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Column 170What concerns people is not that matter or the fact that the numbers are not given--they are given--but what the commissioner has to say, later in page 2, about complaints. Incidentally, none of the complaints is upheld. Commenting on the fact that 40 complaints were referred to him, the commissioner says :
"In no case have I made a determination on the basis that a warrant has been issued in relation to the complainant's property. This fact may lead some to speculate that members of the service are carrying out operations involving unlawful interference with property, such as installing eavesdropping devices, without the authorisation of a warrant issued under the act. Indeed, from time to time I am asked whether I am satisfied that such operations are not being carried out. Although I cannot answer the question categorically, because it is not my function to review the operations of the service, and, in the nature of things, such operations, if they existed, would be concealed".
That is what concerns the public. We need to be able to call people to account, not so that we can ask about the nature of operations but to satisfy ourselves, on the basis of inquiries by the tribunal and the commissioner and by a committee, that the public have as much assurance as it is possible to give that these organisations are acting within the law and that there is proper supervision of warrants. I am not against the warrants--it would be absurd to take that view--but I believe that we need more safeguards.
Mr. Allason : When the 1989 Act was passed, the commissioner was given very wide powers, and some of us believed that he would have power to investigate and report on complaints. In subsequent reports, there was no reference to the number of complaints. Now there is such reference, but only as a result of pressure. More to the point, the commissioner declined to investigate any complaint relating to any episode that had been initiated before 10 December 1989. So while many complaints were made, they were all ruled out of order.
Clause 10 illustrates what lies at the heart of some of the differences between the two sides of the House over this legislation. That clause describes the establishment of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which will not be a Select Committee or a parliamentary committee, but will be made up of Members of Parliament. It will not, therefore, be governed by the normal rules that apply to Select Committees. Apparently, the issue of privilege will not apply, although the application of the Official Secrets Act 1989 might circumvent that problem.
What sort of committee will it be ? It will not be a Select Committee or a committee of privy councillors--it will be all the better for that as neither I nor the Home Affairs Select Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), am persuaded that every member of such a committee should be a privy councillor.
I am also worried about the size of the committee. Six members are proposed, with a quorum of three. In the circumstances, it may be difficult for it to achieve that quorum, especially since at least one member of the Lords and one Member of the Commons must be present.
We have considerable misgivings about the nature and size of the committee. It should be a Select Committee and it should be larger. We can discuss that matter in the Standing Committee, where my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) will be leading for the
Column 171Opposition. We should be thinking of a membership of the order of nine members and then a quorum could be more readily achieved, as could agreement between the parties involved about who should be a member.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : May I take my right hon. Friend back to my intervention during the Foreign Secretary's speech. If the committee is neither parliamentary nor a Select Committee, but almost a quasi- departmental committee with Members of Parliament nominated to it by the Prime Minister, and if its members are subject to the Official Secrets Act- -as was said in the House--why, in principle, should it not be able to ask questions about operational matters ? I could understand my right hon. Friend's reservations if the committee were to be a Select Committee, but as it will be a quasi-departmental committee with Members of Parliament on it, why can it not ask questions on issues about which those Members are concerned ? They will not be reporting back to Parliament.
Dr. Cunningham : As always, I give my hon. Friend full marks for persistence. Whatever the status of the committee, it should not be able to interfere in operational matters. I made that clear at the outset and I am not persuaded to change my mind.
I am also concerned that the committee will apparently not have the power to call witnesses and commission papers to be brought before it. That is another weakness for a committee that is seriously expected to deal with scrutiny or oversight. Those are all serious matters and they dramatically weaken the proposal at the heart of this legislation.
Furthermore, it is proposed that the committee should not report to Parliament but to the Prime Minister. I do not regard that as parliamentary scrutiny or oversight, because the Prime Minister has the right to veto sections of its report--I call it prime ministerial oversight and scrutiny.
If we are to have an effective parliamentary watchdog to oversee such matters and to probe and scrutinise, it should report to Parliament. It cannot legitimately be called a parliamentary committee unless it does so. That is another major difference of opinion between the Opposition and the Government over the details of the legislation.
Of course, it is okay for commissioners to report to the Prime Minister-- that is what they are appointed for--but a parliamentary committee should report and be answerable to the House for the conduct of its affairs.
Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green) : Does the right hon. Gentleman concede that the description of the committee in the Bill, where it states that it will examine "expenditure, administration and policy", gives it a remarkably wide brief, given that is within the wall of secrecy ?
Dr. Cunningham : Okay, whether it is a circle or a wall, there would be no point in having the committee unless it was able to penetrate whatever geometric figure that the Foreign Secretary cares to use to describe the boundaries of
Column 172the activities of the security and intelligence services. That is something else which we need to redress during the passage of this legislation
Mr. Shepherd : The right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that the committee will look into the security and intelligence services and Government communications headquarters, Cheltenham. As I failed, could he try to tickle out from the Foreign Secretary the fact that the commissioner for GCHQ and for the intelligence services will be the same person as the commissioner for the security services ? Similarly, membership of the tribunal for GCHQ and the intelligence services will be the same as that for the security services.
Dr. Cunningham : I had come to the conclusion that that was the case and that the same person and organisations would deal with both, but I am sure that the Minister of State will confirm or deny that when he replies to the debate.
I have another question on schedule 3 to the Bill which states in paragraph 3(1)(b)(ii) that information sought may be denied "because the Secretary of State has determined that it should not be disclosed."
That is another sweeping power. The committee will not have the right to certain documents and memorandums because the Secretary of State has the power to say no. That is another great weakness in the powers of the committee that the House is being asked to establish. I must press on to other aspects of the proposals and to the omission in this or any other Government decision of any redress for people employed at GCHQ. To the Government's continuing shame, GCHQ employees are denied the right to join a trade union of their choice. That decade-long denial of a basic freedom and democratic right is deplorable. It is clear that the mulish obstinacy of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary is to blame for the failure to end the stalemate that has existed for so long. Trade unions have met all the requirements that the Government have placed on them following their discussions with Sir Robin Butler--discussions established willingly after a suggestion by the Prime Minister, I believe. Britain has been condemned and will, no doubt, be condemned again by the International Labour Organisation, which said that banning unions at GCHQ contravened article 87 and is a unique occurrence in western democracies. No other country and Government have taken such action and it does not bear even the simplest scrutiny.
The Government have given up the nonsense about threats to our security and betrayal. We know from our history that most betrayals of this country were not perpetrated by trade union members. That was always not only nonsense, but an insulting piece of nonsense. The record clearly shows from where and by whom our country has been sadly betrayed. Apparently, the Government now argue that if people were allowed to belong to a trade union of their choice, there would be a "conflict of loyalty". I cannot for the life of me see how that argument can stand the simplest test.
Column 173Why is it that the permanent secretaries of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the permanent secretaries in the Ministry of Defence, the permanent secretaries in the Home Office--who are members of the First Division Association, an organisation affiliated to the Trades Union Congress--do not have that conflict of loyalty ? Why are they trusted to handle highly secret and sensitive material ? Much lower ranking employees and officers at GCHQ, however, apparently pose some threat to our national security. Of course, it is absurd. A former Secretary of State for Defence, Sir John Nott, blew all the arguments about operational matters at GCHQ out of the water when he said that at no time had the efficiency of GCHQ ever been diminished as a result of trade union activities. It is a disgrace that that state of affairs continues.
In a parliamentary answer, I was pleased to be told by the Minister of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) that the Government
"have no plans to withdraw from the International Labour Organisation."-- [ Official Report , 15 February 1994 ; Vol. 237, c. 715. ]
It is good news because there have been suggestions to the contrary--that the Government might avoid the international humiliation that is coming their way. Even though it may be difficult, we shall continue to pursue the matter to the end of the passage of the legislation and beyond. I reiterate unequivocally the determination of a Labour Government to restore the basic democratic right to people at GCHQ.
Mr. Hurd : The right hon. Gentleman is pursuing a false argument. Between 1979 and 1981, 10,000 staff days were lost at GCHQ through industrial action. The unions are aware that disruption occurred. When the Government withdrew union rights in 1984, they brought GCHQ in line with the other security and intelligence agencies. There is no accusation of disloyalty or betrayal ; there was simply a desire to prevent the disruption at GCHQ such as had occurred in preceding years.
Dr. Cunningham : I do not know whether we take what the right hon. Gentleman said as a retraction of the accusations of disloyalty, but such accusations and threats to our security were thick on the ground. Trade unions were described as the enemy within by the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, so it is no good his trying to wipe the slate clean and pretend that the accusations were not levelled. They were levelled and formed the original basis of the Government's argument. I have made clear the position of my party on the issue. I have no doubt that the International Labour Organisation will make its position clear. The right hon. Gentleman can squirm as much as he likes, but he knows that he and his colleagues are denying people a basic human right, which they are entitled to have and which we shall restore.
Reading the speeches of Lord Callaghan of Cardiff and Lord Jenkins of Hillhead during consideration of the Bill in the House of Lords, I found confirmation that things have not always been well within the security services. We know that there have been similar problems in the Secret Intelligence Service in years gone by. The Scott inquiry should have some interesting and important things to say about more recent events. Now, I for one would like to know what the Secret Intelligence Service knows about the
Column 174scandal surrounding the financing of the Pergau dam in Malaysia, a matter in which the right hon. Gentleman appears to have played a foolish, if not ignominious, role.
History tells us that we should be vigilant about our intelligence and security services because there is, and always will be, a conflict between liberty and security. The latter is pursued for the collective good, but we must be vigilant to ensure that our essential liberties are not eroded in the necessary pursuit of intelligence and security. The challenge for us all is to get the balance right. The Bill's provisions, particularly those in clause 10, do not meet that challenge.
The Bill is welcome because it is another step towards ending the deeply conservative, secretive culture of government in our country. I welcome it because it gives Parliament more, although not sufficient, powers to scrutinise what is done at taxpayers' expense and in the national interest. It is interesting that, in 1988, the Government--because the right hon. Gentleman, who was then Home Secretary, recognised that constitutional issues were involved in security services legislation--moved that the legislation should be considered by a Committee of the whole House. They should do so again today. If they do not, I shall.
The Bill represents a fundamental change of mind by the Government and the Secretary of State in particular. In that sense, it is victory for the arguments that we have advanced over the years and we shall go on advancing those detailed arguments in Committee. 5.6 pm
Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater) : I am glad that the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) welcomed the Bill in principle, but the central point of his attack on my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was extraordinarily badly judged. Near the end of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman showed that he had studied the House of Lords Hansard , which is littered with former Foreign Secretaries and Home Secretaries of a Labour persuasion saying why they were in favour of the proposals. My right hon. Friend is marked out as the only person who, in office, has taken that view and determined to do something about it. It is a matter for congratulation that he has taken responsibility and not used the ease of life on the Back Benches to reflect on what he might have done.
Today, there was a seizure of Semtex in Accrington--I do not think that it was identified by a passing panda patrol car. Undoubtedly, the intelligence services had a hand in that. Their work is vital in the fight against terrorism in these islands, in Europe and throughout the world. We do not need reminding today that that work has never been more important. The threats that we face now are of a complexity, variety and degree of danger and seriousness that mean that the importance of the intelligence services in their different roles has never been greater. Those roles will not remain the same ; they will have to change in terms of emphasis and the relative roles of the Security Service, GCHQ and the Secret Intelligence Service. My right hon. Friend referred to the risk of nuclear
proliferation--not through Governments, but through private enterprise. We know that there are people who have cash and there are customers for such materials. The dissolution of the old Soviet Union and the existing
Column 175massive arsenal produce a great risk of the material dissipating into unsuitable hands. Biological and chemical warfare presents challenges of a different, but incredibly, dangerous sort to society. The threat of blackmail from different groups is real. My right hon. Friend also referred to crime and drugs.
Drawing on my experience as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, subsequently, for Defence, I recognise the debt that we owe to the Security and Intelligence Services. Indeed, I recognise the debt that many people owe, but do not know that they owe. Sir Percy Cradock said that one of the roles of the security services is to prevent things from happening that might otherwise cause great stress and suffering. Many of those can never be discussed, but let no one, by virtue of that silence, suggest that the danger does not exist. Characteristically, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did the House a great service in illustrating with examples, in a way that has never been done in the House before, the sort of work recently done by the security services for the protection of life and the prevention of outrage.
The security services serve our country, but are also responsible to it. The issue facing us is how to ensure that they can do their work, in which secrecy is vital, without allowing them total freedom, unaccountability or independence of action. They must be given that essential element of secrecy in their work yet sufficient accountability and structure of control that our country can have confidence that they are operating at all times in the national interest, in the fullest sense of that phrase.
By virtue of the secrecy under which they operate, they have a unique opportunity to abuse their power and authority. But they also have a unique opportunity to be abused by people who can make all sorts of allegations against them. By their nature, those can never be challenged and may never see the light of day.
It is therefore in everyone's interest that we have a structure that allows the best possible control, recognising the special circumstances in which the security services work. As my right hon. Friend said, that is the dilemma faced by other countries. The Library has done us a service in producing an analysis of other countries' attempts to work in that area. Interestingly, they are all slightly different and have sought to address the problem recognising their different circumstances.
It is essential to strike the right balance of secrecy. In the offices that I held, I discovered that the knowledge about operations and the desire to know a little more about what is going on is extremely seductive. Often, and quite rightly, Ministers have no idea about operations that are taking place. In many circumstances, it is essential that the need-to-know principle be operated as tightly as possible, not because people are trying to do things that they should not do, but because people's lives are often at risk in those operations.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr.
Campbell-Savours) is no longer in the Chamber. In an intervention he suggested that a member of our security services should be required to undertake an operation advised on by the hon. Member in some wider committee role. I was delighted that the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) quickly made it clear that he was not in favour of a committee intruding into operational matters. Obviously, that would not be realistic.
Column 176It is essential that we give the confidence that secrecy will be protected, not just to those who serve at present, whose lives as we stand here now are at risk in various ways, but in the interests of future recruitment to the service. It is alleged that, when the United States Congress was moving down a route that some people in the Central Intelligence Agency feared was too expansionist, our intelligence services recruited a number of their people who felt that their lives and security could be at risk if the freedom of information legislation removed the protection that secrecy gave them.
That issue is important if we are to have effective intelligence services in the future. This is a competition. Some people can make effective agents and they are known in other countries. We know that some of them sell their services, but they will be concerned to know that if they commit their lives to a service in that way, it is a service with an employer they can trust and who will protect their secrecy and their lives for the service that they give. That is a key issue in the effectiveness of our security services.
Today, we are discussing how our country can feel confident that the security services that we fund, which provide our country's defence and protect its national interests, operate in a proper and acceptable way. No matter what the calibre and integrity of the Ministers responsible or the directors whom the Secretary of State appoints, to satisfy public confidence there needs to be a separate assessment and an ability to assess. Although it is difficult to get the balance right, the proposals of the commissioner, the tribunal and the committee are a sensible way to start. They may develop, but I believe that the balance is right to start this new development. The key elements in the committee's obligations are expenditure and administration policy. The right hon. Member for Copeland referred to the alleged cost. One article said that it was not Her Majesty's Secret Service but "Her Majesty's expensive service", and that is true. I shall break one element of secrecy about my past responsibilities. My right hon. Friend may remember the most ludicrous meeting that I have ever attended--the public expenditure survey round. I was sitting with a poor benighted Chief Secretary, faced by the great Secretaries of State, the permanent secretaries and the directors general of the various agencies arguing about correct expenditure levels for our country's security and intelligence services. It is extremely important that that be conducted in a more careful and continuous way.
We need to consider the balance to be struck between confidence in the cost --the service is expensive--and confidence in the quality of the administration and control. The right hon. Member for Copeland referred to examples of certain elements of the service. Whether those concerned factional disputes or unclear authority, clearly the administration and organisation were inadequate. The public have a right to feel that they are adequate and that the policies pursued are in our national interest.
A number of amendments were moved in another place about whether it was a significant economic issue or of significant national interest. The right hon. Member for Copeland will no doubt move such amendments, but I do not know whether they need to be framed in legislation. Nobody could argue that those points are not valid, but it is a question of judgment. We need an external assessment before we can be confident that those judgments are being correctly made.
Mr Rogers : In relation to important issues for the economic well- being of the country, the Foreign Secretary in another guise said that the Bill applied to such matters as key commodities, yet during discussion of the Bill in another place the Lord Chancellor said that there were also other considerations. Perhaps from his great and vast experience, the right hon. Gentleman could give us some idea of what he considers would effect the economic well-being of the country.
Mr. King : It has been specifically determined by Congress and the United States Administration, which directed the United States intelligence agencies to combat industrial espionage against United States technology. Different economic considerations may be regarded as key areas of importance to our national economic situation. The importance of establishing confidence in the intelligence services has another aspect. A feature of terrorism that I know well from my own experience is that terrorists have a twin-track ambition. The first is, by the nature of their activities, to terrorise, to intimidate and to compel. At the same time, they actively try to undermine the institutions of our free society that defend us and to seek to frustrate them. It is no coincidence that at a time of heightened terrorism, various allegations are made not just against the police and the system of law and justice, but against the intelligence services. It is part of the campaign that terrorists wage to undermine the institutions that we value to protect our way of life and our democratic society.
It is no good simply complaining that it must be an unfair attack on the intelligence services ; we need to take the necessary steps. My right hon. Friend is showing great intelligence in recognising in his proposals the need to respond to that and to bolster the defences of democracy. His proposals are not just in the interests of Parliament or greater public accountability, but in the interests of the services themselves, so that they can command greater public respect and confidence and thereby be more resistant to the charges, challenges and allegations that may be made against them. The Bill will put a heavy responsibility on members of both Houses. It will be difficult for the Committee Members, within or outside the wall of secrecy, to master the responsibilities that the Bill lays upon them, but I believe that it is the right structure.
I query only one small point. In another place, it was suggested by the Lord Chancellor that the committee might include one member of another House and that it might not be an equal division of three and three. The Bill requires a quorum which must include one member of the House of Lords, and that if he is not there the committee will not be able to meet. It is a small technical point, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend will understand.
The Bill refers to the laying of an annual report. It requires that the committee
"shall make an annual report on the discharge of their functions to the Prime Minister and may at any time report to him on any matter relating to the discharge of their functions."
It then states :
"The Prime Minister shall lay before each House of Parliament a copy of each annual report".
It does not say the Prime Minister shall lay before each House of Parliament any other report that the committee may make at any time. I appreciate that the point may be raised in Committee, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will deal with it today.
Column 178As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, the Bill marks a further step in the progress that he has made, and for which he deserves great credit, away from the lunacy of the unavowed services with which we have lived for so long. I suspect that the answer to the question from the right hon. Member for Copeland about whether people have committed unauthorised acts overseas is that they did not have to be authorised because they were not avowed, and if they did not exist they could not have been authorised to do things. That is now ready to be changed and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on a measure that is in the interests of our country and the intelligence services.
Dr. John Gilbert (Dudley, East) : I begin by endorsing what has been said by both Front-Bench spokesmen about the patriotism, courage, devotion and skill of members of the security services. It comes as no surprise that the leaders of those services welcome the Bill. Let me say straight away that I welcome the Bill. I am prepared to congratulate the Government, and particularly the Prime Minister. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) put his finger on it accurately when he said that previous Prime Ministers of all political persuasions have been extraordinarily timid about releasing control of the security and intelligence services, even to selected and supposedly perfectly reliable Members of the House--not that I am suggesting that there are any unreliable Members.
I propose for the purposes of today's debate to confine my remarks to clause 10 and schedule 3, which relate to the establishment of the committee. Having congratulated the Prime Minister on his forward step, I think that he is being far more timid than necessary. The Foreign Secretary has had to defend the proposition that the committee should not be a Select Committee of the House. I have yet to hear any reason at all why it should not be a Select Committee. Every single one of the various elements in setting up a committee--its size, the people to be nominated to it, its powers and the publication of the report--can be totally protected by the Prime Minister. His interests and the interests of the Government and the security services need be at risk in no way, as I shall seek to show, by giving the committee the powers of a Select Committee. For example, it would not have to rely on the Committee of Selection for its size or membership ; that can be determined by prime ministerial resolution. It would not have to go through the Committee of Selection, the independence of which some hon. Members on both sides of the House have been sceptical about from time to time with respect to the influence of the Whips. I am glad that my Chief Whip is not here to hear me say that.
Everyone knows that the membership of the committee will be decided by the Prime Minister, and that nobody will get on the committee without his approval having to be enshrined in primary legislation. Nothing is laid down in the Standing Orders of the House about the size of a Select Committee ; that can be determined by prime ministerial resolution.
The Government cannot be sensitive about the publication of the report, because clearly sidelining would apply. No committee would produce a report containing
Column 179sensitive passages that the Government say should not be published. I consider that absolutely inconceivable, and I pray in aid my experience on Defence Committees.
The only thing about which the Government may be sensitive in giving the committee the powers of a Select Committee is the timing of a report. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) may have come close to the nub a few moments ago, when he pointed out that the Bill provides for the Prime Minister to publish, suitably excised of course, the committee's annual report, but makes no provision whatever for requiring him to publish any interim reports. The committee has a remedy in its own hands ; it can tack on to its report anything that was in the interim reports, if it so decides. I cannot imagine that only the timing is inhibiting the Government from giving the committee the powers of a Select Committee. I should like to know what other reason there is.
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham) : One point that will be different from the normal conventions of a Select Committee--perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can say whether this would be brought within his proposed changes to procedure--is that, in effect, the Prime Minister can replace a member of the committee.
Dr. Gilbert : I have observed that point, and I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman, but those things could also be done by resolution of the House or prime ministerial motion at any time--for example, by saying that X shall no longer be a member, and that Y shall be appointed in his or her place.
I shall make a few brief Committee-type points on clause 10 and schedule 3. I raised earlier the question of privilege. I do not consider that an unimportant matter, unless it is conceived that the only witnesses that the committee will interview will be the heads of the security services.
I do not know whether that is at the back of the Government's mind, but if so, clearly, questions of privilege would be otiose. In any case, the Prime Minister will have control over the excising from the report of any matters that he considers to be sensitive, and therefore anything that he would consider to be a breach of privilege and defamatory.
It escapes me why the committee's proceedings should not be covered by privilege. That relates to witnesses other than official witnesses whose evidence might be published in the report. It seems inconceivable that the committee will merely report to the Prime Minister a set of conclusions. Presumably when it sends its report to the Prime Minister, it will give the reasons and the evidence that lie beneath those conclusions. That is why one needs, in my judgment, the protection of privilege if one is to interview any witnesses other than the heads of the security services.
The other question that concerns me is the powers of this committee of parliamentarians. There is nothing in the Bill to give the committee the power to send for persons and papers. That is a fundamental power of any parliamentary committee. If the committee is not to have that power, is that because it is conceived that the only people from whom the committee will take evidence are the heads of the security and intelligence services and
Column 180GCHQ ? I cannot imagine that that is the case, because I have reason to believe that there will be provision in the Bill for the committee to travel.
Obviously, if one is to inquire into the efficiency of those services, one must have discussions with official representatives of the services abroad, with whom they will have co-operated, unless one is to take everything on face value--and only a pretty spineless committee would do that. One will also need to discuss with members of other oversight committees in other countries. Therefore, it seems essential that, if the committee is to go outside the restricted range of the heads of the two services and GCHQ, it must have powers to send for persons and papers.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater made an important point about the quorum. I, too, have made that point elsewhere before now, and I hope that that matter will be taken care of in Committee. I shall now deal with a couple of other important points that are not touched on in the Bill. The first is access. In another place, the Lord Chancellor said that the committee would have access to the Prime Minister at all times. It is in the Bill that it will be able to send reports to the Prime Minister at any time that it considers suitable. I hope that the access is intended to go wider than that. From the language that the Lord Chancellor used, I take it that the right of immediate access to the Prime Minister is similar to the right of access that the chiefs of staff have to the Prime Minister on matters that they consider necessary and which are urgently to be brought to his attention. I should be grateful if we could have confirmation that that is the Government's view, and their interpretation of what the Lord Chancellor said.
Secondly, I think it extremely important that the committee has access to the Comptroller and Auditor General, because no Committee in the House has anything like the number of staff at its disposal that the CAG has. He already has access to the operations of the services. Without that access specifically awarded to the committee, its powers will be considerably diminished.
On membership of the committee, like my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), I congratulate the Government on not confining membership to Privy Councillors. There is an incredible mystique in this place about Privy Councillors. Personally, I would not trust some of them within miles of the committee--I will not name them, but they are to be found on both sides of the House. An awful lot of thoroughly respectable and reliable hon. Members are not Privy Councillors, and I would welcome seeing them on the committee. When one sees how cavalier some Privy Councillors are with their Privy Councillor's oath--they shall be nameless, but there are those who rush out to commit their Cabinet memories to their publishers--it is extraordinary that they were ever of a mind to take the oath in the first place.
Mr. Winnick : My right hon. Friend makes the point that the committee is not confined to Privy Councillors, although the Bill does not say that. Does he agree that it is almost certain that the majority of the six will be former Cabinet Ministers, who will almost certainly be Privy Councillors ? I for one will be extremely surprised if more than one member is not a Privy Councillor. Although that is not in the Bill, for obvious reasons, I do not share my right hon. Friend's optimism.
Dr. Gilbert : I am obliged as always to the wisdom coming from my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour who is the Member for Walsall, North. If he has recommendations to make to the Prime Minister about the membership of the committee, no doubt he will make them. One piece of ambiguity that arose today was from what the Foreign Secretary said compared to what the Lord Chancellor said. I should be grateful for clarification. I can assure the House that I am not quoting the Lord Chancellor out of context, but he said : "the committee will have access to operational information but only in so far as that does not transgress the criteria for sensitivity and the other criteria for withholding information, which are specified".--[ Official Report, House of Lords , 3 February 1994 ; Vol. 551, c. 1414.]
That seems to mean that there will be a whole lot of areas in which the committee will have access to operation information.
In other words, the words of the Lord Chancellor, which are repeated elsewhere in his intervention, seem unambiguous. But schedule 3(4) says :
"The following information is sensitive information for the purposes of paragraph 3 above
(b) information about particular operations which have been, are being or are proposed to be undertaken in pursuance of any of the functions of those bodies".
That seems to be a pretty blanket elimination of any operational information whatever.
On the face of it, the Lord Chancellor's assurance in the other place is worthless, unless the Government are proposing at least to remove paragraph 4(b) from schedule 3. I quite understand paragraph 4(a), which relates to the ability to identify individual members of the service or their operational methods. When the Minister is winding up, I should be grateful if he could shed some light on that.
that is, the opinion of the director of GCHQ or that of the director- general of the security service
"should not be made available under paragraph (a)".
Dr. Gilbert : I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his assistance. However, I had already read that passage in conjunction with the paragraph to which I referred, and I should like to hear the Minister's interpretation rather than the hon. Gentleman's. I hope that we shall be given an assurance about the sidelining of the report. I trust that the Government envisage a natural discussion between the Committee and the Prime Minister's officials--not him personally, of course--about how much of the report will be published.
I have a few years' experience, having been a member of the Defence Select Committee and, before that, a member of the defence and external affairs sub-committee of the Select Committee on Expenditure. When we produced a report, we would produce it in toto--with no sidelining--and then send it to the officials in the executive branch to find out what they thought.
A perfectly proper process of negotiation and debate would follow. We would say, "For heaven's sake, you need not take this bit out ; what on earth is secret about it ?", and they would say, "You don't understand : it relates to this and that." A trading process would then occur. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) has been a distinguished member of the Defence Select Committee
Column 182for many years, and took part in many such negotiations ; he will confirm what I have said. I hope that the Government will make the same procedure available to the oversight committee.
I am disappointed that the Government have not felt able to trust hon. Members more. As well as spending several years on the Committees that I mentioned during the 1974-79 Parliament, I spent eight years on the Defence Select Committee after 1979 ; in the intervening time, I spent nearly three years at the Ministry of Defence.
In all that time, I was not aware of a single leak of classified information from a single one of those Committees ; all the leaks of official information came from the Ministry itself. That must be the experience of anyone who has been a Defence Minister. I challenge any hon. Member to quarrel with my account of events--and I cannot believe that much has changed since then.
I hope that the Government will show a little more confidence in the House, and give the committee's members more power and authority. They will not lose any serious powers of control. I assure the Government that their fears are entirely unnecessary ; but, having said that, let me add that I hope the House will give the Bill a fair wind.