Previous Section Index Home Page

Yesterday, the Home Secretary announced in his statement that a Cabinet-level Committee would work on measures to reduce alienation. However, the ISC reports that another ministerial Committee, the Intelligence Services Committee, has met just once in the past 10 years. That raises a serious problem about ministerial oversight of national security. Currently, a vast array of individuals, bodies and committees are
11 July 2006 : Column 1314
involved in protecting the security of this country, but no single Minister is charged solely with overseeing those bodies and countering the terrorist threat.

By virtue of his wide range of responsibilities, the Home Secretary always has a lot on his plate, and he has admitted as much himself. Much of that work is urgent, as the recent crises over foreign prisoners and other matters have shown. It is impossible for him, or for anyone in his position, to focus entirely on security issues. That is perfectly reasonable, and it is why we have long proposed that a single, Cabinet-level Minister should focus solely on counter-terrorism and national security. I understand that that proposal now has the support of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee.

The Prime Minister has rejected our proposals again, saying that the present arrangements work well, yet the simple truth is that they do not work well, or not well enough. The speed of progress in the prevention and detection of terrorist attacks is slower than we would like. That is not a reflection on the Home Secretary or his predecessors; it is more a reflection on the system that is in place. Until we have a single Minister whose sole focus is defeating the terrorist threat, improvements to the security services and to our resilience arrangements will not be as rapid as they could and should be.

I have paid tribute already to the excellent work of the ISC, under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Torfaen. With limited resources, it performs its task admirably, but no one could imagine that its report on the events of 7/7 could match the 550-page report produced by the 9/11 commission. The time has come for the powers and remit of the ISC to be expanded, to match its task’s heightened profile and difficulty. By increasing the ISC’s powers, Parliament could ensure full scrutiny of the work of the intelligence and security services while maintaining the necessary secrecy that surrounds their operations.

I last asked the Home Secretary about these matters in May, when he responded that the ISC’s scope, remit and statute were defined by the previous Conservative Government. That is correct, and I am touched that the right hon. Gentleman values that Government’s actions so highly that he wants to maintain the status quo. However, I think that the Government accept that we now face a new and more sophisticated threat. It is only right that the ISC’s role should develop to ensure that that threat is met in the most effective way possible.

The ISC was created in the mid-1990s. It was envisaged then that, as the Committee acquired the confidence of the intelligence and security communities, it would evolve towards being a Select Committee of this House, rather than an appointed Committee of the Prime Minister. I urge the Home Secretary to consider those proposals, to ensure that our security services perform their vital role to the best of their ability and under the best possible scrutiny.

Mr. Winnick: The right hon. Gentleman will recall that I was present at the debates on the Bill setting up the ISC, and that the then Conservative Government strenuously opposed Opposition amendments that would have made it a Select Committee. It was made
11 July 2006 : Column 1315
clear to us that under no circumstances would that happen. If he is departing from that position, that is something to be welcomed.

The shadow Home Secretary is suggesting that the ISC’s role should be extended, and no doubt the Government will wish to consider that, but would not that require greater parliamentary accountability than we have at present? Obviously, ongoing operations could not be considered, either in private or in public, by any Committee, but does he agree that there should be more parliamentary accountability than exists at the moment?

David Davis: I do agree, and I shall offer a model of how I think the Committee should be set up. The hon. Gentleman may remember that I was one of the Ministers on the Bill to which he referred. I recall that I said at the time that the then Government expected the Committee, and its relationship with Parliament, to evolve. I am sure that he can look that up if he wants to.

Prior to the ISC’s existence and, indeed, for the past decade or so, a great deal of oversight had been provided to the secret arm of Government by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee sitting as a Committee of one. From memory, that arrangement applied to various aspects of the operations undertaken by MI6, MI5 and GCHQ. If he casts his mind back, the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) will recall the publication of the report on the £150 million overrun on the cost of the buildings for MI5 and MI6. My predecessor in those days was Robert Sheldon, now Lord Sheldon. He tried to get that report published, but the agencies told him that the information was so secret that it could not be put in the public domain. Tom King, now Lord King, was the ISC Chairman at the time, and he also said that he would like to see the information in the public domain, but he, too, was told that it was too secret. In the end, all three of us ganged up on the Government—this Government—who were persuaded that information such as that could be put in the public domain.

A redaction process then started, as I wanted to make the final report as accountable as possible. I received two documents—one each from MI5 and MI6—containing all their proposed deletions. The chapters that they wanted to redact looked almost identical, but the proposed redactions were different. I therefore wrote to the agencies. I asked MI5, “If MI6 allows us in, why can’t MI5?” I also asked MI6, “If MI5 allows us in, why can’t MI6?” The agencies’ opposition to the report collapsed and it was published almost in its entirety. I do not think that any aspect of our security and intelligence operation was damaged—

Andrew Mackinlay: Did the western world collapse after that?

David Davis: No, the western world did not collapse—at least, not from that cause anyway. However, the hon. Member for Walsall, North is right: it is perfectly possible for a responsible Committee to carry out oversight in the way described.

11 July 2006 : Column 1316

I do not entirely agree with how the Americans handle all their oversight arrangements, especially in respect of budget oversight, but the objective that has been set out is eminently achievable. I should like a Committee to be established along the lines of the PAC, with serious investigative resources. I do not mean this as an insult to the ISC’s current Chairman, but it is possible that, as a matter of course, the proposed Committee should have an Opposition Chairman. That is what happens with the PAC, and if I am Home Secretary in two or three years I may be in a position to offer the right hon. Member for Torfaen another job.

The mechanism that I envisage can be achieved. As we enhance the size and effectiveness of our security services, we owe it to the people of Britain to enhance the oversight that goes with that.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I was Secretary of State for Defence when the ISC was formed, and it is easy to forget how revolutionary an innovation it was considered to be and how nervous the agencies were about any degree of scrutiny. However, I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend: the excellent work done by the ISC, and the nature of the security problems that it and the Government face at present, more than justifies the sort of reforms that he is recommending.

David Davis: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend, with whom I have worked on these matters before. I hope that we have a well-informed view of the needs of the security services, but we also have respect for the effectiveness of Parliament in this area.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

David Davis: I give way to another member of the ISC.

Richard Ottaway: I apologise to the House and to the Home Secretary for intervening, given that I was not present for the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. I am interested in what my right hon. Friend is saying. I have served on a fairly high profile Select Committee and on the ISC, and I have an open mind about the proposal that he is making, but will he elaborate on how he sees a Select Committee working within the confines of the Official Secrets Act? By definition, a parliamentary Committee is open, whereas the Official Secrets Act is, of course, limiting.

David Davis: There is no doubt that the proposed Committee would be unique in that respect, but the American Senate has a very effective oversight committee. For instance, Pat Roberts’ committee helped to produce the 9/11 report, and there are many other examples. What we propose is not impossible and there are various options, such as requiring all Committee members to be privy Councillors. We need to begin the debate on the matter, to ensure that we have the right level of scrutiny to match the security requirements.

11 July 2006 : Column 1317

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman is making some sensible and helpful proposals. I have pursued precisely these matters for a long time, and over the years I have become aware that people say things in opposition that melt away when they get into government. If he ever gets into government, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will stick firmly by the idea that the security services should account to Parliament and not to the Prime Minister?

David Davis: There are two aspects for the hon. Gentleman to consider. First, I was a member of the Committee that put MI6—the SIS—on to an avower basis for the first time, so my enthusiasm was evident even as a junior Minister. Secondly, I am told that when people go into government they have 12 months of virtue, so when and if I am Home Secretary in three years’ time, I recommend that the hon. Gentleman reminds me of that point. That is why I am making it now.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Perhaps I can help the right hon. Gentleman. From time to time, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has received classified information, which it has never leaked; nor would it. Nevertheless the Committee has regularly been told by Ministers, in this and the previous Government, that certain information will not be given to us because it is being given to the ISC. The members of that Committee are good people, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), whom I served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, but the ISC is not a Committee of the House and it is not accountable to the House, so I am very interested in the proposal made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), but it should go further.

David Davis: I am tempted to say, “Get thee behind me, Satan”, but I shall leave that point right there. However, I encourage Members, especially the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), to remind me in two and half years’ time of what I said this evening.

Mr. Ellwood: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the ISC has limitations? The report it produced for the House on the Bali bombings in 2002 suggested that MI5 had got the threat level wrong and that it should have been raised from significant to high. The report was put to the House, but the House decided not to act on it. The consequences of not accepting its recommendation about travel advice from the Foreign Office were huge and affected all the people consulting the website when making plans to travel to Bali. The whole report, written by Ann Taylor, was dismissed by the Chamber, which shows how limited the powers of the ISC are.

David Davis: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I think that he is blaming the wrong person. We cannot blame the Committee for the extent to which the House or the Government take action on the basis of its recommendations. That is purely the responsibility of the House and the Government. The Committee does
11 July 2006 : Column 1318
the best job it can within the limits of its remit and my hon. Friend highlights a good example of one of the things that it illustrated.

The burden of the ISC’s work this year has been the report into the London terrorist attacks of 7 July, about which I do not intend to go into great detail as I suspect that the story will change over the coming year. When the Committee published its report, I paid tribute to it as “extremely insightful”, but although the Committee is impartial, astute and of the highest integrity, as I have said before, there are limitations on what it can achieve. I shall read a quotation to the House:

Those are the words not of some wild revolutionary, but of the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). So if the Home Secretary will not listen to me, perhaps he will listen to his right hon. Friend who, as the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee and a former Home Office Minister, has a good deal more experience in these matters than almost anybody else—even members of the Government.

It is worth pointing out that almost every serious breach of security under previous Governments has resulted in an independent inquiry, generally led by a member of the judiciary, such as the Radcliffe inquiry in 1962, the Denning inquiry and the Franks inquiry. The least that the Government can do, to ensure that no stone is left unturned in learning the lessons from last July, is to order a full, independent inquiry. So far, the Home Secretary has shown himself willing to reconsider some of the decisions taken by his predecessors. I hope that this will be another issue on which he is prepared to be independently minded and to do what is best in the interests of the public.

The ISC reports that the Home Secretary intends to toughen the Official Secrets Act. We hear that he intends to remove the common law defence of “duress of circumstance”, or necessity, as a defence for so-called whistleblowers, and that the maximum penalty for breaching the Official Secrets Act could be doubled from two to four years in prison. I shall wait until the Bill is published and we have had a proper chance to examine it in detail before I comment on its contents and before the Opposition decide on their stance.

It is surprising, however, that the Home Secretary wants to change the law when the Government have failed to test its operation in crucial cases, most recently in the case of Katharine Gun, which, I understand, led to the proposals. I should make it clear that I do not approve of what Ms Gun did, but if the Government believed that her actions represented a breach in security, or had endangered the interests of the United Kingdom, they had a duty to take the case to court in the national interest. However, the case was reportedly dropped just five hours after the defence sought the disclosure of the Attorney-General’s advice to the Government about the Iraq war.

11 July 2006 : Column 1319

Whether or not there is a public interest or similar defence in law, it is possible that a jury would still decide a case based on its own interpretation of the public interest. I hope that the Home Secretary will pay particular attention to this part of my argument, as that is an important test; for example, such an interpretation of the public interest may have been the reason for the acquittal of Clive Ponting, under a previous Government.

The Government came to power with an admirable reputation and enthusiasm for freedom of information, for protecting whistleblowers and for civil rights—an apposite point given the issues that were raised with me earlier—which has, sadly, faded in recent years. The Government’s behaviour towards legitimate—indeed, public spirited—whistleblowers has bordered on the disreputable. There will be a fear that the Official Secrets Act is being used to conceal embarrassing facts, rather than secrets that are essential to the security of the state. If the proposed measures represent the former, the whole House will resist them, but if they are really necessary for the defence of the state, they will receive our support. That distinction is vitally.

Norman Baker: I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. There were newspaper reports of considerable disquiet in the intelligence services about how the intelligence was presented during the run-up to the war with Iraq. If people feel that intelligence is being misused, there must be legitimate means, without endangering security, for them to represent that view to others who may have a legitimate interest—for instance, the ISC. There is a real fear that if the proposed measure goes through, there could be further oppression of people whose legitimate point of view would help the House.

David Davis: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, although the Committee’s report covers in some detail the quite sensible arrangements for handling dissenting opinion. However, he is right in another respect: we have to be absolutely sure that the Bill is about protecting the interests of our state, not those of a particular Administration, or protecting from embarrassment somebody in the bureaucracy. That is the test that we shall apply to it when it comes before the House.

One point not mentioned in the ISC report, but to which the Home Secretary alluded yesterday, is resilience—the measures taken to preserve public safety when a terrorist attack has happened. Resilience is a vital pillar in the fight against terrorism. Although the Home Secretary included it under the prepare strand of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, it is clear that more needs to be done. For example, simple measures, such as instructions about what to do in a case of emergency—as in a terrorist attack—have still not been placed in tube carriages. A whole year after 7/7, a series of safety measures have not been put in place. Those are small but vital measures, which should not normally occupy the time of the Home Secretary, but they could mean the difference between life and death to members of the public in the event of another attack.

11 July 2006 : Column 1320

We all pay tribute to the bravery and commitment of those in our intelligence and security communities who protect our lives on a daily basis. However, they cannot win the fight against terrorism alone. I urge the Home Secretary and the Minister who winds up the debate to consider the proposals that I have set out: lifting the ban on intercept evidence; a single, border police force; a single, Cabinet-level Minister in charge of counter-terrorism and national security; an increase in the investigative powers of the ISC; an independent inquiry into the events of 7 July; and further attention to resilience measures.

I repeat what I have said to the Home Secretary before. It is certainly our job on the Opposition Benches—and, in my view, on both sides of the House—to question and to scrutinise the actions of Government and, where necessary, to propose an alternative course of action—and no matter how the Home Secretary may describe it, that is not unpatriotic; it is our duty. However, where we believe that he is taking action in the interests of public security and in the national interest, he will have our unwavering support.

Next Section Index Home Page