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Of course, we depend on our intelligence agencies for much information about what is going on in places where Britain has vital interests, but we also depend on Ministers to take the trouble to see for themselves what is happening and to speak to people on the ground. The House might have assumed from the lofty tone in which the Foreign Secretary spoke to me on Tuesday that he and the Minister for Europe were never out of the Balkans. It was, therefore, surprising to read the next day a report published by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs which lambasted them for failing to make such visits. I have visited the Balkans, however, and my remarks about the danger that is created by the west's vacillation on the long-term final status of Kosovo were based on long discussions with Kosovo's political leaders. I may say that they derived also from a visit to Macedonia, where I met both the Prime Minister and the leader of the main Albanian party. I suspect that the Foreign Secretary's position is based less on some superior understanding of the Balkans than on a slavish adherence to a received wisdom that is shown to be false by discussions with people in the Balkans.
Let me close my remarks by commending the Intelligence and Security Committee and its Chairman for the excellence of their work. I also commend those in the intelligence agencies for their outstanding work for the country. I think that all members of the public would want to echo those remarks.
Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate. I listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary's remarks, and I think that his suggestion regarding the restructuring of such debates--as he said, I shall not be able to take advantage of such proposals--makes sense. I have discussed the matter with the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), who agrees that the proposal may provide the easiest way of handling reports such as those produced by the Intelligence and Security Committee.
This debate is not a busy one, but the House will appreciate its quality, if not the quantity of those who are present. My Committee greatly appreciates the attendance of two Secretaries of State who represent two of the busiest Departments and carry some of the heaviest responsibilities in government--the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary. Their attendance also demonstrates due respect for the intelligence agencies, for which they take personal responsibility. Indeed, that explains why they do not delegate the work that they do to their more junior Ministers.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for mentioning the sheer enjoyment that he felt in appearing before the Intelligence and Security Committee. I hope that he will pass that message on to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, as it is clear that he has not yet received it. Our successor Committee will expect to see the Chief Secretary in the new Parliament. We are charged under statute to oversee the finances of the intelligence agencies. The Chief Secretary has a specific role and is taking a close interest. As both Secretaries of State will know, he has a co-ordinating role and a special report group is reporting back to him on co-ordination between the agencies and on opportunities for such co-ordination.
The challenge of this debate, and the problem of having been accused of too much secrecy, is how to attract the interest of our colleagues when we appear in the daylight. I suggested to my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) that if the Order Paper had stated that the House would sit secretly for this debate, we would have had a full House, if not a full Gallery. That might have made for a more stimulating debate, but, as I said, the quality is here.
There are one or two absentees. I undertook to apologise to the House on behalf of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), who is a member of the Committee and chairman of our Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation, for his absence. In earlier days, the knowledge that a senior member of the Intelligence and Security Committee had left for Cuba might have caused some excitement or invited security alarms. Such is the change that has occurred, however, that that senior group has been able to make the visit. Indeed, it is extremely senior, as only hon. Members who are not standing for re-election had the nerve to go to Cuba. I think that those involved left last night.
As the possibility of ever getting the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister in the same room together, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer also in attendance, seems completely beyond the reach of the Government machine, I give two cheers for the timing of this debate. One can say only that it is a lot better than last year, although it is occurring at the very last gasp in respect of a report that was delivered to the Government at the end of the summer. Indeed, the Government laid their response before the House when Parliament reconvened after the summer recess. That was so long ago that the Committee has since produced an interim report. Without any especially valuable intelligence, we formed the impression that this Parliament might not last much longer, so we produced that report to cover our work to date. I should like to add a personal point in that respect. I shall not be standing again, and neither will three other members of the Committee. The next Committee must, therefore, have a new Chairman and some new members, regardless of what happens in the election.
One aspect of the Committee's role is to maintain continuity of oversight. Its work suffered a serious interruption after the last election. I make a plea, which is supported by my colleagues on the Committee, for every effort to be made to establish the new Committee as soon as possible after the new Parliament is formed.
This debate marks the end of a chapter. I have had the privilege of being the Chairman of a Committee that did not exist for most of my years in Parliament. It was created in 1994, and a number of hon. Friends have served on it with me since then. New members joined us in 1997. I am grateful for the personal comments made by the Foreign Secretary and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham. I am grateful also for the comments made in the Government's response to the report about the work that I have tried to do as Chairman. All hon. Members will understand, of course, that the work of any Committee is only as good as its members. I am grateful both to the hon. Members who served on the Committee with me originally, many of whom since have continued to serve throughout its existence, and to those who have joined since--in particular, the hon. Members for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who are present in the Chamber, and the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton).
The Committee suffered a tremendous upheaval as a result of the change of Government, but I am grateful for the way in which its new members have carried on its work. Indeed, they added a new impetus in some directions, but they maintained its ethos, which I hope is respected by the intelligence agencies. The Committee started from scratch with the simple blueprint of the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which required the establishment of a Committee to oversee the three intelligence agencies. Apart from wording on the extent to which secret information could be withheld and the remit within which it could work, the Committee was set up on pretty bald terms, so we had very much to write our hymn sheet and to develop our own operational practice.
I believe that we can claim that oversight is now firmly in place. It is always easy when something starts to ask why it did not happen years ago. It was not very long ago, however, that people would have believed that such a proposal was unthinkable. In fellow member states of the European Union that are a short distance from Britain, it is still unthinkable that parliamentarians could oversee the intelligence and security agencies. The intelligence agencies were undoubtedly nervous when the Committee started out, and such nervousness remains in some quarters. However, in general, a gradual development of trust and confidence has occurred. There has also been a gradual acknowledgement of an obvious point: we cannot form a fair and true opinion unless we are as fully informed as possible. That acknowledgement is shown by the presence of two Secretaries of State in the debate. The Security Service and GCHQ have also accepted the point, and I paid tribute to them in the foreword that I wrote to the major annual report.
I commend a recent event: Sir Stephen Lander, Director-General of the Security Service, had the courage to appear in public at the Royal United Services Institute for the first conference the Intelligence and Security Committee supported and with which it was greatly involved. In my foreword to the annual report, I stated that the Secret Intelligence Service finds matters more difficult. The Committee has sympathy for that point of view and realises that there are reasons for that.
However, the Foreign Secretary knows that some matters might have been less of a problem. He kindly paid tribute to the work of the Committee, and said that he appreciated the occasions on which I made public statements, which were not appropriate for him or the heads of the agencies to make. As spokesman for the Committee, I can sometimes say things that give the public confidence about some situations, when the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary cannot confirm or deny the endless diet of allegations that surrounds the agencies.