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Mr. Straw rose

Mr. Blunkett rose

Mr. Letwin: I shall continue in a moment, but I shall give way to the Foreign Secretary first.

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who, as the House knows, can speak very well for himself, said from a sedentary position that there were several of those whom he would like to torture himself—

Mr. Blunkett: With due trial.

Mr. Straw: With due trial, as my right hon. Friend says. I add for the record that what I was saying from a sedentary position to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was that I was encapsulating his remarks as those of the tortures of a Liberal by St. Oliver.

Mr. Letwin: This badinage is getting very rude, and I shall not continue it. All of us are tortured liberals in the

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sense that we all, to varying degrees, wish to protect civil liberties. I have to admit, in my better moments, that even the Home Secretary has that desire. We all wish to protect society against the dangerous elements against which it needs to be protected—in particular, the terrorist. It is a question of proportionality. I want to put on record a critical distinction, which I think is the foundation of the difference between us and the Government on a series of issues. By exposing it, the need for further such discussion may be prevented.

There is a difference between those agencies of the state whose primary function, and, in some cases, whose whole function is to protect us against people who want to blow us up, rob us or murder us, and other agencies of the state, whose primary and, in some cases, whole function is devoted to other ends. I draw a very clear distinction—clearer than Whitehall, under any Administration, is often inclined to draw—between those two kinds of agencies. I accept the need for the security and intelligence services to engage in activities that are necessarily intrusive and that are impediments to our liberty. Because I am worried about those impediments and intrusions, as Ministers in every Government for a long while have been, I welcome the intricate apparatus that has been devised, over a long period, to control those activities and to subject them to the kinds of scrutiny to which they can be subjected, consistent with their remaining secret as they need to so remain.

The Home Secretary is the principal locus of just that kind of scrutiny and control, but the Committee and other bodies, including, for some purposes, the courts—acting, in some cases, in special ways—are also part of that apparatus of control. Under the circumstances in which those controls are in place, I accept the need for that level of intrusion and that level of impediment to our liberties. I distinguish between that and the cases of those other agencies that are not involved in such activities.

The Food Standards Agency, the Environment Agency, the Post Office or any other such body will often find that their activities would be materially easier to carry out—or they imagine that, in some future world, they will find that their activities are materially easier to carry out—if they also have the ability to engage in activities that are intrusive and an impediment to our liberties. I understand that motivation, and were I working in those bodies, or were I an official charged with the question of how to make the work of those bodies easier, I would constantly be tempted to engage in enlarging the scope of their ability to intrude.

Parliament should not, however, accept the same kind of logic in relation to those kinds of bodies that it accepts in relation to the bodies that we are discussing today. That distinction is critical. If we could agree on that as a permanent feature of our political discussions, a good deal of the difficulties that we have had in the past nine months or so would evaporate. I am not saying that the disputes would not continue—they would at the margin—and I accept that, in relation to some of part 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, for example, we would continue to have real debates, as is proper. A large part of the difference between us, however, is related not to the scope of bodies that we are

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discussing today but to the scope of action of other bodies. In future, I hope that we make that distinction more clearly, and more as a matter of consensus.

Mr. Blunkett: It is a fair point, and we need to make clear what is new intrusion and what is an endeavour—including under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, for which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was responsible—to codify and pull in those things taking place around us. If we can do that—I respect those who believe that we were on the wrong trajectory, although, in fact, we were trying to do something that was totally misinterpreted and that looked, to the world outside, as if we were going the other way—we might get it right. I do not have a fundamental principled disagreement with that, as Parliament's role is to pull in, and to make sure that others do not have the right that the security and intelligence services have—under the kind of surveillance and review that they have—to intrude in other people's information or their lives. Getting that right will be important in future.

Mr. Letwin: That is welcome. As we move forward in the next few months and debate several of these issues, I hope that we can refer back to this discussion of general principle. It may frequently turn out to be the case that, as more transparency is given through the operation of the orders under the RIPA, we shall collectively discover what I must admit that I have been discovering—in some cases, agencies that are outside the sphere that we are discussing today are engaging in activities, and have been doing so for a long time, that are worrying in the degree to which they have not been properly controlled and made transparent. I see Ministers nodding. That is highly constructive. I hope that we can achieve a clearer basis on which to operate, and a clearer distinction between other agencies and those that are the subject of today's debate.

Mr. Dalyell: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The shadow Home Secretary promised us a short speech. He has now been going for 22 minutes, ad-libbing in a rather unfocused way for the past 20 minutes. Is there some way in which Back Benchers can get a look-in, in what will be a truncated debate?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr Letwin rose

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) speaks of the need for greater transparency. Does he agree that one way in which we might achieve that would be for every piece of legislation, whether primary or secondary, to be tested, so to speak, in terms of the specific impact that it would have on individual liberties?

Mr. Letwin: My answer to my hon. Friend is, as he knows, yes. I hope that that suggestion will be adopted; it is one that I made in the public prints.

I am acutely conscious of the observations of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and I shall desist from engaging in further discussion, having made both

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the specific point and the general point that I wanted to make. I hope that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and others will have a chance to say what they wish to say to the House.

3.11 pm

Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): I shall return to some of the points made by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), particularly in respect of serious crime.

I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for his words about the report published recently by the Intelligence and Security Committee. We welcome the fact that Ministers responded speedily to our report this year; we also welcome the early debate.

The Committee, as the Home Secretary said, is a new Committee. Some of its members are new to the field, but several of its members have served on it for many years. As Chair of the Committee, I take this opportunity to thank my colleagues for their work over the past nine months or so. Many of them have found that it requires a greater time commitment than they anticipated, but I think that many of them have found it interesting and worth while.

I agree with the Home Secretary about the work and the quality of the agencies that serve us in the security and intelligence field. He said that we owe a debt of gratitude to them, and the Committee would agree. We state in paragraph 7 that although our report highlights areas about which the Committee has concerns, our concerns must not overshadow the tremendous work of the agencies and the quality of the staff therein. All members of the Committee share the Home Secretary's admiration for the level of co-operation between the agencies in the UK and between our agencies and those in other countries, particularly—but not exclusively—those in the United States.

As Chair of the Committee, I shall say a word at the outset about the Committee's work, especially our relationship with the agencies. I am sure that some colleagues in the House feel frustrated at times by the circumspect nature of the reports of the Intelligence and Security Committee, especially by such things as asterisks in our report. I see the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) nodding. We share that frustration at times. It is difficult sometimes to know things that one would like to say to colleagues, but cannot say.

As a new member of the Committee, as well as the new Chair of the Committee, I have been extremely impressed by the amount of information given to us by the agencies, the nature of the information available, the frankness of those who have given evidence before us and the documentary evidence that we have been able to see on some occasions, including some Joint Intelligence Committee assessments, known as JIC papers, which the Committee has found especially useful.

Our report covers all the issues that we are tasked to examine—the policy, administration and expenditure of all the agencies. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) will be pleased to hear that I do not intend to cover in detail every issue that we raise in our report; some of my colleagues on the Committee will raise others.

Since the Committee was appointed last August, its work has obviously been dominated by the events of 11 September—but not to the exclusion of everything

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else. Every one of us—members of the Committee, hon. Members and members of the public—was incredibly shocked by those events, the scale of the tragedy, which was the biggest loss of life through any terrorist attack, the fact that such an attack could take place in the heart of the United States, and the fact that those who committed the atrocities had no regard for their own lives or the lives of thousands of other people of many different nationalities and religions.

In Britain, as the Home Secretary said, because of the threats that we have faced over many years from Northern Ireland-related terrorist groups, we have, unfortunately, had a great deal of experience of the shock of terrorist outrages. As a result, terrorism has always been a high priority of our intelligence agencies; it has, indeed, been the first order of priority for many years. We must recognise that, by their nature, it is very hard to penetrate terrorist organisations or get a real insight into them.

Experience over many years has shown us that that difficulty can too often lead to tragic loss of life. That is why a high priority has been given not just to terrorism from Ireland, but to international terrorism. The UK agencies have worked hard on that priority over many years, both internally and by monitoring people in various parts of the world, co-operating with agencies elsewhere, exchanging intelligence and comparing assessments. That has been going on for some time.

As the Home Secretary said, although it cannot always be publicised, there have been successes in countering the activities of terrorist organisations, including those related to Irish terrorism and those related to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. In view of that, and because we are led to expect successes from our intelligence agencies, it was not surprising that after 11 September one of the first questions for the intelligence community was, "Was there an intelligence failure?" Perhaps that is the first question for the United States agencies. Congressional committees are looking into US agencies, what happened and what warnings were given. That dimension is not an issue for our Committee.

Perhaps the fact that the question is asked and that many people regard it as a genuine question is a symbol of what we expect from our agencies. In some respects, because we know that they are good, and because we know that they have intervened and prevented events from happening, some people assume that our agencies should know 100 per cent. of all that there is to know about everybody all the time, while, as the shadow Home Secretary suggested, protecting civil liberties at the same time.

Our expectations of the agencies must be realistic. It is clearly not possible for them to know everything all the time. The kind of question that we have to ask is whether the priorities set by the agencies are the right ones, whether enough attention has been paid to international terrorism, whether their levels of expertise are sufficient, whether there is sufficient co-operation, whether there is joined-up working, and whether information and assessment are adequate.

We say in our report that Osama bin Laden was a "notably hard target", and was recognised as such. We also say, and in some cases we quote papers that we have seen as well as evidence that we have been given, that there was

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We report that

just a couple of months before the attack—

between the United Kingdom and the United States. The Committee, in its report, also quotes a Joint Intelligence Committee assessment paper of July 2001 that concluded that

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