Inside Parliament: Hurd tours vale of secrecy: House told how agents foiled death plot - MP attacks limited intelligence scrutiny - Bill bans use of eggs from aborted foetuses

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Indy Politics
Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, described to the Commons yesterday how a break- in by MI6 into the premises of a known terrorist led to the life of an ambassador of a key British ally being saved.

Introducing the Second Reading of the Intelligence Services Bill, Mr Hurd illustrated the continuing need for the cloak-and- dagger services with 'real-life examples' of their work.

The Bill officially acknowledges the existence of the Security Intelligence Service - SIS or MI6 - and the Government Communications Headquarters, putting both agencies on the same statutory basis as the home secret service MI5.

Spy debates traditionally attract the participation of conspiracists, 'Great-Game' romantics and a hard core of MPs who consistently argue that the security services should be accountable to Parliament. Richard Shepherd, Tory MP for Aldridge Brownhills, said that it was very important to ensure that 'the guardians are watched'.

Though the Bill provides for a committee of MPs and peers to scrutinise the administration, policy and spending of all three agencies, this falls well short of oversight by a Commons select committee. The six members will be appointed by the Prime Minister, bound by the Official Secrets Act and lack power to summon witnesses or call for documents.

Pre-empting the conspiracists, Mr Hurd said that both SIS and GCHQ, the Cheltenham listening post, must remain politically neutral. They did not invent their own requirements for information or act independently without clearance by ministers. 'They do not invent their own adventures.'

No one should doubt the importance of the agencies, he insisted. Today's threats included weapons proliferation, terrorism, serious crime and espionage - other people's spies.

Mr Hurd's examples of the work of our agents - with all names and places deleted - sounded like the matrix for a novel, perhaps one by Nigel West, alias Tory MP Rupert Allason, for whom the debate was a 'must', or even by the Foreign Secretary.

Mr Hurd said that British agents recently provided 'one of our European neighbours' with key intelligence about a major construction project being undertaken in a developing country by one of their national companies. 'Our agencies were able to demonstrate from their intelligence that the proposed facilities were intended for the production of weapons of mass destruction. That government, as a result, were persuaded to frustrate that contract.'

At the time of the Gulf war, intelligence agencies gained access to the premises occupied by a known terrorist living under an assumed name in the capital of a developing country. Vital details about his contacts were passed to a western European country he was known to visit.

'As a result, surveillance was mounted on him there, which led directly to saving the life of an ambassador of a key British ally, whom the terrorist and his groups were preparing to assassinate.'

In another example, Mr Hurd said a British law enforcement agency recently asked SIS to monitor a large consignment of drugs from a developing country. 'The service could not rely on the co-operation of their authorities in the country concerned and therefore sent an officer there under an assumed identity.

'Shortly after his arrival, in difficult and at times dangerous circumstances, the officer was able to identify and enlist the support of an employee of the transport organisation which was innocently handling the movement of the consignment. With the employee's help it was monitored to a point outside the country, where it was seized through international action and the substantial gang of traffickers involved was arrested.'

The shadow Foreign Secretary, Jack Cunningham, welcomed the principles of the Bill but said it was weakened quite dramatically by the inadequacy of the scrutiny committee. He also attacked the Government's 'denial of a basic freedom' to GCHQ employees who have been barred from trade union membership for 10 years.

Mr Allason warned of the damaging effect on SIS morale of the first compulsory redundancies in the service's history. 'If we intend to dismantle our armed forces, as we are doing, it is all the more important we should have an effective trip-wire overseas.'

Earlier, MPs gave approval, without a vote, to the introduction of a Private Member's Bill to prohibit the use of eggs taken from aborted human foetuses for fertilisation. The Bill's sponsor, Dame Jill Knight, warned that if the practice was not outlawed, some women would get themselves pregnant and have an abortion for money so that clinics treating infertility could use the eggs. 'It is totally repugnant that an unborn child - a child deliberately prevented from being born at all - should be plundered to facilitate the birth of another,' she said.

Dame Jill, Conservative MP for Edgbaston, said the Bill was not intended to stop research or the use of eggs donated by women. But she declared: 'It must surely be against the most basic of human rights that an unwanted child should be destroyed and used to create a wanted one.'