated that there had been "no improvement" in the fight against the traffic in illegal immigrants, and added:Rather the reverse has occurred …In the light of recent events, that is certainly an issue to which the Government should turn their attention. I welcome the Home Secretary's indication on Monday that they will give the matter attention. It is crucial that the House is kept informed and that the issue is not neglected.
Another issue raised in the annual report, and one that the Government did not fully address in their response, was resources. The head of the Secret Intelligence Service and the Director General of the Security Service both voiced their concerns about the 2001–02 financial year, saying that the position would be challenging, and flagging up the possibility of being unable to maintain current service levels and meet new challenges.
The Committee observed:We believe that these concerns should be fully addressed as a matter of some urgency.483 That must be especially true, given the Foreign Secretary's remark about the security services during the debate in 1998:If they are to do their job, they must have confidence that they will be resourced to fulfil the tasks that we place on them.—[Official Report, 2 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 583.]The Committee was also concerned about the level of resources being focused, along with Customs and Excise, on the fight against drugs. It observed:We are not convinced that enough effort is being focused at stopping the drugs reaching the UK.All those matters are particularly worrying. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary can tell us what progress is being made in the areas that I have identified.
I cannot resist observing that I hope that the Government are taking seriously the problem of missing laptop computers, which has come to light in recent months. We have heard of instances of laptops belonging to members of the security and intelligence services going missing or being stolen in what can be described only as bizarre circumstances. We have had to listen to stories of tapas bars, taxis and train stations. I shall be grateful if the Government will clarify the truth of this when they respond, and tell us exactly how many laptops have been lost in recent months by members of the security and intelligence services, and, so far as they can tell us, in what circumstances.
Will the Government at least confirm that no classified or sensitive information has been lost as a result of the adventures with laptops? I hope that measures have been put in place across the services to prevent a recurrence of incidents that make the services look remarkably foolish.
Over the past year and a half, the Select Committees on Home Affairs and on Foreign Affairs have both produced reports that have made a valuable contribution to on-going debates. Several of my right hon. and hon. Friends will no doubt wish to refer to the Foreign Affairs Committee's report on the Sierra Leone affair in greater detail than I shall, but the cover-up climate that surrounds the issue means that questions will inevitably have to be asked, and it is only right that they should be.
For example, will the Foreign Secretary indicate, in more detail than hitherto, his reasons for refusing the Select Committee informal access to the head of the Secret Intelligence Service? How does that differ from the arrangements that the Home Secretary makes in respect of the security services, and why?
Will the Foreign Secretary also comment on the Committee's conclusion that his refusal to allow it access to the head of the SIS has inhibited its inquiry? Perhaps that is what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, had in mind. What does the Foreign Secretary have to say about the personal criticism of Foreign Office policy, as opposed to the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, that appears in paragraph 108 of the report?
That brings me to the issue of accountability, on which the Select Committee on Home Affairs has produced a report. As I have already said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and the other members of the Intelligence and Security Committee do an excellent job. There is no greater testament to that than the thorough investigation into the Mitrokhin affair. In so far as one can draw such conclusions relatively early in its existence, the Committee is clearly doing its job supremely well.
484 The Government now see no reason to change the present arrangements. The Opposition agree with that view, as do the majority of the Committee. It is a unique Committee which scrutinises a unique and very sensitive area of the Executive. All sides of the debate agree that its establishment was a significant step forward.
The arrangements put in place by the previous Government are not yet even a decade old. I note the Home Secretary's comments in evidence to the Select Committee that the current arrangements should have time to bed down. When we are talking about institutions with histories much longer than that, I do not think that four or five years can possibly provide a proper evaluation of the new system.
The country's intelligence and security services do a vital job in safeguarding the nation during the increasingly uncertain and violent times in which we live. They, and men and women such as Vasili Mitrokhin, are all too often the unsung heros. Once again, I pay tribute to them, their good work and those who oversee them.
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
The House will know that I serve on the Intelligence and Security Committee. I shall refer briefly to two matters in the annual report that may be of some interest to Members and to the wider public, who, I hope, read our debates about the agencies.
First, there is the continuing interest that the Committee takes in international developments in intelligence oversight. Two members of the Committee, including me, went to a bi-annual inspector-generals conference in Canada in June 1999. Members of the Committee more senior than I had attended it previously. There were representatives from countries such as Australia, Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA. It was good that South Africa was represented, because the Minister responsible was present, and the Committee that oversaw his Department, along with representatives of the agencies. Some good debates on oversight took place.
In the introduction to the report are set out the inward delegations that have come to this country, including officials and parliamentarians involved in intelligence and oversight, They have come from countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Hungary, South Korea, Romania, Poland and the Ukraine.
Having emerged from communism, many of those countries are referred to by the west as developing democracies. I hope that we influence them in talking about the way in which we in this country approach our work in overseeing agencies. They explain to us in great detail the roles that they play in that respect, and some of them have real reservations about the way in which their agencies operated in different guises many years ago. It is a fascinating debate in which to be involved. They see their agencies as operating more along the lines within which our agencies have operated over many years.
The second issue arising from the annual report is serious crime. The Committee was told about the growing importance of smuggling cigarettes into the United Kingdom. Customs and Excise estimates that about £1,500 million is lost to the Exchequer every year as a result of duty and tax avoidance. Some lorry containers can bring in smuggled cigarettes to the value of £1 million. We were told that the scale of the profits that 485 can be made from cigarette smuggling is comparable with the profits made from drug smuggling, and that criminals are turning to cigarette smuggling because the risks and penalties are lower than those that apply with drugs. We have emphasised the fact that we believe that any additional resources given to the agencies to allow them to work in this area could effectively be self-funding for the Exchequer through the recovery of duty and tax.
The Government's response was that they agreed about the loss of revenue to the Exchequer through smuggling, and that they would continue to keep under consideration the resources needed to combat it. Since the report was published, millions of extra pounds have gone into Customs and Excise to try to stop serious crime, including smuggling and the avoidance of duty.
We have not emphasised penalties. If I were found with half a million pounds worth of class A drugs in the back of a lorry, I would face a penalty of up to life imprisonment. However, if I was found with half a million pounds worth of smuggled cigarettes, the penalty would be much less. It is no wonder that people are moving into smuggling cigarettes and not dealing in class A drugs. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary could give us his views on that, or write to me. I understand why we did not highlight that part of the report, but we should consider the issue of penalties.
The major report that we are debating relates to the Mitrokhin inquiry. We concluded that there was serious failure on the part of the Security Service in that it did not consult the Law Officers about the case of Mrs. Norwood. We also noted that the action prevented her possible prosecution. Some of the headlines that followed the publication of the report seemed ridiculous, implying that we had suggested that she should have been prosecuted. The simple fact is that it was not up to us, just as we did not think that it was up to the Security Service, to take that decision. The report makes that clear.
The other issue relating to Melita Norwood was that she had slipped out of sight. We believe that was a further serious failure on the part of the Security Service over a number of years. We were advised that the systems covering prosecution referrals to the Law Officers and the monitoring of espionage cases within the Security Service have been changed to prevent similar serious failings occurring again. I emphasise that, because it took place during our inquiry. It was recognised that things had gone a little wrong, and procedures inside the agencies were changed.
We agreed that the establishment of an interdepartmental working group to oversee the publication of the Mitrokhin archive was a sound decision. However, we concluded that officials failed to keep Ministers fully informed and to ensure that the decisions of the working group were carried out. As a consequence of those failures, Ministers made decisions on the basis of incorrect information.
We also noted that the working group was not adequately constituted to develop the necessary media strategy and to ensure that Ministers were alerted in a timely manner and provided with appropriate and robust lines to take. We stated in our conclusions thatmisleading stories were allowed to receive wide circulation by a failure to anticipate the likely media focus and to have prepared and promulgated appropriate responses.486 In the Government's response, they accepted that the preparations for the handling of the publicity surrounding the archive were ineffective, and officials recognised that there would be considerable public interest, and that the Government's normal and entirely proper refusal to comment on intelligence-related matters would not be adequate. The implications of non-prosecution of Mrs. Norwood were not sufficiently worked through. In consequence there was inadequate preparation of responses to the reaction and the interest aroused in the media and in Parliament.
I see quite clearly how the situation came about, but given that the Government acknowledge that officials recognised that there would be considerable public interest, and that Government's normal and entirely proper refusal to comment on intelligence-related matters would not be adequate, it is no longer normal or entirely proper to use the stock phrase that has been used for decades in this country—that the Government do not comment on matters of national security.
A debate must take place about the way in which Ministers and officials should speak to the media in such circumstances. Different terms are needed to replace the stock phrase that has been circulating in and around the agencies for many years. I do not claim to have the answer, but there seems to be a slight contradiction in the Government's conclusion about how they should operate at the public interface in future.
The Committee recommended that greater consideration was needed when briefing Ministers and senior officials on sensitive material, to ensure that accurate briefing is given on all the information.
Our greatest concern was that the mishandling of the publication of the Mitrokhin archive detracted from the major achievement of the SIS in exfiltrating Mr. Mitrokhin, his family and the material, together with the successful dissemination of the material to foreign liaison services. The information that we received sped around the world to foreign agencies, which most of us would argue was to the general good of counterintelligence. It is a great pity that the handling of the publication of the archive detracted from that.
I put on record the bravery of Mr. Mitrokhin, who believed that the organisation for which he was working in his own country was betraying the people of his country.
Mistakes were made, and they were admitted. There was no hint at any time in our proceedings that anyone was trying to mislead us in any way. It is important to recognise that nothing happened to compromise national security, no one was put at risk, and there was no deliberate attempt to deceive Ministers or anyone else. No one tried to shirk responsibility.
If, after reading the report, one asks why a certain thing happened in such an organisation, the answer is that it was probably a result of the culture of the organisation. We all recognise the distinctive culture of Parliament or the culture of ministerial office.
It is to the credit of my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary that they asked our Committee—a Committee of parliamentarians who were either elected or, in one case, appointed to the other place—to look into all the details of the case and to report in such an open way. Little was taken out of the report made available to the public. We, and the public, should be grateful for that.
487 I hope that the confidence-building measures in which we, as the oversight Committee, are engaged with the agencies and with Government organisations, will continue in the future.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who is a valuable and respected member of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
I start by expressing my appreciation to the Home Secretary and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) for their kind personal comments. I welcome the debate on behalf of the Committee. This is the most important parliamentary occasion of the year for the Intelligence and Security Committee, and we appreciate the fact that it involves the presence of two of the most senior Cabinet Ministers. That is a proper recognition of the importance of the agencies for which they are directly and personally responsible.
It may be a little churlish to make an early criticism. I welcome the debate, and my goodness, we waited for it. The delay in holding the debate is quite unacceptable. The debate after our last annual report took place on 2 November 1998. We hope to produce our next annual report in six weeks.
The present debate is on the 1998–99 report, which was sent to the Government with a letter from me to the Prime Minister dated 6 August last year. The Government took six months to respond. Their response is dated 28 January this year, and now, on 22 June, five months later, we have the chance of a debate. I ask the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, both of whom I am pleased to see in their place, to use their influence to ensure that the next debate is more timely.
As I said, we will submit our next annual report at the end of the summer Session. There should be a real determination for the Government response to be available by the time the House comes back in October, and that we should have the debate when the report is fresh and current. The debate on a previous report was held on 2 November, as I mentioned. I need to put that on the record. The Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary will understand why I am doing so, and the Whip on duty may report this to the business managers as well. It is unacceptable that there should be such a time lag.
If I had to choose a text to represent the year's work, it might be a quotation from the leader in The Times after the publication of our report on Mitrokhin. The Times was kind enough to refer to it asa strikingly successful example of public accountability.We appreciate that comment.
Against that background, I pay my tribute to the members of the Committee, several of whom are in the Chamber, and to our staff, who support us so well. By the nature of their work, they will not be recognised by name, but their contribution will be recorded elsewhere—perhaps Upstairs, or in the future. We appreciate their work.
Let me comment on Select Committees and the alternative of a different style of Committee. I pay tribute to my colleagues' attendance at meetings of the 488 Intelligence and Security Committee. I read the paper by the Liaison Committee that discusses new arrangements for improvements in Select Committees. It considers punitive measures that perhaps should be available for the Chairman to take against members who signally fail to turn up for Select Committee meetings and are regular absentees. I am glad to say that that has never been a problem for me in the six years that I have been Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. That should be recognised.
I am speaking personally, although I will probably take the overwhelming majority of the Committee with me on the comments that I am about to make. "Overwhelming" may be an exaggeration; perhaps "significant" would be better. I am unimpressed by the suggestion that there is an urgent need for a change. The Times quotation suggests that we are doing something right, and breaking new ground in a way that was perhaps not apparent to the Liaison Committee or the Select Committee on Home Affairs when they prepared their reports.
The Intelligence and Security Committee is a parliamentary Committee; Parliament established us to do our job. There are differences between our Committee and Select Committees. On a previous occasion, the Home Secretary famously destroyed the illusion that because Parliament votes on the membership of Select Committees, they are the product of the free vote of an independent House of Parliament. The selection of some and the exclusion of others who might be less acceptable show that the forces that are at work are pretty close to Government.
It is acknowledged that the Intelligence and Security Committee is slightly different. The Home Affairs Committee's report recognises that we require special arrangements and that we could not be an ordinary Select Committee. If one visits the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and walks down the secure corridor towards the armed guards standing by the door, one realises that it is not an ordinary, free-standing Select Committee. We meet in secret and have secure premises, which are required for our work.
The report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs also recognises that the agencies, for which we have oversight and responsibility, answer to different Ministers and Departments. If one sought to replace the Committee, it would have to be with a single Select Committee. That is common ground between those who advocate a Select Committee. The report had integrity in that it acknowledged that the Intelligence and Security Committee was doing quite a good job. It also recognised that the Committee was evolving, developing and appointing an investigator.
That report was written before we broke new ground with the invitation from the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister to investigate the Mitrokhin affair, with full access to all relevant papers and advice to Ministers. The latter was important, and enabled my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald to ask some difficult questions because we had all the information whereby we were able to reconstruct the paper trail and some of the problems that had arisen.
The calibre of members of the Intelligence and Security Committee is as good as that of the members of any other Select Committee. It comprises many senior hon. Members. Other Select Committees, such as the Home 489 Affairs Committee and the Liaison Committee, tend to write reports as if we were from another planet. Yet some of my colleagues on the Intelligence and Security Committee serve on other Select Committees. I was disappointed that the Liaison Committee, whose Chairman I had approached, did not invite me even to attend a meeting as an observer or to comment to the Committee before it further investigated some of its proposals.
There is much common ground between us. The Liaison Committee report complained about delay in Government responses and suggested that two months should be the norm. I agree; I have just complained about the delay of six months before we got our response. The report stresses the need for a debate on reports. I even found some common ground with its complaint about the inconsistency of Government replies. It stated that some were exemplary and others were superficial. I agree with that. Perhaps the Government will refer to it in their response to the debate.
I have been proud to chair the Intelligence and Security Committee since its inauguration and during its development and evolution, which continues. We need Government support and a proper understanding by them that the Committee is an important bulwark and safeguard for the intelligence agencies and public confidence in them. The fullest trust, confidence and openness by Government is necessary when appropriate to enable us to discharge our duties.
If the Liaison Committee wants to return to the matter—its report said that it might—a little consultation with parliamentary colleagues who serve on the Intelligence and Security Committee might be helpful. We might then be to help the Liaison Committee. I want to put that on record because I do not imagine that the Government have many empty slots in their legislative programme, and I do not therefore believe that the matter will be pursued with any urgency. That could not be justified.
I add the Committee's strong endorsement to the tribute of the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald to those who work in our intelligence agencies. The nature of their work means that it is impossible for people to know the challenges and dangers that they face and the very personal risks that they sometimes run. It is not known that sometimes they have to be moved very quickly, and arrangements have to be made to move them and their families because of imminent threats, perhaps after their identity has been betrayed by others. Those people are dedicated to the security and protection of our country and we owe them a great debt.
I want to put on record my admiration of the leadership that those people receive. I do not exclude from that Sir Richard Wilson, the Secretary of the Cabinet, whose interest in our Committee's work I appreciate. He has attached importance to our work. I also thank the Cabinet Office for its support. I add my personal recognition of Sir Stephen Lander, the Director General of the Security Service, whom I congratulate on his award.
Our appreciation of our relationship with the agencies, and their quality is part of the background against which we work. We require the fullest possible Government 490 co-operation whenever we have to be involved and in whatever work we may have to undertake. We are grateful for the Prime Minister's endorsement and his assurance of that full co-operation in our work.
Our job is to scrutinise, to recognise and respect work that is well done, but not to develop the sort of cosy relationship in which we become apologists for the intelligence and security agencies. The best service that we can do them is at all times to be alert to mistakes and occasions when standards are not maintained and integrity is not protected, and to speak out without fear or favour.
Some hon. Members referred to my public profile. We began with almost total invisibility. The profile has grown, however. It is an important part of our work that the public know that we exist, and can have some confidence that a Committee independent of Government oversees the agencies.
In a recent article about Menwith Hill, one of the criticisms made by a certain newspaper was that it was an incredibly secret place, which no Minister or other Member of Parliament had ever visited. Let me put it on record that the Committee has made two visits, and that a number of our colleagues have made individual visits. Both the fact that such visits are made and the fact that it is known that there are not "secret places" that are off limits for the Committee are important, not just to satisfy us but in terms of the public confidence that they create.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will emphasise that it is he who speaks for the Committee. When journalists telephone its members, they should not be offended when we tell them—to put it bluntly—where to get off, because we simply do not talk. The Chairman talks on behalf of the Committee, and they should always approach the Chairman.
§ Mr. King
I thank the hon. Gentleman.
As was said earlier, the Committee seeks to maintain the seamlessness—the Government constantly strive to achieve a similarly seamless appearance—that enables it to speak with one voice. Difficult decisions, or judgments, must often be made on what can or cannot be said about certain issues. I am sure that the Home Secretary and others—such as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard)—who have held his post know that the problem is remembering what is public. I hope to take on that responsibility for the Committee when trying to make the necessary judgment, and I hope that we strike reasonable balances.
I have spoken of the contribution that the Committee can make. I am grateful for the support that the Government have given to the developments that we have achieved in the evolution of the system. We take considerable interest in the expenditure of the agencies. I am afraid that the number of asterisks that appear in our report representing the details of that expenditure must be pretty frustrating for the ordinary reader, but every asterisk represents information that we hold as a Committee. We have examined the expenditure involved, and have been able to identify it. For instance, one heading relating to the Secret Intelligence Service relates to the cost of running agents. That is the degree of detail that we examine.
We are grateful for the assistance of the National Audit Office, which was not originally envisaged in the legislation. It has already done valuable work, and I think 491 that its contribution will continue to grow. The investigator to whom the Home Secretary referred represents an addition to that valuable work. I pay tribute to another supporter of the Committee's work—the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who has been very helpful in certain circumstances.
The most recent and obvious evolution of our work is represented by what we did in regard to Mitrokhin. I do not want to add a great deal to what I have already said about our report in press announcements: the hon. Member for Rother Valley has said a fair amount about it, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald drew attention to certain matters of concern. However, I want to stress the importance of putting the issue in context.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) spoke of the need to recognise the successes of the agencies. This has been one of the few instances in which success has been manifest and public. The fact that there has been some confusion about publication, and the fact that there have been some failures in regard to prosecution and other matters, must not be allowed to detract from the overall understanding that this was a remarkable and outstanding intelligence success. I believe that the Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed that it was the largest pool of counter-intelligence material that it had ever received, and the Central Intelligence Agency paid similar tribute to the help that it had been given in the identification of people who had been betraying national interests in the United States and many other countries.
The tributes paid to the SIS' s exfiltration of Mr. Mitrokhin, his family and his material, and the pursuit by the Security Service of a number of the leads that arose from it, mark important and praiseworthy achievements, but we must never forget Mr. Mitrokhin himself—an extraordinary man, whom the Committee had the privilege to meet and interview about his work, and about the remarkable archive that he produced. It has given us an unparalleled understanding of the nature of the KGB and its activities over the years. We believe that there is more material to be published, which will of course be of great interest to those concerned with the history of espionage and intelligence in other countries over recent years.
Nevertheless, the achievements of the Mitrokhin report should not blind us to the fact that mistakes were made in its handling. Lessons must be learned. Those are the principles that guided us. We appreciated the Government's early recognition that mistakes had been made once matters came to light, and we believe that the steps that were taken were appropriate to meet our initial criticisms.
There is one question that I am asked most often in interviews, and on more public occasions. There is a latent suspicion that we do not really need the agencies. Why do we spend nearly £1 billion on them? Did not this world of espionage pass with the end of the cold war?
In the foreword to our 1998–99 report, we referred to the various areas in which intelligence is critical. We referred, for instance, to the need for support for our military forces in actions overseas, and, in particular, to Kosovo. Since then we have seen the events in East Timor and, most recently, in Sierra Leone. We now consider the issues involved in weapons proliferation, and the increasing concern felt in Washington about national missile defence against the risk of missiles and weapons 492 of mass destruction in the hands of rogue states. The importance of the agencies' task in trying to counter some of those challenges is all too real.
Only yesterday, I read a comment in a defence journal about Kazakhstan, whose Defence Minister has admitted that the country has not the slightest idea how many weapons it has. In earlier days, Kazakhstan had a certain relevance to Soviet missile and nuclear activities. It is now trying to conduct an inventory. The report that I read alleged that 40 Mig 21s had been smuggled to North Korea from Kazakhstan. Admittedly it is an elderly aeroplane, but it is not one that we would wish to become part of the currency of arms smuggling.
To those who say that we now live in a safer world, let me say that the truth is that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and some of its controls, the availability of weapons and access to nuclear and other materials present a threatening and dangerous scenario, and it is vital to have the best possible intelligence to try to prevent proliferation.
So soon after the tragic assassination of Brigadier Saunders, there is no need for me to restate the reasons why international terrorism continues to pose a major threat. I understand that the French football team in the European cup is now having to have special security against a threatened international terrorist attack. It is a continuing threat. The Home Secretary reminded us of Hammersmith bridge and of our own domestic concerns. It is an area in which intelligence and security continue to be needed.
The Committee visited Dover a few months ago. I do not think a single member of the Committee was surprised by the tragic news that came from Dover, having seen the situation in that port and the pressures that exist. Our 1998–99 report emphasised the importance of enhancing intelligence capability against organised crime. We specifically mentioned immigrants as one of our areas of concern.
I touch on several other issues that are of concern to the Committee. I do not want to accuse the two senior Ministers here, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, of breach of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, but there is a publication called "National Intelligence Machinery." It describes the role of Ministers and makes it clear that the Prime Minister has overall responsibility. It then draws attention to the Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services. It looks pretty good on paper. I do not think that it looks very good in practice. It might be a good idea if that committee met and had some actual physical presence. It would be a nice gesture, if no more, to the intelligence agencies.
It is not a party political point because the ministerial committee was not known for the frequency of its meetings during the term of office of the previous Government, either. It may interest members of the previous Government to know that the ministerial committee even existed, but it did.
If we are to have ministerial accountability, if it does make sense to have divided responsibility for the intelligence and security agencies, and if the structure is to be such that there is separate accountability, the argument for the ministerial committee meeting must be strong. It could be a valuable exercise. If it met, not necessarily frequently, but at least annually, that would be a significant improvement.
493 The Committee takes considerable interest in personnel practices in the agencies and in recruitment and retention. I must add one sharp criticism and one complaint about the Government response. Two reports ago, we made a proposal in response to a problem, which is well known, involving Mr. Tomlinson. He complained that he was dismissed from the Secret Intelligence Service and was denied any redress or access to an employment tribunal on the ground that it was impossible to hear the evidence which was said to be too secret to be available to an employment tribunal.
We came up with a fairly simple proposal: it should be possible to set up a special tribunal identical to the normal employment tribunal, but constructed in such a way that it could handle secret matters. The Government accepted that proposal. We have said some rude things in our report—I shall not rehearse them—about the shambles of the parliamentary handling of that. The Home Secretary need not look embarrassed because, as ever, another Department handled the Bill concerned—the proposal was tacked on to the Employment Relations Bill as an amendment.
Having made the proposal, the Committee was never consulted when the amendment actually went in. It never even came through the Commons; it was done in the Lords and came back. However, we were assured that we would be consulted on the regulations. What is pretty outrageous is the Government response:The Government is therefore disappointed at the reaction of the Committee to this prompt improvement in the rights of members of staff of the agencies.That was written in January. There was supposed to have been a prompt improvement. It has not actually occurred yet. Regulations have not been introduced yet and there has been no consultation of the Committee. It is a proposal that we made two years ago, so I ask that it be dealt with promptly. The Government said that it was a wonderful idea. Unfortunately, they have not yet done it.
I have referred to areas of expenditure and the assistance of the NAO. We are seeking to give greater information about the cost of the individual agencies; we referred to that in our report. The Government were looking forward to a meeting with us to discuss those matters further. That meeting has now been held. I think that it was helpful. I hope that we will be able to make progress on that matter and that next year's report will be rather fuller in that respect than this year's. We await Ministers' response on that point.
The area of expenditure that we addressed that was of particular concern to us—we got agreement to the publication of NAO reports on the matter—was the cost of the new premises for the SIS and the Security Service, and the substantial over-runs in expenditure that were incurred on both occasions. Although they were past events, we quoted them because we recognised that the complexity and scale of the new accommodation project for GCHQ was far greater than either of those undertakings.
We gave the clearest warnings of our concern, in view of past experience, that the problems should not be repeated and that there would be the closest watch. We were grateful that the response in January says:During its planned move to new accommodation GCHQ is paying considerable attention to ensuring that degradation of its operating capability is kept to a minimum and that all essential services are maintained.494 Later, in paragraph 17, the Government notedthe Committee's endorsement of three guiding principles in the management of the GCHQ New Accommodation Project. GCHQ has sought to ensure that the maximum likely costs have been identified.They added that GCHQ wouldcontinue to supplement its own project management experience and expertise by the use of contractors and expert advisers. GCHQ—this was written in January—understands the need to control costs at all stages … Limits on spending will be set before work commences, and any need for subsequent adjustment will be carefully scrutinised.The Committee is under no illusions about the challenge that is represented by the new GCHQ accommodation project and its importance. The Committee supports the project going forward, but it would be failing in its duty if it did not put on record its continuing great concern about the matter, of which the Foreign Secretary is aware. I shall not go further into the matter now, but we have continually sought to raise the matter and remain anxious as to whether its seriousness is yet fully recognised.
The two issues that our report says will lead to further work are files, on which we hope to have more to say in our next report—I shall not go into it in detail—and security procedures, which has been a constant theme of every report that the Committee has written. We are concerned about whether the agencies insist on constant vigilance on internal security. The recent events involving laptops are merely an illustration of the problem that we have been continually trying to draw to the attention of Ministers and heads of agencies. We have not had the worst experiences; other countries have suffered worse lapses of security recently. We can maintain that position only by constant attention to this tiresome, time-consuming but critically important role.
Finally, we attach great importance to security and secrecy. The Intelligence and Security Committee seeks to establish the highest standard in its own conduct in that respect. Against that background, let me express a personal view. Obviously, we have concerns about the actions of a former head of the Security Service. It is one thing to publish a book about one's early childhood experiences or happy holidays, but it is quite another to write a book that covers in any detail work or responsibility in this area. It is peculiarly critical in respect of somebody who has been the leader of an agency as it raises concern that other members of the agency might be tempted or attracted by financial reward to do the same. There is a heavy responsibility on a former director-general.
§ Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we also have the unfortunate precedent of General de la Billiere's memoirs, which described what the SAS did during the Gulf war? It opened the door to a large number of other books by former members of the SAS.
§ Mr. King
My right hon. Friend, who was then Minister for the Armed Forces, will remember that well, and I do too. I entirely share his reservations on that point.
A letter to The Times by a former Member of Parliament completely distorted the position with regard to the book by Sir Percy Sillitoe, a former Director-General of the Security Service. The right 495 hon. C. R. Attlee PC, OM, CH, MP, who wrote the foreword to it, specifically said that it was unfortunate that, in the interests of secrecy, Sir Percy had had to leave out the most interesting parts of the book, which would have been of interest to the reader. The letter to The Times gave the impression that he had been allowed to put it all in, when the opposite was the case.
It would be wrong to talk about the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee or the agencies without recognising the importance of our allies in intelligence and security. We have the privilege to meet many of those who work with our agencies and with the oversight committees and we are familiar with those in Washington and other capitals who are part of the intelligence alliance and the parliamentarians in those countries who oversee them. We pay tribute to them, the work that they do and the relationship that we have with them.
In our report for 1998–99 we said:Our safety depends on good intelligence and security, and it is vital that these agencies are properly maintained and funded in a sustainable way. That is the responsibility of Ministers and those in charge of the Agencies. It is our responsibility as a committee to hold them to account.Our report describe how we have sought to discharge that task and I commend it to the House.
§ 3.3 pm
§ Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)
As the newest and most junior member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, having been appointed in January, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in today's debate and to follow the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), the most senior member of the Committee, whose style of leadership—and, after all, he does have style—has helped it develop in a way that would not have been thought of at its inception. The right hon. Gentleman has managed to win the trust and respect of those in the agencies and of Ministers, and we should pay tribute to him for that.
I also thank my fellow Committee members on both sides of the House for their help and advice, and the staff who serve the Committee for all their hard work.
I confess that when I joined the Committee I was somewhat sceptical about the work of the intelligence and security agencies, which is a not uncommon reaction given that the agencies have traditionally been shrouded in secrecy. Until recently, it would have been unthinkable to have had this debate, given that until a few years ago the existence of the intelligence and security agencies was not even acknowledged.
As I have learned more about the work of the agencies and have come into contact with many of the people who work for them, I have come to recognise the role that they play in protecting our democracy and the dedicated and professional work that is carried out, often in extremely dangerous situations.
I know from my reaction to learning more about the work of the agencies how important increasing one's knowledge can be in increasing one's confidence in the agencies. Most people in the United Kingdom understand the need for the intelligence and security agencies to operate within a ring of secrecy, but they also want to know that Parliament is making sure that the agencies are not operating outside the law or in any way that 496 undermines our democracy. People need that reassurance, not least because of suspicions that have developed about the activity of the agencies whether as a result of fiction, film, controversy around issues such as files, as referred to earlier, or of allegations by disaffected or former members of the agencies.
Of course, Ministers are responsible for the agencies, but as has been enshrined by the establishment of the Intelligence and Security Committee in 1994, it is now recognised that it is right for elected representatives to be involved in overseeing the work of the agencies. I believe that it is entirely proper to keep questioning the effectiveness of the oversight system that is being set up. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, in the light of experience we need to keep looking at whether the oversight that we have is adequate, and to be openminded about that.
§ Mr. Winnick
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I am pleased that she has joined the Committee. Obviously, it goes without saying that there is an absolute need for all democracies—and certainly our own—to have security services to protect our freedom and our civil liberties. Does my hon. Friend agree that, had there been parliamentary oversight at the time, it is quite likely that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce would never have been targeted in the first place? The lack of oversight probably played a role in the dirty tricks campaign against Harold Wilson in the 1960s. It is all somewhat alarming and hopefully will end as a result of the introduction of parliamentary scrutiny.
§ Ms Winterton
Past suspicions about the agencies' activities led to the establishment of the Committee, to develop an oversight system that works. We must question whether oversight needs to go further, to ensure that such activities never happen again.
§ Sir Archie Hamilton
Does the hon. Lady accept that whether or not a file is kept on a Member of Parliament is an operational matter that does not come under the existing Committee's remit and probably would not in future?
§ Ms Winterton
I will address later the question of how much members of the Committee are told.
Openness and transparency within the constraints of national security are key to building confidence. The Committee should be looking at improving public faith in the system. That is doubly important as the agencies move into areas such as serious crime; drug trafficking; and smuggling—whether of alcohol, cigarettes or people. As the intelligence services work increasingly alongside law enforcement agencies such as the police and HM Customs and Excise and the contrast between them becomes clear, there will need to be even greater emphasis on the services' accountability.
Whether or not the Committee should become a Select Committee is discussed among its members. I believe that as demand for greater openness, transparency and accountability grows there will come a time when the public and Parliament will demand Select Committee status, albeit with the constraints already described. Whatever form the Committee takes, the key question is how much access its members have to information.
497 Members of comparable committees in other countries—notably the United States—do a different job, so are given more information. The American people have gained more confidence in the oversight of senate and congressional committees not just because those committees are responsible for allocating money to the intelligence agencies but because they know that their members are kept fully informed. They have more information about operational matters—that may cover some aspects mentioned by the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton).
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, the Mitrokhin inquiry—my first encounter with the intelligence and security agencies—was an enormous step forward in proving that it was possible to give ISC members access to all the relevant information without compromising national security. I hope that experience will lead to greater trust between the Committee, agencies and Ministers.
This debate is an important part of building public confidence in the scrutiny process. I was not a member of the Committee when the report that is before the House today was delivered to the Government 10 months ago. It is a matter for concern that it has taken so long for the report to be published and for it and the Government's response to be debated. The last report was debated 19 months ago and the Committee is now on the verge of completing this year's report. Parliament might feel that the Committee is not reporting back in a timely fashion. It is important that our debates be relevant to topical issues, so I hope that it will be possible for the House to debate future reports more quickly.
The terms of reference of the ministerial committee to which the right hon. Member for Bridgwater referred are to keep under review policy on the security and intelligence services. That provides for some oversight but it may be tricky to achieve that if that committee does not meet often.
Other important reasons for oversight are efficiency and ensuring value for money. The Committee expressed concern about overspending, particularly on the agencies' accommodation. Parliament wants to be reassured that the agencies are using public money wisely. The work of the National Audit Office has been extremely valuable to the Committee.
Duplication should be avoided, however. Paragraph 37 of the annual report notes the appointment of an adviser to improve efficiency within the single intelligence vote and to review joint working and co-operation. As the agencies enter more into tackling organised crime, and in the light of technological developments, the need to avoid duplicating work and to ensure that it is undertaken efficiently will become even more important.
The Committee, with its overview of all three agencies, is in an ideal position to monitor this. The Committee requested access to the efficiency adviser's reports and I am pleased that the Committee has received the first of them, even though it was submitted to Ministers more than a year ago. I hope that future reports will be available more quickly.
Although I have some concerns, I firmly believe that over the years the Committee has been successful in pushing back the frontiers of security and oversight. That 498 could not have happened without the co-operation of the agencies and Ministers. I hope that Parliament will recognise that achievement and will be assured that members of the Committee are always looking to see what more can be done to encourage transparency and openness from our intelligence and security services, without undermining the extremely important work that they do for our country.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), who has been a refreshing addition to the Intelligence and Security Committee. I have only one worry—it is a matter of record that every woman who has ever been appointed to our Committee has been made a Minister shortly afterwards. I do not wish to dampen the hon. Lady's promotion prospects, but it would be helpful if we could make use of her experience for slightly longer.
My right hon. and hon. Friends would wish me to place on the record their welcome for the work of the Committee, expressed in the reports. The reports are important, but the fact that a representative group of Members of Parliament is inside the ring of secrecy, watching and asking questions and maintaining accountability, is at least as important—and, I would suggest, much more important. We have been pressing for the Committee for 20 years and are delighted that it has been set up. As a party, we would prefer a Select Committee, but it would operate very differently from other Select Committees, and Select Committee status would not add to the Committee's ability to do its job. For that, we need to continue improving access to relevant and necessary information, which is a higher priority than changing the Committee's status.
I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Committee. It is a hard-working Committee and, as the Chairman pointed out, the attendance record is excellent. Ill-health is almost the only reason for any protracted absence from the Committee and we never have a problem with the Committee's quorum, as other Select Committees do. I also wish to pay to tribute to the staff, including the investigator recently added to the staff, and to those in the leadership of the agencies, who recognise the value and importance of the Committee's work.
On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I also wish to stress the importance and value of intelligence and the organisations that provide it. Their staff show remarkable skills, dedication and, in some cases, courage in very dangerous situations. Intelligence saves lives; it can prevent or help to end conflict; it affords protection to our forces on active service; it helps to track down organisers of large-scale crime; and it is a shield against threats to our financial system, our communications and information technology, and to democracy itself.
Intelligence gathering can also compromise civil liberties, and it therefore must be controlled by a strong legal framework. It is worth putting on record the fact that, whatever controversy surrounds some of its provisions on information technology, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill will significantly strengthen the legal framework and restraint under which intelligence gathering takes place. That is why, in general terms, we have supported that legislation and wish to see the greater part of it on the statute book.
499 As well as a legal framework, monitoring and accountability—such as the Committee can provide—is important to the civil liberties safeguards alongside which intelligence and security services must operate. Ministers like intelligence. In my experience, a gleam comes into their eyes as they tell one how valuable a particular piece of intelligence has been. Therefore, there is always a risk that their appetite for intelligence will lead them to underestimate the political risks and the civil liberties downside to an action that they authorised. That is all the more reason why the Committee must exist to provide oversight. For that reason, it needs to be more fully informed than it has sometimes been about what is being done or is contemplated. The Committee is precluded from, and would not normally envisage, examining operational matters, but a decision to embark on an operation or kind of operation may have such important implications that the Committee should be kept informed and should be able to inform the judgment that Ministers make.
Sometimes agencies—I have in mind examples from around the world—have acted without authority, but the greater danger is usually that actions are covertly authorised by Ministers and Governments, safe in the knowledge that they can be disavowed. Many actions, for example, for which the CIA was criticised in earlier decades were not rogue actions by an uncontrolled agency, but covert actions authorised by US Presidents, who did not wish it to be known that they had authorised them. There may be a case for non-disclosure at the time, but such decisions should not be taken by an Executive free from an active monitoring process.
That point leads directly to an issue that arose in the Mitrokhin case. It will arise again in the Committee's work and I particularly wish to draw the Foreign Secretary's attention to it. The greatest difficulty the Committee has in obtaining information, and where intransigence is at its greatest, it arises not from the detail of agency work—when we have to ask about an operational matter that suddenly has wider implications—but from advice to Ministers. Nothing in the British system is more rigorously protected than advice to Ministers. It is sometimes protected more rigorously than operational details.
Without knowing what Ministers were told, and what they authorised, it is impossible for the Committee to give the House and the country the reassurance that they require. The Home Secretary recognised that when he asked us to look into the Mitrokhin case, and that is why the report is thorough and effective. It is only when one sees the original copy of the submission made to the Minister, with notes written on it in his own handwriting, that one can be sure what the Minister knew and what direction he sought to give to events. The Home Secretary's example should be followed in other cases where the central issue is who knew what, and when, and what they did about it.
There is such a blur surrounding the issue of what Ministers' private offices were told, and such uncertainty about whether Ministers were told everything that their private offices knew, that the Committee needs to see the documentation to give the House the reassurance—often readily available in the documents—that the Minister did not know, or did know and recommended appropriate action.
500 There is no question but that mistakes were made by the Security Service and the Home Office over the failure to consult properly in the Mitrokhin case about non-prosecution, and the handling and publication of the material. In the Melita Norwood case, it is difficult to stomach the idea that someone who sought, from the comfort of Britain, to help the most repressive and murderous regime on the face of the earth to build an atom bomb should escape any penalty for her actions. That explains why there is such widespread public indignation that mistakes made earlier precluded proper consideration of prosecution of that woman when it might still have been possible.
Those admitted errors have totally distracted attention from the most important point about Vasili Mitrokhin's archive. Its production and release was an act of supreme courage by a true patriot, who saw that the KGB was destroying his country and working against the interests of the Russian people, and against democracy and freedom all over the world. The extent of KGB penetration was far greater than was realised at the time in the west, and it was a further remarkable success for the Secret Intelligence Service to have obtained the archive and achieved the safe exit of Mitrokhin and his family from Russia. Those crucial aspects of the case should be brought back to mind, as they were by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the Home Secretary and the Chairman of our Committee. They were the real messages of the Mitrokhin archive, not the mistakes that were made in handling some of the material—even the failure properly to address the question of prosecution. The significance of that archive is the courage of the man who produced it, and the competence and skill of our intelligence service in bringing that material to Britain and making it available for action at home and abroad.
I wish to touch briefly on one or two issues raised in the annual report. One is the employment tribunal issue, to which our Chairman, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), referred. It was indeed the Committee that stressed the need for a dedicated employment tribunal for the staffs of security and intelligence agencies.
The Government say that they have acted promptly in the matter, but they did not introduce the amendment to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill until it was on Report in the House of Lords. They got it wrong, as they had to admit when they amended the first version that they introduced. Added to that, the regulations have not been produced that would make the tribunal available, which makes the Government's interpretation of the word "prompt" seem ludicrous.
The Government have taken a strange position with regard to the Committee's suggestion that the procedures are pretty draconian. Under them, the applicant can be excluded from the whole inquiry, and may be represented only by a special advocate. In addition, he has permission to make a statement only before the inquiry starts. The exercise of those strict powers ought to be reviewed, and we suggested that the commissioners would be the appropriate body for that.
The Government have discouraged and resisted that option, saying that an applicant could go to judicial review. However, it is absurd to suggest that a possibly quite lowly member of staff would have the resources to go to judicial review to achieve what other people achieve 501 by going to an industrial tribunal. The proposal does not address the gap that the Committee was seeking to deal with.
In their response, the Government said that they would consider whether the operation of powers of exclusion would benefit from involvement by the commissioners. I welcome that, but the Government also said that they would consider the matter in the light of experience. I doubt that there will be much experience to draw on, and I sincerely hope that I am right. We do not expect the tribunal to be taking a case a fortnight. Such cases are supposed to be pretty rare, and we do not want two more to go badly awry before the Government say, "Oh dear, there is something wrong. We had better start again."
We want to get the procedure right now. If there are any more cases that might sow potential difficulties for the future, they must be handled properly and in a way that conforms as closely as possible with the normal approach, based on natural justice, of employment tribunals. That should be the case from the start.
One of the other issues on which the report focuses is the assistance that the agencies could give in dealing with international drug traffic. Some very good work has been done, sometimes in very dangerous conditions, to support the law enforcement bodies in that regard. However, the objective for the agencies in such work never seems very clear, and neither does the proper level of resources that should be devoted to the task.
That is an important matter. The drugs problem and the damage that it does to society are so serious that, if it were clear that a substantial addition of resources could make a great difference, there surely could be no hesitation about finding those resources. The matter would be given a very high priority indeed, but it has never been clear how much of the traffic in drugs could be stopped by the application of extra resources.
Obviously, there is more than one reason for tracking down the traffickers. Drug trafficking is a hydra-headed monster. We can never put all the people involved behind bars, but it is desirable in principle that at least some should be caught and very severely punished.
What quantity of drugs can be confiscated, and what effect can be produced? Will we stop enough trafficking only to raise the street price a bit, or can we stop enough to make a significant difference to the problems in our society? If the difference is to be great, substantial additional resources must be provided. However, I do not think that Ministers have thought enough about what the intelligence effort on drugs trafficking can achieve and whether it deserves considerable resources. I hope that that question will be more clearly addressed.
Similar questions arise with regard to matters such as illegal immigration rackets. Intelligence can play a role in identifying the racketeers responsible for the other day's appalling tragedy in Dover, but it is not the agencies' role to deal with asylum seekers or individual immigration issues. Other agencies handle those matters, and the intelligence agencies have different and more compelling responsibilities. There is potential for co-operative effort to deal with serious organised crime related to immigration rackets, but that potential is limited and the effort needs to be well targeted.
502 The report also deals with the funding of the National Criminal Intelligence Service. In their response, the Government have indicated that they are reconsidering that matter. The present arrangements slice funds from hard-pressed police forces around the country, and it seems to us that they will never achieve the level of funding that may be necessary for the national and co-ordinated criminal intelligence effort that NCIS must provide.
An issue that figures significantly in the report is the management of major capital projects. After the drastic overspend on Thames house at Vauxhall cross, the GCHQ's new accommodation project was an obvious cause for concern as it is on a much larger scale. Completing it on time, to cost and with no interruption to operating capabilities requires the highest levels of expertise. Clearly, however, the project will not be completed to cost. The Government have stated publicly that new financial arrangements have had to be made, and there must be some doubt about whether the work will be completed on time with no interruption to operational capabilities.
The work of GCHQ is vital. The facility's presence in Cheltenham is strongly supported by the local community, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) regularly reminds me. It needed new accommodation, so the project was necessary. However, I am not satisfied that the project management skill and expertise given to GCHQ was equal to such a large task. It is the biggest-ever private finance initiative, and a huge undertaking.
We have not heard the end of the story yet. The project is of great importance to the effective operation of our intelligence services and involves very large sums of money. If we are not careful, I fear that it will be dealt with by fire fighting rather than by the application of management skills and expertise. The sophistication of those skills goes beyond anything GCHQ or almost any part of Government has had to supply before.
My final point is a general one. The Committee and the House must recognise the danger that management attention in the agencies can be consumed to too great an extent with past mistakes and history. Scarcely a Sunday goes by without newspaper allegations about the agencies, either in the recent past or the very distant past. It is part of the regular Sunday newspaper diet.
Most such allegations have to be investigated, if they are not already under investigation, but some go back a long way. Often there are lessons to be learned, and sometimes stones must be turned over that have not been turned over before. However, agency managers must be allowed to keep their eyes on the ball, and to concentrate their efforts on current and future threats. That is what they are paid for. Their work was recognised in the welcome honours list award to Stephen Lander, and in his reappointment as head of MI5. It has been recognised also in the praise from hon. Members of all parties today.
Past mistakes have to be examined, but the agencies' primary task is to deal with current and future threats to the people of this country, to our democracy and our civilisation. Occasionally, we have to remember that.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
I begin by wondering whether any of the defects and omissions in the way in which the security services handled the case 503 of Mrs. Norwood would have come to our knowledge if the Intelligence and Security Committee had not existed. The answer is pretty obvious: little or no such information would have come to Members of the House of Commons.
I say that because I well recall all the arguments endlessly repeated by successive Governments to explain why, given that the Security Service was accountable to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister, it would be totally inappropriate to subject it to the scrutiny of a committee of parliamentarians. When I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I pointed that oversight came into existence thanks to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), who is now Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce, and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). When they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, it was felt that they would certainly win. As a result, the arrangements regarding oversight by the House of Commons were changed.
I may be considered to be a critic of the security services, but I have always accepted that all democracies need such services. Moreover, even if the terrorism of the past 30 years carried out by the IRA and loyalist groups had not existed, the need for the security agencies is nevertheless obvious. However, we should be under no illusions that all has been well. Peter Wright, for example, defends, or justifies, the state of near-lawlessness in which he operated as a senior MI5 agent, and the dirty tricks—targeted against the Labour Government of the time—for which he, although not only he, was responsible.
§ Mr. Winnick
In a moment. The way in which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was targeted because of his presidency of the National Union of Students could not be justified, and no Conservative Member would attempt to justify it—even the hon. Gentleman to whom I am about to give way.
§ Dr. Lewis
This must be the first time since I have been a Member of this House that I have agreed with the hon. Gentleman. However, he should set the record straight and point out that whereas Peter Wright said initially that large numbers of security services operatives were engaged in the sort of dirty tricks that he himself admitted to, subsequently he retracted that and admitted that if he had to put a real figure on it, that figure was one—namely, Mr. Peter Wright.
§ Mr. Winnick
Be that as it may, in my view, for what it is worth, Wright did not act alone—but I shall not pursue that point.
Paragraph 29 of the report shows that not only were senior Ministers not told about what had happened at the time, neither were the most senior members of the Security Service. If ever there was a case for parliamentary accountability, this is it. All the previous arguments put forward by Ministers fall to the ground. If the Intelligence and Security Committee had been in existence in the early 1990s, some of the non-disclosures would probably not have occurred.
As for Mrs. Norwood, I take the same view as other right hon. and hon. Members: it would have been far better if she had faced justice. I see from the report that 504 there is some doubt about the seriousness of the information that she passed on to Russian agents. I am only a layman in these matters, but I was rather surprised that, given her position in the organisation, she could have passed on such serious information. However, one thing is certain—if Mrs. Norwood had had more important information, she would not have had the slightest hesitation in passing it on. She wanted to do as much as possible for the regime to which she was loyal—the one that ruled in Moscow.
It would have been much better if she could have been taken to court but, by the time her role was revealed, nearly half a century had elapsed and she was in her late 80s. In many respects, Mrs. Norwood's real punishment is that the cause that she served with such dedication all her adult life has not only collapsed in Europe but has been exposed as downright evil.
§ Mr. Winnick
We all recognised that it was evil long before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other events in eastern Europe. Let us think for a moment about the cause that Mrs. Norwood was serving. It was responsible for mass murder, the gulags, the denial of all civil liberties and the secret police, and it had contempt for the rule of law and truth. That is what she dedicated her life to. So I suppose that it could be said that she has had her punishment, even if it was not the sort of punishment that she should have had for betraying her country.
The Shayler case has been in the news for nearly three years now. I am certainly not an apologist for what Shayler did, but I doubt whether there is much to be gained by pursuing the matter. The French court has refused extradition, and the affair continues; I do not know how much time and money is being spent on it. Some newspapers are involved and are in danger of being taken to court again. Whether Shayler was the right sort of person to have been recruited for MI5 in the first place is, to say the least, doubtful. Clearly he is eager to play the martyr, and my view—which is perhaps the minority view—is that the sooner this saga is ended, the better it will be for the security services.
One argument is that if Shayler gets away with it, others in the security services would spill the beans. It would be a poor state of affairs if there were other people like Shayler in the security services who needed to be discouraged. Let us hope that he is a one-off. Whether his motive is money or conviction—I suspect that it is money, but I could be wrong—I think that we should end this business.
§ Mr. Mates
The hon. Gentleman and I agree on one thing: we hope that Shayler is a one-off. However, the hon. Gentleman's contrast in logic is interesting. He says that Mrs. Norwood should have been punished for committing crimes betraying our nation, but that Shayler should not be dealt with for the alleged crimes betraying our nation with which we want to charge him.
§ Mr. Winnick
That is a point of a kind. If I may say so—what the hon. Gentleman said had occurred to me before his intervention—there is a difference between what Mrs. Norwood did and what Shayler did. How long 505 will the Shayler saga continue? Will it go on until next year, and the year after that? As I said, I think that it should be ended soon, but obviously some disagree.
My final point is about accountability. The ISC has done a good job, although I had doubts at the beginning about whether it was the right kind of Committee, and about the people on it. Indeed, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) mentioned the fact that in a previous debate I had made the criticism that its members would all be made Privy Councillors. I had my suspicions, and I am pleased to say that I was wrong.
I do not want to give the impression that the ISC has not done a good job. It has, and I congratulate it on its activities as a Committee of parliamentarians. Nevertheless, I take the view—as does the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which I am a member—that there should be a different form of parliamentary accountability. In its third report, which came out in June last year, the Committee said:In our view, it is inevitable that the intelligence services will one day become accountable to Parliament. That is the logical outcome of the process of reform embarked upon by the previous Government. The existing arrangements are merely transitional and are still evolving—witness the fact that the ISC itself is now demanding, and has been given, facilities that were undreamed of when it was established only five years ago. We hope that the Government will keep an open mind on this issue.Some of the arguments against establishing a Select Committee were made in former times, when it was argued strongly that the intelligence services should have no parliamentary scrutiny. However, we are evolving. I think that some form of Select Committee will be established within the next 10 years or so. I may not be here by then, but I can imagine others pointing out all the criticisms that were made at the time of the idea of setting up such a Committee.
I accept that the ISC has shown independence, but we need to go further. We need a Committee that reports directly to the House. I do not believe that it is appropriate for the Committee to be set up by the Prime Minister and to report to the Prime Minister. Members of Parliament on such a Committee, like those on other Committees, should report directly to the House. That does not mean that any such Committee can operate like other Select Committees, but in the end there should be that form of parliamentary accountability, which means reporting here, rather than to the head of the Executive.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
I am confident that this does not meet my hon. Friend's requirements, but I should like to point out to him that recently members of the Foreign Affairs Committee met a senior representative of the security agencies. As one who was there, I can say that it was a very useful meeting.
§ Mr. Winnick
I accept that entirely.
If the change recommended by the Home Affairs Committee came to pass at some time—obviously, that will not be now—it would send an important signal that the oversight process was totally independent of the Executive. That is not the present position. While I praise the work of the members of the ISC, there is not the feeling that they are totally independent of the Executive, not because they are not independent-minded Members 506 of Parliament, but because of the manner in which the Committee is set up, which sends the wrong signals. That is no reflection on my colleagues or on the Opposition Members who serve on the Committee, and do so with great distinction.
§ Mr. Barron
My hon. Friend is effectively appointed to his position on the Select Committee on Home Affairs by the Government Whips office. Is that Committee independent of the Executive?
§ Mr. Winnick
Of course the way in which we get on to Committees is not independent of the Executive, but once a Committee is in existence and once we are on it, there is no doubt that we are independent of the Executive and report directly to the House. If it is argued that there is not really much difference in practice between the ISC and the sort of Select Committee that I would like to see created, that is all the more reason why further consideration should be given to setting up such a Committee.
§ Mr. Barron
Given that everyone would agree that if the Committee were a Select Committee of the House it would still have to work within the ring of secrecy, no doubt some of the evidence that it took could never be reported. My hon. Friend's Committee's report was published before our annual report, to which I referred in my speech. The asterisks in our annual report would also have been in any report by such a Select Committee. In view of all that, what is the practical difference, given that my hon. Friend's report took even longer than ours—a delay that we complained about—to be debated in the House?
§ Mr. Winnick
In the end it is a matter of whether the right signals are sent. The very fact that the ISC remains the subject of controversy because of the way in which it is set up is important. Select Committees are not set up in that way.
I tried time and time again, with others—I believe that my hon. Friend was not in the House at the time, or if he was he did not take part in our debates—to persuade the then Government to give some parliamentary oversight. Time and again I was told that that was not possible. Therefore, I speak with some experience on the matter.
The ISC has done a good job, and I am pleased with what is happening, but it is not likely that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary or my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will change the position in the near future. I have no doubt that at some stage there will be a Select Committee, and when it comes into existence it is extremely unlikely that my hon. Friend, or anyone else, will say that we should revert to the ISC as it stands now.
§ Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)
It is always interesting to follow the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). To adopt a phrase that that hon. Gentleman used, I thought that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) had a point of a kind, and that it was a pity he did not acknowledge that.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a relatively brief contribution to this important debate. I join with others who have recognised the significance of the 507 availability to the House of an opportunity to express its views on the workings of the security and intelligence agencies. The work that they do is vital for the well-being of our country, and I begin by paying tribute to the agencies and the way in which they perform their duties.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) said, reports, debates and press coverage inevitably tend to concentrate on those few occasions when things go wrong. There is much less coverage on the many more occasions when things go right, often spectacularly so, and as a result of resourceful, relentless and extremely diligent work that the agencies conduct on our behalf. We are greatly in their debt.
I do not believe that occasional lapses, even serious lapses, from the high standards that the agencies rightly set themselves should be allowed to obscure that important and central fact. In paying that tribute, I am happy to associate myself with the remarks of the Home Secretary and others about Sir Stephen Lander. I add my congratulations to those that have already been expressed, and warmly welcome the Home Secretary's announcement that his term of office is to be extended.
I also pay tribute to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which was set up by the previous Government. The present Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater, has been its Chairman from its inception. It has won universal respect, and that has a great deal to do with the way in which my right hon. Friend has chaired it. It has worked remarkably well, and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so for a long time to come.
I am also glad to have the opportunity to endorse the Home Secretary's tribute to Lord Nolan and Lord Justice Stuart-Smith for the oversight work for which they were the responsible commissioners. The right hon. Gentleman was right. I agree with everything that he said about the work that they have done.
I should like to say a few words about the Committee's report on Mitrokhin and then make some suggestions for the Committee's future programme. The fact that Mitrokhin confided in the Secret Intelligence Service, came to this country and provided such copious and vital information was, of course, a consequence of his personal bravery and courage, to which tribute has already rightly been paid, but it was also an outstanding coup for the Secret Intelligence Service. It was a remarkable operation, and none of the concerns that have arisen about subsequent events and the way in which certain information was handled should be allowed to cloud in any way the brilliance of that achievement.
As the Committee's report sets out, when I was Home Secretary I was not told about Mrs. Norwood. I think that I should have been told. Although the decision whether she should be prosecuted would have been for the Law Officers, I would have been entitled to be consulted about that decision. In the event, neither the Law Officers nor I were told. Clearly we should have been. I hope that lessons will be learned from that, and I am sure that they will.
I listened with interest to the earlier exchanges between my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and the Home Secretary. I would simply say—I am glad that the Home Secretary is in his place to hear me say it—that I think that he was 508 absolutely right to draw the distinction that he did between the culpability of Ministers and the culpability of their Departments. I would simply add, as gently as I can, that he was not quite as ready to make that distinction when he was in Opposition. I shall say no more about it than that.
As for the future work of the Committee, I am delighted that it has set out in the annual report itsintention to pursue the co-ordination between the Agencies and the law enforcement organisations in fighting serious organised crime, in particularly the Agencies work conducted overseas.The involvement of the agencies in fighting serious organised crime began when I was Home Secretary, and I attached great importance to it. I have absolutely no doubt that the agencies have an enormous contribution to make.
I took particular steps to engage the agencies in proactive work, particularly in relation to the international traffic in drugs. It is well known that many drugs cartels are extremely sophisticated organisations, with resources that dwarf those available to many sovereign states and Governments. Only by the most determined employment of all means available can the countries whose populations suffer grievously from that evil trade hope to make an impact on it.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked some thoughtful questions about whether we can make a big difference to the trade and why, if we can, we do not devote more resources to the fight. I believe that we can make a significant impact on the trade if we take our efforts seriously and devote the required resources. I hope that the Committee will pursue its inquiries into how action is working out in practice. I note from paragraph 68 of the report that the Committee is not at present confident that all that could be done is being done. I hope that the Committee will pursue that point and that the Government will take the report very seriously.
I hope that the Committee's interest in better co-ordination will not be limited to the work of the agencies in relation to serious organised crime. There is always a danger of duplication and a lack of co-ordination between the various agencies. It is essential that the utmost vigilance is exercised in order to minimise that danger. The Committee could have an important role in helping to achieve that.
Finally, I want to say a word about an aspect of the work of the agencies that seems to me to be of absolutely crucial significance. It is well known, although obviously there are constraints about what can be said in public on the matter, that the close co-operation that has taken place over the years between the intelligence agencies of the United Kingdom and those of other English-speaking countries—particularly those of the United States of America—has been of inestimable value to all concerned. Those have probably been among the most fruitful working relationships that have ever occurred between different countries.
Today is not the day for an extensive debate on all the implications of the Government's determination to press ahead with the European defence initiative. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised that matter 509 yesterday, quoting the comments of the French Minister responsible for European affairs, who said last week in connection with defence policy:
We don't agree with the "Americanisation" of the world … we are saying that together we can build a new superpower … and its name will be Europe.That is just one of a number of recent statements by highly placed members of the French Government that have contained more than a tinge of anti-Americanism. If, instead of continuing to be a partner of the United States of America, Europe sets about becoming its rival, will that not place great strain on a relationship that has been of so much benefit to this country, to the United States, to Europe and to the world as a whole? Will not those strains be particularly severe in intelligence, in which, so far as this country is concerned, the relationship is perhaps even closer than in any other field?
The Government have consistently sought to brush off any such concerns, but I believe that real issues exist that merit the closest scrutiny. I hope that the Committee will feel able, within its remit, to pursue those matters to ensure that all the implications of the Government's actions are properly considered.
§ 4.5 pm
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I shall not pursue the route taken by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), but I remind him of a visit made to America by him, me and others last year, during which the matters that he just raised were discussed. If I recall correctly the conversations that took place, the Americans were not as concerned as he would have us understand them to be. Following the problems that arose during the war in the former Yugoslavia, the American view was that we needed to build a European pillar and to take on greater responsibilities. That is precisely what we are doing. The right hon. and learned Gentleman appeared to dismiss comments made to us on that visit.
§ Mr. Howard
I do not wish to turn the debate into a private argument of recollection about what was said during our visit to the United States. I am sure, however, that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the discretion with which concerns expressed during that visit were put forward. Since that visit, more than a year ago, matters have proceeded apace on the development of a European defence initiative outside the framework of NATO. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would be perfectly possible—indeed, desirable—for enhanced European co-operation on defence to occur, and for the pillar to which he referred to be set up, within NATO. That, however, is not what is being envisaged.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I note no detectable difference between the position today and that outlined last year. I do not want to go too far down that route now.
This will probably be my last opportunity to speak on this matter. For reasons of ill health, I shall retire next year, and, if the delay in holding the next debate is similar to that for this one, this will definitely be my last chance. For that reason, I wish to reflect on my experience on the Intelligence and Security Committee. I shall pay some 510 tributes, but shall also make some slight criticism of the current structure. I concur with much of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), the Chairman of the ISC, would agree that the Committee is among those best attended by parliamentarians. He may take the view that it would sometimes have been better if had not been so well attended. The Committee holds vigorous debates within its structure, and it is not all plain sailing with everyone agreeing. We vigorously debate issues relating to the services, and there are differences of opinion. We leave the Committee agreed, however, because a common strand unites us—our belief in the task that we have undertaken and in the excellent service provided by the agencies.
Before I speak about the structure, I pay my personal tribute to all the people whom I have met over the years who are involved in front-line activities. Yes, we do meet people in the services—although we do not know who they are, so that we are not compromised. We must pay great tribute to the bravery of many of those people.
We met Mitrokhin. He is a man of considerable courage. I believe that what he did was done for his country. He acted in the belief that people in the former Soviet Union should, at some time in the future, have the opportunity of reading what he said. He set out the truth as he saw it and, one day, will be one of the great figures in the new nation that is being created within the former Soviet Union.
I want to say a little about how the Committee works, because I am often asked "Does this structure work?". Yes, it works. It holds the system to account. There are problems, but the role of the Committee is changing. The process of accountability is constantly increasing and developing. The way that the Committee operates at the end of one year is very different from its operation at the end of the previous year. There are reasons for that.
Within the agencies, there is a recognition of the need for greater accountability. I am sure that our arguments in Parliament were just as vigorously pursued in the agencies when they considered the changes that took place in the early 1990s. The highly charged response of the media to the allegations of Shayler and Tomlinson have also exerted some pressure on the process of accountability.
There is a new generation of young people in the agencies. Perhaps their values are different from those of people who have been members of the agencies for many decades. When we meet such young people, I am very conscious that they are aware of the role of parliamentarians. They see the role of Parliament positively. In many ways, they see a partnership between the heads of the institutions that they represent and the membership of the Committee. The attitude of people in the agencies—especially young people—is extremely healthy and helpful.
The agencies are beginning to realise that it is better to have us on their side. At times, the arguments that they want to have—certainly on finance—are, in essence, political. The arguments are about priorities. The agencies will have noticed that some of the comments that they made to us about the need for additional resources—not generally, but in particular areas—were picked up in the report.
511 The report—unlike that of many Select Committees—is written in great part by members of the Committee. Often, Committee reports are written by the Committee clerk and subject to amendment by its members. We should be open about that fact. That is the reality for many Select Committees, although that does not detract from my general view as to the need for Select Committee status.
The agencies have learned to trust Members of Parliament. My colleagues and I have signed the Official Secrets Act—but it is more than that. When people in the agencies discuss their business with us, they need to know that our commitment is a little more than mere compliance with the legislation. They need to know that we believe that the ring of secrecy must be in place to safeguard their interests. I hope that, over the years, they have learned that the secrets of the state are just as safe with politicians as with people in the agencies.
There have been difficulties—they know that. If they have felt under pressure during questioning from the Committee, they should realise that we were only exercising our right to hold them to account. That is what the process is about; we are helping them in their task.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis
I agree with the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Surely, he is not saying that all politicians can be trusted with a blank cheque for access to all the secrets of the agencies. In the Mitrokhin archive itself, two now-deceased politicians—Tom Driberg and Raymond Fletcher—were named as agents of a foreign power. What would have happened if they had accidentally been appointed to an ISC? There must be some protection.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
There is protection. The Whips nominate and the Prime Minister appoints. Therein lies the protection for which the hon. Gentleman calls.
Another reason why change is going on and why the system is so important is that there is an international movement under way in terms of accountability—the right hon. Member for Bridgwater made some allusion to that. Our system is not unique. It exists in various forms in countries throughout the world. In America, it is extremely advanced, and less advanced in some parts of Europe. Without breaching the Official Secrets Act, I shall tell hon. Members of a particular incident that I shall always remember after I have left the House.
In a former eastern European satellite state, I attended a dinner with a committee that mirrored the British ISC. Around the table, monitoring their country's security services, were people who, during the dark years of east European and Russian fascism, had been imprisoned for five, 10 or 15 years. One man, who is now the chairman of his country's committee, spent 12 years in prison. The work that he is doing must have been unimaginable to him then. That is the sea change that is taking place internationally—as such committees are set up to carry out a vitally important task.
Those committees are all going down a single road—the British system. Within 20 years they will all arrive—they will have created a system that mirrors the American one. The American system is the best. We are told that it leaks, but when one talks to people who work in those committees or who monitor them—certainly in Congress and in the Senate—they say that the system is leak-proof.
512 None the less, people in the congressional and senatorial system have access to almost every secret of the state and are made aware, in advance and in great detail, of operations carried out by their intelligence services. That is unimaginable in the United Kingdom. If we raise such ideas in our Committee, there is great resistance to them in the services themselves. However, I say to people in the services that that system will come here and that it will work. It works in America, so that agenda is inevitable.
The march of history will, I am sure, underwrite precisely what I have said today. The arguments about whether the ISC is a Select Committee will simply be cast aside by history. The process is inevitable; it will happen. My hon. Friend the Minister may resist a little today, but the word "now" in the Government's response was fought over and it indicates the way in which we are going. I say to hon. Members, "Just watch this space." and I say to members of the agencies, "Please do not resist."
Although the ISC reports to the House to account for itself, it is essentially a system of extra-parliamentary accountability, and I do not accept that such a system is fully credible. Yes, it is credible, but not fully credible.
I read with interest the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and the other members of the Committee on that excellent report. It addressed all the issues that I have addressed over the years. I also pay tribute to those friends on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs who support the view that I have expressed today. However, they have not yet decided to produce a report to set out their views, because, as I understand it, they are in a minority at present.
I also pay tribute to the work of the highly important Liaison Committee for its excellent report. It is the most senior Committee of parliamentarians, which comprises all the Chairmen of the Select Committees. It drew up a resolution that states that it believes that the issue of a Select Committee will not go away. Its report says that it will return to it. That agenda will not disappear.
§ Dr. Godman
My hon. Friend referred to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I remind him that its report on the Sierra Leone affair recommends that the Foreign Office should show a mature attitudetowards controlled access for the Foreign Affairs Committee to appropriate intelligence material and to witnesses from the Secret Intelligence Service.Needless to say, the Foreign Office's response rejected that sensible recommendation.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I understand my hon. Friend's concern. I do not want to show any disloyalty to my Committee but, in the structure that I want established, it would not be necessary for the Foreign Affairs Committee to carry out investigations in the way that he suggests. A parliamentary Committee—the Intelligence and Security Committee—would carry out such inquiries and it would be able to transfer information across the parliamentary Select Committee system to other Committees provided that it had the approval of the Prime Minister and resolutions gave it permission to do so.
The reasons for Select Committee status were set out in—if I may say so—my modest contribution to a debate at column 617 on 2 November 1998 in which I outlined 513 the mechanics of my proposed system. I hope that those with an academic interest in the subject will take the opportunity of referring to that modest contribution. My speech centred on the ability to refer matters to other Select Committees; the power of Parliament to call for persons and papers, an issue on which I am not able to go into detail today; the power to take evidence on oath, a power that Parliamentary Committees have and that the Standards and Privileges Committee exercises occasionally; the power to offer the defence of privilege to statements given by our witnesses, a matter that has still not been satisfactorily resolved; and the greatest power of all, which is the power to hold witnesses in contempt if they mislead Members of Parliament when giving evidence.
The latter is the ultimate power. I do not believe that we are being misled, but we should have the power to hold people in contempt if we are misled. That would signal to the outside world that we will not be misled, because members of the agencies will know that they will be held in contempt if what they say is subsequently found to be untrue. I do not question what the witnesses say, but we must have such a failsafe arrangement.
We have been told—we have heard it again today—that legislation would be required to implement my proposal. Let me make it absolutely clear. That is nonsense. Legislation is not required; all that is required is a resolution of the House of Commons. That is not my view, but that of the Clerks when I approached them two years ago to check my analysis of the changes that would be required.
Safeguards would be needed, and I know that hon. Members have expressed their concerns. Some argue that no way can be found to restructure the practices and procedures of the Select Committee so as to ensure Executive influence for reasons of national security over material that it may seek to publish. That is simply untrue. A resolution of the House could require that the Committee sought the approval of the appropriate agency before reporting to the House. The resolution could further provide that in the event that a dispute arose between the agency and the Committee over the publication of information or evidence in a report to the House, the matter of the dispute could be referred to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his decision and the Committee could be required to comply with his decision.
If, in unforseen circumstances, the Committee or any member of it were to threaten to breach the Committee's rules of procedure as approved by the House, it would always be open to the Leader of the House, on the instruction of the Prime Minister, to dissolve the entire Committee or remove any member of it on a resolution tabled on one day and that took effect the next.
We are told that such a Committee could not be prevented from taking evidence in public session if that were the wish of the Committee. A resolution of the House could introduce a general prohibition on the Select Committee taking evidence in public session. A resolution of the House could introduce a general prohibition on the Select Committee publishing reports, and it could further place a requirement on the Committee to seek the 514 permission of the appropriate agency, and the Prime Minister in conditions of dispute, if it wished to publish a report.
There is no reason that the resolution of the House should not stipulate the procedure to be used in the publication of reports. It could require the Committee to publish its reports subject to sidelining by the Prime Minister for reasons of national security, as currently happens.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The hon. Gentleman obviously did not hear me when I said that hon. Members should read my modest contribution of 2 November 1998. In it, he will see the answer to the question that he has just asked.
I have referred to some of the changes and some of the differences, but there are many powers that the ISC does not have which would rest with a new Select Committee.
§ Mr. Winnick
With respect to the Opposition Members who are present now and who were around at the time of the original debate, I cannot recall any of them advocating any sort of parliamentary oversight for the security services. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) points at himself, so perhaps he did so, but that makes him the exception. Almost no Conservative Member that I can recall stood up and advocated such oversight.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
In fact, we do have support on the Opposition Benches—there are some Conservative Members who feel strongly about these matters, but they are not present in the Chamber today.
As I said, my last speech on this subject before my retirement gives me my only chance to raise certain controversial issues, one of which is the general principle of the treatment of whistleblowers. Every organisation has aggrieved people—we even have them here in the House of Commons. Wherever people congregate to work, there will be some who have problems and grievances. In most organisations, there are established routes for dealing with those grievances and I wish to explore those available within the services for which we have some monitoring responsibility.
If a person within the services generally has a grievance, he can go to his trade union or staff association, depending on which service he works in. He can go to line management within the organisation at progressively more senior levels, depending on the response he receives. In the services, he can go to his staff counsellor, who has been given the powers to deal with certain problems that might arise. I suppose, in extreme circumstances, if that individual still feels that his argument is not being heeded, he can go to the Cabinet Secretary and argue the case there. There is also a system of employment tribunals that has been recommended by the Committee. We await the details, in the absence of the regulations mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater; we have expressed our concerns about the delay, but the new structure is being set up.
515 What happens if, even at that stage, having gone through all those processes, a person who is grieving feels that he is not being listened to? Recent experience has drawn our attention to the fact that people in those circumstances tend to move abroad, even though, in doing so, they apparently break the law. They feel that their voice can be heard only from outside the United Kingdom. The problem that then arises is that when people say that they should not be prosecuted, they misunderstand the response that the state must make in such circumstances: the idea that the services can ignore the breaking of the law is preposterous; the state has to respond in one way or another, depending on the circumstances.
In such conditions, can complainants who remain dissatisfied seek redress by some other route? I cannot say that the ISC should receive and deal with complaints, as that is not within our remit as currently defined and set down in the law. It is clear that the ISC is not a vehicle to be used as a receptacle for complaints. The question remains, therefore, what can complainants do if all else fails?
I wonder whether they can approach a Member of Parliament to find a solution to their problem. As we all know, there are Members of Parliament who specialise in such matters. It may well be that a whistleblower will choose to go to his Member of Parliament and set out his case—hopefully, without breaching the Official Secrets Acts, which he should avoid doing at all costs. Even if he did breach the Acts during the course of the conversation, if it could be shown that he did so without malevolence and not in a deliberate attempt to bring matters into the public domain, it strikes me as improbable that the prosecuting authorities would want to prosecute—although that is a matter for their judgment.
I would never invite people to go to their Member of Parliament and break the law by spilling the beans, even as a last resort. None the less, people who feel such a strong grievance that they are impelled to act in a way that I personally would regard as thoroughly irresponsible might consider going to their Member of Parliament before acting.
It has been an honour for me to serve on the Intelligence and Security Committee. I always used to say that my most enjoyable experience was serving on the Public Accounts Committee for 11 years, but the ISC has proved a wonderful experience. The comradeship among the membership, despite our minor disputes, has been first class and we have worked together extremely well. To those outside who wonder about the structure, I repeat: the structure needs reforms, but it does work—it does work.
§ Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). I strongly agree that our shared experiences of the past six years are far better than the membership of any Select Committee could have been, and I am glad that he has become a convert.
My colleagues on the Intelligence and Security Committee have picked most of the plums out of the reports that we have debated, so I shall content myself with addressing two issues. In connection with both, I shall draw on my experience as a member of the Select Committee on Defence for 12 years; for six of those years, I had the honour of being its Chairman.
516 The first issue is financial oversight. The Chairman of the ISC, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) have said that our Committee is in the process of overseeing some extremely expensive projects. That is always a difficult task for parliamentarians, because, by and large, we are not involved in making the decisions that set the projects in train. My experience on the Defence Committee related to the Trident project—an enormous project, 10 times larger than the GCHQ project, which is itself large. The Defence Committee examined that project every year for 11 years, and I can state that such constant and repeated scrutiny makes a difference to the way in which Ministers and officials make decisions on long-term projects.
I can speak only for myself, but I believe that my colleagues on the ISC will agree that, during the coming four or five years of the GCHQ project, it must be made absolutely clear to officials at GCHQ, the Foreign Office and the Treasury—and anywhere else that that large project touches—that we shall be watching, we shall return to it again and again, and we shall report on it as often as we feel necessary. A fundamental part of any oversight Committee's duty is to ensure that taxpayers' money is spent effectively and well.
We must also ensure that the services involved in the project are able to maintain their vital efficiency during transition periods resulting from huge advances in technology. The speed of that technological advance is one of the most difficult problems that they have to cope with. One can start to put in place a proposed IT system but, six months later, someone will have thought of something better, so it will be out of date. If one is on a fixed-price contract, it will cost more to change the system. We accept that and, no doubt, allowances must be made for it.
I do not want to go into details as we are not ready to report, but I am sure that the Minister will not be surprised to learn that the matter will be a major feature of the Committee's annual report this year. Things have already gone wrong as a result of lack of skill in managing a project of that size, and that needs to be taken into account. Lessons must be learned very fast indeed to ensure that a bad situation—which, I believe, we are in at the moment—does not become worse.
Until this afternoon, I thought that I carried with me all members of the Committee bar one. Now, however, I shall have to do a little more work before saying that again. Consequently, I speak entirely for myself on the question of a Select Committee. I was a member of one Select Committee for 12 years and know the limitations of such a Committee. I was also a member of a Select Committee that dealt with extremely sensitive matters. Indeed, those matters were probably more sensitive than those handled by any other Select Committee, as we were right into the nuclear business, the deterrent business and some of the most secret weapons development business. We had a constant battle to be told what we needed to know. Neither of those who advocates establishing a Select Committee has mentioned that.
It is not a question of being in a position to know everything. Indeed, it is quite wrong that anybody should be in such a position. However, one needs to know about secret, delicate and confidential matters before one is told about them. The hon. Member for Workington 517 (Mr. Campbell-Savours) advocated the American system. However, the Americans know far more than they need to, which is why they have leaks.
§ Mr. Mates
Leaks from members. A member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the House of Representatives, for example, was thrown off it for leaking. That has not happened in the Intelligence and Security Committee, and I pray that it never will. We are in a position in which we are told everything that we need to know. We sometimes have to struggle to get that information, but that is part of the constructive tension which, in fact, is getting much better, as we are becoming more and more trusted as a result of not leaking.
If, to be dogmatic, we were to say that the Committee should not be different from any other in the House of Commons and should be a Select Committee—with all the reservations mentioned by the hon. Member for Workington which, in fact, is why the Intelligence and Security Committee is different—would we be able to oversee the intelligence services better? Frankly, I do not believe that we would. Such a Committee would be less good, as we would have to rebuild the whole system of trust and there would be Committee members who were immune to removal, except by a vote in the House of Commons. The hon. Member for Workington knows perfectly well how difficult it would be to obtain that.
At the moment, there is a sanction on us: if I say something out of place—perhaps not here, but certainly outside—the Prime Minister can fire me tomorrow. That is right, as I am in a privileged position within a ring of secrecy in which some very important matters are discussed. The hon. Member for Workington said that dismissal from a Select Committee can take place the next day. However, that would not happen. I remind him of what happened when an attempt was made to remove a member of a Select Committee at the beginning of a Parliament. The matter was delayed until, eventually, it had to be debated.
That is the nature of this place, and it is the nature of troublemakers to make sure that such things happen. While I am on the subject of troublemakers, let me say that if people feel that the Committee is less independent than a Select Committee of the House of Commons, they should look at the hon. Member for Workington, who is on it. I was surprised when he was appointed.
§ Mr. Mates
I have been extremely happy to work with the hon. Gentleman over the past three years and am glad to pay tribute to him for his work, which has been conscientious and keen, with the exception of one or two bees buzzing around his bonnet that we have to keep swatting. However, the suggestion that a parliamentary Committee of which the hon. Gentleman is a member is the Executive's poodle does not bear close examination.
It has been acknowledged all round that the Committee is successful. The case for turning a Committee that is working well into a Select Committee is non-existent.
§ Mr. Tom King
As my hon. Friend knows, the Committee has drawn on international experience and 518 visited other countries. The problem that he has just described is precisely what happened in Australia. When the Australians first conceived the idea of an oversight committee, it was introduced in the federal Parliament. As a result of inadvertence or the Whips looking around quickly to see who was interested in intelligence, all those with such an interest were appointed to the Committee. However, they were what my right hon. Friend would call the bother squad. His point about trust is critical to this, as the Committee was frozen out of the process completely and the agencies made a point of telling it as little as they could about anything. In the event, the Parliament realised that the whole thing was a failure, and the committee collapsed and had to be reconstituted.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
What is the difference? In each case, the Whips select the Committee members.
§ Mr. Mates
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is trying to make his point or my point. His point is that, because the Intelligence and Security Committee is not a Select Committee, it is not independent. My point is that that makes no difference to selection, although there is some consultation.
§ Dr. Godman
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for showing his characteristic courtesy in giving way as he is winding up.
Conservative and Labour members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs are united in the view that there are occasions on which it might be appropriate to cross-examine witnesses from the intelligence agencies.
§ Mr. Mates
I fully accept that the Foreign Affairs Committee would like to do that. When I was Chairman of the Defence Committee, I would have liked to cross-examine the defence intelligence services. Of course, we all want to do that. However, is it right? I am firmly of the view that the existence of the Intelligence and Security Committee means that there is no need to do that, unless one wishes to argue that the Committee is not doing its job properly.
Of course, it would be nice for the Select Committee on Home Affairs to make such a cross-examination. Members of that Committee all have their own agendas. Indeed, the report on the ISC was cooked up three years ago by three hon. Members who are very proud of what 519 they have done. I, however, think that they are greatly mistaken. Writing and producing a report with an agenda means that one ends up saying some rather silly things. For example, the third report of the Home Affairs Committee states:the scrutiny committee—meaning the Intelligence and Security Committee—should be … clearly seen to be independent of the executive.For the past half hour, the hon. Member for Workington has shown how independent he is of the Executive. The report concludes:it is inevitable that the intelligence services will one day become accountable to Parliament.They are. That accountability is here now, today. With my colleagues, I am proud to be part of that excellent accountability process.
§ Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)
I should like to join hon. Members on both sides of the House in paying the highest tribute to people who work in the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service, who do a fantastic job for the country and risk their lives in doing it. I should also like to pay tribute to the Intelligence and Security Committee, on which I had the privilege of sitting in the last Parliament. Indeed, that was a great job, which I enjoyed enormously. The report on Mitrokhin is first class and a good extension of the Committee's activities.
I should like to talk about the structure and accountability of our security and intelligence services. Whatever we make of the Mitrokhin case—it must be said that the archive was an enormous wealth of intelligence—it raises serious concerns about the accountability of the services. The fact that the possible prosecution of Melita Norwood was never referred to Ministers and that the Law Officers were never consulted about whether she should be prosecuted should concern us all very much. We cannot second-guess the decision about whether Mrs. Norwood should have been prosecuted, and that is not the question, but that should have been a ministerial decision. We should be concerned that Ministers were not involved at key moments and learned of her existence only when it was probably too late to do anything. Those worries were also expressed by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron).
My concerns go further. One of the problems with the two main agencies and GCHQ is that they answer to two of the busiest Secretaries of State in any Government this country has had. I do not believe that the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary have the time to go into the detail needed to make sure that the agencies are held to account, and the fact that the Prime Minister is inevitably involved in the agencies does not mean that they are being held to account. Those are the most pressurised Ministers in the Cabinet of any Government.
Much has been made of what might happen to the Intelligence and Security Committee, and whether it might be beefed up in some way. I shall not get involved in the issue of a Select Committee, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). It is immaterial what parliamentary Committee oversees the services. The Intelligence and Security Committee is doing a first-class job, and I can 520 see no reason to believe that a Select Committee could do a better one. The problem, however, is that there are, inevitably, limits to what can be done by any parliamentary Committee.
That problem always comes down to operational matters. Are we to have a parliamentary Committee that gets involved in knowledge of operational matters in the agencies? I do not believe that that will ever happen. The people who want it to happen do not help their case by quoting the United States. The experiences of the United States have been somewhat bruising, and that makes it much less likely that Members of this House will be made privy to operational matters in the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service.
We need a new sense of accountability within Government. Since the days when I was on the Committee, I have advocated that we should have a Minister who is responsible for the two agencies and GCHQ. He should be at the level of Minister of State, operate within the Cabinet Office and answer directly to the Prime Minister. We would then have somebody in a unique position to judge value for money. That Minister would be completely in the ring of secrecy and would know precisely what the agencies were up to. He would be in a stronger position to make sure that resources were deployed in the right directions. He would be able to demonstrate to the Government as a whole whether they were getting value for money, and they would then be able to alter priorities.
There has been talk on both sides of the House about co-ordinating the activities of the two agencies. That could more easily be done if one Minister were responsible for them and able to bring them together. It might mean that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) would get a quicker response from the Government to his Committee's reports, and we might even have got an earlier debate.
That would only be the first step. The problems of the agencies are historical, and we can understand why we have ended up as we have. Before Christopher Andrew wrote about the Mitrokhin archives, he wrote an excellent book about the security services. He spelled out how the Security Service had been established and how the Secret Intelligence Service had its origins in naval intelligence, and so forth. We understand how we have arrived at our present position, but we have two agencies that we would not choose to set up if we started with a clean sheet of paper now.
It was understandable that we should have a home-based service and one based, and operating, abroad. However, we are continually saying that we live in a global marketplace, and communications have changed dramatically. The problems that the agencies are dealing with are international. Trade now works across the globe, and illicit trade is exactly the same. In the prosecution of the drugs trade it is now rather artificial to draw a line between people who operate in Bolivia, where the drugs are grown, or Colombia, where they are processed, and other people who deal with the drugs when they arrive in the United Kingdom and are distributed.
I am keen on the idea of a drugs tsar, but he should be somebody who emerges from one of the secret agencies and he should have total responsibility for pursuing drugs wherever they are and for being involved in the whole chain—from the growth of cocaine, for example, to its 521 distribution in this country. If we had such a person, we would cut down on duplication and allay the concerns of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), who is worried about the degree of co-ordination and about duplication.
Espionage and counter-espionage are among the many other activities that are undertaken by the agencies, and there is not as great a division between those activities as people might imagine; indeed there are tremendous crossovers between them. As a result of the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service, Gordievsky and Mitrokhin produced a mass of information that enabled the Security Service to prosecute people in this country. Many people are recruited as agents when they are in this country. We draw an artificial line between espionage and counterespionage, and I would like the two activities brought together under a single agency.
There is no line to be drawn between the agencies in dealing with terrorism because, almost invariably, terrorist acts executed in cities in this country are planned abroad. I should like to see a single agency dealing with terrorism. We must be careful not to continue the artificial division between home and abroad, when there is a web linking activities abroad to those in this country.
In 1994, under the previous Government, there was a great discussion of whether special branch or the Security Service should be responsible for dealing with terrorism in Great Britain. I confess that it did not worry me terribly who took control, as long as somebody did. As we now know, the Security Service came out on top, and we have seen a measurable improvement in our activities against Irish terrorism in this country. We can attribute an awful lot of that to the fact that those activities have been pulled together.
The tragedy is that, in an earlier period when Northern Ireland was more peaceful, we thought that it was a good idea to introduce police primacy, so the Royal Ulster Constabulary has a responsibility for intelligence in Northern Ireland. It would have been much better if Northern Ireland intelligence activities had been brought together under the Security Service.
We should seriously consider bringing both agencies and GCHQ together in a single service, underneath which people could be responsible for the main areas of activity. That would avoid duplication and we could hold someone responsible, which is extremely difficult to do now, for the subsidiaries that would emerge under a single service. I totally accept that enormous political problems would be involved. Normally, in any Cabinet, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary are quite big beasts—I am not sure how much that applies to the current ones—and vested interests would argue against such a change, but it should be seriously considered.
Those views were shared when I served on the Intelligence and Security Committee, certainly by Lord Gilbert. When he was persuaded to give up his seat—Dudley—and take a seat in the House of Lords, he was offered a ministerial position if Labour were elected in 1997. He was keen that his job should be as a Minister of State in the Cabinet Office, responsible for the security and intelligence services, but something went wrong. I envisage an episode of "Yes, Prime Minister" and 522 Lord Butler, as he now is, saying, "Very brave, Prime Minister." Lord Gilbert subsequently became Minister for Defence Procurement—a job that he had done 17 years earlier.
If the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service were reorganised, we should find that they operated much better. No business would be operated with such artificial divisions between home and abroad. We should carefully consider bringing the services together, and a start would be to have a Minister of State with responsibility for such matters in the Cabinet Office. If we went down that road, all our worries about duplication and overlap would disappear and we would have a much more efficient service in the areas that matter so much for the security and long-term strength of this country.
§ 5.2 pm
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
I begin with an apology for missing a small part of the Back-Bench contributions at the start of the debate for a reason which I cleared with Madam Speaker's Office in advance, but I apologise nevertheless. I think it almost presumptuous to intrude on a debate that has been dominated, from the Conservative Benches at least, by a raft of Privy Councillors and former Ministers; none the less, I shall give it my best shot.
This is one of those occasions when I think I perhaps made my most useful contribution before making my speech. To my surprise, I managed to secure from the Home Secretary a frank and unequivocal undertaking that, if and when the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), does what he said he would do, as stated in The Sunday Times on 11 June, and asksto see his MI5 file after discovering that the security service kept records on his case for 25 yearshe will be sent away with a flea in his ear. That is in a sense the second undertaking in a row, because, as some hon. Members might recall, my previous campaign was provoked by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, demanding a couple of years ago that all old MI5 files, including the one held on him, should be destroyed. After initiating a special debate on the subject, I secured the Home Secretary's agreement that the Public Record Office would be properly brought into the process. A satisfactory outcome has now been reached, whereby files of historical value will be preserved on a much greater scale.
The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who is sadly not in his place, paid eloquent tribute to Vasili Mitrokhin for what he did. Indeed, as we are talking about an intelligence triumph of which this huge book is only the tip, it must surely be recognised that 90 per cent. of the credit should go to Mr. Mitrokhin. The other 10 per cent.—an essential 10 per cent.—should be divided between MI6 and MI5 for getting him and his material safely out of Russia, processing and distributing it, and safeguarding its security so that the leads that it gave could be followed up as effectively around the world as has evidently been the case.
However, I am sure that the Security Service, in particular, did not like one aspect of the Mitrokhin affair—the emphasis that Mr. Mitrokhin rightly put on publication. I understand that Mr. Mitrokhin insisted that 523 if he were to allow the use of his material—and it remains his material—for intelligence purposes, it must be published to the world, for which I give him three hearty cheers, more hearty even than the plaudits that he has already rightly received during the debate. I have told the House on previous occasions of my concern about what I regard as the unnecessary cover-up culture involved in dealing with historical events on which the Security Service could easily afford to lift the curtain.
In the previous debate on the subject on 2 November 1998, I referred to the fact that Mosley's British Union of Fascists was funded by Mussolini. We now know that, as early as 1935, special branch and MI5 had verified that that was happening on a large scale. It should not have taken until late 1983 for the historical record to be set straight and for confirmation to be forthcoming from the Security Service archives.
Similarly, we know that the British Communist party—despite all its vehement denials year in, year out—was in the pay of the KGB and was funded at least from 1958 until at least 1979 by cash payments to Reuben Falber in this country from his KGB contact. Sums of up to £100,000 a year were involved—heaven knows what that would be worth today. We know that only because of the discoveries made in the archives in Moscow. If MI5 knew about it—I bet it did—it hung on to that secret material for a long time.
It is important to destroy that cover-up culture on historical matters because such dilemmas, debates and controversies often repeat themselves. When fighting front organisations for the communists in the post-war period, it would have been helpful to cite the example of front organisations for the fascists in the pre-war period having been funded in that way. It is also important as a deterrent. As Professor Christopher Andrew has said—although I am unsure whether it has been referred to in the debate—perhaps Mitrokhin's greatest achievement is the fact that no one who has ever been in contact with the KGB can be sure that sooner or later such deplorable behaviour will not come to light. That is a devastating blow to the Russian intelligence agency's reputation, which it will take decades to overcome, if it ever can.
Having said all that, I was a little disappointed—I should not be surprised if Mr. Mitrokhin himself was a little disappointed also—that this thick volume did not contain a larger number of revelations about spies in Britain. Indeed, when it was to be published, it was not intended to reveal the identity of Melita Norwood. She was identified only as Agent Hola or, as had been known for many years from the Venona transcripts, Agent Tina. Her identity became known only because of the sleuthing of David Rose, the BBC journalist who put together the film series "The Spying Game", of which more in a moment.
The problem is that the Security Service seems to take the view that unless and until a person is convicted in a court of law—no matter how guilty that person is of treachery, spying or acting as an agent of influence for a foreign and hostile power—that person's name must never be revealed, even if there are no security implications. I believe that if the evidence is strong enough, such an approach is fundamentally wrong and unjust. People in public life are often accused of all sorts of wrongdoing without being convicted in a court of law. The burden is on the accuser to prove his or her case, and the remedy of taking a libel action is there for the accused if the 524 accusation is false. I do not like the way decisions to conceal identities are made—sometimes for security reasons or as a bargain, but sometimes just to cover up embarrassment and so as not to rock the boat—because all too often people guilty of gross misconduct and treachery do not suffer even the punishment of having their deeds exposed to the contempt of their fellow countrymen.
I refer again to the excellent series "The Spying Game", and congratulate the BBC on that fine example of public service broadcasting. However, it had a slightly unfortunate aspect as it ran the exposure of a number of spies from different sources into a single collection. For example, Dr. Robin Pearson, the Hull lecturer, was exposed not by the Mitrokhin archive but by the Berlin Stasi archive, which has been available for some considerable time and was excellently researched by Dr. Anthony Glees, the academic who was the principal researcher for the relevant episodes of that series. Similarly, the identity of Professor Vic Allen, CND executive member, a Stasi agent in regular contact with East German intelligence who reported and spied on the anti-nuclear movement in order to make it even more helpful to Soviet foreign policy and military objectives than it was of its own volition, came out into the open only because of the revelations in the Stasi archive.
Some documents in that archive were not handwritten notes, valuable though those are, as in the case of Mitrokhin, but original documents such as receipts for the blood money that Dr. Pearson took from the East German intelligence agencies for his treachery, signed in his own hand. There should be no question of covering up the identities of those people, even if, for one technical or security reason or another, they are not to be prosecuted.
Eventually, I managed to secure a debate on the Berlin Stasi archive. However, I remain concerned that no proper examination of it was made until Dr. Glees went out there and made those discoveries for himself. Security Service operatives had been out there for a couple of days and took photographs of each other sitting on the toilet of Erich Mielke, the former intelligence boss. That was it, although there had been a Mitrokhin operative in reverse—Operation Rosewood—a few years earlier. The Americans succeeded in purchasing a vast quantity of Stasi material, which they made available to the British, just as we made the Mitrokhin material available to them. Nevertheless, there was no guarantee that everybody awaiting discovery in the original Berlin archive had been picked up in the archive sold to the Americans and passed on to us.
I want to cover two more points. The Home Secretary made a remark earlier, and I hope that no enthusiastic representative of his checking his contribution for Hansard will be tempted to alter it. He mentioned the threat from the Soviet Union then and the former Soviet Union now. He was right to make that remark, and I hope that it appears in the record tomorrow. There is still a threat from the former Soviet Union. This morning, I checked with the Clerk of the Defence Committee, on which I have the privilege to serve, whether it would be in order to refer to something that happened in a meeting yesterday between ourselves and representatives of the Russian Duma. He confirmed that the meeting was not held under Chatham house rules or off the record, but I shall not be too specific.
525 I was perturbed by the presentation given by a number of members of the delegation, with whom I shall enjoy sitting down for dinner this evening at the invitation of Madam Speaker, for which I am grateful. I hope that it is not withdrawn in the next hour and a half. One of the delegation's observations can be summarised only as a crude attempt to divide the United Kingdom from the United States by suggesting that we should all be terribly concerned about the way in which the United States tries to promote its own security interests at the cost of those of Europe and the United Kingdom. There were also appeals to the fact that we had fought on the same side against the Nazis. That was true from 1941–45; I am not sure that it would bear scrutiny for 1939–41.
There were attempts to balance the enormously restrained NATO military attacks in the Kosovo crisis with the sheer barbarism in Chechnya. Incidentally, who believes that the bomb explosions in Moscow were caused by Chechen terrorists, conveniently giving the Putin regime the excuse that they needed to go in and devastate their homeland? Many Kremlinologists of repute in this country do not believe that it was anything other than a provocation and a pretext for both electoral and tactical military reasons by the Russian special services.
There have been worrying developments. There has been a noted rise in anti-semitic attacks in Russia. There has been an attempt by President Putin to displace the rabbi who serves the Russian-Jewish community with an extreme fundamentalist rabbi, who would be unrepresentative. There has been the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky, which means the silencing of an independent voice that is critical of the regime, and this also carries overtones of anti-semitism.
During the election campaign, the one person, Grigori Yavlinski, who might have made it necessary for President Putin to go into a run-off ballot, was attacked on official television for being supported by "foreigners, Jews and homosexuals". The one thing that can be said about the situation in Russia is that although the Putin project is to recreate the power structures of the communists, it is to do it without Marxist ideology. The aim is to restore a powerful state and eventually to build a new version of the former USSR where there is political and military dominance, without the economic burdens of direct administration. That is an advantage because it does not involve the ideology that carries the appeal into other countries that communism used to have.
If the Home Secretary now recognises that there is still a threat from Russia, which we hope to get along with much better in the future than we did in the past, it is only right for him to reverse a decision, which I have been asking him repeatedly to do, to dismantle what was for many years the most important branch of the Security Service, namely F branch, which dealt with subversion. According to the third edition of the glossy booklet entitled "MI5 The Security Service", theSecurity Service currently has no investigations in this area—that is, the area of subversion. It continues:During the financial year 1997/1998 only 0.3 per cent. of the Service's resources were allocated to the remnants of this work, predominantly to pay the pensions of retired agents.It is not satisfactory that a country that still faces threats and that could still be subject to subversion should have dismantled the section of its Security Service that deals 526 with subversion. I have been grateful to the Home Secretary for what he has done in preserving files. I have been grateful to him also for what he has said today about preserving the ability of the Security Service not to have Members demanding access to their own files. I would be even more grateful to him if he would restore the one missing element of the jigsaw, which is the anti-subversion apparatus of MI5.
§ Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)
First, I apologise to the House for not being present for the opening speeches, for a reason that I conveyed to Madam Speaker yesterday. It involved significant constituency activities, with a visit from leading French politicians and the signing of an accord in relation to the Newhaven port, which is of key importance to my constituents.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I have listened with considerable interest to Members' speeches. I listened with, I hope, a learning mode in place. In many instances, those who have spoken are members of the Intelligence and Security Committee. They have an insight which I do not.
I hope to bring an outside view to the debate—that is, one from outside the Committee—and perhaps in one sense a more mainstream view of Members of this place than the privileged view which others have expressed this afternoon. I have that much in common, if perhaps nothing much else, with the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), other than an interest in these matters.
There is a need to strike a balance between the proper secrecy procedures that are in place within our security services and the need for democratic accountability. The key question is how that balance is struck. In an answer to me, the Home Secretary said:I accept that there should be … openness in the work of the Security Service, provided it does not endanger national security in any way.—[Official Report, 30 March 1998; Vol. 309, c. 894.]That seems to be a fair and proper description of how the Government should be approaching these matters.
I shall argue that perhaps we can go a little further a little faster in tilting the balance towards accountability without endangering national security in any way. I pay tribute to the steps that were taken by the previous Government under the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and that have been taken by the present Government to move slowly—sometimes painfully slowly—towards a more open and accountable system, which in my view has not endangered national security. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that further steps can be taken without endangering national security.
Not long ago, we were not even told that MI5 and MI6 existed. We started that far back. Now we have operations put on a legislative footing. We have the Intelligence and Security Committee and, as someone outside that Committee, I have formed the opinion that it does a good job.
I have confidence in the capabilities and the integrity of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who chairs that Committee. I have absolute confidence, of course, in my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who has been in the House since 1973, and in other hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). 527 They bring not only experience but a commitment to democracy and civil liberties, which are important in examining the work of the intelligence and security services.
I pay tribute to the steps that have been taken, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East noted, by the Home Secretary in small ways to open matters up, and by the Foreign Secretary, who was kind enough to publish the Zinoviev letters in response to a written question of mine. We now have the annual debate in Parliament. Those are all worthwhile steps, but we can go further.
I shall deal first with the subject of files, to which the hon. Member for New Forest, East referred. It is right that there is now independent scrutiny by officials of the Public Record Office. I called for that in November 1998. However, we are told in paragraph 79 of the Committee's annual report that 3,000 files were destroyed in the time between the decision to involve independent scrutiny being taken, and that scrutiny kicking in.
One wonders what was in those files. It must have been a fast operation to destroy them before the scrutiny process began. A fair-minded person must suppose that the files contained information that might cause embarrassment to the security services and that they might, with hindsight, regret compiling them.
I entirely concur with the future programme of work set out in the report with regard to files. I refer to paragraph 89 on page 36, which refers to three issues relating to personal files. The first iswhether individuals should have rights in connection with the destruction or otherwise of any file held on them and protections against having inaccurate information gathered, stored and used against individuals' interests.That is a crucial issue for the Committee to pursue. It is a principle on which both the present Government and the previous one acted by introducing data protection in other respects. That seems consistent and should apply to material held by the security services.
There was speculation in the newspapers a while ago that a file was held on the Home Secretary and the then Minister without Portfolio, the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It is difficult to imagine anyone who is less of a security risk than the Home Secretary—[Interruption.] From where I am standing, the right hon. Gentleman seems to be a fully paid-up member of the establishment. If files are held on such people, perhaps the security services have been a little over-enthusiastic in their information-gathering activities.
It is right that if a file has been held on the Home Secretary, or anyone else, which the security services deem it no longer operationally necessary to retain—that is a proper consideration—why should not that person have access to the file and know what was written about him or her? Otherwise, something that may have been written by a very junior official a long time ago could stay on someone's record for ever, which seems wrong. The record may be destroyed, but the memory remains.
People must have the right to challenge that information when the security services consider that the file no longer needs to be kept for operational reasons. I hope that the Committee will press for that.
The second issue in the Committee's future programme of work isthe position under future/current data protection legislation,528 which is clearly linked to the first issue and to the third, which isimplications of the European Convention on Human Rights.I commend the Committee for that programme of work on files, and I hope that progress is made.
On 29 July 1998 the Home Secretary, who I am pleased to see has returned to the Chamber, made a long, full and helpful statement about personal files. He said that there were 13,000 active files on United Kingdom citizens, and it would be interesting to know whether there is an up-to-date figure. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary will be able to tell us; if not, I would be happy to table a question after the debate. The Home Secretary also said that 110,000 files were destroyed or earmarked for destruction. It is important to establish whether those earmarked for destruction have been destroyed, or whether they are lying around somewhere.
I refer Ministers to paragraph 47 of the 1997–98 report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which expressed anxiety about the age cut-off point. On the 110,000 files, it states:We note however that reviewing in this respect is currently restricted to files on individuals who are over 55 years old. This means that there may be files on individuals under the age of 55 because they joined an organisation which was categorised as subversive possibly 20 years ago and these files may still be used for vetting and other purposes. However, no such files would be open on someone who joined the same organisation today.It also says that the Committee will consider that further. I do not know whether the Committee has done that, but it is an important point.
Since being elected to Parliament, I have tabled several written questions on the interception of communications. I note with interest and perhaps a little anxiety that the number of warrants issued each year has continued to increase. In July 1998, Lord Nolan said:I am satisfied that the substantial increase in interception is due to the continuing incidence of large-scale crime coupled with the greater interception facilities available to the various agencies.That clearly explains why the number of interceptions has increased.
I want to consider Lord Nolan's second reason: the greater interception facilities available. That means that technology is progressing apace and that it is now possible to intercept more accurately and perhaps more speedily than hitherto. There is therefore a greater tendency—or, at least, temptation—for the security agencies, including the police, to use interception facilities. That may be useful in detecting large-scale crime. I am sure that we are all grateful if the use of the facilities has facilitated the detection of large-scale crime and the arrest and prosecution of those responsible.
§ Mr. Mates
The advance of technology is double edged. It makes intercepting old technology easier, but it is much harder to intercept digital technology, which an increasing number of criminals and terrorists use. Any increase in numbers is related not to the ease of interception, which is in many ways more difficult, but to the urgency of the cases. Criminals are now so sophisticated; for example, they use mobile telephones and satellite phones to do their deadly deeds. We must pick them up.
§ Mr. Baker
I am grateful for that intervention and I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. It poses a problem for 529 those of us who are committed to accountability and democracy. There is a difficult balance to strike between ensuring that our security services are given the opportunity to detect crime, and maintaining proper civil liberties. I do not have the answer, but the question concerns me as an ordinary Member of Parliament.
In the spirit of my initial remarks to the effect that more information could be made available without endangering national security, I ask the Home Secretary whether more information could be provided on interceptions for which warrants have been granted. We are given information about the number of warrants, but not about the number of individuals or telephone lines that may be subject to interception. That extra information would not endanger national security, and it might help Members of Parliament and others to build up a picture of the activities of the security services. Could the provision of such information, which is not person-specific, be considered as part of the Government's review of the need to make the security services more accountable to Parliament and to the population generally?
Especially in the light of the increasing number of warrants that are being issued, or for which permission has been granted, I am worried about the level of authorisation required for the issuing of such warrants, and in particular, the powers that are winding their way through Parliament under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. When a body or person wishes to interfere with the liberty or privacy of another person, it is important for there to be some external check on the process; otherwise there is surely potential for corruption.
Hitherto, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary have signed warrants. That is entirely right. The Home Secretary has assured me in written parliamentary answers that he takes the matter very seriously and has considered it properly before doing so, and I am sure that that is true. However, I am worried about what may happen if senior officials have, in some respects, authority that has previously been exercised by elected Members. I understand that that may happen under the Bill. As the Home Secretary probably knows, my party has proposed a greater use of circuit judges rather than a reliance on senior officials.
§ Mr. Straw
I can entirely refute the possibility, or even the idea, that in the context of the legal regime senior officials will act corruptly, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I see no prospect of that. The senior officials who deal with warrants do so with the utmost integrity. They, too, scrutinise applications with enormous care. The circumstances in which a senior official, rather than the Secretary of State, could authorise a warrant are significant, and can be circumscribed under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. Principally, they will arise only when a Secretary of State has already made a decision to intercept in respect of that target.
§ Mr. Baker
Let me make it clear that I have no evidence of any corruption on the part of any official. I do not impugn any official, nor have I any reason to do so. I am making the entirely philosophical point that if an organisation is controlling and monitoring itself, there is a potential for something to go wrong. I am always interested in any aspect of our work here involving 530 intrusion on someone's liberty or privacy, and I feel that there is a good reason for there to be an external check. That is the only point that I am making, but it was helpful to hear the Home Secretary's comments.
I am worried about the fact that, on occasion, information that conveys details about an individual, perhaps to a large degree, is not even subject to the warrant-seeking process. I understand that it is possible for information to be gleaned about telephone calls made by an individual without any requirement for warrants—for example, information about the number of calls made, the telephone numbers to which they are made, and how long the calls last. Such information can build up a picture of an individual's activities, even if the words spoken are not recorded. I understand that the same will shortly be possible with e-mails and other electronic communication; it will be possible to establish the sites visited, for how long they have been visited, and so on.
As I am not a member of the Committee, I hope that Ministers will allow me to raise the issue of the Government's policy on interceptions or monitoring of Members of Parliament—elected Members. This is really a constitutional issue. On 30 October 1997, a parliamentary answer given to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who is no longer present, confirmed that the Government's policy on the interception of Members' communications was as stated in 1966 by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Nothing had changed. The answer was that no interception would take place.
I ask, in a genuine spirit of seeking information from the Government, how that squares with the various reports that appear to point in the contrary direction—reports that have appeared intermittently, almost regularly, in our national newspapers, often in respected national newspapers.
The Sunday Times of 15 November 1998 said that, allegedly, MI5 warned the Prime Minister about the activities of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone). The Guardian reported in a front-page story on 22 October 1998:Potential cabinet Ministers and other members of the Government were vetted by MI5 at the last two general elections, it was officially admitted yesterday.The names of individuals who the intelligence agency considers security risks were passed to the Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Mates
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but it is important that we get this right. Vetting means positively looking at someone's security classification. The loose terminology of the newspaper simply means that the Security Service—probably the head of the Security Service—reported to the Prime Minister on any Members upon whom it had information of anything untoward. That does not mean that the Member's communications had been interfered with. It means that the Member had come to the notice of the Security Service. That is quite a different matter from vetting.
§ Mr. Baker
I understand that point entirely, but I was making a wider point. An article in The Mirror alleged— 531 I have no evidence for this; I quote just because of a desire for knowledge—that MI5 phone taps and checks were ordered on a particular Member of Parliament who was branded a blackmail risk.
I do not know whether that occurs or not, but it would be helpful to know to what extent there is interception of any communications, surveillance, vetting or anything else involving Members. What general rules apply? What parameters apply in those respects? That is the question that I am asking the Foreign Secretary to address in his winding-up speech. What are the parameters and limits to which gathering information about Members of Parliament can extend? I ask no more than that.
Also on accountability, another area in which there could be greater openness is the finances of the security services. On 15 December 1998, I asked the Prime Minister to publish the National Audit Office report into the new headquarters for MI5 and MI6, a matter that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to earlier. The answer from the Prime Minister was that disclosure would harm national security or defence.
That is contrary to paragraph 43 of the Intelligence and Security Committee report, which states:We were surprised that the reports had not been previously published, and the Committee believe that these NAO reports should be published. We believe that publication would not in any way prejudice national security or compromise commercial confidentialities.That is a conclusion with which I entirely agree. This is not about national security; it is about value for money and proper use of public funds—that is all. Whether there is a roof garden, or trees costing three times as much as they should, is not a matter of national security. It is a matter simply of whether the bill has been paid properly and whether there is proper accountability for funds.
The record shows that the budget for those buildings was about three and a half times overspent. Had there been more involvement and more openness about those issues, and perhaps more involvement by the Intelligence and Security Committee, that might not have happened. Further to that, what steps are being taken, and how open are the Government being in ensuring that the GCHQ building does not fall into the same trap as Thames house and Vauxhall cross?
As for openness about finances, I fail to see why the Government insist that they cannot publish a separate budget head for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. There is a separate budget head for MI5; it is in some of the booklets. It may look as if it is a secret, but it is in there somewhere. It is also included in the single intelligence vote.
What on earth is wrong with our knowing the total amount spent on MI6 or GCHQ, and even perhaps, without endangering national security, some sort of crude breakdown within that figure? In my view, the attitude is a throwback to the era of obsessive secrecy which should be over. I hope that the Government will look again at that in the months ahead.
I am not asking for radical change. I am grateful, in so far as I am aware of it, for the work that the security services do to protect us all. I am also grateful for the work of the Security and Intelligence Committee on behalf of parliamentarians, in so far as I can ascertain what it does from its reports and elsewhere, and I have confidence in its work. I believe that it has shown that it 532 can deal with security matters in a responsible way, and that Parliament and the security services can be more open about the work that they undertake without in any way endangering national security.
That may require a Select Committee, as hon. Members have argued this afternoon, or it may require rejigging the existing Committee. It will certainly involve more access to information from the Committee and more openness about advice to Ministers and the availability of such advice to members of the Committee. This is a relatively modest shopping list, but I hope that it is a sensible one and that the Government will respond accordingly when the Foreign Secretary replies to the debate.
§ Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)
As one would expect, we have had a very good debate. It has been serious, thoughtful, well-informed and devoid of the spirit of partisanship that sometimes prevails in this place. I have been in the Chamber for most of the debate, and much of it has been not so much about the exercise of the accountability which these relatively new arrangements still amount to, but about how we might extend that accountability. I shall say a little about that, but it is proper that at this stage we should devote our attention to exercising accountability rather than seeking constantly to extend it.
All the speeches have been well informed and serious and the House will have appreciated that. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) spoke with sanity and in a considered way. Let me also say that we all felt deeply for him in his recent sadness. We are very glad to have him here and to hear his sane voice.
I should also mention the speech by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). I am sorry that he is not in his place, but he has been here throughout nearly all the debate. He spoke of this being his last opportunity to speak in a debate on this topic, which suggests that he may know rather more about the date of the election than the Home Secretary or the Foreign Secretary.
§ Mr. Maude
I am grateful to have confirmation that the constitutional arrangements remain unchanged.
The hon. Member for Workington has been a remarkable parliamentarian—although not always a comfortable one from the point of view of those of us who served as Ministers under the previous Administration, or even current Ministers. However, as we undertake our task of holding the Executive to account, being comfortable is not always what we seek. We seek high principle, dedication, public service and acuity. The hon. Gentleman has all those qualities and I am glad to pay tribute to him. It is clear from the speeches of Committee members that there is an extraordinary degree of cohesion and friendship among them, which is important to the Committee's work.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who speaks with such authority on the subject, has undertaken a remarkable and important task as the Committee's first Chairman. It is one of unusual delicacy and sensitivity, in creating what must be almost by definition a unique form of scrutiny—something 533 accepted even by those who argue for change. Trust in the way in which that form of scrutiny and accountability operates is of the utmost importance. The personal authority, high integrity, wide experience and judgment that my right hon. Friend brings to leading that process—together with his ability to command real respect from all parts of the House—is crucial. I pay tribute to him for the way in which he has discharged an important and serious task.
There was a fascinating and somewhat theological discussion about whether the current arrangements should be changed, and the Committee transmute over time to some form of Select Committee. Everyone agrees that the current arrangements work extraordinarily well for something that is so new in—this cannot be repeated too often—an area of great delicacy and sensitivity. As the procedures continue to bed in, it is important that the public, the House and those within the agencies have confidence in their operation. I strongly support the view taken by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) and others that we should not consider a Select Committee structure. The existing system is good and we should concentrate on making it work well in exercising the accountability that comes with it rather than seeking, at this stage, to extend it.
The extraordinary process since the late 1980s of bringing the security and intelligence agencies, with their lack of public recognition, out of the darkness has been important in reassuring people of the essentially benign role that those agencies play. Creatures that exist totally in the dark can easily excite disproportionate fear and anxiety. Of course it is right for us to be vigilant about the agencies' role but we should exercise such vigilance against the background of our understanding that the agencies exist and operate as the servants of liberty, not its enemy.
Even before the existing arrangement, all the agencies were accountable to Ministers who were themselves democratically accountable. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) made an interesting suggestion about changing part of that accountability in future, which I am sure we will want to think about carefully. However, we should never forget that the security and intelligence agencies have always operated within some framework of accountability—albeit more limited than that which operates today.
All who have contributed to the debate have spoken about the work of the agencies themselves, and I endorse all that has been said, especially about the work of the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ, which are the agencies that fall within the portfolio that I shadow. We should recognise that the excellence of the SIS's work, and the height of its reputation, is not least among that unique set of international assets which gives Britain global reach and which should give Britain disproportionate influence in the world. I remember from my own close contact with the SIS, when I was a Foreign Office Minister 10 years ago, that we were not allowed to call it the SIS—we had to refer to it in a dark and mysterious way as "the friends across the river." That contact gave me a profound admiration for the men and women who comprise the service, and who demonstrate 534 dedication, public service, resourcefulness and—as many hon. Members have pointed out today—simple, raw courage.
Part of what those agencies provide for this country is the ability to help other friendly countries with intelligence input that they would otherwise lack. That gives this country greater influence which other, comparable countries simply do not have. To achieve that, the agencies need proper resources and commitment to their capability. They need continuity, which is crucial: after all, they operate in a world that is not notably safer since the end of the cold war. The cold war, born, as it was, out of oppression and totalitarianism, provided a dreadful stability for the most awful of reasons, and it is unequivocally good news that that has ended. However, it has not led to the world becoming more stable. It is, if anything, less stable and predictable, and more turbulent. The new world today holds greater opportunities for prosperity and peace, but there are myriad threats and risks.
A peace dividend has not been available in the sphere of intelligence, and rightly so. The big reduction in the need for intelligence in relation to the former Soviet Union has more than been taken up by the need to counter threats that are more immediate to civil society. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) talked about the need to counter organised crime, especially drug trafficking and illegal immigration—which has had dreadful effects, as we have seen this week. That is a crucial area of activity and it is right that a greater part of the resources of the agencies should be devoted to activities to counter proliferation and terrorism, and action to disrupt and investigate international crime.
The Mitrokhin affair has rightly been the subject of much discussion in this debate. I take this opportunity to applaud the work of the agencies in that case, especially that of the SIS. It is always the case that it is the things that go wrong that get the publicity and attention, but much goes right that is unapplauded. In the Mitrokhin case, however, we were able to see what was, by any standard, a remarkable piece of intelligence work with a huge dividend for this country and for our allies. I place on record the plaudits of the Opposition for the work that was done.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) mentioned that we should give credit not only to the agencies: much of the credit must go to Mr. Mitrokhin himself, who was extraordinarily brave in standing up for what he believed. He performed a great service for his country and our country, and for humanity generally.
The Committee has made some sensible and moderate recommendations. Of course there were faults in the subsequent handling of the Mitrokhin operation, and they have been highlighted, but it would be a shame if they were to mar an otherwise exemplary operation. I do not want to harp on about the failures, although it is clear that some were serious. Views may differ about whether Mrs. Norwood should have been brought to book for her betrayal, but it is unsatisfactory that, in effect, the decision was taken by default.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe spoke also about the effect of the current proposals for European security and defence 535 identity in respect of intelligence operations. I shall introduce a minor point of partisan difference at this point, although I see that that upsets the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane).
European defence will require intelligence sharing, yet there are clear differences of allegiance. It did not need the apparent leak by French intelligence officers of target details during the Kosovo operation to show that. It would be useful if the Foreign Secretary would explain how he expects liaison within the European Union defence framework to work.
The natural and important links between Britain and the Echelon group are based on a long period of continuity and trust and exist for the purpose of sharing intelligence. Is there not a risk that those links would be endangered by an arrangement that would necessarily involve sharing intelligence with countries that have different perspectives and aims?
From my own experience, I know that foreign policy decisions are coloured by intelligence information. It is hard to see how there can be a complete common foreign and security policy without complete intelligence sharing. That is even more true of military operations, which depend crucially on intelligence.
In that context, it was disturbing to read an article in this month's edition of Prospect magazine. Written by a French official, it argues that the British would not be able to play a leading role in the EU unless they jettisoned their special intelligence links with the United States. The official states:Britain must choose Europe or betray it.That is an unsatisfactory thing to read.
§ Mr. Maude
He is unnamed, for perfectly understandable reasons. It would have been very odd if he had been named. It is disturbing that such sentiments can be uttered for publication, and it bears out the sort of concerns raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe.
§ Mr. Howard
Is it not astonishing that Labour Members should demand the name of the source of that remark? It is entirely consistent with named, sourced and published emanations in recent weeks from the highest elements in the French Government.
§ Mr. Maude
My right hon. and learned Friend is right, and the concern about the matter is real. No one is saying that under no circumstances can these potential conflicts be resolved, but we know that intelligence sharing is founded on continuity, trust and mutual confidence, which can be built up only through a long period of co-operation.
The Government are engaged in a frogmarch towards the European security and defence identity, and the Foreign Secretary must tell the House whether there is any risk that that might endanger intelligence sharing through the Echelon group, which is a crucial element of our intelligence capability. If the intelligence-sharing that we enjoy were lost, we would suffer by denying ourselves access to the product of others' intelligence capabilities.
On the question of trust and confidence, I want to say a word about Dame Stella Rimington and her famous book, which is being considered by Government officials. I 536 suspect that I am not alone in believing that one of the obligations that members of all agencies accept is a self-denying ordinance on writing about the work of the agencies. That is not some quaint, old-fashioned relic of the dark days of absolute secrecy—I believe it to be crucial for operational effectiveness.
As I said earlier, trust is essential at all levels. It is especially essential between agents in the field and the service that they help. The Secret Intelligence Service, in particular, has been extraordinarily successful in creating that sense of complete trustworthiness. After all, it often asks people to place themselves in positions of extreme risk for what they believe in. Such people may be at high risk for many years afterwards. People need to be confident that events will not be written about in such a way that might enable them to be identified subsequently, however well disguised in the writing they may be, by detective work carried out by journalists and others. After all, Mrs. Norwood was publicly identified by a journalist carrying out just such detective work.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis
Is there not another particularly objectionable aspect to this? What makes the sale of memoirs about MI5 and MI6 so lucrative are the risks run by the agents, who often receive very little financial reward. What does it look like to them to see the desk warriors, who do not run any significant risks, getting £1 million for a book?
§ Mr. Maude
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. From everything that I have heard, seen and read, it is hard to over-state the distress and outrage that is felt about this by people in all the agencies. I take this opportunity to say to Ministers that we believe that it is quite wrong that Dame Stella should seek to publish such a book. The Government would have our wholehearted support in preventing such publication.
§ Mr. Winnick
It may well be wrong for Stella Rimington to publish the book. Presumably a lot will be deleted. However, I should like to get this quite clear. Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Government should prevent the publication of the book, even if they have the powers to do so? I hope not.
§ Mr. Maude
Yes, I think that the Government should prevent its publication. It has been argued that it would be perfectly appropriate for Dame Stella to publish memories of her early childhood and a study of the psychological stress involved such an operation. That would be interesting and probably uncontroversial. However, to write about the service that she has led would be quite wrong. She should make the honourable decision not to pursue the book's publication, but if she persists in seeking to write about her life in the service, the Government should prevent the book's publication. They would certainly have our support in doing so, and I hope that they would have the support of the whole House.
I want to say a word about the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, which is in another place. It is mentioned in the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater, and it is important in this context, because of a clear conflict of objectives. Perhaps the Government have done their best to reconcile those objectives, but we believe that they have not yet successfully done so.
537 The emergence and startling growth of new media require some ability for the authorities to have specific access to communications for limited and specific purposes, but two conflicting public goods are at risk here. The first is a general entitlement; we are all entitled to feel that we should have privacy for our communications. The second is a matter of wider importance: the Government's own declared objective, which we strongly support, of making the United Kingdom the prime centre for e-commerce and network development.
I should perhaps declare an interest, as I am a director of a start-up internet company. I am aware of the real concern within the sector about the effect of the perceptions of the Bill. There is massive concern about the effect of the Bill on the sector's development and on the prospects for the UK of becoming a serious base for this kind of business. It is, after all, a very mobile business, able to relocate in other parts of the world literally within hours.
Plenty has been said about the effects. The London Investment Banking Association said recently:the legislation also needs to avoid casting doubt on the efficacy of encryption as a means of legitimately protecting the confidentiality of commercial information.It believes that the Bill does not currently provide that reassurance. The Director of Cyber-Rights and CyberLiberties (UK) describes the Bill in its current form ascreating an intimidating environment for the legitimate use of encryption products by UK citizens.He says:Such legislation would no longer be compatible with the Government's policy to make Britain the best place for e-commerce and network development.Those are serious concerns.
We understand the countervailing objective for the agencies to have the ability to intercept communications. No one contests that that is a desirable end and that a serious public good is served by it. It was mildly frustrating when looking for details of what the agencies said about it to find in the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater, in the section on commercial encryption,GCHQ stated in their evidence thatfollowed by five lines of asterisks;The Security Service told us thatfollowed by three lines of asterisks; andThe SIS statedfollowed by four lines of asterisks. That was not very illuminating. One understands why it appeared in that way, but it did not help the argument very much.
One of the problems is that the UK is the first country to proceed down this path. There is some credit in trying to be first, but we should not always seek to match every development in technology, in the market and in communications with equivalent regulation. Such legislation can look, and can even be, unreasonably draconian. It can prove simply inappropriate in view of the rapid development of such media. Therefore, I take this opportunity to ask the Government to look again at how the legislation will work and to introduce some serious amendments to it.
538 In conclusion, I should like again to pay tribute to all those in the agencies for the work that they do. The country owes them a big debt of gratitude for their dedication, service, knowledge, resourcefulness and courage. I pay great tribute to my right hon. Friend and his Committee for the way in which they have embraced the important, serious, high task of bringing accountability—of bringing into the light an area that has always remained largely in the dark—and for giving reassurance to the public that these are agencies that serve the cause of liberty and are not its enemies.
§ The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)
The debate has had a select attendance, but in my quarter century as a Member of Parliament, I have rarely attended a debate so well informed and so serious in tackling the issues before the House. I have also rarely attended a debate in which the addressing of serious issues has been so little diverted by party points. All hon. Members who have spoken today may take some pride in having demonstrated the Chamber's role of scrutiny in a responsible and non-partisan manner.
The tone for the debate, and for the annual report before us, owes a great deal to the diligence and character of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). His deep experience of government has admirably equipped him for the role of Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I wish him well on his forthcoming retirement; he will leave a gap that the House will be challenged to fill.
The right hon. Gentleman took proper pride in the high attendance at the ISC. As a regular witness there, I can testify to the unusually high attendance, and, following my recent visit, to its unusual unity, at a level not often found in Select Committees. He was right to point out that the Committee's work is shared by all its members, and many of those who have spoken today may take pleasure in their contribution to it.
I may be able to help the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on their point about regulations for special employment tribunals for members of the agencies. I am advised by my colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry that they intend to consult the ISC next month on draft regulations, and I hope that that will enable us to make progress. I cannot promise that all my responses today will be so expeditious or so welcome.
The right hon. Members for Bridgwater and for Horsham (Mr. Maude) raised the subject of the proposed memoirs of Stella Rimington. The text has been submitted to the agencies for scrutiny and Stella Rimington has agreed that nothing should be published that would undermine national security. She has not yet submitted the text to a publisher, so there is time for her to reflect on whether it would be right to do so. I am sure that she will wish to bear in mind the comments made here today as she comes to a judgment on whether to proceed.
§ Mr. Winnick
On the basis that nothing should be published that will undermine national security, and if Stella Rimington decides to go ahead with publication, will the Government take no action to stop her?
§ Mr. Cook
I cannot say anything as definitive as my hon. Friend advises me to. Discussions continue and it 539 would not necessarily be helpful if we took too clear a view. While the book may contain nothing that would directly compromise national security, I detect from many of the speeches today that Members would wish Stella Rimington to reflect on the example that she would set and on whether it would be wise to proceed.
Rare partisan points were made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and the right hon. Member for Horsham, who both managed to introduce Europe. Given how high Europe ranks in Conservative thinking, we should probably be grateful that it did not play a more prominent part in the debate. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman pressed me on the matter, I can say that we agreed, only this week at the Feira European Council, to four working groups with NATO to consider the interface between the European security and defence policy and NATO. Intelligence is obviously part of that interface, and I can think of no one better to oversee the work than Javier Solana, until recently the Secretary General of NATO and now overseeing European security as the High Representative of the European Council.
I will not undertake to see nothing in the proposals. Nor would we agree to anything that would put at risk our special relationship in intelligence with the United States. I do not entirely follow the logic of those who are concerned that we will not be able, because we are entering into a security arrangement with several of the countries of Europe, to continue with our special relationship on intelligence. We have maintained that relationship for 50 years with exactly the same countries as members of NATO.
Nor am I particularly impressed by threats from an anonymous French man that the security initiative would compromise Britain's national intelligence gathering; I am absolutely confident that the French have not the slightest intention of allowing it to compromise their own national intelligence gathering. I do not, therefore, feel an active threat from that quarter.
§ Mr. Howard
Is not the Foreign Secretary missing the point? I referred to the quotation from the French Minister for Europe in which he made it perfectly plain that he wanted to see Europe as a rival to the USA—there are those who regard that as an honourable and legitimate objective. If that is the type of Europe that is being envisaged by at least some of those who are behind the initiative, is it not inevitable that the Americans will have concerns about continuing to share their intelligence with those who want to set up a rival to them in the world?
§ Mr. Cook
The United States shares intelligence with us as members of an alliance that includes France. As to US anxiety, I can only refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the comments made by the President of the USA in Germany earlier this month. Referring to European security, he said:There is no contradiction between a strong Europe and a strong transatlantic relationship.It is not incumbent on Opposition Members to try to be more pro-American than the American President.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) inquired as to whether security had been compromised by the disappearance of the laptops in the ownership of the agencies. I advise the House that 540 we are confident that security has not been compromised. Nevertheless, it is plainly vital that we address that important security aspect. I welcome the fact that the ISC investigator is carrying out a review of the matter. We look forward to the report and will ensure that any conclusions or findings of the Committee are fully fed into our response to those events.
That matter underlines the fact that the ISC does not act as a means of scrutiny only on behalf of Parliament. The Committee is a valuable partner for the Government in ensuring that we maintain proper accountability and rigour over the security agencies.
It is in exactly that spirit that the ISC undertook the Mitrokhin study; we are grateful to it for having done so. The members of the Committee addressed that duty with diligence, conscientiousness and discretion. Their report is welcome, as the debate has demonstrated, because it restores a sense of balance to the Mitrokhin issue. Mistakes were made under both Administrations, but it is important that we apply ourselves to the lessons that should be learned for the future.
As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater pointed out, the great value of the report is that it underscored what a major achievement it was for SIS to get Mr. Mitrokhin out of Russia with his information. It was an outstanding piece of intelligence work, as the Committee recorded. It provided more leads for counter-espionage work than any other counter-espionage operation. We owe a major debt to the agencies for having made that possible and to the immense courage of Mr. Mitrokhin during the long years when he accumulated the information that has been of such value to those of us who want to expose the threat to our values and our societies.
I agree with the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) at least in that we cannot learn the lessons of the past if we do not know the facts of the past. In that, Mr. Mitrokhin has been of extreme value to us. The hon. Gentleman referred to a long list of issues on which we had had to wait for too long to find the truth. I add to that list the fact that we had to wait until last year to discover that the Zinoviev letter was a forgery. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) for having prompted us to undertake that project so as to put those facts into the public domain.
§ Mr. Cook
Indeed. Nevertheless, it is important that the matter be put in the public arena. I can give an undertaking to the House that, wherever it is safe to do so, we shall share historical facts that the public are entitled to know and that we should have no fear of sharing with them.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Lewes is not a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Given the volume of parliamentary questions that he tables on the topic, he qualifies at least for associate membership of the Committee. He made several detailed proposals for enhanced scrutiny. However, in the 30 minutes since he sat down, it has not been possible for the Government to take a collective view on them. We will, of course, reflect on those interesting ideas as we expand the operation of scrutiny and make sure that we maintain the oversight of the work of the agencies.
541 I now come to a central theme of the debate which was picked up, in particular, by my hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). That is the wide-ranging oversight that we now have over all the agencies. I referred earlier to the fact that I have been a Member of the House for a quarter of a century. When in the 1970s I started an annual Adjournment debate on the activities of special branch, it was seen as a rather daring innovation in accountability.
At that time in the 1970s, if anybody had suggested that we would have a six or seven-hour debate in prime time on the work of the three agencies on the basis of a report conducted by Members of the House, who had interviewed and taken evidence from all the agencies, he would have been regarded as an unrealistic visionary or perhaps, even worse, as a subversive who should attract the attention of the hon. Member for New Forest, East. On that point, I carry the hon. Gentleman with me.
The change has been of value and importance not only to Parliament in improving our ability to carry out scrutiny, but to the agencies, many of which have widely welcomed the progress that has been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has done sterling service on these issues as a member of the ISC and as a Member of the House. I agree with his observation that the new generation at the top of the agencies take a more open approach than was possible or encouraged during the cold war. This new generation regards accountability as an asset to an agency, not as an irritation.
I firmly believe that the discussion that the heads of the agencies and others within the agencies have had with senior Members of the House and the Committee and the debates that we have had in the House on the Committee's report have all been of great assistance in ensuring that the priorities and objectives of the agencies reflect the concerns of elected Members of Parliament. They also mean that there is a broader consensus on the national interests and the risks that the agencies should focus on to protect those interests.
There is one dramatic measure of how far forward we have moved over the past 20 years in involving the agencies in the public debate. It took place yesterday when all three agencies appeared before the human rights taskforce of the Home Office. It brings together non-governmental organisations active in human rights, which are able to discuss between them how the agencies will shape their operations and their methods to make sure that they are entirely compatible with the European convention on human rights, which we are importing into British law. Such an encounter would have been unimaginable two decades ago, but it is entirely healthy and valuable for both sides of the debate.
It is right that Parliament and the public should have the opportunity to hold all public institutions to account and the security agencies should be no exception. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are accountable to Parliament and, through Parliament, to the public for the actions of the agencies. We are responsible for ensuring that they act in accordance with the law, and we take those duties seriously. As Secretary of State, I have the right to know what is done under my authority and I am responsible for scrutinising applications and for 542 signing warrants. My right hon. Friend and I are also responsible for ensuring that the agencies have the resources that they need to carry out their important work. We are both accountable to Parliament.
There are robust processes for ensuring that we are both kept informed about important things that we need to know or which we may need to know for future. I have bilateral meetings with the chief of the SIS and with Francis Richards, the director of GCHQ. I have officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office dedicated solely to the job of understanding what the agencies are doing and guiding them on our policy.
§ Dr. Godman
Along those lines, I have a question about the Government response to the Foreign Affairs Committee report on Sierra Leone. Is my right hon. Friend in a position to confirm that which is stated in paragraphs 21 and 22 on page 3 of that response, that the modernisation of arrangements for liaison with the intelligence services and the handling of intelligence has been carried out, and that he is satisfied with the new arrangements? He promised modernisation and updating of procedures; has the programme been completed?
§ Mr. Cook
I would not say that the programme has been completed, the matter is one that requires constant updating and review, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we have made major changes in those procedures and in the structure of the Foreign Office to ensure that we are better able to liaise with the agencies, oversee their work and ensure that the appropriate intelligence is properly handled and disseminated. I would not say that there is nothing further to be done—indeed, I would be open to criticism were I to do so—but I can say that I am robustly confident that we have made a big improvement on the situation of two years ago.
As a further safeguard to the work done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department and me, our actions are subject to independent scrutiny, not only by Parliament, but by the commissioners set up by the Acts. Each officer of each agency has a duty under the law to provide those commissioners with the information that they need to do their job. To sum up: the heads of the agencies are accountable to my right hon. Friend and me, we are accountable to Parliament and, as the Secretaries of State concerned, we have to come to the Chamber today to account for the actions of the three agencies and to confirm that they have acted within the law and will continue to do so.
Before I turn to the two agencies that are specifically accountable to me and for which I have to account to Parliament, I should enter one word of balance. It is important that we make sure that oversight by Parliament and accountability to Parliament works well and openly. However, I am sure that the members of the ISC will agree that it is equally important that we preserve the secrecy of the agencies' operation. Good human intelligence depends on individuals around the world who are prepared to trust the ability of the SIS to protect their identity; protecting those identities means protecting their livelihoods and, often, their lives. Protecting the scale of GCHQ's capability is also important to ensuring that it is able to carry out its work of interception. All intelligence collection needs the protection of secrecy for its methods if it is to remain effective.
543 I am responsible for two agencies: GCHQ and the SIS. Before talking about them, I should like to stress that the work of both is of greatest value when seen together. The collection of signals intelligence and of human intelligence often bears its greatest fruit and best results when the two are put together. Both agencies deserve credit for their achievements in matters of profound importance to the safety and security of the nation.
Let me give two examples. Together, the agencies can ring the alarms on attempts to acquire the technology of weapons of mass destruction. That used to be of concern only in connection with nuclear technology, but it is now of concern also in relation to biological and chemical weapons, which can be acquired more cheaply and with a lower technical threshold. The information that the agencies collect gives us as a Government the opportunity to attempt to persuade those who are developing such programmes of the real cost to them of pursuing a capability in weapons of mass destruction, and of the benefits of abandoning that ambition. The agencies also keep a close watch on the readiness of some countries or individuals within them to sell the technology for weapons of mass destruction. That, in turn, enables us to try to influence the countries in which such individuals may reside about the importance of adhering to the non-proliferation regimes.
The other example that I will share with the House is the agencies' work on narcotics and illegal drugs, to which the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe referred. I entirely endorse his observation about the value of their work in that field. In the fight against drugs, the provision of intelligence to law enforcement agencies, not only in the UK but in a range of other countries, is vital to disrupting drug trafficking—a pernicious trade that continues to destroy the lives of people here in the UK. Action by the UK security and intelligence agencies has made a real contribution to our anti-drugs strategy and to achieving the aim of stifling the supply of drugs to our streets.
In my time as Foreign Secretary, I have attended a number of international meetings at which we have had a wholly sterile debate as to whether the prime objective should be to reduce the demand for drugs in the countries that consume them, or to reduce the supply of drugs from the countries that produce them. That is a pointless debate—we need to do both. The work of SIS and GCHQ is immensely valuable to us in making sure that we can disrupt and deter the drugs trade along points in the chain before it reaches the United Kingdom.
GCHQ carries out activities that meet all three of the functions set out in the Interception of Communications Act 1985. It provides assistance on national security, serious crime and economic well-being. In the recent past, it has produced intelligence to help to safeguard the security of British troops in Bosnia and Kosovo. It assists the law enforcement agencies in the war against organised crime.
GCHQ also defends our economic well-being against modern, and more unconventional, threats. Britain's essential infrastructure, such as water, power and transport services, is increasingly managed by information technology. A computer-based attack on those services could cripple the nation just as effectively as a military attack. GCHQ's information security specialists help the Government and industry to protect themselves from vulnerability to such attacks.
544 Of course, GCHQ now faces a very wide range of technical challenges that are increasing with every passing year. Chief among those is the growth and rate of change in global telecommunications and the spread of the internet, which is changing the way in which so many organisations communicate. A second challenge is the growth of global telephone systems. Organised crime can now operate on the basis of buying a phone in one country, using it in a second country to call a third, and paying, or failing to pay, the bill in a fourth. Keeping up with the globalisation of communications technology requires commitment and a deep understanding of complex technical issues.
A third challenge to GCHQ is the growth of encryption, which can be a valuable safeguard for honest people doing honest business over the net. However, it can also be a potent weapon in the hands of those who wish to avoid their legal obligations. I listened with respect to what the right hon. Member for Horsham said on that matter. He would not expect me to say what lay behind the asterisks in the report, and members of the Committee, having struck those words out of their report, would be rather astonished if I did.
I can sum up the expression of all three agencies by saying that they all firmly support the work that the Government are doing on that matter. We have to make a choice here, even if it is a difficult one. We cannot ask the agencies to be more effective on serious crime, drug trafficking and the traffic in human beings if we do not listen to them when they tell us their technical and legal requirements for continuing to do that work.
If GCHQ is to keep pace with technical change, it needs the building and the equipment to do so. That is why we have begun the new accommodation programme for GCHQ to provide it with the facilities that it needs to guarantee its capability well into the future. I congratulate the current director, Francis Richards, who has quickly come to terms with that immense project. He is motivating the staff through the process of change and has quickly and honestly squared up to early problems.
GCHQ's new accommodation is to be purpose built for the modern IT environment and will provide the basis on which GCHQ can handle large quantities of complex information quickly and intelligently. It is our responsibility to ensure that GCHQ stays a jump ahead of the field, and the new programme will give it the ability to do that. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater wisely said that the scale and complexity of the project is almost unrivalled: it is not only a building, but the relocation of probably the most complex IT operation in Britain.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that we are taking steps to improve the management of that programme, but I agree with him and the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) on the importance of monitoring the project's development. I can therefore inform the House that I have asked for regular reports on the progress of the programme, the development of its management, the containment of the costs and the avoidance of unacceptable disruption of service to the clients.
I stress that the SIS makes a valuable contribution through human intelligence to all those objectives—against proliferation, the drugs trade and terrorism. I echo what has been said by a number of hon. Members about the courage of those who work in the field. By definition, working to tackle the drugs trade or proliferation or 545 terrorism means operating in countries that can be unstable and can present dangers to everybody—including, of course, those who work there on behalf of our intelligence services. The whole House will want to support the commitment and the courage that they show in performing services of great value to the nation and also to us, as the Government and the representatives of the people.
I want to highlight another two aspects of the SIS. First, there are areas of the world where British interests are engaged and where the relationships of power are, to put it kindly, not always transparent. The SIS provides a unique perspective on key regional and national developments in those areas. At its best, SIS intelligence from human sources can and does forewarn the Government of when things will go wrong and contributes to our options for steering them in the right direction. Secondly, SIS deployment worldwide provides unique added value when local flashpoints arise and a surge of diplomatic and sometimes military effort is needed.
I echo a point made by a number of hon. Members. Sometimes we are hampered in getting the value of the agencies across to the public because we cannot talk about their successes. Those successes can be spectacular. I want to try to put that right by sharing with the House a recent SIS success. Hon. Members will know that I have recently visited Sierra Leone, where we have seen a recurrence of an appalling civil war with grave civilian casualties. In relation to that, I want to put on record the great success that we have had in obtaining intelligence, particularly through the SIS. I can tell the House that the intelligence agencies have successfully shown the degree of Liberian involvement in the conflict in Sierra Leone and the contacts with the rebels in Sierra Leone.
At last week's General Affairs Council in Brussels, I was able to use that intelligence through the Minister of State—my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz)—to convince our European partners that we should take a tougher line with Liberia. As a result, they agreed to step up pressure on the Government of Liberia and to be willing to use our own aid as a lever on them. We would not have been able to do that without good-quality intelligence and the effort of those in the field who provided it. In that way, the agencies contributed to our promotion of democracy and human rights in Africa. They helped to secure our aim of stability 546 in the region and thereby protected our national interest. That is a good example of a success story achieved by the agencies and how good intelligence used by the policy makers can make a real difference.
Most of those present throughout the debate have been members of the Intelligence and Security Committee. For those who are not members of it, I would commend the foreword to the annual report as an excellent summary of why we need the agencies in an unstable and dangerous world. The growth of heroin in central Asia is a threat to security on the streets of Britain. Terrorist bombings in east Africa can be a threat to our trade and to our citizens in east Africa. Efforts to acquire chemical and biological weapons anywhere in the middle east can be a threat to our own people. Our dependence on information technology is vulnerable to being disrupted by any point around the globe with access to global communications.
I entirely echo the conclusion of the foreword that our safety depends on good intelligence. I congratulate the ISC on having provided us with a sound basis for the debate. I believe that the debate has established both the value of our intelligence and security agencies, and at the same time has demonstrated the health of their accountability to Parliament.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.