Grant the spies their powers – but force them to speak up

When a tiny light is shone on MI5 and MI6, as in the Commons’ hearing two years ago, there is no threat

Steve Richards@steverichards14
Monday 02 November 2015 18:51
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Greater surveillance could be a force for good, if used with moderation
Greater surveillance could be a force for good, if used with moderation

We are hearing a lot of noise about what is known –in an example of how political language can distort an issue – as the Snooper’s Charter. The noise distorts the facts almost as much as that misleading piece of terminology.

No one wants or expects spies or the police to follow all of us as we plan what to do on a foggy night in November. But there is little dispute over the proposition that in an era where the internet and mobile phones are the main source of communication, spies and the police need greater access to such material. The main area of debate is over the theoretically dry topic of accountability. In the UK the question of who is accountable to whom is almost as emotive a theme as privacy and surveillance. Who should oversee the overseers? Should it be a Home Secretary? Should it be a judge? The questions are highly charged because they are linked to the role of the state, a debate that begins in virtually every policy area with assumptions of sinister intent.

The broadest concerns of Theresa May’s critics are understandable and must be addressed. Powers can be abused and no institution is free from individuals or a culture that is capable of abusing them. From what we know, the intelligence agencies and the police are flawed institutions, capable of terrible error or worse. Any organisation that worked on the deranged assumption that the former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was a communist – as some foolish spies assumed in the late 1960s and early 1970s – needs to be kept under intense scrutiny. Goodness knows what parts of MI6 would make of Jeremy Corbyn’s internet details if some thought Wilson dangerously left wing. The police too are far from error-free and some will no doubt make mistakes or deliberately abuse access to records. But again no supporter of May’s latest proposals, to be unveiled tomorrow, will disagree with the need for accountability. The thorny question becomes how agencies, more often than not used to functioning in the dark, can be held to account.

The former adviser on security legislation, Lord Carlile, a Liberal Democrat, pointed out on the BBC that a Home Secretary will challenge the intelligence agencies at least as much as a judge in granting access in emergency situations. He added that the home secretaries he had worked with always had been robust in the past. This is hardly surprising. There will always be immense countervailing pressures on home secretaries to show that they are not “invading” people’s privacy unnecessarily. An elected Home Secretary is more accountable than a judge, who does not have to answer in any arena as to why he or she has made a decision.

In response to such powerful arguments the senior Conservative MP, David Davis, and smartly forensic critic, points out that home secretaries do not explain in public either, hiding behind the convenient shield that responding to questions might threaten national security. Davis argues there is no greater accountability when a Home Secretary oversees sensitive security decisions. He is one of the few MPs who recognises the centrality of accountability as a way of keeping many different institutions and agencies on their toes.

But that is not necessarily a case for insisting on judicial oversight and ceding all political control. In both the case of the silent Home Secretary and the lack of public scrutiny in relation to intelligence agencies, there are ways to provide much higher levels of transparency. When a tiny amount of daylight is shone on the security services, such as the rare public hearing two years ago of the Commons’ intelligence committee questioning spy chiefs, there is no threat to national security. With greater access to internet and phone information must come more public explanation as to why and how the new powers are being used. “We cannot say anything in order to protect national security” must be protective words deployed rarely.

The feverish paranoia about “surveillance” reflects an unsurprising suspicion of the state in all its manifestations. In the UK of the 21st century the attitudes follow a familiar pattern: a Home Secretary cannot be trusted because he or she is a politician, a judge can be trusted because he or she is not an elected politician and the state is always an instrument of stifling oppression and never one that can act benevolently.

Most of the time ministers imply by their actions that the state in the UK can never be a force for good. The Chinese can finance the UK’s nuclear power stations, but not the poor old UK state. The German and Dutch governments can own train companies, but the British Government cannot. Charities are hailed as innovative deliverers of services, until they go bust when the state agonises about why it regulated so complacently. When a Home Secretary proclaims the need for the state to have access to private information there is understandable anxiety, heightened by the proposition that an elected politician will have some oversight.

But the wariness is based partly on a disproportionate self-importance. I have met some of the most boring people in the Western world who pompously assume they must be protected from the probing interests of the snoopers. They should be so lucky that anyone would be remotely interested in them. The snoopers will be too busy following 10,000 other trails to bother with what any of us get up to.

As with the bankrupt charity Kids Company, the “free” school that underperforms and the hospital that fails its patients, questions of accountability are complex. But in each case a greater level of scrutiny would act as a deterrent against incompetence or abuse. In the case of national security, let the spies spy and be held to account more fully for what they do and how they do it. Elected politicians must have a role in the decision making and in challenging the decision makers.

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