Previous SectionIndexHome Page


8.26 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): I apologise for missing about an hour and a half of this debate. I was attending a meeting with the Speaker on modernising the House of Commons to make it more effective in examining the Executive, which is not a million miles from the subject in hand.

I congratulate the Government on holding this debate, because it is not long ago that we were told that it was not possible to debate these issues. As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said, only four or five years ago MI5 and MI6 did not exist in any statute. It always struck me as odd, as I remember saying 10 or 15 years ago, that two of the most famous security services in the world--admittedly, that fame is largely owing to Ian Fleming's James Bond character--had no statutory existence.

Those intelligence agencies were created at a time when the House had begun to lose some of its effectiveness in holding the Executive to account. I support the call by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) for the Committee to be a normal Select Committee, subject to the

2 Nov 1998 : Column 633

constraints that he rightly set out, because when we refuse to do that we send out the message that we do not have confidence in our Parliament. That is why other countries have a conventional scrutiny system.

The members of the present Committee are good people and they are doing a good job but, because they were appointed under the relevant statute to answer to the Prime Minister, they are a group of parliamentarians who have been asked by the Executive to keep the Executive under observation. The Select Committee system is there to hold the Executive to account more effectively, and that is why it should always be used to represent the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) rightly drew attention to the fact that the Whips have an enormous say--ultimately, the real say--in deciding the membership of Committees. Things could go off the rails, as they occasionally do--[Interruption.] Quite right; it is very rare. Increasingly, however, people are questioning that position and they have reason to do so.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: May I request my hon. Friend not to be modest and to state who he is, for the record and so students outside who may read our debates are aware of it? He is the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour party, representing two-thirds of the House of Commons. I am sure that his comments tonight reflect the views of many of the members of the parliamentary Labour party.

Mr. Soley: This matter is open to discussion in the parliamentary Labour party and in the Conservative party. Many Labour Members would not agree with what I am saying, although many would. The important point is that over the past four or five years we have moved so dramatically. We were told that we could not discuss the issue and, indeed, if we went to the Table Office, we were told that we could not table a question on it. No one, least of all me as chair of the parliamentary Labour party, is going to pretend that the party system does not play a crucial role in ensuring the governance of the country. It always has and it always will, but a delicate balance must be struck between the rights of the party and the rights of parliamentarians. As the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, I have to be aware of that balance and take it into account in my judgments.

Mr. Rogers: Does my hon. Friend accept that this issue has never been the subject of debate in the parliamentary Labour party and that we have never voted on it? He speaks in a personal capacity tonight, not on behalf of the parliamentary Labour party.

Mr. Soley: Of course that is so and I did not introduce the subject of the post I hold.

Mr. Rogers: He is going on about it.

Mr. Soley: I ask my hon. Friend to listen to what I am saying, especially as he intervened. The position is not as stark as he maintains and there are arguments on both sides. All I ask him to do is to listen to the argument and bear in mind that all the things we were told could not take place four years ago--the tabling of questions,

2 Nov 1998 : Column 634

debates such as this and reports by parliamentarians on security services--are now all happening. Change does happen and the House is an agent of change.

The confidence of Parliament is critical. In the last century, when Parliament was at its greatest, it would not have accepted a situation in which the Executive could set up bodies that then answered to them. Parliament would have resisted that, but we lost that attitude at about the time of the first world war. I have already mentioned the difficult balance between the rights of parties--the need for parties to maintain unity to be able to govern--and the rights of parliamentarians to hold the Executive to account, which is, after all, this place's final purpose.

My next subject is slightly tangential, but crucial to the work of the Committee. Several hon. Members have referred to the actions of disaffected members of the security services and others in the civil service in passing secret information into the public domain. They have done so for two reasons, either because they have a resentment against the security services or want money--Peter Wright and "Spycatcher" is the classic example--or because they felt it was right to reveal information in the public interest. The two cases that I have in mind have nothing to do with the security services directly--one is Clive Ponting and the other is the rather sad case of Sarah Tisdall, the 23-year-old who was sent to prison, having given information to The Guardian.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): Blame The Guardian.

Mr. Soley: If I remember rightly, The Guardian lost an action on the matter, but the point is that the Official Secrets Act--and Labour party members have long argued this--needs a public interest defence so that we can differentiate between those who reveal information for money or fame and those who do it because they see it as a public duty. Clive Ponting and, probably, Sarah Tisdall, fall into the latter category, but Peter Wright does not. I urge my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to consider whether we should, in the future, change the Official Secrets Act so that the courts have a much clearer guide to differentiating between those who reveal information because they are disaffected or want money and those who believe that they have a right to do so because of legitimate public interest in democracy and the rule of law. We must never forget, when discussing the security services, that we are discussing a vital arm of the defence of the state. I have always, and without reservation, held that the security services are necessary in any modern state. They are there to protect the very democracy and rule of law that brings us here and if we ever allow that fact to get out of focus, we will go wrong.

I turn now to the issue of personnel management. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bridgwater and his colleagues on picking up that issue. It came to my attention some years ago and it highlights the wider problem of how the agencies are set up and operate. In Shepherd's Bush where I held my walk-in advice surgeries at the time I used to get a wide variety of local people, but I was surprised one evening when a person came to see me and, after a short discussion, it became apparent that he was an MI6 officer, as they were then called. His problem had to do with the classic situation of being grossly discontented with the way in which the service operated. Having spent some time with him, then

2 Nov 1998 : Column 635

and on another occasion, I took the matter up with the then Home Secretary, now Lord Hurd. I was told some time later that the matter had been investigated by management and it was felt that it had been properly handled. The person involved did not know that and neither did I. Indeed, I am now satisfied that it had not been properly handled, because another incident took place a year or two later--which also came about partly through my advice surgery--that suggested to me that management in the security services was failing badly.

The various efforts that have been made to deal with staff problems are very important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley mentioned. We must take into account staff who have personality or social problems, such as drinking or family problems, as well as those who feel seriously aggrieved about their treatment as employees by the agency. Such people feel they have no voice and can end up, bizarrely, tootling down the Uxbridge road to see their local Member of Parliament. I am all for people seeing their local Member of Parliament, but there has to be a better way to deal with the issue. At the time, the man who came to see me had no alternative and he dealt with the problem responsibly. At the end of the day, he and I felt that it had not been adequately addressed.

My final point is on the question of files. The former Under-Secretary of State for Women, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) spoke powerfully about the issue and made the case as well as it could be made. Her speech should be sent round to schools as a good introduction to civics.

I have a question for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary relating to--I think--paragraphs 46 and 51, which deal with summaries on candidates for election. I have no reason to believe that those matters are inappropriately dealt with as a rule, but I am concerned that hon. Members on both sides of the house have, to my certain knowledge, had regular dealings over many years with political representatives of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. The previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was courteous enough to tell me that he could assure me that my phone was not bugged. I had not asked about it, and was not troubled by it, but he offered the information. I was aware, therefore, that that thought existed, and it was clear that bugging happens in limited circumstances.

I am anxious to know, therefore, that any information held on a Member of Parliament, or on anyone who stands for election, is judged properly. If one believes--as, to be fair, many Conservatives did--that it is necessary to talk with political representatives of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, even at the height of violence, it is important to be able to do so with confidence that one's phone is not being tapped. That matter is retrospective now, but it is profoundly important.

Members of Parliament must be able to talk to people who are not wanted by the police for any criminal offence freely and without fear that they are being recorded and might be considered, as my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford has said, a threat to national security. There is a delicate balance to be struck. I know of cases, in the recent history of Parliament, of individuals who would have had real concern about that. I raise the point because several

2 Nov 1998 : Column 636

of us, myself included, were involved in talks supported by the then Government involving representatives of paramilitary groups. I always drew the line at talking to anyone whom I knew to be wanted for a criminal offence of any kind. I would, however, talk to anyone who was elected, or who represented a legal organisation.

The Committee deals with crucial areas concerning the importance of Parliament, management structure and how we deal with elected representatives. We should never lose sight of them.


Next Section

IndexHome Page