Dr Julian Lewis: That harrowing account by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) puts me in mind of what happened to my family in Nazi-occupied Poland for 20 months during the second world war, when they could come out from a bunker under a barn only at night, to be fed by the Polish family who risked their lives to save them. This debate ought to be about what the Scottish National Party spokesman, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), rightly summarised when he said, “Get people out and keep people safe.” That is why I am a little disappointed that I do not feel that I can concentrate on cases such as the ones I have raised before, those of the 16 academics being supported by the Council for At-Risk Academics. These people have places – visiting fellowships and research studentships – in British universities. A dozen of them are still in Afghanistan, three of them have made it to Pakistan and one has even made it to the Netherlands, preparatory to coming here. I do not feel that I can concentrate on that because, unfortunately, the Opposition motion is framed in terms of setting up a:
“Joint Committee to Investigate Withdrawal from Afghanistan”
I am reading from the Annunciator there.
With the greatest respect to the Opposition, may I say that that was a mistake? Late last month, it was announced on the website of the Intelligence and Security Committee – that is the hat I now have to wear – that we had
“requested from the Government any intelligence assessments which covered the outlook for the regime with regards to the final withdrawal of US and coalition forces from Afghanistan”.
When such assessments are received, we shall consider them carefully and then determine any future action to take. Until that has happened, the ISC will not be commenting on what such intelligence may contain, as it is not our role to prejudge the situation on the basis of media speculation and in the absence of primary factual material.
In recent months, the official Opposition have been very supportive of the right of the ISC to fulfil its role, set out in statute and in an associated memorandum of understanding, as the only Committee of parliamentarians cleared and equipped properly to deal with highly-classified intelligence material. If other Committees seek to do this, they will, for a start, require secure premises and specially vetted staff comparable to our own. There are very good reasons for safeguarding the role of the ISC against such interference, and they were spelled out in detail and strongly supported by the Opposition parties during the lively debates in both Houses on the National Security and Investment Bill. Colleagues will be relieved to know that I do not propose to reiterate those arguments today, but the argument for letting the ISC get on with its work steadily and objectively, without being undercut by other bodies not equipped to do it, is as irrefutable now as it was when it was deployed in the context of that Bill earlier this year.
It is entirely up to Select Committee Chairmen to decide whether they want to mount a joint inquiry or join a Joint Committee, but what cannot be part of any such joint inquiry is the adoption by another Committee of the ISC’s raison d’être: namely, scrutiny of the activities of the intelligence community and the classified material on which those activities were based.
Seema Malhotra: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution and for the advice he has given me about cases. On intelligence and security, one of my constituent’s relatives is in Afghanistan. He worked for the intelligence services and has information on intelligence and the armed forces here, but he has not been supported to leave Afghanistan and is now being sought by the Taliban because of what and who he knows. What is the right hon. Gentleman’s view on how we should handle that situation from the point of view of our own security?
Dr Lewis: I would have thought that it should come within the compass of the existing Government schemes to classify someone, providing the Government can satisfy themselves that what that person says he has to offer is genuine, and to activate a plan to take advantage of any real intelligence material that someone in that position might be able to offer. Unfortunately, of course, as a result of the chaotic departure that has been forced on America’s allies by successive American Presidents, the wherewithal to secure the safety of anybody inside Afghanistan, and particularly someone whom the Taliban are actively hunting, will be very difficult through any overt scheme. It would have to be done by some form of covert means, on which I hope the Government are working but on which I would not expect them to comment publicly.
To conclude, the position is perfectly clear, according to law, and we shall continue, gently but firmly, to hold the Government and the intelligence agencies properly to account.