ELECTIONS TO THE INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY COMMITTEE – 13 May 2014
Dr Julian Lewis: I have the greatest respect for the hon. Member for Walsall North (David Winnick). He is a man of great seniority in this House and we always, rightly, listen very carefully to what he has to say. There is one – and only one – reason why his proposal runs into difficulties. The simple point is that this particular Committee, unlike any other, has access to highly classified information up to the range of Top Secret, Strap-2 level and occasionally higher.
Some people believe that this country should have no secrets at all and that if we had no secrets, there would be no classified information and no case for treating the membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee differently from that of the Defence Committee.
Mr Winnick: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks, but does he accept that, in the 1980s, before the ISC was formed – I was on the Standing Committee that led to its formation – it was very difficult to get the matter raised at all when I tried to initiate debates on the Security Service? I am in favour of such a Committee and I am certainly in favour of the security services – even more so in the face of acute terrorism – but I want accountability, and I think that is the main difference between the hon. Gentleman and me.
Dr Lewis: I hope to show that the difference between us is as small as possible. I was certainly not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman was not in favour of this country having security and intelligence services or, indeed, highly classified secrets. It was as a result of the work that he and his colleagues did back then that it became possible to open up the intelligence and security agencies to much greater scrutiny. Their activities can now be examined and debated considerably. To a large extent, that happens in the open – in the public arena of Parliament – but when it cannot be done in the open, it can now, thank goodness, be done in the closed and secure environment of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
I will move on quickly, because I do not wish to detain the House for longer than is necessary. Some people think that we should have some secrets but that there is not a single hon. Member of this House who could not be trusted to know them. If that is one’s view, there would not be any argument against the membership of the ISC being elected just like the membership of any other Committee. However, the membership of this House reflects society in all its varied shades, phases, types and categories. The fact is that I do not think there are many people who would say that, out of 650 Members, there are not at least some who are not quite, shall we say, discreet or tight-lipped enough to share in the most sensitive secrets of the security and intelligence agencies. If one makes that concession, one has to admit that this Committee, if it is going to see such material, has to have some sort of screening process and cannot simply be subject to the ordinary process of election, unless we are content that any single elected Member of this House can, by definition, be trusted not to do something foolish if given access to highly sensitive information.
Mr Winnick: We all know, of course, of the hon. Gentleman’s own history of pretending to be someone else – namely a Labour supporter – in order to infiltrate the Labour Party. I would not suggest that, because of his action then, he should be debarred from membership of the ISC.
Dr Lewis: I am delighted to know that. I have to admit to the hon. Gentleman that one of the reasons I put myself forward for a place on the Committee was to test the water and see if any of my past nefarious activities, as he would regard them, would result in my being black-balled. I came to the conclusion that I was appointed for one of two reasons: either it was thought that I was so discreet –
Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I fully appreciate the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but however exceedingly interesting they may be, they do not entirely relate to the very narrow motion before us.
Dr Lewis: Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. If I may, I will just conclude that sentence by saying that I came to the conclusion that it was regarded as a suitable Committee on which to put a troublemaker who could not talk about what the Committee was discussing.
In conclusion, most people think that where highly classified material is concerned – material covered by the Official Secrets Act – some people are better suited than others to be allowed to see it. It is not acceptable or compatible with that for the whole House simply to vote for any Member to be a member of the Committee, because the Committee would not be allowed to continue to receive such material. However, I hold out a smidgeon of hope for the hon. Member for Walsall North in that a case could be made on the basis of the argument that once all the members have been appointed, the objection would fall in relation to the Chairman. Once all the people who are regarded as appropriate to see highly classified information are known, I cannot see why the whole House could not then decide which of those cleared Members should be the Chairman, but perhaps that is for another occasion.
[To watch and listen to Julian making this speech, click here and move the cursor to the 3 minute and 25 second point.]