MI5 and MI6 ordered to open files to the public

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The intelligence services - M15 and M16 - have been ordered to open their secret files to public scrutiny.

The intelligence services - M15 and M16 - have been ordered to open their secret files to public scrutiny.

Every British citizen will, in theory, have the right to look at his or her file held among thousands of secret documents.

The Data Protection Commissioner, Elizabeth France, has ordered the services - and GCHQ, the Government's information-gathering centre - to comply with data protection law after losing patience with them following years of failed negotiations.

Jonathan Bamford, the Assistant Data Protection Commissioner, said: "We had made it clear to these agencies that we expect them to register under the data protection acts and comply fully with the data protection principles."

Mr Bamford added: "We will investigate any complaints - now called 'requests for assessment' - that we may review in relation to these agencies in the same way as for as any other data user."

Security chiefs have tried to resist registering by claiming that they are entitled to blanket exemption on the grounds of national security. The 1984 act - which incorporates the data protection principles into British law - requires that data is collected fairly and lawfully, that it is accurate and kept up to date, and that it is only used for the purposes which are stated in its entry on the Data Protection Register.

But after the new, tougher 1998 Data Protection Act came into force in March this year - requiring much more openness by organisations that hold files on individuals - the commissioner informed intelligence chiefs that they could face court action if they failed to comply. Mr Bamford said the three agencies were sent application forms to register under the data protection acts. The application for GCHQ has been returned and its entry now appears on the Data Protection Register.

The intelligence agencies are certain to seek to resist each application on the grounds of national security.

It appears that the commissioner is determined to tackle each application on its merits - the same that applies to other organisations such as the police. This would result in a huge additional workload for the intelligence services and ministers.

Under the 1998 act a refusal by the security and intelligence services to disclose personal records "in the interest of national security" has to be endorsed by a certificate issued by a minister of the crown. A refusal can be challenged before a data protection tribunal.

If all citizens can ask the intelligence service to see their files, the agencies may be faced with having to scrap many files of people they suspected in the past but who do fit the exact terms of MI5's, MI6's and GCHQ's current remit.

The head of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, has already received an application under the Data Protection Act from the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker. In his letter to Sir Stephen, dated 12 July, the MP for Lewes wrote: "As you will know, the Office of the Data Protection Registrar is of the view that the UK's security and intelligence agencies are duty bound to comply with the Data Protection Principles and thus the Data Protection Acts."

It continues: "Accordingly, I would appreciate it if you would kindly now advise me as to the procedure you plan to adopt in order to process this request, and also the prospective time-scale that will apply to this application." The Home Office would not comment on the application.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office, which is the department dealing with inquiries, indicated that the Government will not intervene over the commissioner's tough line on the security and intelligence services.

He added: "This is a matter concerning the data protection acts and is therefore a matter for the Data Protection Commissioner. It is nothing to do with us."

The MI5 security service alone holds approximately 440,000 files, according to a parliamentary reply from the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, of which "290,000 [are] relating to individuals who may have been the subject of an inquiry or investigation". But unofficial estimates have put the figure much higher.