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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 06:33 GMT 07:33 UK

UK Politics

'Spies need scrutiny'

MI6 headquarters: Demands for it to made more accountable

The secret services should be made accountable to Parliament if they are to command public respect, MPs have recommended.

The BBC's Joshua Rozenberg: MPs say the committee should be independent of the government
The Home Affairs Committee said independent parliamentary scrutiny of the intelligence organisations could also prevent future crises.

The report said a dedicated parliamentary select committee would improve public confidence in the operation of MI5, MI6 and the GCHQ eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham.

The chairman of the committee, Labour MP Chris Mullin, said the proposed select committee would have the power to "summon witnesses and to obtain papers and would be appointed by Parliament and not the prime minister.

Chris Mullen: There is a problem of credibility that needs to be addressed
"And we think that would command greater public confidence than the existing arrangement."

Although the existing committee, appointed by the prime minister, was doing a good job, Mr Mullin said there is a problem with credibility.

He told the BBC: "It is a fundamental principle in democracy that the executive should be accountable to Parliament."

The main objections to reform were coming from Whitehall and not from the security services themselves, he said.

Setting up a select committee Mr Mullin said would be "an inevitable process of evolution". It would in the long term be better to set one up now instead of wake of some future scandal.

The present committee of MPs and peers, the Intelligence and Security Committee, exists to keep an eye on the work of the three security services.

But its members are chosen by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, rather than the House of Commons and it reports to him rather than to MPs.

However, the committee's head, former Tory defence minister Tom King, sees no need for change.

Tom King: I wouldn't tear it all up and start again
He said public confidence had been built up in the committee in the past five years and insisted it does report to Parliament except on the most secret matters.

The committee has been strengthened recently by the appointment of a former Ministry of Defence intelligence analyst, John Morrison, as an investigator working for the I+S Committee.

Mr King said Mr Morrison will be able to investigate "in greater depth" matters that concern the committee.

"I think the system is developing rather well," he said. "What I don't want to do is to tear it all up and start again."

But the civil rights group Liberty said: "The appointment of an 'insider' by an inadequate committee is no solution at all."

Untested 'in crisis'

The MPs' report acknowledged that the I+S Committee, set up by former Conservative prime minister John Major in 1994, had made good progress in shedding light on areas of security service activity "which hitherto had lain in darkness".

But they said the committee had not been "tested in a crisis".

[ image: Peter Wright's Spycatcher memoirs]
Peter Wright's Spycatcher memoirs
In their report, the MPs referred back to the spy scandals of 1950s and 1960s involving Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby, who undermined UK security by leaking secrets to the Russians.

They also mentioned disclosures in the 1970s made by Cathy Massiter over the level of security service surveillance and the 1980s Spycatcher affair, in which the government battled to ban publication of a Peter Wright's memoirs.

The committee concluded that such scandals were less likely to occur if the security services were opened to more independent scrutiny from Parliament.

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