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On this tragic day of the attack in India, we should remember that terrorists have always done what works. They do not need to reinvent the wheel. The bomb attacks on trains in Chechnya in Russia worked, so the
terrorists did the same thing in Spain. They took the attack to London, because those tactics worked and now they have taken the attack to India. Ministers sometimes seem to believe that terrorists are so sophisticated that we need a load of new rules because they are about to invent the atomic bomb, but the terrorists attacked the twin towers with aeroplanes and Stanley knives. Their tactics have been effective, so we should not be distracted by red herringsby getting so high-tech that we forget how to defeat terrorists and ignore the fact that the original principles about getting inside a terrorist organisation have not changed.
There are real questions to be asked and I hope that the chairman of the ISC will consider them over the next year. Is the overall structure of our intelligence community correct? MI5 was started in 1909, when its main thrust was to expose espionage in this country and people who were spying on it. There is also MI6 and special branch, which was originally regional and is now semi-regional and national. Is that the right way to go? I am talking about the relationship between MI5, an intelligence-gathering body, and a police force that is about evidence gathering and conviction. One has only to look at Forest Gate to start asking questions about the handover between intelligence, conviction and the gathering of evidence. That is one of the key things that we have to learn if we are to defeat terrorism. We have to do it inside the law.
John Reid: I want the hon. Gentleman to know that the Government are not opposed to looking at such structures. We were discussing strategy earlier tonight. I am firmly of the view that we should continue to look at structures, co-ordination and the best output and capability in relation to the resources that we have got. I do not think that he is arguing against where we are coming from on that. We may reach different conclusions, but he is certainly making a good point.
Mr. Wallace: I am not trying to say that the Home Secretary has a different view. My view is of an FBI-type arrangement, but others will have different views. We have to look at the special branch relationship. Regional special branch is funded by chief constables and reports nationally. There is SO12 in the Metropolitan police. All of those could do with improvement. There is plenty of scope to make sure that we get that chain up to date.
Perhaps we need to look at the powers of the services. There is something important that seems to have been missed. When I served in Northern Ireland, either in a uniform or carrying a weapon out of a uniform, I had emergency powers. As a member of the armed forces, I had emergency powers to stop and arrest people and to use a weapon outside Ministry of Defence land. We have a lot of Army operations on our mainland to assist the police or the security services.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Does it surprise my hon. Friend, in view of his experience and mine in Northern Ireland, that, with increasing operations by military units on the mainland, the Government have still apparently given no thought to the establishment of military intelligence liaison officers around the various constabularies?
Mr. Wallace: I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. That relates to the legal powers of soldiers serving on the streets. We have to ask these questions. Has the Government given people emergency powers? The armed forces on the mainland do not have executive powers under firearms legislation to act in the way that our police forces do. For example, if, during the course of the Stockwell investigation, it transpires that soldiers were involved, we have to be careful that there is not a grey area. We have to remember that a solider has no more rights than you or I on the street in the UKas opposed to a policeman, who does have those executive powers. That is an important issue that we need to consider.
We also have to look at what is happening in Northern Ireland, where the Government have said that they would like to move members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland special branch to MI5. I have worked alongside PSNI special branch. They are excellent men and women who have learned that one cannot short-cut terrorism. They have learned that the hard way and they have got extremely good results. When I met a few of them recently, I said, You do realise that if you belong to MI5, you do not have executive powers. You cannot carry a weapon in South Armagh. You cannot go and arrest someone to pull them in to interview them. You do not have all the powers that you used to use to protect yourself and to help you to get access to informers. That is important.
I said to a current serving policeman, Would you like to go into Turf Lodge without a gun? Would you like to go to South Armagh, to Crossmaglen, without a gun? He said, You can bet your bottom dollar, Im not going there. But that is the subtle implication of some of the changes. It is important that the Government pick up the detail when it comes to reforming and moving the intelligence picture along, because if they do not, the person who will bear the brunt at the end of the day will be the individual soldier, the individual policeman, or one of the security service personnel. That is important.
It is interesting to note that the average age of a special branch PSNI individual is about 45 in Northern Ireland; the average age of the MI5 recruits who go there is 28. That is a vast gap in experience and knowledge and a vast gap in relation to the people perhaps best placed to recruit informers and go about getting under the skin of terrorists in Northern Ireland. For all the reports, they have not gone away. The infrastructure is still there.
In this day and age, transparency is very important. Owing to the way in which the security services started, they are obsessed with secrecy. It is important that MI5 moves more into the modern world. If it is to work alongside the police each day in offices in our regions, it must accept that there will be a drive for more transparency in not counter-espionage, but the counter-terrorism field. When the agency hands over information to the police and the police act on it and get things wrong, it is the police that get the blame. The public attacked the chain of command in the Metropolitan police over Forest Gate, but perhaps Security Service intelligence should have been considered on that occasion. MI5 must come into the real world when it comes to transparency. There is no
KGB operating in the same way MI5s counter-terrorism functions, so there is a real need to examine the transparency in MI5.
We should remember that there is no short cut to countering terrorism. The draconian laws that we pass to try to do that will have an impact on the human intelligence that we try to recruit, so they will make a difference. The end result of an operation in Northern Ireland that I joined was that 21 members of the IRA were put down, but it took more than a decade to achieve that. We must accept the rough with the smooth, and the Home Secretary was right that if we get things wrong sometimes, that is life. If we all miss the terrorist, that is life. However, we must also realise that we cannot deny people human rights as a short cut, because the end result of that will be that Muslim communities will produce no informers or sources and will not collaborate with the forces of law and order, although such collaboration and information is the only way of defeating terrorism in that community in the long term.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I express my revulsion at the bombings in Mumbai today. I am the secretary of Labour Friends of India, and I feel desperately sorry for the families and the members of the emergency services who are attempting to sort out that situation tonight.
I have had the privilege of serving for one year on the ISC under the able chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). This year, the Committee has subjected the heads of agencies and their teams to rigorous, often lengthy questioning. It has invariably been detailed, but it has never been soft. I have found it thoroughly offensive to read in the press that the ISC is weak, spineless, ineffective and tame. Frankly, I do not recognise any of those words with regards to the ISC.
To my knowledge, the agencies have never held back any information. We have never held back on any question that we wanted to ask. No member of the Committee believes that we are there to protect the reputation of the Administration. We are there to get the truth. We seek the truth and we print it. The report that we have published is thorough and wide-ranging. I was delighted to hear not only the Secretary of State, but the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), say that they agreed.
During the year, we have not only questioned the agencies, but visited themsome more than once and many of them on many occasions. When we have not been confident that we have got the detailed response that we required, we have written and they have responded. There has been a thorough process by which we have critically and constructively examined the work of agencies. I want the House to believe that there is not a question that I would not ask, or a chance that I would let the agencies off on any score. We need to know, and if we need to improve, we need to say that we are improving. The report is thus fair, thorough and wide-ranging. When we visited security services abroad, their universal opinion was that our security services were highly professional, and served our country well. Many of them were complimentary about the work of the ISC.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said that we are not a parliamentary oversight committee, but I believe that we are. Our work is intense and demanding and, although I am privileged to serve on the Committee, I do not think that I am special or different.
Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Lady is making a powerful statement about the Committees performance. However, Ann Taylor, the predecessor of the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), presented a report on the Bali bombings that was ignored by the House. What are the hon. Ladys views on that?
Ms Taylor: The hon. Gentleman rightly reminds the House that we must always discuss those reports and look at their details. The decision not to discuss the report was not appropriate. I hope that response suffices.
I am not concerned about the report itself, but I am concerned about something that it examinesthe SCOPE project which, if and when it works, will offer the security services enormous support. That IT programme will enable all intelligence organisations in the UK and abroad fundamentally to improve the way in which they work together by transferring data electronically in a secure and timely manner. There is a desperate need for such improvements because, as the intelligence community grows, the amount of material it uses grows exponentially. We need methods to transfer that material in a timelyfor me, that means instantlymanner in a secure environment. The 2004 report to the House said that we needed such a programme but, in 2006, we are still saying that we need it. It is not just a complex piece of kitthe project will demand a cultural change and the involvement of highly trained people. It is therefore crucial that it is introduced, because the intelligence community needs it now.
In conclusion, may I refer again to the statements in the press about our being weak, spineless, ineffective and tame? I do not recognise those descriptions, because my colleagues on the Committee are determined and challenging. I am positively confrontationalif I do not obtain the evidence that I want I will seek it again and again, so that I am sure that I have been given the full facts. One paper said that the director general of MI5 had charmed the Committee. I must have missed that sitting or series of sittings, because I do not remember her doing so. In my opinion, she is a tough, no-nonsense person who deals with facts, and is certainly not interested in charm. She makes demands of us, just as we make demands of her. The way in which journalists characterise us undermines our work and is thoroughly unacceptable.
I would accept the opinions of the press as worth while if their accounts of the 7 July bombings offered a careful analysis and reported the facts. However, The Independent printed the following headline: If only al-Qaida were run by our spineless spy masters. That is unacceptable, and represents the desire of the press to sell newspapers at any cost. We have an oversight committee that works extremely hard. The agencies are part of the making of a secure community for all of us. We do not peddle the politics of fear, as the press do, and they are shameful and undermining.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): In the limited time available, we have had a serious debate with some very good contributions from all parts of the House. It is important that right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed and who have at times appeared to offer criticism, whether in the Committee or on the Floor of the House, have done so in a positive way. It does nobody any service to suggest that those who offer criticism are attempting to undermine national security or the agencies involved. I am pleased that my right hon. and hon. Friends were able to participate in the debate, and I shall return to their contributions.
One of the central issues of the debate is how we maintain and strengthen public confidence in the Governments ability to deal with the terrorist threat, the effectiveness of our intelligence and security agencies and the police, and parliamentary oversight and accountability. We are all aware of the balance that must be struck in a democracy between the needs of the intelligence and security agencies to keep certain things absolutely secret, and the need, increasingly, to explain to the public why there are restrictions and controls, and why things inevitably go wrongsometimes disastrously wrong.
This is not an academic debate. United Kingdom citizens have been killed, injured and kidnapped abroad, and terror is now a reality and has been symbolised by the events of last year. The threat is real and immediate. The police say that since last July they have uncovered four alleged plots, which have been stopped or disrupted. The Metropolitan police anti-terrorist branch says that it is currently involved in about 70 investigations in Britain and abroad. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan police recently said that the security position was very grim and that we must expect further attacks. We work, speak and live in one of the great iconic symbols, so we should bear in mind that at any time we in the House could be subject to attack.
That does not mean that the House does not have a right to question, press and criticise Ministers, the security agencies or the police. That is not done in a carping or negative way. That is the strength of our democracy. The challenge for the Government and the intelligence and security agencies is, as many people have said, that the terrorists have to be lucky only once. Many successful operations to thwart or disrupt terrorist attacks can never be fully publicised, whereas failures or mistakes by the intelligence and security services receive maximum public attention. That is the lot of the intelligence and security services. It is the task of Ministers to explain and defend where necessary, and to take responsibility.
The role of the Intelligence and Security Committee is an important one. The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) spoke passionately in defence of the members of the Committee and their job. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), who speaks as shadow Home Secretary, that the Newsnight presentation last night was flippant and disgraceful.
However, genuine concern was expressed on the Floor of the House about the remit of the Committee. That was referred to by my right hon. Friend the
Member for Haltemprice and Howden and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). The remit of the Committee is that it
examines the expenditure, administration and policy of the three Agencies. It operates within the ring of secrecy.
We must now consider broadening the remit of the Committee, which has undoubtedly been constrained at times, and it makes that point in paragraphs 6 and 32 of its report on 7/7. Given the need to sustain public confidence and the requirement for proactive scrutiny, the Prime Minister should address the matter. The issue does not merely involve parliamentarians trying to delve into every cubby hole in our security and intelligence establishmentas much as anything else, it is about robust public confidence. A strong case has been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I hope that the Minister takes it into account.
The Committees series of annual reports rightly praise the bravery and commitment of the men and women of our intelligence and security agencies and how they have coped with change. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) has pointed out that many operations are long and tedious, and we should bear in mind not only the physical bravery of those men and, increasingly, women, but the fact that much of their work is of the most mind-bogglingly boring nature. I suspect that those people need the mental attitude of a librarian, a philatelist or a Back Bencher to survive numbing tedium in which there is a small nugget of crucial evidence somewhere at some stage. If they miss it, however, everyone on the touchline will ask, How could they have possibly missed that?
Criticism must be constructive, and the Committees remit is functional in many respects. In the past, the Government have frequently noted recommendations or criticisms in replying to the Committees reports. I was a special adviser in a previous Government, and I always liked it when the permanent secretary said that he had noted something, which was usually something that a Minister had said. It normally meant, I do not give a tupenny whatnot for what he is saying. He is ignorant, but I know what is going on. At times, there is an element of that in the Governments approach. However, I welcome the Home Secretarys decision yesterday to publish the Governments strategy on countering international terrorism and the change in threat levels, both of which were called for by the Committee.
There is no doubt that public confidence has been badly shaken by the Governments use of intelligence over Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea has referred. Indeed, the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who is my parliamentary neighbour, wrote in the Evening Standard on 3 July:
The experience with suspected weapons of mass destruction undermined confidence in the capacity of our intelligence services to make accurate assessments of the risks that we face.
That point was highlighted in paragraph 63 of the Committees report for 2004-05. Although it is fair to highlight failures in the wider intelligence and security establishments, Ministers cannot, as my hon. Friends have eloquently pointed out, resile from their part in seeking to get evidence to support a particular case.
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