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Mr. Straw: Not now.

Sir Norman Fowler: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman said that. However, I would find that defence more convincing were it not for the Pinochet case, where

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it is clear that the Home Secretary had not the first idea of what the Foreign Secretary knew. The Home Secretary makes my point in a wonderful way, and I rest my case. I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater that this area should again be examined very deeply, as that obviously would have the thorough endorsement of the Home Secretary.

In looking at the recent history of the security services, especially in regard to subversion, we need to recognise that many of those whom the services had to investigate in the past were members of parties and organisations that made no secret of their wish to undermine parliamentary democracy. I in no way refer to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock). However, there was no doubt about the objectives of some of the organisations, for example, the Communist party of Great Britain, which set great store by seeking to infiltrate and manipulate organisations such as trades unions. It achieved only negligible support at the ballot box, but sought to gain an influence that was far out of proportion to that. Such activity was a legitimate subject for attention by the Security Service. It was of concern not only to the last Conservative Government, but to successive Governments.

All that is history. Now, the major effort of the Security Service is aimed at terrorism, both in Northern Ireland and internationally. That point was made well by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang), with whom I am glad to be debating again. Terrorism plotted to cause terrorist outrages overseas. We all hope that the new position in Northern Ireland will lead to a reduction in the work of the Security Service. However, at the moment, there is no reason radically to reduce the resources going to that area. It would be a vast mistake to lift our guard too early. There is still a range of breakaway groups that presents a huge challenge.

Intelligence gathering against terrorists is difficult and often dangerous work. Many of those who work in this area risk their lives. As the former head of the Security Service, Stella Rimington, said in her Dimbleby lecture, they do it from a sense of public service and a firm belief in the rule of law and the democratic system. There have been major losses as a result of that work, such as the helicopter crash in 1994. I was with the then Prime Minister in Downing street when news of that crash came through. We have much cause to be grateful to those who work for the Security Service, often in very difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, especially as I have not been here during the debate, having fulfilled a long-standing commitment in my constituency.

As I am a former Northern Ireland Minister and a member of the Defence Committee, hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I have occasionally come into contact with the security services. I want to pay tribute to their professionalism and dedication. Individuals carry heavy personal responsibility, often at an early age. It is a worthy commitment and long may first-class people come forward to fulfil it.

Sir Norman Fowler: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to his work in the Northern Ireland Office.

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Important points on accountability have been very much rehearsed in this debate. However--this is my main concern--we must also address other vital issues, such as the agencies' effectiveness, and whether the agencies realise their full potential to do good. The one point on which everyone seems to be united is that the security services have a vastly important role in tackling organised crime, especially the drug trade. Effective operations undoubtedly make full use of intelligence in combating professional crime. Indeed, in the past 10 or 15 years, use of intelligence by police has been one of the most significant developments in fighting crime.

In his introduction to the Committee's report, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater states:

At paragraph 4 of the Government's response, the Prime Minister states:

    "The Government welcomes the Committees's strong support for the increased priority the Agencies are giving to counter-drugs work. We shall continue to harness the invaluable contribution which they make to this important task."

We all agree on the challenge. However, I tell the Home Secretary that it would be a tragedy if the Prime Minister's words were simply the usual generalisations that Ministers tend to make about organised crime and especially about drugs. I heard the Foreign Secretary's statement about £200 million-worth of drugs being recovered in the past three years. Although that is good, personally, I remain to be convinced that our efforts are adequate to meet the increased challenge posed by organised crime.

I returned recently from the United States, where I saw the work of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA was created in 1973 as a response to increased cocaine processing in south America and heroin refining in south-east Asia. It not only is the lead agency for domestic enforcement of federal drug laws but has sole responsibility for co-ordinating and conducting crucial drug investigations abroad. The DEA is determined to tackle the source of the drugs trade, and the very powerful criminal organisations that are behind the exploitation. Essentially, the DEA performs the very task that everyone has in mind for the security services, particularly the SIS.

The United States is much better resourced than the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, some indication of the emphasis that it is placing on the fight against drugs is provided by the fact that the DEA has a staff of 7,500, with 340 special agents in foreign countries, laboratories and 100 aircraft performing surveillance work. That gives some idea also of the challenge that the United States faces.

The United States operations against the drugs trade are relevant to our operations. Although it may not always be the same criminal organisations from the same parts of the world attempting to bring drugs into the United Kingdom--and too often succeeding--the type of threat is very much the same: exploitation of the public by entirely ruthless and professional criminals.

International developments sometimes have consequences for us. South America, for example, is displacing south-east Asia as the major source of heroin

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in the United States. What happens to the heroin from south-east Asia? It goes to a developing market in Asia; it has also meant a new concentration on Europe.

Increasingly, organised criminals are trafficking not only one drug but any number of drugs for which there is a demand, or for which they think a demand can be created. By any standard, it is a serious and professionally organised operation. It is a brutally organised trade. We have now recognised, by statute at least, that we face very much the same kind of threat.

The SIS and GCHQ can now, by statute, be involved in combating serious crime. I do not share the view of Liberty that those organisations' powers are too wide. Liberty says that they can cover "relatively minor crimes" such as robberies. It depends on one's view of minor crime, but it had not hitherto occurred to me that robbery fell into that category.

The Security Service Act 1996 gave the Security Service the function

I support the legislation's aim, but I am still sceptical about the resources that we are devoting to tackling organised crime. My understanding is that the Security Service is able to devote only a very small percentage of its resources to that. It is difficult to make a complete and accurate assessment of the figure, given the asterisks that appear in the report in place of the relevant sum. I think that I know the figure, but I shall not reveal it. In any event, the service spends only a small proportion of its resources on tackling crime. If one accepts the nature of the challenge, as I do, that proportion needs to be increased. We shall need to return to the issue of whether the effort that we are making is adequately resourced, or even whether it is given sufficient priority within the Budget.

This has been a welcome and valuable debate. The activities of the intelligence agencies must be subject to proper scrutiny--no one seeks to deny that--and the Committee deserves to be congratulated on its work. We must now develop that work but, above all, the aim must be to make the agencies as effective as possible because they have a continuing and invaluable role to play.

9.26 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): When the Intelligence and Security Committee was established, there were twin anxieties. There was an anxiety in the House that it would be a weak substitute, or patsy, for a proper, full-blooded Select Committee. The opposite anxiety, among the intelligence agencies, was that the prospect of a Committee of parliamentarians, if not a parliamentary Committee, would mean that the ring of secrecy, which was patently so important for the operation of those agencies, would be compromised and that their work would thereby be undermined. As experience has shown, both anxieties proved misplaced.

We have had a good debate not only on the ISC's work over the past year but, effectively, on its work in the four years since it was established. I shall deal in a moment with the proposals that have been around for a long time for changes in parliamentary scrutiny, but we know that,

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under the excellent chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), members of the Committee, who come from all parties, have done their job properly, as Parliament intended. The Committee has effectively scrutinised the work of the intelligence and security agencies. I have appeared before the Committee twice. The experience of giving evidence to the ISC is no more comfortable than giving evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which is as it should be.

Given the anxieties that I mentioned, the paradox is just how much the agencies have benefited from the establishment of the ISC. As a result of the establishment of the ISC, there is now a group of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have knowledge and expertise about the operation of the agencies, but who approach the issue with independence of judgment. That is hugely to the advantage of the agencies, given that there is such widespread support and admiration for the important work that they do.

My hon. Friends the hon. Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), who used to represent Hammersmith--it was better in the old days when he and I were up for that seat and, happily, he got it--all raised the question of whether we should replace the ISC with a Select Committee. Let me make a number of observations before not closing the door on the idea.

First, we should give the ISC time to develop. All members of the Committee supported the proposal that the ISC should have its own investigative capacity. As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater said, we said in paragraph 21 of our response that we intend to consider that request

So we understand the case for that. A separate investigative capacity would obviously enhance the role of the Committee, and in the long run would be an important protection for the agencies.

Secondly, although I do understand the important points of principle to which my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, South and for Workington referred, there is an important difference in principle between a Committee established by the House--we all know that it is exactly the same in practice--and one established by Act of Parliament with appointments to it by the Prime Minister. If we are to continue discussing the issue, it is important to recognise that, in practice, the way in which any Select Committee would operate, if it were to operate effectively, would be little different from the way in which the ISC operates in terms of the ring of secrecy and there having to be some prior vetting--ultimately by the Prime Minister--of what is published in the Committee's reports and so on. That said, we do not close the door for ever on the idea of a Select Committee. We want to see how the new developments that are now in train work out in practice.

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