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The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): I am glad to have the opportunity to close this debate on the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee. As some other Members have said, this is the first debate taking place under the new arrangements, whereby it was rightly introduced by the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). As the right
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hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) pointed out, the House will today have the benefit of hearing from only one Minister—me—closing the debate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd pointed out, however, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would very much have liked to attend the debate, but he is on important business abroad, and he has communicated to me his wish for that to be made clear to the House.

As many Members have commented, our security and intelligence agencies play a crucial role in protecting the interests of the UK at home and overseas. They provide a first-class service to the country in often difficult and dangerous circumstances, and have had many successes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) pointed out, since 2001, with the help of the security and intelligence agencies, more than a dozen terrorist plots have been disrupted, and almost 200 people have been convicted of terrorism-related offences. Overseas secret intelligence has given us a vital edge in tackling some of the most difficult security challenges we face. We are safer, our families are safer and the British people are safer because of the work done by our security and intelligence agencies, and they deserve our thanks and support. I am pleased that that was reiterated by almost every Member who spoke today.

I thank the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee for their hard work over the past year, and for the grilling of which I was on the receiving end relatively recently. I also thank all the Members who made today’s debate so constructive and useful. In particular, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, both for chairing the Committee and for opening the debate. I join him and others in paying tribute to the previous Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), and to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). Both of them have stepped down from the Committee over the past year, but their work over the year contributed to the ISC’s 2007-08 annual report.

Let me respond to one of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). The replacement for the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), was approved and appointed to the Committee in line with the new procedures that the House debated and approved on 17 July 2008. The suggested reforms ensuring greater parliamentary involvement in the appointment of Committee members have already been implemented.

It is worth putting on record the importance of those who undertake the necessary judicial oversight of the agencies: the Intelligence Services Commissioner, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, and the president and members of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. I thank them and their staff for their diligent and important work.

The challenge, as always, is to strike the right balance between the protection of security and the most important of human rights, the right to life, and the impact on the other rights that we and our democracy hold dear. I am convinced, however, that the right balance of mechanisms—legislative and ministerial, and in the form of the oversight provided by the Committee—exists to ensure that the agencies fulfil their lawful duties appropriately and effectively. It is essential for important
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matters relating to the national security of the country to be considered fully. Today’s debate has provided an important opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of that vital area, and I thank all the Members who contributed so helpfully.

Let me deal with some of the points that have been raised. There was, of course, discussion about the nature of the Committee itself and the way in which recent reforms have worked. I am glad that the right hon. Member for East Hampshire corrected the suggestion that ISC members were subject to security vetting. He is right: they are not, although they are notified under the Official Secrets Act so that they are fully aware of their responsibilities.

As we have heard, this is a Committee with a strong cross-party membership. I am sure that ISC members past and present would rightly resent an implication that they were somehow in thrall to the Government. That certainly has not been my experience, as I made clear when I spoke of being on the receiving end of its interrogation; and, as Members will see if they read Committee’s reports carefully, it has, when appropriate, criticised the actions of both the agencies and the Government.

There has also been some discussion of the nature of the redactions in the reports. I am sure that Members will appreciate how much of what our security and intelligence agencies do, and how they do it, must be kept secret so that the agencies can operate effectively and do the job that we want them to do. To avoid prejudicing that operational effectiveness, it is necessary to redact some of the material before publication. I am sure that Members appreciate that the Committee’s reports have a global readership, which will inevitably include those with hostile intent who will be poring over every word and figure for clues as to our capabilities, weaknesses within those capabilities and ways to circumvent them. It is important that we maintain that capability and do not, in the very important job of scrutiny, undermine precisely the capability that we are scrutinising.

There was some important discussion about the role that public sessions may play. I know that the Committee is giving serious consideration to how those public sessions can be organised. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself have both already agreed that we would be perfectly content to be questioned by the Committee in public session, but it is important that those are meaningful sessions in which, quite rightly, the important job of accountability and scrutiny can be carried out in a way that gains public confidence.

There have been calls for the right amount of resources for the Committee to carry out its very important role. The Cabinet Office has worked, I believe positively, with the Committee to ensure that it has the resources that it needs to fulfil its remit efficiently and effectively. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock asked me to outline the increases in resources that the Government have made available. In response to the reform package approved by the House, the complement of the ISC secretariat has been increased from six to eight, bringing the staffing up to the level enjoyed by comparable Select Committees. A general investigator to support the work of the Committee is in the process of being appointed and arrangements have been brokered for the Committee to have access to independent confidential legal and financial advice. I understand that notwithstanding the
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tightness of resources, to which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred last year, resources are in place to finance all those measures and to ensure that the increase in resources is available to the Committee to do its job.

During the debate today—certainly it forms an important element of the report—the issue of ensuring that the considerably increased resources that are being provided by the Government to the security and intelligence agencies are gaining the greatest value for money has rightly been an important area of focus. Recognising the demands that the current threat situation makes on what we expect from the agencies, the Government have significantly increased their funding to over £2.3 billion by 2011 in the current CSR settlement—an increase of over £1 billion since 2003-04. That level of funding is an indication of the Government’s commitment to national security and our strong determination to counter threats from international terrorism.

I know that one of the issues that, quite rightly, has exercised the Committee—it is represented in the report—is the way in which that increased resource is allocated, the priority that is given to international terrorism and the extent to which that may impact on other important priorities. Counter-terrorism is necessarily the highest priority for the agencies, but resources are finite and it is necessary, given the scale of the threat from international terrorism and the unique role of the agencies in countering that threat, that work on some other non-counter-terrorism intelligence requirements should be appropriately re-prioritised.

The important point here is that although some other areas of work may well, in terms of the proportion of overall resources allocated, have seen their allocation decrease, because of the additional commitment made to the agencies, actual spend on them has increased. There is still substantial and successful effort against those non-CT target areas. Capabilities that have been funded and supported by the Government, and developed precisely to deal with the issue of counter-terrorism, often result in increased flexibility and capability that can then be used in other areas of the agencies’ work. That is a very important element of the agencies’ work to ensure that they are flexible and can respond to sudden or unexpected threats, whether from terrorism or other international events. That has been one important aspect of using the increased investment in the agencies.

In holding the Government and the agencies to account, the Committee has rightly challenged us on value for money, particularly in relation to our work on counter-terrorism. For the first time, we now have a public service agreement to ensure that we are achieving the objectives that we have set out, not only in terms of the agencies but more widely. That is an important way to ensure that the increased funding delivers the objective of reducing the terrorist threat.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South and other Members have raised the SCOPE project, and particularly their concern about the abandonment of phase 2. The Government take this issue extremely seriously. We are very aware of the loss of any public funds, and especially at the current time. That is why the Cabinet Office has given the ISC a detailed memorandum outlining all aspects of the programme. The financial
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details have yet to be finalised. The decision to terminate the contract, which was not taken lightly, was reached after detailed consideration and legal and technical advice. We are co-operating fully with the ISC’s inquiries into SCOPE, and it will rightly continue to question the Government on that.

Andrew Mackinlay: Who is to blame—the Cabinet Office or the security and intelligence services? I realise that asking this question might be in vain, but what scale of cost and loss was involved in this scandal?

Jacqui Smith: I am sure that my hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I am not going to start talking about the sums of money involved as extremely sensitive negotiations are currently taking place. This programme was co-ordinated centrally through the Cabinet Office. That is why the Cabinet Office has been responding and, I believe, providing considerable detail about the programme, and what is being done with regard to it, to the Committee, and it will continue to do so.

Several Members, including the ISC Chair, rightly identified the fact that, the reporting restrictions now having been lifted, on 19 May the Committee will be able to publish its review of the intelligence on the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005. I welcome that. I share the view of Members that that will be very important not only in order to answer questions, but also—and not least—for the families who lost loved ones and for those who were injured in the attacks. I know that the Committee has worked extremely hard to ensure that the concerns of the families and some of the questions that have been raised today have been tested and pursued. This is, of course, the second review, which was prompted following the conviction of the 2004 fertiliser bomb plotters. I note that the Committee reported in May 2006 that nothing could have been done to prevent the attacks, but it is right that it has taken the opportunity to update and reconsider that work, and I am sure that many people are awaiting the publication of the report with interest. However, I am also sure that Members, including the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), would recognise that it would be inappropriate to comment on the contents of that report before it is published on 19 May.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) raised the issue of the national security strategy. That has not only provided an overview of the work of the intelligence and security agencies, but taken a much broader view of the entire range of issues that impact on the security of this country in a complex and changing world. An update of the strategy is being developed, and it will be launched before the summer recess. It will demonstrate how Government thinking has developed on all the threats facing the UK. It will take into consideration the work of the National Security Forum which is now up and running. It met in March, chaired by Lord West. Among other things, it discussed the national security implications of the economic downturn and of scarce energy resources. The forum brings together a wide range of participants from both the private and public sectors.

The update will cover the use of cyberspace as a means for individuals to act to harm the UK. Several hon. Members commented on that issue as an important feature of the threat that we face. I hope that they will
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be reassured that the Government will focus on that in the update of the national security strategy. We will also publish a UK cyber security strategy separately.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock questioned the role of the Communications-Electronics Security Group—CESG—within GCHQ. It is the national technical authority for this country and provides information assurance to Government, as well as working across the critical national infrastructure to keep networks and information secure. It is important both in setting standards for the way in which information is assured and in working to mitigate some of the threats that my hon. Friend identified.

The shadow Home Secretary also raised the issue of intercept as evidence. As I pointed out in my written ministerial statement on 12 February, we remain committed to using the best evidence available to enhance the ability to bring forward prosecutions in cases. That is why we endorsed the recommendations of the Privy Council review report on the introduction of intercept as evidence. That is also why we set up the working group to develop the methods through which it might be possible to use intercept as evidence and to test them against the nine operational tests identified in the Privy Council review report to ensure that those can be met—especially the protection of national security and the need to ensure that the agency’s capabilities are not damaged by any change in the law to permit intercept as evidence.

I was slightly surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman suggest that those nine operational tests should be challenged. If he thinks that they are no longer important, perhaps he should take the point up with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who is working on the Privy Council advisory group on the development of this work. I believe, as do the Privy Counsellors, that they are important operational tests that need to be met. Work is now focused on testing the viability of using the model that has been delivered, including role plays of trial processes, and when that has culminated and we have received final advice from counsel, we will be able to make a final assessment of whether and how intercept as evidence should be implemented.

The recent controversy about the involvement of the security services in detention activities was also mentioned, and that has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent months. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his statement on 18 March made it clear—as the Government have done at every possible opportunity—our complete condemnation of the use of torture for any purpose. It has no place in a modern democratic society. We will not condone it and nor will we ever ask others to use it on our behalf. It could not, of course, be used as evidence in our courts—quite rightly—as we have seen tested in some recent court cases.

To protect the reputation of our security and intelligence services and to reassure ourselves that everything was being done to ensure that our practices were in line with UK and international law, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set down four things that we will do. First, we will publish the guidance to intelligence officers and service personnel about the standards that we apply during the detention and interviewing of detainees overseas. Once that has been consolidated and, importantly, reviewed by the Intelligence and Security Committee, it will be
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put into the public domain. That will enable some of the difficult questions and the challenges posed by the circumstances in which our agents operate to be aired. Some of those questions were raised by my right hon. Friends the Members for Pontypridd and for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth).

Secondly, we will invite the Intelligence Services Commissioner to monitor compliance with the guidance and to report to the Prime Minister annually. Thirdly, to ensure that the systems are robust and to be certain that any lessons have been understood, we have asked the ISC to consider any new developments and relevant information, since its very important reports on detention in 2005 and on rendition in 2007.

Fourthly, we have made it clear that wherever allegations of wrongdoing are made, they are taken seriously. I referred to allegations that came out in the judicial review of the Binyam Mohamed case last year to the Attorney-General and she has asked the police to investigate. If further cases of potential criminal wrongdoing come to light, the Government will refer them to the Attorney-General. In addition, several of those previously held in Guantanamo Bay have chosen to put their allegations before the civil courts, where they can and should be tested.

Another important issue that was quite rightly mentioned is the protection that we need to put in place and maintain for the terms of trade of our intelligence relationship with our international partners and particularly with our closest and most important intelligence partner, the United States. We would not expect sensitive intelligence that we had shared to be disclosed in a foreign court and that is the basis on which the case has been made in the current legal case about maintaining in closed summary some of the intelligence that has been received from our partners in the US.

Our intelligence relationship is fundamental in protecting British people. It is worth defending and, as the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) made clear, it is a precious relationship that we will not know that we have lost until we do not receive the sorts of intelligence that, I am convinced, have on occasion enabled us to save lives in this country and abroad. That is the significance of the relationship that we are protecting.

Several hon. Members raised the Government’s overall approach to countering terror. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Newark, in his role as chair of the sub-committee of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, praise the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, which he called a little-known organisation. I disagree with him on that. It is, of course, an important organisation set up as the strategic lead across government two years ago and, as he recognises, it is playing a very important role in bringing together the Government’s approach to countering terror. It was responsible for the production of the Contest strategy, which I recently reported to this House. That strategy was based on an analysis of the threat that we face from international terrorism and spelt out in an unprecedented open way the approach that we were taking to counter terror.

The strategy is based on the four Ps: how we pursue and disrupt terror plots; how we protect against terrorist attacks; how we prepare in the event of terrorist attacks;
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and, importantly, as the Committee has identified, how we prevent people from turning to violent extremism and terrorism in the first place. That of course goes far wider than the community programmes mentioned by the shadow Home Secretary. I have spoken before about how the inspection and evaluation of those programmes will enable us to show that the money involved is being well spent on countering and reducing the threat from terrorism that we face in the long term.

We have had a good and important debate today. I commend the ISC on its work in scrutinising what the Chairman called the nuts and bolts of the security agencies. The agencies are more effective for being subject to the Committee’s detailed consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), in rightly saying that the Committee undertakes detailed work in scrutinising the agencies’ administration and effectiveness, made it clear that it plays a very important role.

The debate has also made it clear that the agencies’ work raises challenging questions about the balance between openness and their ability to carry out work that, by its nature, needs to remain covert and protected. I believe that the debate, and the structures that we have put in place, enable us to strike the right balance.

We are fortunate to have the best intelligence and security services in the world. There are people of the highest integrity and bravery in all of them: I am honoured to be able to work with them, and it is vital that we support them in acting to protect our country. We must do that in a way that is consistent with our values and our commitment to human rights. I am confident that we do so, and believe that today’s debate has assisted us in that regard.

Question put and agreed to.


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