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Mrs. Beckett: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has not just triggered his election expenses. Given the mixture of what seems to be genuine discontent and, perhaps, a lack of tact--if I remember recent remarks by his hon. Friends--perhaps the Conservatives could do with a bit more fawning sycophancy in their party.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The Leader of the House will have been aware for longer than the rest of us of the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body on Members' pay and allowances. Given that many of those recommendations, particularly on allowances for new Members, are predicated on those allowances beginning in a new Parliament, would it not be appropriate for them to be put before the House, to give us the opportunity to debate and vote on them before the general election? Failing that, there will be complete chaos in the Fees Office, given the very large number of new Members that there will be in the House.

Mrs. Beckett: I note the hon. Gentleman's optimism about the large number of new Members--or perhaps it

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is pessimism? The last time there was a large number of new Members here, they were on this side. Of course, I understand the interest taken by the hon. Gentleman and all Members in the report, which proposes quite substantial changes in the handling of staff terms and conditions, and in the provisions for information technology in the House. The Government are mindful of those issues, but the hon. Gentleman will also know that they raise a number of substantial questions. At some point they will come before the House, but at present I cannot tell him when.

Personal Statement

1.20 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I rise to make an apology to the House. In its report published earlier today, the Standards and Privileges Committee has upheld a finding by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards that I failed to register my interest in some land and property in my constituency and that I had failed to declare that interest on several occasions. I unreservedly apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for these failures on my part, which I deeply regret.

My breaches of the rules of the House arose because I received no income from these interests and did not realise that it was necessary to register and declare them. I have not sought in any way to profit from my position as a Member of Parliament; I have sought to protect jobs in my constituency. I have not sought to conceal my interests from the House. This was an oversight on my part, for which I accept full responsibility.

I am grateful to the commissioner and to the Committee for the speed with which the matter has been resolved. I am grateful to the Committee for its recognition that I have co-operated fully with the commissioner's inquiry.

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Points of Order

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House made a delphic announcement earlier that something called the Election Publications Bill would have its proceedings on Monday. This is rather unusual, because normally we would have the Second Reading of the Bill--giving an opportunity for Members to consider the Bill--and then a Committee stage. I hope that there is no suggestion of an attempt to ram the Bill through the House on Monday evening. Were that to be the case, could you confirm to Members what arrangements there will be for tabling amendments to the Bill--as many of us may wish to do--so that it is properly aired, debated, considered and, if necessary, amended?

I hope you will act, as ever you do, in the interests of the House and of its Members, Mr. Speaker. I hope that there is no attempt at a ghastly conspiracy or, even worse, an attempt by the Government to use a Bill such as this to repair their previous cock-up without the House being able to examine it properly.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that the House accepted without any dissent a procedural motion yesterday. There is no accuracy in the suggestion that anything underhand is being done; the House has taken a decision to deal with the matter, and did so on the basis that the proposal was accepted as being in the interests of all parts of the House.

Mr. Speaker: To answer the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth): the Leader of the House is quite right. Amendments can be tabled before Second Reading. I hope that that is of assistance to him.

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Intelligence Agencies

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

1.23 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): These debates on the work of our intelligence and security agencies are one of the innovations of this Parliament and a welcome addition to the scrutiny of those agencies by this Parliament. I would like to think that they have also been a viable means of promoting an understanding in the wider public of the real role of the security and intelligence agencies.

I am conscious that the structure of the debate suffers from one flaw that I would suggest we review in the next Parliament. By convention, I open the debate and only subsequently does the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee address the House to present the annual report. I do not know whether this idea would cause apoplexy among the House authorities, but it is for consideration that, in future debates, we might invite the Chairman to open the debate and lay the report so the rest of us can comment on it. This would enable the Chairman to have the first word and enable the rest of us to respond.

I have great regret that his retirement from the House will prevent the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) from initiating that innovation next year. He has made a real and permanent contribution to the scrutiny of the agencies in his years as the first Chairman of the Committee. His service as a Cabinet Minister in two of the most sensitive Departments gives him a depth of experience that has been a great asset to the Committee. He has been diligent in overseeing its work and, as I can confirm to the House from my personal experience, assiduous in defending its rights of scrutiny. He has also demonstrated great responsibility in his public comments, which have often restored a balance in the media that might otherwise have been missing. He can retire with the respect of the whole House for the way which he has performed his duties.

I am not sure whether four years is a sufficiently long period to qualify for the establishment of a tradition, but it has become a tradition of these debates that they are pursued in a tone that is free from the partisan spirit of other exchanges in the House. I am conscious that this particular debate occurs at an interesting point in the political cycle, which may test that principle to the point of destruction. Nevertheless, I hope that we can maintain an approach in the debate that rises above party politics. The intelligence and security agencies are not an appropriate matter for partisan exchanges. They need a consensus in the House that recognises their contribution not only to Government policy, but to the national interest.

For the past four years, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have been accountable to the House for the work of the agencies. It is impossible for me to do justice in the House to the immense value of the agencies which I have seen for myself in that time. It is impossible because to disclose it all would be to prevent the agencies from being able to continue to deliver a service that must necessarily remain secret. However, I shall try today to put on the public record what I can about their success in defending national security and promoting the national interest.

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We should not imagine that the traditional challenges vanished with the Berlin wall. I regret to say that the dramatic end of the cold war has not produced the same dramatic reduction in the threat of espionage. The proportion of the agencies total effort in countering that threat to our security may have declined in the past decade, but the importance of that work has not lessened. However, the end of a bipolar world has multiplied the security challenges that we face.

Access to hard facts is crucial to taking the right policy decisions. We need hard facts now about the position in Iraq, the resources of Balkan extremists, and the intentions of rebels in Africa. Gaining access to those hard facts is every bit as challenging as it ever was to produce intelligence on our old rivals in the Warsaw pact. Yet, hard facts secured against the odds by the Secret Intelligence Service and Government communications headquarters have made a real contribution to the progress that we have made in foreign policy.

The House will know, for example, of the malign role of the illegal trade in diamonds from Sierra Leone through Liberia and of the reverse flow of weapons through Liberia to the rebels in Sierra Leone. We have just secured a Security Council resolution that brings sanctions and pressure to bear on Liberia to halt both forms of trade. We could not have built that consensus in the Security Council if we had not been able to share with the United Nations hard facts and reliable intelligence about the situation on the ground.

The Intelligence and Security Committee has already acknowledged the immense role played by the intelligence agencies in the success of the Kosovo campaign. They have since played a valuable role in restoring stability in the region.

Another sphere in which our diplomacy depends on the input of the agencies is in defeating weapons proliferation. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is one of the greatest menaces to global peace. The task of defeating proliferation becomes technically more challenging as the technology spreads and the cost declines. Nor is the problem confined only to warhead technology. The spread of missile technology has introduced a new threat of more sophisticated delivery systems.

Policy making on proliferation depends to an unusually large degree on secret intelligence. I sometimes find a common assumption that, in the age of satellite surveillance, we can acquire all the information that is necessary by technical means. Sadly, that faith in high technology is misplaced. Human intelligence is essential in identifying a threat of proliferation, especially of biological and chemical weapons, the production of which can so easily be disguised as industrial process. Without human agents, we could not take effective measures to disrupt or prevent proliferation.

There is one other way in which the product of our intelligence agencies is crucial to our foreign policy. We have a unique intelligence partnership with the United States. It would be hard to find any example in history of two sovereign nations that have co-operated so closely or so frankly in the intelligence field. As the Committee report notes, on one recent occasion, the US intelligence agencies were served for three days directly from GCHQ, after the National Security Agency equipment failed. Respect for the scope of our agencies and the reliability

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of their information is a powerful element in a relationship that makes Britain and the United States closest allies and strongest friends.

If we are to retain that respect and secure the best quality of intelligence, our agencies must be at the cutting edge of the new technologies, and that requires investment. GCHQ's new accommodation programme is the largest private finance initiative project. It will bring GCHQ together on one site rather than two. When complete, it will provide a modern, purpose-built environment for a signals intelligence agency fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

The Intelligence and Security Committee has strongly supported the programme, but has rightly drawn attention to the risks involved in such a large and complex undertaking. I can assure the House that the management team at GCHQ has been strengthened and is making increasing use of external specialists to help with the project management. I have asked for, and receive, quarterly reports on the project. I have meetings with the director of GCHQ--most recently, on Monday--to discuss progress.

I am pleased to tell the House that spending on the project in the current financial year is on track. Better still, construction on the new building is currently 12 weeks ahead of schedule. If that is sustained, it will provide valuable extra time for the transition to the new building, the complexity of which has rightly exercised the Committee.

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