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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Obviously, the amount of detail in the report is, of necessity, limited. However, there is at least some indication that anxiety has been expressed about the possibility that the
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proper emphasis on the counter-terrorism work that is taking place might be undermining some of the work that needs to be done on counter-espionage. To what extent can the Home Secretary provide the House with reassurance that that issue is being addressed, if, in fact, more resources are needed by the Security Service or the Secret Intelligence Service, whose budget has gone up very much less than that of the Security Service?

Jacqui Smith: I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will recognise that it was to provide that reassurance that I identified the concern in the report, and the view of the Government and the agencies, that the considerable increase in resources, while directed at supporting the counter-terror effort, nevertheless enables the agencies to build capability and flexibility. That means that although the amount of resource spent on, for example, counter-espionage is perhaps proportionally less, we can nevertheless be reassured—because counter-espionage work will be able to make use of the capability and resources that have been put in, particularly with respect to the Security Service—that those risks are being covered.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): Just to be quite clear, is the Home Secretary saying that the security services are not still worried that they are unable to put as much resource as they would wish into counter-espionage, because I am sure that she has been advised to the contrary?

Jacqui Smith: The right hon. Gentleman is right to the extent that the Committee highlights the difficult decisions that need to be made about priorities. However, I am reassured that the sorts of decisions being made about the investment of those resources are being made explicitly with the intention of ensuring that that extra resource—not only human resource, but resource in terms of capability and functions—will enable the flexibility to shift between priorities, if and when that becomes necessary.

The ISC’s reports are produced in accordance with the Committee’s remit, as set out in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which is to examine the agencies’ expenditure, administration and policy. The Committee’s remit is therefore identical to those of departmental Select Committees, but it was established under different arrangements, as we have heard, because of the unique and sensitive nature of its work. Those arrangements were carefully constructed to balance effective oversight of the agencies with the overriding need to preserve national security.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall certainly praise the work undertaken by MI5 and other security agencies. Does she agree that the allegation, which has been denied, that a British citizen was tortured in Pakistan and that British security not only was aware of that, but interrogated that British national while they were held by the Pakistani security authorities, is a very serious one? Would that not be a useful matter for the Committee to investigate, so that if the allegation is false, it can be cleared up once and for all?

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Jacqui Smith: With respect to the latter part of my hon. Friend’s intervention, I am sure that the Chairman of the Committee is better placed to respond than I am. Let us remember, however, that there has been a categorical denial of the allegation that my hon. Friend mentioned. This country and its intelligence and security agencies abhor torture and neither condone nor support the ability of others to carry it out.

The ISC’s remit often requires it to have access to highly classified information, which, if disclosed in public, would be gravely damaging to the national interest and could put individuals at risk. The ISC therefore operates in a ring of secrecy, with a legislative regime governing appointments to the Committee and the disclosure of information. Those arrangements have led to some commentators to argue—we have heard this today, too—that the ISC is insufficiently independent. As I suggested earlier, I am sure that such charges are viewed with justifiable indignation by ISC members past and present, all Members of one House or the other. I pay tribute to all who serve or have served on the Committee for their professionalism and, speaking as someone who has appeared before them, for their spirited independence, too.

Andrew Mackinlay: My right hon. Friend cannot get away with this. Whatever we might say in this place, it is no reflection on our colleagues; the important point is the principle of the thing. Just yesterday evening, Lord Campbell-Savours approached me about that specific point. When he was a member of the Committee, he challenged, both inside and outside, the nature of its selection. He says that it is flawed, and I believe that that is the view of some of those in the Chamber this afternoon who serve on the Committee. They think that the method of selection is wrong—in many respects it is an embarrassment—and they agree that the ISC should become a parliamentary Committee. My right hon. Friend should not try to divide us on this.

Jacqui Smith: Heaven forbid that I might suggest that my hon. Friend would ever be divided from any of his colleagues. I am coming on to the reform of the selection of the members of the Committee, which forms part of the function of the motions standing in my name. “The Governance of Britain”, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched last year, provided a new context in which to consider whether parliamentary oversight arrangements could be made more accountable and transparent. The Government concluded that significant improvements could be made and set out specific proposals in the White Paper published in March this year; the second motion standing in my name invites the House to endorse them. The aim is to bring arrangements governing the ISC and its operation as closely as possible into line with those governing departmental Select Committees.

For the reasons of national security that I have mentioned, a legislative framework is essential. The White Paper describes changes that will achieve the aim within the existing legislative framework and which can be implemented immediately. The Government have not ruled out the possibility of legislative change in the future, but believe that the package of measures outlined in the White Paper will significantly increase the Committee’s transparency and accountability to Parliament.

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Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Home Secretary says that she has not ruled out statutory reform. When the Green Paper was published, the Prime Minister said in his statement that he thought that the Committee should have a strengthened capacity for investigations. That cannot be achieved without statutory reform. The Home Secretary’s language rather suggests that that commitment is fading. Will she clarify the position one way or the other?

Jacqui Smith: I was just coming on to the point that we can more quickly ensure that there is the sort of investigative resource that the Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, is keen to have in place so that it can carry out its role. I do not believe that increasing that investigative capability does involve legislation. I think that we can do it more quickly than if we needed to legislate. Let me describe the proposals in greater detail.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I have a very simple question. If American intelligence agencies can be called before congressional committees, why cannot a Committee of this House hold our agencies to account in the same way? I simply do not understand why that cannot happen.

Jacqui Smith: I am coming on to deal first with membership, secondly with how to make the Committee closer in nature to departmental Select Committees and thirdly with how we can perhaps open up the Committee to public sessions.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the oversight arrangements in Congress are very different from those of the Intelligence and Security Committee and that, in particular, the congressional bodies are not given access to anything like the level of information that our ISC is?

Jacqui Smith: My right hon. Friend, who speaks from experience, refers to the very important balance that we have to achieve. In my view, it is fundamental to the Committee’s role that it has the fullest possible access to classified material in order properly to carry out its functions. That, in itself, creates a constraint on the extent of the openness that is appropriate. It is a careful balance that we wrestle with whenever we consider the nature and reform of the Committee.

Let me explain in greater detail how we propose to move towards greater transparency and accountability. First, on the appointment of ISC members, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 contains the explicit provision that ISC members are to be appointed by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. It is the Prime Minister who is ultimately responsible for national security matters, so he is accountable for them to the House. It is therefore right that he should retain the ultimate say over who is admitted to that inner ring of secrecy. Within that framework, however, there is scope for giving a much greater role to Parliament. The White Paper proposed adopting a process similar to that for Joint Select Committee appointments. Following that model, the Government propose that future nominations for membership of the ISC should be put before the House by the Committee of Selection. Members will then have the opportunity to vote on the nominations
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that will be put to the Prime Minister for appointment. This model will ensure the full participation of Parliament in a transparent appointment process. It requires a new Standing Order of the House, which is the subject of the third motion in my name. The Government will seek to put comparable arrangements in place for Lords ISC members.

Further measures will assist members of the ISC in fulfilling their statutory duties and add further emphasis to their independence. With the Committee, we will explore how some hearings might be structured to allow unclassified evidence to be heard in open session, as is generally the case with most Select Committees. Given the nature of most of the evidence that the Committee hears, evidence sessions have hitherto been conducted in private. That was, and on most occasions will remain, a prudent requirement for the protection of national security. The Government believe, however, that the public would welcome the opportunity to understand better how the Committee works. There could be no better way than to see it in action.

We and the Committee will therefore look for opportunities when the subject matter would allow Ministers or agency heads—the chair of the Secret Intelligence Service, the director-general of the Security Service and the director of GCHQ—personally to give evidence in public briefing sessions.

Mr. Grieve: Perhaps I have interrupted the Home Secretary in mid-flow and prematurely. I am supportive of the Government’s approach, as I will make clear in my remarks, but is there not a danger that if such public hearings are to take place, they will have to have a bit of meat in them? Otherwise, an impression will be conveyed to the public that the hearings are merely a rehearsal in front of the public—a show without substance. Although I will not object to the proposal, I have an anxiety that that might be the consequence, in which case people might end up more dissatisfied than they are at present.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. and learned Gentleman rightly identifies the risk and the challenge. Of course we must not put national security or the safety of individuals at risk, but we must also find a way of allowing for genuine and substantive public examination of the issues. Within those constraints, the Government would welcome such a move towards greater transparency.

To return to the point made earlier, we will also explore how we might provide the Committee with additional support to enhance its abilities to conduct investigations. The ISC has employed its own investigator in the past, and the Government and Committee will draw on that previous experience to consider resources for future appointments and appropriate terms of reference. We will also explore how we might reinforce the ISC’s independence by finding alternative secure accommodation outside the offices of the Cabinet secretariat. There should be no suggestion that the current co-location in any way compromises the Committee’s independence. In the interests of transparency, however, a move would be preferable, and we are already exploring such options.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): As the Home Secretary knows, most if not all members of the Committee agree with the recommendations that she is making. There is a concern, however, that we will be asked to do
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certain things, but not be provided with the financial resources to enable us to do them properly. Will she assure the House that that will not be the case?

Jacqui Smith: The Committee and its secretariat have rightly been in discussions with the Cabinet Office about ensuring that such resources are in place. Although all areas of government rightly face constraints, I hope to reassure the Committee that we recognise the resource implications of both the move and, for example, the investigators, and that those requirements will be met.

One further issue has led some to question the independence of the ISC. As specified in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, its reports are submitted directly to the Prime Minister, whereas Select Committees report to the House. The Government do not propose a change to that arrangement. The ISC must have the ability, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) said, to draw on its access to information of the highest classification when compiling its reports. But that means that its reports, too, contain highly classified information. Therefore, it is essential that the Prime Minister, as the ultimate guardian of national security, is the first to see the Committee’s reports in their entirety. Subsequently, of course, a version of each report is prepared for publication and laid before the House. That version contains visible redactions, but only when publication would be damaging to national security. However, we believe that there is scope for further enhancing the independence of the ISC by ensuring that its Chairman opens debates on its reports in the House in future rather than a Government Minister.

Although I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience of opening the debate today, I am pleased that in future that role will—rightly, in my view—be played by the Chair of the ISC herself. Again, that will bring ISC practice more into line with debates on Select Committee reports. In addition, the Government propose that there should be a new opportunity for debates on ISC reports in the House of Lords, opened by an appropriate ISC member.

The Intelligence and Security Committee fulfils a vital role for Parliament and the wider public. That is evident from the report that the House is considering today. “The Governance of Britain” consultation outlined two aims for enhancing that role: increased transparency and greater accountability to Parliament. We believe that the proposals in the White Paper achieve those aims and they are reflected in the motions, which I commend to the House.

2.56 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for her presentation of the Government’s position and for opening the debate on the report. It gives me great pleasure on a day when we have crossed swords across the Dispatch Box to have the opportunity to agree with a large part of everything that she has said.

The report’s position and the debate that we need to have this afternoon raise difficult issues. I have considerable sympathy with some of the things that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is trying to achieve. There is no doubt in my mind that the position from the
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point of view of this House on the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee is by its very nature rather unsatisfactory.

We have been given the opportunity to send some of our Members into the inner circles of intelligence to be provided with information. That might be of use to the Prime Minister, but it is fair to say, and this is not a criticism of the Committee or the Government, that when one comes to read an annual report such as this—the criticism might apply rather less to some of the more specific reports that are produced—it is a very anodyne document. The meat of what we would want to consider is largely absent and redacted out, affecting our ability to have a sensible debate on the Floor of the House. The issues about whether we are getting value for money from the agencies and whether the agencies are focusing on the issues that should be of primary concern to our country are largely impossible to address. I accept that, and I suspect that the Home Secretary accepts it, too. That is not to say that setting up the ISC was a bad idea nor to suggest that we cannot find valuable things in its work.

Before I turn to the structures, I intend to attempt to focus a little on what the report actually says. It seems to me that unless we focus a little on some of the points, we might not be able to get clarity on the direction we ought to be travelling in as we try to improve the Committee’s work and its methods of reporting. Let me turn briefly to what the report contains. The first thing that has become very striking—the Government will have to keep this in mind in the future as regards transparency —is that the agencies are costing more and more money. Within three years, as I understand it, £2.147 billion of public funds will be spent on the agencies’ work. I think I am right in saying that that is more than the budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. What was originally a small area of Government expenditure is increasingly becoming a major area of expenditure or, at least, sufficiently large to focus Parliament’s mind on the financial issues. That is particularly the case when one makes the link to the fact that what was previously regarded as work on counter-espionage now has work on counter-terrorism as its primary function and is, thus, a very live issue for this House and the public.

I must say to the Home Secretary that there must be a question mark over whether further information could not reasonably be supplied to Members of Parliament. For example, paragraph 15 of the report provides us with the total breakdown of resources and capital for the entire intelligence agencies, but, for reasons that I understand, we are denied a breakdown between the services. There is an unsatisfactory element to this. Elsewhere in the report we can ascertain that, in terms of the rise in the number of personnel, the Security Service has benefited a lot in comparison with the Secret Intelligence Service, yet we know that much of the work on counter-terrorism that must be done to protect our country is being done abroad—indeed, that is hinted at elsewhere in the report. I am sure that the Home Secretary will appreciate that if it were possible for the House to be given further information about how the budget breaks down, we would find that immeasurably useful in playing our role as the scrutineers of public finances. I am, however, mindful of the difficulty that the Government have on the topic.

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