Events surrounding the publication of the Russia report reveal as much about the poor state of the Government’s relations with the Intelligence and Security Committee as those with Russia. Reform is necessary to preserve the ISC’s independence.

At the end of the 21 July press conference to launch the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long-delayed Russia Report, the new ISC Chair, Julian Lewis, observed that “the sooner normal relations are restored between this committee and the government the better it will be for all concerned.” His follow-up comment, that the committee had not been informed about the government’s written response to the report which was released to Parliament at the same time, suggests there is still some way to go.

Relations between the government and the Intelligence and Security Committee are in a parlous state. The seven-month delay in nominating members of a new committee following December’s general election, along with the debacle over the election of the Chair and the subsequent withdrawal of the whip from the winning Conservative candidate, Julian Lewis, mark a low point in an already deteriorating relationship. Lewis is the second ISC Chair in succession to have the Conservative whip withdrawn by Boris Johnson, while the latest long delay in appointing the ISC follows similar delays after the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In the previous Parliament the ISC wound up two inquiries early because the government refused to allow the committee access to information it needed.

While the Russia Report has revealed some evidence of Russian interference in the UK, this episode has also revealed some worrying examples of government interference in the work of the ISC. If normal relations are to be restored, reforms are needed to the way in which the ISC is appointed and operates.

Set a deadline for establishing the ISC after a general election

It has taken longer to establish the ISC after the election than any other parliamentary committee and longer than after any previous election since the ISC was established in 1994. The ISC is a parliamentary committee and its members are appointed by Parliament. However, under statutory security arrangements, Parliament is asked to approve a list of nominations for membership drawn up by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. This list was only put before the House of Commons on 13 July and the House of Lords the following day.

At last week’s press conference, ISC Chair, Julian Lewis stated that:

This committee has been subjected to unprecedented delay and dislocation this really should never happen again.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened. Lewis’s comments reflect those of his predecessor, Dominic Grieve, following the five-month delay after the 2017 general election.

These long delays set a worrying precedent. In recent months a succession of government ministers have responded to parliamentary questions about the absence of the ISC by claiming that this is quite normal. If current bad practice is not to be used to justify future delay, a deadline should be mandated. There is a precedent for this in Canada where a parliamentary intelligence oversight committee, modelled in no small part on the ISC, was recently established. Canadian legislation states it must be set up within 60 days of Parliament sitting following a general election. Introducing a similar deadline to UK law is now perhaps the only way to ensure that the work of the ISC is not disrupted again.

Remove the Prime Minister’s control over the timing of the publication of ISC reports

Legislation may also be required to prevent Prime Ministers from using the review process for ISC reports to manipulate the timing of publication. Pre-publication reviews are designed to remove material which would be damaging to national security. This involves a process of negotiation between the committee and the intelligence and security agencies. Once the agencies are happy that a report can be released, it is sent to the Prime Minister for confirmation before being laid before Parliament and published. While the Prime Minister does not have the power to further alter the content to remove material which might be politically embarrassing, this process gives the Prime Minister control over timing.

This was the source of a fractious debate between the ISC and the government prior to the general election. The Russia Report was sent to the Prime Minister on 17 October but was not cleared for publication by the time Parliament was dissolved on 6 November. The ISC claimed that it was standard practice for the PM to provide approval within 10 days (something which the government disputes) and on the final day of the parliamentary session several ISC members pressed the government to explain what possible reason the Prime Minister could have for withholding approval.

It is important that ISC reports should not undermine national security, so a process of review is clearly necessary. However, if the intelligence and security agencies are content there is no reason to add a further stage. Some mechanism must now be put in place to prevent Prime Ministers from manipulating the review process for political ends. It may be sufficient to write the 10-day turnaround for Prime Ministerial confirmation into the memorandum of understanding between the ISC and the government, although recent governments have not been shy of rolling back on commitments in this memorandum. A safer route may be a more substantive change to the statutory arrangements to state that in normal circumstances ISC reports can be published as soon as the intelligence and security agencies have completed their review. Provision could be made for the Prime Minister to intervene, but only if the ISC and the agencies cannot agree on redactions to reports.

Improve ministerial engagement with the ISC

One of the more startling revelations to emerge this week was from the ISC’s Annual Report for 2018–19, which was published at the same time. This revealed that the Prime Minister had not appeared before the Intelligence and Security Committee since December 2014. Prior to this, the committee notes, it had “met annually with the Prime Minister to discuss its work, report on key issues, and raise any concerns.”

The notion of ministerial accountability for the intelligence and security agencies is well established. The Prime Minister has a statutory duty to oversee the work of the intelligence and security agencies. While day-to-day responsibility for the agencies lies with a Secretary of State (in practice Home and Foreign secretaries), the heads of the agencies have the right of direct access to the Prime Minister and are required to report annually to the Prime Minister on their work. Moreover, as current events have made clear, the Prime Minister has considerable responsibility for the structure and functions of the ISC itself.

It is therefore surprising that in nearly five years no UK Prime Minister has found time to appear before the ISC. It is even more remarkable considering that two of the ISC’s inquiries, on the mistreatment of detainees and lethal drone strikes, were carried out at the request of the Prime Minister. Restoration of annual meetings between the Prime Minister and the ISC will contribute to more effective oversight and may help to relieve some of the recent tensions between them.

Reinstitute annual parliamentary debates on the work of the ISC

It is also important that the committee enjoys a close relationship with Parliament and that its work is subject to parliamentary scrutiny. One consequence of the long delay in appointing the committee is that the Russia Report was published only days before Parliament’s summer recess. The government has not provided any time for Parliament to debate the report and parliamentarians had to content themselves with a short debate in both Houses in response to urgent questions tabled by Opposition members.

In 1998 the Labour government introduced an annual House of Commons debate on the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee, followed in 2009 by annual House of Lords debates. These debates have fallen into abeyance in recent years, however. The last Commons ISC debate took place in 2010. The House of Lords held a debate on the work of the committee in September 2019, but this was the first since 2011. Given that much of the ISC’s work takes place behind closed doors, time should be made in the parliamentary calendar for an annual debate on what it does. Moreover, a Secretary of State should be made available to respond to these debates, as was previously the case, and not, as in response to last week’s urgent question, a Minister of State with no statutory responsibility for the intelligence agencies.

The ISC must fully transition to Parliament

One of the more worrying claims to emerge out of last week’s brief House of Commons debate on the Russia Report was Julian Lewis’s suggestion that the government had sought to make political appointments to the secretariat of the ISC. Although the source for this allegation is not clear, this is in keeping with this government’s increasing reliance on special advisors including in the field of national security. In recent months the role of Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor was removed from the Cabinet Secretary and given to a political appointee. Reports have also emerged of the Prime Minister’s special advisor, Dominic Cummings, reviewing Britain’s national security infrastructure.

As a parliamentary committee the ISC should be immune from this kind of interference. However, despite becoming a parliamentary committee in 2013, the ISC has never fully transitioned to Parliament. The committee continues to meet on government premises and its secretariat is drawn from the Cabinet Office rather than parliamentary staff.

The boundaries which exist between Parliament and government are much stronger than those between the civil service and the executive in Whitehall. Although transition to Parliament would not be without potential drawbacks, as the ISC has been relatively well-resourced in recent years and draws upon expertise from within the intelligence community, arrangements could be made to ensure that the committee is still funded by the government. The ISC, like other parliamentary committees, would then be free to draw on outside expertise. In the interests of enhancing the credibility of the ISC and protecting its independence, the time has surely come for the ISC to transfer fully to Parliament.

Intelligence service accountability is a necessary feature of a healthy democracy, and an independent parliamentary oversight committee is central to providing democratic accountability. The ISC has an essential role in ensuring the UK’s intelligence agencies are effective in protecting national security. It also ensures that the intelligence agencies are not subject to political pressure. As both the content and process for publishing the Russia Report suggest, protecting the independence of Britain’s parliamentary institutions, including the ISC, should now be a priority both for government and Parliament.


This post first appeared on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.

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When will the Intelligence and Security Committee be appointed and what is on the committee’s agenda?

The appointment of the House of Commons Liaison Committee just before Parliament rose for the Whit recess means that the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is the only parliamentary committee yet to be appointed. The ISC is a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament responsible for scrutinising the UK intelligence community. Although the ISC is a parliamentary committee appointed by and reporting to Parliament, because of the sensitive nature of its work, it does not operate in the same way as other parliamentary committees and the Prime Minister retains significant control over appointments to the committee and the publication of reports.

The reasons for the long delay in appointing the ISC are unclear. In answer to a written question tabled  by former ISC member Lord Foulkes in April, the Cabinet Office Minister, Lord True responded that the committee was ‘being formed in the normal way and as quickly as current circumstances allow.’ This is, however, barely tenable. The time taken to appoint the ISC has now exceeded that taken to appoint the committee after every previous general election since the committee was first established in 1994. The long delay is even more striking given that similar, albeit shorter, delays in reconstituting the committee after the 2015 and 2017 general elections, had already drawn criticism. Following a delay of more than five months in reconstituting the ISC in 2017, the committee warned 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.’

Moreover, it is not clear what particular aspect of the current circumstances have held up the appointment of the committee on this occasion. The ISC is not subject to the lengthy process of electing chairs and members which applies to parliamentary select committees. Although the ISC is a parliamentary committee, Parliament is merely required to approve a list of nominations for membership drawn up by the Prime Minister in consultation with Opposition leaders. The Prime Minister’s recent illness may have had an impact on the process, although this does not explain why the committee was not put in place earlier in the year, or indeed why nominations have not emerged since the Prime Minister returned to work in April. The Labour leadership contest is another possible source of delay, although Keir Starmer has now been in post for two months.

Where is the ISC’s Russia report?

One consequence of the long delay in appointing the ISC is that the committee’s report on Russian interference in the UK remains unpublished. The ISC’s Russia inquiry was launched shortly after the 2017 general election and was completed over a year ago. Although the ISC is a parliamentary committee, due to the nature of its work, ISC reports are submitted first to the Prime Minister and subject to a process of scrutiny designed to remove sensitive material before being returned to the committee for publication.

The time taken to review ISC reports has been a source of tension between the committee and the government in recent years. This came to a head in December when the government refused to approve the release of the ISC’s Russia report before the dissolution of Parliament for the general election. In a tetchy exchange on the last sitting day before the election the ISC Chair, Dominic Grieve, pressed the government to explain why it was not releasing the Russia report. Grieve revealed that the ISC report was completed in March 2019 and that the process of agreeing redactions with intelligence and security agencies had been completed on 17th October, at which point the report was sent to the Prime Minister for final confirmation before publication. Although this was a little under three weeks before Parliament was dissolved for the general election, there was, Grieve asserted, ‘a long-standing agreement’ that Prime Ministerial approval would take no more than ten days and that the government’s failure to explain the delay to the committee was ‘unprecedented’.

The government disputed Grieve’s claims about the process for reviewing reports and argued that the time taken to clear the Russia report was ‘not unusual’. In responding to questions both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, government ministers argued that the content of the report required careful scrutiny and the process of reviewing it before publication could not be rushed. In responding to Grieve’s question in the Commons the Foreign Office Minister, Christopher Pincher, concluded:

The Prime Minster has a duty under the 2013 Act to look carefully and considerately at such reports. That is what No.10 is doing, that is what the Prime Minister will do and when that work is completed the report will be published.

Remarkably that work was completed during the general election campaign and the Prime Minister cleared the Russia report for publication on the day after the general election. However, with no ISC in place there is no committee to publish the report and consequently it has yet to see the light of day. It is worth noting that the Russia report was not published before the election because the government did not have time to complete its review of the report before Parliament was dissolved, while publication is now delayed by the government’s inability to provide Parliament with its nominees for membership of the ISC. It is a striking example of the extent to which the work of this parliamentary committee is constrained by the Executive.

What else does the ISC have on its agenda?

When the membership of the ISC is finally agreed by Parliament the first task facing the committee will be to appoint a Chair. Following changes introduced in 2013 the chair of the ISC is no longer in the gift of the Prime Minister. The committee chooses its own chair from amongst its members. Press reports in March which suggested that the former Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, was the Prime Minister’s preferred candidate to chair the committee caused some consternation, even amongst Conservative MPs. The outgoing chair, Dominic Grieve, was widely respected as an independent chair who was prepared to explore the limits of the committee’s powers and did not shy away from drawing attention to the government’s lack of cooperation with the committee. Grayling’s appointment would suggest that the Prime Minister is keen to ensure a more compliant ISC. However, even if Parliament were to approve the Prime Minister’s nominees, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the Prime Minister’s preferred candidate to chair the committee could rely on the support of the majority of the committee.

The Covid-19 pandemic will inevitably have an impact on the committee. The ISC will need to devise a way to operate safely and securely under the current restrictions. The ISC meets in secure Cabinet Office premises rather than on the parliamentary estate but security concerns are likely to preclude the use of virtual meetings of the kind adopted by other parliamentary committees. The committee’s long-running China inquiry is likely to be particularly impacted by recent events and may well include a review of biosecurity. The committee may also wish to look at the role of the UK’s national security apparatus in responding to the current crisis, not least in light of reports that the National Security Committee, which brings together Ministers and intelligence chiefs, has not met since January.

The ISC is also yet to complete inquiries into right wing-terrorism and Northern Ireland related terrorism. The terrorist attacks in London in November and December are also likely to be on the committee’s agenda, not least because the ISC commented on the effectiveness of deradicalization programmes in prisons as part of its inquiry into the 2017 terrorist attacks.

It is to be hoped that the ISC is soon in a position to progress these inquiries. This is not the first occasion on which there have been delays in appointing the ISC or clearing its reports for publication, but the government’s insistence that recent examples of bad practice are the norm suggests a worrying disregard for democratic oversight of intelligence in the UK. Robust and continuous oversight of intelligence is a necessary feature of democracy, it is also vital to the preservation of national security.

This post first appeared on the Hansard Society blog on 9 June 2020.

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What impact has the general election had on the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee?

It is a feature of the British political system that when general elections take place government continues. The transition of power after an election is almost seamless and, in most cases, takes place overnight. In contrast parliamentary scrutiny of government is paused during a general election campaign and it can take some time for parliamentary scrutiny mechanisms to be reconstituted following an election. The interruption to the work of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has been particularly acute following recent general elections. This post examines the impact of the general election on the ISC, outlines the process for the establishment of a new committee and assesses the likely priorities of the reconstituted committee.

Appointing a new committee

Like other parliamentary committees, the ISC is dissolved when a general election is called. The first task will therefore be to appoint a new committee. It has been common practice following a general election that the ISC is reconstituted with a combination of new and experienced members. Retaining members with some experience of the committee is particularly important for the ISC. Few parliamentarians have any experience of the world of intelligence prior to serving on the committee. Even those who have held ministerial office tend to have had a fairly narrow range of contact with the intelligence and security agencies, if they have had any contact at all. Moreover, the timing of the election means that the ISC has a number of ongoing inquiries which will need to be completed. Retaining some institutional memory is therefore vital for the effective operation of the committee.

However, the results of the election mean that there will be a significant change in the membership of the committee. The ISC is comprised of nine member from both Houses of Parliament. Five of those members will not be returning to Westminster. The Conservative MPs, Richard Benyon and Keith Simpson, who have both served on the committee since 2015 did not stand in the general election. The Labour MPs, Caroline Flint and David Hanson, both lost their seats and will not be available. Most significantly the Chair, Dominic Grieve, who stood as an independent after having the Whip withdrawn by the Prime Minister, also lost his seat and will not be returning to Chair the committee.

Assuming they wish to continue as members, there are four members of the previous committee still sitting in Parliament. Two of these sit in the House of Lords, Lord Janvrin and Lord Lothian. Lord Lothian (Michael Ancram) is by far the most experienced of the remaining members having served on the ISC since 2006 first as an MP and then as a Peer. The remaining MPs on the committee are relatively recent appointments, Labour’s Kevan Jones was appointed to the committee in 2017, while the SNP’s Stewart Hosie only became a member earlier this year.

The ISC is appointed by Parliament but only on the basis of nominations provided by the Prime Minister after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. The Chair of the committee is chosen by its members from its membership. This process gives the Prime Minister considerable control over the composition of the committee. Dominic Grieve is widely seen as having been a good Chair but was also something of a thorn in the side of the government and the Prime Minister may choose to nominate members who are viewed as more reliable. There has at times been a worrying tendency on the part of party leaders to offer membership of the ISC as reward for loyal service, it would be unfortunate if this were to be the case again.

When will the committee be reconstituted?

The Prime Minister also has control over the timing of the establishment of a new committee. Parliament will not be able to appoint a new committee until nominations are received from the Prime Minister. Given that the committee’s first action is likely to be the publication of its report on Russian interference in the UK, which the Prime Minister declined to clear for publication prior to the election, he may be in no hurry to establish a new committee.

There are worrying precedents in this regard. The ISC was one of the final committees to be established following the last two general elections. In 2017 a new committee was not put in place until six months after the election prompting the Chair of the committee to publicly rebuke the government, noting 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.’

Changes in the Labour leadership also have the potential to delay the appointment of the ISC. The Prime Minister must consult with Opposition leaders with regard to the membership of the committee. If the outgoing Labour leader is reluctant to nominate Labour members of the committee and there is a lengthy ‘period of reflection’ followed by a Labour leadership contest, it may be some time before a full list of members can be presented to Parliament. The ISC can operate with a quorum of three but legislation requires that there are nine members of the committee drawn from both Houses. Moreover, the committee will not be in a position to choose a Chair until all members are available. There seems, therefore, little option but to wait until a full list of nominations is available before reconstituting the committee.

What is on the ISC’s agenda?

Once the new ISC is established the first item on the committee’s agenda will be the publication of its delayed report into Russian interference in the UK. This report was completed before the election and cleared for publication by the intelligence and security agencies. Publication was held up by the Prime Minister on the grounds that, despite clearance by the relevant agencies, the content of the report still required careful consideration by the Prime Minister.

While the publication of the Russia report should be the first act of the new committee, it is also possible that a new committee, with a Chair who is more amenable to the government, may wish to look again at this report and further delay publication. There is a worrying precedent in this regard. Prior to the 2010 general election the ISC had completed a report into the government’s draft consolidated guidance on the treatment of detainees. When a new committee was appointed following the 2010 election, with a new Chair, Malcom Rifkind, and a substantially changed membership, this report was shelved. The explanation at the time was that the report related to draft guidance which had subsequently been changed. This report was eventually published in full in 2018 as part of the committee’s inquiry into the mistreatment and rendition of detainees. The committee, under a new Chair Dominic Grieve, clearly felt that the 2010 report should have been published when it was completed. In publishing the report in 2018, the committee noted that while some of the recommendations in the report had been overtaken by events, ‘the report as a whole remains relevant to the continuing debate’ and that it was ‘essential that the report is placed on the public record.’

There are a number of other reports and inquiries at different stages which have also been delayed by the election. The committee’s annual report for 2018-19 is complete and like the Russia report, is awaiting the Prime Minister’s confirmation that it can be published. It’s publication should be imminent. The committee had also launched a number of inquiries in the previous Parliament on which it has yet to report. These are: an inquiry into national security issues relating to China; an inquiry into Right Wing Terrorism; an examination of the current threat from Northern Ireland-Related Terrorism; and a case study on GCHQ procurement. ISC staff may have been in a position to progress some of these inquiries during the dissolution but there will be a steep learning curve for new committee members to get up to speed on this significant body of work.

There has also been a significant terrorist attack in London since the committee last met, prior to the dissolution. This is almost certainly something the new ISC will want to look at. The ISC produced a substantial report on the five terrorist attacks which took place in 2017, four of which occurred while the committee was in a state of desuetude due to the general election. The fact that the perpetrator of last month’s attack on London Bridge had been convicted of terrorist offences and released from prison on licence will be of particular interest. The ISC looked at the management of extremism in prisons as part of its inquiry into the 2017 attacks. In a chillingly prescient observation, the committee ‘questioned whether some extremist prisoners may be tactically engaging with de-radicalisation programmes such as Prevent, in order to dupe the authorities into believing that the risk they pose has decreased.’ The ISC also made recommendations with regard to the Approved Visitor Scheme in relation to tightening up the guidance on visitors to extremist prisoners.  In November 2018, the Government agreed to report back to the committee on these recommendations within 12 months.

There is a significant and important body of work to be undertaken by the ISC when it is established. It is to be hoped that unlike in 2015 and 2017 a new committee is established promptly and that it is allowed to continue its work without the obstruction and delay imposed by government in relation to recent inquiries.

This post first appeared on the Democratic Audit blog in December 2019.

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The government’s refusal to release the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russian activities against the UK is part of a worrying pattern of obstruction and delay

It is not clear why the government did not feel able to approve the release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russian interference in the UK before Parliament was dissolved this week. However, the episode does reveal a worrying potential for the process of intelligence oversight in the UK to become politicised. Government Ministers struggled to provide an adequate response to urgent questions in the House of Commons and the House of Lords in which the Chair of the ISC and a phalanx of those with experience in this field including Lord Anderson of Ipswich and the PM’s former National Security Adviser, Lord Ricketts,  asked why the Prime Minister was refusing to approve the release of a report which has apparently been cleared for publication by the intelligence and security agencies.

The Intelligence and Security Committee was reconstituted as a parliamentary committee in 2013. However, in a number of important respects it’s work remains subject to government approval. In particular while the ISC is free to pursue its own agenda, its reports must be submitted to the Prime Minister and are subject to a process of review before being laid before Parliament and published. In practice this involves a process of negotiation between the committee and intelligence agencies regarding the redaction of sensitive information. This takes place before the reports are sent to the Prime Minister to be signed off for publication, which means that the Prime Minister is simply asked to approve publication of reports which have already been cleared by the intelligence and security agencies. While the process of negotiating redactions can be lengthy, it was revealed this week that final approval by the Prime Minister usually takes no more than ten days. Moreover, the Justice and Security Act 2013 stipulates that the only reason for the exclusion of material from an ISC report is ‘if the Prime Minister, after consultation with the ISC, considers that the matter would be prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions’ of the intelligence and security agencies.

The ISC’s Russia report was sent to the Prime Minister for approval on 17th October. As Ministers were keen to point out in Parliament this week, this did not leave very long for approval before Parliament was dissolved on 6th November. However, on the final sitting day of the House of Commons the ISC Chair, Dominic Grieve revealed that the process of negotiating redactions to the report had begun in March and had been completed in early October. The final draft of the report had been agreed by the intelligence and security agencies and the only remaining step was for the Prime Minister to approve publication. Government Ministers insisted that this was a very important and sensitive report which required detailed scrutiny by the Prime Minister before it could be released for publication. However, if the report had been approved by the intelligence and security agencies it is difficult to see what additional objection the Prime Minister could to raise to it being laid before Parliament and published. In these circumstances it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Prime Minister was motivated by political rather than security concerns.

This episode represents a low point in relations between the ISC and the government. However, this is not an isolated incident, but is part of a worrying pattern of government obstruction and delay in relation to the work of this important committee. This has been compounded by two general elections in quick succession and has clearly not been helped by the prospect of a third. This is not the first time the ISC has expressed concern about the time taken by government to review its reports. It took more than four months to review the committee’s report on lethal drone strikes which was sent back to the committee just six days before the 2017 general election, with the result that the committee was forced to accept all of the proposed redactions in order to ensure the report was published before the election. Similarly, despite a commitment to provide a response to ISC reports within 60 days of publication, the government has routinely missed this target, for example, taking five months to publish a response to the committee’s report on detainee mistreatment and rendition. There are two ISC annual reports to which the government has never provided a response.

The ISC has also been frustrated by an unprecedented lack of cooperation from the government in relation to two of its most recent inquiries. In its inquiry into lethal drone strikes in Syria the committee was denied access to intelligence assessments provided to Ministers which underpinned the decision to authorise the strikes. Similarly, the committee took the decision to wind up early its long-running inquiry into detainee mistreatment and rendition when the government refused to allow it to speak to intelligence agency personnel who may have witnessed mistreatment taking place. These examples raise significant questions about whether the committee is able to carry out its core oversight function.

Finally, the government retains significant control over the process of appointing member of the ISC. A new ISC is appointed following a general election. Although the committee is now appointed by Parliament members must first be nominated by the Prime Minister. The length of time taken to provide nominations means that the ISC was one of the final parliamentary committees to be established following the 2015 and 2017 general elections. If the process is similarly delayed following the forthcoming general election it may be well into the next Parliament before the ISC’s Russia report sees the light of day.

Some accommodation of national security concerns is a necessary feature of parliamentary scrutiny of intelligence. While the process of intelligence oversight should, as far as possible be open and transparent, parliamentary debate and the publication of reports should not undermine national security. However, national security concerns should not be used as a pretext to mask wrongdoing, political embarrassment or awkward truths. The current oversight arrangements in the UK allow the executive a level of control which threatens the independence of the process. One issue which might be considered when Parliament returns, is whether the Prime Minister should have a role at all in approving the published output of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. If the committee is able to negotiate the publication of its findings with the intelligence and security agencies, there seems little justification for requiring Prime Ministerial approval of this process. Whether or not there is anything of consequence in the ISC’s Russia report in relation to the forthcoming general election, this episode has revealed the worrying potential for political interference in the process intelligence oversight in the UK.

This post first appeared on the Democratic Audit blog in November 2019

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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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