Previous Section Index Home Page

18 Mar 2010 : Column 1008

David Miliband: The agencies that the Committee holds accountable are responsible to me and to the Home Secretary. GCHQ and the SIS report to me and then to the Prime Minister, and the Security Service reports to the Home Secretary. However, I take the point of principle that my right hon. Friend makes, and I assure him that the Government have no interest in sticking to a relationship that does not work. If the relationship is not working satisfactorily and seriously, we have to address it. That is the basis on which I will consider our next step with colleagues.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: The Foreign Secretary will, I think, agree that the speech by the Chair of the Committee about what he described as the interference in the independence of the Committee was the most severe public condemnation of interference that I can recall in the whole 16 years that the Committee has operated. I am not a member of the Committee, but will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that there must be a real issue for the Chair to have expressed himself publicly in such severe and unambiguous terms in this debate? He made it clear that it was not the agencies whom he was accusing of that interference, which made it obvious whom he was accusing. Will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge the seriousness of what has been raised today and give some indication of how he proposes to respond to it?

David Miliband: To be accurate, one does not have to guess to whom the Chairman was referring: he was referring to what he called the "Whitehall machine" and specifically to the Cabinet Office staff.

Dr. Howells indicated assent.

David Miliband: I see my right hon. Friend nods. I said earlier that there are hard-working staff in the Cabinet Office as well as on the ISC. There have been particular administrative issues this year that have added a lot of tension to the relationship, and members of the Committee know that, as do the Government. We need to ensure that the Committee is not diverted by matters of administrative feuding, but is instead able to focus on the job at hand.

Mr. Cash: The Foreign Secretary will know that in the Government's reply to the annual report for 2009-10, the Government state:

scrutiny committee. It so happens that in paragraphs R and S and the replies to them, there are severe strictures that the Chairman of the Committee did not mention regarding the independence and the distinct and separate role of the professional head of intelligence analysis. In the Government's reply and in an attempt to justify the situation, they say:

Does the Foreign Secretary not realise that that is a very serious criticism, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has said, and can he say why it is that the Government and the Committee are at loggerheads over this very important question?

18 Mar 2010 : Column 1009

David Miliband: It is an important question, but it is a completely different question from the one that we have been discussing- [ Interruption. ] It is a different question, and the hon. Gentleman helpfully read out the Government's view of the role of the PHIA-

Mr. Cash: It is about independence.

David Miliband: Yes, and as the hon. Gentleman will recall from the Butler report and elsewhere, the proposals that the Government have put in place have shown that lessons have been learned from the difficulties that existed then.

Mr. Mates indicated assent.

David Miliband: I am glad that the right hon. Member for East Hampshire agrees. We have taken the right lessons in the way in which we have taken the issue forward. The independence of the Committee is a separate point, and the Government are absolutely committed to that independence. It must have the resources and the freedom to do its work. It must have the ability to question Ministers and agency heads without fear or favour, and that is what the Government are determined to achieve.

Mark Pritchard: Given that the Foreign Secretary has told the House that there has been administrative feuding and given that this country now has more not fewer enemies, when will he come back to the House with his conclusions about the current relationship between the ISC and the Cabinet Office and whether it needs to change?

David Miliband: What I actually said was that administrative feuding should not divert the Committee from the vital work that it has to do. I take seriously what the Chairman has said about the relationship with the Cabinet Office. We have further work to do in this Parliament, and no doubt we can cover that, among other topics to which I shall now turn.

I want to move on from the process of the Committee to the issues with which it deals. The Government are determined to defend the rights on which our freedom depends and to protect the safety and security of our citizens, and the Chairman discussed both those concerns. The threat we face is real and ongoing, and no one denies that. In response to several serious allegations about the intelligence and security agencies, the Prime Minister announced last year that the Government would consolidate and make public the guidance we provide to the agencies' officers and military personnel who may become engaged in handling detainees overseas. That is both to protect the reputation of those officers and service personnel and to set out to the British public the responsible way in which we approach these difficult issues. This is an unprecedented and extremely difficult step and the process has taken much longer than we envisaged or would have wished. It has taken that time because the approach has been thorough and serious.

As the ISC has recognised and articulated so clearly, it is vital that our intelligence officers and military personnel have the clearest possible assurance that, when they engage with their counterparts in other
18 Mar 2010 : Column 1010
countries-as they must do to protect national security-if they follow their guidance they can have good reason to be confident that they will not incur personal liability. There is an issue of personnel practice here as well as of Government policy. We have been discussing legal issues with the Committee as well as policy ones. I welcome the positive and intense engagement that we have had with the ISC on the draft guidance since it was first sent it in November 2009, and I am very grateful for the detailed and thought-provoking advice that it has recently provided.

That advice highlighted a number of areas warranting further work or clarification by the Government with the Committee. I will discuss those issues further with the Committee in the relatively near future. The Government share the Committee's desire to bring this issue to closure and remain committed to doing so at the earliest possible date. It is precisely because of the seriousness with which the Government regard this issue and the respect we have for the views of the ISC that we want to ensure that there is no room for misunderstanding our policy, and that we use the Committee's thinking to ensure that the guidance is comprehensive, appropriate and correct.

I want to repeat unambiguously what I and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary have said before. The Government absolutely condemn torture. We do not practice it, we do not condone it and we are not complicit in it. Where wrongdoing is alleged, it is seriously investigated. When passing information to another country that might lead to suspects being detained, when passing questions to be put to detainees or when directly interviewing them, our agencies are required to seek to minimise, and where possible avoid, the risk of any form of mistreatment. Enormous effort goes into assessing the risks in each case. Operations have been halted when the risk was judged to be too high. But it is not possible to eradicate the risk altogether. Judgments must be made if the British people and British forces are to be protected. It is right that Ministers should make those judgments.

The intense interest in the guidance on torture and mistreatment is entirely understandable, but it should not obscure the fact that much else in the two ISC reports-or one report and another one in brackets-is worth attention. I am sure that hon. Members will want to raise other issues, and we will respond as fully as we can. The reports make clear the variety of threats to our national security that we face, of which international terrorism is the most prominent and the one that most obviously occupies our attention and that of the agencies. It is due in large part to their dedication and skill that this country has not suffered another successful attack of the sort we tragically experienced on 7 July 2005. At the same time, the fact that we have disrupted a number of major terrorist plots since 2005-there was the near-success of the attempt to bring down a transatlantic airliner over Detroit on Christmas day-shows that we cannot let down our guard.

Mr. Davey: I would like to take the Foreign Secretary back to the guidance. He says that he wants to publish it at the earliest possible opportunity, but can he say a little more about what that means, in terms of actual dates, and can he assure the House that when it is published, it will be so without any redactions?

18 Mar 2010 : Column 1011

David Miliband: I can say that we will meet as soon as possible, given the travel commitments of the Committee, which is away next week, and those of myself on the Monday and Tuesday of the week after. Certainly, however, the guidance will be published without redactions. It is very important that it is published without redactions, because it is there for officers, and to give them clarity. There will be no redactions in the guidance when it is published.

The staff of the agencies are also addressing an increasing range of other threats. Their work provides vital support on a daily basis to the safety of our troops in Afghanistan: they are actively countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; helping the fight against the trafficking of drugs and other forms of international organised crime; and supporting our efforts at conflict prevention and stabilisation around the world. The Government's recent Green Paper on defence emphasised the uncertain global political and economic environment. When uncertainty and unpredictability are key features of the international picture, policy makers' need for good intelligence to help us to understand the dangers and chart a course is all the greater.

The Government have responded to that challenge by increasing the resources available to the agencies, as we have discussed. As the ISC's latest report makes clear, the single intelligence account was increased by 15 per cent. in 2008-09, and by a further 8 per cent. in 2009-10, and it will increase by a further 7 per cent. in the next year. Hon. Members will recognise that these are very substantial sums and visible evidence of our commitment to the security and safety of all our people.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way; he is being very generous. Will he not accept, however, that the ISC report also suggests that there is not enough resourcing for counter-espionage activity? Why is that the case, given that such activity has increased, according to the confession of the director general of the Security Service himself? Will the Foreign Secretary look into that and ensure that it is put right?

David Miliband: As I have said in the House on a number of occasions, the fact that the budget is increasing does not mean that there are not choices to be made. There is no question about where our priorities have been focused over the past year or two. The counter-espionage issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are serious, and as I have discussed with the Committee, we take its strictures very seriously in that regard.

Let me end on a note of-I think-unanimity. Whatever their level of financial resources, the agencies' success depends on their staff. That is important in respect of the guidance. I want to pay tribute to their skills, dedication and commitment to public service. They hold themselves to exceptionally high standards, and it is important to say that they are as committed as any parliamentarian to upholding the laws and ethics of the country. Their work is necessarily largely unknown and unsung, and they are unable to defend themselves when faced with often ill-informed criticism. I know from my own travels how much they are respected across the world by our friends and allies, and I am sure all hon. Members will agree that they deserve our gratitude.

18 Mar 2010 : Column 1012
1.43 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I welcome this opportunity to acknowledge the valuable role performed by the Intelligence and Security Committee and its members from all parties, in particular those retiring from the House-my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) and, of course, the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). I salute the latter for his chairmanship of the Committee, his memorable speech today, to which I wish to return, and his 21 years in the House. He and I are parliamentary twins-we might not look like it, but we came into this House in a pair of by-elections 21 years ago, and we have been good friends ever since, fortified by a common interest in foreign affairs and a passion for everything Welsh. I, personally, will miss him very much in the Chamber.

This is a very important and interesting debate. I apologise in advance, however, because, given that I have to give a speech this evening, hundreds of miles away, I will not be here for the winding-up speeches. However, the Committee's annual report for 2008-09, and now for 2009-10, reminds us of the sheer breadth of the responsibilities of the UK's intelligence and security agencies. As the Foreign Secretary has said, they protect this country against not only terrorism in all its forms, but espionage, weapons of mass destruction, cyber-attacks and threats from unstable regions. They also support UK military forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

We owe a great deal to the members of these agencies. In the recent words-it was a good summary-of a distinguished former director general of the Security Service, they are

That we have so many people prepared to work on that basis is a great asset to this country, and we could not do for an hour or a day without them.

The scale of the threat from terrorism has perhaps made it inevitable that the Committee has devoted an increasing amount of time in recent years to that issue, with four reports having been published: a March 2005 special report into the handling of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, a special report three years ago into rendition, and two-I think-unpublished reports into the Binyam Mohamed case and the treatment and interviewing of detainees overseas.

I think that the House will agree that the wider issues thrown up in the course of these inquires-about the nature of our irreplaceable intelligence relationship with the United States and the balancing of the needs of national security with the requirements of accountability in our democratic society-go to the heart of the protection of the security of our nation. We therefore welcomed the commitments made by the Prime Minister a year ago today-on 18 March 2009-when he said that the Government would take action to

18 Mar 2010 : Column 1013

Such action was clearly needed, and we have supported the Government in giving the Attorney-General time to review allegations of complicity in torture, as well as respecting the role of the Committee in assessing and reporting on developments. We have also recognised that there are current legal proceedings that have to be taken into account by the Government. However, it seems extraordinary that they have been so slow-a theme of Government slowness now runs through this debate-in fulfilling the Prime Minster's commitments to the House. Those were commitments that he said were important to

This slowness is part of a pattern of unfulfilled commitments, extreme tardiness, administrative confusion and evidently threats to the independence of the Committee, for which Ministers must be held responsible.

The first of the Prime Minister's commitments was to publish the guidance given to intelligence officers-the Foreign Secretary has just been talking about this-and service personnel about the standards that we apply during the detention and interviewing of detainees overseas. He said that the guidance would need to be consolidated and reviewed by the Committee before publication. Yet the right hon. Member for Pontypridd has described how it took a full eight months for the Prime Minister to allow the Committee to see the guidance, despite his repeated requests. It will be a matter of concern and surprise to the House that the guidance was only handed over on 18 November last year, well after the date on which the Committee would have been able to scrutinise it as part of this annual review-a delay that Ministers have not even attempted to explain, except to say that it is a difficult process.

The Foreign Secretary spoke, throughout his speech, about the need for a strong and robust Intelligence and Security Committee, but recently the Government have not been treating that Committee as being entitled to be strong and robust. The most immediate consequence of the delay is that Parliament is not only debating this issue today without having been able to examine the detainee guidance, which has still not been published, but is doing so without having the benefit of the Committee's assessment of that guidance.

In his statement just last week, the Chairman said that his Committee had been assured by the Prime Minister that both the report and the guidance would be published "in good time" before today's debate. I imagine that, having made a public statement to that effect, the right hon. Gentleman is now a little disappointed that these assurances have not been kept. The fact that they have not been kept merits more explanation from Ministers about the delay.

Next Section Index Home Page