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Our intelligence services certainly do a vital job, and they are doing it, at the moment, in very difficult circumstances, so they deserve our full support. We need strong security services to protect us from the threat of dangerous extremism, and of course much of what they do must necessarily remain a secret, as has been said. In this area, we need-almost uniquely-accountability without full transparency. It will, and should, always be thus, which is why the work of the Committee, and the trust that we want to be able to place in it, is so important.
We have had a string of revelations and allegations in recent years about the intelligence services' complicity in extraordinary rendition-the practice, which was greatly extended by President Bush after 11 September, of kidnapping people and taking them to places where they may be maltreated or tortured. On the basis of what I have seen and heard, I am confident that our services do not want to be involved in such practices. From what I can tell, the services themselves believe that the practice is counter-productive for intelligence gathering, and, in any case, revelations of possible involvement sap their morale. They want and need the public to have confidence in them, and accountability is for their benefit as well as for ours. That is why we do them a disservice if we fail to investigate credible allegations when they are made.
I created the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition in December 2005 to try to get to the bottom of the issue of rendition, and of any possible UK involvement in it. After careful thought, I made a number of specific allegations. The first was that the UK had facilitated or been complicit in rendition. The second was that Diego Garcia was being used for that purpose. The third was that the UK's armed forces might also be involved in rendition. It is worth recalling the blanket denials with which those points were met.
"Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States...there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom had been involved in rendition".
In a subsequent Westminster Hall debate, the then Foreign Office Minister responsible for policy in this area said that to suggest that Ministers might not know all the facts was the usual "conspiracy theory mantra". That Member is now the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the right hon. Member for Pontypridd, sitting on the other side of the House.
Each of my allegations has been either supported by a court judgment or admitted in subsequent correcting ministerial statements. I hope that the work of the all-party group on extraordinary rendition has made a contribution towards getting to the truth behind all the allegations, but it really should not be down to us to find out the truth about this stuff. The ISC should be the body of parliamentarians with the job of getting to that truth and giving us confidence that it has done so.
I was delighted when the Committee finally responded to my repeated requests for an inquiry into rendition by launching one, and its report was eventually published in July 2007. But did the Committee succeed in getting
to the truth? The courts have recently suggested that it did not. It seems, from the High Court and Appeal Court judgments in the Binyam Mohamed case, that the ISC did not know what was going on. The relevant quotation from those judgments is:
"The ISC Report could not have been made in such terms if the 42 documents"-
"had been made available to it".
The judge's conclusion sits oddly with that of the Chairman of the Committee, who, as recently as August 2009, said that he was "confident" that the ISC knew what was going on in regard to rendition. He made that claim in an interview on the "Today" programme, a transcript of which I have, although I shall not read out any more of it now.
Baroness Manningham-Buller's recent extremely interesting contribution contained the conclusion that the ISC was likely to be reformed to become a full Select Committee of Parliament. There are certainly many people who want that, and we have heard support for that view around the Chamber this afternoon.
I have not supported that proposal-and I still do not support it-for a number of reasons, but primarily because I am not yet convinced that the benefits in bolstering public confidence will not be more than offset by the loss of trust between Parliament and the services, and the reduced access that could result from that, which would reduce the Committee's opportunities to get to the truth. Full congressional committees in the US-not special committees-do that sort of work, but we do not have their strong investigative tradition to draw on, backed by the courts and underpinned by the separation of powers. Perhaps we should, but that would entail a much broader reform of the constitution, which nobody at the moment is seriously entertaining, and nor do I support it.
Having said all that, I think that we must have reform of the ISC. Even the Government more or less accept that in their response to the most recent annual report, and so, of course, does the ISC in its report, with its proposals for greater independence from the Cabinet Office. As has been pointed out, by the hon. Member for Thurrock among others, it is wholly unacceptable, as well as being a reflection of the need for reform, that the 2009-10 report should have been published only a few hours before this debate. The same goes for the Government's failure to publish the interview guidance for those operating overseas.
I have not had time to digest either document, and that includes the ISC's proposals for reform and the Government's response to them. None the less, it strikes me that the Committee might be mistaken in its principal proposals and that the Government might be right in their response. I have only had the opportunity to see this in the past few hours, but as the Government pointed out, it would be "unusual", to say the least,
"for a scrutiny body to have its funding linked to the function it scrutinises".
As for the need for yet another departmental reshuffle, that would take a lot of justifying, particularly in a week when the Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office has strongly criticised the unprecedented number of central Government
departmental reorganisations, which, on average over the past four years, are now running at more than 20 a year. The CAG concluded that such reorganisations cannot be justified on value for money grounds. Perhaps the reorganisation proposed by the Committee can be justified, and perhaps, even if it costs more, it can be justified on other grounds-I do not know, and I could not possibly be in a position to judge that, sitting where I do now-but the proposal gives me pause. Rearranging the chairs in Whitehall might not be the most fruitful approach to bolstering public confidence. The ISC's proposals are probably not the right way forward, therefore, and they are certainly not enough to give the public confidence that the ISC remains sufficiently independent and capable of getting to the truth.
For some time I have been arguing for a change that would help on both counts-that is, on increasing independence and on giving the public confidence that the Committee can get closer to the truth. We need to address the fact-this cannot be avoided-that whatever the reality, the appearance is that the Committee is not sufficiently independent of the Prime Minister and the Executive, a point that is reinforced by the report that has just been published.
In recent years, a string of appointees have come out of senior positions in the Government to chair the ISC, only to return to the Front Bench immediately afterwards. That is true of at least three, if not four, of the last five Chairman. I am not impugning the integrity of any of the people involved, and experience of government, particularly in a relevant area, is of course extremely valuable in chairing the ISC. However, the revolving door between the chairmanship of the ISC and the Government cannot and should not be the norm, if we want the public to have confidence that the ISC and its work are wholly independent of Government. In any case, once the appearance of independence has gone-whatever the reality-so has the point of having the ISC in the first place. Something must be done.
I served on the Wright Committee, whose primary purpose was to bolster public confidence in Parliament in a much broader context. The Committee adopted my proposal that the Chairmen of Select Committees should be elected by secret ballot of the whole House, for which I had been campaigning for more than a decade. I also won support for my proposal that the Chairman of the ISC-which, of course, is not a Select Committee-should be elected in the same way as Select Committee Chairmen, subject to a prime ministerial veto at the nomination stage. I can think of no good reason why that relatively modest proposal cannot be implemented immediately, and nor could the members of the Wright Committee. Its implementation would at least block the revolving door, and that would bolster public confidence a little.
I believe that much more needs to be done, but I shall now confine myself to the subject of rendition. If we want to achieve closure, we need the maximum possible disclosure. Neither Ministers nor the ISC appear to have known the truth about this matter, and we have to ask ourselves whether the tools of parliamentary scrutiny have been adequate. More than two years ago, I reluctantly concluded that in order to plug the gap in relation to United Kingdom involvement, we needed a brief judge-led inquiry on rendition.
Mr. Tyrie: No, I did not say that. I said that they had not been able to get to the truth. For example, I consider it indisputable that Ministers were unable to get to the truth when I was given blanket denials on the issue of Diego Garcia. For whatever reason, they were unable to tell me, or the public, what had been going on.
Mr. Mates: We must make sure that we get this point right. As my hon. Friend says, neither the ISC nor the Government got to the truth about Diego Garcia initially. Both we and the Government asked questions of the United States Government, who are in control there. They gave us a flat and definitive answer-they were not in any doubt-which we therefore accepted. If my hon. Friend is telling me that a judge would have got a different answer out of them, that is one thing; but what subsequently happened, to the embarrassment of the Foreign Secretary, the Government and, indeed, all of us, was that the United States Government changed their story. We were never going to get to the truth of what the Americans were doing on an island which is within our sovereignty but totally under their control until they told us the truth. How would any form of judicial or extra-judicial inquiry have got that out of the Americans before they chose to tell us?
Mr. Tyrie: I think that my right hon. Friend misunderstands the purpose of an inquiry. The purpose would not be to suggest that we could have done much better if we had taken some other route, but it would bolster public confidence if all the information about rendition were available to us, so that we could form a judgment, draw a line under it and then move on. That case and other cases have created a sense that there may be other things which we do not know and which should be known, which is itself corrosive. I have absolutely no idea whether that is true, and I am making no specific allegations, but I do not think that my right hon. Friend has fully understood the motivation of those who call for a judge-led inquiry.
Incidentally, I am not alone in calling for such an inquiry. I am supported by Lord Carlile, the Government's own independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, by the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties and by a wide range of other experts in the field. This is not a bizarre, heretical view; I could even argue that it is now the mainstream view, which was certainly not the case when I first proposed it. I also have to say that, fairly or unfairly, many people have been led to call for this at least in part because of the appearance of shortcomings in the ISC process.
I have not got a problem with a judge-led inquiry, if it is designed to try to reassure the public that we have now got all the facts out, but I certainly do not agree that either the ISC or Ministers lacked the means of getting to the truth at the time. What we did not have at the time was the evidence from the Americans. I would not have stood up in the Chamber and said I was absolutely certain about our having the means to get to the truth at the time, if I was not absolutely certain about that. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that we
may think we have got all the facts now, but we cannot be certain, because other facts may emerge in the future. One wonders when these successive judicial inquiries will finish, and I might ask this question: was that not why we were elected to this place? Were we not elected to this place to make decisions and to do that work ourselves as best we can, and to learn from our failures and to do better next time?
Mr. Tyrie: There were a lot of points in that intervention and I shall not try to answer them all-indeed, I am not quite sure that I can remember them all. The first point that I took from the right hon. Gentleman's comments was that he is happy with the principle that we should have a short judge-led inquiry to draw a line under this and to give the public the confidence that we are moving forward in the right way. The right hon. Gentleman's second point was that he could not have done any better and he was acting on the basis of all the information that was available. I do not doubt that; I am quite sure that he did not look at some document and say, "Well, I think I'll keep that under wraps." I am not suggesting that for a moment, but I am suggesting that there might have been something defective in the way we set about finding out what is going on and making sure information is properly reported to Ministers. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) also made that point, with specific examples.
The right hon. Gentleman's third point was to suggest that we are supposed to be doing this work ourselves, rather than having a host of judge-led inquiries, and that was precisely the point I was about to make. It is important to draw a distinction in respect of what has been going on in the courts-between what is or is not sub judice. I have been surprised at some of the rulings on that, in that either something is sub judice or it is not sub judice, and the police are investigating things all the time. It strikes me that that process should, and will have to, continue. I have never been a strong supporter of the view that the only way to solve this is by going around trying to find as many people as we can to prosecute. Besides, it seems to me that the fact that there is the threat of prosecution may in some cases make it more difficult to get to the truth, because people will be extremely cautious about what they say or divulge.
My view is that a short judge-led inquiry might provide a way for us more quickly to draw a line under this than we can through a much more protracted process in the courts. That protracted process might also, whether fairly or not, lead to a further degradation of respect for both the intelligence services and the ISC. I want this process to be brought to an end as soon as possible. Reading between the lines of Baroness Manningham-Buller's speech, I had the impression that she and I were not a long way apart on that point.
The right hon. Gentleman's final point was about judicial inquiries substituting for Parliament. I completely agree that it is a sad reflection on the apparent inadequacy of parliamentary scrutiny that we have had a string of failures by Select Committees to achieve what we expect of them and that we have had a string of inquiries such as Hutton, Butler and Chilcot.
My overriding conclusion is that rather than leave this area to Parliament, the need to get to the truth trumps any constitutional concern. In my view, an
inquiry is not only necessary, but almost inevitable, not least because I suspect that if we can get round the problems triggered by evidence to it generating prosecutions -that was the point I made a moment ago-the security services may soon conclude that they would benefit from this as a means of drawing a line as quickly as possible. Only by drawing that line can we move on, and to do that we must get to the truth. Of course I recognise that parts-perhaps quite a bit-of such an inquiry would have to be conducted in private, but once we have accomplished that we can rebuild confidence in the security services and maximise their ability to protect us within a framework of law. It is with that in mind, above all, that I have come forward with the proposal that we should have an inquiry.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I add my salute to members of the Intelligence and Security Committee and, in particular, to the four members who have announced that they intend to leave the House at the forthcoming general election: the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman); my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram); my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who I suppose we must term the "father" of the ISC-
Mr. Lidington: The Minister says the doyen, but I suppose he is more continentally minded than I am. Above all, I pay tribute to the ISC's Chairman, the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells). Listening to the tributes during today's debate, he must have at times feared that he was in a dream and listening to the eulogies at his own funeral. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I must say that the Chairman delivered a formidable demonstration of independence in his opening speech. When I from time to time debated against him from our respective Front Benches, he occasionally came out with a comment from the Dispatch Box along the lines of, "My personal view is", at which point one could see the shudder spreading along the row of civil servants in attendance to support him as they wondered quite what their Minister was about to say next.
This debate has centred very much on how to strike the balance in our country between secrecy and the accountability of the security and intelligence services, and I wish to discuss that theme a little later. The debate also touched upon many aspects of the work of the security and intelligence agencies, and the report goes into rather more detail about that. I wish to allude briefly to some of those aspects.
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