Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) is a conscientious new member of the Committee. In concentrating his remarks on traffic in weapons of mass destruction, he helps to underline the point that there are areas in which the agencies are currently actively involved from which it would be very wrong to divert funds. If we impose additional tasks on them, we must provide additional resources. We must maintain a high level of effort, but it does not come cheap: it is expensive and demanding work.
I want to discuss the judgment on the forewarning, or lack of forewarning, of 11 September, and to underline what the Committee Chairman said: that we were talking about the United Kingdom, not about the United States. We have been in close contact with our US counterparts and observed their work, and clearly they have judgments to make about how the American system functioned or failed to function and about the movement of intelligence through that system. Information that could have been useful seems, to a layman, not to have been in the right place at the right time.
Our job was to consider the United Kingdom agencies, how they co-operated with the US agencies and the role that they playedespecially in assessing the threat to the United Kingdom. We made a judgment on the basis of the information that was gathered and presented to Ministers in the Joint Intelligence Committee's assessment papers. We refined and worked over our judgment, modifying our conclusions to some extent, as we looked at the various documents. Our conclusion was not a snap judgment. It was reached very carefully.
I disagree with the Foreign Affairs Committee's conclusions in that respect, although the report as a whole is extremely valuable and useful, and I hope that hon. Members will take note of the many interesting points in it.
There may be a broader criticism to make of the west as a whole in its approach to Afghanistan. The Foreign Secretary reflected that when he said that the west had virtually walked away from Afghanistan, allowing problems to mount. It is conceivable that the west could have made a greater effort to stop a failed state falling under the total control of a terrorist organisationfor that is what happened. Along with the drugs trade, Al-Qaeda terrorists were the paymasters of the Taliban. With a great deal of hindsight, it is conceivable that we could have denied them that opportunity. It would have been no easy task, but not to have done it is perhaps a more perceptible failure than what some have described as an intelligence failure.
I want to comment on the new arrangements for dealing with intelligence. That gives me the opportunity to talk about the forthcoming retirement of Sir Richard Wilson as Cabinet Secretary. He has devoted a lot of valuable and productive effort to the intelligence community, and we should appreciate that. Responsibility for intelligence will now pass from the Cabinet Secretary to the Second Permanent Secretary, possibly because the Prime Minister wants the Cabinet Secretary to concentrate on service deliverya commendable object on the face of it, but one about which one could have some suspicions concerning centralisation of power in the hands of the Government and the Prime Minister. Our concern today, however, must be with whether intelligence responsibilities will be effectively discharged when they are transferred to someone who does not have the status that the Cabinet Secretary has.
I venture to suggest that, if Sir David Omand had not been available to carry out the task of Second Permanent Secretary, the move would have been seen by many as a downgradingand potentially a dangerous oneof intelligence. The Foreign Secretary has had to be away from the Chamber for some time, but I hope that this point will be drawn to his attention, because he should bear it clearly in mind.
Sir David Omand has a unique background in relevant areas of work and a unique standing. Indeed, some of us would argue that he could have been the Cabinet Secretary. The fact that he has taken on this responsibility is a fair indication that it will be made to work. I am far from convinced that this arrangement should be continued when the two present post holders eventually retire.
The Committee will want to review the arrangement as it beds in, but we also need to look ahead. We should consider whether that ad hominem arrangement will work because of the individuals involved but, if it were retained and became part of the practice of government, might in the longer term deny the intelligence community the position within government that the Cabinet Secretary's responsibility had previously given them. That position has been relevant in many ways. When problems occurred with the new accommodation project at Cheltenham, the role of the Cabinet Secretary was crucial.
It should be said that access to the Prime Minister enjoyed by the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the heads of agencies and Sir David Omand is guaranteed, as we are assured that such access will be undisturbed. I am more concerned about resourcing and the position of the intelligence community within government.
The Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee referred to the qualifying of GCHQ's accounts. It is pretty serious for accounts to be qualified two years in succession. Its appearance in our report is the alternative route available to the National Audit Office for its work in this field. The Public Accounts Committee cannot handle that side of the work, because it requires the security measures to which our Committee is subject. The Chairman of the PAC has access to what is being done, and as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee I am grateful that successive Chairmen of the PAC have worked so readily with our Committee and enabled us to give the NAO the public recognition that its report requires. The Comptroller and Auditor General wrote:
I emphasise that the qualification is not about the new building, difficult though that project has been, and it is not about the operational efficiency of GCHQ, of which the Committee is well aware, and the remarkable contribution that it makes to intelligence work and to this country's readiness to deal with terrorist attacks. GCHQ is an extremely valued and internationally recognised asset. However, it is unsatisfactory that its financial procedures should merit such criticism. It is all about resource accounting and its failure to grasp the difficult task described by the right hon. Member for NorthEast Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who serves with me on the Committee, as bean countingit has not been counting the beans accurately or has not known precisely where they all were. That problem needs to be remedied, and the Committee has spoken strongly on the subject.
I want to refer in these disparate points to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the orders that have been introduced under it, but I do not want to discuss them in detail. Communications data are important in the detection of serious crime and in dealing with threats to the United Kingdom. They are a valuable intelligence tool. The orders that were brought before the House recently were not primarily about that. They were about access to such data by a variety of bodies with legitimate responsibilities for food safety, public finance, preventing benefit fraud and other such matters. Many of us think that those bodies should not have such wide powers. I appreciate the distinction that was drawn by the Conservative shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), between the areas that are crucial to the central security of the country and its inhabitants and those many other important matters that do not merit the same range of powers. We share that view, and I am glad that he articulated it clearly, as it is relevant.
There was some confusion, because different orders cover different things. I over-simplify a little, but the orders that related to covert human surveillance were, as the Home Secretary said, primarily about bringing under regulation things that happen already and that are, on closer reflection, recognised to happen, whereas those related to communications data went much wider and were rightly the subject of concern. The Home Secretary will have to have a major rethink about that.
My fear is that there is a real danger in extending security-related powers into other areas. That undermines the case for the highly selective use of powers that are regarded as intrusive if that is necessary to prevent major threats to our lives and our safety, and when those threats cannot readily be detected, investigated or challenged in other ways. It is of a piece with the tendency to use the need for security to justify matters that should not be given that justification. Every time that happens, it slightly undermines the credibility of powers in areas where they are vital. That is why we should be careful about using such justifications.
Over the years, emergency, fast-tracked anti-terrorism legislation has often included provisions that are not justifiable, or even justified, by Ministers on security grounds; they are merely slipped into the legislation. For example, anti-terrorism legislation included provisions relating to conspiracy because the Home Office saw a fast train so booked a seat on it for other, no doubt reputable, provisions that were thought justified. When we have to abbreviate parliamentary scrutiny on the ground of urgency we should be cautious about the extension of security justifications beyond their proper scope.
I offer another example. It was widely claimed that the failure to use competitive tendering for the smallpox vaccine was for security reasons, despite the fact that the United States had used open tendering for the same vaccine. If there had been a security reason for that closed process, I am sure that it would have been drawn to the attention of the Intelligence and Security Committee, but it was not. I can say that openly because the Minister responsible confirmed it from the Dispatch Box in the other placerecorded in Lords Hansard on 22 May at column 765. He used a rather broader notion of security, which the statutory provisions allow, but it was not security in the sense that we are using the word in this debate, whereby it justifies extremely wide powers or special procedures. We must always beware of that factor in all our debates and discussions.
Finally, I want to discuss what the Committee is for. It has two broad aspects. The first is the scrutiny of the agencies; of their policy, administration and finance and, going more widely than their statute, their efficiency, probity and fitness for purpose. That is the job on which the committee spends a great deal of time. It draws those matters to the attention of the House through its annual report, which has to be published to the House by the Prime Minister. That also means that the committee draws those matters to the attention of the Prime Minister, which is one of the merits of our non-Select Committee status that might usefully be replicated if the Committee's status were to change.
The fact that the Prime Minister is under an obligation to meet the Committee, having read its report, and to discuss the report in some detail is generally useful and is one of the few means whereby the Prime Minister's mind can be focused on the broad issues of intelligence,
The second aspect of our work is reassurance. The Committee was set upas were committees in several countries, including the United Statespartly in response to the fear that all sorts of dubious things might go on within the veil of secrecy that surrounds intelligence and security organisations and nobody would know, possibly not even Ministers. Ministers might of course be party to such things, which might be done in their interest, and could be politically expedient or involve incursions into people's liberty far beyond those that could be justified in statute or publicly defended. There was a fear that such things might happen in future and some evidence that they had happened in the past.
Hon. Members look to the Committee to provide reassurance. The next best thing to every Member of Parliament being able to check for himself whether anything nefarious is going on is to have confidence that a group of colleagues in whom he can repose some trust has that access and would act if anything bad was happening. In order to provide that reassurance, the Committee must be privy to the widest possible range of information and, over time, we have reached that position.
Circumstances occasionally arise when we need to go further and there are sometimes skirmishes when we try to obtain the information that we require. Some of those skirmishes are ongoing, but it is vital for Members to be sure that we obtain the information and that when it is in our possession we apply the same judgments that they would apply. That is what members of the Committee try to do and we are enabled to do so by the now extensive range of information that we are given. It is what Members expect us to do and I hope that we live up to the task.