The Queen's Speech: Open Government: GCHQ to face scrutiny

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GCHQ, the Government listening post at Cheltenham, is to be opened to scrutiny for the first time along with MI5 and MI6, in spite of earlier misgivings by the American Central Intelligence Agency.

A committee of Privy Councillors, covered by their traditional oath of secrecy, will be given access to Britain's anti-terrorist, anti- espionage and spying organisations as part of a Bill to put MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service) and GCHQ on a statutory footing.

The Bill, following the structure of the Security Service Act 1989 which put MI5 on a statutory basis, will provide for the continuing existence of SIS and GCHQ, set out their functions and make provision for the accountability of SIS, GHCQ and the Security Service.

The move is part of the Prime Minister's commitment to more open government, and follows the lifting of the secrecy veil with publication of guidebooks to the central intelligence machinery and the naming of the heads of the respective services.

The CIA, which works with GCHQ, was wary about scrutiny being extended to the listening post in Britain, given the security lapses exposed in the spy scandals of the 1960s, including Kim Philby.

However, the Bill and the scrutiny does not go far enough for some Labour MPs who will seek to change it during its committee stage to allow a select committee to have access to the information.

The Government has decided on Privy councillors because they are already covered by a blanket oath of secrecy. It will draw together former ministers, senior backbenchers, and possibly peers, from the three main parties.

They will be given details of the budgets of the services and will be able to raise questions about the changing role and responsibility of the services after the ending of the Cold War. They will not be allowed to investigate detailed operational secrets and their meetings may be held in camera.