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4.13 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): I will deal with some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I believe that there is an element of truth in what he is saying, but that he is missing out certain aspects of the problem. I hope that it will not spoil the career of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) if I say that I am a bit of a fan, but I do not consider myself a poodle and I do not think either that he was accusing me of being a poodle.

I welcome the annual report. There is nothing unusual in it. Its main feature is the growth of the agencies in response to the post-9/11 era—an inevitable fact of life. Earlier in the year, we produced an important report on rendition: Members have alluded to it and it has been widely discussed. However, it is on the proposed reforms that I would like to concentrate my remarks.

I do not belittle any of the reforms; I support them. I took part in the debate inside the Committee. Appointments by the Committee of Selection are a good idea, but let us not kid ourselves that they will produce a fresh set of characters. The system will continue, and the usual types will surface. To that extent, the process is largely cosmetic.

It is right and proper that the Committee Chairman should introduce the debate, but it will not change the tone of the debate much, other than that she will get more than 10 minutes in which to make her speech. The Committee already has the power to appoint an investigator. In truth, the problem lies more in the question of resources, which was raised by the Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), and in the physical cost of accommodating and managing an investigator.

On the issues raised by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), it will be a change to have public hearings, but my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) was absolutely on the button when he said that the scope will be limited. It will happen—I am pretty sure that there is a determination to do it—but let us not get carried away about how effective and revealing the hearings will be. To that extent, again, the change will be somewhat cosmetic.

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Let me touch on the statutory reforms that have not been discussed today. In 2007, the Green Paper said that the Act

the ISC

So far, so good. The Prime Minister went on to say that the ISC should have a “strengthened capacity for investigations”. Listening to the Home Secretary today, I thought that that commitment was fading a little. In his statement on national security strategy, the Prime Minister spoke of current reforms in advance of future legislation, but what that would be was not elucidated. A couple of weeks later, “The Governance of Britain” White Paper made no reference to statutory reforms.

Statutory reforms should be considered in a number of areas. If we are to have the Prime Minister’s “strengthened capacity for investigations”, the first area to consider is documentation. In response to my intervention, the Home Secretary said that the Committee will be able to have an investigator, as if that were the extra, strengthened capacity. As I said, however, we already have that power, so nothing much is coming on that front. Documentation, and that on which we can draw, needs to be considered.

The reports on rendition and 7/7 are extra-curricular—they sit outside the legislation. The invitation to the Committee to conduct the reports carries with it the implied request that the agencies should supply us with whatever documentation is necessary to do the job. In the wide range of our activity, the Committee should have the power to request whatever is necessary to do the job. As we consider reforms, that should be the default setting.

Secondly, we need to look at the issue of the witnesses who come before us. Again, I do not have a precise, concrete proposal, but I have the feeling that one wants to call people whom we do not have the power to call at the moment. That extra power is needed. Consideration should be given to the way in which witnesses can be brought before Committees.

I will return to that point in a moment, but I want to touch on the difference between the ISC and a Select Committee. As the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) knows, I have served on both—I have been on the ISC for three years, and I was on the Foreign Affairs Committee with him when we investigated the war in Iraq. We had the Gilligan report, David Kelly being put before us by the Government, his subsequent suicide, and the Hutton inquiry. It was not exactly a low-profile Select Committee. In fact, for those of us on it, it was a fairly unforgettable experience.

So, if the ISC were to become a Select Committee, its members would have to be notified under the Official Secrets Act 1989, which would immediately take it out of the Select Committee system. It would have to meet wholly in secret and could not report to Parliament without redactions. All those points have been well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire. The Clerks of the House and of the ISC are of the highest calibre, and they would perform an identical function, so it would not make any difference to that extent, but Clerks would have to be vetted and
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cleared. The evidence would have to be given by the agency heads in secret and we cannot get away from the fact that that information could not be published.

Mr. Mates: It is perhaps worth pointing out to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that when we last appointed a Clerk, one of the candidates was from the body of the Clerks of the House. We could perfectly well have chosen him. He did not, in our view, turn out to be the best candidate, but we are not prevented from using the resources of the Clerks of the House. If someone applies for the job, we are perfectly able to appoint him.

Richard Ottaway: My right hon. Friend makes a perfectly good point.

Let me go back to the point that I was making a second ago about evidence. The key difference is that the Select Committee on Transport, for example, has employees, businesses, users, passengers, station masters and so on coming before it. One simply does not get that in the intelligence world, as there is no equivalent. There are plenty of conspiracy theorists out there, but there is not enough time to address all their arguments. In truth, our input is predominantly from agents. If we were sitting as a Select Committee, that input would be limited.

When I joined the Committee, I was fairly sympathetic to the idea of its becoming a Select Committee after my experience on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Having been on it for three years, I have simply reached the conclusion that that would not be an improvement, that the situation would probably be worse and that it would be less effective. We should focus on making the ISC as similar as possible to a Select Committee, which is what we are trying to do, subject to the reforms that I am suggesting.

I feel most uncomfortable with the question about the precise role of the ISC. Is it with the agencies or against them? Does it provide oversight or a check or balance? The Committee’s job is defined, as is the job of a Select Committee, as the provision of oversight of policy, finance and administration. That definition is wide and vague, and can be broadly or narrowly interpreted. During my time on the ISC, I have seen a narrow interpretation. A Select Committee has more freedom to range and is wide-ranging in its scope. My third proposal for statutory reform is a clearer statutory definition of the role of the Committee combined with powers to deliver on it.

Let me conclude with the point made by the Chairman of the Committee about resources. The ISC has fewer resources than a Select Committee has. It has fewer staff. If we are to up our game, we have to bite the bullet and give more resources to the Committee. Without those resources, no serious progress can be made. Let me allude, too, to the issue of accommodation for the Committee. The White Paper said that the Committee should not sit in the Cabinet Office. When the Foreign Secretary is winding up, will he mention whether he feels that we should move out of Cabinet Office facilities, by which, of course, I mean the wider Cabinet Office estate? Does he feel that the wider Cabinet Office estate is an appropriate setting for the Committee’s location?

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The Foreign Office.

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Richard Ottaway: There are, of course, facilities adjacent to the Foreign Office that the right hon. Gentleman might want to think about.

In short, I think that the ISC can do the job if it is given the powers to do it.

4.24 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am grateful for having caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me make it clear that I acknowledge that the intelligence and security community has had enormous successes on behalf of all of us in combating terrorism, and I wish it well in that continuing role. I have more of an open mind on another of its aspects—combating organised crime—because part of my thesis is that inadequate information is available to Parliament to evaluate its stewardship, conduct and competence in this regard. In respect of espionage, I have some doubts, because it seems that the same cold war rhetoric—the reference to diplomats as spies—is used in London and in Moscow. It sometimes does not seem mature, given that we recognise that every person in the Russian embassy has been allowed by the Foreign Secretary to be there and that the same thing happens in Moscow. A lot of energy is used on that, rather than on combating espionage, which I am all for. The cold war rhetoric impedes our foreign policy and our building the necessary relationship with the Russian Federation.

Against that backdrop, I referred in the House on 22 May—I do not want to labour the point again—to what I consider to be an affront not only to me, but to Parliament. I am talking about MI5’s approach to the Government Chief Whip and my being told, “You are being targeted by a Russian spy.” Those were the precise words. I find that menacing, intimidating and inappropriate in a free Parliament. I want to make it clear that so long as I am a Member of Parliament, I intend to meet whom I like, when I like and where I like—my chosen place is here. I want to say that in not only my interests, but those of Parliament. Everyone here knows that, by definition, a Member of Parliament has no secrets; the only secrets we can share are predictions about possible political developments in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Winnick: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Andrew Mackinlay: If my hon. Friend does not mind, I shall not, because other hon. Members wish to speak. Some people treat the matter that I am discussing with levity, but it is desperately serious. I just wanted to place that on the record.

I come to the motions. I have listened carefully to the interesting comments of hon. Members, both those who are members of the ISC and others. There is demonstrably now a mood to revisit the Intelligence Services Act 1994, and the Government motions invite us to do that. If we adopt the Government’s motions tonight, nothing will appreciably happen immediately; any change will take place after the next general election. Their motions would require an amendment to the 1994 Act, as would my amendment.

I listened carefully to what the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said, and I was grateful for his invitation to give him reassurance. I believe in gradualism in these matters. If my modest
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amendment were adopted tonight, it would not immediately alter things; it would clearly be the subject of further discussions between the security services and Parliament, and it would have to be enacted by primary legislation. That is why I invite the House, if it is favourably disposed in principle, to increasing the parliamentary status of the work done by the ISC, to support my amendment as an expression of will. I think it would help because this is a question of public confidence.

As has been said by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) and others, including, even the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), the ISC will always be a special Committee. Its accommodation may have to be in a different place, but to have the Clerk of the House of Commons providing the secretaryship would send an enormous signal to increase public confidence—this is most necessary. I tabled a question asking who the ISC’s Clerk is, but the parliamentary reply said, “We won’t tell you; its a secret.” That is indicative of the obsessive secrecy that exists, and I do not think it is healthy in a democracy.

I listened and learned this afternoon. I realise that the Committee has to deal with some big-picture stuff, but there is therefore a void—a flaw—that is not being met by our parliamentary institutions. Let me give an example of that. Although we had a statement on the loss of data on the Waterloo train, Parliament should investigate that event. At the least, we need to know that a Committee is investigating it—we are not told what the ISC is doing—yet this relates to the stewardship and management of our security and intelligence services. I have no confidence, and I do not think that anyone else does, that this is being dealt with properly.

Some people might consider this a trivial point, but because I am interested in the stewardship, conduct and management of those services, I cheekily asked how many members of the Joint Intelligence Committee had been given honours in the new year’s honours list. I cannot be told that, because it is a secret.

Mr. Mates: The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong again. If the ISC looked into an incident such as the loss of documents on a train, which is a very serious matter, we would be in exactly the same position as any other Member. The incident is being investigated by the police and by an internal disciplinary process, and no Committee of this House would ever interfere in the matter or would question those proceedings until they were over. When those proceedings are over, a decision may have to be taken.

Andrew Mackinlay: That may be, but we are devoting a mere three and a half hours to a most important subject—and that will be our lot in one and a half years. We have been told that the report is now six months old. The House is abdicating its responsibility to keep security and intelligence under scrutiny and it is a sham that we have such a short time. Scrutiny is totally inadequate, so even if we did investigate the loss of data, we would not have time to probe the matter properly.

I support the Government’s motions, but their importance is exaggerated. Even if they are agreed tonight, we will still need primary legislation. We know that the Democratic Unionist party has, rightly, been
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promised a seat on the ISC, as part of the St. Andrew’s agreement and because responsibility for national security in Northern Ireland has been taken from the Police Service of Northern Ireland and given to MI5. Why do we not come clean and expedite legislation that would increase the membership? Only one member comes from the House of Lords, for example.

Nor have we used this occasion to probe the working of section 7 of the 1994 Act. On the only occasion that I ever went to Vauxhall Cross, I was told by the head of MI6 that section 7 allows his organisation to do things abroad that are unlawful in the UK. We have a duty to examine that, and if it is a matter for the ISC, we should at least have the reassurance that the issue is considered by it on a regular, ongoing basis.

We have not had an adequate response to an issue that is mentioned in the Government’s response on pages 1 and 5. The Home Secretary skipped over that, and I think that her response has been inadequate, bearing in mind the minimal scrutiny that this Parliament is giving this matter this afternoon, for the first time in one and a half years.

The Clerk of the House and his colleagues act as colleagues of the Chair of Select Committees. They ask the Chairperson, “Would you like me to do this?” or “Would it be a good idea to do that?” That may happen in the ISC, but one cannot escape the fact that whoever provides the secretariat for that Committee is in the Cabinet Office, and that is unhealthy. It provides no reassurance that the role of the Clerk is the same as it is for other Select Committees. We could make special arrangements for the Clerk, such as deep vetting, as the phrase has it.

Incidentally, one of the questions I asked about deep vetting concerned an MI5 operative whose spouse was involved in what is referred to as the sex industry. I asked about the vetting in that case, but I did not get an answer because it is secret —[ Laughter. ]

Dr. Julian Lewis: She was under cover!

Andrew Mackinlay: That may well be, but how can we be reassured, in a free and democratic Parliament, that the conduct, stewardship and oversight of our intelligence services are satisfactory? The present arrangements are wholly inadequate.

I urge hon. Members to consider what I hope is a modest amendment, under which the Clerk of the House would provide the secretariat for the Committee. Many things would flow from that, and it is clear that there would have to be much more discussion, as well as amending legislation, but I contend that it would constitute a great advance. I therefore hope that colleagues will support me on this House of Commons matter in the Division Lobby this evening—assuming that the Government do not accept the amendment in principle.

4.35 pm

Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): I want to say a few words about the intelligence agencies’ financial accountability. It may not be the most exciting part of their operation, but it is an important one none the less. I want to say something about resource allocation and, if time permits, something about the cyber challenge.

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