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17 July 2008 : Column 469

Margaret Beckett: As I have already indicated, individual cases are matters for the tribunal. The Intelligence and Security Committee investigates the policy and, indeed, the implementation of the policy by the agencies; the tribunal looks at individual cases. However, I assure my hon. Friend that the Committee is aware and very mindful of the serious concerns that he has raised.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Am I right in thinking that the tribunal has never upheld a complaint?

Margaret Beckett: Not being a member of the tribunal, or—I fear—having yet closely studied its work, I am not sure. However, complaints are a matter for its very serious judgment and I am sure that it weighs them carefully, as all such bodies would.

The commissioners to whom I referred check that the agency’s actions are within the law. The tribunal investigates individuals’ complaints, and the Intelligence and Security Committee examines administration, policy and expenditure, as do departmental Select Committees. The Intelligence and Security Committee itself was established by the Intelligence Services Act 1994. It set its own work programme, and that work has grown and developed over the years. The Committee produces not only an annual report but, as has been mentioned, ad hoc reports, most latterly on the subject of rendition. The Committee is composed of experienced parliamentarians who value their independence and work on a non-partisan basis to deliver rigorous scrutiny.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, however, after so many years it is definitely time to take stock of how the Committee works. When the Prime Minister first broached the issue of reform in the Green Paper “The Governance of Britain”, he invited my predecessor to advise on how the Committee should be reformed—strengthened to enable even more effective oversight, while seeking to increase parliamentary accountability and public understanding.

In many ways, the Committee’s operations already parallel those of departmental Select Committees. It is the nature of the material that Committee members examine that means that we sit behind closed doors, as much of it, as has been said, cannot be put into the public domain. However, if today’s motion is carried, the Committee will consider in the next Session whether there are areas of its work that can be discussed in public—for example, in relation to the national security strategy or the threat assessment. We hope that that will give greater insight into how the Committee works and reduce the level of secrecy when secrecy is not necessary.

Another proposed change to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred is the proposal to re-explore the use of investigators. The Committee has used an investigator to examine administrative matters such as the vetting system and postal arrangements. However, I must emphasise that the Committee will nevertheless continue to conduct major inquiries itself. We all feel a responsibility to examine the evidence first hand on important issues such as rendition or the 7 July London bombings— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We cannot deal with things through sedentary interventions; we have already dealt with the matter that the Foreign Secretary and the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) have been chuntering about.

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Margaret Beckett: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We feel that responsibility, but we believe that a pool of expert investigators such as those used by departmental Select Committees would be a welcome additional resource to help with our work. The Committee also welcomes the proposal that its reports be debated in the other place, because its membership is drawn from both Houses and it is important that debates are held in both Chambers. It is also important that there should be an opportunity to debate not only the Committee’s annual reports, but all its infrequent ad hoc reports—not least because those ad hoc reports often generate the most interest. Debates on them would also increase awareness of the Committee’s work among Members of both Houses.

However, I want to stress the point made by members of the Committee in the debate and to which the Home Secretary responded. The changes that we are discussing cannot be implemented without additional resources. Indeed, welcome for the proposals has to be conditional on such resources being available, in what I completely recognise is a tight financial climate, to strengthen the secretariat, who are already very hard pressed and work very long hours. If the Committee is to maintain—let alone expand—its work load, that has to be taken into account.

That said, I believe that the proposals will enhance the Committee’s role, provide a greater role for Parliament and offer the public greater visibility of our work. It is vital—and this view is clearly shared across the House—that there should be rigorous and independent scrutiny of the agencies, and the Committee will continue to provide it.

3.29 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I apologise to the Home Secretary for missing the beginning of her speech. I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) and to know that the Intelligence and Security Committee is in her good hands; she has had experience in Government of dealing with many parts of the relevant agencies.

We support the provisions in the White Paper, “The Governance of Britain”. We will also support the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), which add to the transparency and accountability and, to some degree, clarify the separation of powers, which has become somewhat muddled in this area. We also welcome the Committee’s authoritative and detailed annual report for 2006-07. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on the Committee. Members might be aware that he is not present today because he is recovering from successful treatment for a heart problem. I am sure that all Members of the House wish him a speedy recovery. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

I should also like to put on record on behalf of the Liberal Democrats our support for the brave work of the intelligence services in protecting the lives of our citizens and the safety of our communities. I very much hope that, in line with the right hon. Member for Derby, South’s suggestion, we shall be able to have debates on the ad hoc reports of the Committee—as they sometimes highlight the very useful work that the intelligence services do—as well as on the annual report.

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I also note that the last ISC report was produced more than two years ago, and it is perhaps regrettable that we have not had a chance to discuss this matter before. The report that we are discussing today covers the period up to October 2007, and was published in January 2008. I hope that, in future, we can return to an annual cycle, because describing this as an annual report puts us at some risk of contravening the Trade Descriptions Act.

We support the measures to bring the appointments procedure in line with standard practice, as set out in paragraph 237 of the White Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, and the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s standing order. It is right that Parliament, and not the Prime Minister, should have the primary role in nominating members of the Committee, if only to preserve some form of separation of the legislature from the Executive. The ISC must be independent of the Government, and it must be seen to be independent if its reports are to have the standing that they deserve. I believe that the intelligence services see the merit of that argument from their point of view as well, understandable though their concerns are about putting information that might be of use to our enemies into the public domain.

We welcome the moves to explore alternative accommodation options for the ISC, with the necessary private, secure environment, away from the Cabinet Office. I hope that these are not just empty words, and that the Foreign Secretary will be able to give us more information on any progress in that regard when he replies to the debate. Perhaps in our debate on these matters next year, we will be able to have a report on the successful conclusion of that move.

The issue of independence is at the heart of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Thurrock. Obviously, the sensitive nature of the information being handled means that the Committee requires heavily security cleared and trusted staff, but I do not believe that such staff cannot be under the authority of the Clerk of the House. In fact, I can think of few people more highly regarded and trusted by Members on both sides of the House. It is also vital, especially as the ISC expands its investigatory work, that there is no question of the Executive having improper influence over the staff of the Committee.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that public briefings by agency heads or Ministers are no replacement for a properly constituted public Committee meeting. We recognise that some meetings—indeed, probably the great majority of them—will need to be held in private. However, the ISC should have the option of meeting in public, and I was delighted to hear that possibility being mentioned by the right hon. Member for Derby, South. For this reason, we will support the amendments.

In the debate on the previous report, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) expressed the Liberal Democrats’ support for the regionalisation programme within the Security Service. We are delighted to hear that it has been such a success. I very much share the sentiments expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who said that the excessiveness of the secrecy applied to the reports is demonstrated by the availability of the information on public websites. It might be sensible if, before the next report is sent to the House, the redactor
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checked exactly what is available in the public domain on websites; it tends to be rather more than we might like.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the Intelligence and Security Committee published its report in December 2007. It is now summer 2008. Since December 2007, much information has appeared in the public domain that was not previously available, so there is a time gap.

Chris Huhne: I take the hon. Lady’s point, and any information that was secret at the time of the report, but that has since become public, is not covered by my injunction. Nevertheless, I suspect that if the exercise that I suggested were carried out before the redaction of next year’s report, the hon. Lady would still be surprised to discover just how much information was available on public websites. That is true with regard to many matters, not least Members’ addresses. It is quite astonishing what one can find out on, without having to ring up a member of the Security Service.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I cannot resist taking this opportunity to say that although the hon. Gentleman thought he would be able to get my address on, I checked it out, and he would not have succeeded. The main point is that there is a difference between something being available on some unauthorised site on the internet, and something being confirmed in an official publication.

Chris Huhne: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will not try to transgress the boundaries of what is relevant to the debate any longer. I take what he says on board.

Members will be aware of the Liberal Democrats’ long-standing concern about the decision to halt the Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE Systems’ dealings with Saudi Arabia. I do not wish to repeat our position, which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) has made clear in numerous debates in the House, but it disappoints us that the ISC was refused sight of the minute from the Prime Minister to the Attorney-General that accompanied the note, “The Saudi contribution to our domestic and international efforts to combat terrorism”. That whole episode has done great damage to our reputation at home and abroad. I note that the Committee states that it

Obviously, I can only take the Committee at its word, but the fact that investigations into corruption must be stopped for that reason does not, in the public’s mind, reflect well on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Government or the security services.

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was careful to say that although we want to push the envelope, as far as transparency and accountability are concerned, we do not want to risk second-guessing things that we do not really know about. Are not the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) and his Front-Bench colleagues already crossing that line?

17 July 2008 : Column 473

Chris Huhne: I do not believe that I am crossing that line in relation to the issue of whether to intervene in a legal investigation, because there are wider considerations than those that are of concern to the intelligence services, not least among which is the reputation of British businesses. How many of them will lose business as a result of clients’ fears that if they do business with British businesses, it might be taken as a sign that they are in receipt of corrupt payments or bribes? There are wider considerations, and although the Foreign Secretary, whom we welcome to the Chamber, is chortling at that, I assure him that in many parts of the world it is significant for clients to know that business contracts are being signed for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

I note that the Committee has reiterated the importance of intercept evidence, while respecting the point that we await the result of the Government’s deliberations on the Chilcot review. We hope that a resolution can quickly be found that allows for the successful prosecution of terror suspects by using intercept evidence while protecting the needs of our security services. We know, for example, that that has been done successfully in the United States and Australia, both of which are in close intelligence relationships with our intelligence services. Liberal Democrat Members therefore see no reason why we should not proceed.

In July 2007, the ISC produced its special report on rendition, which shows the important work that the ISC must be allowed to perform on the operations of the intelligence services. I pay tribute to the Committee for that work.

Reports such as this seem to show the importance of having an investigator with extensive powers. It is disappointing that the Committee has been without an investigator since 2004, when the then investigator, John Morrison, appeared on “Panorama”, after which his contract was—perhaps unsurprisingly—not renewed. It is surely possible for the Committee to find an investigator whose contractual terms ensure that they do not pop up on prime-time television. Although we welcome the commitment in the reform proposals to appoint an investigatory team, I hope that the skills and experience of that team are well used and allow greater scrutiny.

Overall, we welcome the report and the suggested reforms. We hope that debates will become annual and that the independence of the ISC will be cemented by the acceptance of the amendment. We also congratulate the staff of the intelligence services on their work.

3.41 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): It is pleasing to hear that the Government attach importance to the work of the ISC. The belief that the Committee provides independent and effective parliamentary oversight is gratifying. We spend hours and hours on that work: I make no complaint, but it is worth putting on record that we spend as much time as it takes, and more, if we think that the answers that we have been given are not as complete as they should be. [ Interruption. ] I am no poodle, and I think that the House recognises that fact.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) chaired the Committee in 2006-07, when the report was compiled. His chairmanship was often humorous, always purposeful and much appreciated.
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Today, we are chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett). The House has witnessed her detailed grasp of the issues today, and it is a privilege to serve under her chairmanship.

Like all ISC members, I want to express my thanks to the ISC staff. The staff are half the size of that of most Select Committees, but they are competent and manage an enormous work load. It is a long time since the Committee took evidence from the agencies for the 2006-07 annual report. Even so, the belief remains fresh in my mind that Britain has security agencies that are adaptive and innovative in dealing with the challenges presented by some very difficult times.

The evidence makes it clear that we should all acknowledge two factors. First, intelligence is invariably fragmentary and partial, rather than a complete picture. It is information gained against the wishes, and usually without the knowledge, of targets. Complex analysis is required to evaluate intelligence. Secondly, intelligence is never an end in itself. It serves to inform an understanding of risks and threats, to provide warning and to define the need for investigation or disruptive action. That is the complex area in which our agencies are working. Following the Committee’s purposeful evidence sittings with the agencies, I am confident in saying that the staff of the agencies understand the complexities of the various roles that they must perform and energetically and enthusiastically manage enormous tasks.

Mr. Kilfoyle: rose—

Ms Taylor: I feel that I should give way to my hon. Friend, if he has called me a poodle.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I do not know whether I should be grateful to my hon. Friend. I referred to the Committee, having sat on the Committee that set it up, as a poodle of the Prime Minister of the day. If there was any inference against individual members of the Committee, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) in saying that there is no reflection on them—it is to do with the concept of the Committee itself.

In light of my hon. Friend’s encomium for the security services and their sagacity in all matters to do with our security, does she appreciate that, since the sexed-up dossier, and before that, many people do not see them like that? In her view, what has changed in recent years, since that tremendously tragic mistake, to reinforce our faith that they would not repeat that kind of wrong analysis?

Ms Taylor: I wish that there were an answer that would reassure us that there will never again be a 7/7, but sadly, as my hon. Friend knows, that answer cannot be given. Terrorists have to be right once; the agencies, and all of us, have to be right all the time if we are to protect ourselves. Frankly, the question was inappropriate.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab) rose—

Ms Taylor: I will not give way at the moment, but I will shortly.

In the 2006-07 report, many of the agencies commented that there was a level of satisfaction about the finances provided by the Government. The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who is not in his place, made the appropriate statement that a significant
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amount of money is being spent, which must be monitored at all times. I entirely agree with that, as, I believe, does every Committee member. I would add, however, that when we talked about the resources that the agencies have, the former director general said:

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