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2 Nov 1998 : Column 578

Security and Intelligence Agencies

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

Madam Speaker: Before I call the Secretary of State, I should say that I had intended to place a time limit on Back Benchers' speeches in this debate, as there is great demand to speak in it. However, we are starting in good time, and I leave the House to discipline itself for once.

4.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): Thank you, Madam Speaker; I shall take your words to heart.

Today's debate is a piece of parliamentary history. This is not the first report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, but it is the first time that Parliament has had an opportunity to debate one. It is not so long ago that Governments would not officially recognise the very existence of the Secret Intelligence Service--or MI6, as it was popularly known--and in those years it would have been inconceivable that Parliament should debate its functions. Even the location of the agency's headquarters was protected information. It is perhaps a measure of the new openness that, when I last visited those headquarters, I noticed that the nearest bistro has been named "Miss Moneypenny's"--which is an interesting case of fiction invading real life.

It is a consequence of the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee that we are able to have this debate at all. The first report of the new Committee fully justifies the new mechanisms of scrutiny. It sets out the work programme of the agencies with clarity, and also raises openly, but responsibly, discussion of areas of legitimate public concern, particularly relating to the personnel management of the agencies and the files on individuals held by them.

The Committee's work necessarily is not in the open. It would sharply inhibit the candour with which its questions were answered if it met in open session. Some hon. Members may imagine that, because the Committee meets and takes evidence in private, it provides an easy life for its witnesses. I should disabuse the House of that idea. As one of those who has given evidence to the Committee, I can assure the House that the fact that the meeting takes place in private does not in any way diminish the acuteness of the questioning, which is just as testing as any in front of the press.

I thank all members of the Committee for the hard work that they have put into the report. Their effort is all the more appreciated as, by definition, it cannot lead to the public recognition that might attend membership of a Select Committee. The success of the Committee owes much to the experienced hand of its Chairman, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). The House is fortunate to have in the Chair of the Committee a Member who has had extensive experience, in Northern Ireland and at the Ministry of Defence, of the work of the agencies. As the report of the Committee stresses, the frankness with which the agencies are able to respond to

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its scrutiny is crucially dependent on the relationship of trust between the agencies and the members and the Chairman of the Committee.

The Government welcome the report. Our published response to the report has already demonstrated that we find ourselves in agreement with the bulk of the Committee's recommendations, although there are some which are for the House itself, not for Ministers, to progress. I would begin with the very lucid observations in the foreword to the report. I would agree with the Committee that the three agencies are operating in an environment that has changed dramatically over the past decade.

For the first 40 years after the war, the role and justification of the three agencies was self-evident. Europe, and indeed much of the world, was divided into two armed camps, with a very real risk of hostilities between them. Today, three of our former potential enemies in the Warsaw pact are becoming firm allies in NATO. Almost a dozen of the countries of the former communist bloc are democracies on the threshold of membership of the European Union.

We are fortunate to be living through a period of such exciting and historic transformation in our continent, yet there remain security threats to our country, some of which have become more serious over the same decade in which the cold war has receded. The cold war provided a world order of a kind, and not everything that has happened since its disappearance has been either predictable or welcome.

The conflicts in the former Yugoslavia continue to bring home to us the dangers to regional peace from the revival of a narrow ethnic nationalism. The recent strategic defence review confirmed that British forces must be ready for deployment on a variety of missions to keep the peace and to ensure humanitarian relief. Accurate and reliable intelligence will remain as important to those missions as it ever was to the defence of the central front of NATO. Moreover, the increased communication and speed of transfer of equipment and technology which comes with globalisation brings with it challenges as well as opportunities.

Increased mobility creates new opportunities for the drugs trade, which is now second only to the oil trade in value. The revolution in the transfer of knowledge creates new problems of preventing access to the technology required for weapons of mass destruction; and terrorists today can conduct their campaigns on a global horizon, not just on a national stage.

We have sought to give new priority to combating the global concerns of drugs, terrorism and proliferation, and I want to put on record my appreciation of the vigorous and imaginative way in which the three agencies have responded to these fresh priorities. It is of course essential to the continuing success of the agencies' work in these spheres that I cannot disclose to the House their specific successes, of which I know from my own experience. The nature of what they do means that they cannot boast of their achievements if they are to remain effective, but let me assure the House that they have scored real achievements.

The work of the agencies is of major importance in fighting the menace of the drugs trade. The intelligence that they provide to the law enforcement agencies helps us to go further up the supply chain, targeting the barons

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rather than the underlings. In the past three years, the agencies have contributed to more than £200 million worth of drugs being seized and dozens of criminals being arrested.

The work of the agencies is also crucial in frustrating the ambitions of those regimes that are trying to acquire the technology for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Without the intelligence from their monitoring, we would never have the accurate information needed to apply diplomatic pressure or to secure effective international agreement to discourage proliferation; nor would we be able to disrupt covert attempts to acquire such technology. They are also vital to the fight against terrorism. By keeping us alert to the preparations of the terrorists and by helping us to frustrate those preparations, they have saved lives from the hands of the terrorists.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. Although none of us would wish to decry the work of any of the three agencies, does he accept that because the Intelligence and Security Committee was set up by the Government and reports to the Prime Minister, it is different from the Select Committees? Does he further accept that Select Committees retain the right to call on any of the agencies that may be concerned specifically with the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee--for example, in respect of drugs, which would concern the Home Affairs Committee? Matters of foreign affairs which are the responsibility of the Foreign Affairs Committee would be another case in point.

Mr. Cook: I would anticipate that the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee might wish to make an observation on that later. However, I would correct the right hon. Member on one point: the Intelligence and Security Committee was set up by Act of Parliament. It is accountable to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and we are laying before Parliament the report that it submitted to him. That is right, and it gives Parliament the proper opportunity to exercise scrutiny.

The involvement of other Select Committees will be a matter for review on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis where it may be appropriate for those Committees to intervene on intelligence matters. However, it does not seem to me that there is much merit in maintaining an Intelligence and Security Committee--with the specific task of building a relationship of trust with the intelligence agencies in order to carry out the job of scrutiny--if the same job is then done by Select Committees. A Select Committee that wished to intervene in those matters must be carrying out a clear and distinct job.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Cook: I happily give way to my hon. Friend, who I believe is a member of the Committee.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: I have listened with great care to my right hon. Friend. Is it not the truth that if the Committee were to be a fully fledged Select Committee, many of the arguments that have taken place would not be necessary in future?

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