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6.7 pm

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): This has been a fascinating debate. I am pleased to be able to speak briefly; I am conscious of the time constraint.

One theme that has run through the debate is the fact that intelligence can never be 100 per cent. accurate. It is often said that the only certainty in the world of intelligence is its inherent uncertainty. Echoing that in a recent article in The Guardian, the outgoing head of M15, Sir Stephen Lander, denied that 11 September was due to a failure of intelligence but conceded that it was due to a failure of security. He said that those who expected 100 per cent. success from intelligence were living in cloud cuckoo land.

We should bear in mind, however, the fact that there have been some fairly spectacular failures on the part of British intelligence in the past. Time prevents me from going into detail, but I think it can be said that, in general, intelligence failures occur not during the gathering of information but during assessment. As the right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth) pointed out, that problem is becoming more critical in an age of information overload in which intelligence-assessment pressures are greater than ever before.

Indeed, we live—more generally—in a world of far greater ambiguity and uncertainty in terms of geopolitical realities. In that context, it is difficult to assess the

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objectives of adversaries. There are no objective criteria; everything is based on finely balanced judgments. In that context, certain preconceptions and prejudices can creep into intelligence assessments. Intelligence agencies rely on mental maps, filters and assumptive words which allow them to make connections and assess the wealth of information at their disposal. It is therefore vital that we have the widest possible engagement with the a priori assumptions that lie at the base of the operations of our security services.

I accept that, by their very nature, the day-to-day operations of the security services have to remain confidential, but given the mental maps that lie at the base of intelligence service activities, it is vital that we have a full debate. In that sense, security is too important to be left to the security services.

Several hon. Members have referred to the culture of the security services. It is something that we can perceive only through a glass darkly. Certainly I have no direct experience, but historically there have been suggestions of institutional sclerosis within the intelligence agencies and a degree of retroactivity. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) referred to the possibility that they were recruiting from too narrow a base in cultural and social terms, a fact which, since the end of the binary certainties of the cold war, may have inhibited the ability of the security services to think outside the box—to use lateral thinking.

As we know from management thinking, large, centralised, vertically integrated, hierarchical organisations are not the best environments for sparking creative thinking. Perhaps we need a discussion about the culture and the wider institutional setting that will allow the intelligence agencies to engage more effectively with a world that is characterised by more chaotic phenomena than in the past. There is a role for public debate, certainly in terms of the assumptions that underlie the work of the intelligence agencies.

Internal co-ordination also fits into this context. Clearly, it is useful to be able to draw on a wide variety of different sources and views within Government in terms of setting priorities, and there may be a debate as to whether our more collegiate, community-based intelligence system serves us best in terms of facilitating that internal co-operation.

There is also a need for external co-ordination in terms of intelligence sharing. It is one of the contradictions of intelligence that, while it needs to be kept confidential, it has to be shared if it is to be acted on internationally. As the Secretary of State for Defence said recently, we need to create a new community of interest as a basis for trust in which intelligence sharing can be facilitated within NATO and, increasingly, in other forums within the European Union and more widely through the UN Security Council.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) eloquently drew attention to the changing nature of security threats. The meta-narrative of security threats and the sources of global insecurity raise issues that stray into foreign policy and international development is at the heart of the debate. That point was made by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and by Mikhail Gorbachev in his visit to Parliament yesterday, who also picked out the issue of water shortage as a key long-term threat to global security.

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That is an important element in considering the sources of the next wave of insecurity. As has been said, our focus has shifted from the cold war to international terrorism, primarily in the context of Islamic fundamentalism. However, what will be the next source of global insecurity in 10, 15 or 20 years' time, and how does that relate to the wider issues?

Greater transparency and accountability improve the security services' efficiency and effectiveness. Importantly, certain intelligence failures during perhaps weaker periods in the British intelligence services' history occurred not because of a surfeit of parliamentary scrutiny, but because of an absence of it. In keeping with the point made by the right hon. Member for Newport, East, the greater professionalism of—and perhaps the change in the cultural ethos of—the security services may in part be attributable to this House's increased openness and transparency in its dealings with security matters. The creation of the Committee is a very important step forward, but it still operates within a ring of secrecy. I hope that the process will be evolutionary, and that we will see greater transparency. It is legitimate to ask Juvenal's question: who watches the watchers? It is vitally important that we maintain scrutiny.

Although we are very grateful for the report, it reads slightly curiously. Paragraph 21 states:

That does not exactly illuminate the Committee's deliberations. Will the Minister say whether such asterisks could be removed, at least in relation to the security services' priorities? The order of priority of the different sources of security threat is a legitimate area for parliamentary scrutiny.

6.17 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price), and I was also very interested to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). The latter worried me slightly, until he started to discuss those brave men and women who died in action against loyalist and republican thugs in an often very dirty war in Ulster. I am delighted that he paid tribute to them, and I join him by paying my own.

I was especially impressed by the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who expressed in practical terms and with particular clarity the threat that we face. He made it clear that the United States of America is taking this threat seriously. I have no doubt that the tempo of al-Qaeda terrorist operations—its attacks on embassies in east Africa and on the USS Cole, and its attacks of 11 September—is being repeated. I very much hope that the intelligence agencies' successes can be translated into successes on the part of those agencies that can do something about this threat. It is all very well being warned and having good intelligence agencies, but we have to do something about the threat. On 4 July, the American nation took the threat very seriously. I wonder if this nation takes it seriously, and I wonder about the level of complacency that we sometimes see—certainly on the surface.

I wish now to bore down—perhaps "bore" is the wrong word—into the relationship between the Security Service and special branch. The Security Service was reorganised

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in 1989 so that the 53 special branches came under the leadership of the Security Service for operational purposes. However, one or two things have gone wrong with that relationship. For example, the Security Service is excellent at gathering intelligence. The right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) mentioned gaps inside our security agencies, and the fact that the Security Service gathers the intelligence but has great difficulty with its executive arm—in the shape of the special branch—is one of those gaps.

Ann Taylor: The gaps that I was talking about were not of that nature. We were concerned that the concentration on post-11 September issues might mean gaps in intelligence cover in other parts of the world and that future problems might develop. I just wish to put the record straight on that point.

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. She might like to add my gap to her list for a future occasion. It is difficult for the Security Service to act on the intelligence that it produces so long as special branch exists in the way that it does. For instance, the chief constables of the various regions are called upon to provide the officers from their special branches for operations dictated by the Security Service. At the moment, there is no cohesion of effort from the Security Service down.

All the Security Service can do is to disrupt operations. What does disrupt mean? As far as I can understand it, disruption means the Security Service going to those who are intent on badness and saying to them, "We know what you intend. Pack it in—stop it." The service might also instruct its surveillance agents to make themselves obvious. That may have worked in the cold war era. Russian agents may have been deterred by such operations, but these days, disruption—against a terrorist enemy—is not well defined. Indeed, it is not sanctioned by legislation and it may clash with the Human Rights Act 1998. That is why there is a need for special branch to be able to carry out the work of the Security Service on a clearer basis.

If we look in more detail at how chief constables organise their special branches, we see that it has been suggested that one of the northern constabularies has reduced its special branch establishment from 23 officers to eight. Of course, chief constables have to provide the funding for special branch operations that are not necessarily their own. Indeed, the Metropolitan police's special branch may require chief constables to provide officers to help them when operating in the regions. One can empathise with the chief constables reducing the numbers if they are told to achieve results in fighting what the Royal Ulster Constabulary used to call ordinary, decent crime. Special branch officers are expensive and a drag on chief constables' budgets.

The three operational areas with which special branch deals—Irish terrorism, domestic terrorism and international terrorism—have completely different operational procedures. Strangely, special branch has no remit at present for dealing with loyalist terrorism. The Security Service clearly supervises it in that role.

On domestic terrorism, which includes animal rights, environmentalist and extreme left-wing and right-wing terrorism, special branches fall under a completely

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different organisation—the national public order intelligence unit, not the Security Service. For some unaccountable reason, the National Criminal Intelligence Service deals with sporting public order, such as football hooliganism—as opposed to non-sporting hooliganism, whatever that is.

Finally, special branches also have to deal with international terrorism not via the Security Service, but via an organisation called the police international counter-terrorist unit. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will agree that that is a move in the right direction, but may I enter a plea to the effect that PICTU is far too small? It is about six people strong, and it needs extra resources if it is to prove effective.

My point is that special branch never really knows who its boss is in any of these circumstances. Under the current, rather muddled system, the Metropolitan police special branch can quite frequently be called on to deploy its anti-terrorist branch for operations anywhere inside the United Kingdom. That means that budgets from the Metropolitan police are used to counter terrorism elsewhere inside the British isles. Officers from the constabularies can be conscripted to work under the anti-terrorist branch, but there is no cohesion or chain of command. There is nothing that special branch understands in terms of anti-terrorist operations on a day-to-day basis.

There are other points which, regrettably, time prevents me from making. However, I should like to quote a senior special branch officer who says:

In other words, the Metropolitan policeman could be called on in these circumstances.

I do not wish to carp and complain. I believe that two distinct things could make special branch more efficient and make it work with the Security Service more efficiently. The first is regional special branches, an idea that I believe is being considered. More efficient, perhaps, would be a national special branch which, understanding the limitations of budgets, could provide a solution to the problem.

I very much hope that we are not recalled again this summer, either for a drama, emergency or disaster abroad or, more particularly, for a disaster in this country. If we are, it will not be because of a failing of the security services but because of complacency on our part.

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