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I have never interpreted that statement as referring to the number of people they employ, which has grown considerably; I interpret it as referring to the scale of requirements.

Over the years, certainly since 7/7, we have become much more aware of the growth of potential terrorist activity. The agencies know that 200 extremist networks are currently under investigation, some with the intent and capability of carrying out attacks against the UK. Special branch has added to that by stating that there are 2,000 individuals in the UK about which it has concern—a very careful use of language—and that those people often have multiple identities. Worse than that, the situation is so different from that which we had to face in Ireland. The people involved are part of informal networks, not formal ones that we could recognise, and did recognise—and, of course, there are others about which little or nothing is known.

Serious concern is being expressed that there are not enough people to do the job. That has to be seen in the context of the scale of requirements. We have to acknowledge the complex nature and size of the problem that fundamentalism represents. The agencies have an enormous job to do in achieving a safe Britain.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: There has been an explosion in the number of people working at GCHQ and the other security agencies. Has my friend’s Committee given any time to examining recruitment practices and suchlike, given that very little in the report touches on those matters?

Ms Taylor: That was a very positive question about something that the Committee should consider in greater detail. In fact, we have done some work in this field, and it is a mistake that we have not referenced it. I will comment on that a little further in my speech if I have time.

There is a positive response to the work load that the agencies face. People who have read the report will know that there is an increasing determination to work collaboratively. I see that not simply as valuable, but as invaluable and essential. I am sorry that it has taken the agencies so long to get to the point where they are working much more collaboratively. There has clearly been less competition between them, less exclusivity of knowledge and less scoring points off each other. Perhaps we would all have anticipated that after 7/7; there is no longer any room for such boys’ games, if the House will excuse the expression.

It is not just that the agencies’ way of working is much more collaborative. We have supported collaboration. We heard from the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield about SCOPE. He was cautiously but clearly critical about the fact that the overseas project has still not been fielded. We have also been critical about the slowness with which SCOPE has delivered. The intentions of SCOPE are excellent; the delivery programme has been less so.

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Again, it is important for us to see the matter as it is. SCOPE is a secure electronic communication system transferring known intelligence, and inevitably we would all see that as totally appropriate. We know that Departments and agencies can ask for information and that it is delivered in 15 minutes—previously, it took 12 hours. There is no doubt in my mind that it is an excellent piece of kit, which we have to support. I am confident that, although the way in which it is used internationally has slipped, it will be used and it will be of considerable value.

I would like to refer to another bit of technical kit that is of incredible value. GCHQ has been modernising SIGINT—signals intelligence. This programme, across the piece, for all agencies, enables the efficient and effective management of a vast bulk of information. It supports collaboration. Reference was made from the Front Bench to the worry that counter-terrorism operations have taken over, and that counter-espionage programmes are now less and less well funded. Again, the Committee shares that consideration, and it is resolved to monitor the comprehensive spending review settlement for 2007. We hope to come back to the House to report that counter-espionage is covered as well as it should be.

I would like to return to a particular use of language that worried me throughout the time we did the report—we do not have enough people to do the job. The House should realise that a different factor is involved. The agencies, with a vast increase in moneys and a determination to increase their staff—exponentially, it appears at times—are selecting from the same pool, which is getting smaller and smaller. That presents the risk for all of us that they could be selecting the wrong people. Significantly, in addition, we could be relying more and more on less and less experienced operatives. Worse than that, with reference to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), it is clear that this group could be receiving less and less training, which is certainly problematic. The Committee most certainly needs to carry out another investigation into that area.

The agencies work very hard. I sound very confident about that, and I may sound too confident and too defensive about their work. I am as abrasive with them as I probably sound to the House this afternoon. I acknowledge the enormous work load that they have to accommodate because it is added to by a requirement, outlined in the report, to increase coverage and operational capability in key countries. That is an important part of the work that the Secret Intelligence Service and MI5 must do. It is fundamental to ensuring that we understand where terrorism could be tracked and could hit Great Britain. They must not only widen their scope and involve key countries, but ensure that they understand the factors that influence radicalisation. Of course, regional teams have been developed.

I feel privileged to serve on the Committee. It is hard and interesting work. The Committee works effectively, objectively and independently. I would hate it if others thought otherwise.

3.55 pm

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). Let me pick up on her point about recruitment and experience. I do not believe that we risk recruiting
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the wrong people—the standard is extraordinarily high—but the consequence of the speed of expansion is that people with experience of a year or 18 months are doing jobs that would previously have been done by those who had been in the services for three or four years. The heads of the services have acknowledged that risk. It has to be accepted because of the necessity for the vast increase in staff.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) may not have got his earlier question across clearly. He asked how the intelligence failure that led to the sexed-up dossier could be prevented from happening again. I had the privilege of serving on the Butler review. It was not the intelligence but the use that was made of it that was the problem. If the hon. Gentleman examines the Butler review, he will find that we commented robustly that the dossier went to the limit, if not beyond, of what the intelligence could bear.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I do not want to detract from the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, but I have examined the Butler review many times. I am sure that he accepts that where the intelligence ended and the political misjudgments began is a matter for debate.

Mr. Mates: I disagree because I believe that the report analysed that. The intelligence was honest and straight. The use that was made of it is the subject of political debate, but it is not for today.

I shall be brief—I want to make only two main points. First, I do not support the amendment that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) tabled, not because I am a poodle or part of a gone-native club, but because of the practicalities of his proposal.

If the Committee came under the authority of the Clerk of the House, it would have to be staffed by Clerks, none of whom, as far as I know, is as deeply vetted as all the staff of our Committee are. If one were absent, he could not be replaced unless someone else were deeply vetted and that takes a long time. We have restrictions on accommodation because we see the most secret intelligence, for which there are strict rules. They could not be followed with any ease in the House of Commons, where there is constant public access, without having a place with separate security and separate guards, 24 hours a day, as happens in our current accommodation. It is therefore not the principle so much as the practicality of the proposal to which I object. I would like the Committee to become as normal as possible, but the key word is “possible”. [Laughter.] I do not know what I have said that is so funny. Everything must be compared with the strict security requirements under which we currently operate. That is why I do not support the amendment.

Secondly, redactions are an old chestnut, which come up every time we debate the matter. We have to redact some things from our report, which must go first to the Prime Minister. That cannot be changed. If the Committee were an ordinary Select Committee, any evidence given to it would become the property of the House, as the hon. Member for Thurrock knows. One cannot do that with secret intelligence. If the position were forced on the Committee, we would not get any more secret intelligence and that would render us ineffective. However,
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we report everything that we have discovered to the Prime Minister, who sees the report complete and unredacted. Indeed, I think that I can tell the House that there were reports a long time ago that were never published, because the subject matter was too secret. However, the Prime Minister needed the information; he needed to know that the money had been properly spent and administered and that we had got value for money. It took the Committee a long time to look into such things, and we reported them to him, but we can take none of the credit, because nobody knows what we did. Again, that is unavoidable when one is dealing with the sort of subjects that the Committee has to deal with day in, day out. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that when we redact, we must always push the envelope and have a robust exchange. Clearly, the Government and the agencies say, “You can’t possibly say that,” but we test them, we move them a little and we sometimes move them a lot.

Ultimately, nothing has ever been left out of one of our reports without our agreement. The statute says that nothing can be put into one of our reports that might damage national security or the operation of the security services, and that has always been the case in the 14 years that I have been on the Committee. Let me tell the Foreign Secretary with all the power that I can muster—I hope that he will tell the Home Secretary, who I had hoped would be here as well—not to break that convention. If the Government were to do so, that would damage severely relationships and put the relationship between the Committee and the Government in quite a different light. That relationship has always worked until now. We have honoured the Government’s need for security, and the Government must consider the issue very deeply before they decide to go against what has been a thoroughly worthwhile convention.

I will not go into the report, because lots of others want to speak, and they will have read it. However, I stand by it and I disagree completely with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Thurrock.

4.1 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I want to make some points about changes to the Committee. First, let me say that I recognise the work that the Committee has done. I am sure that its members have carried out their duties conscientiously. I have read the Committee’s reports regularly, not only this year, but in previous years.

The work that the security agencies carry out to prevent acts of mass murder is recognised by all of us. There is no doubt that there are extremists who want to repeat 7/7 and what was attempted a fortnight later; they want to carry out mass murders, atrocities and the rest. None of us can have the slightest doubt that the situation remains as it was three years ago and that there are violent extremists with a religious agenda, and it is pretty obvious what they would like to do. Dealing with such individuals and locating their plots must be more difficult for MI5 than its previous work in dealing with extremists with no religious agenda whatever.

In speaking about the need for changes, I want to remind hon. Members of what happened before the security agencies were established on a statutory basis. I
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had one or two debates in the 1980s in which I suggested that there should be some parliamentary accountability for MI5. The ministerial response at the time, which would no doubt have been the same under a Labour Government—I have no illusions on that score—was that it was simply impossible to have such parliamentary accountability and that the very nature of the work of the security services was such that there could be no question of establishing any kind of committee. I was always told, as other critics were, “Don’t worry overmuch. The security agencies are accountable to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, who in turn are responsible to Parliament.” I was told, in effect, “Why worry about the matter at all?”

The changes that came about for various reasons—in 1989, MI5 was placed on a statutory basis, as MI6 was later, and in 1994, the Intelligence and Security Committee was formed—were all welcome steps; certainly I welcomed them. I pointed out—I was hardly the only one—that the Committee functions and the method of appointment should be somewhat different. I argued that it should be a Select Committee of the House of Commons—not a normal Select Committee, but along those lines—but that was obviously rejected.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary will not misunderstand me when I tell him that, long before he arrived here, when a measure relating to that issue was considered during the Committee stage upstairs, the Labour Front-Bench spokesman argued more or less what I have just been saying. The story goes that when John Smith, the then leader of the party, heard about it, he said to my colleague who led for us, “Why on earth did you say all that? We have no intention of doing that in government.” That is how the story goes. Nevertheless, we put the case in Committee, but we were not surprised when the Government took the line that they did.

I felt that the formation of the ISC was undoubtedly a step forward. There would be some limited—yes, limited—parliamentary accountability, which had not existed before. I welcomed that. I was not too critical, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) was a moment ago, about those who were appointed—not selected—by the Prime Minister.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I obviously did not make myself very clear, so can I lay this one down once and for all? I have never criticised the individuals concerned, any more than my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has. It is the Committee itself, from its inception, that I have called a poodle.

Mr. Winnick: I take my hon. Friend’s point entirely, but I do not go along with him, because I do not think that the Committee is a poodle. It has carried out useful work, although I at least agree with him about the method of selection.

On selection, the Government’s proposal to involve the Committee of Selection is welcome, but let us not be naive. The Committee of Selection decides on the recommendations made by the Whips. That has been the situation in the House of Commons for at least 100 years, and it is not going to change in the next Parliament or the one after. It is therefore pretty clear that—I think that this is the wording—those who are going to be recommended by the Committee of Selection to the Prime Minister will be precisely those who at present
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are appointed by the Prime Minister. I do not really have any doubts about that; nevertheless, if the formalities are observed, there will at least be an opportunity for a debate to take place, on the Floor of the House if necessary, which cannot happen now. That is a step forward.

Mr. Kilfoyle: If the Committee of Selection were to appoint on that basis, would the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee not be more secure and even more independent? We all recall the kerfuffle when the Government of the day tried to get rid of the then Chairmen of the Select Committee on Transport and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. It was this House, in its indignation, that ensured that they remained in situ.

Mr. Winnick: Indeed, that incident, which was a compliment to the House of Commons, took place precisely seven years ago yesterday. I agree with my hon. Friend that if the Chairman is appointed as proposed, he will be strengthened accordingly, and I am all for that.

The purpose of my amendment is to state what the Green Paper in fact said, and give the Committee

To avoid any distortion of what I am saying, it is necessary to point out that I entirely accept that most of the Committee’s work will be in private: it must be in private and I doubt whether anyone would disagree in any way, shape or form. It is important, however, that at least some of the Committee’s work—on the financial aspects, for example—be done in public.

I welcome the fact that the director general of MI5 gives a public address and that, unlike in previous years when the identity was known but kept a secret, everyone knows who it is. That being the case, with the director general going public like the present occupant and their predecessor, why on earth should it be inappropriate for certain sittings, where there is no danger to national security, to be held in public? All that I am saying in the amendment was outlined in the Green Paper, but the White Paper has unfortunately fallen short of that position to some extent.

Mr. Mates: It is one thing for the director general to make a speech when he knows what he is going to say, he says what he wants to say and he clears it in advance if necessary, but it is quite another for him to appear before a Committee where he would have to answer questions. The questions would be very difficult to ask and they would probably have to be rehearsed to ensure that no breach of national security would arise from either the question or the answer. I suspect that that would very soon come to be seen as something of a charade. I am not saying that it should never happen, but questioning the heads of the services would be a very difficult operation.

Mr. Winnick: I do not deny that there will be some problems, but I must say to the right hon. Gentleman that very similar points were put to me before MI5 and MI6 were placed on a statutory basis, when we were told that this, that and the other reforms were out the question. If public sessions do indeed take place, as
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they may, according to the Home Secretary and the Chairman of the Committee, it is unlikely that we will revert to a situation where no public hearings would ever occur again. It is, of course, a question of balance. I am the first to accept that certain matters should not under any circumstances be dealt with in public, but I believe that other matters could and should be. We are moving along those lines.

At the end of the process, we want Parliament to have a direct role in the work of the ISC. To some extent, that has already arisen; after all, we are having a debate that arises from the annual report. We need to go a little further—not as far as possible, perhaps, but more than at present. I understand the comments of my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the ISC Chairman to indicate that public hearings are not being ruled out and that there is a possibility that they will occur in the near future, which is a welcome step.

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