Minister seeks 'open' MI5

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The Independent Online
A SENIOR minister is pressing for new measures to open up the security services, including the creation of a new ombudsman with powers to make secret files available to those who have been under surveillance.

The minister responsible for open government, William Waldegrave, Secretary of State at the Office of Public Service and Science, has proposed strengthening the complaints procedure against MI5 in a paper circulating in Whitehall.

The move comes as scrutiny of the security services is increasingly called into question following the publication of a transcript of a bugged conversation, allegedly between Prince Charles and the Princess of Wales.

Last week the Cabinet failed to agree on the details of a new system of scrutiny for the security services, expected to involve a committee of Privy Councillors, probably chaired by Sir John Wheeler, the former chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee. Ministers are thought to have already rejected a plea from MPs that the select committee itself should undertake the scrutiny.

Mr Major has promised to place MI6 on a statutory footing, as MI5 was under the Security Service Act of 1989, and a Bill to do this is expected in the next Queen's Speech. But after discussion at Cabinet on Thursday about the content of the next legislative programme, it remained unclear whether a new scrutiny committee will be set up. Downing Street said the issue was 'under consideration although not resolved yet'.

If Mr Waldegrave's plans gain support, they too could be enacted under the proposed legislation. Alternatively, they could form part of his department's paper on open government.

Some of Mr Waldegrave's allies argue that this could prove an important element in rescuing the much-delayed paper, the publication of which is expected before the summer recess. Plans to repeal dozens of secrecy clauses, promised by the minister, have been blocked by civil servants in other departments.

Although the current arrangements provide for a tribunal to review complaints against MI5, none were upheld last year. With the changing world climate and declining fears about left-wing subversion, many MPs feel that subjects of surveillance in the 1950s and 1960s could be allowed to see their files without any risk to national security. A new ombudsman might be given powers to range back several decades.

However, any proposals to relax secrecy are likely to provoke opposition from the agencies themselves and in Parliament. One minister warned last week that the scrutiny system must not allow the role of the security services to 'degenerate into farce'.

Those cautious about moves to open up the services argue that the Government has 'to balance accountability against practicalities and worries about putting sources at risk'.