Steve Richards: Our security services lack all scrutiny

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The Independent Online

There is only one certainty when a murky story erupts about someone being bugged. Amidst the darkness there will be a flurry of warnings that Britain is becoming a police state, similar to the former regimes in eastern Europe. Over the past few days the predictable warnings have swamped the few details in the case involving the bugging of the Labour MP Sadiq Khan.

The range and intensity of the apocalyptic interpretations are proof that they cannot be entirely accurate. The fact that such articles are published and have become the orthodox view is proof in itself that the analogies with the old dictatorships of eastern Europe are far fetched. The populist thesis also misses the point. There is no co-ordinated plan to turn Britain into a surveillance state. The problem is a different one. There is not enough co-ordination on any front. If a government wanted to turn Britain into a police state it would almost certainly lack the means or the competence to do it.

Instead what we face is the typical British problem in which blurred lines of accountability allow some to take risks, others to behave foolishly on the assumption they will be able to get away with it. This applies to a range of institutions, from the NHS to the BBC, with lines of responsibility that are so convoluted that no one is responsible when things go wrong.

The case of the bugging of Sadiq Khan has brought forward a more intense paranoia than usual because of the unanswered questions. It seems that some officials knew about the bugging but did not bother to tell the Justice Secretary Jack Straw. Why did they not tell him? The shadow Home Secretary David Davis had some information about the case and says he wrote to Gordon Brown last December. Downing Street says it has no knowledge of such a letter. What happened to it?

Still it is not clear who authorised the bugging. Was it the Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair? Or was it someone slightly more junior, breaching the so -called Wilson Doctrine that MPs are not bugged?

Suddenly we are in the middle of a thriller. John Le Carré would have a ball with this material. A version will be on our screens before very long. In the meantime the relentless 24-hour media, more impatient and tireless than the American TV series 24, cannot wait for answers. More media-aware than most politicians and a supreme artist in driving the news agenda, David Davis has suggested some solutions already. Davis argues that Straw has lost control of his department and that the case of Khan shows how the "executive can ride roughshod" over an MP's relationship with a constituent.

Davis manages to condemn Straw for being awesomely ruthless and at the same time so useless he cannot run a department. By offering no definition of what he means by "the executive" he fuels the paranoia that the government, the police and the security services conspire to watch over us, breaking rules if they have to do so. Yet with a sleight of hand Davis also claims that Straw has lost control over his department, suggesting that the elected branch of the executive should have known more and that Straw was incapable of riding roughshod over anything at all.

The police, the security services and parts of the civil service are like any other institution. If scrutiny is limited or non-existent and the lines of accountability are blurred, they will become complacent and in some cases useless. Similarly if rules are imprecise, as is the case with the Wilson Doctrine, they will sometimes make use of the imprecision.

There is nothing new in this. The full story of Harold Wilson's relationship with the security services is still to be written, but we know that some spies were worred he was as a communist. As a Prime Minister well known for carrying what Roy Jenkins called "his light ideological baggage", the proposition was comically absurd. Such bizarre notions were as wrong-headed as the more recent claim that Iraq possessed lethal weapons of mass destruction. We only know how badly the security services got that wrong because the Government published its dossier of intelligence.

No wonder the security services were uneasy about the publication of their work in relation to Iraq. It was very convenient for them that the debate in Britain turned quickly into a question about Tony Blair's mendacity rather than one about how the intelligence was so spectacularly wrong.

There was though a single benefit in the publication of the notorious dossier. The publicly available intelligence made the security services look silly, but it did not in any way endanger their seemingly erratic activities, proof that a degree of scrutiny and accountability can be applied without threatening security.

The same applies to the police, who take decisions in the dark, and the senior civil servants who decide what information to pass on to elected ministers. Straw has said that he did not know that Khan had been bugged until last weekend. Surely he would not have been so precise if he had known before then. Presumably the thought process of some officials must have gone something like this: "We know an MP has been bugged. The minister does not seem to know. We will not bother to tell him." Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation. Perhaps there is not.

There was an important review of the civil service conducted by the left-of-centre think tank, the IPPR, last summer which argued that senior officials should be interviewed in the media and questioned more regularly by committees of MPs. That would change the quality of decision-making or advice that is given, or not given, around Whitehall.

The Khan case confirms a sense of muddle at the centre rather than the iron discipline of a surveillance state. The muddle takes the form of disparate initiatives, some from ministers, some commercial, that involve personal data. Quite often we give that data willingly. Look at the success of Facebook and our willingness to give credit-card details via the internet or telephone transactions.

Meanwhile security services and the police occasionally get away with excesses because they are not properly scrutinised. Ministers do not always know what is going on and act too leniently sometimes when they do. Officials do not bother to tell ministers, comfortably aware they will never have to face a grilling on the Today programme.

There are some obvious implications to this relating to clearer lines of accountability and more effective scrutiny of groups other than the cabinet ministers. More immediately it is obvious that in such a chaotic climate the Government would be daft to press ahead with ID cards.