Letter: We do not need, or want, MI5 to be a secret police force

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your story (22 September) that MI5 is going to take up the role of crime-fighter is, as you suggest, of concern to lawyers and human rights experts and there are a number of reasons for our concerns.

First, the culture of secrecy and the lack of accountability. While the effectiveness of the country's security and intelligence services depends on a degree of secrecy that would be unacceptable in other institutions, this very latitude puts them in a uniquely powerful position to abuse their powers and to make use of them in ways not acceptable in a democratic society. We are entitled to assume that only where it is absolutely necessary will the principles of political, financial and legal accountability be abrogated and that, even where full accountability is not possible, the most democratic options available will be pursued.

The evidence suggests that these principles have not been respected by MI5 and the Government. For instance, the new committee set up a year ago to oversee the work of all three secret services has not yet produced a substantive report but the rules that it has to deal with make it very unlikely that it will have any real say over what goes on. The culture of secrecy in MI5 means that even the new arrangements brought in by Michael Howard, which have significantly reduced the democratic accountability of the police, are still better than those for MI5.

The police, at least, are accountable via the formal police complaints system which, while very inadequate, is still substantially better than the extremely secretive system for complaints set up for MI5.

Second, accountability to the courts remains a real problem. The increased use of MI5 officers to investigate crime will inevitably result in more officers giving evidence behind screens and anonymously. Surely we are all entitled, particularly in serious cases where national security is involved and where the state has a clear interest in the outcome, to confront those who accuse us?

Lastly, the move will violate the terms of the Security Service Act 1989. The Government only passed this Act because of litigation in Strasbourg by Liberty on behalf of two of its previous employees who, it was admitted, were under surveillance by MI5. While the functions of MI5 set out in that Act are wide, the criminal activities that it appears MI5 will be investigating in future are not a threat to "national security" and cannot be covered by the terms "espionage, terrorism and sabotage" nor can they be threats to "undermine parliamentary democracy". If they were, surely MI5 would have been investigating them before now?

We may need police officers acting under cover and in secret, but we no longer need a secret police force.

Yours faithfully

John Wadham

Acting General Secretary


London, SE1

23 September