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Amendment proposed : No. 31, in page 7, line 37, leave out from beginning to the' in line 38 and insert
(a) who shall be drawn both from the members of the House of Commons and from the members of'.--[ Mr. Douglas Hogg. ]
Column 321Ministers' attention was drawn to the folly of requiring that one of the quorum be a Member of the House of Commons or, by implication, of the House of Lords. However, the Government took absolutely no notice. An amendment that we had prepared could have been accepted in Committee. I regret that the Government have taken so long to come to their senses.
I felt that I must draw attention to something that is indicative of the way in which the Government have dealt with the Bill. Of course I welcome the amendments, but they should not have been necessary.
Amendment agreed to.
(5) The Committee shall make an annual report on the discharge of their functions and shall lay a copy before each House of Parliament together with a statement as to whether any matter has been excluded from that copy in pursuance of subsection (6) below.
(6) If it appears to the Committee, after consultation with the Director- General of the Security Service, the Chief of the Intelligence Service or the Director of GCHQ, as appropriate, that the publication of any matter in a report would be prejudicial to national security, the Committee shall exclude that matter from the copy of the report as laid before each House of Parliament but shall send a copy of the full report to the Prime Minister without any matters being excluded.
(7) In the event of disagreement between the Committee and the Director- General of the Security Service, the Chief of the Intelligence Service or the Director of GCHQ, as appropriate, as to the matters which should be excluded for the Committee's report, that dispute shall be resolved by the Prime Minister.
(8) Any matters not in the annual report as a result of subsection (6) above shall instead be included in a report by the Committee to the Prime Minister.'.
(5) The Committee may request the assistance of staff from among such Crown servants (as defined in section 12 of the Official Secrets Act 1989) as the Secretary of State may think fit, or members of the Department of the Clerk of the House of Commons, provided that any person who assists the Committee shall be notified that he is subject to the provisions of subsection 1(1) of the Official Secrets Act 1989.'.
No. 25, in page 13, line 36, at end insert
or because the Secretary of State is satisfied that disclosure to the members of the Committee is unlikely to damage national security'.
No. 26, in page 14, line 2, after 4.', insert -(1)'.
No. 27, in page 14, line 12, at end add
5. The Committee shall have all the powers of the House of Commons to obtain papers, information and documents and to compel the attendance of witnesses and to compel them to answer questions.'. No. 28, in page 14, line 12, at end add
(2) No information will be regarded as sensitive
(a) if that information is already in the public domain or available to all those whose access to it would damage national security ; or
(b) unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that disclosure to the members of the Committee is likely to damage national security.'.
Mr. Mandelson : The amendments concern the running of the Intelligence and Security Committee which is created by the Bill. Amendment No. 22 concerns the method of reporting of the committee, and I wish to return to that and dwell on it at greater length. Amendment No. 29 concerns the committee's staffing, No. 25 provides a tighter definition of the circumstances in which the Secretary of State might direct information to be made available to the committee,
Column 322and No. 28 clarifies and provides a greater definition of the category of sensitive information which may be supplied to the committee.
I would not have thought that amendments Nos 25, 28 and 29 would be controversial or contentious in view of the previous commitment made by the Minister to lavish sensitive material and highly classified information on the committee. The amendments simply wish to bear out that commitment to lavishness, although they provide a slight test of whether the Minister wishes and intends to be true to his word. Amendment No. 20, however, involves a slightly more serious test of the Government's true attitude to the important committee which is being established by the Bill, and of the good faith with which the Government are approaching the committee's role and status--a matter to which we attach considerable importance. The effect of the amendment would be to oblige the committee to lay its annual report on the discharge of its functions before Parliament, rather than simply submitting its report directly to the Prime Minister as the Bill provides for at the moment.
Our justification for making the change is threefold. First, we think that it is important to make clear that the authority for the committee's oversight responsibility is derived from Parliament and that that is borne out by its reporting directly back to its parent, which is Parliament. The committee is an important extension of the scrutiny role of Parliament, and not simply an instrument of the executive role of Government. It is the voice of Parliament, not an extension of the Prime Minister's office. That would be made all the clearer by making the committee submit its annual report to Parliament, rather than via the Prime Minister.
Secondly, we think that it is important that everything possible is done to engage the sincere interest of the House of Commons in the important oversight function of the committee. It is important to gain a commitment to the work of the committee from the House of Commons, and the change that we are proposing would have some considerable symbolic value in achieving that.
Thirdly, although we acknowledge that the committee's powers are circumscribed, it is nonetheless important for the committee to exercise some control over the timing of its report, even though the Prime Minister's veto remains in some form over the contents of the report. As presently drafted, the Intelligence and Security Committee does not have the right to publish its own report, let alone any power to determine the timing of the publication of the report. The Opposition think that that is surely wrong.
It certainly looks absurd that a committee of parliamentarians--with all the authority and importance of the role that is being invested in that committee by the Bill--should not even have the power to publish its annual report and to determine the timing of it. One need only imagine the circumstances in which an annual report is made containing certain matters and references which are politically unattractive to the Prime Minister. They may be uncongenial or unpalatable at the time of elections, whether local elections, by-elections, European elections or even leadership elections.
One can imagine all sorts of elections that the Prime Minister might face in which he did not care to have a potentially controversial report by the committee published. It would be up to him under the terms of the Bill as it is currently drafted to put off and put off the
Column 323publication of the committee's report until a time that was more acceptable and satisfactory from his point of view rather than the point of view of the committee or, indeed, the needs of Parliament. In our view, that is wrong.
The amendment deals with an important point of principle. It is the principle of ownership of the committee, which we believe should be located, and seen to be located, clearly among Members of Parliament. The amendment has nothing to do with the separate argument about the powers and status of the committee and its access to information. All those separate matters will be covered by other amendments. Amendment No. 22 is important because it touches on the image of this important committee. It touches on the committee's standing with the public. It is important that the public see the committee as capable of exercising its oversight powers independently of the Executive. For the committee to make its report to the Prime Minister rather than to Parliament involves negative connotations in the eyes of the public and denotes a lack of independence which is wrong for the presentation of the committee. Such a lack of independence affects the committee's credibility with the public and other Members of Parliament. It also affects its authority vis-a-vis the security and intelligence services.
The committee's standing with the public, credibility with other parliamentarians and authority vis-a-vis the intelligence services are all in doubt. They have yet to be established. They remain fragile. The Minister may argue that the change proposed in the amendment is gratuitous or unnecessary, and has been tabled only to satisfy the over-zealousness or ego of parliamentarians. He would be wrong to make that judgment.
The Minister--perhaps not the Minister personally, but Ministers as a general breed--does not realise the extent to which the jury is still out on the robustness and effectiveness of the committee and its oversight role. Many people have reserved judgment on the committee, and are waiting to see whether it will turn into a tiger or a pawn. Therefore, it is important at this stage to make some symbolic gestures that demonstrate the committee's independence and its link with the oversight and accountability functions of Parliament, rather than tie it so closely to the Prime Minister. The way in which the committee is perceived and judged inside and outside Parliament is important. It will be greatly affected by amendment No. 22 and other amendments that affect its running, its access to information and its independence. To modify the Bill so that the committee continues to work closely with and alongside the Prime Minister but clearly embodies the principle of answerability to the House would be a powerful symbol. It would considerably strengthen the aims and goals of the Bill to which we subscribe. It is important for the Joint Intelligence Committee to work closely with the Government and the Prime Minister. We understood that and accommodated it in the amendment. As we have consistently acknowledged, it is important for the operational integrity of the services to be paramount. We readily accept that no one has a greater personal duty to safeguard their operational integrity than the Prime Minister. It is therefore understandable and right
Column 324for him to be personally involved in the publication of the committee's report. He should do so in the way prescribed in our amendment, however, and not as set out in the Bill.
The agencies should be protected from any unwitting operational disclosure in the committee's report. To that end, our amendment proposes two powerful safeguards to ensure that no unwitting disclosure takes place.
First, we propose that the JIC should consider its draft in consultation with the agency heads before finalising the report that it makes to Parliament. The agency heads should be given that opportunity to give appropriate advice to the committee on the contents of the report so that we can ensure--certainly, to the committee's satisfaction--that nothing contained in it unwittingly discloses anything or refers to something that would endanger our national security or any operational source available to the intelligence services.
The second safeguard, which is equally important, is that the Prime Minister should conduct any desirable or necessary arbitration between the heads of the agencies and members of the committee. The Prime Minister should resolve any disagreement--although it is unlikely--between agency heads and committee members about a matter that the committee might want to refer to in its report but the agency does not want it to include. The amendment provides for that. Any matter excluded would be reported in camera to the Prime Minister.
When we discussed those matters in Committee, the Minister cast considerable doubt on the safeguards. While doing so, he also recognised the strength and intellectual respectability of our case and was kind enough to acknowledge that we had a powerful argument for the committee reporting directly to Parliament rather than via the Prime Minister.
Whether for his sake, or for that of other people in the Administration--I am not sure for whom he was batting on the issue--he chose to point to some defective drafting. In my experience of the Bill in Standing Committee, and of the Minister, drafting is very much in the eye of the beholder. If one has a mind to do so, it is easy to pick holes and pull threads in almost anything, which is what the Minister did during our discussions of these matters in Committee. He alighted on the criteria that we would use for excising material and matters that it would not be right to include in the final report. The Minister drew a distinction between the drafting of the provisions currently in the Bill and the drafting of the Opposition's amendments. He pointed to what he believed was a preferable formulation and said--I will paraphrase the terms of the Bill--that matters which are prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions of either of the services should be excised. The Minister thought that this was infinitely preferable to the criterion set out in the Opposition's amendment--that material which is thought to be prejudicial to national security should be excised. The Minister has drawn that distinction, but there is not a great deal of difference between the provisions of the Bill and the Opposition's amendment. I think that the Minister is indulging in semantics. It is pretty all-encompassing to talk of something being "prejudicial to national security". I would not have thought that anyone would have too much difficulty, after a five-minute discussion, in coming to an agreement on the basis of that broad criterion. Yet the Minister chose to describe the criterion as overly narrow.
Column 325I think that his argument was very thin. He was grasping at straws, or any pretext that he could lay his hands on, in attempting to support his argument and oppose the change that we put forward. If he is worried about the protection of intelligence sources--as he seemed to be at the time--I ask him what conceivable point there would be in the Intelligence and Security Committee identifying a source, deliberately or unwittingly.
If it identified a source unwittingly, when it was quickly pointed out to the committee by the head of the agencies or others that there was a risk that an intelligence source might be compromised, it would be almost inconceivable for the committee, despite that advice, to persist in its pursuit of a matter which might compromise in any way either the operational integrity of the service or an important source which is available to the intelligence service.
Dr. Gilbert : My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Is it not perfectly clear that, if the committee were so obtuse or perverse as to follow the line that he puts forward as a theoretical possibility, it would very quickly find that it would receive absolutely no information, and that would be the end of the committee ?
Mr. Mandelson : My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. When a committee of this kind is set up, one invests heavily in the common sense, judgment and trustworthiness of the people appointed to the committee. If one cannot invest in those very important commodities, one would be very ill advised to set up the committee in the first place.
I remind the Minister that it is the Prime Minister who is placing the trust of Parliament and the nation in the people who are selected to serve on the committee. It is the Prime Minister who determines the membership of the committee. If, at the next moment, he starts treating them as children, not only will it be insulting to the people he has appointed to the committee, but it will say a great deal about his judgment in appointing them in the first place. The amendment aims to strengthen the committee's parliamentary status and respectability without compromising the agencies' operational capability in any way. In doing so, it will ensure that the process of oversight commands greater public confidence. I think it is very important to us all that it be established and strengthened.
Reporting directly to Parliament rather than via the Prime Minister may be a symbolic difference, but it is extremely important to demonstrate that we believe that strengthening ties to Parliament is more important than deepening the Intelligence and Security Committee's subservience to the Prime Minister.
In Committee, the Minister acknowledged that the Opposition were making a respectable, intellectual argument. One senior Government source went further--I do not know whether he was speaking while he was within or outside the ring of secrecy, or whether I was inside or outside of it with him at the time, so I will not identify him. He remarked to me in Committee that this matter was not something on which the Government would go to the wall if people felt that it was important to make a symbolic but no less important gesture in establishing the committee's independence and proper functioning in relation to Parliament.
I say to the Minister that people inside and outside the House do think that this is important. Those of us who care
Column 326about the credibility and standing of the committee therefore think that it is important. Reporting to Parliament rather than to the Prime Minister, albeit with the Prime Minister's stamp firmly on the committee's report, represents the right balance to strike. I hope that our amendment will be supported, and I commend it to the House.
The House will remember well that, as recently as five years ago, the idea of such an oversight committee was anathema to the Government. It was thought that the entire national security would fall apart if anyone other than the Secretary of State, or those officially within the circle of secrecy in Government, were to determine security matters. It was absolutely verboten and the very suggestion that there should be any form of committee that could remotely consider the security services was too horrendous to consider. We tried the idea of Privy Councillors being on such a committee and ran routes around the House and so on, but the suggestion was too shocking. I do not think that I am saying anything more than what was, even then, not a secret when I say that the Government were alarmed.
In the course of those five years, the Government have travelled a long way and one should commend them for that. They have travelled that distance because we now have a more liberal Administration and because people have reflected on what they want the Intelligence and Security Committee to do. I understand why my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State does not want to address the history of the 1970s and 1980s, but that history was such that many in the House, and those who had informed discussions outside, were nervous about whether the security services were focused or under control. Concern was expressed about the policy towards the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Cathy Massiter and others and therefore the Government moved to legalise the internal security services and make them subject to a statutory authority. They had previously rejected oversight on the basis that such matters were so intimate to the very nature and survival of everything that Britain stands for that the system would fall apart if it were subject to such oversight. The purpose of the ISC is to attest to the general public--us, here in the Commons in one sense and the wider public outside--that the internal security services are run ethically and are not directed against honest and honourable citizens. It is designed to prove that the service is not a malign institution. It is a wholly honourable thing for the Government to want to demonstrate that in a wider focus. If they did not want to demonstrate that, why would they bother to have a committee ? They could see off those of us who worry and are jittery about the integrity of such services. The majesty of Government could maintain the position that there was no need for anyone to consider the internal security services.
We need, the public needs, a committee in which we can invest trust. We need one that can assure us about the facts that touch upon the very nature of our democracy but not, of course, by detailing and delineating the actual circumstances of cases. The Committee stage of Bills such as this used to be taken on the Floor of the House, so that
Column 327any Member who had an interest, or an interest on behalf of his constituents, could speak in more detail to amendments.
The committee is supposed to attest to you and to me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this internal security authority is working in accordance with law and appropriately. How can it do that if it is prevented from examining information that gives the entire history, tracing dead cases ?
I shall say this because I think that our obsessive secrecy undercuts the authority of Government. How can the committee, with the best will in the world, say, "We think that warrants are proportionate" ? The Minister will say, "Oh, that is not the important function of the committee. That will be done by the commissioner or by others." That is not the case, because this will be the only organisation for which we shall understand the character of the people appointed. After all, those people will be appointed from those who have been in our midst over the years. That is the purpose of parliamentary government, after all. We shall be able to form a judgment on the character of those individuals. That is why the parliamentary system is often advanced as a good one. We know the weight and the worthiness of the individuals that are there, so that we can trust them when they attest to us, "I cannot tell you the details, but I assure you that that is proper and ethical." 9.30 pm
That is what the Government want and what the House wants and I suspect that it is what the generality of the public want. Therefore, if one is investing in people whom one knows--the appointment is in the gift of the Prime Minister in the end--one must allow them to consider all that one would expect them to be able to consider, such as papers, information and documents, and to compel the attendance of witnesses if necessary. That would be a much more consensual thing, but the statute should set out firmly, "This committee is entitled to look at everything." That will give us the necessary confidence in it.
The purpose of our security service arrangements--the Bill, in a sense--is to give us all an opportunity to reinforce the most important concept that we slip away from in the House, ministerial accountability. Ministers come from among us. They come from the general election among us. They are meant to be our friends, our instrument by which we govern our society. Of course that is wildly fanciful, but I subscribe to the bonny traditions of our House and it was the old tradition and view. I am a Jeffersonian democrat in those terms. I do not believe in prerogatives and I am glad that the Government have put that on a statutory basis. It was inappropriate before.
The purpose of our system, with the checks and balances and so on, is to reinforce the doctrine. I cannot trace, and I do not think that anyone has ever been able to trace in any of the debates that we have had, where authority lies. Where are the checks and balances ? Who is responsible for monitoring, overseeing and attesting that all is well ethically, is properly run and is run in accordance with the law ? Where is the officer who carries out the oversight function ? The Foreign Secretary is now engaged almost permanently in a dialogue about Europe, plus the security dimension. He is the Secretary of State, in theory, issuing those warrants, no less, keeping an eye on what those people are doing. He has the commissioner to do it, but his
Column 328greatest allies are his colleagues from the Parliament of the United Kingdom, who are also considering those matters. I think that it will be a heavy job.
I honour those who will take on the responsibility of being members of that oversight committee because, if they take their tasks seriously, if they are to give authority to that committee, they will have to be individuals whom we trust, whose character we know and can weigh. We must not have old toadies of Government or former Ministers who have been through the routine and have become so grand, vaunted up with privy councillorships on their way to the House of Lords, and who are good and noble bodies who have inflicted much damage on our national life during the ordinary course of their business as ordinary Ministers. No ; we want people of spirit. That must be right. This is a land of spirit.
First, that will reinforce accountability. It will help the Minister to do his duty to the House. Secondly, it will give the confidence that was lacking in parts of the 1980s. We have said it before and I think that everyone agrees here. Those are essentially honourable, not covert, services. Those are not shabby little individuals who run around trying to undermine the integrity and authority of our institution. They are honourable public servants who are trying to do, as we try to do, their best for our society. In the muddle of the Bill, I think that it is a worthy amendment--I take amendment 27 at random. I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is generous in such matters, so perhaps he could assure an even better interpretation of the Bill, ready for the House of Lords, so that it can come back here and we can give it a cheer.
Mr. Winnick : I must tell the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) that, although it is quite likely that he does not wish to serve on the committee, his chances of doing so if he did so wish are probably very remote. If I may hazard a guess, I think that--unfortunately- -those nominated from among the Tories will be those whom the Government consider safest, and least likely to cause any trouble.
The amendments deal with the crux of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) rightly said that, to a large extent, the credibility of the committee is at stake. Those of us who have campaigned for genuine parliamentary scrutiny over the years have always taken the view that at some stage we will succeed : in 1986, I said in a speech that the time would come when the Government of the day accepted the necessity for some scrutiny of the intelligence services. So far, the Government's response has always been that such scrutiny is unnecessary. When the issue has been raised in Adjournment debates and on other occasions, Ministers have always told me that, because of ministerial control, there is no need for concern or for the establishment of any such committee. I do not think that the Bill gives the impression that there will be genuine parliamentary scrutiny. The committee will report to the Prime Minister ; I assume that it will be serviced by the Cabinet Office. The Parliamentary Secretary nods. Such a committee would appear to be virtually a sub-committee of the Cabinet Office, although it would include parliamentarians. That may not be the Government's wish, and it may not happen in practice. However, it would be important because it would not only give the impression of genuine parliamentary scrutiny but to ensure that it takes place.
Column 329That is why I think that a Select Committee should be set up, although I accept that the Government are not going to establish one at this stage.
Why not accept the amendments ? Why should not the committee report to Parliament rather than to the Prime Minister ? It should be the servant of Parliament : is it going to be the servant of the Prime Minister ? That is the real issue. What sort of committee are we discussing--a committee that is answerable only to the Prime Minister, as the Bill suggests, or a committee that is answerable to the House of Commons ?
As I have said before, if other western democracies are willing to provide for genuine parliamentary scrutiny, why is not the British Parliament--the oldest in the world--prepared to do the same ? Why should it be thought that Members of Parliament cannot be trusted ? Why should it be felt that we are not in a position to decide on such sensitive matters--which, indeed, has always been the argument against establishing a committee in the first place ?
Amendment No. 27 states :
"The Committee shall have . . . powers . . . to obtain papers, information and documents".
That, too, is an important amendment. Will the committee have the authority to obtain those papers, information and documents, so that it can carry out the job for which I hope it is being set up ? If the Government continue to take the view that the committee should be denied such powers--I fear that they will--it will inevitably be felt that it is not a genuine committee.
I am not in a position to know the views of those who are directly involved in the security services. They may have no particular view one way or the other, or they may agree with the broad aspects of the Bill. However, there is at least a possibility that some, at any rate, believe that if there is to be parliamentary scrutiny it should go the whole hog--that is not a deliberate pun on the Minister's name!--or, certainly, much of the way. They may believe that a genuine committee should be established, if not a Select Committee. A committee with the powers suggested in the amendments may inspire more confidence in those involved in the security services. For those reasons, I believe that the Government should be far more flexible and far more willing to accept that Members of Parliament appointed to the committee can do the job. They should not adopt an attitude that suggests-- as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool rightly said--that they are dealing with children. For so many years, the Government refused to accept any form of parliamentary scrutiny, but why stop here ? Why not go a little further and establish a committee in which the House can have confidence and whose members realise that they are servants of the House and are not accountable only to the Prime Minister ?
Mr. Allason : Amendment No. 27 deals with the committee's right to obtain information and documents and would grant the committee the power to call individual officers to give evidence before it. I have some reservations about the latter provision, but it is immensely important that the committee has the right to call for information and documents. I draw the House's attention to amendment No. 1 which deals with what should happen to any such documents.
A public declassification procedure is long overdue in this country, and I see no reason why we should not have
Column 330one, especially in view of the American experience, which has been entirely successful. For example, earlier this year, the CIA issued a publication on the Cuban missile crisis. Members of the oversight committee should be allowed to call for documents, even those of an historic nature, to enable them to get the complete background to particular events.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) explained, the British have a curious attitude towards secrecy, which can be encapsulated in the difference between the British and American approaches. The American approach is that, if any document has been generated with taxpayers' money, the taxpayer is entitled to see that document at some stage. If the Government object on grounds of national security, there is a straightforward procedure to follow--an independent judge can be persuaded of the case and he can prevent declassification-- but, under any other circumstances, the citizen has the right to see documents after a given period. It is curious that GCHQ, MI5 and the SIS are exempt from the Public Records Act 1958. None of their documents go to the Public Record Office ; that organisational designation alone on the documents' circulation list will be enough to prevent them from going there. The American approach is that the citizen has a right to see documents. It is a tremendous discipline for public servants because they know that there will be disclosure at some stage and that their advice will be revealed. The British approach is that Ministers must be allowed to receive completely independent advice from their civil servants and that the civil servants should never be held to account at the bar of public opinion. I know which of the two options I believe is healthier for democracy, for the public and for confidence in those agencies. There is a dramatic difference between the two. Amendment No. 1 would allow all documents
Mr. Allason : I am grateful for it, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am speaking to amendment No. 27, which would allow members of the committee to call for documents. If it were accepted, they would be empowered to call for documents of the type that I have described which, under my amendment, would have gone to the PRO. It would have got the Government off a hook on which they have recently impaled themselves. Fifty years ago, in the run-up to D-day, it would have been possible to release all the relevant documents. They would have shown that, while there is a proper place for commemoration, there is also a great deal to celebrate in the remarkable military achievement of 6 June 1944. I accordingly urge the House to accept amendment No. 27.
Dr. Gilbert : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) on his extremely eloquent remarks on this group of amendments. I subscribe to everything that he said, especially about the need for the committee's reports to be published properly after they have been scrutinised and accepted by the Prime Minister. I realise that there is nothing in the group of amendments that specifically relates to that idea, but I hope that I shall not stretch your tolerance too far, Dame Janet, if I invite the Minister, when he replies, at least to acknowledge that in
Column 331the normal course of events the country and the House could expect the reports to be published within, say, two months of being submitted to the Prime Minister. I realise that there could be abnormal circumstances--a general election could intervene, for example-- but it would be helpful to everybody if the Minister gave an assurance about what would happen in the normal course of events. 9.45 pm
I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool said about amendment No.27--about the powers of the oversight committee. We discussed those at some length in Committee, but it is as well to give the whole House the chance to hear the arguments. My recollection is that when we discussed those matters in Committee the only defence that the Minister of State gave for his resistance to the Opposition amendments was that the powers were not needed, because virtually everybody would be awfully happy and would want to come along and give evidence to the committee anyway. If I do the Minister an injustice or traduce him, it is open to him to tell the House now that he has other arguments, but that is the only argument that I can remember him having offered in Committee.
Earlier today the Minister gave us a list of all the areas into which the committee might find itself being drawn : drug smuggling, child pornography, violence and serious crime are apparently all to come within its purview. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman really intend to stand up at the Dispatch Box and say again that he expects everyone whom the committee will want to have as a witness to come willingly ? I cannot believe that he will try to advance such a preposterous argument to the House. It is clearly necessary for the committee to have some powers.
It is bad enough that the committee will not have the power to put witnesses on oath and that, unlike witnesses before Select Committees, its witnesses will not be at risk of being in contempt of the House. But witnesses will not even have to come at all. If they feel like it, they will be able to laugh at any invitation from the committee. I cannot see how it can be in the Government's interests to produce a committee with no powers of that sort, so that thoroughly unscrupulous people will be able to mock an invitation to appear before it.
Presumably the Government and the Prime Minister want the committee to be treated seriously, as a body of some status and dignity, but unless it is given some powers I am afraid that not only will the Government's assurances ring hollow but the whole business will not do the Prime Minister's reputation any good.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) made a powerful case for reporting to Parliament. I understand it, and it is a perfectly respectable case. The question is where the balance of advantage lies. I seek to persuade the House that it lies with the formulation set out in the Bill as drafted at present.
Essentially, I shall make three points. First, the amendments do not achieve any substantial or substantive
Column 332beneficial effect. Secondly, they are incompatible with the nature of the committee as contemplated within the Bill. Thirdly--these are drafting points, but of some substance--the amendments have within them some undesirable elements.
Do the amendments achieve anything of real substance ? Under the Bill, Parliament will receive a full report through the Prime Minister, who will have the power to make excisions--but Parliament will receive a full report. That is the purpose of the hon. Gentleman's amendment. We are debating a difference in the modalities, not in the end result. I understand the argument about enhancing the status of the committee but do not agree with it. The end result--the presentation to Parliament of a report--would happen either way.
Mr. Mandelson : The Minister misses the point. If Parliament receives a report from an independent committee drawn from its own Members, who have exercised a full oversight function, Parliament will attach considerable weight to its contents. If Parliament receives a report from the Prime Minister, that imprimatur will give the report its character and status--which will consequently be lower in the eyes of Parliament and the public.
Mr. Hogg : The hon. Gentleman reinforces my view that we are discussing modalities rather than strategic objectives. We have the same objective--that Parliament should receive a comprehensive report. We are arguing between ourselves as to whether or not that report goes via the Prime Minister. I do not think that that matter is of enormous principle.
Is it logical to adopt the approach taken in the Bill or that proposed in the amendment ? The plain truth is that the committee is sui generis. Its members are appointed by the Prime Minister--it is not a Select Committee-- who is responsible to the House for intelligence and security. It is logical that the committee should report to him, for he appointed it and is accountable for the policies in respect of which it exercises oversight for the House. It is more logical to follow our route than that of the hon. Member for Hartlepool.
I want to make a number of drafting points. I do not pretend that they are all overwhelming but their cumulative effect is considerable. The amendment makes no provision for ad hoc reports, and I am sure that we all agree that they are desirable. Also, the amendment provides--at least in the first instance--for the decision as to what should be or can be excised to be discussed between the committee and the agencies. I find it odd that the agencies should have a role in determining what should be excised, bearing in mind the fact that they are overseen by the committee. I am uncomfortable about that mismatch.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool is wrong to reject the Bill's provision for excisions when the material is prejudicial to the workings of the agencies- -or words to that effect. The hon. Gentleman wants a test of national security. That is interesting, when one considers the remarks of the right hon. Member for Dudley, East (Dr. Gilbert). It would be difficult to say that the disclosure, for example, of the identity of a source would automatically be prejudicial to national security, whereas it almost always would be to the functioning of the agencies. The hon. Member for Hartlepool could have put that right in his amendment but chose not to do so, so he must be judged on his own drafting.
Mr. Mandelson : Surely the Minister accepts that such information would be prejudicial both to national security and to the exercise of the agencies' functions ? In that case, it is never likely to come within a mile of appearing in anything so much as an early draft of a report, let alone in the final version.
Mr. Hogg : I do not agree. It might be, but it would not necessarily be so. Take the example of a source that relates to drug trafficking abroad. I do not believe that identifying such a source would, in the generality of cases, be prejudicial to national security but it would almost always be prejudicial to the proper working of the agencies, because they would not obtain any information in future. That distinction is another argument against the hon. Gentleman's amendment.
Mr. Mandelson : Given the terms of the amendment, does the Minister accept that that is precisely the sort of advice that could and would be offered to the committee by the heads of the agencies concerned ? They would say, "By including a certain matter in the draft report the committee unwittingly risks revealing the identity of an important source. Could you not do this ?" The committee would immediately accept that. That is why the first safeguard appears in the amendment.
Mr. Hogg : The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The criterion for excising material in the amendment is that matters are prejudicial to national security. That test cannot be satisfied in the example that I have given, and that is why I gave it.
The right hon. Member for Dudley, East asked about time. I cannot confirm that the period would be two months but I can certainly say that it is something that needs to be done quickly and within a reasonable time. In any event, the committee will be able to embarrass the Prime Minister of the day by stating that it has laid its report before him and is looking forward with anticipation to its presentation to Parliament. I cannot give a guarantee on two months, and I shall not do so.
Dr. Gilbert : The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made an extremely helpful point. Are we to take it that it will not be treated as a breach of confidence if the committee discloses the date on which it submitted a report to the Prime Minister ?