Previous Section Index Home Page

11 July 2006 : Column 1358

Sadly, history is littered with examples of institutional mindsets on intelligence, where Ministers, generals and Presidents have determined the outcome. Today, apart from undermining confidence, that approach can ultimately lead to dreadful consequences. I point the Committee in the direction of the two official historians of the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, Professor Christopher Andrew and Professor Keith Jeffrey, who might give the Committee useful evidence on those particular points.

Going back over several years, the Committee has rightly been concerned that Ministers have not been more actively involved in meeting collectively to set the agencies’ long-term requirements and priorities. Several hon. Members have mentioned the fact that the ministerial Committee on Intelligence Services has met only once in the past decade.

The Committee rightly highlighted concern about the fact that since September 2005, Sir Richard Mottram has been both security and intelligence co-ordinator and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Sir Richard is a remarkable man in that he is a born Whitehall survivor. Anybody who could have survived being Lord Heseltine’s private secretary when he resigned as Secretary of State for Defence, and then survived the debacle over the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), when he came out with that remarkable set of phrases involving a certain word that is of course unparliamentary, is a man who knows very well how to deal with complicated situations. In the words of the Cabinet Secretary—I paraphrase—he has got the post not least because he has no more future in Whitehall and will therefore be independent. In all seriousness, I believe that Ministers should reconsider this, as there are good functional intelligence reasons for keeping the two posts separate.

The Committee rightly recognised the expertise of the defence intelligence staff and their vital role in providing support at the military operational level as well as to other Government agencies and Departments. It welcomed the additional funds allocated to the intelligence and security services, but was rightly concerned that the agencies had not asked for more resources back in 2003-04. Indeed, they failed to spend all their additional funds at the time because the heads of the services feared that they would not be able to manage rapid expansion, with the vetting of incomers and inducting and training of personnel. I recognise that that is a serious problem, but we have been there before—in the summer of 1940. The SIS found that all its overseas operations hidden under the consular service were rounded up. Many of them legged it or had to go underground. Large numbers of SIS and Security Service personnel were retired in the summer of 1940, and hundreds of temporary people had to be brought in. That was a massive expansion that worked. There were many mistakes, but it was one of the greatest successes. In managerial terms, the Security Service, the SIS and GCHQ need to get out of that mindset.

The Committee expressed concern that there should be a correct balance between short-term operational requirements and long-term threats. That is not easy to achieve, but I am not sure whether Ministers believe that they have got the balance right within the intelligence and security services. It welcomed the
11 July 2006 : Column 1359
Security Service’s decision to set up regional offices and to work closely with special branch. However, following the recent incident at Forest Gate, it appeared from media reports that special branch and the Security Service were, if not briefing against each other, giving contradictory briefings. That is an old, bad habit that I hope will change in future.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South and others mentioned the implementation of SCOPE, which is a major IT programme designed to enable organisations across the intelligence community to work together. Given the challenges involved in big Whitehall IT programmes that—how can I put this delicately?—have not always worked, who is managing this programme and who is the Minister ultimately responsible for seeing that it is delivered?

The Committee’s role is important and its members should receive our congratulations on their hard work. However, we need clear ministerial leadership and accountability. There is a strong argument for a Minister who is ultimately responsible across Whitehall for counter-terrorism. The Prime Minister must deal with how we go about that, but the current system—illustrated by the Home Secretary’s suggestion yesterday in response to being pressed by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee—that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was taking the lead, is not good enough. Greater co-ordination and integration are needed at a functional level in Whitehall. Is any individual or organisation in Whitehall thinking out of the box? Is anyone asking important questions? The Home Secretary points directly at the Minister for the Middle East. I always believed that he was in rather than out of the box.

Agencies must believe that they will be supported, especially when there are failures. At the same time, they recognise that they are not beyond criticism. If we do not change the Committee’s remit to enable it meet public concern, that anxiety will continue, to the detriment of the United Kingdom.

9.46 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I am pleased to have the opportunity to close the debate on intelligence and security. The Foreign Secretary greatly regrets that she cannot be here as she is travelling in the United States.

As Minister responsible for our relations with India, I echo the words of hon. Members who mentioned the brutal murders of innocent people in the Mumbai bomb blast. The underlying message of today’s debate must surely be that there is never a justification for terrorism. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families.

I thank the Intelligence and Security Committee and its distinguished Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), for their work. My right hon. Friend has huge experience of dealing with terrorism and organised crime as one of the best Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland that this country has produced.

Like every hon. Member, I should like to pay tribute to the exceptional work of the men and women of
11 July 2006 : Column 1360
Britain’s intelligence and security services. Earlier, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary highlighted their many successes, and the debate has emphasised their important role in protecting British citizens at home and abroad, often in dangerous circumstances. Some of us have been privileged to witness their operations first hand, as I did last week in Iraq, and we should be grateful to our people who are working for us there.

Let me try to deal with the many subjects that have been raised today. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) described the report as wide ranging and thorough. She made a spirited defence of the Committee and its report. Those of us who know its members realise that she is right.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) expressed thoughtfully and concisely the Committee’s value and, as he perceived them, its strengths and weaknesses and the challenges that it faces in future. As he said, those challenges will be complex and numerous, ranging from the tedium of sustained observation of suspects to understanding the influence of Deobandi madrassah education in the Muslim world.

Right at the beginning of this debate, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen emphasised the importance that some so-called responsible news media place on not allowing the facts to get in the way of a good story. There is nothing that the conspiracy theorists love more than a theory that involves the security services. That is why the cool assessment of these complicated and difficult materials by the Intelligence and Security Committee is so valuable to the House.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, among others, defended the report’s criticism of the merger of the posts of Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator and of JIC chairman. The Government do not agree with the Committee on that point. We see no clash between the roles; on the contrary, they are mutually reinforcing. The appointment of Sir Richard Mottram to the roles of SIC and JIC chairman was consistent with the recommendation in the Butler review that the post of JIC chairman be filled by someone with experience of dealing with Ministers in a very senior role. Far from devaluing the JIC chairman’s role, combining the posts has added further weight and authority to it.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden asked about the financing of border security. The border management programme, on which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is working closely, will re-channel existing resources into new and more effective ways of working. Additional resources will be identified as the programme develops. The e-border programme is now at the preliminary invitation to tender stage, and a contract will be agreed with the successful bidder in the summer of 2007.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) and others suggested that Ministers were not sufficiently engaged in intelligence matters, as evidenced by the fact that the Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services had met only once in the past decade. That came as a surprise to me when I sought the briefing on this subject, as I seem to
11 July 2006 : Column 1361
spend three quarters of my life talking to other Ministers about a whole range of issues, including overarching strategy and individual issues such as Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the home security issues that we have discussed in such depth today.

The Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services will meet as and when required. It is important to recognise that Ministers are already heavily engaged in the oversight of the agencies. As the ISC report explains, Ministers regularly discuss intelligence matters in a variety of

and the agency heads regularly brief their respective Secretaries of State.

David Tredinnick: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No, I am afraid that I do not have time.

David Tredinnick rose—

Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman should not panic. I will say something very nice about him in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) made a compelling case for not turning the ISC into a Select Committee. I do not want to intervene in any family matters involving the adult discussions that have taken place between the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen. I am sure that they will be able to sort their relationship out. We will be watching very carefully, and we will do what we can to help. The Government see no reason to change the present arrangements, which allow a cross-party group of parliamentarians to examine a wide range of sensitive intelligence matters in some depth without jeopardising sources or methods. The ISC’s independence is not in doubt. It has consistently produced comprehensive and thorough reports that are laid before Parliament and often make uncomfortable reading for the Government.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) cited the example of the Bali bombings. He has suffered more than the rest of us from that terrible event. I saw the memorial out there, and every parliamentarian should see it. They would then understand the significance of the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Parliament recognised, when approving the Intelligence Services Act 1994, the difficulties of handling intelligence matters within the normal Select Committee procedures. After considerable parliamentary discussion, it was decided that the best way to impart proper authority and ensure effective oversight of the intelligence agencies was by establishing the ISC and laying down the Committee’s duties and obligations in legislation. Transforming the ISC into a Select Committee would require a change in primary legislation. Any move to change its status would have to take careful account of the need to maintain proper security for the agency’s work. Unless a Select Committee was willing to operate under similar conditions to the ISC, the end result would be less, rather than more, scrutiny.

11 July 2006 : Column 1362

My right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport met some of the survivors and victims’ families, and they understand clearly why there has been a demand for an independent public inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained with understandable passion that, given the present circumstances, it is not a question of financial cost but of resources. We have heard already about the difficulties of recruitment. It takes time to train people, and I would not like to see those precious resources diverted, as they inevitably would be, into a long-running inquiry of that sort. Several inquiries have taken place. The Intelligence and Security Committee conducted a thorough inquiry. The London assembly also conducted one.

Mark Pritchard: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells: No, I do not have time, I am afraid.

The Government are resolved to learn lessons from those reports and to strengthen our defences and resilience against the terrorist threat. We are working extremely hard at that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South explained the truth behind some of the allegations that information was withheld from the Committee. The ISC’s report provided a thorough, clear and detailed account of what was known about the 7 July bombers prior to the attacks. The security and intelligence agencies and other relevant Departments co-operated fully with the ISC’s investigation, and no relevant information was withheld. Subsequent allegations in the media, some of which have been reported in the House, that the Government or security and intelligence agencies withheld information or in some way misled the ISC are totally false. I note that the ISC has investigated the claims and satisfied itself that they are not true.

The Home Secretary is considering carefully the important question of intercept as evidence, but we should not assume that it will somehow be a magic device for making the task easier. We should certainly listen to some of the advice of people with experience. There is no evidence that other countries get better results through their use of intercept evidence than the United Kingdom. We want to maintain the co-operation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies on which those results are predicated. In February this year, the then Home Secretary told Parliament that the Government

I understand that the Home Office is leading work on two evidential legal models—a PII plus model, which seeks to protect sensitive material through a combination of public interest immunity hearings and a pre-trial sift procedure, and an examining magistrates model based on continental regimes. The Home Secretary will consider detailed reports on that work in November.

On the question of the implementation of the Butler review, the Government accepted its conclusions and implemented its recommendations. I note that the ISC’s annual report commented favourably on the matter. The Butler recommendation about the limitations of intelligence being systematically included in intelligence
11 July 2006 : Column 1363
assessments has been implemented. As the ISC noted in its annual report, a confidential guide covering the nature and use of intelligence has been circulated to readers of intelligence across government. Intelligence assessments now carry assessment-based boxes, which highlight the extent or limitations of intelligence coverage on a particular issue.

We have had a very good debate tonight. I am only sorry that I have not been able to cover every hon. Member’s contribution. The contributions were many and varied—

It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.


Waste Plant (Thundersley)

10 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I rise to present a petition against a hazardous asbestos waste transfer and storage plant that is being planned for the Manor trading estate in my constituency. The good people of Thundersley living around that plant are deeply concerned because it is in direct conflict with residential homes, schools and other workers on that trading estate. It is entirely inappropriate to site the plant there, particularly when there are much more suitable areas that do not conflict with residential homes, schools and so forth.

I present a petition put together by Mr. A. J. Bryant, Terry Turpin and others who cared enough about their community to sign the petition. They know that the House will listen seriously to what they say.

The petition of the residents of Thundersley and Benfleet:

To lie upon the Table.

11 July 2006 : Column 1364

Food Labelling

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Michael Foster.]

Next Section Index Home Page