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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My explanation would probably go something like this. I tried to set out an explanation giving various interpretations of the meaning of the term "national security". Part of that explanation relates to economic well-being. In itself, the latter is of importance and significance. Therefore, it is considered useful to have it set out separately.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, and the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, asked, essentially, what the extent of "economic well-being" might be, where it might lead us and what kind of subjects it might cover. It has been a fairly long-standing practice not to go into too much detail in such matters. However, in his 1991 report, the then Interception Commissioner, Lord Lloyd, stated that there had never been more than a few warrants issued on the ground of safeguarding the economic well-being of the United Kingdom. I believe that I can confirm that that is still the case. It would not be right for me to comment on particular examples, other than those that are commonly understood.
It must be a matter of national significance; indeed, that must be clear. It cannot be something trivial. The emphasis has to be properly on protective actionthat is to say, action that is protective of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom. As I said earlier, it is the case that the intelligence work that is currently carried out for this purpose has been endorsed by the Intelligence and Security Committee as being of particular importance. Ultimately, the decision as to whether it is right in each case must be a matter for the Secretary of State; and, of course, there is accountability here.
The Secretary of State's actions are reviewable by the commissioner. If, on consideration of all relevant factors, the Secretary of State took the view that the economic well-being of the country was under threat, and that interception in a particular case was both necessary and would be a proportionate action to take, he could authorise any such interception by means of a warrant. I believe that that makes good sense in those circumstances.
I hope that that explanation has furthered the debate. I hope that it has satisfied in part at least the intent of the probing amendments of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I should have made it clear that threats to the country's economic well-being may overlap with national securityI believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, mentioned that pointbut it is, nevertheless, a legitimate purpose in its own right. The Committee may wish to reflect on that point.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I have listened to the Minister's reply. I have absolutely no problem with the provision relating to the interests of national security. I suspect that I am one of three noble Lords present in the Chamber who have signed warrants. I suspect that
However, I was worried by the Minister's comments on economic well-being. I believe that he said that the measure might help in the better understanding of events which relate to the economic well-being of the United Kingdom. Many companies in this country are part of multinational groups. Often decisions taken by those multinational groups considerably affect the economic well-being of this country. For example, the recent decisions taken by BMW could be considered to have affected the economic well-being of this country. Would it have been legitimate for the Department of Trade and Industry, which seemed to be in almost total ignorance of what was going on, to seek a warrant to intercept the considerable e-mail and telephone traffic which must have taken place between the high command of Rover in this country and BMW in Germany? The Government could thus have kept track of events which were clearly of enormous economic significance to this country.
When we go down these difficult roads we must be sure what powers we are giving to government. I have no doubt that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, my noble friend Lord Cope, myself and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, if he has had to sign a warrant in the absence of Mr Straw, have taken that duty extremely seriously. However, to sign a warrant on the ground of economic well-being seems to me to go miles beyond the basis of any warrants that I was expected to sign. I suspect that is true as regards the noble Lords I have mentioned.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: It would be unwise for me to be drawn into whether it is right for us to authorise warrants to tap into e-mail systems, the contents of which may or may not relate to recent events at BMW and Rover. That would be quite wrong.
However, the Committee is entitled to an explanation of the extent of the term "economic well-being" in this context. I thought that I gave an honest and straight interpretation. I said quite plainly that we sought to develop a better government understanding of events and trends. I explained that the power had been used extremely sparingly and that the interception commissioner, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan, had considered that where a threat or potential threat was posed to economic well-being, the power might be used in certain circumstances. No government would wish to set aside the opportunity in those extreme circumstancesfew as they may well beto authorise a warrant. That would be very foolish indeed and would do little to sustain the confidence of industry and commerce. I invite the noble Lord to reflect on that.
No doubt when he was a member of a government, that government would have used the opportunity from time to time, when it was necessary, to authorise warrants where it was properly felt that the economic
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: That is all right as far as it goes. All of the warrants that I was asked to sign were clearly designed to do something about the Irish Republican Army and its threats to the law.
The problem with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is that when he tries to be helpful he makes me more worried than I was at the beginning. He said that he did not want to comment on my example. Did he not want to comment because he did not think that my example was relevant, or because he did not want to get into that ground? That requires a "yes" or "no" answer. I postulated the circumstances of an international company and I mentioned BMW. But the circumstances could relate not only to BMW but to many other companies which, over the past 20 or 30 years, have had to do rather difficult things with their subsidiaries in the United Kingdom so far as concerned the well-being of this country; it could have been any of those companies.
My question is whether it would be right in those circumstances to intervene on their electronic and telephonic traffic in order to obtain a better idea of events. The answer is either "yes" or "no". They are not doing anything illegal; they are not doing anything which threatens national security. Arguably they are doing something which threatens the economic well-being of at least a part of this country and perhaps a considerable workforce, but is that a sufficient definition to obtain a warrant? It is a clear question which requires a "yes" or "no" answer. If I were confronted with a request for a warrant of that nature, I would have severe difficulty in signing it.
Viscount Astor: Perhaps I may help the Minister by giving an example. He will no doubt remember the dark days when the pound fell out of the ERM and a number of currency tradersnotably Mr Sorossupposedly made a huge amount of money out of betting against the pound. If, in the future, someone chose deliberately to run the currency either up or downthe direction does not matterand then to bet on it, would that kind of action be subject to a warrant being considered on the grounds of economic well-being? The Minister may remember that the government of the day resisted the trend going against them and it cost them a lot of money. If anyone has a go against the currency, is that regarded as an area that the Government would consider relevant?
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