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6.46 pm

Yvette Cooper (Pontefract and Castleford): The Intelligence and Security Committee report is broad in scope. I want to concentrate on only two issues--oversight and personal files--while joining in the tributes by other hon. Members to members of the agencies, who work hard on our behalf and are frequently unrecognised.

In the 1994 Richard Dimbleby lecture, Stella Rimington, former Director-General of the Security Service, said:

She could just as easily have said "between democracy and secrecy", because democracy holds that we must hold public organisations openly to account, while good intelligence saves lives; secrecy saves lives.

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Inevitably, we cannot hold our secret agencies to account by the public, press and Parliament in the ordinary way, but that is all the more reason why those who are charged with oversight and who have responsibility to look into what the secret agencies are doing really have the power to do the job properly on behalf of everyone else. There are gaps in our system of oversight--in particular, in the ISC's access to information about what the secret agencies do.

At the moment, information is provided by agency chiefs and by Ministers at their discretion, which raises a difficult point: how can we have proper oversight if the very people whom we are supposed to be overseeing are determining what information we get? That severely jeopardises the Committee's ability to pronounce with authority on important intelligence issues. Credibility demands knowledge and knowledge demands the power to verify--the power to check what is going on. Until now, the ISC has not had that power, and that reduces its credibility in the public mind, as well as in Parliament's mind.

None of that means that I suspect the agencies of any wrongdoing; it means simply that we on the Committee lack the ability to pronounce with confidence that all is well. We cannot come to the House, put our hands on our hearts and say that all is well, because we do not have the power to know.

A good oversight committee will never be able to answer all the questions that are raised by hon. Members about the secret agencies or their work. It may never be able to answer questions about all the issues that it is investigating. That is inevitable. However, colleagues in the House should be able to feel confident that someone is investigating issues on their behalf and has the power to do the job properly, even if ordinary Members of Parliament are not able to get the answers themselves. At the moment, colleagues cannot do that, but they should be able to do so. It is possible, without jeopardising national security or secrets that we need to keep, to move to a better system of accountability. That is why the ISC's investigative arm is so crucial. It is worth thinking through the objections and the likely objections, because we must make the investigative arm work in practice. Although there has been a great deal of positive discussion today about that investigative arm, we have not yet made it work in practice.

The first objection that people raise is that a security risk is involved--that information that the Committee demands may jeopardise the lives of agents or threaten the security of sensitive operations. That does not fit with the facts. We should consider the experience of other countries. The German oversight committee has the power to call for papers and for people to testify before it. In the United States, the congressional intelligence committees have a right of access to all the information that they require. So, too, does the Canadian oversight committee, the Security Intelligence Review Committee. Those committees do not leak. When we visited them, the agencies and the committees told us that, with just one exception, there had been no security breaches from their oversight committees.

There is also a precedent in the United Kingdom as the commissioners have full access to information. They have full access to all the files that they want to see and anything else that they want to look at to do their

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job. If commissioners for the agencies can be trusted not to abuse their power, surely a group of politicians should be trusted to do exactly the same.

The second objection, and I have heard this raised, is that the existing system of accountability is already adequate--that the ISC may have limited powers, but there are also commissioners and tribunals. It is argued that agency chiefs answer to Ministers and Ministers answer to Parliament and that a complicated system of accountability is in place. The problem with that argument is that it does not stack up to an adequate system of accountability. It simply is not acceptable in a modern democracy for the agencies to be answerable only to the Executive, especially given their growing technical power to invade people's privacy and look into their lives. Where they have so much power, they must, for the sake of public confidence, also be answerable to Parliament.

Ministers must also answer to Parliament for their security decisions. The ordinary process of ministerial accountability to Parliament will never work for security issues. We cannot have Ministers at the Dispatch Box answering parliamentary questions on security issues, and we would be horrified if such a system were ever to start. However, in the absence of that, we must have a credible and powerful system of parliamentary oversight, even if that cannot be done by the whole House. Without some sort of Committee, neither Ministers nor agencies will be properly accountable for their decisions.

Colleagues have argued that we should go further and set up a Select Committee. I think that that would be a good idea, but we must remember that such a change would not of itself magically solve the problem of access to information, which is the issue at the heart of the debate. Existing Select Committees are routinely denied information on the ground of national security. The Canadian oversight committee is not a parliamentary committee, but it is more credible than Britain's ISC because it has greater access to information and can act as an independent check on what the agencies are doing.

There is an issue surrounding the lack of independent checks in Britain that goes far wider than the ISC and accountability to Parliament. It is about the principle of external independent checks on organisations that have had a long tradition of self-regulation. At the moment, agency chiefs report directly to Ministers, but the secret agencies' tradition of autonomy and self-regulation means that that is often the sole point of Executive accountability, as Ministers and their civil servants rarely go beyond the agencies' doors. Commissioners check whether it was legal for Ministers to sign a particular warrant, but who outside the agencies checks whether operations are actually carried out in accordance with those warrants? Who checks whether operations are well managed? Who outside the agencies checks the wider issue of compliance with the law?

Obviously, we cannot have a system under which absolutely everything that the agencies do is checked in that way, but who outside the agencies checks any of it? In principle, the commissioners could do that, but as Lord Justice Stuart-Smith made clear in his annual report this year:

I hope that Ministers will consider the tradition of self-regulation of secret agencies, because I believe that it is out of date. That applies not only to secret agencies,

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but to any organisation operating in the modern world. It is not a criticism of the secret agencies; it is simply an argument for proper independent checks that can improve efficiency and act as a spur to improvements. After all, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment does not rely on self-regulation for schools; he sends in the Office for Standards in Education. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health today argued for an independent external audit for doctors. The US, Canada and Australia have inspectors-general to fulfil that function in their secret agencies. It is something that the Committee has said it will consider further, but Ministers should pursue in more detail the issue of Executive oversight.

Of course, it is vital that such checks do not become over-bureaucratic, but it is possible to have effective independent checks that work for the benefit of the secret agencies and make them better able to perform their functions for the sake of all of us. Such a system is not just in the interests of democracy; it is in the interests of the agencies themselves. A credible oversight system would give them more cover. It would give the ISC the ability to defend them, to take some of the flak and to object to some of the more ludicrous allegations that will inevitably arise and will not go away, no matter what sort of oversight system we have.

I want briefly to raise the question of personal files--in particular, the destruction of the old subversive files, where the same principle of independent checks applies. The ISC has argued that there should be an independent check on those files that the Security Service has decided it does not want any more and should be destroyed. It appears that the Government have rejected that recommendation and I strongly urge Ministers to reconsider. If the only objection to independent checks is that they are too bureaucratic, we should keep all the files. They should be put in a vault or microfiched; we must not destroy those old subversive files for good simply on the say-so of the Security Service.

The Government's response states:

However, that is only part of the story. I accept that only the Security Service can make the operational decision whether it still needs to retain a file and continue to use it, but, once the service has decided that it does not need it, there is an historical--not operational--decision to be made. History is not an operational decision. There is absolutely no reason why only the Security Service should be capable of deciding whether something has historical significance for the future. In fact, for the sake of the credibility of history, someone other than the Security Service should make that decision.

It is controversial stuff. We have all heard the allegations about the monitoring of so-called subversives in the 1970s and 1980s. For all I know, none of it may have happened. On the other hand, all sorts of outrageous things may have happened. The point is that future generations have a right to know what happened and how the organs of the state behaved. They have a right to be able to learn from that and to know that what they are looking at is the entire record. They need to be confident about that. For the sake of credibility, it should not be the Security Service that decides that. Future historians should never be able to say that the service was given a licence to write its own history.

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There are all sorts of other issues about individuals' rights to see their files if the Security Service has decided that they are now redundant and should be closed. It is too difficult an argument to go into in detail tonight; it is a matter to which the Committee has said it will return. Important issues are involved--files that the Security Service has decided are redundant should not be destroyed without there being at least some consideration of whether it is possible to consult the individual involved on what should happen to his or her files.

I welcome today's debate. We have certainly come a long way since the mere existence of MI5 and MI6 was denied. I believe that, sooner or later, we will travel much further. We will have to improve our system of accountability, for the sake not only of democracy but of the very secret agencies that the United Kingdom needs to function and to protect our modern democracy. If we do not improve our system of accountability, those agencies' capacity to operate in the national interest will be threatened.

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