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7.27 pm

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West): Like the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason), I pay tribute to the Security Service, not because I have an intimate knowledge of its operations, but because the freer and more open a society becomes the more susceptible it is to subversive activity and terrorism, so one needs the protection of such a service. On one of the media channels this morning, somebody said that we do not really need such organisations. That is absurd.

I want, in a short speech, to discuss accountability and the relative powers of the police and other law enforcement agencies. With the collapse of the eastern bloc and communism, and the prolonged peace in Northern Ireland, many skilled people in the Security Service must either be made redundant or be redeployed. It is as simple as that.

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We have, however, had the rising threat of international drug trafficking and organised crime, which are areas on which the spare capacity might be refocused. Such areas of operation might seem ripe for harvesting, but concerns have been expressed by organisations such as the Association of Chief Police Officers. The notion of imposing new national structures on what is essentially local policing is found to be unacceptable. National co-ordination is viewed as acceptable by many senior police officers, but national operational units are not.

A balance has to be struck between the benefits of a coherent response to cross-border organised crime and the dangers of creating a readily available key to the control of the whole of the nation's police. For that reason, my local police force and its excellent chief constable, Tony Leonard, oppose the notion of any operational override of local policing via the head of the NCIS, given that that postholder answers directly to the national political office of Home Secretary. Likewise, I have always felt that any central role that draws together the activity of the regional crime squads should be one of co-ordination only and not an executive operation.

Concerns have also been expressed about the implications of the direct reporting by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to the Home Secretary.

I recognise the skills and experience of the Security Service and readily acknowledge its excellence in counter-subversion and counter-espionage, but I am concerned about the narrowness of its abilities in comparison with the broader community-oriented and community-developed skills of local police forces. The narrowness is less important when the Security Service is engaged in its covert roles, but it will become a significant hindrance when its personnel are directed towards more general, mainstream police operations.

I am also concerned about the incomplete accountability of members of the Security Service, which the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) spoke about at some length. Members of the Security Service are not yet--quite understandably--touched by the ethos of public openness that police forces experience. Although there are some mechanisms in place to call the Security Service to account, I see little practical change. The culture of accountability has not manifested itself in the willingness of the Security Service to offer its structure, policies and accounting to public scrutiny, or in any of its members making themselves accessible to public debate, despite the efforts of the retiring director, Stella Rimington. The culture of accountability is much more widespread and pronounced in the police service.

I am also concerned that operatives within the Security Service, because of their necessary secrecy and because evidence gathering has been subordinate to intelligence gathering, will be inexperienced in many aspects of court procedure. That is not an insuperable problem, but there must be a substantial shift in cultural thinking as well as in attitudes to equality of opportunity and open management.

Substantial skills are vested in the Security Service and it has considerable resources--the equivalent of 12 senior investigating officers, some 200 surveillance operatives and about 2,000 staff in total. That is not insignificant. There is evidence that the Security Service is already positioning itself for its new role with preparatory structures. Moves are being made.

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My wish is that the general public will be able to benefit from the talents of the Security Service in the wider fight against serious crime, in co-operation with local police. Together, they would offer the maximum threat to serious and organised crime. However, any such benefits must arise from a solution that meets the shorter-term aim of the need to fight and beat serious cross-border organised crime and which avoids jeopardising people's long-term liberty in other directions.

We need to take certain positions on the question of cross-border crime which should embrace the following broad policy elements. First, the House should recognise that a national and coherent response to serious, organised crime is necessary. Secondly, the active use of Security Service skills is desirable. Thirdly, we need to minimise the constitutional risk--and the link between the political position of Home Secretary and the National Criminal Intelligence Service should be severed. Fourthly, the historical link between the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan police should also be severed to reduce the constitutional risk further.

I make those points because, even if we do not amend the Bill in Committee, it will be useful to stimulate debate and to have statements from Ministers. Those points are important to the police service and many other people working in the crime agencies. Fifthly, the head of the NCIS, if permitted or encouraged to assume a direct operational role as opposed to a mere co-ordinating function, should be allowed to do so under a well-defined and tightly controlled remit. Finally, if the national co-ordinator of the regional crime squad is to have a direct operational role--in the NCIS or separately--the accountability structure should mirror the tripartite system.

So how do we achieve those aims? We need legislation to clarify the position of the Security Service and its accountability for its planning, resource management and actions. The Bill fails to do that, and the Committee stage will be an opportunity to amend it. Amendments will be needed to redefine the role and scope of the post of head of the NCIS, if the postholder were to assume authority for direct operations.

The provisions of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 should be left undisturbed, as they define the Home Secretary's constitutional position vis-o-vis local police authorities and chief constables.

The head of the NCIS must be a police officer whose career has developed through accountability to local communities, so that he or she is sensitive to local needs and so that decision making in conjunction with local commanders works well. We need to have a very clear structure for the accountability of the head of the NCIS. He or she must be a person of such seniority of rank and experience that he or she commands authority and credibility in the management of a country-wide police operation. However, that person must be subordinate to locally appointed chief constables on matters of resources and delegated control. I also believe that the board of management must have the power to appoint and remove the head of the NCIS and that having CID experience is important. Deployment of Security Service personnel must be carefully defined. Many of those matters have not been scrutinised today, but I hope that they will be considered in Committee.

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The Bill is important. It is a short Bill--it has only two main clauses--but it is revolutionary in terms of our structures. If we use the Security Service in the way set out in the Bill, there will be an impact on all the other enforcement agencies. The relationship between those agencies is not defined in the Bill. I very much hope that there will be a full debate on the matter because we are dealing with the interaction of powers, the scope of powers and accountability. That is as important as the direct accountability of the Security Service; that point has not been made today.

The principle of the Bill is right and I agree with the many hon. Members who have said that. However, there are gaping holes in it and in people's understanding of the ramifications of what will emerge from the relationship of the police with the other agencies.

7.40 pm

Mr. David Ashby (North-West Leicestershire): I promise to speak for only 10 minutes, Madam Speaker. Even if I am halfway through my speech at 7.51 pm, I shall sit down. I shall keep that promise; I am most grateful that you have called me.

This has been a fascinating debate. We have heard a great deal about things that we have never heard about before. I had a friend whom I always suspected was in the Security Service. If I could only have talked to him-- he is now dead--about all the washing, laundry and ironing that he had to do, I might have been able to have a rapport with him.

We have heard it all from the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason). We now know that we are talking about one great big launderette in which half the machines are being used and half are not. The ones that are not being used are super-duper--the very latest model of washing machine. They are there to be used and I agree that we should not leave machinery lying idle.

The only problem is that, next door, there is an absolutely super, much bigger, launderette which is able to take laundry from all over the country and to wash it. It does not do the ironing, but it does do the cleaning and it delivers the laundry to others who do the ironing at the operative end. That launderette is the National Criminal Intelligence Service. We have two launderettes, one better than the other because it has super machinery.

The NCIS has one other thing--a dry cleaning service--because it operates overseas and gets information from other information-gathering organisations in Europe. It has that advantage. We now have to consider how we can place the half-used launderette alongside all the other launderettes and how we can get all the machines operating together. That will be the work of the Committee.

We must remember one thing. We shall have no success with the NCIS unless we leave it as an information-gathering organisation; it simply cannot be an operational arm. It would resist time and again any suggestion that it should have an operational arm and it has good reasons for holding that view. When one talks to similar organisations in other countries, as I have, one finds that they all say the same thing. They say, "We have to be information gatherers; we must not have an operational arm. We have to gather the information and let it out to others." We have had similar discussions about similar information-gathering arms, such as the Government communications headquarters.

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We have also had talk about the interception of communications. I am not allowed to talk about that because the Interception of Communications Act 1985 says that one cannot say whether the interception of communications happens but, with a nod and a wink, it works extremely well because it is concerned with information gathering. Anyone who has had any contact with anything to do with the interception of communications knows how effective it is as a result of being information gathering. We have to be careful on this point.

I shall not repeat the speeches that have been made by others--I am watching the clock--because I agree with virtually everything that everyone has said. We shall have to be careful about the relationship between the agencies. We must think about the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and we must think about other codes of conduct.

I do not agree entirely with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), who went on a great deal about a balancing act. I am sure that new Labour does not believe that liberty and justice are balancing acts. One is not half guilty or half innocent; one is either guilty or innocent and there is no halfway measure. There is no halfway measure about human rights and there is no halfway measure about the right and wrong procedures or about what is oppressive and what is not. Those are absolutes and I do not believe that any balancing act is involved.

The House has misunderstood the reasons why some of the Bill's provisions are vague. They have to remain vague. We have been talking about organised crime. When it comes to court, it is just a crime. It may be the importation of a large amount of cannabis or heroin, but it is a crime and not a series of crimes. If there is a series of crimes, there is a series of different charges; it has to be that way.

When we talk about serious crime, we cannot talk about a figure or a limit. We may be talking about the importation of only £100-worth of heroin, which is the subject of the charge. However, in dealing with the case and in sentencing, the judge will know that importation is part of an action by a large section of organised crime and he will sentence accordingly, even though the case involves only £100 or £1,000-worth of heroin. We cannot really put limits on or try to define too much what we intend to do. If we do, we shall spoil what we want to achieve.

Organised crime is a term that we can use, but it is not a term that lawyers will be able to use. We all understand, however, what organised crime is. In the Home Affairs Committee, we have taken evidence and we understand some of the threats to this country from those who have organised crime in other countries and who wish to organise crime here. We are fortunate in that we have not had a great intrusion, although intrusion there is, but we must realise that it will come and we have to be prepared for it.

One area in which the Security Service will be able to help tremendously will be in investigating, alerting us to and finding out more about the threat from beyond our shores. It will have a role in looking at that threat in eastern European countries and in Russia, where the greatest threat is to be found. That organised crime has already penetrated other countries, such as America.

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Somebody said earlier that the white slave trade does not exist any more; I can tell the House that it does. It exists in southern Spain, where all the prostitutes come from eastern Europe and are organised from eastern Europe. They are well organised in Spain, where there has been penetration of prostitution. I call that organised crime, and it is the sort of thing that we have to keep from our own shores.

Much of what has to be said has been said. We shall have to look carefully at the Bill to ensure that we are not throwing out the baby of traditional justice and liberty with the bath water. We must remember that we have a wonderful society here today and that we want to keep it like that. That is why we have to fight crime and why we must ensure that our standards remain the same. I support the Bill.

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