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Mr. Winnick: My right hon. Friend said that the existence of the ISC has been to the advantage of the security agencies, although originally they had reservations. Is it not a possibility that a Select

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Committee, with the restrictions that obviously would be necessary, would give the security agencies even more confidence? Is that not worth considering?

Mr. Straw: That is a seductive argument and it is certainly worth considering. With great respect to my hon. Friend, I shall leave the matter where I have just left it, which is that we should look to the strengthening of the operation of the ISC, which is only four years old. That is but a blink in the 1,000 years of Parliament's history--a matter that, no doubt, we shall discuss again on Thursday. Let us watch with care.

I shall now deal with the points raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), in addition to what he said about the ISC becoming a Select Committee. First, he asked about serious crime and organised crime, a point to which the shadow Home Secretary also referred. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was entirely right to introduce what became the Security Service Act 1996. We supported the provision to extend the role of the Security Service into serious and organised crime. As paragraph 17 of the report states, during the period covered by the report, there have been 24 separate taskings of the Security Service in respect of serious and organised crime. I have seen a great deal of the service's work and believe it to be a valuable addition to the law enforcement effort against serious and organised crime. The Security Service brings expertise not currently available in the police or Customs and Excise.

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), and the former Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) asked about resources and value for money. The National Audit Office has undertaken some value for money studies of the work of the agencies. That is very important. The NAO should have the fullest possible access to the work of the agencies.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne rightly reminded us that, if we take secrecy too far, we reduce internal accountability in the agencies. What happened in the Metropolitan police is a dismal story of an absence of the most basic systems for separating those who ordered services from those who paid for them.

The shadow Home Secretary asked about resources. As paragraph 19 of the report shows--this is not too partisan a point--the resources available to the services dropped significantly between 1994 and 1997-98. For a variety of reasons, some good and some not so good, the figure fell from £855 million to £707 million, then to £693 million last year. We are increasing the figure to £743 million for the next three years. Of course there is never as much money as has been sought, but that is a verity at all times for Governments and agencies. We believe that the services have adequate resources.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe raised the point about access by staff to industrial tribunals. Work is in hand on that. We shall report to the House when the work is complete.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater made a wide-ranging speech in which he raised the importance of improving the agencies' internal security. That was reflected in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) and the sage remarks of my hon.

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Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). The issue is how to nurture and treat the staff of the agencies, while ensuring that we spot any staff who are becoming disaffected before they are tempted down the road of chequebook treachery--in the resonant phrase of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda--which we see too frequently.

The service recognises that internal security has to be improved. Paragraphs 26 and 27 say that the Committee will return to study that in further detail. That is important, because this is a good example of the work of the ISC complementing the work of the agencies. The process of cross-examination and demanding more scrutiny of those internal procedures should raise the standards of internal security.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked about warrant signing--an old chestnut if ever there was one--and whether, rather than by Secretaries of State, warrants should be signed by commissioners along the lines of the commissioners established under the Police Act 1997. I should make two observations. The first was made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, who said that the process of scrutinising and signing applications for warrants is one by which any holder of my office is able, day by day and week by week, to hold the agencies to account. It was not until I started on the process that I understood just how important it is as part of the line of accountability. It is not like having a meeting from time to time. The fact that warrant applications come through routinely and that one has the power to say yes or no to them means that the service must make a proper case for its operation and that the Secretary of State has responsibility to ensure that the law and its requirements are properly complied with. Behind any signature on the warrant, almost resting on one's shoulders, is the shadow of the interception commissioner, who is at present Lord Nolan. In my experience, Lord Nolan and his staff are very thorough.

Secondly, although I do not want to rehearse all the debates on the Police Bill that we had in the run-up to the election--even though I would be very happy to do so--I must point out that the argument at that stage was about the kind of system for authorising warrants other than that of a Secretary of State. It was generally accepted--certainly on both Front Benches--that, had any Secretary of State or putative Secretary of State been rash enough to volunteer to take over warrantry for intrusive surveillance as well as for interception, there would not have been an argument either at this end of the Palace of Westminster or the other. It was precisely because that was not on offer that we had to make other arrangements.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) rightly refered to some important issues on behalf of his many constituents who work at GCHQ and, indeed, on behalf of the town of Cheltenham. GCHQ is dominant there both as an employer and in its rather questionable architecture. Other hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred my involvement--I say only partial--in the fact that there have been four director-generals of GCHQ in the past three or four years. I seek exoneration. I should point out that the present permanent secretary to the Home Office, David Omand, in respect of whose appointment as director-general of GCHQ I played some part, served for slightly longer than I have been Home Secretary. That, at least from the point of view of Conservative Members,

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is a period that cannot come to an end too quickly. I cannot speak for David Omand's predecessors or successors.

Other issues that have been raised in the debate include the question of the holding of files. On 29 July I disclosed what I said I was going to in the Adjournment debate in February. Getting on for 300,000 files of one kind or another are held by the Security Service, although most of them are now closed. How those files are disposed of is very important. I am absolutely clear about one thing, which I made clear in the debate in February and again in July: no individual on whom a file may be held should have any say over whether a file should be disposed of.

It is extremely important to people's civil liberties as well as to a study of the history of this country that objective criteria should be laid down, which the Security Service should be able to follow. It is for that reason that we have asked the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Public Records, under the chairmanship of the Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, with the help of some very distinguished historians, to look at the criteria to be laid down. Their report will--I think--be made available to me just before Christmas.

Mr. Beith: Will the Home Secretary look again at the logic, or lack of logic, of the Government's response to this point? It is simply not the case to say that it would be second guessing if there were independent scrutiny of which files were to be destroyed. That will be long after operational decisions have been taken.

Mr. Straw: I shall look again at that matter and come back to Committee members.

Sir Norman Fowler: Does that mean that the Home Secretary will look again at the position of an independent check, because that is what is being urged?

Mr. Straw: Yes. The Committee has urged that there should be some kind of independent check in respect of files that have long ceased to have any operational value. The question whether a file is operational or not must be a matter for the director-general. There is then a separate question of whether a file that has had no value for many years should or should not be disposed of.

The first stage is that we are getting advice from the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee. The second issue is whether there should be any independent scrutiny of the decisions made about the disposal of the files. The Committee said one thing, and the Government have

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raised the issue of second guessing. Many representations have been raised this evening about whether we should think again and--without pre-empting our second thoughts on the matter--I am happy to take it away and think again.

Before I conclude, I shall refer to one other matter--the role of the commissioners and the tribunals. As the report makes clear, there have been a number of complaints to the tribunals and commissioners over the years but, so far, none of those has been successful. That could lead to the conclusion that the tribunals--despite the fact that they are chaired by eminent jurists--are simply there to whitewash the operations and poor practices of the agencies. On the other hand, it could mean that the internal processes of the agencies are sufficiently thorough so that--at least up to now--it has been quite appropriate that none of the complaints has been substantiated.

I believe that it is very much the latter, and not the former, that is the truth. In terms of interception, what has been striking to me--as someone coming entirely new to my role as one of the few Secretaries of State dealing with warrants--is how thorough the process is. Therefore, I am not surprised that no complaint has been upheld, and long may that continue. The interception of communications is, in principle and in practice, a serious violation of people's civil liberties, and it should take place only when the narrow criteria laid down in legislation are complied with.

I finish where my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary began--by paying tribute to a number of people. First, I pay tribute to the Chairman and the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee for the thoroughness of their work and for their independence of judgment, which shines through this report. Secondly, I pay tribute to a small group of officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office and the Cabinet Office who are very often unsung but have the important task on behalf of Ministers of monitoring the work of the agencies.

Thirdly, I pay tribute--and express the thanks of the whole House--to the staff of all the agencies. They do very important work--important to the security of this nation, important in terms of our economic well-being and important in trying to make our society safe from serious crime. Those are dedicated people who, because of the nature of their work, cannot speak for themselves. It is right today that Parliament and the House of Commons has spoken for them, and has recognised the value, importance and integrity of their work.


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