The Data Protection Bill, which comes into force in October, will allow individuals who believe their political activities have been monitored by the security and intelligence agencies to apply to a newly established Data Protection Tribunal for adjudication if requests to see their security files are refused. Civil liberties groups believe it will be a step towards greater freedom of information.
It is estimated that details on between half a million and one million UK subjects are held by the security service MI5 alone. These are known to include members of the Labour Party, trade union activists and campaigners with pressure groups such as CND, Amnesty International and the National Council for Civil Liberties.
At present, the three main intelligence agencies - MI5, MI6 and GCHQ - have blanket exemption from complying with the Data Protection Act 1984, which requires computer data to be accurate, up-to-date and to be gathered "fairly and lawfully".
Despite the fact that the 1984 Act allows individuals to examine their own computer files and correct mistakes, the intelligence services have refused to allow access to such files.
For three years the Data Protection Registrar, Elizabeth France, has lobbied for the security and intelligence agencies to register under the Act. She said it is "difficult to see how mere registration under the Data Protection Act 1984 would be likely to compromise national security".
Last week the Government said it had no intention to instruct the agencies to comply with the 1984 Act. The Data Protection Registrar's office responded with disappointment.
Both the registrar and civil liberties organisations are confident that the new system of tribunals, backed with the right to take rejected cases to a higher court, will improve people's rights to see their own files. John Wadham of Liberty, which has itself been subject to MI5 surveillance, said: "The potential involvement of the Data Protection Tribunal will be a significant improvement. We will have to look at it in detail."
Many politicians are unhappy at the Government's position on the security services' continued secrecy. The Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith, who is a member of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, said: "There has to be some secrecy to protect current enquiries and sources, but many of the files will be completely redundant as the old gripe about domestic subversion no longer applies."
Labour MP Tony Benn believes agencies such as MI5 have outlived any useful role. "These agencies are totally unaccountable. There ought to be an independent tribunal with power to investigate claims of inaccurate records or wrongdoing."Reuse content