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6.21 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): I welcome this debate, which is another small step towards rendering our intelligence and security services democratically accountable, and I look forward to its becoming an annual event. I also welcome the gradual removal of some of the unnecessary mystery that has surrounded those organisations in the past, particularly the detailed statement on 29 July by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the number and status of the files held by the Security Service. One must pinch oneself to recall that my right hon. Friend was once identified as a potential subversive and was once, as the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said, the subject of such a file. It must be satisfying now to find himself in charge of the Security Service--a responsibility that he takes very seriously.

I welcome the latest report from the Intelligence and Security Committee. It is a serious piece of work. May I make it clear that, although I am critical of the mechanism by which the security and intelligence services are accountable, nothing that I say should be read as a criticism of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and hon. Members on the committee, who were obviously working conscientiously within the powers available to them. People who serve on such committees sometimes have the distressing tendency to go native after a while. Parliament should be constantly on the alert for symptoms. I have been listening carefully to this afternoon's debate, in which one or two speeches occasionally strayed a little close to going native, but nobody could actually be accused of it thus far.

Today I shall address only one issue: whether the existing arrangements are the appropriate mechanism for rendering the security and intelligence services accountable in a mature democracy. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say at the outset that, provided that they are properly managed and accountable, the intelligence and security services have an important and legitimate function in a democracy. The difficulty has been that, until the advent of the ISC, no one outside the services had a clue as to whether they were properly managed. To put it mildly, such snippets of evidence as emerged from time to time did not inspire confidence. Political oversight was always a fiction in the past. It was always ludicrous to imagine that, with the best will in the world, the Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary, let alone the Prime Minister, had time to take a close interest in what the agencies got up to.

For the purposes of today's argument, however, I am prepared to accept that MI5, at least, has cleaned up its act in recent years. Some time ago, a former Conservative Home Secretary remarked to me that a great deal of dead wood had been cleared out since the scandals of the 1970s and early 1980s. I was glad to hear that because

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there was certainly no shortage of dead wood. I am less sure about MI6. I may be wrong and I make no allegations, but it is hard to believe that MI6 had no hand in reinstating the regime in Sierra Leone, which is now busily murdering its enemies. If I am right, one cannot help wondering who authorised it, as it does not seem to have been the Foreign Secretary.

If the public are to have confidence in the security services, it is important first to be certain that they are protecting democracy rather than attempting to subvert it, as they have done in the past. Secondly, we must be confident that we are getting value for the considerable sum--currently some £700 million; I hope that no more is hidden away in other budgets--that taxpayers contribute to the upkeep of the Security Service. We want reassurance that that expenditure is all strictly necessary, especially given that the cold war has ended and, with it, a considerable part of the services' reasons for existence.

It was an unlucky coincidence that, just as the Berlin wall fell, both the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service moved into lavish new headquarters on either side of the River Thames. Furthermore, if the war in Ireland is over--I appreciate that it is much too early to say yet--another large part of their work load will disappear. In such circumstances, there should be scope for a little downsizing, to use a phrase that is popular in the City of London.

I am glad to see from figures published in the report that some savings have already been made. There is always the danger that the agencies will invent new tasks, or expand into areas into which they should not expand, in order to make work for otherwise idle hands.

Mr. Rogers: My hon. Friend has made some fairly sweeping statements without giving illustrations. Would he care to give us some to support his generalisations?

Mr. Mullin: I am not sure what my hon. Friend is referring to, but if it is expansion into other areas, I suppose that one possibility is expansion into serious crime. It only requires vigilance; I am not making a big deal of it. In 1996, I served on the Committee that considered that authorised that expansion, and the authorisation was very general. The crime that the service was, in theory, allowed to become involved in investigating was not all that serious, but I am sure that what it actually investigates is, and that the number of officials involved is relatively small.

Mr. Rogers rose--

Mr. Mullin: I am sorry, but other hon. Members want to speak this afternoon. My hon. Friend asked me to offer an illustration. My response is simply to say that the authorisation in the Bill was a little general.

Public confidence requires rigorous scrutiny, and it is Parliament's job to provide it. The question is: do we have it? As I have made clear, I do not wish to cast aspersions on the right hon. Member for Bridgwater and his colleagues, who are doing as good a job as we could hope for with the powers that they have been given. However, are those powers adequate, and is the relationship with the agencies correct? Reading between the lines of the ISC's report, and having listened to what the right hon. Member for Bridgwater said, I see that the Committee itself

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appears to have doubts. For example, at paragraph 58, it says that it cannot express a view on the effectiveness of the commissioners and tribunals

    "since we have not had access to the material to enable any judgment to be made."

At paragraph 65, the Committee says that it has not yet formed a view on whether its existing status is adequate. I was glad to note that, in a section headed "Further evolution of the UK oversight structure", the possibility of changing the Committee's remit in due course was left open.

I welcome all that. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), said, it is an evolutionary process, and we are all learning as we go along. For what it is worth, it is my firm view that the Committee's existing powers are inadequate. It is a fundamental principle in a democracy that those who spend public money and exercise power should account to an elected Parliament. The Select Committee system ensures that the work of every Department is scrutinised by Members of Parliament, who are, in theory at least, appointed by Parliament, and can be removed only by Parliament. Each Committee employs its own staff, and each has the power to summon people and papers as it sees fit. Although that power rarely needs to be used, it defines the relationship between a Committee and the Department whose activities it is responsible for scrutinising.

The relationship between the Intelligence and Security Committee and those whom it is supposed to scrutinise is entirely different. First, this Committee's members are appointed not by Parliament but by the Prime Minister, who can remove or fail to reappoint them as he sees fit. Secondly, it does not employ staff of its own, but it is serviced entirely by officials in the employ of the Government. Thirdly, it has no power to summon people or papers; it must take what it is given. How can there be effective scrutiny when the body that it supposed to be the subject of such scrutiny can ultimately decide what will and what will not be disclosed?

I realise that some will protest--indeed, I have heard several people say this during the debate--that everything is working smoothly so far. That may well be so, but the new arrangements have never really been tested. We have not yet experienced a crisis: we have not had a Zinoviev letter, an operation Clockwork Orange, a "Spycatcher" or a miners' strike. In any event, we may have to wait for years before some disaffected ex-employee of one of the agencies reveals that things were not going quite as smoothly as we all thought at the time.

It is essential to get the mechanism right at the outset. After that, everything else will fall into place. I firmly believe that the ISC should be a Committee of Parliament, appointed by Parliament, with the same powers and facilities as a Select Committee. That is the only way to create public confidence in the integrity of the security services. When the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked what the Committee needed, one thing that he did not mention was public confidence. I am referring not just to what is actually happening, but to its perception in the world outside. I do not think that the importance of that should be overlooked. There would, of course, have to be special arrangements recognising the need for secrecy and security, but that is not an insuperable problem, and should not be used as an excuse for doing nothing.

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I might add--others have mentioned this--that, until not so long ago, my view was the official Labour party view. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), I was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill that became the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which set up the ISC. I vividly recall that, at that time, the position of our Front Benchers was that oversight of the security services should be the responsibility of a parliamentary Committee. I have a list of quotations from Labour spokesmen, some of whom are now senior members of the Government, espousing exactly the view that I am now advancing. I shall not embarrass anyone by reading out those quotations, although I am tempted to do so; but let it not be said that my view is held only by a small minority of extremists.

My point--and it is a matter of record--is that the security services have run rings around all previous Labour Governments. Past Labour--and, for all I know, Conservative--Home Secretaries, Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers have been systematically misled, and even spied on, by the very agencies of which they were supposed to be in charge. I do not allege that that is happening now, but the only way to be sure that it never happens again is to set up an effective system of parliamentary accountability--and that we do not yet have. Such a system is also in the interests of the security services, which will never entirely enjoy public confidence until they are properly accountable. If they are wise, they will not stand in the way of proper accountability.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is aware, the Home Affairs Committee has long taken an interest in the matter. Our first report on the accountability of the security services was published four years ago, under a previous management. In this Parliament, we have raised the matter with my right hon. Friend several times, and I am grateful to him for not ruling out the possibility of change. I urge him to keep the door open, for the issue will not go away for as long as the present inadequate arrangements obtain. I realise that the Government have other priorities for the time being; I only hope that we will not wait until some future scandal makes change inevitable.

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