Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Mackinlay: Although I have been absent, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have been following all he has said with great interest and admiration. I also realise that all my colleagues here are distinguished parliamentarians.

I want to make a narrow but important point of principle about the status of the Committee. The selector of its members is the Prime Minister, who is the head of the security services. He chooses those who are there to scrutinise him. I know that hon. Members work diligently, but is it not time selection was undertaken by the House rather than by the Executive branch of government, namely, the Prime Minister?

Mr. King: If we introduce a system of secret ballot for membership of Select Committees, we may be able to

29 Mar 2001 : Column 1146

draw a real distinction between the way members of those Committees and members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are chosen. I believe that the Liaison Committee has made a suggestion along those lines. However, the point that I am obviously making is that if it is being suggested that who serves on Select Committees is decided by the free, unfettered will of the House and individual Members, then I must have missed something. No one is under that illusion. Personally, I think that such a distinction is vanishingly small.

I have described the work of the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire was Chairman of the Defence Committee for many years and other Members have served on the Public Accounts Committee and other Committees. Obviously there are differences in the ways we work. Our Committee meets in secret, although, as I have said publicly, I hope that we shall move on. I am sure that our style of operation will evolve under a new Chairman with a new approach and we may meet in public, although it will not be possible to do so in respect of all matters. That could be helpful.

There are those who hold to a point of principle, saying that there are too many asterisks in our reports and that there is too much secrecy over information. However, some Defence Committee reports contain many asterisks because information has been withheld. Some of us have worked on nuclear matters on which evidence has had to be given in secret. A considerable amount of information is excised from reports.

This is a process of sending for persons and papers. I have used the example of the Chief Secretary, who, so far and unfortunately, has failed to appear, but in the main, people have been willing to appear. We have received every paper that any Select Committee would have had and we have also received a considerable number of papers that no Select Committee would ever have got its hands on.

I know why the Committee was set up, though I was not privy to the information at the time: there was a fear of the agencies and departments; there was also a fear of giving the Committee powers that might have led to the Director-General of the Security Service being summoned to the Bar of the House for refusing to give us a paper. There was perhaps a sense that an impossible situation would arise over the ownership of material, but we have ignored all that. We carry on as effectively as any Select Committee would, and the only difference is that we work within the ring of secrecy. If some people want to change that, they may be able to do so, as they are now familiar with members of the Committee and Members of Parliament.

We have made a lot of comparisons with experience overseas. That is no secret, as I have said it in public. In Australia, a decision was made to have oversight of intelligence, and to set up the first oversight committee. Someone went up to their Chief Whip, or whoever it was, and said, "We're going to have this committee. Whom are we going to put on it?" Someone else then looked up everyone who had ever asked a question about intelligence agencies. They were all members of what I call the awkward squad. They were put on the committee because it was thought that they were interested in intelligence.

The result was that the committee was a complete shambles and collapsed within about nine months. The agencies knew that those people had asked a lot of

29 Mar 2001 : Column 1147

unhelpful questions--I am not pointing at the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who would never fit into that category--and the result was that the agencies clammed up and told the committee as little as possible; the exercise was a shambles. The committee has now been rebuilt on a much more sensible basis. We avoided that kind of hiccup by setting up the Committee in the way that we did.

I have taken up too much of the House's time, but I would like to thank both Secretaries of State who attended the debate, and the Prime Minister, for their courtesy in relation to the work that we have tried to do. I have seen both Secretaries of State on behalf of the Committee, on private occasions and on different matters. We have not always agreed, but we have tried to preserve the integrity of the Committee. However, they have taken a genuine interest in our oversight work and genuinely believe that our function is not just a nuisance to be borne with as much good humour as possible, but positively helpful to the functioning of the agencies, the respect in which they are held and the value in the public eye of the matters for which the agencies have a serious responsibility.

I want to thank every member of the Committee who served with me. I am a pretty intolerable Chairman at times, but they have borne that with good grace, and this has been an interesting and--I hope they will feel--worthwhile experience for all of us. There is a feeling in the agencies that our report was a bit negative, because we are always reporting on issues and problems on which we have comments to make. That can give a flavour of our not having a real appreciation of the good work that the agencies do. I shall therefore end with the words that I wrote at the end of the foreword to our annual report about the agencies:

3.3 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I am pleased to pay a genuinely warm tribute to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), under whose chairmanship I have served since the Committee was set up. He may say that he is an intolerable Chairman, but I do not think that that is quite the word that I would choose. He may occasionally be a stern Chairman, but he has been a very effective one and he has enhanced the Committee's ability to do its work by the way in which he has conducted its meetings. By our own choice, he has represented the Committee externally. We made the decision that he should be the person who, on almost all occasions, spoke for the Committee, and he has always taken the various views in the Committee into account when he has done so.

The right hon. Gentleman has achieved the results that he has through consensus on the Committee. I cannot remember the Committee ever taking a vote, except, on one occasion, to decide whether we should travel by plane or train between two European capitals. That was a pretty closely contested vote. However, I cannot remember any others, because the Committee does not proceed in that way. We make unanimous reports, and are usually able to accommodate the occasional element of dissent, or regard

29 Mar 2001 : Column 1148

it as less important than the overall recommendations that we intend to make. It is no small tribute to the right hon. Gentleman that he has achieved that.

I also want to pay tribute to my other colleagues on the Committee. It is not apparent, because the record is not public as it is in other Committees, that the members of the Committee share a very high level of commitment. Some Committees of the House have difficulty maintaining a quorum for their meetings; that does not happen in ours. Members attend every week and are heavily committed to the various visits that we undertake. They take their responsibilities very seriously and apply a great deal of effort and energy to them, in the full knowledge that hardly anyone will notice what they have been doing, except those who are aware of the Committee's importance and are closely involved in the work of the intelligence agencies.

There is no shortage of threats and tasks for the agencies. The most obvious example, perhaps, is the continuing activity of the Real IRA and the various dissident republican groups. A major responsibility for our agencies is tracking down and preventing terrorist outrages whenever possible. Further examples include the work of other terrorist groups, and activities such as drugs smuggling and people smuggling, into which the agencies have been drawn in addition to their traditional roles. Serious organised crime also falls into that category.

A major area of activity for the agencies, involving a great deal of detailed work and specialised knowledge, is dealing with arms trafficking, chemical and biological weapons, and weapons of mass destruction. An enormous amount of unseen work goes on in that area. The agencies are also involved, more obviously, in support for our troops in dangerous conflicts, such as those in Kosovo and Sierra Leone--examples that the Committee referred to in its reports. That is vital work.

In addition, the espionage being carried out against this country continues to require the efforts of counter- intelligence. The Hanssen case in the United States--as well as the earlier Ames case--demonstrated vividly how much intelligence activity is still going on, how much money can be involved in luring people into such activity, and the extent to which people's lives can be threatened by the activities of people such as Hanssen and Ames. As our Chairman pointed out earlier, such cases are a reminder of the vigilance that we have to show, and a great deal of effort goes into that.

Intelligence cannot do everything, but it can make a huge difference to the vital tasks in those areas. Sometimes, there is a danger of exaggerating what intelligence can do. However much intelligence we gather on drugs, it remains an issue that can be resolved only by combining intelligence, law enforcement and work within society to persuade people not to endanger their lives by taking drugs. It is important that our intelligence resources are used to catch some of the dangerous and unscrupulous people operating in that area, and to break some of the supply lines. It is also important that our law enforcement agencies can bring those people before the courts and present evidence that will convict them. However, we can deal only with a minority of the suppliers, and as long as there is a high level of demand, supply routes will be found. As the Foreign Secretary pointed out, all the activities have to be combined. Intelligence cannot do all sides of the work.

29 Mar 2001 : Column 1149

Intelligence is obviously increasingly important to securing our borders against unwelcome traffic of various kinds. It is increasingly widely recognised that mere border checks do not solve such problems. There was a tendency for a few years to say, "We're an island and therefore we can keep out all sorts of unwelcome things." My experience on the Committee has demonstrated to me that it is through intelligence that we are able to interdict unwelcome movements into the country, whether they involve people, tobacco smuggling or drugs smuggling.

To the extent that we are successful, we depend heavily on intelligence to be so. That is partly because we could not conduct trade, or allow the movement of people in the way that most people want to be able to travel from one country to another, if every person was strip-searched on every overseas journey, or if every cargo was searched at every border point that it crossed. That is not the world in which we live. Intelligence, therefore, attracts a greater importance, whether we are talking about the work of intelligence agencies or about the intelligence component of the work of law enforcement agencies, which is directed more towards bringing people to justice than towards identifying traffic movements.

Our intelligence and security agencies work on those various tasks, but we must remember that intelligence can be wasted, ignored--especially if it does not accord with the prejudices and preconceptions of the person on whose desk it falls--used for the wrong purposes or misdirected. The Committee exists to monitor those matters and to try to ensure that mistakes are not made. The Committee has followed trails, trying to establish that intelligence was not wasted or misused. There have been earlier conflicts--going right back to the Falklands--where there was plenty of evidence of available intelligence not being used as it should have been to avoid conflict and to save lives.

The Committee can help to monitor and prevent the misuse of intelligence and the use of techniques for the wrong purposes. In a semi-public speech, the Director- General of the Security Service indicated that there is a tendency now within the agencies to ask what the Intelligence and Security Committee would think if they embarked on a certain course of action. That argument could be used in the future against Ministers who want intelligence in areas that the agencies do not think fall within their remit.

Intelligence can be expensive and it is relevant to ask whether resources are being committed to the right issues and whether too much is being spent on particular areas. The Committee, with the aid of the National Audit Office, is alone in its ability to question the order of priorities.

Intelligence can compromise civil liberties. It is a natural interest of a Liberal Democrat member of a Committee to want to attach importance to raising those questions. Many intelligence techniques--particularly those used at home in counter-intelligence--can pose a threat to civil liberties. We have various techniques through which we try to protect those liberties. These have become topical following the passing of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

The Act has a bad name, but perhaps we should put on record that it greatly widened the recognition of surveillance and what ought to be subject to regulation.

29 Mar 2001 : Column 1150

The Act did so to comply with the European convention on human rights, but it has brought the activities of many Departments--MAFF, for example--within the ambit of broad regulation. All sorts of Departments must use some kind of surveillance to prevent things from happening or to discover what is happening. We cannot open our newspapers without being reminded of that. In the last couple of days, there have been questions about meat imports and whether we should have examined more carefully the imports that might have led to the foot and mouth outbreak. That would involve some kind of surveillance by Departments that we might not have thought would be involved.

The area that caused the greatest worry was the extension of surveillance powers to electronic communication and e-mail. The first and major anxiety was that of large sections of the industry in Britain, which were led to believe that it might impair their ability to produce material for export and to trade in such equipment if this country had a harsh regime. I hope that there is an increasing recognition that we cannot avoid applying in those areas the surveillance techniques that we apply to telephone communications. We would simply shift the traffic from one to the other if we did not have techniques that could be used properly by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. However, that makes it even more important that the powers of control are strong and effective.

That has led my party to argue that it would be better if the key decisions on matters that intrude on individual liberty were made judicially and not by the Executive. That view has not been accepted by the Government, but it is one that we will continue to press. We have Executive approval, but with an area of subsequent judicial examination. That is a problem to which we referred in paragraphs 19 and 20 of the interim report, which deal with the support available to the commissioners and the tribunal. The new amalgamated tribunal deals with a wide range of public complaints about security and intelligence issues. The several bodies involved are dependent on a tiny support structure which is quite incapable of carrying out the job. As we reported, there was not even anybody to open the mail, let alone process it, for many months. That was ludicrous.

The sort of mail that the tribunal will get requires some scrutiny, because some of it bears a resemblance to the mail sent to Members of Parliament. A number of our constituents believe that they are under daily surveillance from the security agencies, who are up the chimney, in the garage, or inside the television set. Such delusions give rise to a great deal of correspondence, but hidden among that may be a serious case involving an intrusion on civil liberties. We are in a ludicrous position if there is nobody to process that.

We have been advised that urgent steps have been taken to remedy the present situation, but we have not yet had the chance to check on that. The new Committee, when it is appointed, will have to do so at an early stage because great reliance is placed on the mechanisms. They are Britain's defence in relation to the European convention on human rights, so that an individual who believes that his civil liberties are being damaged has a mechanism through which he can appeal. If those involved in that mechanism cannot even open his letter--let alone process it or put it in front of the judicial authority who is to adjudicate upon it--we are not providing a safeguard that should be there.

29 Mar 2001 : Column 1151

That was not a failing of the agencies, but of the Government, as was the delay on the regulations on employment tribunals. We are talking about the civil rights of people employed in the agencies; they, too, have rights that we must safeguard. The absence of an employment tribunal is clearly something that we should not allow to continue, particularly as that is increasingly cited as an excuse for behaviour which it does not excuse--namely, giving away our official secrets, obtained in the course of previous employment, to further one's own case. Nothing excuses or justifies that. Nevertheless, that was a gap that needed to be plugged. The change was only introduced in a late stage of an earlier piece of legislation, but it was not entirely to our satisfaction in the form that it took.

As has been pointed out, the regulations have been laid before the House this week, so the debate has--as the Foreign Secretary conceded--had a real, practical value in concentrating somebody's mind somewhere. But how long will it be before the necessary vetted staff and tribunal members are in place? We could have another year of delay if we are not careful. There must be early action on that matter, which need not wait on the parliamentary process. If the regulations have been laid, we can get on with the job so that the tribunal is available within a matter of weeks, rather than months or years.

These civil liberties failings are Government failings, not agencies' failings. There is a real awareness in the agencies that they are working to defend our liberties as a nation. Those involved are the beneficiaries of those liberties; they want to live free and civilised lives. They have a consciousness in their work, which must be set against the demands placed upon them and their difficult task in dealing with some pretty unscrupulous people about whose activities we need to know.

It should not be assumed that the agencies are staffed by people who have no concerns about civil liberties; they do, including concerns about their own. That issue came up in the whole question of trade union rights at GCHQ some years ago. Part of the pride that those people have in their work is that they are defending the liberty that we enjoy as citizens of the UK. Many are exposed to danger, difficulty and challenge as they seek to defend those liberties.

As a party, the Liberal Democrats believe that the Committee that scrutinises these services should be a Select Committee. That is the appropriate model, but I share the view of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, who said that this is an evolving matter and that it would have been difficult to start from that point. I recognise that the way in which the Committee began was probably the best way to win the confidence of all concerned.

I believe that if the Committee operated as a Select Committee, we would not behave significantly differently from the way in which we behave now. Our work would continue in much the same manner, and we would have to establish pretty much identical procedures to the ones that we have now, probably including the presentation of a report to the Prime Minister and then to the House. We would certainly still meet in secret and require secure premises in which to do so. Therefore, it would not make a great difference to the way in which the Committee operates.

Such a transition would probably help in a small measure to remove an argument against the Committee and enhance public and media confidence in it.

29 Mar 2001 : Column 1152

Confidence in the Committee has grown regardless, and we have had glowing comments from some parts of the media on our work in the past year or so. Nevertheless, such a change would have some symbolic value.

Committee members have to serve as guarantors of democracy and liberty. By using that mechanism, Parliament is effectively sending inside that ring of secrecy a group of Members in whom it has some confidence, thereby allowing them unprecedented access to information. I think that Parliament also assumes that those Members' instincts, political background and awareness of colleagues' feelings enable them to act decisively in dealing with anything that might be wrong inside that ring, to set boundaries and parameters, and to ensure that money is not being wasted and the job is being done properly.

There used to be some very odd attitudes to intelligence and security. There was a left-wing attitude that all of it was unnecessary and that all such activity should be stopped. There was also a right-wing attitude that our boys are doing a grand job, so do not ask any questions. Neither of those views is sustainable. We need our intelligence and security services, but they need to be scrutinised. Probably the only way of scrutinising them is to entrust a very limited number of people with the task of getting in there and examining the services very carefully.

That group of people has to be given the necessary information. The Committee does not need to know everything. We do not need to know a specific agent's name or location, but, sometimes, we may have to know an operational detail so that we can determine whether the right or wrong action has been taken. Currently, we have relatively little difficulty in obtaining the information that we think we need. However, just occasionally we do have difficulty, and some outstanding issues have to be addressed.

The Government have to recognise that the Committee cannot make authoritative statements to the effect that "nothing wrong has been done" or "the matter has been pursued properly" unless we have the necessary information. The Committee will not make that type of statement or give the assurances that the House requires unless those statements and assurances are based on the necessary information. If we have that information, we can give the assurances.

Committee members will have to be in place if they are to do the job. I endorse the remarks of the retiring Chairman, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, that it is vital that the Committee is appointed quickly after the general election. The new accommodation project at Cheltenham will still be a major issue, as will many of the very topical matters mentioned today by hon. Members. It would be a travesty for those matters to be unsupervised for the next six to nine months. I therefore hope that someone, somewhere--including the usual channels, the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister's office and anyone else who is involved--has received the message that the Committee requires an essentially continuous existence to do a very necessary job.

Next Section

IndexHome Page