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"For security reasons, my engagements are announced as and when appropriate."-[ Official Report, 15 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 580W.]
That was not the question that I asked. I was asking after the event, so there should have been no security implications. Can you advise right hon. and hon. Members how to get straightforward answers to straightforward parliamentary questions that have absolutely nothing to do with the security of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary?
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab):
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was not going to raise this matter, but in a sense the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister are both the same and both to blame. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) wrote to me on Friday about his visit to Tilbury on Monday. I am not suggesting that that was deliberate, but both of them need to understand that they owe
courtesies to ordinary Back Benchers in this House. Their offices should tell us- [ Interruption. ] No, no: it was sent by pigeon post and did not reach me till Tuesday. That is the point. I wanted to greet the bloke, because I wanted to ask him about the Conservative council doing away with the subsidy on the thousand-year-old Tilbury ferry. Why do we not bang their heads together, and move on?
The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) raised the subject of the normal courtesy of notifying a Member whose constituency one is visiting on public business. I say to him that I think that it is very desirable that that courtesy should always be observed, and that it is regrettable when it is not. In respect of the other point that he raised, I think that he knows that he was engaging in a debate. Whatever scope I have, he will recognise that my powers are limited. My scope does not extend to the content of ministerial-including prime ministerial-answers to questions.
That this House has considered the matter of the Annual Report of the Intelligence and Security Committee for 2008-09 (Cm 7807) and the Government's response (Cm 7808).- (Mr. Watts.)
Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd) (Lab): I have had the honour to chair the Intelligence and Security Committee since October 2008, or for roughly 18 months now. This is the second time that I have had the opportunity to open such a debate, and it will be the last. I wish to put on record my thanks to members of the Committee and its staff for their hard work in what has been a remarkably difficult year for it in more ways than one, as I shall seek to illustrate.
Some members of the ISC have announced their intention to retire as MPs. They include the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who is the only ISC member to have served on the Committee since its creation 16 years ago. He is our remembrancer, and future Committees will greatly miss his pretty awesome powers of recall, and his sense of humour.
The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) is another to be leaving. He has great experience of international affairs, and of matters relating to Northern Ireland and his spiritual home in the borders of Scotland. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) is also retiring. He has inevitably enhanced our deliberations with his unrivalled knowledge of Whitehall's administrative and political geography and its darker arts.
For a Committee of nine to lose four of its members at one fell swoop is a serious blow against the cause of continuity and that is why I am going to concentrate in my contribution on one theme. In my view, it is the most important theme-that of strengthening and sustaining the independence of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
There are many other important issues that have come before the ISC and I am sure that they will be dealt with by the hon. and right hon. Members who are present. Those issues include the allegations generated by the Binyam Mohamed case, and the relationship that exists between our intelligence and security agencies and their counterparts in other countries, as well as the
measures being taken to counter the activities of those who would do harm to Britain through cyber attack and other forms of electronic warfare.
Indeed, we have looked this year at the measures taken to deal with a whole range of threats to the UK, including the threat posed by the latest wave of Irish republican terrorism and the threat from espionage, including the potential use of powerful electromagnetic pulses and a range of other advanced technologies. Latterly, of course, we have expended a huge amount of time reviewing the new, consolidated guidance for questioning detainees and others, but that is an ongoing review that I am sure will be the subject of intense debate and scrutiny at a later time.
Andrew Mackinlay: I give notice that some of my right hon. Friend's officials might like to refer to column 433 of our debate on 7 May last year in relation to paragraph 177 of that report, which does not seem to have been addressed in this report. We were promised that it would be, and I shall raise that later.
"The Prime Minister appoints the ISC Members after considering nominations from Parliament".
That is simply not true, is it? There are no nominations from Parliament. Why do we put this garbage in a report when it is simply not true? If I am wrong, no doubt my right hon. Friend will point out to me how I missed the opportunity to be nominated.
This debate should be on the Committee's 2008-09 annual report on our work from December 2008 to July 2009. We sent it to the Prime Minister in December 2009, but unfortunately it has taken more than three months for it to be published. We have complained bitterly about that delay to both the Prime Minister and his security adviser. Given that the Committee signed off the text in July 2009, eight months ago, that is simply unacceptable. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will give an undertaking that it will not take this long again. There is no good reason for the delay, other than bureaucratic inertia, to use one of his own favourite phrases. Such has been the delay in publishing the 2008-09 report, that in the meantime the Committee has completed its 2009-10 annual report, which we sent to the Prime Minister on 5 March. When we sent it to him, we requested that it be published by 17 March-yesterday-at the latest, to ensure that right hon. and hon. Members would have the opportunity to read it in good time for this debate. We were assured that it would happen and I have every sympathy with hon. Members who have not had sufficient time to read it.
It is also very disappointing to the Committee that, despite the fact that the Government have had sight of our report in draft form for some time, we have had to fight the Cabinet Office, even yesterday, to be given sight of the Government's response to our report in sufficient time before this debate. It is a shame that they do not place more value on our being able to have a well-informed debate in the Chamber.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a contradiction in the Government's behaviour in regard to intelligence security? Oftentimes they press us to make very fast decisions-in my judgment, badly thought-out decisions-here on the Floor of the House when we introduce legislation in the name of national security, yet when they have an independent-minded and authoritative Committee such as his, they sit on the recommendations for months, almost a year. That simply does not accord with the panic-stricken pleas for hon. Members' co-operation when we get dragged through the Lobbies on intelligence and security matters.
Dr. Howells: Much as I do not want to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, I have to say I have not experienced those panicky debates on the Floor, but, as I said, I bitterly resent these delays. They are needless and they should be addressed.
Shortcomings in the way the ISC has been treated over the last 18 months have for the first time led us to publicise in our 2009-10 annual report our concerns about its status. It is a very serious matter, as those who have had the opportunity to read our report will realise. The fact that we are publicising these difficulties is not, as some in the media have speculated, in response to criticisms that the Committee is not robust enough. They should know better. The ISC has never been a Committee to pander to its critics. We prefer to get on with our work and leave the sensationalist headlines to others, but we have experienced significant difficulties during the past 12 to 18 months, which we have been trying to resolve within the system. The failure of the system to respond means that we are taking the unprecedented step of commenting publicly, in the hope that we can change things so that our successors on the ISC do not have to face the same problems that we have faced.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I recognise the great importance of this Committee and its very responsible remit, but does the right hon. Gentleman think that there is any case whatever for the chairmanship to be in the hands of the Opposition rather than in those of the Government? Does he have any view whatever on the application of the new Wright Committee arrangements to be made applicable to the ISC, and will he please comment on that?
Dr. Howells: That is a very good question. I would have no objection to the Chair of the Committee being a member of Her Majesty's Opposition. That does not seem to me to strain credibility in any shape or form. I hope to deal in a moment with the question of its becoming a Select Committee. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to that shortly.
The ISC has been in existence for 16 years. It is controversial and it attracts much comment and criticism. This arises primarily from the way in which we conduct our work, the vast majority of which is private. Anything done behind closed doors leads to gossip, and the ISC is no different. There has been much comment on and speculation about what the Committee does or does not do, how it does or does not hold the agencies to account, how it would be better to hold meetings in public, and how we should have some kind of running judicial
inquiry instead. The complaints, the wish lists, the conspiracy theories and pies in the sky keep tumbling off the fevered production line week by week.
I want to tell the House a few things about the ISC. We meet in private because the things that the agencies talk to us about are secret. Therefore, if we met in public they could not talk to us about secret things. If they can talk to us about non-secret things, it would be a pretty pointless discussion. So if we meet in public, Parliament will get less oversight of the agencies' work, not more. I do not think that that is a difficult concept to grasp, but still people keep talking about the ISC meeting in public or becoming a Select Committee. If the House wants to make the ISC a Select Committee-at least the kind of Select Committee that we have currently-so be it, but I want to say as a matter of record that a Select Committee will not get the access that the ISC gets, so oversight will not be strengthened but weakened. It is only because of that that I and other members of the ISC would not recommend this oversight body becoming a Select Committee. The present arrangements are far from perfect, as we know, but it is my view and, I believe, that of the Committee, that this Parliament would end up with far, far less accountability if the ISC were a Select Committee. I hope that both Houses will consider any proposals with great care before such a transformation is agreed.
Andrew Mackinlay: If my right hon. Friend looks at the Official Report tomorrow, he will see he said that if the ISC was a Select Committee, it would get a lot less information than we get now. That is an affront to Parliament. Who is running this country? Is it them, or is it us? The ground rules would have to be dictated. It is no different from the Congress of the United States. It has a congressional committee, which we do not have-a parliamentary committee-it gets access and it is the legislature and the scrutiniser for its country. So are we. It is not for the secret service or the spooks to tell us what we can or cannot have. That is an affront to our constitution and our democracy.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I hope my right hon. Friend recognises that the criticism that may well come today, including from myself, is in no way directed at personalities, but is about the credibility of the Committee. I for one do not accept, unlike perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), that it can operate as an ordinary Select Committee. I have never advanced that idea. My right hon. Friend dismisses the possibility of public sessions, but I remind him that on 17 July 2008 the Foreign Secretary told the House, with reference to my amendment:
"The Government believe that there is scope for holding some sessions in public, and we want to make progress on that."-[ Official Report, 17 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 497.]
My hon. Friend is quite right. Those undertakings-or promises, or pledges, or whatever we want to call them-have been made. I have to say to him that I would love to chair such a session with the media
circus waiting to hear the great questions that we will ask the directors of our agencies. When we ask them, they will sound like patsy questions because that is all they ever can be. As I said, this is about secrets. We do not expect our agencies to spill secrets all over the place because they are in the business of trying to keep this country safe from terrorists and other murderous lunatics.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Surely the issue is not whether the Committee is in name a Select Committee but how it has to operate. The change that would make it completely ineffective would be if it could no longer report directly to the Prime Minister on the state of affairs in the secret work that it is able to examine, because a published report on that subject would destroy the effectiveness of the work itself.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): Does the Chairman agree that if the ISC sat in public, no evidence would be put before it that could not be heard by any other Select Committee in this House-by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Select Committee on Defence or any other interested Committee?
Dr. Howells: I am not sure that I understood the hon. Gentleman's question-I know that he is a tough questioner because he is a member of the Committee. In his wisdom, the former Prime Minister John Major thought long and hard before he created the Committee. The hon. Gentleman knows that over the years the Committee has been around the world, talking to other committees that have such oversight responsibilities. I do not think that the Committee has ever come across a superior system-I would certainly disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about the American system, as I do not think it is superior at all. It is completely flawed and is probably one of the reasons why the Americans are in so much trouble over trying to distinguish between torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment-or CIDT-and the rest of it.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman says, but will he bear the following fact in mind? I took part in the discussions with John Major on the formation of the Committee and those discussions were of the kind to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. However, does he accept it is important that the Committee evolves and that the fact that it is not formally described as a Select Committee of the House adds to the impression that it is the creature of the Prime Minister? That is a false impression, but it is nevertheless one that is often held. Is it not possible to consider changing the status of the Committee so that it formally becomes a Select Committee but one with very special rules both as regards the way in which its members are appointed and the way in which it operates, to safeguard the crucial points that he has made?
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