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8.8 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) will forgive me if I do not cover the areas that she mentioned. Clearly, she listened to what was said earlier about the proceedings of the Intelligence and Security Committee as regards personal files.

I want to cover two areas that the Committee has considered since I joined it in July last year: personnel management and oversight. The Committee has been studying personnel management since it was set up, investigating recruitment, the adequacy of vetting procedures and the handling of disaffected staff. As a relatively new member, I am pleased--as are most members, I think--that changes in personnel management in the agencies are in line with policies and practices in the rest of the public sector and that they are evolving year by year through the use of best practice. For example, the agencies are developing measures to increase personal responsibility for career development. Career progression is no longer likely to be made solely because it is one turn's to move up the ladder, which is not the best way to promote people's careers in any institution. I am sure that it causes resentment if people believe that they are ready for and have earned that next step, but are not promoted. Some people in the agencies had become disaffected as a result.

Recently, we looked into that matter in detail, primarily because of the disaffection that has been reported in the newspapers in the past 12 months. The Committee looked into individuals and bodies inside and outside the agencies that have responsibility for handling the problems of disaffected staff: the individual's line manager, the grade manager in the personnel branch, training or security staff, occupational psychologists, and personal and financial counsellors, in addition to a range of managers. Also, we met welfare staff who are employed by each of the agencies, who are very approachable.

I, and other Committee members, were impressed at the experience and commitment of the professionally trained groups whose role inside the agencies has been to give advice and counselling on employees' problems. Of course, their personal problems vary. The agencies give me great confidence in the way in which they work with staff members who feel that they have not been looked after properly for one reason or another.

In addition, we studied the role of external staff counsellors. We took evidence from Sir Christopher France, and the report states how many disaffected staff cases he has handled. However, in many of the cases that we have read about in the media, the individuals involved

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have not sought to have what they believed to be a wrong put right from within the agency, which is a great problem. The staff counsellor outside the agencies has a reactive role when dealing with disaffected employees. He cannot seek people with problems. His door is open if people choose to walk through it, but many of the people who end up in the media after they have left the service do not choose to walk through his or any other door. The agencies see that as a great problem, as many hon. Members would agree it is. The Committee thought that the staff counsellor could perhaps have a more proactive role with people who have left the service and are dissatisfied with their situation.

The Committee also considered access to employment tribunals for people who felt that they had been wronged in the workplace. Indeed, that was one of our recommendations and we all agreed that it ought to be possible to constitute a tribunal of members and staff qualified to serve as an industrial tribunal and to deal with secret material. I am pleased at the Government's positive response to that recommendation. They are considering it. However, not many of the cases that come into the public domain would be served by such a tribunal. If someone chooses not to go to a tribunal and goes instead to the media--whether by writing books or selling articles to the newspapers--there is little that we or the agencies can do about it.

The status of oversight and of the Committee have been mentioned. Members will have read that there is a difference of opinion about the latter and about whether the ISC should be a Select Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) argued that case, saying that the evidence for it to have such status was overwhelming. I feel quite underwhelmed by the debate on the matter. I do not do so because I am worried about status--I am not a status politician or a status person, and I do not feel that our appointment by the Prime Minister gives us some great and grand role and that all wisdom is ours. Having spent 15 months on the Committee, I can say that on occasion it is not ours at all, so I do not buy that argument.

On the question of how we operate as a Committee within the "ring of secrecy", which is a broad brush, but under the Official Secrets Act, I have worked on two Select Committees and have now spent 15 months as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and I realise that it would be difficult for our Committee to be a Select Committee. For example, where would we meet? The public can be removed from Select Committees, but that is done only rarely. Our Committee has no public gallery and most of our questioning and information gathering would preclude that. I suspect that it would be difficult to find a Committee Room in the House in which evidence could be heard in confidence without spilling over into the Corridor. So, there are logistical problems. Some hon. Members think that it would be an easy operation, but because of the very nature of the evidence that we take and the people we interview, we would inevitably end up in the room in the Cabinet Office where we take evidence now, doing so under the same conditions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington ended his remarks by saying that what matters is the nature of the people on the Committee and I agree, but that is true of the Committee now. It does as good a job as any Select

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Committee could do. So, we should not spend too much time arguing that it should be a Select Committee without considering what it does.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's reasons for rejecting my argument. He gave two reasons, which were logistical--where the Committee could meet and whether conditions would be secure--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should be addressing the Chair.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Is my hon. Friend saying that, if we could find a secure location in the House, he would change his position? I listened carefully to what he said.

Mr. Barron: Let me finish. The direct answer to that question is no.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: What is the other answer?

Mr. Barron: It is a great pity that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, is no longer sitting next to my hon. Friend. In his speech, which I thoroughly enjoyed, he said that the Committee has to take what it is given--that is not my experience; we ask for and receive some materials that are not offered to us--and that it has no powers to call for papers and witnesses. I might disagree with that, but I would not want the Committee to have the power to call for papers. There are some papers that no one should be able to see, because of the dangers of certain information ever getting out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South also said that Select Committees, in theory--he smiled when he said that--are appointed by Parliament. I know why he smiled, because I suspect that, like me, he got a phone call last May about what Select Committee he wanted to be on and, perhaps, whether he wanted to chair one. I had such a phone call from the Executive, but I am pleased to say that I turned down the request and have been able to sit on the Intelligence and Security Committee for the past 15 months, where I have learnt a lot more about intelligence and security than, with all respect, I would have learnt by questioning my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary or other Ministers. We see many things in the ring of secrecy that we would not see if we were a Select Committee.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: I put it to my hon. Friend that, irrespective of the smile of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the power rests with Parliament, because we can object. When we were in opposition, I blocked the membership of a Select Committee of a Conservative Member, and in the end his nomination was withdrawn; so we are in a position to exercise that power when Parliament itself decides who should be on the Committees.

Mr. Barron: I will not rehearse what happened with the two Select Committees that I served on, but I do not think that the decisions were taken in the Chamber; they were more likely taken in the Whips Office.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. This is very interesting, but it is straying outside the terms of our debate.

Mr. Barron: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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It has been suggested that the Committee should have an investigative arm so that we can consider certain matters in detail. I hope that people in the security and intelligence agencies realise that we do not want a roving brief to allow us anywhere in those agencies. We want to be able to send someone into an agency to investigate a specific matter when we feel that to be warranted.

Many events might trigger such an investigation--I do not want to speculate how many times a year that would happen; it might not even happen at all--but we, like many other parliamentary Committees, work on a parliamentary timetable, and events that should be investigated quickly often happen when we are not here in London. We could not easily reconvene the Committee for such an investigation, which is why we should strengthen our powers to enable us to send someone who is independent of the agency to look at papers and reassure us, we hope, that whatever allegation has been made is not true.

At present, all or most of the allegations made against the agencies go unanswered. I can understand that, because once they started responding to one question, that would beget the next and the next, and the process would run out of control. It would be difficult for the agencies to be more open with the general public in that way, so it would help if we had the right to send in an individual to consider a specific issue, after which the Committee could make a public statement.

In the past 15 months, I have had an insight into areas that would have been completely closed to me before. I was as sceptical as the next person about the security agencies and what they do for the country, but I have been greatly impressed by the way in which they operate both inside and outside the country and by the advice that they give. The people in the agencies are the most professional people I have ever met.

If the Committee strengthened its oversight, we would be able to tell people that the security and intelligence agencies are doing positive things on our behalf, for the good of the country; then more of the general public would recognise that.

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