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As the annual report makes clear on page 44, during 2008, the Committee also began investigations into a number of other areas—investigations that were continuing when the annual report was published. Some of the
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investigations have now concluded, and we will report on them in our next annual report. Properly, the annual report deals mainly with the nuts and bolts of the agencies’ operations: their administration, policy and finance. I will provide an overview.

A wide range of threats, both terrorist and non-terrorist, continues to be posed to the United Kingdom.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I do not wish to distract the right hon. Gentleman, but he draws attention to the report of one of his predecessors, Baroness Taylor. Back in 2002, she wrote that there remained a huge problem in the comparison between the compensation received by people affected by terrorism attacks in the UK, and that received by those affected by such attacks abroad. Sadly, I lost my brother in the Bali bombing, and the report made clear the double standard: families of those killed or injured in the UK were compensated through the criminal injuries compensation scheme, whereas no such support is provided in relation to those killed or injured abroad. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether too much time has passed—seven years—for that discrepancy to continue?

Dr. Howells: Every time I think of the hon. Gentleman, I think of his brother, who was so cruelly taken from his family by the terrible bombing in Bali. It is not the Committee’s place to comment on compensation, but I assure him that a great many of us think about the subject, and I would like to see some of the unjustified disparities reduced.

The current threat from international terrorism is assessed as severe: there is a continuing high level of threat to the United Kingdom, and a high likelihood of a terrorist attack in this country. The threat of international terrorism comes from a diverse range of sources, including al-Qaeda and its associated networks, and those who share its ideology but do not have direct contact with it. Al-Qaeda and its followers are certainly not short of ambition. We have ample evidence of their willingness to carry out indiscriminate terrorist attacks, and the threat that they pose is likely to persist for a considerable time. That places great pressure on our intelligence and security agencies, together with the police, Government Departments and other key partners, all of whom are working to find those who are planning attacks and prevent them from carrying them out.

Counter-terrorism work is demanding and often dangerous for those involved. It is no exaggeration to say that they put their lives at risk to protect this country. They have achieved notable successes over the past year, with plots disrupted and individuals brought to trial and convicted. I record our thanks to them for all their hard work—not only the successes that are known about, but those that cannot be publicised. All three agencies, especially the Security Service, have continued to receive substantially increased resources earmarked for counter-terrorism work. Discovering plots and pursuing terrorists is vital, but the Security Service cannot guarantee to stop every plot; it is often playing catch-up.

Although the primary focus of the United Kingdom’s intelligence and security agencies is necessarily on counter-terrorism work, a good deal of which has international links, they also dedicate resources to countering threats posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional instability, espionage, cyber attack and other
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challenges. In addition, the agencies continue to provide unprecedented operational support to United Kingdom military operations.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I pored over my right hon. Friend’s report, and it contains no mention of cyber attacks, or what is known in the firm as “patriotic hacking”. That is among the most serious threats to the United Kingdom and the west. Why is there no mention of this? Has the Committee not examined the threat? Why is it not being reported to the House?

Dr. Howells: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the gravity of the threat of cyber attack— [Interruption.] If he will contain himself for a moment and not explode on his bit of the Front Bench, I will tell him that we will report on cyber attack in our next annual report. I am sure he will be satisfied with that.

The Committee expressed concern that the necessary focus on counter-terrorism work has resulted in a reduction in the proportion of effort directed to non-counter-terrorism threats, possibly to our future detriment. In the Government’s response to the Committee, they acknowledged that the proportion of work on other intelligence and security requirements has been reduced as a result of the continuing focus on counter-terrorism. The Government state that the agencies are nevertheless investing considerably in better IT and other capabilities, but it remains a source of great concern to the Committee that we might be storing up problems for the future if we neglect other areas of work, and we are adamant that more must be done.

In addition to examining work on counter-terrorism and on non-counter-terrorism threats, the report looks at administrative challenges: how agencies allocate resources; and how we can ensure that they provide value for money, and have effective business continuity plans and effective security procedures such as vetting. Although the Committee’s remit covers the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ, it is clear that it cannot work in isolation. Given the challenges it faces, constructing close partnerships with the wider intelligence community is essential.

In overseeing such agencies, the Committee must also examine the work of the wider intelligence community. In addition, as the only parliamentary body allowed, by virtue of the Official Secrets Act, to access secret material, it is the only body that can hold the agencies and bodies dealing with such material to account: they include the Defence Intelligence Staff, some areas within the Office for Security and Counter- Terrorism in the Home Office, the intelligence structure in the Cabinet Office including the Joint Intelligence Committee and the assessments staff, the joint terrorism analysis centre and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure.

The Committee also addresses issues that affect the intelligence community as a whole. For example, we have expressed our dismay—the word is used carefully—that phase 2 of the SCOPE IT system has been scrapped. I assure the House that the ISC takes its job of holding the agencies to account very seriously. If we cannot always provide the detail of that in public, that does not mean it is not being done. The ISC remains completely objective in its deliberations on the issues and cases it chooses to examine. That is the only way members
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of the Committee know how to win and retain the trust of Parliament, the security agencies and the wider world.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): My right hon. Friend talks about the importance of the Committee gaining the trust of the wider world. As he points out, the Committee is the only mechanism that Parliament has to hold the security agencies to account. There is widespread anxiety among the public that information obtained by UK security services has been used by other countries in committing torture against espionage suspects. Will he report to Parliament his Committee’s view of such allegations?

Dr. Howells: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I shall deal with her point in a moment, if she will be patient.

It is important to note that the membership of the Committee reflects the full range of attitudes taken by most people who think about intelligence and security matters. The Committee’s members bring to its deliberations something additional and, in my view, something special. All of them are experienced, long-serving and well-respected Members of this House and the other place. Often, but not always, they have served as Ministers or shadow Ministers. Sometimes, but not always, they have served in Departments or on Committees that gave them first-hand experience of intelligence, security, defence and policing matters. Without exception, they bring with them the benefit of diverse experiences as parliamentarians, and, of course, as individuals who had important careers before entering either House.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I do not intend this to reflect in any way on the Committee’s present or previous membership, but will my right hon. Friend comment on the Prime Minister’s statement of 19 March 2008? In that statement, the Prime Minister spoke of a more “public role” for the Committee, and said that such a role should be

While I realise that, as in the case of any democratic country, the bulk of the Committee’s work will be done in private, has not the time come—as the Prime Minister has himself suggested—for some public hearings about the work of the security agencies?

Dr. Howells: Yes, and I can tell my hon. Friend that the Committee is thinking very seriously about how we can conduct such public sessions. It will not be easy. If we ask questions about operations or intelligence which, by their very nature, are secret and must remain secret, we shall certainly not be able to do so in public, and if we ask questions that do not relate to such matters and that can be asked by any Select Committee, we shall be accused of asking whoever is before us patsy questions. However, there are subjects involving the intelligence and security agencies that we may be able to employ in order to hold public hearings that will be useful and meaningful, rather than serving merely as decoration.

Andrew Mackinlay rose—


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Dr. Howells: I will not give way again, because I know that many right hon. and hon. Members are waiting to speak.

In referring to the Committee’s membership, I have given some of the reasons for the fact that it is the least leaky Committee, and the least prone to allowing party politics to colour the commentary on its reports and its albeit rare public pronouncements. I hope that I shall be allowed to depart for a moment from what has been protocol in the introduction of debates such as this. The material handled by the Committee is extraordinarily sensitive, and very important to the country’s security. Three members of the Committee are not privy councillors, but ought to be because of the distinguished way in which they have served it. I refer to my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) and the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway). I hope that the Prime Minister will consider that carefully, because it is something of an anomaly and I think it should be rectified.

The ISC has constantly to win and retain the trust of all sides in an area which, by its very nature, is prone to the most extreme forms of public speculation and concern, rumour, criticism, paranoia and conspiracy theories. It has to work within the circle of secrecy— [Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) allow me to finish? It has to work within the circle of secrecy, and yet convince the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public that the often clandestine systems, behaviour and operations that are important elements of the business of the agencies that we examine are organised and undertaken according to the laws laid down in this country. That applies to operations regardless of where in the world they are conducted.

There are additional difficulties. There is a tendency for some of those who are most often heard giving voice to the speculation, concern, rumour, paranoia and conspiracy theories that I mentioned a moment ago to assume that the ISC is there simply to prove them right—or, if we decline to do that in our reports—to whitewash the agencies and the Government. Let me state here and now that, as one who served as a Minister for more than 11 years and served nearly six years on the Opposition Front Bench—as well as on three Select Committees, including a particularly fearsome Public Accounts Committee—I have never encountered a more rigorous, tough and independently minded investigative Committee than the ISC.

Like any other organisation, the ISC has its weaknesses and limitations, not least the fact that it is under-resourced. It is served by a superb, hard-working secretariat, but one that is small in numbers and frequently tested to the limit in undertaking its duties. The ISC needs more money and staff, especially if it is to continue to undertake additional investigations of difficult and complex issues such as the London bombings of July 2005.

There is, of course, a body that exists to undertake investigations of individual cases. It is called the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, and consists of very senior members of the legal profession who are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen. It is guided by Lord Justice Mummery, its president. I hope very much that it will make its distinguished membership and its remit better known to the media and the public than they appear to be at present.


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The Investigatory Powers Tribunal will proceed with its vital work, but I have no doubt that pressure will continue to be applied to the Intelligence and Security Committee to undertake investigations of all manner of contentious issues, including the role and conduct of serving officers of our intelligence and security services in interrogating suspects and prisoners held overseas. That brings me to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).

Over the past five years, as well as its annual reports, the Committee has produced a report on rendition, published in July 2007, a report on the London terror attacks of July 2005, published in May 2006, and a report on the handling of detainees by UK intelligence personnel in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, published in March 2005. As I said earlier, its second report on the July 2005 London bombings will be published on 19 May. If it is to continue to do justice to difficult and complex subjects of that kind, as well as fulfilling its remit to monitor the intelligence and security agencies, it needs adequate resources. I urge No. 10 to consider that plea carefully and sympathetically.

Inevitably, the Committee’s agenda beyond its formal remit will continue to be influenced by events, reports and wider debates about intelligence and security issues. There will be themes that demand its attention. Let me briefly touch on one of those themes. It concerns issues that have arisen, for example, as a consequence of the allegations made by an individual who was not a British national, but who resided in this country for some time. Claims have been made that that individual was arrested in Pakistan and questioned by the Pakistani authorities and by the Americans before eventually being incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. Subsequently, the individual was released back to the United Kingdom without being formally charged by the Americans with having committed a terrorist offence.

The individual’s lawyers allege that, before being flown to Guantanamo, the person was treated very badly by his captors, and that British intelligence was aware, at the very least, of aspects of that treatment. It is alleged that the individual was subjected to interrogation techniques that were contrary to the Geneva conventions and to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It is also alleged that the individual was subject to extraordinary rendition to a third country where torture allegedly occurred and where questions were put to the individual—questions which, allegedly, could only have come from the United Kingdom.

Those allegations have been the subject of rigorous and dispassionate examination by the ISC, and I do not intend to comment on them here in any way. What I want to do, very briefly, is draw attention to a fact that will, I am sure, be obvious to any serious and objective student of intelligence and security matters. It is this: the possible ramifications of recent cases, such as the one I have just described, on the future operational capabilities of our intelligence and security agencies could be very significant.

Paradoxical as it may seem in a world normally described by the likes of John le Carré and many other authors and filmmakers as one mired in betrayal and duplicity, in fact a high degree of mutual trust is required for intelligence services to be sufficiently confident to exchange their information across international frontiers. Where there is no trust, there will be little useful exchange
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of intelligence. Some of that intelligence—in the past, now and in the future—will have been gathered in the streets, police stations, prisons and holding camps of countries and conflict zones where Governments and regimes do not normally enjoy reputations as firm upholders of the Geneva conventions.

If our security agencies are informed by one of the security agencies of these countries that they have in their custody a detainee, or that they have information obtained from a detainee that could be crucial to protecting British people from a terrorist atrocity, what are they to do? Do they despatch officers to these places, knowing that subsequently they might find themselves subject back in the United Kingdom to a charge of being complicit in the serious maltreatment of the detainee? How ready will our agencies be to deploy officers to countries whose Governments are implicated in human rights abuses and torture, or even to admit that they have co-operated with the intelligence agencies of those Governments, given that there can be very few countries in the world that are able to offer cast-iron guarantees that terrorist suspects, detainees and criminals are protected from mistreatment of any kind as they are protected by our laws in the United Kingdom?

Should British agencies co-operate with countries that have been found guilty of breaking international conventions against torture? It might be instructive, before replying to that, to recall that Sweden, a nation justifiably well regarded for its human rights record, was found guilty of violating the international convention against torture in 2001 after extraditing to Egypt a terror suspect, Ahmed Agiza—a former member of Islamic Jihad—having refused to grant the man asylum. The UN Committee against Torture ruled in 2005, less than four years ago, that Sweden should have known that Egypt advocated and consistently practised the widespread use of torture methods against detainees. Can we guarantee that all our NATO partners, including our most important partner, the USA, are completely free of UN criticism? I doubt it.

The ISC visited Ottawa recently and learned that Canada—another nation properly held up as a paradigm of virtue when it comes to the humane treatment of suspects and detainees—was forced to pay more than 10 million Canadian dollars in 2007 in compensation to a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Mr. Maher Arar. He had been arrested in the USA on allegedly misleading intelligence supplied by the Canadian security authorities. The Americans in their wisdom flew Mr. Arar to Syria, where he alleges that he was beaten repeatedly and subjected to many months of inhumane prison conditions. Canada is one of our most trusted and steadfast allies. It has a robust judiciary that is every bit as ready as ours to uphold human rights and civil liberties.

Where do such examples leave us politicians, who are in Parliament to ensure, among other things, that our intelligence and security organisations undertake properly and lawfully the necessary tasks required to keep our streets safe from atrocities perpetrated by terrorists? As Chairman of the ISC, I can guarantee that the Committee will not flinch in our investigations and our reports will properly inform the Prime Minister and, with him, Parliament and the country at large, wherever and whenever we believe that laws have been broken and human rights have been abused. We will help to ensure that the guidance and advice given to our officers meets all our international obligations.


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