|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Beith: Going back to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of secrecy, there are some matters about which the public could know more. The agencies have recognised that by increasing disclosure. That could be carried further in, for example, the area of broad budgetary figures to give an indication of how money is spent. Given that many things cannot be revealed, it is vital that some parliamentarians, as members of the Committee, are within the ring of secrecy, so that others can rely on them to see all the information necessary to make a judgment that all is well on a particular matter. The degree of co-operation from the Home Secretary on the Mitrokhin case illustrates that if the Committee is given the information, it can make a judgment and provide reassurance in areas where general disclosure is impossible.
Mr. Cook: The right hon. Gentleman touches on a central and unavoidable question. It is not surprising that there will be different judgments on the bounds of secrecy between the intelligence community and the members of the Scrutiny Committee. It would be rather odd if that
On the specific issue of the agencies' separate budgets, the Committee made a recommendation that we should publish one year's set of budgets by agency, but that we should not produce annual sets of figures because the revealing trend could be compromising to the work of the agencies. I have considered that very carefully. The Government did not see it as politically feasible to produce one year's figures without impossible pressure in future years to produce the annual figures. That would lead us back to the problem that the Committee correctly identified--that of the danger of revealing trends. Of course, we can continue to keep these matters under review, but I share the Committee's anxiety that an annualised set of figures would be too damaging. I find it hard to see how any Government could get away with producing one year's figures and then say for the next five years, "Sorry, we are not doing it again."
Mr. Campbell-Savours: Has an instruction been given to civil servants at any stage in this Parliament to try and convene a meeting of the Ministerial Committee, or has not even that instruction been given?
Mr. Cook: I assure my hon. Friend that attempts have been made to do that. The civil servants who wrestle with the task are the diary secretaries in several very busy offices. It is no criticism of them that they have been unable to crack that task.
Mr. Anderson: My right hon. Friend very properly paid tribute to the close and long-standing intelligence relationship with the United States. He has not mentioned the European Union dimension. However, that may well loom larger as a result of the common foreign and security policy and the European security and defence policy. What can he tell us about that? Are there any reservations about the new building in Brussels or the European Parliament's role? What problems does my right hon. Friend envisage the Committee tackling as these new policies develop?
Mr. Cook: I am happy to assure the House that the European Parliament will have no role in the European security and defence policy. There is a very urgent need to ensure that we have a satisfactory building, from a security angle, for those who will be dealing with the European security and defence policy. It is very important that they should have a separate building so that they can maintain a culture of secrecy in that building. I do not think that that would be readily achievable in the general Commission building, where there is naturally quite the reverse of a culture of secrecy. That may not necessarily be consistent with the security that we want to see in place. I assure the House that we shall be very careful in
I have paid tribute to the work of the Committee, and on that I hope that I carried its members with me. However, I hope that I carry the whole House with me in paying tribute to the role of the men and women who work in the agencies. They serve their country well. The success of the agencies is possible only because of their professionalism and their belief in their job.
GCHQ employs some of the best minds in computer technology in Britain. Indeed, it could muster a team of experts to match the staff of many university computer departments. Many of them could command much higher monetary reward in the private sector, and we are fortunate that they are attracted to GCHQ by the intellectual challenge of the work and the value of their jobs.
Some of those who work in the agencies accept a risk to personal safety that I suspect many of us would not. Those who undertake work against terrorists or drugs traders are dealing with an enemy every bit as ruthless, if not more so, than their old opponents of the cold war. The rocket attack on the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service last September was a stark reminder of that ever-present threat.
The staff of the agencies do not get much opportunity for public recognition. It is part of their contract that they cannot claim public credit for secret work. The debate gives us an opportunity to put that right. I hope that the whole House will use that opportunity to recognise the skills and courageous work of the staff of the agencies and the immense debt owed by Parliament and the public to them.
Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): May I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for the fact that I have to leave soon after the Front-Bench speeches for an engagement of long standing that proved immovable?
Mr. Maude: It is very much a secret. I would be prepared to account for it to the Intelligence and Security Committee, but unless we are prepared to go into secret session at this stage, it would be inappropriate to go further.
I should like to add a tribute from the Opposition Benches to the men and women who work in our intelligence and security services. The Foreign Secretary rightly observed that it is in the nature of their job that they work behind the scenes and by and large without public recognition. Their work is frequently dangerous. Unable, as we hope they are, to talk to others about what they do or to take the credit that they so frequently deserve for what they do, their burden must be and often is a lonely one.
My right hon. Friend really will be missed by the House. That is not just a conventional tribute. I learned much of my politics--I was going to say at his knee, but that would be overstating the case--around his ministerial table in the early 1980s. A Committee such as the Intelligence and Security Committee absolutely depends on the personal qualities of its members and especially those of its Chairman. The Foreign Secretary mentioned my right hon. Friend's relevant experience as a Minister, which gave him a unique insight into the work of the agencies. Beyond that, the Chairman needs to be absolutely trustworthy, able to command consensus in the way that my right hon. Friend has, and able to carry serious and effortless authority.
Under my right hon. Friend's chairmanship, the Committee has won and retained the confidence of the services, to a great extent as a result of the sensitivity and discretion with which the Committee conducts its scrutiny and the obvious commitment of its members to the work of the services. The whole House will want to express its warm appreciation of my right hon. Friend's work and its warm wishes for his cheerful and extremely busy retirement, as I suspect it will turn out to be.
Mr. Maude: Well, for a good part of its time. I think that I said last year, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it as a compliment, that he is one of the least comfortable Members of the House of Commons. The House should not contain comfortable people; it should contain people who go in for the task of scrutiny and holding Ministers and others to account. That is what we are here for. He has always been an honourable, upright and absolutely tenacious Member, and we shall miss him.
The creation of the Intelligence and Security Committee was the parliamentary manifestation of the programme to place all of the agencies on a statutory footing, to make proper assessment of the work that they do, and to introduce a measure of accountability. Bringing the agencies out of the hidden places that they occupied previously into the light of day has been a gradual process. We must, of course, be vigilant about the agencies' roles, but we should always exercise that vigilance against the background of our understanding that they exist and operate as the servants of liberty, not as its enemy.
In last year's debate, the Foreign Secretary referred to the intention of the Department of Trade and Industry to consult on the introduction of draft regulations. The Committee expressed in its November report its disappointment that that had not happened. Given that the
The report also expresses concerns that the process of making the services more transparent, which began under the previous Government, may be beginning to slow down. The Committee has again asked the Prime Minister to publish confidential annexes to the intelligence services commissioner's report. The commission is an important innovation to improve public confidence in the accountability of the services, and it may be that it is in the public interest that conclusions are made known more widely. I am sure that the sensible discretion of the Committee is a sufficient safeguard.
I was interested in the Foreign Secretary's explanation of why it had apparently proved impossible to convene the Ministerial Committee. He contended that it was impossible to get all the Ministers in the same place at the same time. I concede that that is very difficult to do, but his contention is about as plausible as the argument put forward this week that the Minister for Europe had not visited the Balkans because there were no suitable flights available.