Intelligence services accused of wastefulness during Commons debate

May 9, 2009 at 1:43 pm 1 comment

by Dan Billingham

Britain’s intelligence services were accused in the House of Commons yesterday of wasting public funds and avoiding accountability by hiding behind national security claims.

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling claimed a need for “legitimate questions to ask about the overall value for money being obtained by them,” given sharp budget rises over the past few years.

MPs were reacting to the annual report of the House of Commons’ semi-secretive Intelligence and Security committee, which was littered with asterisked-out words and figures and labelled “bonkers” by a critical Labour backbencer, Andrew MacKinley.

He was unimpressed by assertions from the committee’s chair and deputy-chair that the intelligence agencies are held accountable by the committee that performs nearly all of its work in private.

He said: “I am keen to make it clear that, in our intelligence and security services, there are some very skilled, dedicated, diligent and, indeed, brave men and women.

“However, culturally, there is imbued in the security and intelligence services a degree of arrogance which threatens our democratic institutions; and in one or two cases I believe that there is abuse of power.”

The thorny issue of British intelligence being passed to foreign agencies performing torture was aired in the debate along with the security services’ failure to prevent the July 2005 London bomb attacks.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith concluded the debate by assuring the House that the government had a strategy to ensure “everything was being done” to prevent British intelligence agencies assisting unlawful detention techniques and that all possible oversights were in place to ensure the services offer value for money.

Ms Smith echoed many speakers in praising intelligence workers.

“We are fortunate to have the best intelligence and security services in the world,” she said.

“There are people of the highest integrity and bravery in all of them: I am honoured to be able to work with them, and it is vital that we support them in acting to protect our country. We must do that in a way that is consistent with our values and our commitment to human rights.”

Overall the debate remained frustratingly short on detail, with few concrete facts of the workings of intelligence agencies available in the public domain to support or refute the allegations of financial waste and malpractice.

Essentially the Intelligence and Security Committee’s representatives pleaded for the House to trust their ability to check the work of intelligence agencies.
Tory committee member Michael Mates said:

“Tempting though it is for someone in Parliament and public life to say we should be more open and push the door a bit so that the public can know more, there are times—I know that this is not a good time to say this—when our politicians have to be trusted.

“We must try to be more open and to make progress but above all we must ensure that our national security, which is so brilliantly looked after by our security services, is not damaged.”

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