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5.1 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): This has been a constructive debate. I start with a few words of tribute for the members of the agencies. We are dealing with a body of extremely dedicated public servants. They work hard on tasks of vital importance to our safety and the safety of our constituents. Many members of those agencies will, at times in their careers, have to risk their life and safety to protect our national interests. When they have successes against the enemies of this country, the thanks almost always have to be given behind closed doors, and the celebrations have to be held in secret. It is right that hon. Members on both sides of the House should express their thanks and pay tribute to the services today.

On behalf of Conservative Members, I thank the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) and her Committee for their work. It is probably accepted by everybody, at this stage of the debate, that criticisms about the limits on the powers of the Committee have not been intended as criticisms of the dedication or professionalism of the right hon. Lady and the members of her Committee. Having had the opportunity to shadow her a few years ago, I can vouch for the fact that she always behaved impeccably in respecting the traditions, conventions and powers of the House of Commons.

I thank the hon. Members for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), and for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) for the work that they do, which, as we have heard frequently this afternoon, is unsung and unpublicised, although I am sure that it takes many hours and a great deal of concentration and effort.

I want to touch on a subject that has not been mentioned much, although the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) referred to it and it is discussed on page 4 of the report, namely rendition, which was the subject of a special report by the ISC in July 2007. I welcomed the Foreign Secretary’s statement on 3 July following the investigation by the United States authorities of allegations that flights had been used for rendition purposes. The Foreign Secretary was able to provide the reassurance that Secretary of State Rice had given him a clear pledge that rendition would not be attempted by the United States without the express agreement of the British Government. He provided the further assurance in that statement that, while cases would be considered on their merits, the Government will follow the principle that rendition is not allowed if it conflicts with the laws of the United Kingdom.

The Foreign Secretary’s statement was welcome, but I wonder whether the Government will provide further reassurance by taking action to ratify the international covenant for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance, which was adopted by the UN General
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Assembly in December 2006. In a written answer on 14 November 2007, Lord Malloch-Brown said that the United Kingdom had been active in promoting agreement on the convention, but that there had been a delay in the ratification process in this country. It has been suggested to me that genuine security concerns lie behind that delay. If so, I would be grateful for any light that the Foreign Secretary can throw on that matter. If the issue is simply stuck in a Whitehall pending tray, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will use his influence to get the file out of pending as soon as possible and have work done to take that instrument forward.

This afternoon, the debate has centred on the extent to which it will be possible to strengthen parliamentary oversight of the Committee’s work. To some extent, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said, we must accept that activities involving the intelligence and security agencies now involve other agencies whose activities fall under the remit of parliamentary Select Committees.

My hon. and learned Friend cited the case of action against organised crime. Paragraph 32 of the ISC report states that the Secret Intelligence Service is transferring resources away from organised crime in order to focus on the priority of counter-terrorism and that it is transferring greater responsibility for such work to the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Paragraphs 37 and 38 of the report describe how the SIS and SOCA are co-operating against drugs traffickers and the global narcotics network. Such activity is certainly in this country’s national interest, but there is a discrepancy. SOCA is subject to oversight by the Home Affairs Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, but the SIS is not subject to a departmental Select Committee or to the PAC.

Another anomaly concerns Northern Ireland, where the Police Service of Northern Ireland works closely with the Security Service at a new base in Belfast. Those PSNI officers are, through their chief constable, accountable in law to the Northern Ireland Policing Board. When the appropriate legislation was going through this House, we were told that there were to be protocols to define how the information and work shared between the Security Service and the PSNI should be handled when it came to accountability before the Policing Board. It would be interesting to know whether those protocols are operating successfully. There is an expectation, particularly in the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, that responsibility for policing and criminal justice will be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. If that comes to fruition, the PSNI will include in its ranks officers working with the Security Service, which will report to a policing Minister in Northern Ireland, who might, at some stage in future, be a member of Provisional Sinn Fein. That illustrates the fact that, to some extent, the boundaries between the areas that are regarded as secret and subject to the ISC and those that are subject to other parliamentary or regional Assembly bodies are becoming a bit blurred.

I welcome the reforms that the Home Secretary announced, but the question is whether they go far enough. I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that three and a half hours’ debate in 18 months on the vital work of the agencies is inadequate. I hope that Government business managers
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will take note of that and provide further opportunities for such debates to take place in the House more regularly.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South that the ISC’s investigative capacity and resources should be enhanced. The more that the resources and investigatory powers of the ISC come to match those of the Public Accounts Committee, the better it will be for effective scrutiny by the ISC of the agencies, above all given the enhanced budget and increasingly important role that those agencies are playing.

The central question in much of the debate was the extent to which the ISC’s proceedings can be made more open. Conservative Members accept that the key principle is that we must protect the effectiveness of the security and intelligence agencies in doing their job on behalf of the people of this country and in defending the national interests of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Winnick: We can all agree with that.

Mr. Lidington: I hear the hon. Gentleman saying that we can all agree on that central principle.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield pointed out that nowadays a diligent researcher is able to use the internet, or perhaps access the archives in Washington, to gain access to information that is being withheld from publication in the public version of the ISC’s report. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) reminded us that in the past 20 years we have come a long way from the time when even an explicit mention of a meeting with the director general of the Security Service had to be written in code on the Home Secretary’s diary sheet. I hope that, in the context of a proper statutory reform of the ISC, we can push the envelope further and move, step by step, towards even greater openness than that which we have today.

5.13 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have made this a constructive and useful debate. The ISC is, in a way, a very British institution as regards how it works and tries within the limits of our own practice to get the right degree of rigour in the scrutiny of Government and the agencies without compromising the vital work that they do. Let me put it on record that from the Government’s point of view it is in our interest, never mind the country’s interest, that that scrutiny is as rigorous as possible given the limits that need to exist.

I want to associate myself strongly with the remarks of all right hon. and hon. Members. Whether they have supported the Government’s proposals or expressed qualms about them, all have praised the dedication, bravery and intelligence of our agencies, and I would like to second that very strongly. These people and the organisations that they work for have, for a long time, played a critical role in the defence of the country and the defence of the interests of every citizen of this country, and we are lucky to have them.

Overseas secret intelligence, which I obviously have more to do with than domestic intelligence, has given us a vital edge in tackling some of the most difficult
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security challenges that we face; the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) spoke about bravery, and he was right to do so. Very briefly, I would like to put it on record that I have known Alex Allan for 11 years now, and a couple of hon. Members referred to his recent illness and passed on their best wishes to him. I am delighted to say that he will be able to recognise the warmth and strength of that feeling when it is passed on to him in hospital. I am sure that we all wish him a speedy and full recovery from his illness.

I would also like to thank sincerely all members of the Committee that is led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), for his efforts. The rigour with which they approach their task is important for the Government and the nation, and we are developing a balance of challenge and support that is appropriate for the difficult issues that we face.

I would like to pick up on as many as possible of the comments made by hon. Members without trying the patience of the House. In case hon. Members are worried, I am not planning to take us up to 6 o’clock—this will not be a Castro-length peroration, tempting though it is to engage in such a peroration about the reforms. The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) suggested that the reforms could not be classified as revolutionary, which is right, but that is partly because the system has strengths, and we want to build on those rather than up-end the system.

The Intelligence and Security Committee differs from parliamentary Select Committees for a simple reason: in order to carry out its work it needs access to highly classified materials. Unlike Select Committees, its deliberations, or at least most of them—I shall come back to the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) in a moment—need to take place in a secure environment, behind closed doors. Its reports inevitably contain highly classified information, which is why the Prime Minister is the first to see them in their entirety and why versions laid before the House are redacted—a point that I shall also return to.

I shall start with the Government’s proposal for a new Standing Order that would change the process of appointing hon. Members so that they would go before the House by means of the Committee of Selection, and right hon. and hon. Members would get to vote on them before their names were put to the Prime Minister for agreement. The Prime Minister will retain the final say on membership as he is ultimately responsible for and accountable to the House on matters of national security. It is right to make this reform in the interests of the openness and parliamentary accountability that hon. Members have referred to.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I do not think that the Foreign Secretary was in the Chamber for this part of the debate, but is there any reason why people cannot be nominated, elected and then vetted? Why does it have to be the other way around? Surely, that effectively means that the Prime Minister would retain the right to veto potentially for political reasons, not because someone is in some way unreliable.

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David Miliband: The House will be able to judge clearly the merits of the case put to it by the Committee of Selection, and if a capricious decision were made after that, the House would be able to see it. The reform makes sense, and answers the case that has been made.

Let me address the point about the openness of hearings by heads of agencies, and the notion of such hearings taking place in open session. That process will not be straightforward, and the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), among others, has referred to that. We cannot put issues of national security or the safety of individuals—I underline that second point—at risk, and nor do we want to limit the type of evidence that the Committee can hear in order for it to operate in public.

The Government believe that there is scope for holding some sessions in public, and we want to make progress on that. However, we must protect national security, and in that context, the Government must consider when it is appropriate for evidence to be taken in public. Given our commitment to explore the matter with the ISC’s Chairman and its members, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North will not press his amendment, but hold us to account for our progress in developing some open sessions.

Next there is the anomaly of the ISC annual report being debated only here and not in the other place. That must change and I do not believe that anyone objects to that. Providing that the Chairman of the ISC should open the debate in the House is a worthwhile innovation.

Some questions have been asked about the ISC’s resources. They have doubled in the past five years, but I heard the comments about the commitment of hon. Members of all parties to giving the ISC the resources that it needs. Obviously, they cannot be infinite, but we are committed to ensuring that the Committee has what it needs to carry out its duties effectively. We are happy to work with the Committee on an independent investigator.

Let me consider staffing and amendment (a), which my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) tabled. Appointments are made to the secretariat through free and fair competition. As the right hon. Member for East Hampshire made clear, it is open to a Clerk of the House or anyone else to apply for a job with the ISC. All staff, whether ISC or not, would be on civil service terms and conditions. However, we cannot accept the amendment because it would not be appropriate for staff who work for a Committee, which reports directly to the Prime Minister rather than to Parliament—as is essential, given the nature of the ISC and its work—to be under the authority of the Clerk of the House. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will not move his amendment. Once we have agreement about the fundamental basis of the ISC, I do not understand how his proposal is practical.

Andrew Mackinlay: If my amendment were accepted, it could clearly only flag up what must be included in primary legislation. All the difficulties that my right hon. Friend raises can be overcome by discussion, so that the Clerk remains the Clerk of the House of Commons, but the Committee could still answer directly to the Prime Minister. I shall not trespass into that argument.
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David Miliband: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s attempt to find common ground, but he is effectively saying that we do not need to accept the amendment to continue thinking about whether primary legislation is necessary. On that basis, I look forward to his not moving the amendment and to continuing the constructive discussions.

Offices have taken up more of the debate than I expected. The ISC needs secure accommodation to carry out its duties. We have no proprietorial commitment to its meeting in the Cabinet Office or elsewhere, but we are examining the matter with an open mind.

Let me deal with some individual points. Several hon. Members referred to reports in The Guardian about UK complicity in the torture of UK nationals detained in Pakistan—an extremely serious charge. The Security Service has checked for any relevant information in the light of the media allegations and informed me that there is nothing to suggest that it has supported torture in Pakistan or anywhere else. The Government’s position is clear: we unreservedly condemn the use of torture. We take allegations of mistreatment extremely seriously and would follow up all such allegations very carefully. Of course, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South said, individuals who feel that their human rights have been infringed by the intelligence services can take their case to the investigatory powers tribunal.

Redaction has also been mentioned. The right hon. Member for East Hampshire said that no redaction has ever been made without the Committee’s consent. The Government are committed to ensuring that that always remains the case. It is a positive development and there is no reason for it to be compromised.

On the SCOPE computer system, phase 1 provides an operational shared service to a range of Departments, including the intelligence agencies. The enhanced SCOPE infrastructure will continue to play a central role in the way in which the Government share sensitive information securely. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said and the ISC noted in its annual report, the programme has already delivered significant benefits to the wider community through phase 1 and has been instrumental in improving policymaking and operational efficiency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) made an interesting venture into electronic cyber-attack—I think that he knows more about that than he let on; let us put it that way—but he did not mention the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, which is available to the private sector from the Government and to Government through GCHQ, and which co-ordinates a range of briefings and efforts to ensure that we are protected.

In respect of the focus on terrorism, which I do not think any hon. Member has questioned, I have seen no evidence to suggest that our efforts to secure our country have been compromised in other areas as a result of that focus, although that is obviously something that we must continue to watch.

Finally—I hope that I am not getting on the wrong side of the deputy Chief Whip here—the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who speaks for the Opposition, asked about rendition. Although I am tempted to wait for another 35 minutes and see whether those in the Box can produce an answer to his question about the UN convention on enforced disappearances, I am
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afraid that one has not yet arrived. I hope that he will allow me to write to him with details of where in the Foreign Office’s pending tray the issue lies. Subject to that, I am happy to admit that I am unable to provide him with an immediate answer.

The House is agreed that the intelligence agencies play a vital role. We are agreed that we need strong and rigorous independent questioning and scrutiny by the ISC. We are agreed that Parliament should play a greater role—

Mr. Grieve rose—

David Miliband: This is my Castro-length peroration and it is a little unfair to intervene, but I shall give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary and I apologise for interrupting his peroration. I appreciate that, for good reason, he was not in the Chamber when I raised the SCOPE project— [ Interruption. ] In that case, I apologise to him; neither I nor my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) heard him mention it.

David Miliband: It is understandable when someone who is not in the Chamber does not hear what is said; it is more worrying when someone who is in the Chamber does hear what is said. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman was neither talking to his neighbour nor snoozing through the most gripping part of my speech, but perhaps I did not enunciate it clearly enough.

The system that we have is one that we should build on. It is one that the Government are determined to reform. We want to reform it with the support of the whole House, as I think has been demonstrated today. I commend our proposals to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


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