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5.45 pm

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): On behalf of all the Committee members, I pay tribute to the Chairman for his extremely hard work. His knowledge of the ins and outs of Whitehall has been invaluable in achieving what we all regard as an evolutionary process. I know that he would confess that, on occasion, he has been a little irritated with me when I have wanted to proceed a bit more quickly with that evolutionary process than was possible under the previous Government;, but now we are moving apace. Members of the Committee are unanimous in their desire to make progress on oversight.

Some of us--although not the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry or the Minister for Defence Procurement--who served on the Intelligence Services Bill when it was outed are present today; the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who is here, was then one of the Foreign Office Ministers responsible for the legislation. The Government of that time were very brave in outing the security service with the Security Service Act 1989 and then the Intelligence Services Act 1994, but they were a little hostile to some of our suggestions.

Some of my hon. Friends may be anxious to reproduce some of the words that I uttered in 1994 promoting the idea of a Select Committee; perhaps I can pre-empt them by drawing attention to the fact that the Government accepted only one of dozens of amendments, if not more than 100, that I tabled on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition of the day. That amendment increased the Committee from six to nine, which was a very wise step. The easiest way to describe the rest of my experience is that it was like running up against a brick wall.

The Government of the day were determined to move. I remember speaking to a senior member of MI6. I said, "I suppose you wrote this Bill, Sir Colin." He replied, "No, I didn't write it, but I did give a job description." That was the extent to which the agencies co-operated. It is important to remember that the agencies wanted a system of oversight, and co-operated in developing it. That was as far as we could go in those days. Since then, a critical development has been not only that the agencies trust the Committee, but that we are beginning, in some ways, to trust them.

We must also have the trust of our parliamentary colleagues, because without it we cannot properly oversee the agencies. At the press conference last week, a

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gentleman from the press asked whether we regarded ourselves as poodles of the agencies. I jumped in, with my big mouth, and said, "Yes." Everybody clapped and reported my comments, but they did not say that I added that we could be regarded as poodles if the present system continued.

One of my colleagues answered the question by saying that he was nobody's poodle, but he could have added that, under the present system, nobody would know whether we were poodles, because we get only the information that the agencies want to give us. We have a question and answer system, and we can investigate, but if the agencies hide behind reasons of national security or the risk of endangering the lives of agents in operations, we have to accept that and go no further. In that sense, we cannot perform our task of oversight properly, but the system is evolving and slowly moving forward.

As the Chairman of the Committee has said, one of the most important aspects of the report is the Committee's realisation that it is necessary to extend our powers, within the parameters of the present Act and the ring of secrecy, to include an investigative arm. We must develop that aspect of our work, but it is not intended that every member of the Committee should charge into MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and demand to see the books and lists of agents.

One suggestion is that the Committee should use someone who operates, or has operated, within the ring of secrecy to act on the Committee's behalf. That would protect the secrecy that the agencies require to carry out their work, but the Committee could be confident in its conclusions if, for example, any allegations were made about an agency's conduct.

Fellow parliamentarians should not think that we do not have heated debates on these contentious issues. We have long and difficult discussions on how the Committee's role should develop. We have had strong debates on the possible adoption of a Select Committee style for our proceedings.

The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), who intervened at some length, is not in his seat now, but I can tell him that we have examined whether the Committee impinged on the functions of the Foreign Affairs Committee over the issue of Sierra Leone. All we are interested in is whether the intelligence systems worked. The Committee is not concerned about the politics of the incident, but we want to discover whether the Foreign Secretary, the High Commissioner and the other politicians involved were in receipt of fresh intelligence at the critical times.

There is obviously an interface between our role and the role of the Home Affairs Committee, which has a general responsibility in the area of crime. The previous Home Secretary asked the Home Affairs Committee to consider whether MI5 should be involved in the investigation of serious and organised crime, and it concluded that the police should be the body that investigated crime. However, MI5, with its peculiar talents and abilities which are not available in the police force, should be available to help.

If we cannot harness every aspect of the state against drug traffickers and other evildoers, what hope is there for our communities? Some have suggested that there is jealousy between different Committees, but I say that we must work together. The virtue of using MI5 in the

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investigation of serious and organised crime is that it has abilities and qualities that allow it to take a long-term view. It does not have to bring the criminals to account and follow them through the judicial process, because that is the responsibility of the police and others, such as Customs and Excise. For the Committee to do its job properly, it must evolve slowly along those lines.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): The hon. Gentleman kindly referred to my involvement in the original creation of the Committee. Now that I am not fettered by ministerial shackles, I can say that it was always my understanding that the Committee would develop and grow into the job. I strongly support the Committee's proposals for an investigative power, but does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the example he just gave of the overlap between the Committee's responsibilities and those of the Home Affairs Committee clearly demonstrates the specific powers that his Committee already has? That shows the experiment's worth.

Mr. Rogers: I wish that the right hon. Gentleman had been a little more positive back in 1994 and given us the benefit of his wisdom during the passage of the Act, because we have lost four or five years; but I accept his conversion with good grace.

The right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell(Sir A. Hamilton) is not in his seat--although I think he poked his head in a little earlier--but I recall his arguments early in the Committee's life about whether intelligence should be a free good. [Interruption.] I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman, who is present after all.

I was impressed when I first joined the Committee by the range of the work that the intelligence agencies undertook, which is used by other Government Departments in pursuit of their functions. The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked whether such work could be done by other people more efficiently, and we had lengthy debates about the issue. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, some of whom have lost their seats, for the work they did.

The Committee started from scratch, and even now is still involved in a learning process. Our work load is so heavy that we have had to divide the responsibilities. I know that other colleagues will speak about specific issues, but I wish to make the point about the Committee's evolution because I have been involved from the beginning. I have been especially concerned about changes in priorities, given recent geopolitical changes.

The development of new priorities, and a change of emphasis in the work of the Committee since the end of the cold war, has made it content that the agencies should operate within the general parameters of the law with proper accountability and warranting. During our discussions in the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, in which we had considerable help from John Wadham and Liberty, we covered the peculiar area of warranting. We considered actions that might be illegal and for which, in certain circumstances, a warrant might be required. The Committee was satisfied by its dealing with the heads of the services that the agencies act circumspectly in those circumstances.

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My final point concerns defectors and dissatisfied people, a matter of long discussion in the Committee, to which I am sure some of my colleagues will wish to refer. The Foreign Secretary and the Chairman of the Committee were quite right to emphasise that chequebook treason--there are no other words for it--is prevalent today.

One person wrote to a newspaper to say that we had not sought to protect whistleblowers, like himself, who spoke out in the public interest. I am wary of those who claim to be whistleblowers in the public interest, but who accept £80,000 or £100,000 or a contract to write a book. If they are speaking in the public interest, let them not go into the marketplace to sell their souls and their country's secrets for money.

If the individual to whom I have referred had wanted to speak purely for the love of country, there are mechanisms by which he could have done so. I accept that the mechanisms are not perfect, and the Committee has considered that point. We have suggested industrial tribunals. Perhaps the Home Secretary would consider the whole structure of the security commissioner and the bodies that exist in this area. Perhaps they need modernisation to meet changing aspects of chequebook treason. We must bring the mechanisms up to date. If people want to act in the public interest, they need not accept money for it.

It will not always be possible to prevent treachery or betrayal of national security. It will not always be possible to prevent jeopardising the lives of colleagues, agents who are operating in dangerous situations. The Committee's responsibility is to set up systems to allow people to have, for whatever reason--a defect in their personalities, perhaps, or simply the fact that they cannot cope with the job into which they have been recruited--a sympathetic hearing outside the agency. That would allow them to feel that they could do something. If we can set up such systems, we shall have a better overall system of oversight and accountability.

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