International Women’s Day 2020: a survey of women’s presence on intelligence oversight committees

This post presents the results of a survey of the representation of women on legislative intelligence oversight committees in forty countries. It is not a comprehensive survey but does represent a broad cross-section of states and of legislative intelligence oversight committees. A significant proportion of these states (25) are located in Europe, but the survey also includes oversight committees from national legislatures in North and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

There is considerable variation in the form, powers and mandate of these committees. Some are typical standing committees operating under the rules of procedure of their respective legislatures while others, such as the new Canadian National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, are special committees of parliamentarians appointed by the executive and with powers which are not enjoyed by other legislative committees. The members of most of these committees are drawn from national legislatures, although three, from the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal, are external bodies which scrutinise the work of the intelligence and security agencies on behalf of their national parliaments. Thirteen are joint committees comprising members from both chambers in a bicameral system, while twenty-five are drawn from a single chamber either from a unicameral or bicameral system. The US is the only bicameral legislature included here in which both legislative chambers have their own intelligence oversight committee. Most are dedicated intelligence oversight committees with a mandate focused on the scrutiny of the intelligence and security agencies in their respective states, although for some the scrutiny of intelligence is part of a broader mandate focused on other policy areas such as defence or internal affairs. While there is considerable variation, one of the striking facts illustrated by this survey is that some form of accountability of intelligence agencies to elected legislative bodies is now the norm in many democratic, and some non-democratic, states.

In most cases details of committee membership was collected from the websites of the national parliaments to which the committees report or the websites of the committees themselves. The availability of this material is also testament to the extent to which legislative scrutiny of intelligence has become a standard feature of the work of national legislatures. In most cases the data is, as far as can be determined, up to date. Some countries have yet to establish new committees following recent elections, most notably Argentina and the UK. In the case of the UK, the data reflects the membership prior to the 2019 general election, while details of the membership of the Argentine joint committee is limited to the seven Senators who have thus far been appointed. Figures for the proportion of women serving on each committee was compared with the proportion of women in the chamber or chambers from which each committee was drawn using data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Parline database.

The presence of women on legislative intelligence oversight committees

The data from this survey indicate that in many states women are significantly under-represented on legislative intelligence oversight committees (fig.1). In only two states, Finland and Norway, do women hold more seats than men on the legislative intelligence oversight committee, while in four states the number of seats on the committee are shared equally between men and women (Luxembourg, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Rwanda and South Africa). In all the remaining committees in this survey, women are not just outnumbered by men, but the number of seats held by men is more than double the number of seats held by women. Seven states have no women at all sitting on their intelligence oversight committee (Bulgaria, Chile, Czech Republic, Estonia, Israel, Poland and Portugal), while nine committees have only one woman member (Argentina, Bosnia Herzegovina, Denmark, Italy, Kosovo, Lithuania, Mexico, Serbia and the UK).


Moreover, it is not simply the case that the absence of women from legislative intelligence oversight committees reflects a broader problem with the representation of women in national legislatures. In most cases the proportion of women sitting on a legislative intelligence oversight committee compares unfavourably to the proportion of women sitting in the legislatures from which these committees are drawn (fig.2). In only one state, Canada, is the proportion of women on the committee on a par with the proportion of women in the legislature as whole. In ten states the proportion of women serving on an intelligence oversight committee exceeds the proportion of women in the legislature as a whole (Brazil, Finland, France, Ghana, Luxembourg, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Romania, South Africa). However, in the remaining twenty-nine states included in this survey, women comprise a smaller proportion of the membership of their state’s legislative intelligence oversight committee than the chambers from which these committees are drawn. In some cases, the disparity is quite marked. Mexico, for example, is fifth in the IPU’s ranking of the percentage of women in Parliament, with women comprising 48% of members of  Parliament, but only one of the six seats on its intelligence oversight committee is held by a woman. Women comprise more than 30% of parliamentarians in Denmark (40%), Serbia (38%),  Italy (35%), Kosovo (33%) and the UK (30%), but in all of these states the proportion of seats held by women on their intelligence oversight committee is around 20 percentage points lower, with women holding only one seat on each committee.  


Committee Leadership

Even more striking than the predominance of men on legislative intelligence oversight committees is the fact that the chairs of these committees are almost exclusively held by men. Only one of the forty-one oversight committees in this survey is currently chaired by a woman, the Intelligence and Security Committee of New Zealand. This is not, however, the result of a positive decision to appoint a woman to chair the committee. Rather it stems from the fact that legislation requires that the  New Zealand Intelligence and Security Committee be chaired by the Prime Minister. A post which is, of course, currently held by a woman, Jacinda Ardern. The arrangements for membership of the New Zealand committee are not ideal in terms of ensuring the committee’s independence from the executive, but if this practice was adopted in other states there would be significantly more women chairing intelligence oversight committees. Indeed, on the basis of the evidence presented here, it is tempting to conclude that that it is easier for a woman to be elected to the highest office of state than to become chair of a legislative intelligence oversight committee.

The situation is slightly better on committees which provide for some kind of deputy chair. Of the twenty-six committees in this survey which have a named vice or deputy chair, seven of these positions are held by women (Finland, Kosovo, Latvia, Namibia, Norway, Rwanda and Switzerland). It is noticeable that some of these committees (Finland, Norway, Rwanda) also have a gender balance in terms of membership. However, in the case of Latvia and Switzerland, the position of deputy chair is held by one of only two women members of the committee, while the deputy chair of the oversight committee of the Kosovo intelligence agency is the only woman serving on the committee.

Why are women under-represented on intelligence oversight committees?

It is not clear why these committees are dominated by men. As noted above, in most cases the proportion of women on these committees is not directly corelated to the presence of women in the chambers from which they are drawn. Another supply-side explanation for the tendency to appoint men to these committees may relate to the proportion of women who are perceived to have sufficient seniority or experience in this area. There is a tendency in many states for the members of intelligence oversight committees to be senior politicians, including those with experience of ministerial office. If women are less likely to be appointed to senior positions in government, this may impact on the likelihood that they will later be considered for a position on an intelligence oversight committee.

While many women may be excluded from such committees on the basis of seniority, research on the appointment of women to parliamentary committees more generally has also found that appointments are often gendered, with women more likely to be appointed to committees focused on stereotypical women’s issues such as education and healthcare. In the current UK Parliament, for example, there is only one woman member of the foreign affairs select committee and two women members of the defence select committee, while women hold five out of eleven seats on the health and social care committee and four out of eleven seats on the education select committee. This may reflect some element of issue preference on the part of women MPs, although this may in turn reflect the fact that women put themselves forward for membership of those committees to which they are most likely to be appointed. Moreover, for security reasons intelligence oversight committees are often smaller than other legislative committees and demand for places may be high. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in some cases women are pushed aside by sharp-elbowed men keen to play on their masculine credentials as defenders of the state. 

Does it matter?

The arguments for fairer representation of women in legislatures have been well rehearsed. While many states are some way from achieving gender parity in their national legislatures, it is now widely accepted that the composition of representative bodies should reflect the society they serve. Moreover, arguments have also moved on beyond the need to provide for fairer representation of different groups to focus on the benefits that those with different experiences might bring to the scrutiny functions of legislatures.

There is some evidence that the presence of women on intelligence oversight bodies has had an impact on their work. Diversity in legislative intelligence oversight committees may be important not only from a democratic perspective but also because such bodies may well be drivers for diversity within intelligence agencies themselves. In the UK, for example, the Intelligence and Security Committee has conducted two inquiries into diversity and inclusion within the UK intelligence community. Ongoing monitoring of diversity in recruitment and employment practices is now a standard part of the work of the committee. This focus was initiated and taken forward by the, admittedly few, women who have served on the committee. Similar work has now also been undertaken by the Canadian parliamentary intelligence oversight committee. Intelligence agencies are not representative bodies but ensuring that a wide range of views and experiences are considered as part of the intelligence process may go some way towards enhancing intelligence analysis and improving the intelligence product.

Making questions of diversity and inclusion a feature of the scrutiny role of legislative intelligence oversight committees is just one, obvious, example of the impact women may have on the work of such committees. Ensuring that intelligence oversight is not dominated by homogenous groups of men with similar backgrounds and experiences may enhance their capacity to hold governments and intelligence agencies to account in a myriad of other ways.

The following post on the role of women on the UK Intelligence and Security Committee was posted for International Women’s Day in 2015: “Jobs for the boys? Women members of the Intelligence and Security Committee.”

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Spies in Parliament: not as unusual as you might think

It is not clear what The Daily Telegraph hoped to achieve with its front-page claim that Conservative leadership candidate, Rory Stewart, was once a member of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). The claim is, at best, old news and seems unlikely to damage Stewart’s standing amongst Conservative Party members. The suggestion that Stewart, who has travelled widely and certainly worked for the Foreign Office prior to becoming an MP, also spent some time working for the intelligence services, has been circulating since he was selected as the Conservative candidate for Penrith and the Border in 2009. Stewart has denied the claim on a number of occasions but has also freely admitted that such a denial would be exactly what one would expect if he had indeed been employed by SIS.

Moreover, if the claims are true there is nothing particularly shocking or indeed unusual about a former member of the intelligence and security agencies sitting in Parliament. Rory Stewart would not be the first former spy to sit in parliament, to take ministerial office or indeed to lead their party. The discretion of former intelligence officers means that it is difficult to determine just how many have sat on the red and green benches in the Palace of Westminster but there are a number of prominent examples dating back over the last hundred years.

In recent years greater openness about the existence of the intelligence and security agencies means that senior intelligence agency staff are now publicly named and often contribute to debates about the role of the agencies through public speeches and newspaper articles. On their retirement, some have also been offered seats in the House of Lords. The last two Directors-General of the Security Service (MI5), Eliza Manningham-Buller and Jonathan Evans, now sit in the Lords as crossbench peers from where they have contributed to debates on, amongst other things, the counter-terrorism and investigatory powers now deployed by their former employers.

While former heads of MI5 have been appointed to the crossbenches, the Conservative and Labour parties have both sought to draw expertise from the intelligence community into their ministerial teams by creating life peers. Although not a former member of the intelligence service, Pauline Neville-Jones, was chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee in the early 1990s and was made a Conservative peer by David Cameron in 2007. She was appointed as Minister for Security and Counter-Terrorism following the establishment of the coalition government in 2010. Baroness Neville-Jones’ predecessor as Security Minister was Lord West of Spithead, former Chief of Defence Intelligence, who was also made a peer 2007 and immediately joined the ministerial ranks as part of Gordon Brown’s so-called government of all the talents. The current Minister for Security, the Conservative MP, Ben Wallace, also has a background in intelligence having served as an army intelligence officer, notably in Northern Ireland.

Daphne Park

Daphne Park

Two long-serving SIS officers have sat on opposing sides of the House of Lords in recent years. The late Daphne Park served in the Special Operations Executive during the second world war and spent more than twenty years in SIS during the Cold War, in a range of demanding posts including Moscow, Hanoi and the Congo. Following her retirement from the service she was created a life peer by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Opposite her on the Labour benches another career SIS officer, Baroness Meta Ramsay, served in SIS from 1969 to 1991 before acting as a special adviser on foreign affairs to the Labour leader John Smith. She was created a life peer in 1996 and also has the distinction of being the only former member of the intelligence services to have served on the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee which is responsible for overseeing the work of her former employer.

Times 15 April

The Times 15 April 1997

Perhaps the closest parallel to Rory Stewart, particularly if he does manage to become leader of the Conservative Party is the former Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown. Like Stewart, Ashdown spent some time in the armed forces before moving on to work for the Foreign Office in what was widely assumed to be diplomatic cover for his employment by SIS. Like Stewart, Ashdown was remarkably discreet about his involvement in covert work, only occasionally alluding to it, although also in common with Stewart he seemed happy to allow others to refer to it, perhaps recognising that it might enhance his image with voters, as in this profile in The Times in the run-up to the 1997 general election.

The immediate post-war years marked perhaps the high point for former intelligence officers in Parliament, as intelligence agencies contracted at the end of the second world war and former staff sought alternative careers. Julian Amery, Conservative MP for Brighton from 1969 to 1992, had a lively wartime career with SOE in the eastern Mediterranean and was recalled by SIS in the late 1940s to help organise the abortive attempt to foment unrest in communist Albania. Christopher ‘Monty’ Woodhouse, Conservative MP for Oxford from 1959-66 and 1970 to 1974, was another old SOE hand whose skills were utilised by SIS in the Cold War. In Woodhouse’s case, working alongside the CIA to stimulate the overthrow of the Iranian leader, Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953. Airey Neave, Conservative MP for Abingdon from 1953 to 1979 and manager of Margaret Thatcher’s successful bid to lead the Conservative Party, had a distinguished wartime career in MI9 organising escape and evasion from Nazi occupied Europe, following his own escape from Colditz. Neave wrote a number of books about his wartime exploits. Dick Brooman-White, MP for Rutherglen from 1951 to 1963, worked in the Spanish section of MI5 before transferring in 1940 to Section V of SIS responsible for the Iberian peninsula, where he was ably assisted by Kim Philby.

On the Labour benches, Kenneth Younger, MP for Grimsby from 1945 to 1959, was head of section E in wartime MI5, responsible for monitoring enemy aliens in the UK. Another of the 1945 Labour intake, Christopher Mayhew, Labour MP for South Norfolk 1945 to 1950 and Woolwich East 1951- 1974, had spent the war years in SOE. As a Foreign Office Minister in the late 1940s he was instrumental in establishing the Information Research Department a body which occasionally utilised SOE tactics and personnel to conduct covert propaganda against the Soviet bloc. Niall Macdermot, MP for Lewisham North from 1957 to 1959 and Derby North from 1962 to 1970, worked in military intelligence during the second world war and in the British Control Commission in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war.

BletchleyOthers with wartime experience in intelligence came into Parliament later following successful careers in other fields. Baroness Trumpington and Lord Briggs both worked at Bletchley Park during the second world war. Jean Trumpington (Barker) was a leading figure in Conservative local government for many years before being rewarded with a life peerage by Margaret Thatcher in 1980. Briggs was a respected historian who held posts at the universities of Leeds and Oxford, before being made a life peer in 1976. Although both remained tight-lipped about their wartime work for most of their lives, Trumpington and Briggs both wrote about their time at Bletchley Park in recently published memoirs.

A more modest influx of intelligence officers seems to have followed the first world war but is notable for the seniority of those making the switch from the covert world to public office and for the only known case of a serving intelligence officer sitting in Parliament. Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall was the Director of British Naval Intelligence throughout the first world war and was responsible for establishing the fabled codebreaking operation in room 40 of the Admiralty building which, amongst other things, was responsible for decrypting the Zimmerman telegram. On leaving the Admiralty, Hall was elected as Conservative MP for Liverpool West Derby from 1919 to 1923 and subsequently Eastbourne from 1925 to 1929. Unlike some other former spies, according to the official history of MI6, Hall was not above telling stories about his secret work in order to enhance his electoral prospects.

All of the individuals discussed above moved into Parliament after leaving the secret world. While some undoubtedly remained in contact with their former employers and may have occasionally been in position to pass on snippets of information, there is the only one known example of an individual who joined the intelligence services after being elected to Parliament. Sir Samuel Hoare was already a Member of Parliament when he joined the nascent SIS in 1915. Hoare, who was fluent in Russian, became head of the SIS wartime mission in Petrograd. He later moved to the British mission in Rome, where he appears to have transferred the Security Service (MI5). It is not clear when Hoare’s formal appointment with MI5 came to an end, but he went on to have a long and illustrious ministerial career and has the unique distinction of being the only Home and Foreign Secretary to have also served both in the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service.

It is likely that there are many more examples of former, and perhaps even serving, intelligence officers sitting in Parliament. In a number of respects Rory Stewart is something of an outsider in the Conservative leadership race. He is known for his adventurous spirit and his fondness for taking the road less travelled. If he has indeed followed a route from Eton through the intelligence services and into Parliament he is, however, on a well-trodden path.

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The Intelligence and Security Committee and the Privy Council

PCAt a meeting at Windsor Castle at the end of April the Labour MP, Kevan Jones, was appointed as a member of the Privy Council. Mr Jones can now adopt the title, Right Honourable, and unless he chooses to resign, which is very rare, it is a position he will hold for life. Membership of the Privy Council is, by convention, offered to Cabinet Ministers, opposition leaders and other notable public figures including Archbishops and senior judges. Mr Jones, who has been an MP since 2001, has never held a Cabinet post, his most senior Ministerial role being as a junior defence Minister from 2008 to 2010. He owes his elevation to the Privy Council to his recent appointment to the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).

Mr Jones is the final member of the current ISC to elevated to the Privy Council. His appointment reinforces a common misperception that ISC members must also be members of the Privy Council. I have lost count of the number of occasions on which I have been told by Members of Parliament and others that the ISC is a very senior committee and only Privy Counsellors may serve on it. The assumption is either that only Privy Counsellors are appointed to the ISC or that appointment to the ISC is automatically followed by elevation to the Privy Council. In fact, neither of these things are true. ISC members do not need to be Privy Counsellors, nor does membership of the ISC automatically lead to elevation to the Privy Council.

There has been a tendency towards seniority in appointments to the ISC with the result that a large proportion of appointees have previously held Ministerial positions which have meant that they were already members of the Privy Council before appointment to the committee. However, the proportion of ISC members who are Privy Counsellors has fluctuated throughout the committee’s history. For example, the first committee, which was appointed in 1994, comprised five Privy Counsellors, including the Chair, Tom King, and four members who were not Privy Counsellors. It was not until 2004, that, for the first time, all members of the ISC were also Privy Counsellors, but this changed again with the appointment of new members following the 2005 general election.

Nor has appointment to the ISC guaranteed Privy Council membership. Several ISC members, including Allan Rogers, Ben Chapman and Dari Taylor have never been members of the Privy Council. Others including Yvette Cooper and Rosie Winterton, who are now Privy Counsellors received this honour as a result of ministerial appointments after leaving the ISC. Others have served for long periods on the ISC before being appointed to the Privy Council. Michael Mates, for example, one of the four members of the first committee who were not Privy Counsellors, served on the ISC for ten years before being appointed to the Privy Council. Moreover, rather than being a reward for ISC service, Mates’ invitation to join the Privy Council appears to have been to allow him to serve on the committee of Privy Counsellors which conducted an inquiry into Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Others such as Julian Lewis and Mark Field, were made  Privy Counsellors on leaving the ISC, rather than on appointment.

The mistaken assumption that ISC members must also be members of the Privy Council appears to be based on the long-established practice of governments sharing material with selected MPs on ‘Privy Council terms’. Members of the Privy Council must swear an oath of loyalty to the monarch, which includes a promise to ‘keep secret all matters committed and revealed in Council.’ This has been a useful device to enable governments to share sensitive material, including intelligence material, with individuals who are not members of the government. Using this mechanism, Leaders of the Opposition have occasionally been apprised of concerns if one of their MPs is considered to be a security risk. It has also been used to share sensitive information with senior opposition politicians at times of national emergency or crisis such as the Cuban missile crisis, the war in Iraq or more recently in relation to the military intervention in Syria.

However, while the Privy Council oath has been a convenient mechanism for the occasional sharing of sensitive information beyond government, it clearly was not considered sufficient protection for the extent of access to intelligence material provided by membership of the ISC. ISC members, like Government Ministers, are bound by something more robust and legally binding than the Privy Council oath; all are notified under the Official Secrets Act. Membership of the Privy Council is for most a welcome reward for service on the Intelligence and Security Committee, but it is the legal obligations backed up by the threat of prosecution which is the real guarantor of secrecy from the ISC.

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The Intelligence and Security Committee: a committee in decline?

This post first appeared on the blog of the Political Studies Association Specialist Group on Parliaments. It is based on my paper presented at the group’s Legislatures in Uncertain Times conference, held at the Scottish Parliament in November 2017.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) was established in 1994 to provide, for the first time, oversight by parliamentarians of the British intelligence and security agencies. Although modelled on the select committees, the ISC was not established a parliamentary committee, but was appointed by, and reported to, the Prime Minister. Reforms included in the Justice and Security Act 2013, reconstituted the ISC as a parliamentary committee, and provided it with a new and expanded mandate. Despite these changes, this post argues that in a number of respects the ISC has become less visible in recent years and is increasingly marginalised by government, leading to potential gaps in the democratic accountability of intelligence in the UK.

The impact of the 2015 and 2017 general elections

Two general elections in quick succession have had a significant impact on the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee as they have on many parliamentary committees, although the impact on the ISC has perhaps been more acute. The ISC is reconstituted following each general election. Following changes introduced in 2013, members of the ISC are nominated by the Prime Minister after consultation with opposition leaders, and the committee is then appointed by the House of Commons Selection Committee. For reasons that are not clear, this process took a very long time following the 2015 general election and even longer in 2017.

In 2015, a new ISC was not established until early September, four months after the general election and six months after the last meeting of the committee. This delay prompted ISC Chair Dominic Grieve, to make a direct appeal to party leaders prior to the 2017 general election to  ‘prioritise the appointment’ of a new committee following the election. Yet the ISC was, once again, one of the last parliamentary committees to be established in the 2017 Parliament and was not reconstituted until November 2017, more than five months after the election. This exceptionally long delay prompted strong criticism from returning Grieve, who returned as Chair, and observed that

‘the effective and robust oversight of the intelligence community, entrusted to us, is too important to have been left in a vacuum for so many months.’

These delays have significantly disrupted the work of the ISC, which has a considerable backlog of work. The ISC inherited the detainee inquiry when the judge-led inquiry into the treatment of prisoners by UK intelligence personnel was wound up in 2013, but it has yet to report.Further, while the ISC has a statutory duty to produce an annual report on its work, there was no annual report for 2014 – 2015, the first time this has happened, and the most recent annual report covering 2016 – 2017, which was due to be published in the spring, was delayed by the general election. Prior to the 2017 election the committee rushed out its report on the UK involvement in lethal drone strikes in Syria. However, in order to facilitate this, the committee decided to forego the usual process of negotiating with the government over the publication of sensitive material, with the result that the published report was much more heavily redacted than is usually the case.

The newly established ISC announced an ambitious programme for the publication of its outstanding reports, and published the 2016 – 2017 annual report just before Christmas. The, as yet unfinished, detainee inquiry is expected to appear in 2018, along with a review of diversity and inclusion in the intelligence agencies.

It is deeply unsatisfactory that for almost twelve months in the last three years, Britain has been without a legislative intelligence oversight body. There were four terrorist attacks in the period following the committee’s last meeting in the 2015-2017 Parliament. While it is not the role of the ISC to provide day to day scrutiny of the intelligence and security agencies, it does have a an expansive mandate which includes the scrutiny of operations and the handling of intelligence by government. The ISC has taken a close interest in the agencies’ performance against domestic terrorism, undertaking inquiries on the 7/7 bombing, the Crevice plot, and the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, and it will want to look at the handling of intelligence prior to the Manchester bombing and the London attacks. In terms of providing accountability and also reassurance, both to parliament and the public, it is important that the ISC exists and that it is active.

Retreating into the shadows? The visibility of the ISC

General elections, while inconvenient, are a normal and essential part of the democratic process. However, the delay in establishing a new committee reflects a more worrying decline in the visibility of the ISC in recent years. The ISC is, of necessity, a secret committee, it meets behind closed doors, takes evidence in secret and its reports are subject to a process of review before publication. The fact that the ISC ‘operates within the ring of secrecy’, has often been considered to be one of the strengths of the committee.

At the same time there is an open side to the ISC. It is a statutory committee and its creation in 1994 was the subject of considerable parliamentary debate, as were the reforms introduced in 2013. The committee publishes reports and members are accountable to Parliament for its work. In 1998, the Labour government introduced an annual House of Commons debate on the work of the committee, and this was extended to the House of Lords in 2009. Under recent Chairs the ISC has also adopted a more public profile in an effort to enhance the credibility of its work in parliament and beyond. In 2010, the incoming Chair of the ISC, Malcolm Rifkind, conceded that while the ISC was ‘entirely independent in law and in the eyes of its own members’, the wider perception of the committee was often at variance with this, and that steps needed to be taken to ensure that the ISC was ‘perceived to be fully independent, both by Parliament and by the public.’

Under Rifkind, the committee held its first public evidence sessions, publicly cross-examining intelligence agency heads in November 2013. This was followed by the committee’s first public call for evidence as part of its Privacy and Security inquiry and a further series of public evidence sessions with academics, privacy campaigners and Government Ministers. Rifkind and his successor, Dominic Grieve, have also been somewhat more prominent than previous ISC chairs, in terms of speaking about the committee’s work and issuing public statements in response to emerging stories or public concerns, such as the Snowden revelations.

Despite these developments the ISC has, in some respects, become less visible in recent years. The annual parliamentary debates on the work of the committee have fallen into abeyance. There has not been a House of Commons debate on the ISC since 2011, while there have only been two annual debates in the House of Lords, the most recent in 2010. The practice of holding evidence sessions in public has also not been repeated since 2014, with no public sessions in the last, albeit truncated, parliament.

Given the nature of its work, public sessions are always likely to be a minor part of the ISC’s evidence gathering procedures. Nevertheless, a public call for evidence as part of the committee’s detainee inquiry has not been followed by further public evidence sessions, and written submissions have not been published. There was also clearly scope to hold public sessions with the agencies as part of the committee’s inquiry into women in the intelligence community, which focused on issues such as childcare, flexible working and maternity provision, and resulted in a report which, unusually, had no redactions.

The scale of the ISC’s published output has also declined. The published output of the ISC has always been relatively modest, particularly compared to other parliamentary committees. In the 2010 – 2015 parliament, for example, the ISC published four annual reports and five additional reports, while in the same period, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee published thirty-five reports. Despite this the committee has reduced its reporting in recent years. Following the 2013 reforms a decision was made within the committee to reduce the length of its annual reports in order to allow a greater focus on the committees more substantive inquiries. The first two annual reports in the 2010 parliament were very long at 282 and 250 paragraphs, while the second two ran to just 52 and 17 paragraphs. In the same period the committee produced substantive reports on the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby (191 paragraphs), and privacy and security (149 paragraphs). However, in the 2015 Parliament the ISC produced only three reports in total, all of which were very short when compared to the committee’s previous output: one annual report (20 paragraphs) and two special reports, on the Investigatory Powers Bill (13 paragraphs) and the UK’s involvement in lethal drone strikes (31 paragraphs). While it is perhaps a little unfair to focus solely on the length of the ISC’s output, as the committee meets and takes evidence almost entirely in secret, and its work is no longer debated in Parliament, its published output represents the only opportunity to scrutinise its work.

One possible explanation for the ISC’s declining output is that the committee is simply overwhelmed by the burden of taking on the detainee inquiry. The ISC has been provided with extra resources to progress the inquiry, but it is a significant undertaking, involving the review of over 40,000 documents and over 60 hours of oral evidence. This is an important and long overdue inquiry which was begun in 2010, and about which the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, expressed the hope that it would ‘report within a year’. However, it would be unfortunate if the inheritance of this inquiry by the ISC was preventing the committee from carrying out its core functions and pursuing its own agenda.

Marginalised by the Government?

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, there is some evidence that the ISC is becoming marginalised by the government. The delay in appointing a new committee clearly suggests that the establishment of the ISC is not a priority for the Government. The Government also appears to have ended the practice of publishing a response to all ISC reports. Moreover, there were some worrying signs at the end of the last Parliament that the government is pushing back against the new powers acquired by the committee in 2013.

The ISC’s inquiry into lethal drone strikes in Syria resulting in the deaths of UK nationals, was the first opportunity for the ISC, under its new powers, to undertake an investigation into an operational aspect of the work of the intelligence agencies. Significantly, although the inquiry was initiated by the committee, it was explicitly sanctioned by the Prime Minister who asked the ISC to undertake an investigation and set out the parameters of the inquiry. On previous occasions, the ISC has only agreed to carry out an inquiry at the  government’s request if it could be assured of full disclosure. In the words of one former committee member on such occasions, ‘the cupboards were thrown open, we saw everything.’

The drone inquiry, which was begun under David Cameron and completed under the current Prime Minister, examined the threat to the UK posed by individuals targeted by drone strikes and the decision-making which led to their targeting, focusing in particular on the case of Reyaad Khan who was killed by UK forces. Although the committee was provided with detailed evidence of the threat posed by Khan, their request to view the submissions made to Ministers about that threat were denied. This is a highly unusual position for the ISC. It is only the second time that the ISC has had a direct request for material denied, and the only time this has happened in an inquiry which the government has sanctioned in advance. It is not clear why the committee’s request was denied, although it seems that the decision was made by the Prime Minister on the basis of a more rigid definition of ISC’s remit than was agreed with her predecessor. Whatever the reason, the committee’s stark conclusion was that its capacity to carry out its core function has been diminished:

Oversight and scrutiny depend on primary evidence: without sight of the actual documents provided to Ministers we cannot ourselves be sure – nor offer an assurance to Parliament or the public – that we have indeed been given the full facts surrounding the authorisation process for the lethal strike against Reyaad Khan.

It may be premature to conclude that, despite recent changes to its status and powers, the ISC is a committee in decline. Nevertheless, the committee is clearly facing a number of significant challenges in terms of establishing its authority and credibility. This may be a natural consequence of a committee testing the limits of its new mandate, although some of the issues identified here pre-date the 2013 reforms. It may also be a consequence of the ISC becoming a committee of Parliament, rather than one operating under the authority of the Prime Minister. Although these issues also clearly illustrate the extent to which the committee remains dependent on cooperation from the Government both for its existence and operation. It is to be hoped that a new committee is able to reassert the importance of effective parliamentary oversight of intelligence and arrest these worrying signs of decline.

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Why is it taking so long to appoint a new Intelligence and Security Committee?

This post first appeared on the Democratic Audit blog in September 2017.

The recent botched terrorist attack on a London tube train, following this summer’s attacks at London Bridge, Finsbury Park, and Manchester, have served to highlight the fact that the parliamentary committee tasked with overseeing the work of the intelligence and security agencies does not at present exist. The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) was wound up at the end of April in advance of June’s general election, but has not yet been reappointed. The onset of the party conference season means that the committee is unlikely to begin work before mid-October, more than five months since it last met.

Moreover, this is not the first time this has happened. There was a similarly long delay in appointing a new committee following the 2015 general election. Coupled with the fact that in 2015 the committee wound up its work two months prior to the election, this meant that the ISC was in desuetude for over six months on that occasion.

The risk of a similar delay this time prompted the Chair of the committee, Dominic Grieve, to make a stark and direct appeal to party leaders before the general election. In a press release issued at the end of the last parliamentary session he concluded:

We urge all political parties to prioritise the appointment of members to the Intelligence and Security Committee following the general election. It is not in the public interest for oversight of the intelligence community to be left unattended for any period of time.

The committee has a significant backlog of work including the unfinished detainee inquiry which the committee inherited when the judge-led inquiry, announced by David Cameron in 2010, was wound up in December 2013. The committee’s annual report for 2016-17 was also delayed by the election. Grieve made clear that during the dissolution the committee’s staff would remain in place and seek to ‘progress the work’ on the detainee inquiry in preparation for the new committee. However, they will not be in a position to undertake any new inquiries. When it is finally appointed, the ISC is likely to play a significant part in examining the role of intelligence in responding to the recent attacks. Following reforms in 2013, the ISC has a new and expansive mandate which encompasses operational aspects of the work of the intelligence and security agencies, and also the broader management of intelligence within Whitehall.

Why then has the committee not been appointed more promptly?

One possible explanation is that government and opposition leaders have been unable to agree on who should be nominated to serve on the ISC. Under reforms introduced in 2013, like other parliamentary committees, the ISC is now appointed by Parliament. However, because of the sensitive nature of its work the Executive still retains some control over membership and potential members must first be nominated by the Prime Minister after consultation with Opposition leaders. It has been suggested that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn may have proposed members who are not considered suitable to serve on a committee with such a sensitive mandate. Although ISC members are notified under the Official Secrets Act, there has been a tendency to appoint MPs with previous Ministerial experience of working with the intelligence agencies, and who are considered reliable. One previous Labour Chair of the ISC argued that making the ISC a committee of Parliament would result in ‘nutters’ being elected to the serve on the committee. The current delays may well be the result of the scenario that, Kim Howells, so inelegantly envisaged.

There may also be some disagreement as to the balance of the parties on the ISC. Without a House of Commons majority there will almost certainly be some negotiation about how many seats the Conservatives retain on the committee. The SNP will also presumably be making a strong case for retaining their seat on the ISC, first gained in 2015, despite the fact that Angus Robertson, the SNP member of the committee, lost his seat in the general election. Moreover, as the Chair of the ISC is elected by its membership the balance of the parties on the committee also has a significant impact on who heads this important committee. There is a longstanding argument that the ISC should be chaired by an opposition MP, and Labour could therefore make a strong case for nominating a senior politician who is likely to contest Dominic Grieve for the Chair. Although she is unlikely to want to see a Labour Chair, the Prime Minister may also be wary about seeing Grieve re-elected as Chair. Although he was widely seen as a good appointment, Grieve has been an independent Chair of the ISC and not afraid to highlight the government’s lack of cooperation with the committee. He has also been a vocal critic of the government, not least in its approach to Brexit negotiations.

A more prosaic, and more likely, explanation for the delay in appointing a new ISC is that it has become entangled in parliamentary procedure and delayed by wider concerns about the government’s legislative agenda.

The ISC is not the only parliamentary committee which has taken a long time to get up and running. The appointment of House of Commons select committees is now a lengthy two-stage process in which Chairs are elected by the whole House, and ordinary members by their respective parties. Although the election of Chairs took place in July, before the summer recess, the membership of the select committees was not confirmed until early September.

The ISC is a statutory committee of parliament and not a select committee, however, its creation is closely bound up with the process for establishing select committees. As noted above the procedure for nominating ISC members is different to that for select committees and is designed to allow the Executive to retain some control over membership. However, once members have been nominated by the Prime Minister, under Standing Order 152E of the House of Commons, the creation of the ISC is then handled by the Committee of Selection, which tables a motion on the floor of the House proposing the membership. Unlike the ISC, the Committee of Selection is a select committee, which means that it must be in place before the ISC membership can be confirmed. Any delay in establishing the select committees, and the Committee of Selection in particular, therefore has an impact on the ISC. Although the Committee of Selection is now in place it was only established on 12th September, just before Parliament went into recess for the party conference season.

Moreover, while the process for establishing the select committees is now of necessity quite lengthy, there have been some particular concerns this time around about the delay in establishing the Committee of Selection. Aside from handling nominations to other parliamentary committees, the main role of the Committee of Selection is to appoint members to Public Bill Committees which are responsible for the detailed scrutiny of legislation at the committee stage. The government, naturally, has been keen to ensure that it has a majority on the Committee of Selection in order to ensure a majority on Public Bill Committees, easing the legislative challenges of governing without a majority. Opposition parties, naturally, have sought to resist this, prompting a procedural row which has by extension delayed the appointment of the ISC.

Whatever the reason for the delay, and it may well be a combination of the above, for the second time in two years Britain has been left without a parliamentary intelligence oversight committee for a prolonged period, and moreover, a period in which Britain’s intelligence and security agencies are facing significant challenges. As Dominic Grieve made clear in April, this is not in the public interest. A solution to this procedural delay must be found if the ISC is not to become a second-tier committee with little impact or importance. Interestingly in Canada, which has recently created a parliamentary intelligence oversight committee modelled on the British ISC, legislation states that the committee must be in place within 60 days of Parliament returning after a general election. No such condition exists in the legislation relating to the ISC, but neither does it set out the current procedure for the appointment of the ISC by the Committee of Selection and after the establishment of select committees. There is scope for adopting a different mechanism for appointing the ISC. Serious consideration must surely now be given to finding a different and more timely mechanism for establishing this important committee.

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