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3.40 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall limit myself to 10 minutes. I hope that that will be helpful.

In following the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), who chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, I begin by saying that all those to whom I have spoken share the view that although it is good that we are having the debate—I hope that it becomes an annual, instead of an irregular, event in the parliamentary calendar—there should be a corresponding meeting of the ministerial group to which the right hon. Lady referred. I hope that between this year and next year the calendar for our discussion of these matters will be confirmed and Ministers will be able to find time in their diaries to come together under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister to review across all the relevant Departments the way in which our intelligence and related agencies do their jobs. We are all grateful to, and pay tribute to, those who work in those agencies, as well as to those who do similar work in the police and in the defence services, not least in the past year.

I do not come to this debate as an expert. In that respect, I defer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who preceded me in speaking on home affairs for the Liberal Democrats and has for several years served with distinction on the Committee, and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who has surveyed such matters from a foreign affairs perspective over many years. However, after two and a half years of

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dealing with home affairs, I am already a veteran of many pieces of legislation concerning such issues. The Home Secretary and his predecessor may have been trying to make us tortured liberals simply by giving us so much relevant legislation. We have survived, and I do not feel tortured yet.

I hope that the record will show that we have seen it as a fundamentally important part of our job to scrutinise legislation on increasing the general powers of the state or the specific powers of part of the state. Given that on one occasion last year such a piece of legislation was put through Parliament on an emergency timetable, we have had a particularly important job to do in ensuring that citizens' liberties are properly looked after and defended and that the legislation that we pass is subject to the same level of scrutiny as we would wish for were we on the receiving end of the activities of the intelligence services or other agencies of the state.

Until recently, intelligence issues were the interest of the few, but the events of 11 September have made them much more the interest of the many. The press—tabloid as well as broadsheet—report much more of what we and other countries do as regards such matters. It is fair to say not only that intelligence is as essential to our national security as it has ever been, but that our defence now depends as much on intelligence as on anything else. If one surveys what happens around the world, it is clear that the activities of enemies of the state, which used to be principally overt, have become increasingly covert, so we depend much more on intelligence activities to know what other countries and people are doing. At home, we have intelligence-led policing; in foreign affairs, we have intelligence-led foreign policy. That is right, and we need to ensure that the people who do that job are up to it.

Mention has been made of one balance that needs to be struck, but it seems to me that we need to strike two balances. There is the balance between the level of information and accountability that the intelligence services need to have to Parliament and the balance between the level of liberty and entitlement that the citizen has vis-a-vis the security and intelligence services.

Since 11 September, particularly in recent days, a huge debate has raged in the United States about whether everything was done properly as regards intelligence gathering and understanding. As a result, no less a person than the President has decided that there should be an entire review of the working of the traditional intelligence agencies—the FBI and the CIA—and effectively a new start through the creation of a new organisation. I think that my right hon. Friends share the view that because defining the boundaries between work at home and work abroad by people seeking to undermine the state is increasingly problematic, merely to collaborate and work well together—to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan)—may not be sufficient. I should like both the Committee and the Government to look afresh at whether the old division between MI5 and MI6—the two principal services—and the link between them and the National Criminal Intelligence Service should be reviewed, because they often undertake overlapping and interconnected tasks in a way that may not be the most helpful, let alone the most efficient from a budgetary point of view.

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We have no reason to doubt that our services do a world-class job, and we pay tribute to them for that. Given that, Parliament perhaps needs to have more ability to direct, and Ministers to co-ordinate, what they do and how they do it. Four questions follow from that. First, one of the lessons of the past 12 months has been that we have benefited hugely from our intelligence-sharing links with the United States. That will remain fundamentally important, irrespective of our position in Europe and our Commonwealth obligations. However, if the US is now calling for much greater intelligence co-operation, and expects and needs that to happen, we must ensure that we are in a position to participate appropriately. That begs several questions. Are we sharing enough information? Are we sharing the right information? Are we sharing it with all the people who need it? If so, how do we regulate and manage the process to ensure that we do it properly and accountably?

Secondly, we are having this debate a matter of days before the announcement of the comprehensive spending review. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick–upon–Tweed said, if more work is to be done in relation to internationally organised crime, such as drugs crime, the report does not suggest that there is any current capacity to secure additional resources for that, and there may be a case for providing more resources. If so, that should happen. Two areas leap out as being ones in which we cannot afford to have resources that are not up to the job.

The first is information technology. We have not been the best country in the world for public services with the most up-to-date and well-functioning information technology, and the report makes it clear that deficits in that respect need to be addressed.

The second area is secure communications equipment. Hon. Members will remember that that issue cropped up a few weeks ago in the context of somebody who had been intercepting domestic communications between special branch personnel guarding royalty and the diplomatic service. I happen to know from an incidental personal experience that the police have been very troubled by the inadequacy of their communications equipment. The report tells us that the same applies in relation to our intelligence agencies, so that, too, is a budgetary priority.

Thirdly, if terrorist organisations are increasingly involved with international criminality—if that is how they get their money and resource themselves—we need to consider with greater urgency the arrangements for co-operation between the intelligence services and domestic and other police services. I pay tribute here to the Metropolitan police, who, I know, do a lot of international anti-terrorist work, as do others. I have been privileged to understand, share and be briefed on a considerable amount of that work. The Met must be in the loop and part of the planning and decision making.

I want to take further the exchange between the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary. There have been four major pieces of legislation over the past two years: the Terrorism Act 2000, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. In addition, we are about to have a proceeds of crime Act. In each, we have looked afresh at the definitions of national security, and there have been different justifications for when agencies can intervene.

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For example, under the proposed extension of the RIPA to other agencies such as local government—a controversial issue on which the Home Secretary had to withdraw a Government proposal—there were eight grounds on which access to data could be justified. Some were to do with the economic well-being of the UK, public safety, national security, and the prevention or detection of crime. For the sake of everybody involved, there must be a common definition of when agencies working on behalf of the state can acquire information. I would welcome a debate across Departments and parties to ensure that we do not have to row about wording, which in the end produces different ad hoc solutions to very important and tightly defined areas of power and responsibility.

Lastly, now that we have dealt as well as we can with the events following last September, I suspect that citizens in this country think that the biggest threat facing the world—it certainly appears to be the view in the United States—is that posed by Saddam Hussein and his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons potential. Although my party, like others, has been appropriately briefed on the best information that there is about the weapons that he has and his capacity, it strikes me that if we are to make intelligent decisions on policies that have public confidence, they need to be informed by our own intelligence gathering and assessment. We must not rely on second-hand intelligence. If we are to be party to a responsive action with allies to deal with a threat from Iraq, we need to know of that threat from our own sources. The history of intelligence, perhaps as recently as last year, shows that one weakness is that although there may not have been a shortage of information, there has been a shortage of analysis and of understanding of the conclusions drawn from the information. If we do not analyse and interpret it properly, it is often not much use.

The report notes that we are deficient in people who speak all the languages that may be needed in the intelligence services. If the BBC World Service, to its great credit, can manage to recruit people to communicate across the world, especially in areas of tension and conflict, it is a great failing when the intelligence services cannot do the same.

The recruitment policies of intelligence agencies are much more open than they used to be. It is no longer exclusively the tap on the shoulder at university. Much more frequently, adverts appear in the weekly jobs column of the national press. We should be careful not to discriminate inadvertently against those whom we might need most. We need more people who come from the Arab world and from Muslim backgrounds in our intelligence services. I therefore hope that our deficiency in the spread of people doing the job can be urgently corrected.

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