Alan Beith: We must not destroy the intelligence services' ability to do their job

From the Frank Stacey Lecture at the University of York, by the Liberal Democrat MP
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Before 1985, there were no mechanisms for monitoring the intelligence services that could give assurance that they were not invading civil rights, acting independently of, or even against, the Government.

The British compromise was a Parliamentary Committee that was not, strictly speaking, a committee of Parliament. The nine members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are appointed by the Prime Minister, but in practice reflect the party balance in the Commons. Its members are "within the ring of secrecy", and notified of their obligations under the Official Secrets Act.

The Committee makes an annual report to the Prime Minister which he must lay before Parliament, subject to such exclusions as, after consulting the committee, he deems necessary to prevent the report being prejudicial to the function of the agencies. I cannot recall any occasion when what was excluded was a criticism, or a fact whose exclusion was sought because it put the agencies or the Government in a bad light.

I believe the ISC provides effective scrutiny, by parliamentarians and reported to Parliament, to a degree not exceeded in any other country except to the extent that other systems, notably the US system, give committees direct control of the budgets they scrutinise. It is not in any way controlled by government.

The scrutiny of intelligence services has to be conducted on a basis that does not destroy their ability to do the job. The people of this country want acts of terrorism to be prevented, and recognise that intelligence must be gathered secretly if that is to be achieved.

Society expects that if our forces are sent into dangerous situations, we should know as much as possible about the threats they will face. To alert those on whose activities we seek intelligence to how we are going about it and how successful we may be, would be to destroy our ability to defeat a real enemy.