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I have always found the right hon. Gentleman's words to be very wise, but on this point we are very close to drifting towards gesture politics. I am not sure that the hard, central question of what the
Committee does and how it has that access would be addressed by such a change of title. I agree entirely, however, that it should always be ready to evolve. This House should take a great interest in the way it evolves and should shape that evolution, but I cannot see that it would make an enormous difference to call it something else. Perhaps it would be more acceptable in the eyes of some, but I am not sure that I see that.
There are changes that need to be made to the Committee, however, and that need to be made very quickly. They concern the need to maintain and reconfirm the Committee's independence from the bodies and agencies that it oversees. Put bluntly, these changes must help to guarantee in the eyes of parliamentarians and the public that there must be no threat to the independence of the ISC and that its future independence will be protected.
Our critics, because they cannot see what we do, presume the worst when it comes to our independence. They presume that we sit and nod at the agencies and agree with everything that they say. They do not know, because they cannot see it, so how can they know that we act with a robustness and a determination that are the equal of any Committee in this Parliament? Having spent a number of stimulating years as a belligerent member of a particularly ruthless Public Accounts Committee, I can swear to that. All our members have sat on Select Committees and they will reassure anyone that they act just as robustly on the ISC as they would on any other Committee.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Is the right hon. Gentleman convinced that his Committee has the resources and the backing that the PAC does, with the National Audit Office? Does he think that strengthening the ISC and reforming its structure would be helped by having the powers and resources that the PAC can draw on with the NAO?
Dr. Howells: I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point. We have the NAO as one of our investigative advisory bodies. It is cleared for studying secret documents and it looks at the issues and reports to us. We take great cognisance of its reports and we have our own investigator, of course. If he is asking me whether the Committee needs more resources because of its importance, I certainly agree that it does. I shall try to explain that.
Mr. Cash: Knowing the right hon. Gentleman as I do and knowing that he is robust and independent, I find the fact that he is raising the issue of independence by way of a sort of criticism to be in itself a demonstration of his integrity. However, may I return to the point that I made earlier? In order to bolster and make clear to the public at large, and to Parliament too, that there is that degree of independence, would it not be a good idea-in terms of the respect that such a move would gain-for the Chairman of the Committee, provided that the right person was chosen, to come from the Opposition?
I tried to answer the hon. Gentleman in the best way I could. I have no objection to that at all. Sitting to his left is the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, who chairs the Committee when he has to. He also speaks on behalf of the Committee when the
Committee agrees, and he does so in a robust and effective way. However, I fear that when parties are in opposition they tend to think that such chairmanship is a good idea, but when they come into government they do not. That is another matter, however.
It is easy for some of our critics-I am sorry to include in their number some right hon. and hon. Members who chair parliamentary Select Committees and Joint Committees-to drive their tanks on to the lawn of the ISC and fire shells at the structure and performance of the Committee. They know, of course, that the nature of the material that we work with limits severely our ability to return fire, however frustrated we might feel about it. Just because our reports do not go in for sensational soundbites, that does not mean that we have not done a thorough job in arriving at our conclusions.
There are others in this House who for perfectly noble reasons, I am sure, project themselves as the tribunes of liberty and transparency. Some of those great tribunes are not above stirring the pot by dropping dark hints to their friends in the media that members of the ISC should be regarded as little more than the placemen of the Prime Minister. I will not convince them otherwise, but I want to say to them that I have had experience of no other group of individuals who have displayed more independence of spirit or more determination to uncover the truth than I have in the ISC. It is a Committee that can withstand ill-informed attacks on its integrity and motives, not least because it does not indulge in the kind of party political point scoring that flows so often from the leaking and backdoor briefings that are among the chief curses of Committees of this House.
If we on the ISC have concerns about the independence of the Committee, they stem not from the motives and abilities of its members but from the nature of the ISC's relationship with the Whitehall administrative machine. On pages 4 and 5 of our 2009-10 annual report, we have described how, over the last 12 to 18 months, it has become very clear to us that there are some within the Whitehall bureaucracy who, for reasons of their own, have not understood or have refused to accept that the independence of the ISC is sacrosanct. Some of them have given the impression that they regard the ISC as an irritation-a problem that they could well do without. Inside the Whitehall machine they think of us as a thorn in their side, which is ironic, because outside Whitehall we are told that we are not a sufficiently sharp thorn in their side. I have little doubt that some Whitehall insiders, like some right hon. and hon. Members, believe it would be far easier to turn the ISC into a Select Committee, but that, as I tried to explain earlier, would be about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
That is almost certainly the reason why, during the past 18 months, life for the ISC secretariat has been distinctly uncomfortable and, at times, very unpleasant and threatening. The ISC does not take kindly to such behaviour. We are not a Committee to be "steered", "guided" or manipulated by means of any other Whitehall cliché; we are a statutory and independent Committee of parliamentarians, and we speak as we find.
Let me make it clear that when I talk about Whitehall insiders, I am not talking about the Committee staff or the agencies that we oversee. It is the Committee's experience, for example, that the harder we investigate
and question the agencies, the better they understand the need to be fully accountable. Although it may sound paradoxical, they understand the need to be more transparent within the so-called circle of secrecy that encompasses most of their work and the Committee's work. The intelligence and security agencies understand full well the value of an ISC that is robust, well equipped and determined. They know that without effective and independent oversight they will fail in their vital task of maintaining and strengthening the trust that the people of this country have in them.
The agencies can rarely defend themselves publicly when they are attacked. They are a sitting target for anyone describing themselves as a campaigning journalist; for certain-and it pains me to say this-high-profile defence lawyers who appear not to be overly concerned about throwing mud at them, presumably in the hope that it will influence the public mood in favour of their clients; for some of the less scrupulous non-governmental agencies with axes to grind; and for 1,001 conspiracy theorists from the judiciary to the clubhouse.
The agencies realise that our heightened oversight is in their own interests; it is in their own interests to be properly held to account. But they and we will never convince the British people that the agencies are being held properly to account if there is one iota of doubt about the independence of the ISC.
Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): I could not agree more. The right hon. Gentleman points out that such behaviour is a relatively new phenomenon that has hit us from the authorities in Whitehall only in the past year or so, but it is getting worse. May I remind him that when he opened our previous debate, a reprimand was sent from the Cabinet Office to the Clerk of our Committee, because the Committee staff had not told the Cabinet Office what the Chairman was going to say? I do not know how that new attitude towards the Committee has come in, but the sooner it is put away, the better.
As for our staff, the secretariat of the ISC, allegations have been made, sometimes in this very Chamber, that they are not independent. Nothing could be further from the truth. They work wholeheartedly for the Committee, and they defend its independence absolutely-to the point where their own careers have been put in jeopardy, as the right hon. Gentleman just hinted at. They are our most valuable asset: intelligent, hard-working people who have accumulated a great fund of experience and knowledge. In so many ways, they guarantee the vital continuity that the ISC requires, and they are the causeway between one Parliament and the next. That is why I hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will today assure the House that when the current Committee members stand down, there will be no attempt to interfere with the Committee's secretariat in the intervening period before a new Committee is appointed. I, for one, would interpret any such step as a severe breach of its independence.
The Committee believes that, in order to reinforce its independence, it must move out of the Cabinet Office. There are very good reasons for that. The Cabinet
Office has hosted the Committee since it was set up in 1994. That was for administrative convenience, and no more than that, whatever might be said now, because the Cabinet Office was a central Department that was used to handling highly classified material, and it had suitably security-cleared staff. However, the role of the Cabinet Office, in terms of its relationship with the intelligence and security services, has grown substantially over the past 16 years, and the Committee's remit has similarly evolved to include that central intelligence machinery in the Cabinet Office. The relationship is therefore now completely different: we sit in a Department that has a significant role in the UK intelligence community, which we oversee, and we do not believe that that is an appropriate relationship.
As a matter of principle, no matter what the circumstances, it is clearly not right for the ISC to be hosted by an organisation that the ISC has a role in overseeing. No matter how sturdy and high the Chinese walls within a Department such as the Cabinet Office may be, the danger of boundaries not being respected is potentially deadly for the reputation of the ISC. The Committee has therefore requested that it be moved to another Department-one without such a central role in security and intelligence matters. We believe that that would serve to demonstrate that there is no link between the Committee and those whom it oversees, and that it would provide a much needed separation.
Mr. Cash: I think I heard the right hon. Gentleman say that he thought the Committee should be moved to the precincts of another Department. Given the importance of the Committee, the sensitivity of the information involved and the extreme responsibility that the Committee has, does he not think there is a case for moving it to completely separate precincts?
Dr. Howells: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. The Committee is in a completely separate building, and we have a room in which we meet and hold discussions. Witnesses appear before us in that room, which, I am reliably informed, is swept frequently, and it is perfectly secure and safe. So I am not worried about that aspect, but I understand why the hon. Gentleman asked that question.
The same point applies to our budget request. As with our staff, our accommodation and other resources are decided and allocated by the Cabinet Office, and there is clearly a conflict of interest if the Committee has to go cap in hand to those whom it oversees in order to get the resources that it needs to oversee them. Therefore, we also recommended to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary that our resources be separated from the Cabinet Office, and that our budget be index-linked as a set percentage of the single intelligence account, although outwith the SIA itself. That would allow the Committee's activity and capabilities to grow or shrink in accordance with those whom it oversees, with a minimum threshold to ensure that fixed costs were covered, thus ensuring that the oversight function were proportionate to the work that it oversaw. In our view, those changes are fundamental if the ISC is to maintain and reinforce its independence.
But the wheels of Whitehall turn abysmally slowly in response to our requests. We have shown how it is possible to solve all the difficulties that may arise from
these administrative changes, and we have presented the powers that be with solutions; they in return have presented us, largely, with silence. That silence will not serve to help us to convince the British people that the Intelligence and Security Committee enjoys the independence that it requires to do its job properly.
Today, finally, we have the Government response to our report, and what does it say in response to our request? It says that it requires "further consideration". It is surely stretching credibility to suggest that after five months the Government still have not managed to reach a decision. I hope it is not the case that they have made a decision but do not want to say so. They say that a move might-this is a wonderful phrase-"complicate accountabilities", but I find it difficult to see how it is such an insurmountable problem, when the central question is the independence of the Committee.
"The most appropriate time for such engagement is early in a new Parliament."
That, of course, is Whitehall-speak for booting our proposals into touch. They are really saying, "Let's get rid of this awkward lot we've got on the Committee at the moment and when we get a new committee we'll just gloss over it and make it go away." I trust that this House will not stand for such short-sighted and ill-advised behaviour. As a matter of principle, the ISC cannot continue to sit within the Cabinet Office or any other Department with a central intelligence role. There are no grounds to refuse our request to move, and no good reason not to agree to it.
I very much hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will carefully consider what I have said and confirm for us here today that he will back this relatively modest administrative change. It does not require an Act of Parliament. It does not mean that the Ministry of Justice, for example, has to find new living quarters for the ISC; nor will it be a new administrative or financial burden for that Department or for any other Department. It is a simple matter, but for us it is a vital one. I urge him to act on it and restore our faith that the Government want an independent oversight Committee.
The Government must take great care to ensure that Whitehall's reluctance to implement even a modest change such as this does not serve to undermine the credibility of the ISC. I have made clear my views about the erosion of real oversight that would result if the ISC became just another Select Committee. A Select Committee might offer less of an administrative burden to the Whitehall machine than the ISC does, and be far less controversial, but less oversight will do little other than provide nourishment to those who, for all kinds of reasons, wish to undermine the reputation of our intelligence and security agencies and of the Committee that oversees them.
The ISC does an immensely valuable job, and it is a great shame that that is not recognised by a vocal few, but that is always the way when one cannot talk about what one does. Sadly, many of those who talk about intelligence matters are less bothered with the truth-with the facts of the matter-than with trying to get a sensational headline. They call for a judicial inquiry into allegations of misconduct by the agencies, yet they conveniently ignore the fact that there is already a body
headed by judges, in the shape of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, that can conduct any inquiry it chooses to. They call for the ISC to hold public meetings, yet they gloss over the fact that the agencies will not be able to say anything in public, so they will be for show only. They call our staff "spooks", yet they do not know that those staff have put their careers on the line in very difficult circumstances because they uphold the independence of this Committee. They call for us to become a Select Committee, yet they do not realise that that is playing into the hands of those who think it is probably a jolly good idea that parliamentarians should not be allowed to poke around in the very deepest recesses of our intelligence and security agencies.
When it comes to the ISC, it seems that, for some, perception is all that matters. But let me tell hon. Members that this Committee has worked tirelessly, and not simply at the tasks it was created to undertake but at trying to sort out row after row and problem after problem, most of which have arisen because, as I have explained, the Committee's administrative home continues to be in the Cabinet Office, which now has so many additional intelligence and security responsibilities. Believe me, the Committee has not done all this for the sake of perception. Nor have we done it for popularity, or so that our members can edge a few more centimetres up the greasy political pole- most of us are too close to the end of our political careers to worry about any kind of preferment. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) once informed the Prime Minister face to face, most of us on the Committee are closer to being extinguished than distinguished. We certainly have not done it for money. I believe that I am the only Committee Chairman who is not paid for his pains; I will take back-pay any time. Like every other ISC member, I do what I do because I believe in the work that the Committee does, independently, in holding the agencies to account.
I am sure that in the course of this debate right hon. and hon. Members will deal with a number of the most controversial issues generated over the past year about intelligence and security. I would like to thank Committee members for the enormous amount of hard work and dedication that they have given to the Committee, and especially for the way they have conducted themselves in the face of endless criticism and sniping from those, inside and outside this place, who seem to believe that all secret intelligence and security operations must intrinsically be evil and designed to erode human liberty and dignity.
One of the duties of the ISC is to ensure that the agencies and organisations that we oversee carry out their work according to the laws of this country and in compliance with the international laws and treaties that this country has signed up to. That means that we take very seriously the defence of human rights and civil liberties where they may be affected by the work of our intelligence and security agencies. We will continue to maintain the utmost vigilance in detecting and, if we find them, highlighting transgressions in these areas. But we have other roles, as well. One of them is to ensure that our agencies have the means and the wherewithal to protect this country from the terrorists and enemies-be they Islamic suicide bombers, Irish republican gunmen or any other breed of murdering fanatic who believes
that by slaughtering British citizens they can help their religion or their cause. There is no reason why those two functions cannot fit perfectly well together.
Those of us who have had the privilege to serve on this Committee are well aware that our intelligence and security agencies must operate to the very highest standards in terms of protecting the values of liberty and justice that this great country of ours represents and espouses. We also know, however, that those same agencies have to protect the lives and limbs of British people. I hope that in future, when journalists, commentators, the judiciary and Members of this Parliament draw in breath to launch their assaults on the agencies and on the Ministers who have to answer for their actions in this place, they will pause for a moment to consider the likely effects of those assaults on the confidence and morale of the brave and talented men and women we count on to protect us and our democracy at home and abroad.
Andrew Mackinlay: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask both for your guidance and, I believe, for the protection of this House. If you look at today's Order Paper, you will see that we are being invited to consider the annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee for 2008-09. Listening to the remarks of the Chairman of the Committee and given, from what I understand informally, what will be said by the three parties' Front Benchers, it seems that that report is being conflated with the report for 2009-10, which was available in the Vote Office only today. When I went to the Vote Office this morning and said, "Can I have the documents for today's debate?", I was, quite rightly, given only the report for 2008-09. It was only through listening to the Chairman of the Committee and having had informal discussions with colleagues that it dawned on me that he-and, it would seem, Front Benchers, although I do not rush to judgment on that-are in the business of conflating the two. That is not only alien to what is on the Order Paper but an affront to Parliament, because the document relating to 2009-10 has only just been published.
Surely, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is an outrage that this has happened, particularly against the backdrop of the views of people like myself. I think that this Committee-well, you will have got my drift because you have heard it year after year. Can you tell us what we are discussing today? I ask you jealously to safeguard the Order Paper and insist that our debate relates to what is on the Order Paper, with nothing relating to the 2009-10 report, which must be dealt with on a separate occasion by the House of Commons if it is to provide proper scrutiny.
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