The people who spy on spies

April 9, 1999

THE LATEST RESEARCH FROM THIS YEAR'S POLITICAL STUDIES CONFERENCE

Five years since its creation, the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee is showing signs of providing effective oversight of M15, MI6 and GCHQ, a conference session was told.

Marc Davies, who is working on a doctorate at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth on the accountability of the intelligence services since 1979, said a shift in the committee's outlook had been apparent since the 1997 general election. "The 1997 report of the committee shows it becoming more critical and confident. It is becoming more forceful and pushing back a few barriers."

He said the proposal to appoint an independent investigator, allowing it to check information and examine allegations about the services in greater detail, was particularly significant.

Davies, who has interviewed a number of committee members, said it was unclear whether an influx of Labour members after 1997 had created the change in style. "They appear to take a more assertive approach, but it can also be argued that the original committee members have had time to develop expertise."

Tom King, the Conservative former defence secretary, has been chairman throughout. Davies suggests that the committee was not created with any real intention of providing oversight: "The government changed its mind about a committee between 1989 and 1994 but never explained why. I suspect they were worried the European courts might start taking an interest."

These unpromising beginnings do not preclude effectiveness. "It is always an incremental, evolutionary progress," Davies says.

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