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5.19 pm

Alan Howarth (Newport, East): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). He was one of the founder members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and he and the longer serving members of the Committee have mentored those of us who are more newly recruited, and I hope that we have brought a useful, fresh approach. Let me add my appreciation of the admirable chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor). Let me also express my appreciation of the immensely competent efforts and hard work done in support of us by our secretariat.

I wish to reiterate the admiration of the agencies' professionalism that we have expressed in our report. My impression is that the agencies' professionalism grew during the 1990s, and I suspect that that has something to do with the legitimation of their establishment and their work in legislation from the mid-1980s onwards, particularly under the Security Service Act 1989 and the Intelligence Services Act 1994. That may also be the view of the agencies themselves. It has been helpful that their task has been made explicit and defined more clearly. It has been helpful in establishing some boundaries for what they do. It has been good for their esteem and standing in the public eye, and it has assisted them in recruiting the sort of people whom they need to recruit.

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The agencies certainly need people with a remarkable range of skills and human qualities, among which is courage. The work at every level of the agencies is characterised by courage on the part of a very great many individuals, and I would add that the judgments and decisions that need to be made by those at the most senior level—particularly, of course, the chiefs—really do take courage. They undertake massive responsibilities on behalf of us all, so I gladly pay tribute to them, particularly Sir Stephen Lander, who is shortly to depart as head of the Security Service.

The Committee works on a basis of trust. The need-to-know principle is indispensable because, of course, sources must be protected. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has just said, we see a greater range of official papers and are privy to a greater amount of information than was the case in the past. One has to be pragmatic about this, but, because trust has grown, the scope for the Committee to work effectively has grown. When all is said and done, it is not in the interests of the agencies or Departments to fail to convince the Committee of the appropriateness of what they do, let alone to mislead us.

The Committee has done much to win the confidence of those whom it is our responsibility to scrutinise and, correspondingly, the Committee has much confidence in them, but it is, of course, our job to probe, to ask the awkward questions and to apply pressure, which is what we certainly intend to continue to do.

As the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) noted, we are not a parliamentary Committee in a certain formal sense, but we are all extremely conscious of our responsibilities as parliamentarians and our responsibilities—albeit through the Prime Minister—to Parliament, so we must hope that our parliamentary colleagues trust us as members of the Committee. That is for them to judge and to say, but I have been pleased to hear several right hon. and hon. Members express their approval of the work of the agencies this afternoon.

Irrespective of whether the members of the Committee are appointed by the Prime Minister or whether we are constituted as a Select Committee, there would still be the need for confidentiality. I find it difficult to foresee that our modus operandi would change radically if we were to become a Select Committee, and I fear that those wretched asterisks would still appear in our reports. The irony is that we have to limit our accountability to Parliament to protect our democracy.

It is important that the agencies are in some ways insulated from the pressures of politics. Some of the earlier speeches, including that made from the Front Bench by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), show us how public concern on high-profile and urgent matters—such as serious and organised crime—will very properly be mediated through Parliament. I am very well aware, as a Member of Parliament representing a Gwent constituency, how much we in Gwent and the Gwent Police owe to the expert support that the police have received from the agencies in certain investigations.

It has been noted that serious and organised crime is highly relevant to counter-terrorism. None the less, the agencies' priorities need to be balanced and must not be distorted by understandable public pressures.

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Counter-terrorism, dealing with espionage, and dealing with the very dangerous threat from the proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, about which my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) spoke so eloquently, are at the heart of what the agencies do and they must be enabled to pursue a balanced approach, as I believe that they do.

Often what we hear less about is no less important, and of course we rarely, as members of the public, hear about the successes of the agencies. Al-Qaeda has inevitably been a huge preoccupation over a very considerable period and well before 11 September, but the danger from Irish terrorism remains a major preoccupation. Although there is less in the media about Irish terrorism than there is about al-Qaeda it does not mean to say that it matters any less. Equally, the India-Pakistan conflict and problems of Kashmir are almost unspeakably important, and no amount of other public preoccupation should distract the agencies from what they need to do in respect of that problem.

The agencies work in a changing environment. We now live in a world of macro-terrorism. As the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (James Arbuthnot) put it very well, the world had really failed to grasp imaginatively the reality of the possibility of suicide missions in the west, and of terrorist activity on the scale and of the pitilessness and effectiveness that we witnessed on 11 September. The Home Secretary effectively acknowledged that, when he met us in the Committee. We need to be at new levels of alert, of vigilance and of protection.

We also live in a rapidly changing technological environment. The technical capacities of Government communications headquarters, Cheltenham, working very closely and effectively, as it does, with the National Security Agency in the USA, and of the Ministry of Defence and its agencies working with the American National Imagery and Mapping Agency, are extraordinary. The capacity may be great but that itself creates a new problem because, whereas in the past there was a problem of a lack of intelligence information on the scale that might have been required, the agencies now perhaps suffer from a surfeit of information. The problem is looking for the needle in the haystack and the new challenge is how to ask the right questions so that one can interrogate these colossal databanks in order to focus on and pin down the vital information.

Hon. Members have spoken about the difficulties of balancing security and liberty, but what is clear is that without security there can be no liberty, and that presents endless dilemmas upon which we can torture ourselves. Parliament is right to be vigilant about the extension of powers to obtain communications data, and about the systems to ensure that data requests are properly authorised. I very much appreciate the words spoken by the Home Secretary on that issue this afternoon, and the important and constructive exchange between himself and the shadow Home Secretary. These matters may primarily be the responsibility of Committees other than ours. The Intelligence and Security Committee, however, has an important responsibility to satisfy itself that systems of warrantry, which are a key part of the guarantee of freedoms in this area of work, are operating as they

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should. We have paid particular attention to questions of staffing. If—I am glad that it is only a hypothetical possibility—there were significant extensions of power to other agencies to obtain communications data, it would be extremely important that the commissioners have the staff that they need to be able to oversee the system. The Government, in their response to our report, assert that there will be an appropriate level of resources. The Committee will wish to satisfy itself as to what that may mean in practical terms.

As many Members have asked, and as almost everyone outside the House asks in anguish, could the horror of 11 September have been prevented? Like others on the Committee, I was startled by the press release from the Foreign Affairs Committee. We must guard against the search for scapegoats. If there really were culpable failures, they must be identified, but such inquiries need to be pursued in a calm frame of mind. They are being pursued in the United States, and we shall see what the findings prove to be. We raised in our report the question of whether the assessment made by the Joint Intelligence Committee in June and July was sufficiently stark. My view is that the agencies, the Joint Intelligence Committee, and, in their turn, Ministers, acted as they should have done in that period. There were many indications that something very important and very dangerous was afoot—the reports coming in to Ministers made it very clear that al-Qaeda was preparing something monstrous. I do not believe, however, that anybody—certainly, in our agencies—was in a position to identity the precise nature of that threat. After all, it is fair to recall that the atrocity did not take place in the United Kingdom, although it affected many British lives and families.

Attempting to be wise after the event, I ask, what might have been done differently? I think that we were too greedy with the peace dividend after the end of the cold war. Budgets were reduced, and they began to rise only at the end of the last decade and at the beginning of this one. Even the civil contingencies unit was disbanded, which was surely a mistake. It represented a naive view of human nature. Of course we wanted to turn swords into plough shares, and to release resources to spend on public services or other good projects, but it was foolish to suppose that, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war, human nature had somehow altered. Tragically, hatred, violence, conflict and terror are endemic in human affairs.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, and as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has already recalled, essentially, the west walked away from Afghanistan, ignoring the pathology of that failed state. We need to reflect on the lessons of that mistake. We do not have to agree with everything that has been proposed by Samuel P. Huntington in his extremely interesting book, "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order". We should take very seriously, however, his suggestion that the real faultline—the areas where the risk of conflict is liable to be most acute—is where different civilisations and cultures meet and encounter each other. The lesson from that, if I may risk stating the obvious, is that, where Iraq is concerned, we should handle with care. Were we to pursue policies that caused the Islamic world to forget its many differences and to rally in antagonism to the west, that would be devastatingly unfortunate. Equally, we do not have to accept everything that Mr. Robert Cooper

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suggests to us, to accept none the less that we should give our serious attention to the pathology of failed states. There are implications there for countries in the west that make fine professions—for example, in the Doha round—but then introduce protectionist policies that might have been calculated to further impoverish already very poor areas of the world and to make them breeding grounds for resentment, hatred and terrorism. The better our policies and our diplomacy, the less pressure there will be on our security and intelligence agencies and on our armed forces.

Thinking again about what might have been organised better over the period, it has become commonplace to note that one of the distinguishing differences in this area between ourselves in the United Kingdom and our friends and allies in the United States is that in the US there is no MI5. The FBI is an organisation of a different character. It is essentially a policing operation, and its remit has been to apprehend criminals and bring them to justice after the crime has been committed. The culture of the FBI is being radically recast and the US is engaged in the creation of its Office of Homeland Security, but that is a difficult culture change. It is an immensely important one, and I wish our friends and colleagues there well.

Simple security routines are always liable to be neglected. How do we maintain the state of alert that we need? Airport security, as we saw, was perilously lax before 11 September. It is more laborious now; I wonder whether it is yet as efficacious as it needs to be. How are we to scan the myriad parcels and containers that come into our country day by day? It is not in human nature to maintain a permanent state of vigilance, yet it is extremely important that we do so.

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