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Mr. Cook: Possibly the one that we have just had would not need to take place in future, but I can assure

2 Nov 1998 : Column 581

my hon. Friend that there would be many others. I believe that he has not yet commanded a majority on the Committee for his proposal that it should transform itself into a Select Committee. Of course it must be a matter of judgment--ultimately the judgment of Parliament as to whether it wishes to amend the legislation--but I am sure that Parliament would be wise to reflect on whether, in the move to greater openness that would be made with becoming a Select Committee, some of the candour and openness with which the agencies can co-operate with the present Committee would be lost.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) rose--

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) rose--

Mr. Cook: I shall give way, but at some stage I need to proceed with my speech on the report.

Mr. Winnick: Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in opposition, we made proposals for more openness and voted accordingly? Does he further accept that as long as there is a lack of proper parliamentary accountability, as is the current position, regardless of the existence of the Committee, the controversy will continue in one way or another? The way to resolve it is by allowing the type of scrutiny that we proposed in opposition.

Mr. Cook: We did commit ourselves to more openness, and today's debate is an example of our being more open than any previous Administration. Moreover, our work on accountability for the Secret Intelligence Service shows that we are willing to be more open. As the House will be aware, I have ordered a report to be prepared by historians in response to a parliamentary question on the Zinoviev letter which will put more into the public domain than has yet been revealed.

The current Administration have no need whatever to be apologetic about our record on openness in regard to the intelligence and security services. On the contrary, we have taken steps that no previous Administration have taken, but at the same time we have to be careful that we create mechanisms of scrutiny that will actually work and will not result in the process being so open that the agencies cannot co-operate with them in the same way as they co-operate with the present mechanisms.

So far, I have discussed the work of the three agencies as one single effort. That makes sense because they co-operate fully together, and the intelligence assessments which we see as Ministers can draw on the work of all three agencies. I also wish to give a few examples of their separate work.

The Security Service leads the intelligence war against terrorism related to Northern Ireland. Its work with the police has led directly to the disruption of major terrorist attacks and the arrest and conviction of many terrorists.

Last year, six Provisional IRA members were convicted of planning to blow up six of the main electricity substations feeding London. Had the terrorists succeeded, there would have been immense disruption to the lives and prosperity of the people of London.

Since 1996, the service has supported the law enforcement agencies in the fight against organised crime. That co-operation has already resulted in success.

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One example is the conviction last year of a major criminal on a firearms offence. The Security Service played a key role in bringing him to justice.

Similarly, GCHQ has given vital support to our military in every crisis since the second world war. That is as true today as it was at the time of the cracking of the Enigma code. We have well over 50,000 troops deployed in more than 20 different operations around the world. Some of them operate in conditions that are anything but safe. The intelligence provided by GCHQ helps them cope with volatile and dangerous circumstances. Our troops in Bosnia, for example, get intelligence from GCHQ that enables them to work more effectively and safely.

GCHQ also has a key defensive role. It is one of the world leaders in developing information technology that is safe from attack. The Government secure intranet launched in April was a good example. So was the GCHQ-designed Brent secure telephone, which is both highly effective and the cheapest totally secure telephone system ever produced. In a world in which information is increasingly the single most important commodity, the ability to protect computers from attack is a fundamental requirement for our national security. The work of GCHQ will help ensure that Britain can go into the information age with confidence and, as a result of current investment, GCHQ will be able to face that future in a modern building on a single site in place of the present two sites.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr. Cook: I had rather anticipated that the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) would wish to intervene, but I am happy to give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Beith: My hon. Friend hopes to catch your eye, later Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Foreign Secretary recognises the force of what the Committee said about how undesirable it is that such an enormous project of tremendous importance to Cheltenham and the surrounding area should have been overseen by no fewer than four different director-generals.

Mr. Cook: I felt that on one arithmetical problem, the Committee slightly overegged it. To be fair, the fourth director was in post for five years, which is a reasonable period. However, I acknowledge that there have been three directors over the past two years. Of course, there is a balance to be struck. It would indeed be desirable that directors should remain at GCHQ for longer. On the other hand, over the past two years the present Government and the previous Administration, who were responsible for the first of those three appointments, have sought to make sure that those appointed as directors were people of the highest calibre and potential. It is a matter of record that people of high potential and high achievement tend to get poached for promoted posts, and the fact that two of those three have departed for posts of permanent secretary is a tribute to their calibre.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will continue to make sure that GCHQ continues to receive top management of the highest calibre; and I hope that we can now have a period of stability to see the project through. The project is not just the work of one man or woman as director. It is the work of a team. Expertise has remained available throughout that period.

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GCHQ and the Security Service have been opening up. Both have publicly advertised for recruits and both now have websites. The Security Service has produced a booklet describing its work. However, the third agency--the Secret Intelligence Service--must remain secret. I cannot be as frank with the House about its successes as I have been about those of the other two agencies.

Those who work with SIS overseas often risk their lives so that our lives may be safe. Their effectiveness and their lives depend on their identities and work remaining out of the public eye. Their ability to gather intelligence depends on the confidence that their sources have in the absolute trustworthiness and discretion of the service. Their international links depend on their sister services in other countries knowing that when they hand information to SIS it will remain secure.

For all three agencies to perform their work adequately, they must be adequately financed. The function and structure of the agencies were separately examined in the recent comprehensive spending review. We concluded that there was a real and continuing need for the work of the agencies. If they are to do their job, they must have confidence that they will be resourced to fulfil the tasks that we place on them. I am pleased that the comprehensive spending review has halted the decline in the resources available to the agencies and enabled them to face the future with confidence. That is in contrast to the past five years, during which the budget of the agencies declined by nearly one third.

I particularly welcome the care and attention that the Intelligence and Security Committee has paid to issues of personnel management. All three agencies depend wholly on their staff. For each, their staff are their key asset. When they join they sacrifice some personal freedom. The agencies depend on the loyalty and discretion of their staff. In return, we need to make sure that there are proper arrangements in place to deal with their problems and grievances.

I am glad that the Committee recognised the valuable work done by the staff counsellor. We share the Committee's view that Sir Christopher France has an important role. The Government also share the Committee's anxiety that staff should, as much as possible, enjoy the same rights as other employees, including access to industrial tribunals. As we have already said, we are reviewing whether and how it might be possible to give access to a tribunal for those sensitive cases that are currently excluded from such arrangements.

The Government have already demonstrated their commitment to the rights of the staff who do important national security work. One of our earliest acts was to restore to staff at GCHQ the right to belong to an independent trade union. Three of those who lost their jobs because they refused to lose their union membership are now back at work at GCHQ.


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