Accountability of intelligence services worse, despite MI5 chief’s claims

October 9, 2013

Image of GCHQ

Responding to the head of MI5’s claims in a speech last night that it is “a highly accountable Service,” and that this accountability has been “strengthened further by the passage of the Justice and Security [or ‘Secret Courts’] Act,”

Clare Algar, Executive Director of legal charity Reprieve said:

“It is hard to see how what we have learned over recent months or years shows that we have proper accountability for our security services – if anything, the situation is getting worse.

“The Justice and Security Act, passed this year, rolled out secret courts across the civil justice system which will help the Government cover up wrongdoing and avoid accountability.  Ministers are already planning to seek to use them in a case concerning UK involvement in the kidnap and ‘rendition’ of Gaddafi’s opponents – along with their wives and young children – back to the dictator’s prisons in 2004.

“The Intelligence and Security Committee – which it is worth remembering missed UK complicity in rendition altogether – continues to spend more time defending the security services in the media than actually holding them to account.

“The Government needs to stop eroding the freedom and independence of our courts, or this lack of accountability will not change.”


Notes to editors

1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell in Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 207 553 8166 /

2. The full text of Andrew Parker’s speech can be found here:

The relevant extract on accountability is as follows:

I am very pleased that we are a highly accountable Service. It is critically important to the sort of country we all want to live in that organisations like mine do not have free rein, and equally that we are not politically directed.

We operate under law. I am in charge of our operations, but am accountable to the Home Secretary. She in turn is accountable to Parliament and the British People, responsibilities that I know she treats with the utmost seriousness.

There is an important double-lock there: Ministers cannot direct MI5 operations, but equally I have to explain and answer for what we do. MI5 initiates operations, but conducting the most intrusive activity requires the signed authority and consent of the Secretary of State in every instance.

Our accountability goes much further. MI5 is overseen independently by Parliament through the ISC, inspected by two independent Commissioners (usually senior Judges), held to account on any complaints from the public by a senior and independent Tribunal of judges and lawyers, and audited by the National Audit Office. We give evidence in court.

Rightly, these arrangements are tough and testing. They have just been strengthened further by the passage of the Justice and Security Act.

This has expanded the powers and the resources of the ISC by a significant degree, allowing them for the first time to investigate operational matters of significant national importance.

I welcome this reform and the enhanced confidence it can give to the public.

The fact that much of this oversight necessarily happens out of public hearing leads some commentators to mistake silence for weakness. That is plain wrong. From my experience, I know that all of the bodies I have mentioned and their supporting staff pursue their responsibilities very fully, professionally and conscientiously.