MPs seek power to oversee MI5's role and budget

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The Security Service should be accountable and open to scrutiny to avoid abuse of power and illegal activities, according a cross-party committee of MPs.

Calling for the right to scrutinise MI5 policies and spending, the Tory-led Home Affairs Select Committee challenged Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, who believes he alone should be responsible for the largely secret service.

The MPs dismissed Mr Clarke's claims that making MI5 accountable to a select committee would weaken its effectiveness.

Sir Ivan Lawrence, chairman of the Commons committee, dismissed yesterday's claims that MI5 was behind the alleged royal tapes, but he agreed that such allegations were the kind of issue the committee could investigate if it had the power.

But while civil liberty groups argued that the select committee had not gone far enough in its demands for accountabilty for the pounds 185m-a-year service, Mr Clarke is unlikely to be moved. Recent moves towards more openness do not go beyond putting the service on a statutory basis in the 1989 Security Service Act. Mr Clarke forbade Stella Rimington, MI5's director-general, from appearing before the committee.

Parliament, however, is to debate MI5 when the Government presents legislation, promised this session, to put MI6 and GCHQ on the same legal footing.

Despite MI5's history of scandal, notably the Spycatcher claims of a plot to destabilise the Wilson government, the committee's main concern is over its new tasks like the fight against terrorism - work previously undertaken by the police.

The committee believes that with the end of the Cold War, the Security Service will concentrate on more internal matters which have previously been the concern of the police. 'The committee is most concerned that effective mechanisms for scrutiny should be in place in these vital areas and that none of them should pass from parliamentary scrutiny simply as a result of administrative decisions that former policing matters should become matters for the Security Service.'

Yesterday John Wadham, legal officer for Liberty, which wants MI5 answerable to an inspector- general, said: 'In a democractic society decisions should not be made by people who have a monopoly of information, who know they need not share their knowledge and who have power without responsibility.'

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