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8.48 pm

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): It is particularly interesting to follow the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. There are many ways in which Committees can co-operate, and the Intelligence and Security Committee has successfully co-operated with a number of other Committees, including the Public Accounts Committee—thanks to which we get very significant help from National Audit Office staff in some of our work—and, indeed, with the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Perhaps some of the ways in which such things were approached in the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred were not the most helpful and constructive, but there must be some realism and some recognition that serious parliamentary scrutiny of intelligence will not happen if it is too widely dispersed. It must be done within a very controlled context, but it is quite possible for inquiries to take place in one Committee, which deals with the wider policy implications, and in the ISC, which deals with specific intelligence aspects.

I do not want to spend the limited time that I have on such general issues, interesting though they are; I have talked about them before. Instead, I shall make a few specific points, one of which is a reflection on the Forest Gate incident that caused much concern. On the one hand, that incident led some people to say, “The intelligence must have been shown to be weak, so the police should not have gone in.” On the other, there were statements emanating from within the police and from others saying, “We cannot ignore intelligence that indicates the likelihood of something very serious being plotted. We have to act.”

I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that in my view, there will be other occasions when intelligence about which there cannot be certainty cannot be ignored, either. So we have to develop sophisticated police tactics that enable them to act in such circumstances without running the risk of massive community alienation. That is very difficult, because policemen have to be protected as well; they must not go into such situations with insufficient protection. But we will have to find ways of using subtle police tactics to ensure that we can respond to intelligence reports that are sufficiently serious not to be ignored, but which are not so certain that we can go
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in without any doubt that we will find the terrorist or the device that is the object of the inquiry. So there are lessons to be learned from Forest Gate.

I turn to a completely different issue, to which the Government’s response is incomplete: the continued failure of Departments to reach agreement on the funding of the security services’ future work in Northern Ireland. We expressed concern that that might hinder planning of such work. We have been given assurances that planning is going ahead, and the Government indicated likewise in their response, but the fact is that the dispute has not been resolved. Departments are still arguing with each other about who is picking up which tab for this work. That is ridiculous and cannot be allowed to go on. I hope that Ministers will address that issue.

A point was made earlier in the debate about co-operation between intelligence agencies. I suspect that lying behind that is an argument that is sometimes advanced by one or two people in this House, and which was more recently advanced in another place: that perhaps we should just amalgamate all the intelligence services in this changed and different world. That would be a mistake, but I want to put on the record that in the 12 years in which I have served in this work and scrutinised such agencies, I have noticed a massive change in the nature and extent of the co-operation between them. There was a great deal of mutual suspicion, rivalry, distance and separation when I first became involved in this work. However, there have been remarkable changes in the intervening years: joint operations; a great deal of secondment across agencies; partnerships of one sort or another; and agencies in which people from each of the intelligence bodies are involved, so that they become accustomed to working together.

Such approaches have developed to such an extent that they are the envy of many other countries. We deal with and talk to people from oversight committees and intelligence agencies in many countries, and they are generally pretty envious of the degree of co-operation and co-ordination between our services. That is working, although it can be improved. The entire Iraq experience demonstrated this point, as did the role of the Defence Intelligence Staff. The Committee has taken an ever-closer interest in defence intelligence, having been encouraged to do so—and given the support to do so—by the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, following some problems that we had.

The substantive point that I want to make emerged from two or three of the ISC’s reports and from the Butler report: the importance of ensuring that intelligence is rigorously challenged as it is brought in and analysed, and that it is cross-referenced to relevant expertise and open-source information. It is a kind of triangulation process: if someone gets a piece of intelligence, they need to make sure that they set it in the context of what they or other people know because of their expert knowledge—that signally failed to happen at certain points during the weapons of mass destruction discussion, for example—and that it is related to open-source information that could put that intelligence into a rather different context when one realises the circumstances in which it might have been generated. All those elements have to be drawn together, and that means that people sometimes have to challenge the first conclusions that are drawn from a piece of intelligence.

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Special ways to do that have been suggested both in our reports and in the Butler report, to which I shall refer briefly. Our overall view, however, is that we do not want a culture of acceptance or deference in the intelligence world. As with any good academic inquiry, there must be a culture in which things that are said are challenged—in which people say “Just a minute: that does not tally with something else”, or “Can we really make that stand up?” Such discussion is necessary. It should not be repressed or discouraged, or simply institutionally not provided for.

I am glad to say that that has been addressed in a number of ways. There are internal arrangements in the Secret Intelligence Service for a challenge process to ensure that the first obvious explanation is not automatically accepted. There is the role of the JIC Chairman, which has been discussed a fair amount today. The JIC traditionally operates on a basis of producing consensus reports. That too is envied in other countries where rival intelligence interpretations are slammed down on the desks of Presidents and Ministers with the words “You make up your mind: here is what difficult organisations think”, which is not always very productive.

We go for a consensus approach in this country, winnowing down all the intelligence to produce the consensus; but there is a danger in that. In paragraph S of our latest report, we said

In their response, the Government mentioned the new obligation to put dissent notes on the front of a JIC paper if the chairman is aware of unresolved dissent in the interpretations of the different bodies that sit on the JIC. That is very welcome.

Along with all that go proper channels for the expression of dissent so that staff feel that they can “hang on in there” if they are still convinced that something is wrong, and have somewhere to go. To an extent that constitutes a counsel against potentially dangerous whistleblowing that blows sources. One individual’s judgment on when the national interest demands that he go public may well not be shared by a great many people if, at the end of the day, it means that we lose an intelligence source that we want to keep. Opportunities for people to express dissent to those in a higher position than the level of management immediately above them is very important. That is now an accepted element of the role of staff counsellors. In the Ministry of Defence, members of staff can talk to senior personnel who are not involved in intelligence.

An important rule in the DIS is that a DIS senior official should see intelligence and advise on its distribution. That goes back to the issue of weapons of mass destruction, and the failure of key DIS officials who had expert knowledge to see intelligence that they could and would have challenged. A recommendation in the report that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)
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said he would have valued relates to guidance to Ministers and others on how to read intelligence, and how to interpret its significance. That is relevant to the triangulation of intelligence—to setting intelligence in context, and understanding what it can and cannot do for us.

The way in which we develop, analyse and use intelligence is fundamental to making good use of the massive resources and massive effort that go into it. That is why I chose to concentrate on the issue.

8.58 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I have already indicated my view that apart from this welcome but very short debate, there is no parliamentary oversight of our security and intelligence services. Let me get this out of the way immediately: obviously I have a high regard for our colleagues who serve on the committee, but that is the only nice thing that I can say about them in the present context, although I do express the hope that they may have some regard for me too. I believe that their membership of the committee diminishes Parliament, and I invite them to reflect on what I say and on their position.

I was a member of the parliamentary assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe last week. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office gave us a briefing note on the question of parliamentary oversight of the security and intelligence services. It had the audacity to include the observation that the British system was exemplary, and parliamentary oversight of security and intelligence was wonderful. I threw it across my hotel room in disgust, because either the author was blind to at least some parliamentary opinion or he really believes that. Either way, he was wrong. I challenged my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the former Foreign Secretary, about that point at the Foreign Affairs Committee. He said—and this view was adopted by the author of the report from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—that it was a distinction without a difference, so what was the problem. I believe that if that is said often enough, people will start believing it. But it is not a parliamentary Committee. There is no parliamentary oversight of our security and intelligence services other than these precious minutes that we get once a year.

The committee is anointed and appointed by the head of the security and intelligence services—the Prime Minister, who is both judge and jury. The committee let us down in the previous Parliament when it abdicated its responsibility to the Butler inquiry on such matters as the dodgy dossier. If it had been a parliamentary Committee, it would have said, “That is our business, Prime Minister. You can appoint whoever you like, but we will decide how we conduct our own inquiry.” But the committee surrendered even the fig leaf of a remote relationship with Parliament.

The committee is made up of parliamentarians, but it is not a parliamentary Committee. I listened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) carefully and I intervened on him on this point. He said that the committee members are selected by the Prime Minister, but he takes advice. Well, who gives that advice? I have already indicated that I would decline to
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serve on the committee, in the unlikely event that I were asked to do so under the present regime. It would be repugnant to me.

I am unlikely to be invited to serve on the committee for a variety of reasons. If one rubs up the system in this country the wrong way, one is considered mad or bad, or both. I do not mean that Ministers necessarily hold that view, but the people who give the advice do so. I want to share with the House a very serious story, but I hope that no one will press me too much on the details. I recently became aware of what I consider a highly defamatory remark about me on a Government file. Since then, the permanent secretary and the Secretary of State involved have apologised to me—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Does the point that the hon. Gentleman is making relate to the report?

Andrew Mackinlay: It relates to the issue of selection for service on the committee. Indeed, it goes to the heart of the matter, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen mentioned advisers. We do not know their names, but my concern is that they are privy to false statements about hon. Members. Presumably, such statements are forwarded to the security and intelligence services. The comment about me had been on a file since 2003 and I got to know about it only by accident.

Reference has been made to the Data Protection Act 1998. I put in an application under the Act and found that there were vexatious, mendacious and malicious comments about me in various documents. Those comments would have disqualified me from consideration by the Prime Minister for membership of the committee. It is, therefore, not a parliamentary Committee. Under the Select Committee system, one can apply, through one’s party, and be accepted or rejected. One cannot apply to sit on the Intelligence and Security Committee. A Prime Minister might decide that someone is worth considering, and their name will be submitted for the scrutiny of people whose names we do not know. The candidate could be vetoed for reasons that neither he nor anyone else are aware of. That is the danger and that is the relevance of my personal experience to the constitutional position of this flawed and unparliamentary committee.

With the greatest respect to my colleagues on the committee, we do not know how it works. We do not know how it selects areas for inquiry. We did not know until this evening even who the committee’s clerk was. My hon. Friend the right hon. Member for Torfaen told us the name, which before tonight was always considered highly secret information. The ridiculous secrecy surrounding the ISC diminishes any confidence that I as a parliamentarian might have in its ability to probe adequately the conduct, competence and management abilities of the people who run our security and intelligence services.

I think that the ISC is seriously flawed. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will look at the Official Report tomorrow, and that you will consider the matters that I am raising to be absolutely valid, as they go to the heart of the selection process for the ISC. To whom is the committee accountable? It is a very serious matter if files on Members of Parliament are
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kept, without their knowing about it, by departmental officials. We find out about such files only when we stumble across them by accident. In some cases, they contain information about who our interlocutors are, and who would seek to gain our ear.

I turn now to the Wilson doctrine, which is covered in paragraphs 26 to 28 of the ISC report. I wish that the Home Secretary were in his place, as it is rare for me to compliment him, but it is to his credit that he made it clear that he did not support a proposal to end the Wilson doctrine. Nevertheless, that doctrine is wholly inadequate when it comes to protecting the rights of Members of Parliament. However, what we have we need to hold. As I understand it, the doctrine deals with old-fashioned landline telephones, and does not take account of computer technology or the fact that equipment is so sophisticated now that eavesdropping can be carried out at great distances.

I am not confident that people who do not have ministerial authority are not probing the communications of Members of Parliament. I am not making this up: my observations are based on my own painful experience of discovering comments about me in files that should not have contained them. The Executive branch of Government must assure every Member of Parliament that they are not subject to surveillance, and that no undue probing of their technologies is being carried out.

If we had more insight into how the ISC selects its work, we might have greater confidence in it and be able to suggest areas of inquiry. I am especially concerned about one matter that in the past has caused laughter in the House, although I do not know why. I discovered, through a disclosure under the Data Protection Act 1998, that 13 officials—from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the intelligence community—met on 13 January for what was described as a “handling strategy” meeting about parliamentary questions that I had submitted in relation to Project Coast.

When I questioned the relevant Minister about the matter, he said at the Dispatch Box that there was nothing in it at all, but I disagree. Information from court cases and South Africa’s Truth and Justice Commission has revealed that a person equivalent to Dr. Mengele was working—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has points that he wants to make about his own circumstances, but I remind him that time is limited. I hope that his remarks can be related rather more directly to the report under discussion.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am astounded, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I am trying to demonstrate that we lack parliamentary accountability in this area. I have been prevented on two occasions from explaining how I think that our present system is flawed. I want to make it clear that Ministers—the Executive branch of Government—have been instructed to close me down and stop me pursuing a legitimate inquiry.

The South African apartheid regime had a facility equivalent to our Porton Down. I believe that there was intercourse between that facility and UK intelligence and security services, and that people from the real
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Porton Down were also involved. There is evidence that an unhealthy sanctions-breaking attempt was covered up because some of the people involved are still members of the security and intelligence community and do not want an investigation. I do not say that the attempt was authorised by Ministers at the time, but it happened none the less.

This is my only opportunity to shed daylight on that serious matter. It is something that the ISC—flawed though it is—should investigate. Evidence from the South African court proceedings, which is available on the web, shows that people from the UK broke the law and were involved with Dr. Wouter Basson, who has been described as a South African Dr. Mengele, in sanctions-busting—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman’s time is up.

9.10 pm

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The ISC was set up and given its remit in 1994. Things have moved on and we live in very different times. The Home Secretary referred to changes in terrorism, so perhaps we should examine the Committee that oversees the changes in the threat from terrorism. After all, over time, in response to that threat, other bodies, such as the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces, have changed their structure and the way in which they are scrutinised. Now is the time to look at a complete overhaul of our intelligence system.

When we discuss the current jihadi or terrorist threat, we must be careful not to confuse terrorist attacks with how we defeat terrorism. When I consider my intelligence experience during my service in Northern Ireland and the situation to date, there is not much difference. The principles of defeating terrorism remain the same, even though different groups of terrorists are trying to achieve different ends. However, that must not be used as a red herring to say that that is why we need to throw away certain rights and keep things less transparent than they should be.

Islamic terrorists are no different from Irish terrorists. They are human beings motivated by greed, revenge, ambition, attention seeking and a range of issues that make them vulnerable to recruitment. They are also vulnerable to logistics. They need a logistical chain, whether or not it is as structured as the IRA’s. They are vulnerable when they go to Pakistan to be trained or when they meet in bookshops in Leeds. Such vulnerabilities are common to all terrorist networks, even if their opportunities are fewer.

Our intelligence services and police force must be able to exploit those vulnerabilities—to head those groups off at the pass and catch them red-handed. But saying that current terrorists are much more dangerous is not an excuse for putting people’s human rights at risk or jeopardising the contribution that communities can make to defeating terrorism.

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