Queen’s Speech Debate: Security

27th June 2017

Keith Simpson calls for the reconstitution of the Intelligence and Security Committee before Summer Recess.

In the past eight weeks we have seen a series of major terrorist attacks in this country. We saw the attack here in Parliament in which a police constable was killed. We saw the bombing in Manchester, and then we saw the atrocity in London. I was, until the general election was called, a member of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, and I want to speak briefly on the subject of that Committee because it is very important and, if precedent is anything to go by, a new Committee will not be established until the middle of October. That will mean that there will have been no scrutiny of the intelligence and security services for between five and six months.

The Committee, of which I was lucky enough to be a member—I hope that I might be put back on it when it is reconstituted—forms an important part of the oversight and scrutiny of our intelligence and security agencies. It is a peculiar Committee, in that it is a Committee of the House but it is not like a Select Committee. It was first established in a very narrow technical sense in 1994, at a time when we had only just publicly admitted that the Special Intelligence Service and the Security Service existed. Its remit now stems from the Justice and Security Act 2013, which set out the organisations that the Committee was to look at, monitor and comment on. It was established that the Committee should report not only to the Prime Minister but to this House. The Committee has nine members: seven are selected from the House of Commons and two from the House of Lords. Unlike Select Committees, there is no public election involved. Names emerge, and the Prime Minister—after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition—formally puts them to the House, where they are voted on.

I would be the first to admit that it is a strange Committee, in the sense that we have to get the balance right between freedom of expression and the right to know, on the one hand, and on the other, the need for the intelligence and security agencies to maintain secrecy. More and more has been put in the public domain, and I like to think that, over the past 18 months, we have produced a series of good reports. There were no minorities; they were all agreed upon. Those reports were based on the evidence that we received from the intelligence and security agencies and from Ministers. We meet in a secure building, and there are no performances as there are in Select Committees. There are no cameras there. The questions that we put to the officials and Ministers in front of us are not easy, as they would be the first to admit. Our task is to hold them to account on behalf of Members and of the public.

I put it to all Members, particularly those on our Front Bench and the Whip on duty, that we can no longer continue with a system in which it takes three to four months to reconstitute the Committee after a general election. In this modern day and age, that is ludicrous. The usual argument is that we have to go through all the same procedures and elections as a Select Committee, but that is incorrect. I urge the Government, and the Leader of the Opposition, to think about reconstituting the Committee before 20 July when we go off into recess. The secretariat of the Committee is drawn from civil servants all across Whitehall, and they are carrying on with their everyday work—they are not sitting there twiddling their thumbs—but they cannot get on with the task of helping the Committee to head in the direction that we, or our successors, would like to take it in.

This is a matter of crucial importance to the House. At the end of the day, it is based on an element of trust. In the past, there have been those who wanted the Committee to take on a similar role to that of a Select Committee. The trouble is that that would cause all kinds of problems because of the desire on the part of the agencies to maintain the secrecy element, although I fully accept that that might change. If we do not go ahead and reconstitute the Committee, it will be failing in its remit to scrutinise the work of the intelligence and security agencies.

As the House knows, all kinds of questions have been raised, particularly after Manchester, about whether the agencies and the police knew about the individuals involved, and whether they had ignored them. I do not know, but my experience of being on the Committee is that the agencies work hard to monitor and find people who wish to carry out terrorist attacks in this country. It is not a question, as one of them put it to us, of trying to find a needle in a haystack; they are trying to find the haystack. This Government and the previous Government put a lot of extra resources into the agencies to make certain that they could recruit more people, but that takes time. In The Daily Telegraph yesterday, the former director general of GCHQ talked about the role of the private sector, and the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have raised the whole business of social networks and whether such companies are prepared to allow the intelligence and security agencies the kind of information that they require when they are trying to find and monitor terrorists. My plea to the Front-Bench team is that they think very seriously indeed about reconstituting our Intelligence and Security Committee before the summer recess.

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