Safeguards 'keep UK spies in line'
Former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind has said every large scale terror plot faced by the UK since the July 7 attacks would not have been foiled if the intelligence agencies could not intercept emails and other communications.
Speaking at a debate on "the rise of the surveillance state in the UK", Sir Malcolm insisted that the necessary safeguards are in place to ensure that security service MI5, secret intelligence service MI6 and eavesdropping agency GCHQ act appropriately.
"There are in place legal safeguards in Britain, in the United States, not in China, not in Russia, not in most countries that have authoritarian dictatorships," he said.
The Tory chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee told University College London's debating society that the approval of the Foreign Secretary or the Home Secretary is required before a human can look at the content of an email.
Sir Malcolm, who denied the suggestion that the UK is a "surveillance state", said the committee has access to all the information held by the intelligence agencies.
"We have been given - particularly over the last year - the powers by the Government which we have never had before, to require the intelligence agencies to share all their information with us when we seek them," he said.
"Our staff can go - and do go - into MI6, MI5, GCHQ and can see their files when we are carrying out an investigation."
This demonstrated that "Parliamentary oversight is meaningful and real", he added.
Sir Malcolm claimed that without the ability in intercept communications, the authorities would not have foiled all of the major terror plots since the July 7 attacks in 2005 except the murder of soldier Lee Rigby.
He said: "In each and every case, these terrorist incidents, some of which ended up in the courts, some of which were destructed before that stage, would not have been identified at least in material part but for the ability to intercept the relevant emails or other communications of the individuals concerned."
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, who also spoke at the debate, said: "It is concerning that before a word of evidence has been heard, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee is arguing that oversight does not need to change and that all is well.
"Public confidence depends on transparency and genuine debate, understanding whether or not Parliament's intent has been carried out. There remains real concern that Parliament does not have the full facts about what is going on.
"If Britain is to set an example to the world then this debate cannot be ducked."