The name’s Simpson... keeping an eye on her majesty’s secret service

Scenes from the emergency meeting about the Fakenham Town Centre fire, discussing the way forward fo

Scenes from the emergency meeting about the Fakenham Town Centre fire, discussing the way forward for the town - MP Keith Simpson. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

Today's official parliamentary documents will announce Broadland MP Keith Simpson is to become a member of a group holding our security services to account. Political editor Annabelle Dickson reports

Today's spies are far removed from the fictional James Bond – they would probably not look out of place in Norwich, Broadland MP Keith Simpson observes.

He will know even better soon. Today it will be announced – following his appointment to the Privy Council – that he will be one of a handful MPs and peers given access to the confidential details needed to scrutinise our spooks as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

The committee is a high profile one, not just for its work. Its chairman, until recently, was Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is now standing down as an MP after allegations about his outside interests following a Daily Telegraph sting, and later comments.

But with heightened terror threats, and some of its chiefs having come out of the shadows, it has attracted even more attention.

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MI5, MI6 and GCHQ chiefs gave evidence to the committee in public for the first time in 2013. They were summoned to parliament in the wake of the revelations about their surveillance capabilities based on leaks by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

And there are big issues to grapple with.

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'That task of the parliamentarians is to look and see what the intelligence and security services are doing; to bear in mind when they ask for further powers and resources whether this is justified in terms of the task they have to face,' said Mr Simpson. 'They face a multiplicity of challenges.

'The committee also bears in mind civil liberties. This is very, very important indeed.

'There are concerns about this. There is a very important role of GCHQ of monitoring electronic communications, in an area of terrorist threats. People who have not come onto the screen of security services are able to use social media, which means GCHQ and other agencies are wanting to monitor that.

'There is a balance between that and the fear people might have of 'big brother' or a 'fishing expedition'.

'Our task is to probe and question. We are not the spokespeople for these organisations. While there are issues we cannot put into the public domain, we report to parliament.'

Mr Simpson was made a Privy Councillor last week – which will allow him to see more classified material – and he will also sign the Official Secrets Act.

'I enjoy political gossip as much as anybody,' he said.

'But in my time when I was a special adviser at the Ministry of Defence, or working for William Hague as parliamentary private secretary, I knew when you didn't talk about things at all.'

But with just two weeks of parliament left, surely there is the not small matter of a General Election and re-election?

There is an expectation that – having been security cleared – he will continue on the committee if re-elected.

'I am happy this is happening now, even though it is almost at the end of the parliament,' Mr Simpson said. 'Apart from representing the constituents of Broadland. I would like them to think I am going to be involved in an area of scrutiny that is crucial.

'Assuming I get re-elected, and the appointment is confirmed, it will be as busy as any select committee. There will be a lot of reading. You will be involved in studies and reports and travel. It is nothing inaccessible.

'Your electorate like the balance. They like to think you are a good constituency MP, but they send you to parliament to participate in wider parliamentary government.'

And with much of the work taking place behind closed doors, there will be little chance for the 'grandstanding' he claims is sometimes seen in other select committees.

'My experience of watching select committee chairmen is some of the most effective ones are those who ask straightforward, very simple questions – they don't have to scream and shout.

'The most difficult questions to answer are when someone says 'when did you know?', 'how much did it cost?' – you don't have time to answer.'

And as for becoming a right honourable – his new lifelong title ... 'I think that when my son George finds out he will be hooting with laughter,' he said.

How should an MP balance constitutency and national affairs? Write to EDP letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email giving your full name, address and contact details.

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