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Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab):
I want briefly to add my questions to those that have been asked. I have not heard an explanation as to why
GCHQ was to be included in these provisions back in 2004 and why it is now excluded; I do not know what thought process or consultation has produced that change. I do not know why it would be thought appropriate that promotion on merit would not apply to the employees of GCHQ. I do not know why it would be thought that it was not appropriate for those employees to have the right to appeal to the civil service commissioners. I do not know whether the staff who work at GCHQ have been asked where they would like to sit. There may be good reasons for those exclusions, but none has yet been produced, so I anticipate the Minister's answers to those questions.
Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he share my concern that this may be another case of, "Let's be neat and tidy and keep all the secret bits together", ignoring the fact that the two secret services have their own Acts of Parliament with similar provisions to those in the Bill? It is completely wrong to look at it in that way, because it is not neat and tidy.
Dr. Wright: I was not giving way to the hon. Gentleman; in fact, I had concluded my remarks. However, I think that we are all asking more or less the same questions and looking forward to the same answers.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I was recently privileged publicly to welcome Her Majesty the Queen to GCHQ, along with the mayor of Cheltenham. I would not like to inflate my own importance in that, given that the mayor and I were almost the only people present who could be publicly photographed. During that visit, I jokingly asked whether Her Majesty needed security clearance, and was told, I think equally in jest, that she did not, because by definition GCHQ was almost part of her household. Although that might have been said in jest, it highlights the anomalous position in which the secret agencies find themselves, which was identified by the Joint Committee on the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.
GCHQ is a large organisation that employs thousands of people-thousands of my constituents-and we are dealing with important employment rights in terms of the right to be recruited on merit, and important procedures in terms of having the right to complain to the civil service commissioners. In his evidence to the Joint Committee, the Cabinet Secretary gave some absurdly extreme examples of how those rights might be applied, suggesting that GCHQ might have to place equal opportunities job advertisements in Pravda or that the civil service commissioners could be allowed public and unlimited access to personnel files at GCHQ, which would be equally inappropriate. It is equally possible to imagine circumstances in which a proper complaints procedure, with statutory force, to bodies such as the civil service commissioners might be helpful to GCHQ employees. Better that disgruntled staff have the right to appeal in confidence to the commissioners than that they take their complaints to the media, for instance. An intelligence agency is different from the rest of the civil service, but it cannot be beyond the wit of Government to propose amendments that might accommodate the concerns of the Cabinet Secretary and others while still bestowing on my constituency workers at GCHQ statutory rights very similar to those of other civil servants.
If the Government will not accept the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), how do they propose to place GCHQ on a similar footing to the other secret intelligence agencies? That question must be asked. I understand that GCHQ staff would like to be treated increasingly in the same way as those at the other intelligence agencies, and I am sure that that is an appropriate desire. If they are excluded from the terms of the Bill, it is not clear how that aim will be achieved.
The battle for GCHQ's trade union rights, so disgracefully denied by Mrs. Thatcher's Government, was won under this Government, and they should be rightly proud of that. In seeking to extend what are proper rights and entitlements to GCHQ employees-
Mr. Winnick: On 25 January 1984, the House was notified by the then Foreign Secretary that the right of GCHQ employees to belong to a trade union was being taken away. From then until 1997, Labour Back Benchers, and Labour Front Benchers as well, constantly argued that that right should be restored, which it has been, as the hon. Gentleman said.
Martin Horwood: I think that that is broadly what I said. The Conservative Government's actions at that time damaged morale in the intelligence services considerably and, if anything, weakened national security instead of strengthening it.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Can the Minister clarify whether GCHQ is now being considered in the same way as the other intelligence services? As we have heard, that has been sought for some time. Its inclusion in this part of the Bill would be a clear indication that the Government have looked again at how it is seen in the context of the intelligence services. What exactly is GCHQ's position? It looks as though there has been a turnaround, or change, in Government policy with the result that GCHQ is now linked with the other two intelligence services; otherwise, I cannot think why it is included in the exclusions listed Bill.
Can the Minister clarify what will happen to civil servants who have been seconded to GCHQ from other Departments or agencies? Will they be protected in any way? They obviously have to sign the relevant documentation and the Official Secrets Act, but there are civil servants who are seconded to GCHQ from other Departments and other agencies around the world. What will be their position? Will they be covered by the Bill?
Clause 1 sets out the scope of the provisions relating to the civil service and specifies the parts of it to which they will not apply, such as the Northern Ireland civil service, the Northern Ireland Court Service, the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ. The Bill also makes it clear that staff employed overseas, known as locally engaged staff, are not covered by its provisions.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) would bring GCHQ within the scope of the Bill. I can reassure hon. Members that staff who work at GCHQ are civil servants, and I understand that Members wish to explore the Government's reasons why those civil servants are not to be treated in the same way as those who are covered by the provisions in question.
Hon. Members said that GCHQ staff were included in the 2004 Bill. Recent world events have, of necessity, driven the three UK agencies in question-GCHQ, the SIS and the Security Service-to work together more closely and in a more dynamic and joined-up way. They share intelligence and resources to meet ever-changing priorities in their operational work. By responding to threats and attacks as a joined-up community, they can act more effectively and efficiently.
GCHQ works closely with the other agencies, and all three already operate under statutory provisions that cover their activities and conduct-in the Security Service Act 1989, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. It therefore makes sense for all three to operate on a similar footing, and the Joint Committee on the Bill endorsed that approach. The three agencies also have robust and independent staff complaints procedures, and the funding for them is grouped together.
"unlike most of the rest of the civil service, GCHQ and the other Agencies are already established in statute, and...they have to operate under particular conditions that do not apply to most of the rest of the civil service. The legislation covering the Agencies sets out to ensure that their activities remain within set purposes, and it establishes complaints mechanisms for the public if they are concerned about these activities."
Hon. Members have mentioned the need to treat GCHQ staff in the same way as those at the security and intelligence services. The Joint Committee agreed with that but asked for assurances that GCHQ staff would be given the same right of access to an independent complaints mechanisms as those at the other agencies and that, as a general rule, staff at GCHQ would be recruited on merit. In the Government's response, we gave both those assurances.
Angela E. Smith: The Government have given assurances that staff will have an independent complaints mechanism and that they will be recruited on merit, and I can repeat those assurances to the hon. Gentleman and the Committee today.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) for mentioning the rights of GCHQ staff. If he had not, I would have done. It was this Government who gave trade union rights to GCHQ staff, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) mentioned, and we are proud of that. I hope that hon. Members are reassured by my repeating our assurances on protection for staff.
Mr. Heald: Does not the right hon. Lady understand that the whole purpose of part 1 of the Bill is to put on a statutory basis the protections that civil servants have had? It is not good enough for her to say, "I am making an assurance", because the whole purpose of part 1 is to put things into law, not have them on the basis of assurance. I do not know whether she has understood that, but it is what the whole campaign for a civil service Bill has been about.
Mike Penning: My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) is exactly right. Part 1 sets out the protection to be given to civil servants. If the Minister can give assurances to the Committee and to civil servants, why are they not in the Bill? That is what part 1 is all about.
Angela E. Smith: The assurance that I can give hon. Members is that the same right of access to complaints procedures will be available to GCHQ staff as to staff of the other agencies. I understand that GCHQ staff were consulted about that and raised no objections.
Angela E. Smith: I would expect only in very rare and exceptional circumstances, because appointments are made on merit. As the general public would understand it, all appointments are made on merit and the person most appropriate for a post is chosen. The Joint Committee asked for an assurance that in general appointments would be made on merit, and the Government gave that assurance. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Cambridge to withdraw the amendment in the light of the assurances that I have given the Committee.
David Howarth: I was hoping that the Minister would provide an answer to the question that we have all been asking, which is why the Government have changed their stance since 2004. We have not received any explanation of that at all. I was also hoping that she might be able to provide chapter and verse about the statutory protection of GCHQ staff that would put them on the basis that the Bill offers to other civil servants. She was not able to do that, either.
It seems to me that the Minister's only argument is that she is offering assurances from the Dispatch Box, but they are exactly the sort of assurances that would apply were the whole civil service still to be established merely on the basis of the royal prerogative. They seem to me simply a repetition of what is in the Bill.
Mike Penning: Can the hon. Gentleman give us a clue as to why the Minister would not indicate what the exceptional circumstances would be in which someone was not promoted on merit? Why does he believe she did not let the Committee know that?
David Howarth: I do not know, and that point is by far the strongest case for the amendment that has been established in the debate. Appointments to positions at GCHQ must be on merit, because they are technical jobs. What does it mean for an appointment not to be made on merit?
It seems to me that an appointment not on merit would be an appointment on political grounds, and I cannot see under what circumstances there could be an appointment to GCHQ on political grounds. My right hon. Friend might enlighten us.
Sir Alan Beith: I was going to put it to my hon. Friend that I was as baffled by the Minister's reply as he was. I am looking around the Chamber, and I believe that it happens that I have spent more time than anybody else who is in their place inside GCHQ talking to people there about precisely what they do. I have never met anybody there at any level who did not appear to have been appointed on merit.
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