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Column 220When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, as Home Secretary, introduced his original Security Service Bill, I argued--rightly, I believe--that the remit conferred on the security services was so wide that it covered almost everything. But I was pleased, and I still am, that one of the aspects of the remit, as I explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason), was the recognition that one of the most important functions was to protect us from the undermining of parliamentary democracy. That is a profound principle.
If we ask ourselves what is the purpose of all those services, we must reply that it is to protect our democracy--the democratic United Kingdom of Great Britain. That is why the enunciation of principles and the manner in which we ensure that the guardians themselves are watched are important to us. I have tried to reflect on what those principles are. They have been adumbrated in other countries, and I have tried to suggest that the McDonald commission was a good enough starting point for those who, within the machinery itself, decided how to approach the problem.
I have always found it difficult to comprehend why there is such an extraordinary diffidence on the part of Ministers regarding the nature of that vital service. I do not believe that any Army Minister has the slightest compunction about following through the operational details and techniques of the armed forces. Yet, both now and in the past, we have heard Minister after Minister displaying an extraordinary attitude towards the security services. Indeed, Lord Callaghan said on television that there were many things that he would not want to know about, and did not think it appropriate to know about.
Two principles have emerged from my remarks. First, I have mentioned the Government's attention to the concept of the rule of law. Historically, we cannot have a rule of law if people are acting under prerogative powers in defiance of the legislated or statute power in the land. The Government have therefore moved to bring activities within the rule of law. I shall consider that aspect in a moment.
There is another principle underlying a democracy--surely the basic principle, the very assertion of which is now being examined at great length. I advise my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members to read the evidence from day 63 of the Scott inquiry, given by Sir Robin Butler. That is not only riveting but deeply disturbing. Sir Robin discussed what responsible, or accountable, government meant. I cannot trace through the Bill where there is an affirmation of that, and I wonder to myself. We passed the Security Service Act, and now we are considering the Intelligence Services Bill. We see common features and commmon words across the two pieces of legislation--for instance, the concept of warrants, which is essential for bringing the activity within the rule of law.
We must remember that there is no judicial interference in any of the actions in that process. Unless there is a mistake, whereby the Prime Minister determines to set up an inquiry such as that of Lord Justice Scott, we know absolutely nothing of what is happening on our behalf, at our behest and at our expense.
Those principles are of profound importance. The rule of law required us to put matters on a statutory basis ; that is enormously important. A warrant issued by a Secretary of State--from the Home Office, for instance--makes lawful that which would otherwise be unlawful, without reference to any court. Most other societies have always
Column 221required judicial intervention in that process. For instance, a warrant is sought from a justice or from a judge. That can be done in a secure way, and it is done to show that the Security Service is not merely the creature and the self-serving of executive government. As with the armed forces, it should be at the service of the whole nation. That is why we have to be so careful. In the Bill, in legislated form, we are providing a continuation of the process of making lawful that which would otherwise be unlawful. That point ought to be set up on high. We believe that there should be absolute attention to the rule of law.
I try to trace through who is actually accountable for the service. Clearly it is not the commissioner ; clearly it is not the tribunal ; clearly it is not what is now called, in that elegant phrase, a committee of parliamentarians. We must search further. Normally in our system of accountable government we expect a Minister who is both responsible and accountable to be accountable to the House of Commons. But in this extraordinary democratic society of ours we have always accepted that it is inappropriate to speak on security matters. That was so until 1989, and the legacy of that feeling still lingers over the House.
My right hon. Friend the Minister will remember that in the defence of that secrecy the present Secretary of State for Education, who was then Minister of State, Home Office, made some remarks that were funny at the time, but which now look nothing but hysterical and deeply shaming. I am trying to trace through who is responsible for the service. There are Ministers who say, "There are some matters that I do not wish to know about." There is no traced line that is clear and certain showing us who is responsible for the efficiency and efficacy of the service, and for the matching of warrants to the proportionate needs.
Why am I concerned about that? I am concerned because it touches on the most intimate freedoms of a free society. The ability to burgle my house or to tap my telephone is intrusive at the grandest levels, yet rightly we recognise that there are circumstances in which it is necessary for the well-being of us all that the ordinary decencies and proprieties of democratic government under a rule of law are not appropriate. Therefore, we must be assured that from within the wall of secrecy, as it is called today--the circle of secrecy was the term that we used more vigorously five years ago--someone can attest to the House and to the wider nation that what is being done is all appropriate.
After all, let us be frank about the fact that no committee would be being set up unless there were an unease within the House and within a broader public context. I do not know whether the scandals that we were led to enjoy in the early 1980s, and certainly in the Wright period of the early 1970s, were merited, but they left an unease. Lord Merlyn-Rees, for example, felt that he was the victim of over-enthusiastic or perverse military intelligence operatives. That should make us extremely conscious. I notice that that is perhaps why we have the prevention of subversion of parliamentary democracy as one of the objectives of the Security Service.
I am trying to pluck out the truth about where and who is the person who can attest to us and say with authority, "We have stood and looked and we can show--or rather, say ; you must trust us on that basis--that this is
Column 222appropriately managed, and does not overly intrude into the lives of citizens, that the warrant issued to make lawful that which would otherwise be unlawful was appropriately issued in respect of the threat identified in it."
As I have said, the remit covered by the two pieces of legislation is so wide that it could encompass almost anything that a Government wished to do, if it were malign. There is no question about that. It is extraordinary that we do not attempt to define the essence of national security. Other societies have tried to do that, and there is a reasonable argument that it may be a moving target, because the needs of a society change from generation to generation.
Mr. Rogers : I am following the hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest, but, unless I am misunderstanding him, he is giving the impression that the issuing of a warrant legitimises that which otherwise would not be legitimate, and then implying that attached to the issuing of a warrant is some sort of judicial intervention. However, the Bill specifically says that the warrant is issued by the Government, through the Government's agent, the Secretary of State.
Mr. Shepherd : If I conveyed that impression, I was wrong to do so. I do not believe that I did. I was saying that the issuing of a warrant makes lawful that which would be otherwise unlawful under the statute law of the country. As there is no judicial review of that--it is specifically excluded--it is a matter of the greatest sensitivity and why we need attestation that the process is conducted appropriately by those outside the services themselves and not by those so closely allied to the Executive that it may undermine the confidence of the public. I think that, because of the anxiety and the question of public confidence, there has been a move towards a committee of parliamentarians. I shall comment on that committee later.
Mr. Rogers : To follow that argument, the Secretary of State would have to authorise the release of documents to the committee. If the committee is to be the overseeing body, but cannot oversee operational matters--the issuing of a warrant is obviously directly related to an operational matter--there is no purview in any way of the process that the hon. Gentleman has outlined so clearly. The committee of the House, regardless of how it is set up and what it would do, would never be able to call for the reasons for the issuing of a warrant. Perhaps it never should. I am not arguing that it should, because that is an operational matter, but it would be wrong to give the impression that the committee would have the right to do it.
Mr. Shepherd : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has tried to follow what I am saying, because I do no think that we are at odds. I am considering the reasoning behind why we construct Bills and why society at large tries to address some of those points. I do not think that the Bill addresses some of those points, as I shall say. The sensitivity of the issuing of a warrant, which makes that which would otherwise be unlawful lawful and without judicial review, is therefore a matter of great importance and of great reflection for a democratic society.
Therefore, we need the means by which we can attest. The Bill does not meet that need at all and there is a respectable body of thought that feels that it is merely a palliative to reassure the public and hon. Members that the matters are being considered.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : On the operation of warrants, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, I find it extremely worrying that we have been told by Ministers in the Scott inquiry that they have no option but to sign warrants whatever they contain--
Mr. Mates : No, they have not said that.
Mr. Cohen : Yes, they have said that and they have said that they use the excuse that it is in the public interest or in the interests of national security. They are thus not accountable to the House or, presumably, to the committees for signing those warrants. Even worse, those warrants do not necessarily relate to one person, but can be a general warrant which, once a Minister has signed it, the security services may relate to many people. Is not that a worrying aspect of the operation of warrants?
Mr. Shepherd : Of course it is worrying. We are labouring a point that I was making as an indication of why we are considering the issue and why there are reasons to be not so glad-handed about the matter, as perhaps the House of Lords conveyed. The cross-bench, bipartisan approach also leads one to believe that the matter is settled. I accept what the Secretary of State said. It is a stepped approach and I do not think that the way in which the committee will be constructed will satisfy that basic test.
I was going to adumbrate, if I may, some of the principles involved in the Bill. First, I shall quote the Rockefeller report to President Ford about the balance, which is not evident in most of what has been said, certainly not today and certainly not in the Lords, and which is the essence of concerns to many people. The report states : "While it is vital that security requirements be met",
with which the House absolutely agrees,
"it is equally important that intelligence activity be conducted without impairing our democratic institutions and fundamental freedoms".
I suggest that that is a principle which should inform all such matters. It is the most difficult balance to strike, which I accept. The Executive has real difficulty in trying to balance the needs, which often seem of the absolute imperative, for defence and security against those of the rights of a democracy. If we employ such draconian measures, as is possible and as has been alleged in the past, we impair the democracy.
That is why the debate is tremendously important ; the essence of it concerns our freedoms, our liberties, our rule of law and the accountability of Ministers. In reconciling the security of the United Kingdom with the requirements of democracy, we should emphasise that we hold certain things to be absolutely fundamental to our understanding of democracy : first, responsible or accountable government ; secondly, the rule of law ; and, thirdly, an aspect of which we have not heard anything this afternoon, but which is important and over which we fought in the Official Secrets Act 1989, the right to lawful dissent. That is an essential and basic requirement of our democracy. It is not in the Security Service Act 1989. No allusion is made to it in the Bill. It is important that, in setting out the statutes relating to the conduct of matters which must be of a secret nature, there must be, in a declaratory form, an explanation of the principles on which we operate.
On the question of responsible government, I again refer to day 63 of Lord Scott's inquiry where there was a rehearsal of those arguments that I held dear and had learned from Wade and Phillips and Ivor Jennings among
Column 224others, about responsible and accountable government. It means that a Minister must, if he wishes, know absolutely everything that is happening--the details of any operation if necessary-- because he is accountable to the House. It does not mean that he will tell us the details of that operation, but anything of a political sensitivity must be by some mechanism instantly referred to him. That is one of the conditions that I am setting out as necessary. It does not seem to be accepted on the Floor of the House and it is certainly not accepted in the Lords.
Ministers are also proud to declare that certain things are either too secret or too important or too tendentious for them to wish to know. They may endanger the security of an act by the security or intelligence services. That self-abnegation reduces accountable government to a nonsense. If one is to have accountable government, Ministers must know everything that is happening if they wish. The principle is that they should know everything that is sensitive and likely to beg questions relating to the greatest sensitivities of our personal freedoms in this democracy.
That principle is held at arm's length and is not yet regarded by the House. I do not understand why that is, if we examine our function here to hold Ministers to account. Those Ministers control and are responsible and accountable for a service that may move into the most important facets of our liberties, freedoms and privacy. That is not outside the circle of secrecy or telling the public or even hon. Members what an operation is, what its nature is or about its details. There is no possibility of a leak.
I was trying to identify what I understood by responsible government. Lord Scott will give us another view of what it means, by the non-responsibility of Ministers for so much of what they have done over recent years.
The rule of law as the other principle is important because until the Security Service Act, unlawful acts took place. It is as simple as that. I have given the expression of a judge and we know why we had to address that issue. The McDonald commission report said : "Responsible Government must mean that responsible Ministers can know about all the practices and policies of security agencies and about any of their operations which raise policy or legal issues. The security system must be an open book to responsible Ministers and to the Prime Minister. No pages in that book should be sealed because security officials think they contain information too sensitive for Ministers' or Prime Ministers' eyes or ears. Responsible Ministers cannot be expected to know everything a security agency does but they can and must be expected to know the policies governing the operations of the security agency and to establish procedures for ensuring that operations raising difficult policy issues are brought to their attention."
On the rule of law, the McDonald commission says :
"Nor is the rule of law a principle that should be compromised for the sake of national security. Government agencies, including a security service, should not pick and choose which laws they will obey. We do not accept the idea that there are some minor', regulatory, laws which security agencies should be free to ignore when they stand in the way of security investigations. There may well be a need to change the laws so that exemptions are provided for members of a security agency or police force, but it is not for security agencies, or police forces, or even for the Ministers responsible for these agencies, to decide which laws apply to them and which do not. Under the rule of law in our system of government, the legislators determine general rules of law, and disputes about the applications of the laws to particular cases are decided ultimately by the judges and juries."
We have ruled out the judges and juries element, so we are dependent on Ministers.
Column 225Under the construction of an umbrella, as we got in these two Acts, we have learnt--the Minister of State was kind enough to tell me yesterday--that the commissioner will be the same commissioner for both services and GCHQ. Similarly, the members of the tribunal will be the same for the security services, GCHQ and the intelligence services. The committee of parliamentarians which the Government envisage will also have common responsibilities across the services. I welcome that. It is cohesive. There is an understanding that this is an intelligent way in which a body of knowledge and facts grows. I shall mention in passing the right to lawful dissent. I should like to see that emphasised--it should be included in security services legislation. I do not understand why the legislation was not consolidated so that we had a clearer expression of what we wanted. As I said, liberal democracies face a unique challenge in maintaining security of the state. The challenge is to secure democracy against its internal and external enemies without destroying democracy in the process. It follows the requirement that all security measures must be authorised or provided by law. In a sense, the Government's Bill meets that requirement. We must ensure that the investigation of subversive activity does not interfere with the freedoms of political dissent and association which are essential to a free society.
What we have is a structural edifice of law--some institutional arrangements and administrative practices. By and large, we know nothing about the administrative practices, because they are not within the public view. The tribunal and its functions and workings are not subject to judicial review and the commissioner is not subject to judicial review. Therefore, the practice must be within the circle of secrecy.
The test that I make is how well we reconcile the requirements of security with the requirements of democracy. That can be done within a parliamentary system--other countries have done it. The Government have not invited the views of hon. Members and the wider public on the construction of this structure, and there is no commission to look at the objectives that we should have. Therefore, this Bill undermines the integrity of these systems.
By and large, the Bill has the support of both Chambers. But what is this committee of parliamentarians? It is extraordinary. We have been told that its members will be notified people. That means that anything that they say is an absolute offence when it relates to the security services or matters that come into their knowledge. I was always happy that they should be Privy Councillors because it reinforced the concept of the circle of secrecy. I am well aware that many hon. Members are nervous that matters that are vital to the state's security could in some way slip out.
We must still reconcile how we can have an account from within that is independent of the Executive, the commissioners and the tribunal, but can attest to us that this is appropriate and proper. That is why any committee that is set up will meet the circle of secrecy, whether through the Privy Councillorship route or not. We know that members of the committee will be notified as well. That degree of trust is not extended to many members of the services.
Column 226We talk constantly as though we will leak information, or that those members who are designated and perhaps Privy Councillors who are looking at this will do so. However, they are denied the means to test whether the action taken or the operation was historically appropriate and effectively run. It is a self-denying ordinance that is remarkable in a democracy. The deference that is extended by Ministers and hon. Members of the House to the services for our freedom is extraordinary. In the end, it will be self-defeating. We should have a little more courage about these matters. These are decent and honourable citizens who struggle to do their best by their duty and towards their country. We should respect that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) made an important point about publication, whether it is by "russet-coated" gentlemen or those "with little eyes". Nicholas Elliott has given a valuable oversight about the value of those services. He lists at the back of his very short book--I do not mean to do a paean of praise for it--some of the tasks identified by hon. Members that must be done in an uncertain and shifting world.
Like all other hon. Members in the House, I give a reluctant or half- hearted cheer, because this measure is not as worthy of this nation as we expect. What I am saying is that we should stand up for the people in the services. They are our servants and servants of the public, just as we are servants. We respect them and want to help them.
However, we must be able to attest to the public through some form of proper oversight committee, not the neutered committee provided for in the Bill, that these people are working effectively and efficiently on our behalf with the large sums of money that they command for that vital purpose. In many ways, what they do is more vital than some of our armed forces today in the wars that are important to us--the wars against terrorism, drugs and those who undermine society.
The construction of this structure was approached in a typical British way. We are the darkest state for secrecy. We conceive our laws in the most secret way, deliver them to the House of Commons and then fight that the House may not change a line or comma. That has brought a terrible tension to so many issues. The proposition is clear--we want effective, efficient and secure security services across the range of activities.
The House is supportive, and there is no question about that. The Bill returns to Whitehall the absolute which it must always hold and the one thing which is now causing it to crack--the need for absolute secrecy over how it comes to its judgments. It must itself determine the shape of all the legislation before the House, including that which relates to the security services.
I wonder in my heart of hearts who conceived the Bill. Was it Ministers of the Crown working on principles that we have set out in the House, or was it a secret bureaucracy? I do not mean secret in the sense of the security services but as it relates to Whitehall, which has been opened up to us in an unprecedented manner through the Scott inquiry. The deepest and most anxious thing about that inquiry is the contempt that those involved hold towards this House. We must assert that we expect ethical and open government.
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Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool) : It is with great pleasure that I follow the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and the important values that he articulated, which, I am sure, we all share.
I cannot compete with many of the hon. Members who have spoken in their knowledge of the detail of the intelligence services or, in some cases, the fantasy that they displayed about the operation of the security services. However, I have a strong and settled view of my own, which is that the intelligence services are a necessary and perfectly legitimate part of government.
People accept the secretive and potentially dangerous interference with their freedom because of the protection which they get in return from it. Hon. Members have stated the variety of threats that are posed to our country, and they do not need further repeating. I have no difficulty and, I am sure, the people whom I represent in the House have no difficulty in justifying the operation and the conduct of the intelligence services.
The question for us is what principles and framework should govern the operation of the intelligence services. What guards and protection of our civil liberties need to be erected and strengthened through the enactment of this legislation? Specifically, what important parliamentary oversight and public regulation of the security and intelligence services should follow from the Secret Intelligence Service being placed on a statutory basis, as the Security Service already is?
The framework of the Bill offers a worthwhile set of checks and balances which should be neither dismissed out of hand, as some have implied in their speeches, nor accepted without question. There are many important questions and possible amendments to the Bill which we need to consider, and there are a number of areas that we need to probe. In responding to the debate, the Minister should give some elucidation of the Government's view.
We must ask whether the three distinct provisions for oversight which are set out in the Bill--the creation of the commissioner, the tribunal and the parliamentary committee or, more appropriately, the committee of parliamentarians--have real powers which would be capable of being exercised effectively, or whether they have the pretence of powers which could be all too easily brushed aside.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) referred to the variety of arrangements that exist in different countries for providing some oversight of the security services. He offered his own opinion that in each country all the arrangements are different. I suggest that in none of the countries that the right hon. Gentleman has examined are the arrangements quite so toothless-- [Interruption.] I am offering that as my view, not as the view of the right hon. Gentleman.
The powers set out in the Bill may be more appropriately described as circumscribed. The Government's approach in the Bill to the oversight powers which they are seeking to establish can best be described as one of positive containment of those they are setting up and to whom they are giving powers. Of course, that makes the selection or appointment of those who will fill the various positions created in this Bill all the more important. If there is a small set of timorous individuals, the powers
Column 228that have been established will be all the less significant. We must have some aggressive tigers in those roles and positions if the powers are to have any effect.
Reference has been made to clause 7 of the Bill, which enables the Secretary of State to authorise illegal activities outside Britain. I question, as others have done before me, whether the powers outlined in clause 7 are too sweeping. I ask the Minister specifically whether the terms of clause 7 refer to illegal activities authorised by the Secretary of State himself or to activities authorised in his name but not necessarily by him directly or personally. That makes an enormous difference to our attitude to that authorisation. I hope that the Minister will refer to what level of decision-making might be envisaged in the authorisation.
Thirdly, I question whether the powers of intelligence chiefs and Ministers to block information and restrict access are too great. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, East (Dr. Gilbert) referred to schedule 3. Paragraph 4 of schedule 3 refers to "sensitive information", which is by any measure extremely embracing, not to say draconian, in its sweep. I wonder whether there should be some override mechanism or some means of arbitration between the individuals and bodies proposed in the Bill. I should like to know the Minister's views on that.
Next, we should go in some detail into the issue of search and tapping warrants and ask whether it should be left exclusively in ministerial rather than judicial hands. Presumably the Government have thought the matter through and have good reasons for wanting to remove judicial hands entirely from the issue of warrants. Perhaps the Minister will explain why. I wonder whether the Commissioner should be empowered by the Bill to intervene at a slightly earlier stage than is envisaged in the Bill in the issue of such warrants. I also wonder whether there should be greater and earlier disclosure of records if no threat to national security is involved. I wonder what criteria the Government have in mind for the disclosure of those records and what definition of national security they have in mind. A definition was set out in the Security Service Act 1989, but it is not in the Bill. We should know why and what definition of national security the Government have in mind.
An inportant matter that is of great concern to me and my hon. Friends is recognition of trade unions at Government Communications Headquarters. It is unfortunate that, following a meeting between trade union representatives and the Prime Minister before Christmas, at which possible means of resolving the disagreement involving the the creation of no-strike arrangements were floated, the Prime Minister decided to dismiss the proposals out of hand. That decision would need considerable justification by the Minister in our consideration of the Bill.
If the trust of the public in the intelligence services is to be cemented, the provisions of the Bill should be strengthened in several areas, some of which I have mentioned. Above all, if oversight is to mean anything--I do not confuse it with operational supervision, which I shall come to in a moment--I agree with the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills that the Bill should provide clear principles for the operation of the security services. It should set out clear standards below which the services are not expected to fall.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills referred to the Canadian royal commission, which set out some clear
Column 229guidelines, and he has referred to some of those guidelines. Time does not permit me to describe others, but they commend themselves. Obviously, a great deal of thought has been given to the subject in Canada. The guidelines set out by the Canadian royal commission provide a useful rubric which might be employed by the Intelligence and Security Committee when it is set up as a result of the enactment of the Bill.
For me, the heart of the issue is not simply the external oversight of the security services, but the operational supervision--a term which I use advisedly. I share the views of my colleagues who do not believe that oversight means involvement or dabbling in the day-to-day details and activities of the security services. But operational supervision is very important indeed. Day-to-day control of the security services is not, and should not be, a function of any parliamentary committee ; it is a function of Ministers, and Ministers alone.
The central and last point of my speech is that, in my view, it is a question not whether the Bill properly makes a shift from a presumption of secrecy to accountability in the operation of the security services--in theory it obviously does, and that is welcome--but whether, as a result of the shift, the intelligence services, in their day-to-day operation, will be better directed, more capably managed and more efficiently controlled by Ministers. I believe that this will depend, above all, on the performance of Ministers, the attitude they bring to their work in this crucial area of government, the discretion that they exercise and the scrupulous use of their powers and on the attitudes that are passed on to the heads of the security and intelligence services. For me, this is of paramount importance.
At the beginning of the debate, the Foreign Secretary said--I paraphrase his remarks--that the security services do not work to their own agenda, that they do not work without direction and instructions from Ministers, that they carry out their tasks in relation to specific policies. It is immensely difficult, but extremely important, to ensure that when the Intelligence and Security Committee approaches its work it will not be unduly frustrated and obfuscated by a fussy and pedantic ministerial distinction between tasks and policies. This afternoon, the Foreign Secretary established clearly that they are the two sides of the same coin. It is very difficult to disentangle from the policies laid down by Ministers the tasks that are carried out in pursuit of those policies. Both must be subject to questioning and scrutiny by the committee made up of hon. Members.
This is a crucial and central issue, which I hope that the Minister will address. The Foreign Secretary did not go into it in sufficient detail. Recorded remarks of a previous Home Secretary indicated that it was impossible to make a distinction between operation and policy. That was his argument against having any oversight at all. In moving away from that view, we need to ensure that hon. Members understand much more clearly how tasks and policies will be understood and disentangled, if at all. It is on the impact of greater openness and of opportunity to question the political control of the services that success or failure for this legislation hang.
In other areas of administration, the scrutiny and accountability of Ministers afforded by parliamentary
Column 230oversight results in better government. Exactly the same applies to the intelligence and security services. A principal aim of the Bill must be that the creation of checks and balances will focus Ministers' minds and help to ensure high standards and effectiveness in operational supervision. The oversight for which the Bill provides is the means by which we shall drive Ministers to achieve those high standards and that effectiveness. If that is not achieved, the legislation will be worthless.
The intelligence services only collect information. The Joint Intelligence Committee analyses it and Ministers must decide what to do as a result of that analysis. Ministers are therefore crucial. It may well be, as some hon. Members have suggested, that before the Falklands war or the invasion of Kuwait the intelligence services were somewhat at fault. I do not know-- I do not have enough knowledge to say--but I hazard a guess that if the services were at fault on those occasions they are certainly exceeded by the number of occasions, areas and subjects on which the services got it right, averted conflict and secured our country's national interest. Ultimately, Ministers must take responsibility for their own and others' actions. Throughout the Scott inquiry, we have witnessed the ability and inclination of some Ministers to overlook matters from time to time that it would be expedient for them not to see, to react and act expediently when they so wish and when it would be politically embarrassing for them to do otherwise, and even to mislead Parliament when it suited them and then to try to shuffle off responsibility when they were found out. The Bill should guard against that happening in relation to the security and intelligence services and prevent such sloppy and cavalier attitudes on the part of some Ministers. I believe that the Bill will be extremely important, once enacted, as a means of guarding against such behaviour and arresting it.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) : Earlier in the debate, my right hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) were able to speak from their direct experience of the service that the security and intelligence services have rendered.
In the days when I served as a bag carrier and general factotum to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, I was rightly never privy to the working methods of those services or to details of the information that they gained. However, I knew enough about what was happening in the Foreign Office to know this. In 1990, when British subjects were in hiding in Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion and other British subjects were being detained as hostages within Iraq, the information gleaned by our security and intelligence services helped the Government to advise and reassure relatives waiting in distress at home and to shape the diplomatic initiatives that enabled real help and comfort to be brought to those British citizens in need. I certainly agreed with the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) when he spoke of the necessity for intelligence and security services in the British state today. I must confess that when I first studied the Bill and realised that the Government had agreed to some measure of parliamentary scrutiny of the work of those services I
Column 231thought that perhaps they had gone too far. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) very fairly drew attention to the paradox that one could have two kinds of committee. One could have a committee that was privy to the innermost workings of the security and intelligence services and, for that reason, could never divulge its findings--for good or for ill--to those in a position to take the appropriate action. Alternatively, one could have a committee whose members would be excluded from detailed knowledge of the workings of those services and therefore incapable of carrying out their task.
Having listened to the assurances given by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and studied the Bill in more detail I am somewhat reassured, although I would always want to be satisfied by Ministers that they are striking the right balance between desirable openness and the very necessary secrecy that must still apply to the work of the British security and intelligence services.
I listened particularly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater, who talked about the need for greater supervision : of the budgets of the security and intelligence services. Anyone who has in recent years watched Vauxhall palace rise brick by brick over the London skyline would support the need for such scrutiny and the need for it be rigorous.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills talked about
accountability. I found myself unable to support the hon. Lady's argument that the Intelligence and Security Committee and the commissioner should report directly to Parliament rather than to the Prime Minister and to the relevant Secretaries of State. The security and intelligence services are part of the central core of what constitutes the state and, therefore, it is right that they should report to the relevant Ministers and that those Ministers be held accountable to the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills spoke, as always, with passion and eloquence and from the noblest of motives. I differ from him in that he gave insufficient weight to the safeguards that are provided by the institutions and political culture developed through this country's history and tradition. He put too much confidence in written constitutions and statutory rules and regulations, which will prove worthless in the absence of the right culture in government, as has been shown in the histories of other states during this century.
The Government have sought correctly to strike a balance between openness and secrecy and they have displayed caution in striking that balance. Because of the nature of the services that we are debating today, that caution is amply justified and therefore I am very willing to support the Bill.
Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda) : The debate has been extremely interesting. Throughout the afternoon, a large number of hon. Members have been present and, for myself, it has been an education. I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and I shall refer to it later. His speech, as much as anyone else's, touched on some of the fundamental questions that face us when we deal with issues such as security, the balance between security and the rights of individuals, and the general concept of parliamentary democracy.
Column 232My right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), the shadow Foreign Secretary, said in his opening remarks that the Opposition support the Bill and will not divide the House on Second Reading. We support it because we believe that it is necessary to put the secret service on a statutory basis.
I also pay tribute to and thank the men and women of the intelligence services who, over many years, have played a crucial part in the protection of British interests and citizens around the world. Other hon. Members have alluded to the fact that we are a secret and secretive society. That secrecy pertains not only to the matters under discussion today, but in general to the Government. Regardless of the fact that the Government have appointed a Minister with responsibility for open government, day by day, they continually, whether because of arrogance or incompetence, or because of a combination of the two, close up and become more secretive. Indeed, as some Conservative Members have said, the Government have compounded the position by subverting the parliamentary process. We recognise that the effectiveness of the country's security and intelligence services depends on a degree of secrecy that would be unacceptable in other institutions. But that very latitude puts them in a unique position to abuse their powers and, on behalf of their political masters, to use them in ways that are no longer acceptable in a democratic society. It is therefore crucial that the need for complete secrecy is carefully considered and that all other options are explored before it is accepted.
Over the years, British society has shown that it is perfectly prepared to accept limitations on personal freedoms where those are absolutely necessary, and even the abrogation of principles of political, financial and legal accountability. Even where full accountability is not possible, the people of this country have accepted other democratic options. If the presumption of accountability is not adopted but, instead, a presumption of secrecy continues, can society be satisfied that the secret services exist to protect it, not to threaten it ?
There are now too many examples of the complacency of the secret service in this country and in other countries. That matter was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and other hon. Members on both sides of the House. Inevitably, the nature of the service is such that many of the stories put about--I shall refer later to the contribution by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason)--are false, exaggerated or rely on fantasy. But because of the present position of the security services and the fact that they have been avowed in the past, they cannot correct those stories. That difficulty adds weight to the argument that the maximum political and legal control should be exercised and be seen to be exercised to convice society that a demand for secrecy is made only when secrecy is absolutely necessary.
Although the effectiveness of the security services depends on secrecy, our acceptance of the Bill depends on parliamentary scrutiny of the secret services. We are convinced that the Bill is not only badly drafted but does not provide for proper parliamentary scrutiny. Aften even a cursory reading of the Bill, we can see that its construction is such that it poses more questions than it answers. That fact has been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House. For that reason alone, although we shall not vote against the Bill this evening, we shall
Column 233seek substantial clarification and amendment in Committee. I was pleased to hear some Conservative Members say that they, too, want that to happen.
Besides its bad drafting and the many ambiguities that it contains, the Bill introduces some novel legal and constitutional concepts that are not elucidated or explained. We shall want to explore those in Committee. For example, the activities of the Security Service on mainland Britain need to be defined. We may find that, on further examination, the activities that the Bill allows in overseas countries might breach international treaties and obligations. Those are all matter for serious consideration.
Will the Minister clarify in his winding speech what is meant by "the British islands" mentioned in the Bill? As far as I have been able to ascertain, there is no legal or constitutional definition. I should like to know what exactly is meant by "the British islands". It would be extremely useful if we had a definition before we reached Committee.
The Foreign Secretary has now joined us. I enjoyed his opening remarks this afternoon. On certain occasions, I felt that he was not quite sure about the substance of the Bill that he was introducing. [Interruption.] It was fairly obvious from some of his remarks that were picked up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland, who asked the Foreign Secretary some questions that he was unable to answer, but perhaps that is not unusual.
One point that the Foreign Secretary made which I found perhaps not laughable but rather sad was that we needed the secret service because of weapon proliferation. I should have thought that the easiest way for a Foreign Secretary to overcome weapon proliferation was actively to pursue the control of arms and the arms trade and to introduce an arms register that could be properly supervised rather than to say that we must have a secret service to control the movement of arms. The mechanisms exist so long as the Government are honestly prepared to subscribe to them.
Mr. King : Quite apart from the question of treaty control and arms treaties--and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister instituted the proposal of a register for the sale of arms--a real problem is what might be called the free market. There is a real problem of gangster groups and others stealing weapons and seeking to sell them to the highest bidder. It is not a breach of confidence to say that out intelligence services and others have already done some important work in preventing that illicit trade.
Mr. Rogers : I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. He brings his vast experience as an ex-Secretary of State for Defence to the debate. I am sure that he will also accept that, if the Governments of the western world applied themselves to implementing an arms register and properly controlling arms, we would be well down the road towards preventing the proliferation of weapons, particularly weapons of mass destruction--and I do not mean only nuclear weapons. The right hon. Gentleman was right to emphasise that Russian arms, for instance, are freely available in many parts of the world. However, I am not sure that we need a secret service to tell us that. Such facts are fairly obvious, even to the Conservative party.
Column 234The Conservative party has a fairly bad record in such matters. Over the past five or six years, as the ex- Secretary of State for Defence will know, I have been asking questions about the export of arms to Iraq. As many hon. Members have said, the Scott inquiry is looking into the matter, and some right hon. and hon. Members have threatened to resign if they are criticised by the Scott inquiry. The inquiry certainly has grounds for substantial criticism of the Government.
As for weapon proliferation, perhaps it would be better if the Foreign Secretary put his own house in order before suggesting the prescription he put forward today.
Many right hon. and hon. Members have raised important points about the substance of the Bill. The whole process of accountability, for example, was rehearsed by many hon. Members, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland spoke of our general unhappiness with the Government's minimalist approach to the process of reporting to, scrutiny by and accountability to Parliament. If there is to be anything other than a charade of parliamentary accountability, a different mechanism must be introduced.
Almost every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate has said that the mechanisms in the Bill will not be adequate for proper parliamentary scrutiny and proper accountability. Accountability to Parliament is an important aspect of the Bill and of what we are all about. But there is also accountability the other way--to society and the law, not only the law of this land, but when we are talking about a foreign intelligence service, as MI6 is, accountability to the laws of other lands. The Bill does not give real and substantial control over the work of the services to Parliament. Accountability is necessary, because agents of the state who act on its behalf must be subject to adequate control by the electorate, the people of this country whom, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, we serve. Although there was some misunderstanding across the Dispatch Box this afternoon, we agreed that just under £1 billion a year is spent by the secret service agencies. The three services must be accountable to ensure that those large sums of money are properly accounted for so that they are used efficiently and effectively. Secrecy encourages inefficiency.