Yvette Cooper: Strong national security needs strong oversight

This should be the moment for the Government to increase, not cut back the safeguards
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The Independent Online

From Tinker Tailor to Spooks on Sunday nights, the fictional fight for national security is always guaranteed avid attention. By necessity, the real and vital work against terror threats is often hidden from view. Yet strong or secret powers need strong checks and balances too.

So far the Government has been in the worst of all worlds – watering down the counter-terror powers needed to keep people safe, but watering down the safeguards as well. I believe this week's Green Paper on intelligence should strongly increase those safeguards – particularly through parliamentary oversight of counter-terror work – in the interests of our democracy as well as the fight against terror too.

Clearly the need for strong and secret action remains. Without the intercepts and interventions from the police and security agencies, the airport worker supplying information to al-Qa'ida, the three potential suicide bombers might never have been stopped or convicted. Where it is justified by evidence, the police, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ need strong powers to act – including using exceptional powers such as pre-charge detention and control orders where they are needed to keep us safe. Indeed I think Theresa May is taking risks by ignoring the police evidence and watering down control orders this year, so the Government and courts can no longer require a serious terror suspect to stay out of London in the run up to the Olympics.

But I also disagree with some of the Government's decisions to weaken checks and balances too – including their careless attempts to ditch the Human Rights Act, as well as the removal of annual Parliamentary votes on the renewal of control orders. Strong powers need strong safeguards to prevent misuse and ensure legitimacy. Labour should also have done more to get the balance right. We introduced the Human Rights Act, judicial checks on counter-terror powers, and supported commissioners to oversee the security agencies. But our policies weren't always grounded in the best evidence – neither 90 nor 42 days pre-charge detention were justified. And as a former member of the Intelligence and Security Committee I have long argued for improving Parliamentary oversight of counter terror by strengthening its role.

This should be the moment for the government to increase, not cut back the safeguards. Ministers must now respond to the Intelligence and Security Committee's summer report calling for its powers to be strengthened. Made up of senior parliamentarians it still can't require evidence from the agencies, can't see the full reports of the security commissioners and is more part of the Cabinet Office than Parliament. Despite its good work, its reports have been frequently discounted as 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 over Iraq or extraordinary rendition.

The Government should support it becoming an independent parliamentary committee, as the report recommends. But I believe it should go further. It still needs greater access. Why not give the committee – or its chair – greater ability to review individual cases such as control orders or other operations where exceptional powers had to be used? Currently, when the Commons debates changes to counter-terror legislation or the use of emergency powers, only the Home Secretary has seen the exceptional cases that justify the laws we frame. Following the model of the Public Accounts Committee, it would be better too if the committee chair had to be a senior opposition MP – a precedent set by retaining the former Tory minister Tom King as chair throughout the 1997-2001 parliament, and one that all prime ministers since would have been wise to maintain. It is in the interests of the intelligence agencies if oversight is more credible and seen to be more credible too. It makes it much easier to sustain public support for the difficult work they need to do.

Sadly so far this Government's record on intelligence and counter terror measures has been muddled. Powers have been ditched and then restored and renamed, but sometimes without the safeguards they started with. Ministers are relying on disorderly processes for emergency legislation with no guiding principles in sight.

As connections, communications, networks and threats all rapidly change, security agencies need to be able to respond. I believe a modern counter terror policy does need strong powers and secret action, but decisions about powers must be based on the evidence. And they must be matched by strong checks and balances to safeguard our democracy and liberty too.

Yvette Cooper is the shadow Home Secretary

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