Previous SectionIndexHome Page

1.43 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I shall be brief, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and to the Home Secretary for allowing me to intervene. This is a serious matter which I approach from a freedom of information point of view. MI5 is important and necessary, but I would suggest to the Home Secretary that a number of steps could be taken, in line with the Government's commitment to freedom of information, which would enable the matter to be progressed in a manner consistent with Government policy.

First, we do not know whether there is a file on the Home Secretary himself--an allegation that has been made. In a written answer on 4 December, he said:

In response to a later question, he indicated that there were circumstances in which MI5 was permitted to determine that files were not suitable for ministerial eyes--although

25 Feb 1998 : Column 345

the Home Secretary is responsible for MI5. There is a democratic deficit there. It is up to Parliament to ensure that procedures are put in place to ensure that MI5 is properly accountable.

There are a number of points that the Home Secretary could usefully pursue which will not endanger national security in any way, but which are consistent with the Government's approach to freedom of information. First, why are non-security matters dealt with by MI5 not subject to the Data Protection Act 1988--particularly matters in support of the police? Why is MI5 excluded from freedom of information legislation, when the test of substantial harm could be applied to its activities in the same way as it is applied to anything else? That may well mean that most of what is dealt with by MI5 does not come out, but some might--instead, we have a proposed blanket exemption. Why are the budgets for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ--the Government communications headquarters--shown not separately, but as one figure in the vote?

Why is the number of individuals on whom files are held not published? The Home Secretary has said that he is looking at that matter, and that no security problem is involved in publishing the number of files held on individuals. Why are telephone tap warrants not given out one per line, so we have an understanding of the number of telephone lines being tapped? At the moment, one warrant can cover an organisation such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which may involve hundreds of people.

What steps have been taken to improve parliamentary scrutiny of MI5 and the security services? At the moment, insufficient information comes to Members of Parliament, and it is in the interests of the Government and the country that MI5 should be accountable and should be seen to be accountable. That will give more confidence in the Security Service than at present exists.

1.47 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): The debate presents the House with a useful opportunity to discuss aspects of the accountability of the Security Service, and of myself as Home Secretary for that service.

Security Service investigations usually involve the painstaking collection of information about suspects--whether individuals or organisations--whom the service has reason to believe might present a threat to national security. The information must be recorded carefully and systematically if it is to be of any use in investigations. Consequently, the management of records is bound to be a natural consequence of the service's work.

Since 1989, the Security Service has operated under powers granted by Parliament contained in the Security Service Act. The service's practice of collecting information about people is not one that Parliament has treated lightly. The director general is under a statutory obligation to ensure that the service collects only information that it needs for the purposes laid down in the Security Service Acts of 1989 and 1996--to protect national security; to safeguard the economic well-being of the UK against threats posed from abroad; and, since 1996, to act in support of the law enforcement agencies in the prevention and detection of serious crime.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) refers to our commitment to freedom of information and to our commitment to greater openness. I am grateful to him for doing so, because we are indeed committed to that.

25 Feb 1998 : Column 346

That is reflected in the publication of the freedom of information White Paper, and will be reflected in the publication of the freedom of information Bill.

The hon. Member for Lewes asked me why the freedom of information Act will exclude the operation of the intelligence agencies. We all recognise, as have successive Administrations, that it is not possible to be open about everything. If we removed the ability of the Security Service to operate in secrecy, we would fatally undermine its capacity to defeat terrorists and spies, who themselves exploit the cover of secrecy. However, as I have told the hon. Gentleman, I believe that we should be prepared to be open about the things that we can reveal without harming the service's capabilities. The service shares that view, and in recent years a great deal of information that would previously have been kept secret has been revealed.

Early on, the hon. Member for Lewes asked me what was the oldest file still kept secret in the Home Office relating to the activities of the Security Service or its predecessors. It turned out that it was a file that dated from 1874. I had that file seriously examined and I agreed that it should be placed in the Public Record Office, following representations. I am grateful to him for that.

However, interestingly, I agreed that, as the file related to the Irish Secret Service, pre-dating the current Security Service, the names of the informants, which were on the file, should be kept secret. Although it is now well over 120 years since the events to which the file relates, given the folk memory in Northern Ireland, if those files were made available, some living individuals could be placed at risk. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes for recognising that.

I believe, as does the service, that the idea of making more information available is right, and I commend the previous Prime Minister and my predecessors as Home Secretary for doing so following the 1989 Act. I am examining, therefore, whether and to what extent it is possible to give details of the number and categories of files held by the Security Service. That answers another question raised by the hon. Member for Lewes. I hope to be able to make an announcement on that subject before the summer recess.

I shall make some general points about the Security Service's file holdings as a whole--

Sir Raymond Whitney (Wycombe): Answer the question.

Mr. Straw: I am answering the question directly. The way in which the service manages its files is described in some detail in the Security Service commissioner's annual report for 1991. The commissioner observed that the procedure for opening a file was strictly controlled. Once a file is open, it is subject to a regime known as "traffic lighting". The reason for that description becomes apparent when I explain that all permanent files are initially given a "green" coding. While a file keeps its green coding, inquiries may be made about the subject of the file.

At the end of the green period, the coding changes to "amber". During the amber period, inquiries about the subject are prohibited, but any relevant information that the service receives about the subject may be added to the file. At the end of the designated amber period, the file is

25 Feb 1998 : Column 347

coded "red". During that period, the service may neither carry out inquiries into the subject nor add substantive information to the file.

Finally, after a period of red coding, the file is microfilmed, the hard copy is destroyed and the entry for the file in the service's central index is transferred from the live index to the research index. Access to the research index is limited, and I understand that it is seldom consulted. For example, it is not consulted in vetting checks.

It will be apparent from what I have said that only a proportion of the service's files are current, in the sense that inquiries may be made about the subject of the files. A substantial proportion of the files are closed. Inevitably, over the years, especially during the long, 40-year period of the cold war, many files were opened and, later, closed. It is worth repeating that no inquiries may be made on the service's closed files unless new intelligence justifies reopening the relevant files within the criteria that I described earlier.

I shall say a few words about one target of the Security Service investigations, which featured in some of the closed files and which was mentioned by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis)--those involved in subversion. One of the Security Service's statutory functions is to protect national security from actions intended to overthrow or undermine democracy by political, industrial or violent means. That is what we mean by subversion today, and it is what we have always meant by it.

It happens that our parliamentary democracy is not currently threatened by the activities of subversive groups, but that was not always the case, and it was especially not the case during the cold war. It was concern about subversive activities which led the then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, to announce the introduction of new vetting processes, designed to deny members of those groups access to sensitive information. That policy was endorsed by all subsequent Governments, and was most recently set out by the then Prime Minister, in a statement in December 1994.

The threat from subversion declined rapidly following the collapse of Soviet communism, and so did the service's work against that threat. The limited resources that the service currently devotes to its counter-subversion function are now focused on monitoring the position, so that it will be able to respond, should the threat resurface.

I shall deal with the central issue raised by the hon. Member for New Forest, East--the policy on the destruction of Security Service files. The Security Service has no wish to retain piles of records that no longer serve any useful purpose. On the contrary, it is the service's policy to keep only those records that it needs to keep, either to carry out its functions or to comply with its statutory obligations. Those include the obligation, which I accept fully, to retain records that are likely to be of historical interest.

As the hon. Member for New Forest, East mentioned, I set out in detail the criteria for keeping records that are regarded as of historical interest in a written answer that I gave him on 20 January 1998. Each file is examined individually and then considered on its merits as a whole as a file, but no collective decision is taken about categories of files.

25 Feb 1998 : Column 348

The examination includes asking whether the file relates to a major investigation; whether questions were raised concerning important subversive figures, terrorists and spies; whether the file concerns individuals involved in important historical events or causes celebres in a security context; whether the file contains original papers of historical interest; whether the file documents major changes of Security Service policy, organisation and procedures; and whether the file is in some way a period piece, illustrating clearly Security Service attitudes or techniques of the time, and milestones in the service's history.

In 1992, following the end of the cold war, the service launched a review of its file holdings, and started to destroy documents that were no longer relevant to its requirements and did not need to be retained for statutory or historical reasons. As individual judgments are made about each file, the process is resource-intensive and has had to compete with the service's other pressing priorities, such as its work against terrorism. More recently, the work has been accelerated, and I hope to be able to inform Parliament before the summer recess of the progress that has been made.

It has to be for the professional judgment of the service itself to decide which files it can safely destroy and which must be retained for operational, statutory or historical reasons. I make it absolutely clear that the service does not, and will not, take decisions about which files to retain or destroy on the basis of representations from outside the service. It would be wrong to do so in respect of private individuals; it would be even more wrong to do so at the behest of hon. Members or, in particular, of Ministers.

Parliament deliberately inserted into the Security Service Act 1989 the safeguard that the service must take no action to further the interests of any political party. Therefore, I make it clear to the hon. Member for New Forest, East that there can be no question of the service retaining or destroying any of its records with a view to securing a party political advantage for any party or any individual, including the Government of the day.

I pay tribute to the men and women of the Security Service, who spend their lives working to protect the citizens of this country from the type of threat that emerged, for example, last year, during the trials of two ruthless terrorist gangs. That work by Security Service staff, whom I have been privileged, in my time as Home Secretary, to meet and get to know, goes on, by and large, out of the public eye. Every one of us has reason to be grateful for what they do on our behalf.

I shall continue to seek opportunities to shed a little more light on the work of the service, but I shall also continue to draw a clear distinction between information that may be disclosed and that which must be withheld in the interests of the effectiveness of the service. We would be failing in our duty to the public if we forced the service to operate--ineffectively--in the full glare of publicity.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

Next Section

IndexHome Page