MI5 vetted Blair's new Cabinet

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MI5 FILES on Labour front benchers were handed to Tony Blair as he prepared to construct his Cabinet after the General Election landslide by the head of the security service, it was disclosed yesterday by a cross- party group of MPs.

The report by the Intelligence and Security Committee does not identify the cabinet ministers, but Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, are known to be among the ministers with Security Service files on their past as student activists. The committee also revealed that since 1992, the Director-General of MI5, Stephen Lander, has also delivered similar files to the Leader of the Opposition on his own front benchers to disclose potentially damaging information before he appoints the Shadow Cabinet.

The files cover contacts with foreign intelligence services or relationships with terrorist organisations. The number of records made available after the last two General Elections "was in single figures", the committee report said.

The MPs do not call for the practice to stop, but signal their anxiety, saying it places "a heavy responsibility on the Director General in putting forward any such file to ensure the information on it has been properly checked and relates solely to national security".

The committee, which acts as the only public watchdog in Britain on MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, the secret listening service, called for an independent check to be made on the way the Security Service reviews and destroys files it holds on members of the public. Since 1992, 110,000 files have been destroyed or earmarked for disposal but the committee questions how this is carried out.

Files are reviewed when the subjects are over 55 years old. "This means there may be files on individuals under the age of 55 because they joined an organisation which was catergorised as subversive possibly 20 years ago and these files may still be used for vetting and other purposes," said the MPs.

Tony Blair is expected to respond to the report next week by announcing he is accepting one of the key recommendations to allow the committee to appoint a Whitehall "spywatcher" to reinforce its checks on Britain's intelligence and secret services.

Its chairman, Tom King, the former Tory cabinet minister, said the new "spywatcher" would investigate cases at the request of the committee and would have access to all relevant files and documents. The spywatcher would check on the veracity of the information given to the MPs by the security and intelligence services.

The report warned of the need for the agencies to develop better procedures for handling disaffected staff following allegations by two "whistleblowers" - former MI5 officer David Shayler, currently facing extradition proceedings in France, and ex-MI6 officer Richard Tomlinson who was jailed for six months for breach of the Official Secrets Act.