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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst):
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who gave me some little notice of the point of order that he was going to raise. As I understand it, the terms of the motion, which relate to the '08-'09 report, were tabled on behalf of the Committee, so strictly speaking, that is the motion before the House. It is a question of the circumstances that we are in as to how narrowly or how widely I rule on this particular matter. I am thinking of the London bus syndrome-you wait a long time for one and then two come along together. It is as recently as this morning that the second report has appeared. It would seem
quite difficult for the House to lose the grip of this moment in not alluding to it. The substantive motion that the House will be invited to agree to or negate is on the '08-'09 report, so I hope that that is where the main focus of the debate will be. However, I would not be helping right hon. and hon. Members if I said that I do not want to hear any reference to the '09-'10 report. The House might also bear in mind, even though Dissolution is near, that it might not want to sacrifice the opportunity for the new Parliament to discuss formally, in its own time, the '09-'10 report. My instincts are to say that I should be flexible today. However, it will be on record that the House approves this motion, and it is still open to Parliament, at some point or other, to seek to have a further formal resolution on the '09-'10 report. I hope that that is helpful.
Andrew Mackinlay: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful to you for that advice, particularly for your final comments, but may I ask you to clarify and amplify them? As I understand the rubrics of the House, every annual report has to be reported to the House. I am looking to our successors in the new Parliament in saying that we should safeguard jealously their right to have a full debate on the 2009-10 report on a substantive motion. Surely that is correct. I think that that is what you are saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if I do nothing else I want to ensure that we say unequivocally that it is a matter for the next Parliament to deal with that report.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think it is quite clear that under the terms of the motion before the House, formal approval can be given only to the 2008-09 report. The House will therefore still require, whether formally or at length, to give its approval or otherwise to the 2009-10 report in future.
Mr. Cash: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was somewhat surprised to hear reference to the report for the subsequent year. I notice that the motion refers not only to the report for 2008-09 but to the Government's response. I wonder whether part of the reason why we are not considering the later report is that there is no Government response to go with it.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: The Government's response to the 2009-10 report has also been published, but perhaps not in time for all right hon. and hon. Members to have had notice of it and to consider any remarks that they might wish to make in relation to it. That is why I suggest to the House that it should confine its appetite to look at the 2009-10 report and response, because there will, by obligation, be a motion to come forward on that report at some time in the future. However, because that report is there and some hon. Members have had the opportunity to see it, I do not want to be over-rigid in my rulings when there is an opportunity to allude to it in the context of what is in the 2008-09 report. I am trying to be as helpful as I can, and I hope that that does help.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband):
Given that it seems that the Committee tabled the motion, not the Government, it is
nice to be able to open a debate without having to apologise for something that the Government have done or failed to do. I will bear your comments in mind carefully, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I frame my remarks. Mr. Speaker warned us severely not to take too long on our speeches, and I shall try to be as brief as I can while doing justice to the issues involved.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), who I think spoke for the whole ISC with passion and verve. I thank him for his outstanding work over the past 18 months, and I also thank his colleagues. The right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) has sat on the Committee for 16 years, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) have also served on it with distinction. In my experience they are all men of principle and passion, and they have discharged their responsibilities with a view not just to the task that the House has given them but to the duties given to them by the country, which expects the parliamentary aspect of oversight to be as effective as the ministerial and legal aspects. I thank them sincerely for the work that they have done and wish them well in the future, and I hope we can do justice to their work.
I have felt at times that the annual reports of the ISC, and indeed its work as a whole, have not received the attention that they deserve in Parliament or outside. I know that a number of dedicated hon. Members, to their credit, follow intelligence and security issues closely. My right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd talked about the lack of credit given to the Committee for its work. One important lesson of the past year or two is that more public discussion of the work done by the different branches of the accountability system, and of the dilemmas and challenges posed by the modern world, is welcome. It is a good thing in the drive for demystification, which my right hon. Friend rightly said was important.
The issues involved are complex and profound. That is true not just of the policy issues, some of which I shall touch on, but of the governance issues. The Intelligence Services Act 1994 was intended to balance secrecy and accountability. Secrecy is necessary for the effectiveness of our intelligence agencies, and accountability-not just the fact but the perception of it-is necessary for their legitimacy. That accountability cannot be of a normal kind, but it must be thorough, systematic and effective. Any organisation depends on appropriate oversight as well as good management, and the intelligence agencies are no different.
The two ISC reports before us-the one referred to in the motion and the one that we are allowed tangentially to refer to-are serious pieces of work. As I said recently in another debate, there is a myth that our security and intelligence services operate without independent oversight. That is not true. The Government want a strong and robust ISC, and as far as I am concerned it is vital for any Secretary of State to know that all the checks and balances work properly. That includes checking organisations for which Secretaries of State are responsible.
"a very significant means of democratic accountability."
Independent judicial oversight is different. It is provided by the Intelligence Services Commissioner and the Interception of Communications Commissioner, who
report to the Prime Minister and through him to Parliament. As my right hon. Friend said, however, effective oversight is not the same as openness. Because the ISC meets in private, and because its reports are redacted before publication, some say that it cannot do a proper job of holding the Government and the agencies to account. In fact, the opposite is true. It is precisely because the Committee operates inside the so-called ring of secrecy that it can have access to material and question witnesses on very sensitive issues to a degree that makes its scrutiny effective. In my experience, its dialogue, debate and probing questions speak to that. That is not an easy message to get across, but it must be said.
Andrew Mackinlay: I do not accept the Foreign Secretary's premise. I illustrate my opinion with the fact that in 2008, either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary himself instructed Sir David Omand to produce a report about the loss of documents on a train. In our debate on 7 May 2009, at column 433 of the Official Report, I drew attention to the fact that the report of the ISC, which at the time was headed up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), said:
"At the time of writing, the Committee is still awaiting the sight of Sir David's report".
I criticised Sir David Omand, and a very hurt Sir David Omand wrote to me saying, "It's not my fault, it's the Government and the Prime Minister who are still sitting on my report. It is not my property." There is no reference to any of that in the report that we are now discussing, which illustrates the attitude of "Couldn't care less, don't listen to the debate-valid point, but let's just ignore it." Can we have a response to that issue in this debate? It shows how flawed the system is and how contemptuous some people, whose names I do not know, are of this House.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the Foreign Secretary answers, I say to the hon. Gentleman that these interventions are getting very long, and I hope he will not exhaust his fund of knowledge so that he has nothing to say later.
David Miliband: My hon. Friend raises a point of principle and another specific point. He has the perfectly legitimate point of view that something that is not conducted in the public domain cannot be effective. I do not agree with him, but I recognise that that is his point of view. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, the Chairman of the Committee, who says that if it met only in public, it would have far less impact as an accountability mechanism than it does in its current form, however imperfect or in need of reform it is.
On the specific question of the Omand review, I will have to get some work done this afternoon and ask the Minister for Europe to respond to my hon. Friend. The issue of lost laptops is not referred to in the 2008-09 ISC report, because that was in a separate review by Sir David Omand and was not to do with particular ISC documents. I am not even sure whether they were Security Service documents, but I will ask the Minister to fill the House in on that when he speaks.
It is important to be open where we can. Important steps have been made to bring aspects of the intelligence community into the light since the 1994 Act, for which the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and
Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) claimed some responsibility in an intervention. He rightly made the point that we cannot allow bodies such as the ISC simply to stand still; they should develop. Of course, until 1994, even the existence of the Secret Intelligence Service was officially denied. In the early years, ISC reports contained no published figures for agency expenditure, for example, but that has now changed. The latest report contains more unredacted data on the funding and administration of the agencies than ever before.
However, that does not mean that we should not seek to go further. Since 2007, we have made a number of proposals for ways to strengthen the role of the Committee, including an offer to discuss how it might hold some annual evidence sessions in public, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, who rightly said-I think this is more or less correct-that a patsy session is not worth having. That must be true, but equally, demystification is important, and there are points of principle and judgment that can be discussed openly. Actually, the public debate would benefit from a more public discussion of such things.
I believe that the country would also benefit from a more open discussion of the priorities given to different kinds of threats, which the Committee has raised in successive reports. There is some meat for public discussions that would not put Committee members in an impossible position, in which they would be required to give advance notice of all their questions to the extent that they become patsy questions, nor would Ministers or agency heads be put in a position in which their answers look pathetic-for example, if they had to say, "I can't answer that question." It is sobering to be reminded that the debate on public sessions has been going on since 2001, but as I said, my reflection is that it is worth trying to demystify and demythologise the process. I hope that the Committee can take that forward.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is completely right that some issues could be aired in public sessions with the heads of the agencies or, for that matter, even Ministers on some occasions. However, it is important that we carefully delineate that which can be discussed in public and that which inevitably, because of its nature, would have to be discussed privately.
David Miliband: I strongly agree. The ISC is not a normal committee. It looks at activities that are, by definition, abnormal. It is vital that the ring of secrecy is preserved. If it is not, the whole purpose of the Committee will be lost.
Mr. Winnick: Despite what the Chairman of the Committee said, I am not in favour of an ordinary Select Committee format, with continuous public sessions, as I indicated to him. That cannot be done. Some might disagree, but it is my view that the bulk of the Committee's work must, by its very nature, be done in private. However, surely, as the Foreign Secretary has been saying, public sessions from time to time could be held when we discuss matters such as articles written by the head of MI5.
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Members of the Committee have thought very carefully about the prospect of public hearings, and have wanted to find a way of holding them. However, it is a question not simply of patsy hearings, but of choosing real subjects that are not suddenly going to disappear because one asks a question to which the security chiefs must answer, "I can't tell you." The Foreign Secretary was talking about priorities and security. Would we not get close to that situation if we began examining why a certain aspect of security was a priority against another without going into the detail of the information behind that?
David Miliband: I completely accept that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and other members of the Committee have gone back and forth on that issue. Public hearings need to go alongside more public discussion of the ISC's role in the accountability process. The first responsibility is for Ministers and agency heads to uphold the law of the land and the values of the nation. The second responsibility is that there are parliamentary oversight bodies. Thirdly, the commissioners to whom I referred and-fourthly-the courts, provide the ultimate means of redress for any citizen who believes that their rights have been abused. It is important to fill out the public discussion. That could be useful. There will be a degree of choreography in any public hearings, because some issues are within the remit to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred, and some are not. However, from the Government's point of view, it is worth continuing to work on that.
Mr. Davey: This is not simply about public hearings, but about the public having confidence in the ISC's work. As I said to the Chairman of the Committee, that includes ensuring that the Committee has the full resources it needs to undertake its investigations. Will the Foreign Secretary address that point about resources?
David Miliband: To be fair, I was coming on to that. We should always look at the Committee's procedures and its siting, meaning the Government body under which it works-that important issue was raised in previous reports-but we should also look at resources. As it happens, one issue that has been raised in the past is the question of an investigator, and an investigator has now been added to the Committee's staff. The increase in the Committee's resources has been faster than that of general Government spending, which is a good thing-it has more or less mirrored the rise in spend of the intelligence agencies themselves. The Committee needs expert staff and the right kind of resources-
It is important that the Committee gets the resources it needs, because, from the Government's point of view, a strong ISC is an important part of building confidence in its work, not just among the public, but among Ministers and Parliament.
Mr. Mates: The Foreign Secretary is praising the Government for having given us an investigator-we will gloss over the fact that it took about seven or eight months to get him on parade. However, what does he think of the fact that the Committee asked the Cabinet Office to let the investigator, in the interregnum between this Committee and the next, pursue two totally uncontroversial items-developed vetting and how it is handled in a different way by all three agencies-but the Cabinet Office said, "No. It wouldn't be proper for the Committee to do that until after the election"? Once again, that has been kicked into touch.
David Miliband: Let me look into that. As the right hon. Gentleman will know from the numerous appearances that I have made in front of the Committee, I think that a culture of saying no to an idea because it has not been thought of before is absolutely hopeless in that regard. If, in fact, the knee-jerk reaction is always to say no, we must change it. I did not actually know of the case he mentioned, but in my experience, when Ministers are presented with such questions, they do not want to go with the knee-jerk reaction and say no, but want to go with the drive to have a strong accountability system. That is certainly what the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and I want.
In its latest report, the ISC made some administrative proposals about which I know there are strong feelings-after listening to the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, I realise that they are stronger than I had thought. Those will be seriously considered and discussed, but they raise some quite tricky issues of practice and principle. For example, the proposal to link the ISC budget to the intelligence agency budgets is novel-our information is that that does not happen anywhere else. I believe that that could tie us in knots. Surely the baseline is to take seriously the commitment not only to independence, which I will come to later, but to the proper resources to do the job. If there is a compelling case that the resources are not available to do the job, the resources should be given to the Committee, whether that is to do with the expertise of the staff or overall funding.
I was struck today by the force with which my right hon. Friend made the case about the allegedly baleful influence of the Cabinet Office on the Committee's proceedings. There are hard-working staff on the Committee and in the Cabinet Office, many with genuine expertise. We will look further at the question of whether changing the administrative label to the Ministry of Justice would have the impact that he suggests.
Mr. George Howarth: My right hon. Friend makes two points about our suggestion. The first is in relation to the budget. There is probably no exact formula that would fit the situation, but there must be-this is why we support that particular formula-some relationship between the level of resources and work that the agencies do and the need for them to be supervised. That is how we came up with that formula.
As for the relationship with the Cabinet Office, our case is not that we do not respect the various officials who work in the Cabinet Office-although that may be true in some cases-it is that we are beholden to a Department while at the same time responsible for supervising part of its activities. That is not a healthy relationship.
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