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7 May 2009 : Column 397

As Committee members, we are as aware as anyone in this country that those responsible for helping to ensure the safety of our citizens from the activities of those who would perpetrate terrorism and destruction must themselves act within the laws of the United Kingdom. That is how we prove to the rest of the world that the values that we uphold and fight for are civilised and humane. Few things can do this country’s reputation more damage than being seen to be abusing human rights and tarnishing the values for which we stand. That was the great harm wreaked by the photographs and reports that emerged from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, among other places of detention and interrogation.

I believe that there are no circumstances where torture can be justified; nor am I convinced that the intelligence that emerges from torture cells is sufficiently reliable to warrant even that most equivocal of justifications—the one that says that torture is valid if it tells us how to find or defuse the ubiquitous ticking bomb.

We know also, however, that in this increasingly mobile world—in which people, plans, weapons, explosives, detonators and intelligence move and are made available with such speed—it is vital that the intelligence and security agencies of this country and those of its civilised and trusted allies are properly empowered to co-operate and exchange intelligence. As long as they do that within the laws laid down to guide their work, they should not have to live with the dread that, by the very act of co-operating with a close ally who may subsequently find themselves mired in a human rights abuse scandal, they might be tarred with the same brush. Living with such a dread is not a recipe for the efficient exercise of intelligence and security operations as central as ours are to preventing terrorist atrocities in this country.

That is why the work of examining exhaustively the allegations laid against intelligence and security agencies and officers must remain a priority. It is why the examinations should continue to be carried out within a political context that leaves no one in any doubt whatsoever that the United Kingdom Government's current refinement and consolidation of rules and guidance issued to intelligence and security officers will result in the maximum possible clarity. That is vital if we are to dispel all suspicions and allegations that our agencies and, by implication, our Government have been complicit in torture.

The men and women who work for our intelligence and security agencies are among the brightest and, sometimes, the bravest people that I have ever encountered. Their work is vital to keeping this country safe from the often murderous intentions of those, inside and outside these islands, who wish to harm us. Because of its very nature, much of that work must be secret. Its great worth often cannot be the subject of reporting or celebrating, even in the most broad fashion.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I totally support what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. It is very important to stress again that none of us would condone mistreatment and, in particular, torture. Does he agree that in our investigation of that we must respect the rules of confidentiality with other agencies abroad with which we share intelligence? Sharing intelligence is not
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a contractual matter; it is based entirely on trust. If that trust is either undermined or broken, we will not know that we are not getting the intelligence—because, unless we get it, we do not know what intelligence is available—but that could greatly damage the national security interests of this country.

Dr. Howells: I agree with every word of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s analysis. He is absolutely right, and that issue of trust is central to the points I am making.

Fiona Mactaggart: Is our trust in our partner agencies not dependent on them? My right hon. Friend has highlighted a number of Governments who have inadvertently breached the human rights of certain people, but is not our trust in the sharing of information with other countries undermined if they consciously use that information in a way that abuses the human rights of suspects?

Dr. Howells: Yes, that is absolutely true, although I do not believe for one minute that any of this is cut and dried and crystal clear, because it never is. There are intelligence agencies across the world that we believe we can trust, but which for whatever reason—my hon. Friend used the term “inadvertently”—have been guilty of contravening some of the Geneva conventions. That has indeed sometimes been inadvertent. I spent a large amount of my time at the Foreign Office helping to negotiate the possible future extradition to their home countries of people who were being held in places such as Belmarsh. We might have been given every possible reassurance that those people would be safe, but our courts frequently did not believe those reassurances, so our attempts to send those people back home to their own countries were often stymied. These are very difficult areas, and there is no rule that says that, because we do something in this country with the best of intentions, it will not be contravened or broken somewhere else in the world.

I believe that the people who work in our intelligence and security agencies deserve the very best guidance, both political and practical, and that that guidance must be as clear and unambiguous as possible. It is this Parliament, and this Government, who must provide it.

2.31 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): May I begin by offering two different sets of thanks? The first is to all the people who work in our security services. I am sure every Member of this House would agree that they do a magnificent job for this country. We depend on them enormously at what is a time of great threat and great difficulty, and it is right and proper that our gratitude should go out to them. My second set of thanks is to the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and his colleagues of all political parties who serve on the Intelligence and Security Committee. They too do a very important job of work for us; they carry out a challenging and important role on our behalf. That fact is underlined by the scale of the redacted information in this report. That inevitably makes it difficult for this House to have a full discussion about the scale of our commitment to the security services, so we rely on the ISC to be our eyes and ears in
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the security world, and I am grateful to the Chairman and his Committee for what they have done. I am sure we would also want to pass on our thanks to the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) for her work on the Committee during the course of the year.

There is, of course, one element missing from the report. We have an annual report to consider, and we will spend today’s discussion focusing on a document that has been thoughtfully put together, but which inevitably lacks some of the detail that might enable our debate to be more informed. Obviously, for security reasons key information cannot be made available to us. We can certainly discuss the role of our security services in the battle against terror, but one issue that I know will be followed from outside this House is the work carried out by the Committee on the London 7/7 bombings, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. We know that the research it conducted and the assessments it made have remained under lock and key because of the trial that has recently concluded. Even given the fact that that trial has now ended, we would all fully accept that the Committee has been given access to some of the most sensitive information in relation to what happened and that it will not be possible to make that information fully public.

However, I think Members in all parts of the House will be aware that there is an expectation among the families of those who were killed or injured that the report will be published in some form, and I think they will welcome the announcement the right hon. Gentleman has made today. They are certainly hoping that the report will give them some further explanation about what happened, and in particular what was known about the bombers. I have a clear sense from talking to some of those involved that they do not want there to be a blame witch hunt against anyone who may have made mistakes, but they do want clear evidence that lessons have been learned and procedures improved. All of us in this House can understand that desire, and we can only have the greatest admiration for the way in which the surviving victims and their families have dealt with the appalling situation they faced.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): I must be careful about what I say, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we have made huge efforts in this report to cut redactions to a minimum for the express purpose of trying to give as much information as we possibly can to the families and relatives he was talking about.

Chris Grayling: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those comments and I am sure they will be welcomed by the families, who are certainly seeking reassurance that everything possible is being done to ensure that no one has to face a similar tragic situation in the future. There is a duty on us to provide answers for those people as far as we can, with the caveat that we cannot compromise the future ability of the security services to combat the threat we face. I am sure that the families will be reassured by my right hon. Friend’s comments, and I am delighted to hear that the Committee will be able to press ahead and publish that report. I hope that it provides the families with some of the answers they seek.

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Andrew Mackinlay: Before the hon. Gentleman gets carried away in mutual congratulations between Front Benchers and prospective Privy Counsellors, I draw his attention to page 25 of the report, which states:

I find it incredible that that detail was of such importance to national security that it had to be left out. That is absurd, and it insults Parliament. I imagine some sort of Miles Malleson or Wilfrid Hyde-White character still in post at 106, and they are too embarrassed to say so. That is the only logical conclusion to draw.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and I was about to mention the scale of redaction. I remember dealing with a constituency case a few years ago in which an experienced counter-terrorism officer was being expected to retire because there was a set retirement age. At a time when we face a significant international threat, it is clearly bonkers to lose expertise unless people really want to retire—

Andrew Mackinlay: How old was this guy?

Chris Grayling: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to ask the Home Secretary or a member of the Committee whether they can give him some hint on that.

Because of the need to avoid compromising the ability of our security services to defend the safety of our citizens, the detail in the report will always have to be limited, but we need to ask serious questions about the scale of the redactions. It is impossible for Parliament sensibly to debate value for money as most of the figures are replaced with asterisks. On page 13 there is even a footnote for the asterisks that explains helpfully:

That is not very helpful or enlightening. On page 9, a whole table is printed showing the overall resource and capital spending projections for the different agencies, but no amounts for each agency. I can see why it is important that information that is a threat to national security is not placed in the public domain, but I wonder whether the degree of redaction in this report allows Parliament to fulfil its role as examiners of the public purse. That is especially true given that the agencies are costing more and more to run.

For GCHQ, the SIS, the Security Service and what are termed “Additional elements”, spending over the five years to 2011 will almost double from £1.2 billion to just over £2 billion. In total, spending on counter-terrorism will increase to £3.5 billion. What was originally a relatively small item of Government expenditure is expanding steadily to the point where it is close to the size of a small Department on its own. Clearly, we should not know or expose the full detail of that expenditure, and we face new challenges—the report rightly points out that the increased use of the internet by terrorists has become a priority for GCHQ, which will create a whole new set of challenges, requirements and investment needs. We accept also that the security services are operating in a difficult environment, but there are legitimate questions to ask about the overall value for money being obtained by them.

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Mr. Winnick: Perhaps the Chairman of the Committee believes that I would like to see much of its work done in public, but nothing could be further from the truth. Is it the Opposition’s view that there is a public role for the Committee, including justification for some public hearings, to make it—in the words of the Prime Minister—more akin to a Select Committee, while recognising that we face an acute terrorist danger and much of the Committee’s work must, by the very nature of such things, be private?

Chris Grayling: We certainly support as much transparency as possible but while still allowing the Committee to work effectively, and in a way that does not compromise our national security and the work of those who are, in very many cases, putting their lives on the line to defend us. It is a delicate balance. I look to the Committee to try to push the margin as far as it reasonably can. It is closest to the information with which we are dealing and involves representatives from both sides of the House. I hope—I suspect that this is the wish of everyone in the House—that we will push the envelope as far as we can to achieve a sensible balance.

Mr. Ancram: For four years, I made the same speech as my hon. Friend is making from that Dispatch Box. I too used to run through the redactions and ask how we could possibly do our job in Parliament when we could not see the figures. I have now served on the ISC for three years and have been taken through the reasons for the redactions, and so, without giving anything away, may I say to him that I think they are justified?

Chris Grayling: I accept my right hon. and learned Friend’s word in these matters. However, I am sure that he and his colleagues on the Committee will continue to make every effort to bring into the public domain matters that can be brought into it.

We know that a considerable amount of investment is taking place in IT across the security services, for reasons such as the increased use of the internet to which I have just referred. We also know that the Government have, on occasions, got things spectacularly wrong in IT across all different aspects of the public sector. The report quite rightly raises serious questions about the SCOPE project, which has clearly been another example of an unsuccessful major IT project. It is clear that that is a situation in which it is helpful for the House to hear as much as possible about how the Committee ensures that money is spent wisely and that we genuinely secure value for the investment, as well as what we do when things go badly wrong. I await with the interest the report that the right hon. Member for Pontypridd talked about putting together later in the year.

Therein lies the rub. I hear what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) says, but people standing at this Dispatch Box—including him and my predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve)—have argued that there is more scope to provide information to support the value for money issues, that not all the information needs to be classified and that we could demonstrate to the House and to taxpayers how we are securing a proper return for the taxpayer in what is inevitably now proving to be a fast-increasing investment for the taxpayer.

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There is a balance to be struck. If we publish breakdowns that are too detailed, it gives those who are hostile to this nation information about where and when budgets are squeezed and about the areas in which we are investing and those in which we are not. Yes, there is a risk that we might give an indication of where the soft underbelly lies. Clearly, we do not want to do that, but I still suspect that more information could be provided without exposing us in that way. Of course, if we understand where there are pressures in the system and where there are financial issues, it makes it easier for right hon. and hon. Members to apply pressure and to ensure that soft underbellies do not appear to the extent that they might otherwise.

Let me now turn to some of the other detail of the report, which seems to confirm what my colleagues and I have said all along: the Government’s national security strategy is in danger of simply being a descriptive laundry list and the Prime Minister’s National Security Committee and National Security Forum are in danger of just being talking shops.

The Committee’s report makes it clear that the Government have not taken the recommendations of the Butler report seriously, which could negatively affect the functioning of the central intelligence machinery and our analytical capability. It worryingly calls into question the Government’s ability to find a way to allow intercept evidence to be used in terrorist trials—we have argued for that in order to reduce our reliance on the control orders regime. The report also highlights the costly failure of the SCOPE project, as I mentioned earlier, and reinforces our calls for a full, evidence-based review of the Prevent strategy.

Let me deal with some of the criticisms in turn. First, the Committee placed a question mark over the value of the national security strategy, saying:

Then there is the National Security Forum. The Committee is clearly ambivalent about its role. It states:

Then there is the issue of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The ISC welcomed the separation of the roles of JIC Chairman and Government adviser on intelligence and security matters. However, it said that it was

The Committee criticised the decision to subsume the role of the head of professional intelligence analysis within the role of JIC Chairman. It said that, given the importance of that role,

Andrew Mackinlay: The hon. Gentleman is referring to paragraphs 134 and 135, which deal with the professional head of intelligence analysis. Paragraph 135 states:

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I found it breathtaking that that was not redacted, for reasons of data protection and also because every spook in London now knows who first held the post of professional head of intelligence analysis. The Committee puts that in, but when I ask for the name of the Clerk of the Committee, the Prime Minister says that I cannot be told—even though the name is in the civil service yearbook. These people are bonkers. Bonkers!

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We look forward to his speech, if he manages to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The Committee rightly says that it is “appalled” by the decision to scrap phase 2 of the SCOPE system. It says:

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