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"The Agencies' operational work is about knowledge and information, and the ability to retrieve such information is central to the work with which they are charged."
It goes without saying that an intelligence agency that spends a huge amount of time, resources and effort in collecting information, but then says, "We are unable to identify it within our own records," when it might be operationally desirable to do so has a lot of explaining to do. This matter should never have been allowed to reach that stage. If the agencies say that that problem is now in the past, I very much hope that that is right. If it is not, they need to be given the help, resources and support to ensure that their retrieval systems are so improved-within weeks, not years-that such a problem will not recur. That is a crucial consideration.
I come to the second of the three areas that I wish to comment on, which is very much in line with what my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) said: we have to get the problem of whether there has been any complicity in improper behaviour into perspective. We are taking part in this debate in the aftermath of the Bush Administration in the United States quite explicitly giving authority to their interrogation officials to perform what was euphemistically described as "coercive" interrogation-similar language was also used-which by any normal standards meant "torture".
Sir Malcolm Rifkind:
Enhanced interrogation, coercive interrogation-various phrases were used to try to avoid saying the dreaded word "torture". However, when there is waterboarding and a series of other such practices
and when it is stated that as long as permanent, irreversible physical damage to the person concerned is not inflicted, such behaviour does not constitute torture, that is an absurd use of language and they are matters of some alarm.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire and others have said, it is a matter of huge satisfaction and relief that there is not the slightest suggestion from any quarter that employees of this country's agencies have ever tortured anyone or carried out cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. There is no suggestion either that they have asked for that to be done by other people, but the ISC report nevertheless sets out two problems identified by the documents that were eventually released in the case of Binyam Mohamed.
The first was that the UK agencies had information that Binyam Mohamed had been subject to extreme sleep deprivation. That was obviously a matter of some concern, but the more important and disturbing problem is revealed in paragraph 152 of the report. Although the UK agencies had received the information about Mr. Mohamed, the Committee states:
"There is no record that the Security Service took any action on receipt of this information".
"continued to provide US liaison with background information"
"to be put to Mr. Mohamed, up until April 2003"-
If the report is correct, it suggests that our security services were aware that Mr. Mohamed had been subject to what presumably would be described as cruel and degrading treatment but that it was willing to ask for questions to be put to him, even though it did not know that the treatment had been concluded. So far as the security services knew, the treatment might have been continuing: if it was, then there is a case to answer with regard to the question of complicity. I very much hope that those are not the facts of the situation, but they would be consistent with the ISC report.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I happily respond to my hon. Friend. Our security services might know that a detainee who continues to be detained had been subjected to torture or cruel or degrading treatment in the past. However, if an opportunity were to arise for one of our security service officials to put questions to that detainee, I do not believe that that should be ruled out simply because of past behaviour by personnel who are citizens of other countries working on behalf of other agencies in other parts of the world. If there is any doubt about whether such treatment is still going on, however, that introduces the question of complicity. That is quite a different matter, and that is where the line needs to be drawn.
That brings me to the third and final area that I wish to comment on. It is that, whatever judgment we make on the matters that have been discussed so far, we will always face a huge dilemma about sharing information.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire has said-and it is not a matter of dispute-the UK security agencies are a crucial part of the equipment that we have to prevent acts of terrorism in this country. They therefore have to be able to co-operate, and the sharing of information is a crucial part of their armoury. It just so happens that, for those of our agencies that are trying to deal with al-Qaeda or forms of Islamic extremist terrorism, the other intelligence agencies that are most relevant and likely to have information of real value are those of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt-not to mention the US itself. Without doing enormous damage to the objectives that we have asked our security services to carry out on our behalf, we cannot have a blanket ban on co-operation with other intelligence agencies just because it is well known that many of them torture those under their control, or carry out activities of another kind.
How do we get the balance right? What do we do to square the circle and reconcile these two conflicting objectives? Baroness Manningham-Buller said that we have to ask for assurances and that she sometimes wishes that more had been asked for. I have no doubt that assurances are important, but I hope that I am not misunderstood when I say that it would be very unwise to rely too much even on assurances. If I were given absolute assurances by the Saudi, Pakistani and Egyptian intelligence agencies that they never tortured their prisoners or a particular detainee, frankly I would not believe it, because it is contrary to the huge amount of evidence that exists that that is precisely what they do in many cases when they think it appropriate. Simply asking for assurances might be thought to cover oneself if they are forthcoming, but the reality is that they are not worth very much. No intelligence agency will say, "Well, seeing as how you ask, yes you are quite right, that is exactly what we have done. We have tortured the prisoners under our control." They will not say it. Why should they, from their perspective?
I therefore come back to the approach that is required, and it has two ingredients. First-I will qualify this in a few moments-we have to trust the agencies. Those who work in the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service are people of the highest quality, and, I believe, overwhelmingly, of the highest integrity and professionalism. When we have people of such calibre, we have to trust them to a very significant degree to carry out their responsibilities in accordance with the rules, requirements and norms of a civilised society. All the evidence we have is that that is overwhelmingly what happens. Secondly, and perhaps in their own interests-undoubtedly in their own interests-they have to have guidelines. They have to be given by the Government, by the country that they serve, and set the framework within which they need to operate. Not only do they have to receive guidelines, but the guidelines have to be published. They have to be a matter of public knowledge so that the country is aware of what is happening, what might happen and what should not happen. With such a framework, we would be reassured.
The right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) paid a deserved tribute to his fellow members of the ISC. As I mentioned earlier, I was involved with the then Prime Minister, John Major, in the deliberations that took place when the Committee was first established. While it is indeed the case that we concluded that it was more appropriate to have a Committee
separate from the Select Committee system and to go down that alternative route, there was a reason for that, which I do not believe is as persuasive a reason now as it was then.
Within only a relatively short period, the very existence of the intelligence and security agencies, MI5 and MI6, had been declared for the first time. For them to be told that they would also be subject to oversight by a Committee of MPs posed a real question as to whether they would feel sufficiently confident that they could open up in a significant and comprehensive way with such a Committee if it was seen as merely part of the Select Committee system that the House had at that time. Therefore, giving it a distinctive identity, making it a Committee of parliamentarians that was not answerable to the House in the same way as other Committees, and having its membership essentially appointed by the Prime Minister, with all the other safeguards that were introduced, created the reassurance at that time, 16 years ago, that this was an innovation worth introducing that did not pose a threat to the security agencies.
We now have the benefit of the experience of those 16 years. I am second to none in paying tribute to the independence of the members of the ISC, including its current membership, who, for reasons that have been mentioned by others, have demonstrated by their own actions, as have their predecessors, their independence and determination to carry out their responsibilities in a way that everyone would give them credit for. However, there is an additional objective and that is that the Committee must be seen by the British public and by all with a legitimate interest in these matters as an independent Committee. I think that it is, but I can understand why some question that and why some perceive the matter to be unresolved.
I do not think that the intelligence agencies would be unduly concerned if the Committee, which has evolved in a significant way already over the past 16 years, was to continue to evolve in a way that recognised the point I made a few moments ago. I do not think that anyone would dispute that the members of the Committee, for example, should have to continue to sign the Official Secrets Act. They should have been chosen in such a way that ensures that, as individuals, they have a reputation for integrity and independence that will be a reassurance to the Prime Minister, the Government and the agencies. The rules under which they operate should mean that in the vast majority of cases it is right and proper that their evidence is taken in private. That does not necessarily mean that they cannot make up a Select Committee with ultimate responsibility to this House.
We have it within our power when we create a Select Committee to agree the constraints under which it should operate. If a particular committee needs all the safeguards that the ISC has but, instead of it being a Committee outside the structure of this House, it is ultimately answerable, albeit with the constraints to which I have referred, I would not see it as a threat to the security agencies or as an impediment to their full co-operation with the Committee. It gives that little bit of significant extra reassurance to the outside world-by which I mean the citizens of this country-that these matters are being dealt with.
At a time when Parliament is spending more time than ever before seeking to reassert the importance of Parliament against the Executive and to win back some
of the powers that have been lost to the Executive over the years, I see no obvious reason why, with the qualifications that I have enthusiastically accepted, the Intelligence and Security Committee should not be part of that reform process. I hope that those who have expressed a different view will not have closed minds on this subject and will at least be willing to explore how this could be done in a way that would meet the real and legitimate concerns that they expressed in their remarks.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): In the years that I have been in the House of Commons, I have taken part in most of these debates-more or less annually, but there have often been some large gaps between the publication of the reports and time being found to discuss them in the House. They have been a very important part of my parliamentary calendar.
I think and hope that this will be my penultimate speech to the House of Commons, as I hope to have another opportunity to speak. It allows me to reflect on the period I have been attending these debates. I have always caught the eye of the occupant of the Chair, because they are not very well attended-yet one of the most critical areas of our role and responsibility in the House of Commons is to scrutinise this work. Fortunately, as I say, there is always room to get in.
I want to make it abundantly clear-I am amazed that somehow people infer some doubt about this-that I fully recognise the outstanding professionalism, dedication and courage of hundreds of men and women in our security and intelligence services. I say that without qualification. I accept that parliamentary colleagues spend an enormous number of hours deliberating in the Committee and on their preparatory work, and I respect that. I have never, ever doubted it. However, there are areas for criticism and for encouragement to change, not just in relation to the Committee. There are also areas where we must scrutinise and severely criticise the stewardship of some aspects of our security and intelligence services by persons whose names, by definition, I do not know but whose conduct, in my view, requires further and ongoing scrutiny.
Having said that, it would be remiss of me not to dwell for a moment on something that we in the House of Commons should jealously safeguard. I raised this point earlier with Sir Alan, who clarified the position, but it still needs to be said. It really is outrageous that the 2009-10 report was published this morning, and that there was a presumption-made largely by the Privy Counsellors in this place-that everything could be scooped up and debated together: the debate outlined on the Order Paper, on the 2008-09 report, could be conflated with the debate on the 2009-10 report and the two dealt with at the same time.
I put the problem simply: approximately 600 MPs do not know of the existence of the 2009-10 report because they are not here in the House of Commons today. When I went to our own dear Vote Office-I make absolutely no criticism of its staff-to ask for papers for today's debates, I was given the 2008-09 report; only when I came into the Chamber and listened to the Chairman of the Committee did I realise that there was another document worth looking at.
It is a mickey-take of Parliament when that sort of thing happens and I just wonder who is to blame. Will anyone own up to that cavalier handling of Parliament? We need to watch that in the future. To be candid, I think it is indicative of the cavalier way in which the scrutiny of our security and intelligence services has been dealt with by a number of people, including Ministers and, I have to say, my colleagues on the ISC. They could have kicked up rough, protested and raised the matter earlier today with the Leader of the House of Commons, saying that Parliament had not had enough time to consider the 2009-10 report. Of course, the vein running through everything I will say is the culture in the security and intelligence services of treating this place with contempt and bouncing things through. That is the real problem. Many of the remarks made by others, although they have not said that, buttress my case that there is an unhealthy, dangerous and undemocratic culture in our security and intelligence services. I will amplify my argument and justify it in my comments today.
Dr. Howells: I hope that my hon. Friend is not assuming-he would be wrong if he did-that the Intelligence and Security Committee was party to the late delivery of the report to this House. We were informed by the Prime Minister that it would be delivered yesterday, in good time for Members to read before this debate. It was not delivered, but it is not the Committee's fault that it was not delivered. I very much hope that he will take that seriously.
Andrew Mackinlay: I most definitely do take it seriously, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for intervening. He says that he had a promise that the report would be available yesterday, but does that make it any better? The fact is that the document should have been available for a reasonable period. It was not available- with full knowledge and consent, he knew that, so why did he not kick up rough with the Leader of the House, who was here earlier, and say that the situation is outrageous? Why were we bounced into acquiescing in this disregard for parliamentary procedure? If he reflects on his intervention, my right hon. Friend will see that it buttresses my point, rather than gives some legitimate excuse for what has happened.
Why do I say that there is a culture of secrecy and contempt of Parliament? It is worth revisiting something I have told the House before, about the time I put down a question to the Prime Minister asking who is the Clerk of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The reply came back, "We're not going to tell you. It's a secret." In fact, late one night, as I was reading the civil service handbook, as one does, it fell open and I found that the Clerk was named there. This story is treated with a degree of levity, and I have laughed at it myself, but there is a serious point: what happened is indicative of that secret culture.
Did others notice that, earlier, the Foreign Secretary let out the fact that Intelligence and Security Committee is going to be away next week? Now, certainly a few years ago, it would have been considered unbelievably reckless for him to declare that.
The hon. Member for Kensington Pentlands, or something or other, says, "It still is." I thought so, too, but then other people compounded the
fact, so everybody knows that the Committee is away next week somewhere. I remember being at the Members' entrance a few years ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) was there, along with a few other people. I passed pleasantries. They were all looking rather sheepish, and they got into a white van. I thought it rather amusing and wondered where they were going. I discovered, of course, that they were going off on Committee business.
That secret culture makes the whole thing a nonsense. People should focus on the things that really matter-real security, of which I am very mindful at this time of grave peril to our national security. I need no lessons in recognising that there is a very grave situation internationally. The threat of terrorism is real both from al-Qaeda and similar groups and also in terms of Northern Ireland. I am very concerned about the gravity of the situation, but sometimes people play games and do not focus on what really is important.
I have acknowledged the work load of my right hon. Friend's Committee and the dedication and diligence of its members, but a theme of this afternoon's debate has been whether it could or should be a Select Committee. If we were to revisit these annual debates in which I have taken part, we would find that, very early on and for many years afterwards, when I even suggested that it become a Select Committee, there would come from the direction of Hampshire a reaction implying that I was stark staring bonkers. I see a chink today, because other people have talked about the Committee possibly being a Select Committee. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who is not in his place now, rightly said that it is not the title that matters, but the Committee's function.
All that I have said, consistently, has been much in line with the things that some Members have uttered today but did not before. Of course we would have special ground rules for any Select Committee that absorbed the ISC's function, and of course much evidence would be given in private, and so it should be, but what has been refreshing today is the acknowledgement by some sensible Members that there is scope-I think that is the word-for some hearings to be held in public.
Mr. Mates: I am sorry, but I hope the hon. Gentleman was not trying to put words in my mouth. I would never have used the phrase "stark staring bonkers" in his context. All I would say is that he has been absolutely consistent in his arguments-despite all the facts that we have. That is my criticism of him. If we were able to construct a Select Committee, would we not advocate it, given the grief that we have had from the Cabinet Office over the past year? We have considered the proposal, and there are many factors about which the hon. Gentleman, who is becoming impatient to reply, does not know or, if he does, does not accept. If it were possible to construct a Select Committee, that would be fine. He might now refer to me again with that phrase, but I still do not think that the proposal would be possible or make the Committee any better than it is.
Andrew Mackinlay: The right hon. Gentleman is incapable of recommending that, because although he is a very nice man he is deeply conservative. He has reaffirmed my view that there is resistance, although it is notable that some of his colleagues have departed from his view this afternoon.
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