Tighter leash possible for Britain’s spies

Britain's spies face the possibility of greater scrutiny if Labour wins the next general election, after a call for reform from Yvette Cooper.

The shadow home secretary used a speech at the Demos think-tank  to suggest the opposition backs a major overhaul of the existing framework.

She wants to strengthen the intelligence and security committee, a government-appointed group of parliamentarians who meet in secret, by giving it more cash and extra technical advice.

More significantly, Cooper outlined proposals to change the system of oversight commissioners tasked with monitoring intercepts, the intelligence services and surveillance by public bodies.

A Labour government could replace the commissioners with the 'inspector-general' model used in Australia.

"Online communication and technology is forcing us to think again about our traditional frameworks for balancing privacy and safety, liberty and security," Cooper said.

"The government can't keep burying its head in the sand and hoping these issues will go away – they are too important for that, for our liberty, our security, the growth of our economy and the health of our democracy."

She suggested rising online crime like child abuse and fraud, as well as terrorists' use of online communications, requires an expansion of police and intelligence agencies' activities.

Labour would review the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and seek to spark a debate about the extent to which private companies' growing knowledge of ordinary people's lives is acceptable.

Sir Mark Waller, the intelligence services commissioner, will face questions from MPs later this month.

Cooper's speech comes ahead of another speech on the issue of privacy and the internet from deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

Liberal Democrat backbenchers have expressed disquiet about the limited extent of the intelligence and security committee's ability to effectively scrutinise ministers.

The committee, chaired by Tory veteran Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has been criticised for its limited response to the Prism scandal revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden last year.

"No-one is naive enough to expect state secrets to be discussed publicly in front of a TV audience," Lib Dem MP Tim Farron wrote in an article for Politics.co.uk.

"But only a fool would think we are re-assured by the appearance of a mandarin quietly saying 'trust me, everything is alright'.

"When the programs systemically collecting your personal information are so secret that even the Cabinet are not aware of their existence, our democratic oversight has rescinded to the point of extinction."