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11 Jul 2002 : Column 1068

Intelligence Agencies

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

2.22 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): After the heat of yesterday, we have the cool of today. First, I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for sharing these annual debates. I will lead today and, God willing that we are still in present posts, he will lead the debate this time next year. I am not making any predictions, so hon. Members should not get hot under the collar.

It is appropriate that my right hon. Friend and I share these debates, because much of the work on internal security was undertaken by him when he had my present post, and his understanding has made a big difference in the past year when we have worked together with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on these important issues. Given the debates in the House in the past year—the Foreign Secretary has led on a number of them—hon. Members are familiar with the issues that have arisen following the tragic events of 11 September.

Hon. Members are also familiar with the debates that have taken place on the terrorist threat that has emanated from Ireland, and we pay tribute to members of the three major intelligence services, to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude for the conduct of their work. That also applies to the anti-terrorist branch of the law enforcement agencies and those who work with them. There is now greater collaboration than ever before between the services and other agencies, including Customs and Excise and the immigration service.

I also pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), as the new Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I welcome the considerable contribution that she and the members of that Committee, with their range of experience, have made to its excellent report. It deals with the important issues in depth, but because of its nature much of it must remain private. I commend the way in which they have handled that. It has enabled those of us who have regular briefings from the services to be open and transparent. My right hon. Friend and I greatly appreciate the report that they have produced.

I am also pleased to acknowledge that we and the Prime Minister were in agreement with the direction of the report and the powerful points that were made in it. That has enabled us to come to Parliament with confidence for today's debate, and for debates such as that on the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

Hon. Members would not forgive me if I did not pay tribute to the intelligence service, the interception commissioners and the president and members of the investigatory powers tribunal. They deserve our thanks, because they are unseen and do a tremendous job both at my elbow and for my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. They also provide reassurance to the House and to the public.

Strange things have been written in recent weeks, and I heard at least one strange interview, which was rigorously taken up privately. It implied that some of us delegate our task, and that we nod things through. My right hon. Friend

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the Foreign Secretary and I can affirm that many hours are spent not nodding things through and not delegating the task entrusted to us. We take that task seriously: it is a matter of honour. We are responsible to the House and to the British people for getting it right. I mention that because there is a feeling outside the House that arbitrary action is taken and that there is no surveillance of our surveillance, but there is, although understandably little is known about it. The work that is undertaken makes a big difference.

I also want to thank John Warne, the director of the international and organised crime division, who is retiring. We wish him well and thank him for the work that he has done. We also thank Sir Stephen Lander, who is head of the Security Service and is also retiring. I do not think that their retiring has anything to do with me: they have come naturally to the point of retirement. Sir Stephen Lander has had a difficult task, which in recent years has become more transparent and visible to the world compared with the days when no one would mention the building they worked in, never mind the name of the director general of the service. We welcome Eliza Manningham-Buller, who is taking over from him and who I know will do an excellent job.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): This may be an improper question that my right hon. Friend is not prepared to answer, but we read in the public press that Eliza Manningham-Buller led the investigation into Lockerbie from the intelligence point of view. Is there anything more he can say about that?

Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend answered the question before he asked it, for which I was grateful, because regrettably the answer is no. I admire his persistence.

The debate over the past 10 months has obviously been dominated by the tragic events of 11 September. It has thrown into sharp relief the importance of putting into perspective the question of how we deal not only with terrorism, but with the global nature of organised crime and terrorism and the methods used.

As I mentioned earlier, we have become tragically familiar over a long time with acts of terrorism both in Northern Ireland and on the mainland. That has developed expertise and skills in the security and intelligence services and the anti-terrorism branch of the Metropolitan police that have stood us in good stead. However, the current terrorist threat is perceived very differently by the public, as it is too—as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will explain in greater detail—from the point of view of the security and intelligence services in respect of our liaison with other countries.

It is worth noting that our links with Europe and with the FBI, the CIA and the NSA in the United States have been strengthened since 11 September, although they were already growing strongly. The will across our continent to link with others to counter threats of terrorism is standing us in good stead. We are co-operating not only to combat terrorism but, as we debated at great length in the autumn, on the directly related issue of organised crime. That co-operation assists us in combating non-violent but underpinning threats in respect of finance and other measures.

In the aftermath of 11 September, actions were taken globally some of which we all regret because we would have preferred not to implement such measures in a free

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society. Part 4 of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, which is emblazoned on my heart, is one such area of that debate and we shall return to it. Obviously, we have already agreed about the debate after 15 months. There will be a review of part 4 and we are grateful to Lord Carlile for undertaking it. Privy Councillors, chaired by Lord Newton, will review the whole Act. I am grateful to Lord Newton and the members of that committee for the work that they will be undertaking. There is also the sunset clause, so there are several safeguards and opportunities for review.

It is worth noting that all of us who deal with such decisions do so with regard to the sensitivity and proportionality that was promised before Christmas, and with regard to the real concerns expressed then and since by Members on both sides of the House. The role of Parliament, of a free society and of a free press is to give reminders and place restraints on Ministers—both those who see the internal advice and those who reflect on the nature of the threat—so that we are not allowed to let the task and the measures that have to be implemented get out of proportion.

We all understand that in the cut and thrust of debate it can be suggested that we take people's liberty lightly. That is not true. In a free and democratic society, it behoves Parliament and a free press to remind people in our position of that fact, and to see such reminders and checks not as detrimental but as an advantage. It is only because we have a free society that we can debate the protection of those freedoms as we do; otherwise we should not be holding this debate. Nor could those of us who are responsible for recent legislation be recalled. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary oversaw the passage of some difficult measures when he was at the Home Office. I am glad that he did so, because I should otherwise have had an even more difficult time during our debates in the autumn.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the Home Secretary also agree that, in the heat of debate, there can be a failure to recognise that those who want to draw attention to important civil liberties are also concerned about the safety and security of the people of this country? To pursue the civil liberties aspect, especially as Departments are notorious for inserting in legislation provisions that they have wanted to implement for a long time, is not to be unconscious of the security needs of the country, but rather to want to be certain that statutory measures that go beyond the normal powers of the state are wholly justified.

Mr. Blunkett: There is no dispute between us. In the heat of the moment, we may sometimes be a sword's length apart—it is probably a good job that the line was drawn. In the debates in which I was involved, we have always acknowledged that those who are questioning or opposing have an equal commitment to those safeguards and to securing our liberty and freedom. I am sure that was also true for my right hon. Friend during the debates on the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. We attempt to achieve that by debating the right ends. I accept that we need to be vigilant about the propensity for people to seek, with the best intentions, wider powers than are needed, while ensuring that at a moment of crisis they are not held to account for having failed to see what might be coming.

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I think my right hon. Friend will have something to say about hindsight. One does not need a guide dog for hindsight—one of the things that strikes me most—but people always hold to account the current holder of the office, whether Foreign Secretary, Northern Ireland Secretary or Home Secretary, for things that they might have done, perceived or legislated on if only they had seen them coming. We are all in that boat, whatever our political persuasion.

Some parts of the measures that we passed and some of our debates are not only right in the context of the legislation; they have an impact on the culture and on the way other people can contribute to safeguarding our liberty by being more vigilant. Such provisions can put those who would too easily take their liberty for granted on to another road; above all, they act as a deterrent.

Like the security and intelligence services, I am convinced that our actions during recent years have been a deterrent to those who would use our country as a base for terrorism, to set up cells and develop the support services and finance for terrorism. That rebuts newspaper reports in this country and elsewhere that suggest that we are a soft touch, and that prior to 11 September London was an easy base. People cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim that our actions are on the very edge of disproportionality while countenancing the view that we host those who should be ejected from our country or incarcerated. We have to get the balance right; the fact that we have been well and truly taken to task by holders of both those points of view offers us reasonable grounds for believing that we have done so.

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