The day-to-day operations of the security services should be subjected to greater scrutiny by politicians, Labour proposes today.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, argues that the present system for monitoring the services is out of date and should be extended. Although giving MPs and peers more detail about the activities of MI5 and MI6 would be opposed by some security officials, the Opposition's intervention could put pressure on the Coalition to act.
Writing in The Independent, Ms Cooper says that a bigger role for Parliament would be better than the current piecemeal approach through judge-led inquiries into specific issues – such as the one headed by Sir Peter Gibson into whether Britain is implicated in the torture of detainees held by other countries since the 9/11 attacks in America.
She proposes that Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which reports to the Prime Minister, should be upgraded to a full parliamentary committee with a wider remit, greater powers to investigate and more access to intelligence – including the ability to look further at individual operations. Ms Cooper said yesterday: "Faced with continued serious terrorist threats we depend on strong and effective intelligence and security agencies to keep us safe. But, alongside that, we need strong checks and balances in place to support legitimacy."
Her announcement on the security services is part of a wider policy shift. While defending the "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" strategy of the previous government, she believes it did not provide enough "checks and balances" to safeguard civil liberties.
She will contrast Labour's approach with what she regards as the Coalition Government's "toxic mix of small state conservatism and laissez-faire liberalism". She accuses the Government of cutting the tools and powers of agencies and the police to combat crime and protect the public and curbing the checks and balances at the same time.
Ms Cooper, a former member of the ISC, says its reports have been frequently discounted because it has not had the power or credibility to reassure the public that it got to the bottom of problems such as the use of intelligence before the Iraq War, or extraordinary rendition.
The shadow Home Secretary added: "What has emerged is an 'oversight gap', where questions or aspersions can end up casting a shadow over vital work because they go unanswered."