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4.33 pm

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn): No one who has read the Home Affairs Committee's excellent report on organised crime should be in any doubt about the extent of the threat that such crime poses to this country and its citizens. The Select Committee was right to conclude that, taken as a whole, the extent of organised crime is a cause for serious concern.

Organised crime has not reached in the United Kingdom the proportions that it has reached in some other countries, and it is my fervent hope and belief that it never will. None the less, it is a cancer that, left unchecked,

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destroys the very fabric of decent society and makes inoperable the rights and duties that are fundamental to any functioning democracy.

Some countries have been run by or for the benefit of organised crime. Panama under General Noriega was one notorious example, while Colombia has been another. The military regime in Nigeria is characterised not only by its brutal disregard for human rights, but by the associated complicity of the regime in serious and well-organised international criminal networks. The collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist bloc states has been the occasion for the development of highly organised criminal conspiracies in those countries, involving the trafficking of drugs and other contraband, illegal immigration and money laundering. Even within the EU, there are some member states where the tentacles of organised crime reach well into government, as they have in Italy and the south of France.

None of this organised crime--either outside the United Kingdom or within it--yet poses a threat to the security of the United Kingdom itself, but the Select Committee was right to say in its unanimous report that

The question before the House in the form of the Bill is: what kind of pre-emptive measures will be appropriate and effective to meet the current and potential threat of organised crime?

Because of the power that they can wield over individual citizens, there is an absolute necessity in a democracy to ensure that all law enforcement agencies-- the police, customs and the security services--are properly accountable for what they do within a clear statutory framework. As it happens, the accountability of the police was one of the first serious issues that I sought to tackle when I entered the House almost 17 years ago.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Too long.

Mr. Straw: It has indeed been too long--certainly too long on the Opposition Benches.

I introduced two ten-minute Bills aimed at strengthening the powers of police authorities by providing an independent element for the investigation of complaints against the police and for the establishment of a national police agency. These matters are relevant to the Bill, and have consequences to which I shall return later in my speech.

Of all the law enforcement agencies, the ones that understandably arouse the greatest potential anxiety are those that operate, albeit for very good reasons, most secretly--the intelligence agencies. Until recent years, the agencies worked under what I believed to be thoroughly unsatisfactory arrangements. There was no statutory framework for their operations and there was no accountability of any kind to Members of this House. During the past 11 years, there has been a marked change for the better. The Interception of Communications Act 1985, the Security Service Act 1989 and the Intelligence Services Act 1994 mean that there is now a statutory framework for the interception of communications, for the control and operation of the agencies themselves and for some accountability to this House through the Intelligence and Security Committee.

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The arrangements might not be perfect--indeed, they might need to be strengthened in the light of experience-- but they are a significant improvement on what went on before. I believe that that improvement has been welcomed by a great many of the dedicated staff of the agencies.

Mr. Mullin: On the question of strengthening the accountability procedures, does my hon. Friend recall that when the previous Intelligence Services Bill was going through the House, Labour Front-Bench Members stated that the Committee that was being set up should be made accountable to Parliament, and not to the Prime Minister? Is that still the position of Labour Front-Bench Members?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, both for asking that question and for letting me know that he was going to ask it. Of course we want the intelligence agencies to be properly accountable to this House. The question is how best that can be achieved while maintaining the operational integrity of the agencies. The arrangements have been in place following the 1994 Act, and it will be important to keep them under review. If they need to be strengthened, measures will be brought before the House to ensure that that is done.

Mr. Howard: So the answer is no.

Mr. Straw: No, the answer is maybe.

Mr. Rogers: As the person who was responsible for tabling those amendments during proceedings on the Bill that became the 1994 Act, I am rather surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) should raise that matter. He knows that the 150 amendments that we tabled did not represent the position of the Labour party but were probing amendments.

Mr. Straw: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that explanation. When the Bill was going through the House, my responsibilities related to the Department of the Environment, not to any of the agencies that we are discussing today. We all look forward to my hon. Friend's speech later in the debate.

I paid a brief tribute a few moments ago to the work of the staff of the Security Service. In doing so, I place on record my appreciation of the approach of the retiring Director-General of the Security Service, Mrs. Stella Rimington. She has led the way in ensuring greater visibility, and far more public understanding of the purpose of the Security Service and its broad methods of work, without compromising the necessary operational secrecy of that agency.

The proposal in the Bill to extend the work of the Security Service to work in support of the police in serious crime represents a clear departure from its existing functional limits. It is a change that should not be made lightly. It is one about which I thought long and hard before recommending to my right hon. and hon. Friends that we should support the principle of the Bill. It is my view that there is a job to be done, that the Security Service has the skills and expertise necessary to deal with the job and that it should do the job, provided that Parliament is satisfied that it will take on the function and supplement the work of existing law enforcement agencies with adequate safeguards as regards its accountability.

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Although we support the principle of the Bill, serious questions need to be answered today and during later stages of the Bill as to whether operational and accountability arrangements are satisfactory. Those questions relate to the definition of serious crime, to the relationship between the Security Service, the police and the other law enforcement agencies and to the consequences for the criminal justice system of involving Security Service employees in criminal justice investigations--in terms of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the giving of evidence and the handling of complaints.

Wider issues have to be examined, including the need for a single statutory regime for surveillance, about which the Secretary of State spoke a moment ago, and the future of national policing functions. I shall deal with those issues in turn.

In practice, the work of the Security Service in fighting organised crime is likely to be confined to assisting in the investigation of very serious organised crime. In its evidence to the Select Committee, the Home Office included an informative working definition of organised crime, which is used by the National Criminal Intelligence Service, but which runs to more than 500 words. It could not be incorporated into the Bill. The Select Committee advised in its opening recommendation that we should not hinder the work of law enforcement with over-precise definitions of organised crime.

None the less, while I take account of what the Secretary of State said in answer to my intervention, the current drafting of clause 1, which uses the term "serious crime" without qualification, may be too loose. I hope that that matter will be examined in Committee. The use of that term without qualification contrasts with the qualifications imposed on its use in clause 2 in relation to intercepts. The Secretary of State mentioned a few moments ago that the term "serious crime" in relation to intercepts means an offence which involves the use of violence that results in substantial financial gain or, for example, for which it would normally be expected that a first offender would receive a sentence of three years or more.

Since I cannot conceive of any circumstance in which the Security Service would be helping to investigate crimes unless there were a reasonable prospect of the perpetrator serving a sentence of three years or more, I should like to hear from the Minister why the term "serious crime" in clause 1 should not be similarly qualified.

It may be argued--the Secretary of State touched on this--that that precise form of wording was used in the Intelligence Services Act 1994 in respect of the Secret Intelligence Service and Government communications headquarters, Cheltenham. We are all well aware that parliamentary draftsmen become affectionately attached to words that they have got through the House once. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) will remind us, one of the issues that he raised so eloquently during the Report stage of the 1994 Act was the definition of serious crime and whether it might have been better to have used a more qualified term.

It is accepted across the House that the role of the Security Service will be supplementary to that of the police and other law enforcement agencies. In his speech on the Loyal Address, the Secretary of State emphasised

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that the expertise of the Security Service would be there to "help" the police. In a letter that the Minister of State wrote to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee yesterday, he spoke of the Security Service supporting the police and other law enforcement agencies in tackling serious and organised crime.

Although the word "support" is used in the Bill, it is used in the context of support in respect of the

The words, support of the work of the police, or words to that effect, are not used.

There is understandable anxiety, not least among some police officers, that the Security Service might start to take the lead in some investigations. As far as I can divine from the fairly Delphic wording of the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, that was its anxiety, too. It spoke of the contrast between the SIS and GCHQ, whose tasks are generally set separately by Ministers, and the Security Service, which it said was essentially

The Committee concluded, in paragraph 8:

    'conventional' criminal activity, the legislation needs to make very clear that it will be working in support of the law enforcement organisations."
That conclusion is entirely right. The words,

    "in support of the law enforcement organisations"
are the problem. They do not appear on the face of the Bill. When the Minister replies, I should be grateful if he would deal with that matter and answer the anxieties that I am raising and the serious anxieties raised in the unanimous report of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

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