CONSIDERATION OF LORDS AMENDMENTS
Dr Julian Lewis: The Intelligence and Security Committee greatly appreciates the work of the Minister and of his predecessor on this important legislation. I was on the Committee in June 2013 when we identified the risks posed by foreign investment and takeovers to the United Kingdom’s critical national infrastructure, citing Huawei as a case study – and we know what happened after that. We strongly support the Government’s decision to address those risks and we welcome their assurances that national security concerns sit at the very heart of the Bill. That is exactly as it should be.
However, what was not as it should be, with the Bill as originally drafted, was the lack of adequate oversight arrangements for those security concerns and for the process when they are weighed against business and other commercial concerns by the new Investment Security Unit. The Government ought to accept amendments 11 and 15 from the other place, introduced on a cross-party basis by former Security Minister and current ISC member Lord West, former Cabinet Secretary and former ISC member Lord Butler, former party leader and former ISC member Lord Campbell, and former Defence Secretary Lord King – who was of course the first Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee when it was established. Their amendments make provision for that previous lack of oversight. They would require the annual report produced by the new Investment Security Unit in BEIS to include, for each final order and notification made, the Secretary of State’s decision, along with the security services’ assessment of the national security risks uncovered. They would allow the Secretary of State to move any classified information into an annex and to provide that classified annex to the ISC. With the amendments in place as they currently are, we could be confident that the Bill will create the robust regime needed to protect the United Kingdom.
Given the powerful speeches from all quarters and the size of the majority in the other place in support of the amendments, it is surprising and disappointing that the Government remain opposed to them and are seeking to overturn what is clearly common sense. The amendments provide for the ISC to scrutinise the highly classified national security elements and the weighing of those classified elements against commercial concerns.
There appear to be three arguments employed by the Government against the amendments. The first claims that because BEIS is not listed in the Justice and Security Act 2013 or in the associated memorandum of understanding on the scope of our work, the ISC cannot look at decisions taken by the new unit in BEIS. That is based on a false premise.
During the passage of the 2013 Act, the Government explicitly and repeatedly told Parliament that the Act and the MOU would provide the ISC with oversight of all security matters across Government. The MOU mechanism, again, in the Government’s own words, was a “flexible” way to ensure that the list of organisations working on security matters and therefore subject to ISC oversight would be kept up to date.
Sir John Hayes: Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Dr Lewis: I will give way in a moment, because I would like my right hon. Friend to hear this next bit, as I think there was a bit he was missing in his earlier intervention.
These words were used in Committee in my presence by the then Security Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), when introducing the 2013 Act. He said:
“I want to be clear that the Government intend that, through the provisions of the MOU, substantively all of central Government’s intelligence and security activities will be subject to ISC oversight.” – [Official Report, Justice and Security Public Bill Committee, 31 January 2013; c. 97.]
As if that were not clear enough, he went on to say, and this is the bit that matters:
“Things change over time. Departments reorganise. The functions undertaken by a Department one year may be undertaken by another the following year… An MOU is flexible: it can be changed much more easily than primary legislation. It will enable the intention of the Government that the ISC should have oversight of substantively all of central Government’s intelligence and security activities to be realised now and in the future.” – [Official Report, Justice and Security Public Bill Committee, 31 January 2013; c. 98.]
The setting up of the new Investment Security Unit in BEIS is therefore precisely the situation that the Government assured the House that the MOU was designed to address, and the unit can easily be added to the MOU by a simple exchange of letters. Indeed, if the Government were willing to give an undertaking here and now to add the new unit to those listed in the MOU, the need for these amendments would disappear.
Sir John Hayes: That is precisely why I drew the Minister’s attention to the flexibility of the memorandum of understanding and asked him whether the Government stood by the terms of that memorandum. The Minister was as clear as crystal. He said that he believed in that memorandum, and he saw no attempt in what the Government were doing to dilute the powers of the ISC or its ability, of the kind that my right hon. Friend set out, to range across government, if I can put it that way, where security is concerned. I think we have had reassurance from the Minister sufficient to support the Government.
Dr Lewis: Unfortunately, and I am afraid unusually for my right hon. Friend, he missed one little part that was missing in turn from the Minister’s answer, because the MOU as it stands does not include the Investment Security Unit. The MOU has a list of seven organisations that we can currently scrutinise. The whole point about flexibility is that, as these units are set up in other Departments, they can be added to the MOU, but the Minister has given no undertaking to add the ISU to the MOU. I am happy to give way to the Minister. If he would like to say that he will add the ISU – the new unit within BEIS – to the organisations listed in the memorandum of understanding, I will stop my speech immediately and say, “Well done, Minister,” but I fear that that is not going to happen, so I will continue with my speech.
The Government’s second argument is that the BEIS Committee is both capable of providing and best placed to provide the necessary oversight. I have the greatest respect for the work and experience of the BEIS Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), from whom we will hear later. He and his Committee are indeed best placed to provide oversight of the business functions of the new Investment Security Unit, and there can be no doubt that that Committee will do an excellent job in that respect, yet it is simply impossible for it to provide substantive scrutiny of the highly classified national security elements or of the overarching decisions taken about how to balance them with the commercial elements.
Select Committees cannot be given proper access to top-secret material in order to scrutinise effectively. Ministers have suggested that the BEIS Committee can substantively scrutinise such material, but that is impossible. While it is true, as we have heard tonight, that the provision of classified information can be negotiated with Select Committees on a case-by-case basis, the laying out of classified material in a secure room in the Department for Members to come in and read for an hour or so – but without allowing them to take any notes, without allowing them to retain it, without allowing them to share it with their staff, without allowing them to discuss it and without allowing them to report on it since any one of those would constitute a very serious security breach – does not amount to effective oversight.
Proper oversight of the national security elements of any decision under this new regime within BEIS must include the ability to access, analyse and discuss top-secret material frequently and fully. The Government already have one body, and only one body, that can do all those things and that they created for that express purpose: the ISC. Members of the ISC are all subject to the Official Secrets Act and have a dedicated office with appropriate security facilities to store and discuss top-secret material freely, and staff who undergo the most stringent Government clearance processes before they are allowed to handle such material – I said in an intervention earlier that the staff of other Select Committees of this House are not so cleared. There is also a lengthy process through which the Committee’s reports must go ahead of publication.
Greg Clark: My right hon. Friend will know that the call-in power and the power to refuse permission for mergers to proceed on national security grounds is long standing. It is vested in the Business Secretary and sometimes in the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. During all this time, scrutiny has been available to the ISC on those decisions. Has my right hon. Friend found that deficient in some way?
Dr Lewis: I am not sure that without concrete examples of what my right hon. Friend has in mind, I am in a position to give an answer to that question. What I do know is that it is the work of the ISC, on a basis of professional, full-time constant monitoring, to be able to look at the activities of those agencies that cannot be looked at by other Select Committees. He seems to be talking about the power of Secretaries of State to call in decisions, and I am not sure quite how that relates to the work of either Select Committees or the statutory Committee, which is the ISC.
Greg Clark: Perhaps I did not explain myself well. What is proposed in the Bill is an amendment of the current powers. There is a long-standing power for mergers to be blocked on national security grounds. It is one of three grounds on which an intervention can take place, so this is not a new power or a novel departure. The ISC is able to scrutinise the security services’ input into that now, as it will be in the future.
Dr Lewis: The ISC, on behalf of Parliament, is able to scrutinise the input of the intelligence agencies into these processes. It would not be able to scrutinise how that input is then handled, and the trouble is that because that input is top secret, the BEIS Committee would not be able to scrutinise it either. That means that there would be a scrutiny gap between what was being scrutinised by us as it went into the process of the new unit and what was being scrutinised by BEIS minus that sensitive material, so there would be no effective parliamentary scrutiny of the process whereby, as I said earlier, the highly sensitive security requirements were being balanced and offset against the commercial imperatives. Indeed, that may be the very reason why the Government are so reluctant to let the ISC see what is going on.
Mr Steve Baker: I fear that my right hon. Friend may have just answered my question before I ask it, but I am most grateful to him; he is making his speech with tremendous passion and is very persuasive. I just looked up the definition of “top secret” and I am wondering what will be missing from the output of the process that would mean that there are some scrutiny gaps. I think he has just explained that he wants to scrutinise the process and I can see why he would make that case, but will he just give us some indication as to what he expects would be top secret in that analysis, if that is at all possible?
Dr Lewis: If I gave an example of something that would be top secret – even if I were in a position to do so because we had started the work that we are not being allowed to start – I would then immediately be breaking the Official Secrets Act so, no, I cannot, and I would not even if I could. However, what is a certainty is that, where there are circumstances where the intelligence agencies are advising on the security aspects, for example, of a potentially hostile state buying, overtly or covertly, into a strategically important asset – such as buying up a company engaged in cutting-edge technology – this unit will have to balance that against the possible commercial advantages of major investment from that other country.
The fact is that nobody on behalf of Parliament will be able to scrutinise that process unless either these amendments are accepted or the ISU – this new unit – is added to the list of units already on the memorandum of understanding. As I have said before and say again, if at any time the Minister wants to give me the assurance that it will be added, I am happy to let these amendments go from the face of the Bill.
As I explained, this is the reason that the ISC was set up as it is. If any Committee could do what the ISC does, it would not be necessary for the ISC to have all those unique facilities and arrangements. That is why paragraph 8 of the memorandum of understanding between the Government and the ISC categorically asserts:
“The ISC is the only committee of Parliament” –
I will say that again:
“the only committee of Parliament that has regular access to protectively marked information that is sensitive for national security reasons: this means that only the ISC is in a position to scrutinise effectively the work of the Agencies” –
and please listen to these next few words –
“and of those parts of Departments whose work is directly concerned with intelligence and security matters.”
A footnote to that sentence helpfully explains:
“This will not affect the wider scrutiny of departments…by other parliamentary committees. The ISC will aim to avoid any unnecessary duplication with the work of those Committees.”
With that machinery already in place, it is all the more baffling that the Government are now refusing to use the very body they created. Without including oversight by a properly structured and fully cleared security body, the Government are not placing security at the heart of the Bill.
The Government’s third and final argument is that if the ISC had a role, it would encroach on the BEIS Select Committee’s remit. This, too, is baffling and not borne out by experience. The Government’s own MOU already expressly states that the ISC scrutinises the classified parts of some Government Departments, leaving the remainder to the corresponding departmental Select Committees. That is what has always happened, perfectly harmoniously, in respect of a number of other Departments, so it is, again, bizarre that the Government now see this as a problem when they themselves have already made express provision for it.
The ISC can work seamlessly with the BEIS Select Committee on oversight of the Investment Security Unit, as it already does with other Select Committees such as the Defence Committee and the Home Affairs Committee, and in respect of the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Far from being an “overreach” of our remit, in this particular case the ISC is trying to prevent its existing scope from being reduced. The unit that currently carries out investment security work is based in the Cabinet Office. Consequently, it is already overseen by the Intelligence and Security Committee. The ISC already scrutinises these activities in their current form in the Cabinet Office, so it cannot be “overreach” to do in future something that we already do. If the Government do not maintain this existing scrutiny when the new Investment Security Unit takes over, it will be a step backwards from the current position.
If national security really is at the heart of the Bill, the ISC, as the national security oversight body, must be allowed to oversee it. The Government gave assurances to the House in 2013 that the ISC would oversee all security and intelligence matters. It is as simple as that. The sensible solution is that which was proposed and accepted in the other place – namely, the amendments that we are now being asked to reject for, as I have demonstrated, no good reason.
If, for some reason we have not been told, the Government cannot accept provision for oversight on the face of the Bill, there is the other solution that I have previously indicated. The Justice and Security Act and the memorandum of understanding linked to it set out the ISC’s role and remit, which the Government expressly told Parliament was the oversight of all intelligence and security matters across Government, now and in the future. The memorandum of understanding mechanism was rightly described by the security Minister at the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), as “flexible” because
“it can be changed much more easily than primary legislation.” – [Official Report, Justice and Security Public Bill Committee, 31 January 2013; c. 98.]
The matter before us today is exactly as described in 2013: an area of Government in respect of which the ISC has oversight responsibility has been moved to a different Department. The memorandum of understanding could therefore be updated to reflect this, by way of a simple exchange of letters, to add the Investment Security Unit to the list of bodies covered by the MOU. The ISC would happily accept a commitment from the Minister to this effect tonight, in lieu of the amendment. Either method will ensure what is needed: real oversight of the national security elements of this legislation by the only body constituted and equipped to carry it out, rather than what might be described as “scrutiny in name only”.