Army of Mrs Mops object to being 'taken to the cleaners': MI6's cleaning ladies are being compelled to fight for their jobs in secret. Ian MacKinnon reports

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ALL THOSE years skulking in the bowels of Century House, the London headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, were bound to rub off on the cleaning ladies. When they appeared yesterday to make the case against their sackings, they were cloaked, appropriately, in a veil of secrecy.

Not that Mrs A, Mrs B and Mrs C, disembodied voices hidden behind biege screens, really wanted it that way. Only signatures on the Official Secrets Act bringing the threat of instant dismissal and the loss of redundancy stopped them speaking out publicly.

For all that the women managed to put the case on behalf of their 44 colleagues due to lose their jobs on 30 June, when the service moves across the Thames to its new pounds 150m HQ in Vauxhall Cross.

The Government plans to contract out the service to save money, cutting the hourly rate of cleaners from pounds 4 to pounds 3.50, and removing bonuses and London weighting.

The women who have worked at MI6 for up to 30 years - the oldest is 67 - are outraged that their loyalty has been repaid by such 'shabby' treatment.

But with no job contracts and a bar on union representation, the women felt powerless to act. Finally they approached Harriet Harman, the Labour MP, whose husband Jack Dromey, national secretary of the transport workers' union, hosted yesterday's slightly surreal press conference. The women, whose case has been taken up by the union even though none of them are members, had been forced to sign a gagging order preventing them from talking to the media, Mr Dromey said. 'The Official Secrets Act should not be used to attack workers' conditions and rights. Working in a nether world, these women have discovered they had no rights and are being denied protection under employment law.'

Questions to the women were fielded by Mr Dromey, who lobbed them over the 5ft screens to Mrs A and Mrs B, both 59, and Mrs C, 41. 'I will not be able to get another job at my age,' Mrs A said. 'I would never have talked about my job and I never saw any classified documents. Secrecy is being abused and I don't understand why. There is no mole in my bucket.'

Equally Mrs A, who has been working there for 19 years, and her colleagues are angry that their dedication to the sensitive job has been cast aside by the Government with barely a second thought. One woman has been working in the 5.30am to 9.30am job for 30 years, and commands a wage of pounds 450 a month. Five of the 47 women are over 65 and 21 have passed 60.

Cleaners were allowed to work until 70 if they wished, to keep staff turnover to an absolute minimum and avoid the difficulities of finding new staff.

Most were recruited by word-of- mouth or through family connections. Mrs A's husband works for the Post Office, where he has signed the Official Secrets Act, and her mother-in-law works in the Houses of Parliament.

At one time, she said, it was taking up to a year to recruit a cleaner for MI6 as candidates had to be positively vetted twice and went through three selection interviews.

If the Government has its way, Strand Cleaners will be taking on that headache shortly.

(Photograph omitted)