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17 July 2008 : Column 463

Mr. Mates: My hon. and learned Friend will know that when the Committee started, no figures were published. We are pushing away at this door and making some progress. I want to reassure him that we will continue to push at this door, because I agree that the more we can put into the public domain, the better. However there are restraints: if we were to publish the breakdowns, we would show where the shoe was pinching and we do not, and should not, want those who are not friendly towards us to know that.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments, and I have no difficulty in agreeing with everything that he said. Our enemies would be interested in knowing where the shoe is pinching, but, equally so would Parliament, because it might conclude that more funds should be made available or that the way in which the funds are prioritised does not provide the best value for money. Such a debate would, in an ideal world, be of interest to the Government, because history shows that when Governments are taken to task and held to account—politely, I would hope—in such matters, it often leads to improvements, whereas if such matters remain concealed within the Departments concerned, it makes life rather more difficult.

I am mindful that we are very reliant on my right hon. Friend and the other members of the Committee, both those who are present today and those who are not, for their good sense in bringing to bear what pressure they can on the Government on these matters. Equally, it is right to point out that the Committee’s members do not have, as an ordinary Select Committee has, the force of the House behind them in making those representations. We cannot simply ignore those issues.

Mr. George Howarth: It may help the hon. and learned Gentleman if I were to tell him that the Committee does play a role in examining the value-for-money aspect of the agencies. We are advised by the National Audit Office on the issues of concern that we should pursue. For some of our sittings in any given year, we take on a role that is, in many ways, not dissimilar to that of the Public Accounts Committee.

Mr. Grieve: I am very much aware of that, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the work that is being done. I simply say that there remains a blank sheet of paper in respect of the House’s ability to make such an assessment.

I shall give an example of how it might be possible to revisit matters. We know that regionalisation policy in respect of the Security Service has been very successful. The Government say so and the Committee says so, and I have no reason to doubt that. However, we still have not been told where the regional centres are. I should say that I am satisfied that I know exactly where the regional centres are—and I have not been given leaked information—because the information is in the public domain, although kept out of the report. A sensible trawl of some of the information that is not being made public might reveal that much of it is easily accessible to anyone who wishes to discover it. That might enable a little more to be said publicly than is said at the moment.

One of the issues that I want to see greater debate on is the respective roles of the Secret Intelligence Service and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The report says that increasingly it might be possible to place
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greater reliance on the SOCA in counter-insurgency work, especially because of its involvement in counter-narcotics work. The point is also made that the Secret Intelligence Service has an important role in that and that some aspects of that have to be maintained as a priority, partly because of the work it does with our international partners. That is a fertile area for debate. SOCA is a legitimate subject for debate in the House, and indeed some anxieties have been expressed about whether it is functioning correctly. It will certainly be difficult for us to have any sensible discussion about an area that concerns crime prevention as much as it does national security unless further information can, from time to time, be provided that fleshes out the subject. It is only hinted at in the report.

The report also says quite a lot about financial and resilience issues, and about GCHQ and the flooding that took place in Gloucestershire last year. It remains deliciously opaque whether the problem is with the disruption of personnel going to work or whether we have invested a large amount of money on a building located on a floodplain. That is a relevant consideration in view of the amount of money that we have sunk into it. I hope that we may have some further clarity on that.

I do not want to labour these points too much, but I have serious anxieties about what emerges from the report—and what is not said—about the SCOPE programme. SCOPE 1, which is a major piece of Government investment in providing the software to enable the rapid exchange of information between different agencies, has apparently been successfully carried out. The report tells us that SCOPE 2 has been held up. In the last couple of days, The Guardian has told us that, in fact, SCOPE 2 has been shelved, but the Committee’s report tells us that it is an important project to enable information sharing. Given the Government’s record on IT projects—although to be kind to the Home Secretary, I could say the same about every Government’s track record on handling IT projects—that should be an issue of major concern to the House. I wonder whether the Minister who will respond to the debate can give us more information on that point without breaching security, because there is a clear difference between those two reports. Given the importance of SCOPE 2 in the context of the Government’s overall strategy to make information readily exchangeable between agencies, it would be useful if we could have more information.

I have conducted a quick trot around what is a dense report—I shall try to read it in greater detail to conjure up what might be hiding behind the asterisks—but I wish to turn to the issues on which we shall vote this afternoon. I entirely welcome the Government’s concessions as set out in the White Paper, “The Governance of Britain”. We will support them: they are welcome and, although they do not go far enough to meet the very understandable anxieties of the hon. Member for Thurrock, I am sure that he would be the first to accept that they go somewhere in the right direction.

Andrew Mackinlay: I think that they are a charade. Many hon. Members think that they amount to a major change, but no such change can be made until the next general election. An undisclosed codicil to the St. Andrews agreement means that the Democratic Unionist party could get a seat. If that happens, Plaid Cymru and the
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Scottish Nationalist party are also entitled to one. The Government have to bring primary legislation to the House before they can make any of the proposed changes. That is the truth, and the House needs to know it. I think that it is section 10 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994 that limits the Committee’s membership to nine. Moreover, the fact that the Committee contains only one Member of the House of Lords makes it difficult for the Home Secretary to find appropriate representation for the other place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman will have no need to catch my eye later, I think.

Andrew Mackinlay: Sorry about that!

Mr. Grieve: Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. I certainly was not suggesting that these are major changes, and he is right that some of them are more statements of intent. However, to the extent that a statement of intent is better than nothing, I suppose that there might be a meeting of minds between us that the Government seem to be taking a step in the right direction. I am a great believer that such matters have their own dynamic. Once one starts freeing the logjam and accepting that the way in which a Committee operates is going to change, at least at some time in the future—and we will definitely keep pressure on the Government to honour their commitments in that respect—it is likely to follow of itself that those changes will generate pressure to bring about more change. The direction must be towards openness, and the Government would have to come up with some very good reasons indeed if they were not to ensure that.

I shall listen very carefully to what the hon. Member for Thurrock has to say, but we take a rather pragmatic view. One difficulty that we share is that we are not privy to all the information on which a decision about whether his idea is a good one will be based. That may seem obvious, but it is the truth. We are sympathetic to what he is trying to achieve but we are not in a position to say to the Government that the problems that are identified with his proposals are not real.

To an extent, we are guided by what members of the Committee say, although I am always conscious that there is a danger of them going native and ceasing to be the upholders of the interests of the House. When that happens, it is because they are lured magnetically into a world where the fact that rooms and secret information are made available to them gently and subtly affects their judgment. They are grateful for being made privy to matters that are not available to other people. That said, I would not in anyway wish it to be suggested that members of the Committee do not do a very valuable job—indeed, the very reverse: I have a very high opinion of their work.

Mr. Ancram: I obviously hope that my hon. and learned Friend will one day be Home Secretary, but does he think that the danger that he has suggested applies to us will apply to him?

Mr. Grieve: I think that it almost certainly will. That is one of the inherent tensions in the different roles that one plays in Government and in the House. We cannot
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escape that, and it is wiser for the House to accept it openly and to tease out the consequences. The risk that I have described exists but we are fortunate that, over the time that the Committee has been operating, its reports and approach have consistently commanded widespread respect throughout the House. I am very grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for the work that is being done, and I am sure that everyone else is too.

As I said, I shall listen to the hon. Member for Thurrock with great care but, for the reasons that I have set out, it seems to me that the points raised by the Home Secretary have some force. The danger that I foresee can happen very easily, even with Select Committees, and the danger is that if we start putting in place structures because the agencies involved no longer have confidence that the Committee is working in a way that will not adversely affect their operational capacity, the result will be that the information will start to dry up. At that point, we have the problem that the Committee can no longer do its work as well as it may be doing it at present.

There is a dilemma here and I do not pretend to be able to resolve it, but I am grateful for the opportunity that we have had this afternoon to debate these matters.

Richard Ottaway: This may be a slightly unfair question, given that my hon. and learned Friend has only been in his job for a couple of weeks. The Home Secretary said that she did not rule out statutory reform in the future. Is that still his position? What is his approach to statutory reform?

Mr. Grieve: I probably failed to make that clear. We would, in government, look to see whether statutory reform could be introduced. Indeed, I go further: we would look to the issues that have been raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock to see whether they can be properly implemented, and whether we can create a Select Committee on much more traditional Select Committee lines. That is our view. But as I said, I do not have the information at present on which I could make such a decision. All I can say to the House is that that is an undertaking that I am quite happy to give.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I seek your advice? As I understand it, the Foreign Secretary is winding up the debate. We have now had the opening speeches by the Home Secretary and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), and presumably whoever winds up the debate will be winding up on the basis of what they have heard in the debate, so I was wondering whether the Foreign Secretary is actually going to pop into the debate during the unrolling of the contributions by Members.

Jacqui Smith: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Foreign Secretary has been inadvertently detained. I, of course, will ensure that the Foreign Secretary understands all the very apposite points that have been made so far in the debate, and I understand that he is on his way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Clearly, the most satisfactory situation is one in which the Minister winding up has heard the proceedings during the debate. It is not a matter for the Chair to decide which Ministers respond
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to debates, but the whole House will have heard the points, and also the points that the Home Secretary has put on the record.

3.17 pm

Margaret Beckett (Derby, South) (Lab): I have had the privilege of chairing the Intelligence and Security Committee only since January this year, but I would like at once to record my own thanks, and that of all my Committee colleagues, I believe, to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who is now Secretary of State for Wales, for his excellent leadership of the Committee from July 2005 to January 2008.

The Committee’s annual report focuses on its statutory role of examining the administration, policy and expenditure of the three agencies—the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters. It also examines matters relating to the wider intelligence community, such as the Joint Intelligence Committee and the defence intelligence staff. During the period covered by the report, the Committee held 49 formal meetings and 19 informal sessions and undertook a number of visits. It took evidence from Ministers, the police and senior officials, including the heads of the agencies and the chief of defence intelligence.

I should like to put on record my very sincere thanks to the members of the Committee, from all parties and both Houses, for their continued hard work and commitment, as evidenced by—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Lady. I should have reminded the House—I am giving her time off for this—that there is now a 10-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches.

Margaret Beckett: I am very conscious of it, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Committee members’ hard work and commitment is evidenced by something—I hope that people will not take this amiss—that I feel few Select Committees can boast of: a more than 90 per cent. attendance at meetings. I also thank Committee members for the constructive and non-partisan way in which they approach their work.

Since the report deals with the period before I joined the Committee, I will not seek to discuss its detail; in any event some members of the Committee, on both sides of the House, may wish to do so. But I want to point out that it identifies some ongoing concerns, such as anxiety about non-counter-terrorism work or about the potential impact of any attempt to use intercept material as evidence, and some issues that were then current, such as the BAE Saudi Arabia case.

During 2006-07, the security and intelligence agencies faced a tremendous work load in their efforts to counter the international threat from terrorism. They had a number of successes: they disrupted an alleged airliner plot in 2006 and another plot to kidnap and murder a Muslim soldier in the west midlands in 2007. There were also a number of successful convictions, including those of five men involved in a fertiliser bomb plot and seven men associated with Dhiren Barot who were involved in planning attacks.

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The Committee would like to record its thanks and praise to the staff of the agencies for those and other unpublicised successes, but to reiterate that, despite hard work and increased resources, there is no guarantee that attack planning will always be detected and all attacks prevented in future. Some 200 extremist networks—of those that we know about—remain currently under investigation. Given that very real threat, it is an important part of the Committee’s role to make public as much information as we can about the work of the agencies and to try to dispel some of the myths.

There will always be limits on what we can say without putting at risk lives or operations or damaging the agencies’ capabilities by revealing their methods, and we do not believe that the public would want that. So, as has been mentioned—I understand the concern—we redact or withhold sensitive information from the reports, replacing it with asterisks, but we also say that we have investigated the issues and whether we are satisfied or not satisfied, as the case may be.

It is often alleged—we have touched on this today in the debate—that the asterisks in and omissions from the report mean that the Committee is not doing a proper job. There is an opposite argument: the asterisks are evidence that the Committee is doing a proper job, because they show that we have seen the evidence, are looking at all the information and reaching our conclusions based on the full facts. The fact that we cannot reveal all information in a public report is, as has been repeatedly said in the debate, perhaps an inevitable consequence of the subject matter with which we deal. If we published all that we were told, we could not provide proper scrutiny, because we would be unlikely to be given the information in the first place.

The Committee is not, of course, the sole source of oversight. The interception of communications commissioner and the intelligence services commissioner check that the agencies act within the law, how powers conferred on the Secretaries of State are exercised and that warrants and authorisations are correct, proportionate and exercised correctly, so that they do not accidentally target the wrong person. They, too, report to the Prime Minister every year, and the Prime Minister lays the reports before Parliament.

The investigatory powers tribunal was set up under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. It exists to investigate complaints against the agencies from any person, regardless of nationality, and can investigate anything that an individual believes has happened to them, their property or their communications.

Mr. Winnick rose—

Margaret Beckett: I give way to my hon. Friend, who raised exactly that point.

Mr. Winnick: My right hon. Friend probably heard my intervention on the Home Secretary in which I mentioned the serious allegations that a British national had been tortured by Pakistan’s secret service and MI5 was aware of it, which has been denied. I do not want my right hon. Friend to commit herself, but will the Committee consider looking into those allegations and investigating accordingly?

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