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3.54 pm

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley): May I tell the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) that he does not have the last word on the status of the Intelligence and Security Committee? It seems that that has become part of our annual debate; we do not have to justify it, but give our own opinions about its status.

I was particularly interested in the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on my hon. Friend the Member for Workington

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(Mr. Campbell-Savours), who is a member of the Committee. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock has attended previous debates on the matter, but I believe that our entire debate is a distraction from the fact that we should be debating the Committee's annual work load, as far as that is possible in the public domain. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) talked about the symbolism of the Committee. I am not greatly into symbolism; we should consider whether something is functional and practical. The way in which members of the Committee are assembled by the Prime Minister and the Executive, who, it is true, have prime responsibility for national security in this country, needs to be set alongside the way in which other Committees in the House are assembled.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock that, after the 1997 election, I was offered, by telephone, the chairmanship of a Select Committee, which I declined. The offer was not the general will of Parliament; it was made by the Executive. About two and a half years ago, I was asked by telephone to sit on a pre-legislative Select Committee, which examined the Bill that was eventually passed by the House to set up the Food Standards Agency. Not only was I asked to sit on that Committee, but I was asked to be Chairman. I must tell my hon. Friend that it was not the will of Parliament that that offer was made; the call came from someone in the Executive. To a large extent, therefore, our debate is a distraction from what the Intelligence and Security Committee is about.

I do not agree with everything that the hon. Member for East Hampshire said about what would, or would not, be seen if the Committee was a Select Committee, as opposed to a Committee of parliamentarians assembled by the Prime Minister. I am not arguing that the Committee should never be a Select Committee; we should get down to what it does, what it makes public, and how that squares with what happens in society, with Parliament and with our perception of people's attitudes towards the intelligence services in this country.

In that context, I want to say a few words in our debate. What has happened to British intelligence agencies in the past two decades is unique. First, it is only in the last 20 years that there has been a public admittance on paper that those agencies exist. In the past decade, the Executive and the Prime Minister set up a Committee of parliamentarians, on which I have served since 1997. Members of the Committee who had not signed the Official Secrets Act had to do so, and look into sensitive areas of the agencies' work inside and outside the country.

Every speaker has paid tribute to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), but I want to do so in the context of those two unique decades. During that period, he has performed a singular role. He has been a Secretary of State, with direct responsibilities for signing off, at least annually, the budget of an agency which, in theory, did not exist; its existence was not acknowledged. Yet he sat in Cabinet signing off its annual budgets and, presumably, not wanting to take responsibility for some of its capital projects. In 1994, he then took up the chairmanship of the Committee. I had little parliamentary contact with him, other than across the Floor of the Chamber, until I joined the Committee in 1997, but I believe that he has been an extremely good Chairman. He has not caused trouble, as people often do when they chair committees, as he said himself.

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I want to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his ministerial experience and chairing of the Committee. I recall his saying on numerous occasions in the Committee that although he had held ministerial responsibility for the intelligence agencies, he only really got to know about them when he became chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I probably should not be saying that, because people might think that I am out to cause trouble. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman will be writing his memoirs when he retires from Parliament. However, I genuinely want to thank him for the work that he has done, as have other speakers before me, including my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

The work of the Committee is evolving; there have been further developments since we discussed the last annual report. It has not been quite 12 months, as the last one was produced quite late. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater spoke about the leader in The Times and the press reports about the publication of our report on the Mitrokhin archive. The right hon. Gentleman said that someone had suggested that he might have written the leader himself. At the conference held two weeks ago at the Royal United Services Institute on oversight, security and intelligence issues, when the Director-General of the Security Service sat down, having spoken for the first time ever about the relationship that the service has had with the Committee over the years, we could have been forgiven for thinking that the right hon. Gentleman had written that speech as well. It went into detail about the evolving relationship between this Committee of parliamentarians and the agencies.

The right hon. Gentleman can be proud of how he has steered this ship. It could have got into troubled waters; it might, once or twice, have got a bit near the coastline at low tide, which might have been unwise. However, by and large, the Committee has kept away from troubled waters, certainly for the years I have been a member. That is due in no small part to the right hon. Gentleman's stewardship.

I was reminded of the director-general's speech when my hon. Friend the Member for Workington said that the director-general had said that sometimes more had been done than the law required. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members here today, those who will read this debate in Hansard, and members of the public will recognise that this debate covers only a part of the work that we have done over the past 12 months. I suppose that the iceberg metaphor is the correct one inasmuch as the report is indeed the tip of the iceberg--a lot of other work has been done. Some of it is asterisked in the report; some has not been included but remains in the confines of our office.

I turn to the investigator who has worked closely with the Committee over the past few months. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater paid John Morrison a compliment, which I would like to do as well. However, considering the work that has been done, a few other people should also be thanked.

We were not sure how the investigator would work with the Committee. He reports to us, and we task him in relation to going into the various agencies to look at matters that we could look at if we had the time. His ability to concentrate on specific issues has been very valuable.

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We have had three reports in the past 12 months. The report on the agencies' security policies and procedures was eventually sent to the Prime Minister. There was a report on the use of laptop computers. No one will be surprised at our decision to look at that issue. It was not simply about laptops going missing or being left in taxis, although that is an important aspect. That report went into detail, some of which has been included in our annual report. When there are multi-use laptop computers in organisations, they should be wiped clean when an individual has finished with a particular issue. When laptops are for the sole use of an individual, we should ensure that there is no build-up of sensitive information. If the laptop went missing and fell into the wrong hands, a lot of material could obviously be lost.

The third report deals with information technology systems and strategies in the public sector. That has nothing to do with the agencies; sadly, massive amounts of taxpayers' money have been misspent in many areas of the public sector, including health, on the procurement of IT systems. The investigator was tasked to look at the issue on that basis. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that we now have an IT champion looking at some of these issues.

The Government's response to the reports that we sent to the Prime Minister, as well as their response to the investigator's reports on the agencies, showed a mature attitude to what some people thought was an uneasy path for us to take. The period from 1997 until now may seem quite long, but we hope that it will in fact be a very short time in the life of this oversight Committee in the United Kingdom. Everyone's attitude to the investigator's report has been very important.

An ever-increasing part of the intelligence agencies' work is serious crime. The action taken on human smuggling and its awful consequences has been mentioned this afternoon. I refer not only to the deaths in Dover but to human trafficking around the world. We, along with many other countries, must deal with the problem of people exploiting others for money. That is a developing area which is highlighted in our report, and I am pleased that something is being done about it.

Serious crime is also a major issue. Drugs have been mentioned, as have the intelligence products that some of our agencies use in the international field to stop the movement of drugs around the country. Many of them are targeted on the misery in our communities and constituencies, where people are hooked on drugs. Such products are invaluable in trying to stop drug trafficking.

There is greater use of the agencies' products to deal with Customs and Excise evasion or fraud. I have an interest in public health matters, tobacco in particular. Tobacco smuggling into this country costs the Exchequer somewhere in the region of £2.3 billion to £2.5 billion. It is argued that tobacco is smuggled because of our high taxes: it is not. European Union countries such as Italy and Spain have lower taxes on tobacco products, but smuggling is as big a problem there as it is here. So the reasons go wider than that.

I am concerned not simply about the loss to the Treasury, but about the fact that much of the smuggled tobacco reaches the under-15s, who cannot buy cigarettes in legitimate outlets. They are cheaper, and as a consequence people get hooked on cigarettes at an early age. A lot of work is being done on that, too.

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While we have the ear of Ministers, I draw attention to the interim report of the Committee, which has been published in the past few days. Paragraph 32 says on the subject of tobacco smuggling:

I know that an independent Department of Trade and Industry investigation is taking place. It looks at what happened in the past, but the quotation makes it clear that the Committee has received evidence that such smuggling is still happening now. The Minister may want to pass on the Committee's concern expressed in that part of the report. I believe that the Government should have a look at it.

In both of the past two years, we have commented on the absence of legislation to give people who work in the security agencies the right to go to an industrial tribunal. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary say that orders to that effect had been laid in Parliament this week. That was fortuitous, given that the debate was scheduled for today. We shall be pleased to see the orders passed. I am not sure whether anyone in the agencies could have usefully used the legislation in the years since we have been lobbying for it, but it is good that the machinery is being put in place. We hope that it will not be needed. Two years ago we sought to ensure that there was a good system in each of the agencies to enable people who did not feel that they were being looked after properly to seek redress internally. The system should be able to handle that; we did a fair amount of work on it.

We have included a deliberately short comment in our interim report on the future of the Official Secrets Acts. I will not go into the detail of that paragraph, but I genuinely believe that the Act needs to be re-examined quickly. We say in our annual report that the future of the Act should be considered by any follow-on Committee, if there is to be a general election in the next few years--[Interruption.] That might be wishful thinking, not on my part, I hasten to add. If there is to be an election in the next few weeks, a new Committee should be set up more quickly than in May 1997 and it should look at the operation of the Act.

The context of the Official Secrets Act is changing--if in no other sphere, then in that of the internet and its effect on people's ability to put information in the public domain. That can form a case for the defence in any judicial action. The situation needs to be addressed.

Our compliments to the professionals who work in our agencies are in our report for all to see. On every visit, on some of which we have given staff a rough time by questioning what happens in their departments, I have never ceased to be amazed at their professionalism and courage. They do jobs in our democracy that most of us who are democratic representatives would shy away from because of the personal danger. I cannot emphasise enough the fact that, in the years I have served on the Committee, which I have thoroughly enjoyed, I have always been amazed at their professionalism. The people who work in the agencies ought to be given recognition by everyone. They look after not their own interests but the interests of the country, and they do that job well.

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4.14 pm

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