Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.28 pm

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): May I begin by presenting the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) for being unable to contribute to the debate? He has, of course, written personally to the Foreign Secretary.

We have witnessed a responsible and enlightened debate, albeit a slightly surreal one. We have witnessed a display of openness conducted in a strange penumbra of secrecy. There is a risk with the format that has emerged in the House that people either know too much and must choose not to say it or know too little yet have to choose something to say. None the less, this has been a valuable exercise.

11 Jul 2002 : Column 1125

The House has chosen to place its trust in those of our number who sit on the Intelligence and Security Committee to act out in their work the difficult balance that it has been decided to strike between democratic accountability and the serious exercise of covert intelligence, both domestic and foreign. It is a balance that I think we have got right. We have a model that many might study and that we may yet export to other democracies across the globe.

I congratulate the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee on their report and on all their work. They fulfil a vital, if necessarily mysterious role in ensuring the proper and responsible oversight of our intelligence and security agencies.

Following the terrorist outrages of 11 September, we are all only too aware of the uncertain and dangerous world in which we must now work. The attacks on the United States were, arguably, not the turning point. That had perhaps come much earlier, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war. Those events ushered in a new era. Gone were the old certainties of the two superpower blocs and their allies facing and counterbalancing each other, and in had come a new fluidity not seen for decades.

That fluidity has given rise to new challenges that we must face: international terrorism, which can strike anywhere, without warning and without scruple; weapons of mass destruction in the hands of unscrupulous regimes or rogue states; and instability engendered by famine, insurgency or civil war, with the failed states that can result.

We should not forget that, domestically, we must be aware of the need to guard our homeland against internal as well as external threats. Intelligence has always been at the centre of the war against terrorism in all its forms. Good intelligence can make all the difference between a threat materialising or being tackled before it can cause damage. In this world of asymmetric threats to our country and to our citizens, where tanks and missiles are no defence against the perilously placed chemical jam jar, good intelligence and forewarning can be a far more potent weapon in our armoury.

In taking on the challenges posed by moving away from the bloc mentality to greater fluidity, and perhaps also from containment to pre-emption, accurate knowledge and intelligence are vital for us to determine the appropriate level of response or pre-emptive action. Intelligence, human and technical, becomes an ever more important resource for us and our allies.

There has perhaps been too little mention of our allies in this debate. There has been very little mention of the United States. In a climate of growing anti-Americanism, which I absolutely deplore, we should never underestimate the value of our close and friendly links with the United States on the very topic that we are discussing.

It is invidious to single out one of the 15 speeches that we have heard today, but the whole House will applaud the work of the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) in her chairmanship of the Committee. She spoke of counter-terrorist successes. It is good to know that there have been some, but it is unhappy to know that we were at risk. It is better that such threats were pre-empted than if we had had to witness the carnage that would have followed. She was impressed by the new

11 Jul 2002 : Column 1126

co-operation among the various agencies, which is heartening to know about. She referred to the reduction in spending in the 1990s, which led to the shortfalls mentioned in the report and by the right hon. Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth).

The only tiny failure that I can spot is that, as Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Lady interviewed the previous Chief Secretary to the Treasury in ignorance of the fact that he was about to be moved.

I want to place on record my respect and praise for the work undertaken, often at great personal risk, by the men and women of our intelligence and security services in protecting each and every one of us, often from threats that we do not even know exist.

I am encouraged that the report, and indeed the Government's response, shows a refocusing of money and priorities on meeting the challenges posed by 11 September. In these circumstances, it is essential to adapt, and it is encouraging to see that that is what we are doing.

I strongly agree with the Committee's comments on the appointment of John Scarlett as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and as intelligence co-ordinator, in line with an earlier ISC report suggesting that those posts should be filled by someone from within the intelligence community. We welcome the appointment of such an able person.

As many right hon. and hon. Members have said, the report recommended that the ministerial committee on the intelligence services—the CSI—meet annually to review intelligence requirements and priorities. We believe that the services need policy guidance if they are continue to do what is expected of them. That point was made in particular by my right hon. Friend the Member for North–East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot).

Although the report is generally positive and the work of members of the services is rightly praised, it is concerning that, at an administration level, the report notes some weakness in the United Kingdom's secure communications equipment and in the languages that the services are able to cover. Those points were mentioned by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and in paragraphs W and S of the recommendations. I trust that the Government are addressing those issues as a priority. I invite the Foreign Secretary to comment when he winds up the debate.

Domestically, the Security Service should remain seized of the need to engage constructively with mainstream Muslim sentiment in the United Kingdom. Those participating in the debate have touched on a point of the utmost importance. Much of the perceived threat comes from people from Muslim countries who are furious, or rendered furious, by differences in their own countries or by other global issues that inflame their thinking and their actions. I cannot praise too highly the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who pointed out the importance of drawing into the culture of our security and intelligence services people in our country who are not the conventional Oxbridge types whom we assume step into these jobs. We should also engage people from Muslim communities and of a Muslim background who are, as my hon. Friend said, as much patriots as any of us in the House. That is crucial to the future efficacy of those services.

11 Jul 2002 : Column 1127

The right hon. Member for Newport, East also made a thoughtful contribution. He said that we should understand what generates terrorism, and why people act as they do. It is not just an understanding of our own country that is sometimes lacking, but an understanding of other countries, which is crucial to our understanding of the broader interest and motivation that causes many of the problems that we face. We must understand opinion everywhere if we are to understand the problems with which we are all trying to wrestle.

I am pleased that the Government accept the need to address problems with the management and accounting processes at GCHQ, and that they are monitoring these matters. I hope that they will move swiftly to resolve any remaining problems over meeting the required accounting standard, which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North–East Hampshire said, may bedevil us for a third year—we hope that it will be only two.

I think that everyone in the Chamber agrees that the form of oversight that has emerged in the past few years works well. The Committee's reports are useful in ensuring that channels of accountability and parliamentary oversight remain effective. The nature of the work of the intelligence and security services obviously causes constraints to be placed on the degree of openness and oversight that is possible, but the requirements of the European convention on human rights, among other things, have necessitated a more defined statutory footing for the services. The Security and Intelligence Committee, the commissioners and the tribunal all serve to provide oversight and accountability, as do debates such as this one today, and the persons of the Prime Minister and Secretaries of State.

It is always difficult to strike a balance between openness and accountability and the need for secrecy to protect agents and work being undertaken, but I believe that we have been pretty successful. I hope that that balance will be carefully preserved in the future, and that the Committee will continue its good work.

6.39 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): When I became a Member of the House 23 years ago, the very existence of the security and secret intelligence services was not publicly admitted, still less was there any semblance of parliamentary scrutiny of their work. It is a great tribute to the maturity of our democracy that in the intervening period there has been a considerable increase in the depth and breadth of parliamentary scrutiny of the work of the agencies. Far from that undermining public confidence in the work of the agencies and the esteem in which the individuals working for them are held, the reverse has been the case.

As someone who for five years had responsibility for the Security Service and, for the past 13 months, for the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ, I pay my tribute to the Intelligence and Security Committee for the way in which, by holding us to account, its members enable us better to fulfil our statutory responsibilities in respect of those services. I know that I also speak for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

I begin, therefore, by paying a warm tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) and to all her fellow members of the Intelligence and Security

11 Jul 2002 : Column 1128

Committee in both this and the other place for their work. The fact that Ministers from five Departments provided evidence to the Committee this year shows the value that the Government as a whole attach to its work.

By way of a further preliminary, I endorse the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in respect of the retirements of Sir Stephen Lander, as director general of the Security Service, and of Mr. John Warne, as director general of the organised and international crime directorate—although as he is usually the first to point out, he is director general against organised and international crime and not for its propagation.

I was loyally and proficiently served by Stephen Lander and wish him well. I was also extremely well served by John Warne, who had the task, within the Home Office, of co-ordinating its arrangements for holding the Security Service to account, for liaising with special branch in London and elsewhere, and generally in developing the work of the Home Office with other agencies, including the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service, against organised and international crime. I warmly wish him well for the future.

We have moved from a period when there was almost no scrutiny of any of the agencies, which were all non-statutory, and there was no statutory provision for intercepts of any kind to the present situation where the oversight of our intelligence and security agencies is as comprehensive as any in the world. I shall deal in a moment with the point raised by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) as to whether that might be further developed with a Select Committee.

When we consider the arrangements in other European Union countries, we can see how far ahead we are; no European country has comparable arrangements. In endorsing the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) to our relationship with the United States agencies and to those agencies themselves, I note that the only country with the same depth of accountability is the United States.

Next Section

IndexHome Page