Inside Parliament: Spies face cautious challenge by peers

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Indy Politics
As Lord Richard, Labour leader in the Lords, put it, 'secrecy, along with class, is a great British obsession'. The welcoming reception given to the Intelligence Services Bill during yesterday's second reading by peers indicated a broad cross-party belief that the first fixation, at least, is being cautiously challenged.

The Bill puts the function and powers of spies in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the electronic listening post, on a statutory footing, just as the 1985 Security Service Act did for MI5 in the wake of the Peter Wright Spycatcher controversy. Earlier Labour criticism of the Bill for not allowing scrutiny by a Commons select committee reporting directly to Parliament was not greatly in evidence yesterday. The Bill establishes a six-strong committee of MPs - and, incidentally, peers - picked by the Prime Minister, to oversee the expenditure, administration and policy of all three bodies and report to him.

Lord Callaghan, the former Labour prime minister, declared that: 'The Government has made an important advance . . . I think that our civil liberties might be more endangered by private bugging than from any action by the state.'

He, for one, was no longer attracted by the position in Canada or the US. 'I start from the premise that . . . ministers control, Parliament has oversight.'

Of the Canadian and American accountability regimes, he said: 'On paper it looked very good until I saw the consequences of it. There was no doubt that it weakened the effectiveness of those services. But it did not really strengthen the accountability that those who sought to achieve it wanted.' Lord Callaghan saw the matter more as one of trust. A democratic society required of the services 'the highest sense of integrity and prudence' in the use of the powers given in the Bill.

Labour support was not unqualified, however. Lord Richard welcomed the fact that there would now be two commissioners, one for MI5 and one for MI6, each reporting annually to the Prime Minister. In addition, the Prime Minister would receive an annual report on GCHQ. But there was no provision for the Prime Minister to lay the third, on GCHQ, directly before Parliament.

A similar objection applied to the reporting procedures governing the committee, which had no power to make its own report.

'The committee will report to the Prime Minister. When the report reaches the Prime Minister he will be able to sanitise it - and I don't object to that right at all - and it will then go to Parliament.' That downgraded the link between the committee and Parliament.

Lord Richard suggested the committee should report direct to Parliament and that the Prime Minister should have the right 'en route' to take out unduly sensitive material.

But Lord Richard's strongest objection related to the ban on trade union rights at GCHQ. 'This remains one of the most bewildering decisions that this Government has taken. They concluded without evidence that having trade unions in GCHQ posed a threat to national security.' It was 'staggering.'

No doubt had been cast on the patriotism of trade unionists for more than 40 years. The continuation of the ban would represent an insult to millions of loyal union members. He reminded peers that 'the majority of those who have actually betrayed their country don't seem to have been ardent trade unionists'.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, later revealed that the Government was actively considering lifting the ban, but that the proposed new role for unions would be restricted.

The Liberal Democrat elder statesman, Lord Jenkins, a former Labour home secretary, demanded an end to MI5's political surveillance role. As Home Secretary he had 'experienced what I can best describe as an inherent lack of frankness, an ingrowing monoculture and a confidence-destroying tendency of engaging in the most devastating internal feuds'. It was a 'distorting and Alice Through the Looking Glass world in which falsehood becomes truth, fact becomes fiction and fantasy becomes reality.'

Lord Merlyn-Rees, another former Labour home secretary, condemned what approached an 'anti- Guardian' political bias of some officers. He called for the Bill to be extended to defence intelligence agencies and the role of the police special branch in support of MI5.

The infinitely less intriguing tendencies of the European Union, judging by the numbers present, were on the agenda in yesterday's Commons debate, when Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, attempted to persuade his Euro-sceptic opponents that there had been a real change in the European debate.

All 12 heads of state had shown their commitment to 'greater transparency, openness and decentralisation in our procedures' in the declaration of the Maastricht treaty's implementation.

'For many years the dream of a European Union was pursued on the Continent like a holy grail. No- one could define it - but it was sacrilege to question it.

'As Hilaire Belloc said of the microbe: Oh let us never never doubt What nobody is sure about' - which might equally have been said of the intelligence services.

That failed to impress Bill Cash, de facto leader of the Maastricht rebels. The same declaration, the section on foreign and security policy, included a passage that a common defence policy 'must, I repeat, must' eventually be framed by the union. 'I think we ought to be watching very carefully for the manner in which this legislation actually works in practice.'

At the wind-up, Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, attacked Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, over the 'disagraceful' failure to complete a high-speed Channel Tunnel rail link, when the French had done so, because of Government failure to invest.

Mr Clarke retorted that the French had simply drawn a line and dispensed with public inquiries. So 'what century' would it be completed, demanded Labour MPs.

(Photograph omitted)