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MPs call for spy agency oversight reforms

Warwick Ashford

Parliament’s cross-party home affairs select committee is calling for wide and radical reforms of intelligence agency oversight mechanisms to improve accountability.

The revelations of mass internet surveillance by US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden are an “embarrassing indictment” of current measures, the committee said in a report.

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The MPs said one of the reasons Snowden gave for his actions was that he believed the oversight of security and intelligence agencies is weak.

They said the current UK system was designed in a pre-internet era and is so ineffective that it is undermining the credibility of the intelligence agencies and parliament itself.

The report is the first parliamentary acknowledgement that Snowden's disclosures should lead to serious improvements in the oversight and accountability of the security services, said the Guardian.

The MPs are calling for a refined system of democratic scrutiny which requires reforms to way members are elected to the intelligence and security committee (ISC) and an end to its exclusive oversight role.

Call for tribunal overhaul

The report also calls for a complete overhaul of the "part-time" and under-resourced system of oversight commissioners and for greater transparency regarding the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

The tribunal is currently the only body that can investigate complaints against UK security agencies.

The report calls for a parliamentary review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 to bring it up to date with technology and improve its oversight safeguards.

The Home Office issued its stock response to the report, saying UK security and law enforcement agencies operate in a strict legal and policy framework and under the tightest of controls and oversight mechanisms.

“This represents one of the strongest systems of checks and balances and democratic accountability for secret intelligence anywhere in the world,” the Home Office said in a statement.

The ISC responded to the report by saying plans for its own inquiry into the laws governing intelligence agencies is already underway.

In December 2013, the ISC called for written submissions for its inquiry just days after top technology firms joined forces to advocate urgent reforms of all internet surveillance programmes such as Prism in the US, and Tempora in the UK.

The alliance of eight companies said in an open letter to US authorities that the documents leaked by Snowden “highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide”.


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