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Last Updated: Friday, 8 April 2005, 05:38 GMT 06:38 UK
'Ordinary' life of British spies
Gordon Corera
By Gordon Corera
BBC News security correspondent

GCHQ, the eavesdroppers' den

After the remarkable insights provided by the Butler and Hutton inquiries into the hidden world of Britain's intelligence agencies, Thursday's report from the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee provides a view of what passes as "ordinary" life for Britain's spies.

And it reveals a picture which might - at least in some parts - seem more familiar to office workers across Britain than you'd expect, with issues ranging from problems with a new IT system to concerns over pensions.

We learn from the report that this year and next, about 1.15bn will be spent on the domestic Security Service (or MI5), the foreign Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6) and the eavesdropping agency GCHQ - but the figures on how this money is distributed between the different services remains classified and marked only by an asterisk on the report.


We do learn that last year MI5 devoted about 67% of its spending to counter-terrorism - of which 23% goes on Northern Ireland and 44% on international terrorism.

It also appears that after years of haranguing by the committee, GCHQ has got its accounting into order by appointing a professional accountant with commercial experience.

We also discover that a rather sinister sounding figure known as the Agencies Efficiency Adviser stalks the corridors of Whitehall hunting out cost savings amongst the spies
Gordon Corera

But it also appears that Britain's spies are not immune from the broader problem across government surrounding bringing in new technology.

MI5's new information technology infrastructure is expected to cost 50% more than originally estimated and deliver less capability - but the actual cost is asterisked out.

Additionally, an ambitious programme to create a new system to share information between all producers and consumers of intelligence in Whitehall - called SCOPE - is also running three years behind schedule and the committee expresses concern that it has yet to deliver any usable benefits.

There are also worries about how changes to the civil service pension scheme will affect staff.

Internal consultations have not been completed, but heads of the agencies said that the changes could have an adverse impact on recruitment and retention.

Financial savings

Like the rest of us, intelligence officers from MI6 may also soon have to work later in life, losing their traditional early retirement.

MI5 logo
MI5 workers face typical office problems

We also discover that a rather sinister sounding figure known as the Agencies Efficiency Adviser stalks the corridors of Whitehall hunting out cost savings amongst the spies.

In a system which sounds rather Byzantine from the outside, a total of 14 "joint working groups" from MI5, MI6 and GCHQ work underneath a "joint working steering group" which has looked at a three-year "joint working service delivery agreement", consisting of six aims.

But all of this effort led to financial savings which are described as "very small" by the committee - saving a total of 9.2m over three years expenditure of 3,000m - about a third of one percent of the budget.

Recruitment is a major issue, including hitting targets from ethnic minorities.

For the services this is especially important in the context of the "war on terror", in which a broader set of linguistic and cultural skills is required than in the past.

We discover that currently 15% of those completing an application form for MI6 come from ethnic minorities - more than double the target of 7%.

And in 2004-5, 9% of new staff recruited were from minorities.

However, the committee does call for a review of the nationality rules for recruits.

Secret work

At the moment, it's hard for immigrants or the children of immigrants to get the right security clearances to join the different agencies - a waiver is often required from the Home or Foreign Secretary and they both expressed concern about the ability to recruit members with the right language skills.

There are a few references to the more secret work of the agencies in the report - and to the recent turmoil that has surrounded them.

For instance, the committee calls for ministers to be informed more quickly if any intelligence is withdrawn.

There was concern that this did not happen fast enough over some key sources on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme.

There's also a tantalising but very opaque reference to question marks over what advice ministers were given by MI6 and the Foreign Office on the conditions under which a particular agent was recruited by MI6.

The committee says it's been trying to look at this since the previous parliament but has not yet been able to see the key papers and so will have to keep returning to it.

Public spotlight

On the domestic threat, the report also says that "It is impossible to quantify exactly the number of individuals within the UK associated with Islamic terrorism."

It was only just over a decade ago in 1994 that the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) was officially acknowledged to even exist - in the Intelligence Services Act of 1994.

The same act established the Intelligence and Security Committee to scrutinise the agencies' workings.

After the election, the current chair, Ann Taylor MP, is stepping down, along with two other members of the committee.

Through her time in overseeing them, the work of the agencies has moved into the public spotlight in a way that few would ever have imagined a decade ago.

This report makes clear that growing media interest and growing public questioning over their work puts pressure on the agencies to open up and show the positive side of their work. But it also acknowledges that doing this whilst protecting their inherently secret work is a "difficult balance, which requires further thought".

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