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6.2 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I join other speakers in paying tribute to the work of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), the Chairman of the Committee, and to the staff of the agencies for their work. Some of that work is courageous, and some shows outstanding skill and dedication. Much is extremely valuable, done with commitment to the welfare of the whole community, and often with a full awareness of values that matter to me, such as civil rights and liberty. Many employees of the agencies are fully aware of those values, which form a part of their own thinking.

There is no doubt about the need for and the value of intelligence, if it is well used. I say, "well used", because an awful lot of money and intelligence has been wasted over the years. One need think only of the years running up to the Falklands war to realise that effort can be wasted and intelligence not properly used. If used properly, intelligence saves lives, prevents acts of war or terrorism and arms us against the dangers of those acts. It helps us to catch highly dangerous terrorists and criminals. It can prevent costly errors.

Threats continue, even though the cold war is over. Espionage continues among those who have traditionally practised it--including Russia. Instability in parts of the

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former Soviet Union is worrying. A proliferation of nuclear and biological capacity has resulted partly from the break-up of the Soviet Union, and partly for other reasons. British troops find themselves in extremely dangerous situations, in which they deserve intelligence support. Drugs and crime on an international scale are issues on which the agencies can make a valuable contribution, although they are not the bodies primarily responsible for dealing with those problems. The threats of information warfare are serious. There is always a continuing threat of betrayal of our defensive capacity.

To Liberal Democrats, the world of intelligence is by nature both important and challenging. Intelligence protects civil rights about which we care. It also impinges seriously on those rights, using methods that deny some element of civil rights such as invasion of privacy. It permits Governments to undertake actions and policies without public knowledge. It may allow actions to be taken which, if widely known and discussed, would not have public approval.

Secrecy can allow agencies to pursue their own agendas independently of Government, perhaps because of excess of zeal or because of partisanship within an organisation--the charge levelled against MI5 during the Peter Wright controversy. MI5 has a legal position different from that of other agencies, because it is not merely tasked, but makes its own judgments about what the threats to the state are.

Most of the charges were based on a much more heavy-handed approach to matters of domestic subversion than is contemplated nowadays. They are part of history more than of the present, as the law specifically precludes the agency from acting in the furtherance of the interests of any political party. The situation has changed significantly since those allegations were made, although the possibility exists nevertheless.

In secret, inefficiency can flourish and resources can be wasted. We must find a way to scrutinise the service without destroying secrecy. That is difficult. In some areas of operation, to disclose the existence of an activity is to make that activity's continuance impossible. I do not see why an individual whistleblower or a member of a committee should take it upon himself or herself to decide that an activity is unacceptable and should be ended, and to make an announcement or put a story in a newspaper. Such a decision must be taken by more than one person, and we need a means at every level by which actions may be tested by a range of people with possibly differing opinions. Our current mechanism is a genuine and valuable attempt at that.

While on the subject of secrecy, I want to ask one question. Is there an unnecessary culture of secrecy, and does the secrecy go too far? Certainly, that has been so in the past. The existence of the agencies was once denied, as other hon. Members have said. While we pretended that we did not have an intelligence service, the Russians knew perfectly well that we did, and they knew all its principal managers, too. People wrote books about the agencies. There were factual books and fiction: often there was more fact in the fiction, mainly because some of it was written by ex-employees of the agencies. It was absurd that we pretended that these organisations did not exist.

The culture has changed, partly under the impetus of cases and anticipated cases under the European convention on human rights. It is welcome that we now

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recognise the existence of the agencies, and that they must be scrutinised, but the Committee had to show that it can be taken into the agencies' confidence. The Committee has shown that it does not leak. Former members of agency staff, and even ex-Ministers, have done more to leak the work of the agencies than anything done by the Committee.

The culture of secrecy owes more to a desire to protect sources in dangerous circumstances than it does to an instinctive wish not to have people knowing about the agencies' work. The idea that, "Your identity is safe with the British," is a valuable byword in the difficult world of intelligence gathering. The Ames case, in which many American agents were compromised and met an awful fate--thankfully, no British agents did--explains the obsession with secrecy that sometimes goes beyond what most would think sensible. It is a way of communicating to those who might help this country, in dangerous situations, that their secret is safe with us. One can understand that, but it cannot be an absolute bar to mechanisms of effective scrutiny, or to the public knowing things that it is reasonable they should know.

Is the present formula right, of a Committee of parliamentarians within the ring of secrecy reporting to Parliament through the Prime Minister? We have always advocated a specially chosen parliamentary Select Committee, possibly a Joint Committee of both Houses. The present Committee is a Joint Committee with only one representative from the upper House.

It remains our objective to obtain a body that is a Select Committee of this House, but it can never be the same as other Select Committees. I have advocated that for many years, first in a lecture in 1968. I took part in debates, and introduced motions, in favour of some such committee structure in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The Liberal-Social Democratic party alliance tabled an Opposition day motion in favour of such a committee in 1986. It took an awful long time to get to where we are. In 1986, I said that existing Select Committees

If we moved immediately to a Select Committee, what advantage would we gain? The main issues are direct reporting to Parliament and the ability to call for persons and papers. If it was a Select Committee that reported directly to Parliament, I do not think that there would be a significant difference from what happens now.

The Committee's reports come before Parliament formally with deletions. Such deletions would have to be made by some mechanism, even if they did not go through the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is forced to pay attention to the parts of the report that are not published as well as to those that are. It is open to the Committee to report to the Prime Minister on an issue on which it cannot report to Parliament at all, because every aspect of it requires the protection of secrecy.

I am not sure that any great gain would be made in respect of reporting to Parliament, but what about the power over persons and papers? If a Select Committee was carrying out the role, the same arguments that confront many such Committees would be encountered, but more often. The authorities would have recourse to

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the argument that something was "advice to Ministers" or that there were "operational reasons". One or other would be used frequently.

The mechanism suggested in the report, adding an investigative capacity to the existing Committee, is likely to take us further forward, at least in the short term, than an immediate move to a Select Committee. Indeed, I think that we would take a step backwards in the short term if we were to move to one now.

I say that without prejudice to the possibilities of getting to that destination in future. The confidence that has been built; the fact that we do not need a legislative change--or even a change to the House's Standing Orders--to take the steps advocated in the report; and the Government's favourable response lead me to believe that, if the objective is immediately to get more effective scrutiny, we will serve it better if we get on with that task now and leave the Select Committee issue for a later date.

The investigative capacity is important, because it is not possible to deny some of the assertions put to the Committee, or give firm reassurance that all is well on some matters, without being able to check the papers fully. Such a capacity is not foreign to our system. The commissioners who review the carrying out and issuing of warrants for interception have such a capacity. It has caused no problems. They make judgments based on careful review of the detailed papers. There are no barriers to their examining papers, and one has greater confidence in their judgment because of it.

I shall briefly consider Government communications headquarters at Cheltenham, though my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) will understandably seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not least because many of his constituents are employed there.

GCHQ is an important place for Cheltenham. I hope that it can stay there, where it has such strong community support and is closer to the homes of the thousands who work there than any other site would be. I share my hon. Friend's welcome for the Government's reversal of the ban on trade unions. The ban put GCHQ on the front pages of newspapers all over the world--not a sensible thing to do with a sensitive institution that likes to get on with its work with the minimum of publicity. The decision backfired dreadfully on the Government who took it, and on the country's interests.

I intervened on the Foreign Secretary to point out that it is ludicrous that, at the time of the biggest ever GCHQ investment decision, there were four directors. None was removed for incompetence--they retired or were promoted. What business, confronted with such a major investment, would do that at such a stage? That suggests to me that the Government's promotion policy, of grabbing whoever it can for whatever job, without regard to the institutions they are managing, is not sensible.

On warrants, I remain of the view that giving authority for interception of communications and intrusion into people's property and private lives should be a task for a judicial or independent body, not a Minister. The sanction for such intrusion is more appropriately given by someone who is not part of the Executive and does not have Executive responsibility. We have accepted that principle, and fought for it, in respect of the use of such powers by the police. In the closing days of the previous Parliament,

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a fierce battle took place. My right hon. and hon. Friends in both Houses can claim credit for insisting on a judicial form of examination of authority for warrants for such intrusions.

The long-established system for the Security Service and the intelligence service is that Secretaries of State give the permission. I know what care they attach to that, how they examine cases individually and do not delegate. The Committee examined them very thoroughly on the matter. However, the final process of approval should have an independent judicial element: a review not merely of the process as a whole, as happens now, but of the decisions when they are made. That is the practice in many other countries.

I have two concerns on files. First, there should be more protection for individuals on whom files may be held. The Committee says in its report that it wishes to do more work on that. It is a serious matter, but I hope that concern will be less fevered, because there is no longer a practice or policy in the Security Service of investigating broadly political subversion as it was viewed in earlier decades, when persons present became the subject of files. Nevertheless, it is a matter of such importance that we should seek ways of getting more protection.

Secondly, the Government are plain wrong in their response to the proposal for independent review of files that are to be destroyed. They are records of how the service operated, and may have individual liberty implications. In their otherwise constructive response to the Committee's report, the Government state:

Their argument is that it would not be appropriate because

    "it would involve second guessing decisions that the Service is required to make".

That is not true. It is not second-guessing the service's operational decisions but deciding whether a file on a decision that the service made years ago should continue to exist, the service having decided that it has no further need of it. That is not second guessing, but a decision about an historical record which should be independently taken. The danger is that the service could, knowingly or unknowingly, destroy evidence that would demonstrate both the good and the bad things about its previous work, which would be wrong.

I draw my final comment from the report of a royal commission set up in Canada, which published a report in 1981 on "Freedom and Security under the Law", setting out the principles that should govern the Canadian security service. Four of the five principles that it set out were that the rule of law must be paramount; that the means of investigation must be proportionate to the gravity of the threat; that the need for investigative techniques must be weighed against the damage that they might do to personal freedom and privacy; and that, the more intrusive the technique, the higher should be the authority to authorise its use. Those are good principles. By and large, they are practised in our three agencies, but they could be written in larger and brighter letters, or incorporated into the agencies' mission statements.

The use of intrusive methods should be limited to special or overriding circumstances. The carrying out of operations of which only a few people are aware can be justified only in exceptional circumstances. The

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mechanisms by which those matters are examined should be equal to the difficult task, in terms of both oversight and how the Executive handles them. Such principles could usefully be added to the vocabulary of statements that govern our services. The rule of law should be paramount; the means should be proportional to the gravity of the threat; we should weigh the techniques that we use against the damage that they might do to freedom and privacy; and, the more intrusive the technique, the more carefully it should be scrutinised.

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