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6.10 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): As the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, this has been a good debate. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said in his opening remarks that such debates were traditionally bipartisan, but given the electoral timetable, he wondered whether

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that would be tested to destruction. It almost fell over with the first speech from the Opposition Front Bench, that of the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), to whose remarks I shall return in due course.

There have been one or two discordant voices, and rightly so, but the debate has been of a high standard. It has served to illustrate the great effectiveness of the Intelligence and Security Committee in holding Ministers, particularly my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself, and the Government to account for their stewardship of the intelligence and security services.

My right hon. Friend began by paying tribute to members of the Intelligence and Security Committee who are leaving the House, and I shall do the same. Two members who are leaving, my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), have not been able to be present today for the debate, for reasons that we all understand. However, I know from the assiduous way in which they have attended the Committee, and the even more assiduous questions that they have put to me and to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, that they have made an important contribution to the work of the Committee and will be greatly missed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) entered the House, in the end, at the same time as I did, after three tries, two in Darwen, the adjoining constituency to mine, in February and October 1974, and then at a famous by-election, when Fred Peart went to the other place to become Leader of the House of Lords. I first got to know my hon. Friend the Member for Workington--he may not remember it, but I do--as Barbara Castle's bag carrier at a meeting in Darwen at which he was speaking before the October 1974 election. I admired him then and I have admired him ever since. Over the period in which we have been in the House together, we have become firm friends.

My hon. Friend has done a huge amount not only to maintain but to enhance the reputation of the House, at a time when there have been many assaults on its reputation from inside the House as well as outside. He made his own decision to be a parliamentarian, rather than to seek office, and very effective he has been. When the history of the period comes to be written, he will feature in more than footnotes, whereas many others who served in government will scarcely appear even in footnotes. I place on record my great thanks and the tribute of us all to him for his work across the House, and not least in the Intelligence and Security Committee.

My hon. Friend will go to his grave as a member of the awkward squad, and quite right, too. The House cannot operate if it is simply full of self-congratulatory toadies. He would not be a member of any such club. His characteristic criticism, combined with good judgment, makes him such a good Member.

The last of the four who are leaving is the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). Many tributes have been paid to him and I underline them all. There are other records for which he will be known. I had to look twice in the reference books to refresh my memory. He must be one of the few hon. Members in the past century to have served as Secretary of State in three Departments within

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10 months, as he did in 1983. Between January and June that year, he was Secretary of State for the Environment; between June and October, he was Secretary of State for Transport; and between October and some time in 1985, he was Secretary of State for Employment. No doubt that was a shock to him, if not to his Departments. He then served with distinction as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Secretary of State for Defence. He has been the mainstay of the Intelligence and Security Committee, although I have no idea whether he has been a difficult Chairman. He has never been difficult with me, only firm and inquiring. Long may that tradition continue. We wish him well whatever he does and wherever he goes, although a few of us might lay some bets about that.

The fundamental work of the Committee is a theme that has run through the whole debate. Its role is to hold the agencies and the Ministers who are responsible for them properly to account for what they do. The Committee ensures a degree of accountability in the most difficult areas of Government. Of course, they are so difficult because the matters with which they deal are secret by definition.

It is interesting to reflect on just how far we have moved in this country in 17 short years. Before the Interception of Communications Act 1985 took effect, none of the work of the intelligence or security agencies was done on a statutory basis. Indeed, the existence of most of their work was denied. Officially, they did not exist and no one owned up to working for them. All their work was done on the basis of directives such as the Maxwell-Fyfe directive and of the royal prerogative. Since that time, however, Parliament has introduced the Interception of Communications Act 1985, the Security Service Act 1989 and the Intelligence Services Act 1994. Much of that legislation was driven by the fact that the way in which the agencies were operating--as opposed to what they were doing--was increasingly inconsistent with our obligations under the European convention on human rights.

At each stage, people in the agencies, as well as Ministers and Members of Parliament, were extremely worried that steps towards greater accountability would reduce the agencies' efficiency and effectiveness. The great thing is that those fears, which were understandable at the time, have turned out to be entirely misplaced. In my judgment, the agencies have become more effective and efficient as they have become more accountable.

There is a twofold reason for that. The oversight systems that have been established have better ensured that the agencies and their staff stick to their task. In any field of government, people can distort the purpose for which they are employed, but that is especially true with regard to law enforcement. It is true of the police service, the customs, the immigration service and the agencies, as they use the coercive power of the state. Indeed, they often do so covertly.

That work gave rise to suspicions, some of which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). I have no doubt that some of those suspicions were well founded, but I believe that many of them were unfounded. There is no doubt that public confidence in the work of the agencies was undermined, whether they were performing tasks set clearly by the House and by Ministers or following an agenda of their own. We now have a much greater degree of certainty

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about the integrity of the staff, their professionalism and the degree to which they are following a programme laid down by Ministers and, in turn, by this House.

When we are dealing with parliamentary accountability, there are moments when the rights and interests of Parliament run directly counter to those of the Minister who is being held accountable. In acute circumstances, that can lead to the resignation of the Minister concerned--and quite right too. However, I believe that I speak on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary as well as myself when I say that our increasing accountability to the Committee and thus to Parliament has directly helped our role of not only holding the agencies to account, but ensuring that their work takes a more effective direction.

I could give many examples. The most obvious is that the list of questions that I am likely to be asked by the Intelligence and Security Committee triggers thoughts in my mind. All Ministers are busy; we cannot ask every question. When others raise issues, especially on the basis of greater expertise, it helps our work. The Home Office intelligence and security liaison unit and the terrorism and protection unit work with the agencies. They acknowledge the importance of the ISC's work in enhancing their supervisory role of the agencies.

Debate continues about whether the ISC should be a Select Committee. The Prime Minister expressed the Government's view this time last year. There is much to be said on both sides; I personally see the argument from both sides. If it became a Select Committee, it would be a rose by another name. It would also show that it belonged to Parliament rather than to the Prime Minister of the day. Perhaps we will move towards that in the next decade. However, it must be done on a step-by-step basis.

I stress to the sceptics, and there were many in 1993 and 1994 when the House considered the formation of the Committee, that the ISC has done work that is at least as good as that of any Select Committee. I do not disparage the work of Select Committees by saying that. I have witnessed the work of the Select Committee on Home Affairs under two Chairs. They and their members have been independent-minded and held me to account. They have done it differently from the ISC because the work for which I am answerable to them is overt rather than covert.

In practice, the ISC has been able to drill deeper, even though its proceedings are secret. It has been able to go into more detail and develop greater expertise. However, I stress to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) that the way in which the members of the ISC and members of Select Committees are chosen is no different. Although we could go for secret ballots, tossing coins and drawing names out of a hat, as long as our democracy is based on parties, they are bound to take a view about the membership of the Committees.

It is evident that not only toadies need apply to become members of Select Committees. I say as a compliment to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock that if that were the case, he would never serve on any Select Committee. That applies to a long list of my hon. Friends and to many Conservative Members. We are all members of political parties, which are the bedrock of parliamentary government.

I want to deal briefly with some of the points that were raised. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked about recruitment and retention. Eighty-nine IT specialists were

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recruited at GCHQ this year against a target of 95. That is not bad in a highly competitive market. A lot of effort is put into recruitment and retention. I stress to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, my hon. Friends the Members for Workington, for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have put in a lot of effort with the heads of the agencies to ensure that they improve the performance of their recruitment systems, examine individuals' background more closely and make sure there is better psychological profiling.

Crises or disruptions in people's personal lives occur in any organisation; the agencies cannot be immune from that. Such disruptions can contribute to or cause relationship problems in the office. We want to ensure that people are given better counselling and support than they received in the past and are not simply left. That applies to the staff not only of the agencies, but of Departments.

Direct access to employment tribunals for people with grievances relating to employment problems is important. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I regret the delay in enforcement of the regulations. We are grateful for the work done by the Committee, and for the knowledge that the debate was impending: it concentrated people's minds.

Members have raised the issue of finance. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater asked whether there should be more qualified people running the agencies' finances. That gives rise to an interesting debate which, as the right hon. Gentleman said, is not confined to the subject of the agencies.

There is a point at which people in every organisation must decide whether there should be subject specialists in Departments, or whether there should be a crossover involving people with more general expertise that is relevant to the way in which the organisation is run. There is currently a great debate in private industry--in the PLCs--about whether finance directors should end up running organisations, and about the point at which taking an interest in the organisation and having expertise in financial matters should cross over into more general skills. I do not think that there is any one answer, but I know that it is important to have proper systems of control, while also making use of qualified people.

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