This post first appeared on the RUSI blog in May 2017.
The announcement of a snap general election and the rapid conclusion of the shortest Parliament for more than 40 years have undoubtedly placed considerable strain on Westminster. Legislation has been rushed through or abandoned, while parliamentary committees have rapidly sought to conclude inquiries and publish reports.
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is just one of many parliamentary committees caught out by the timing of Britain’s early general election, but the impact on this committee is particularly acute.
The ISC was the last parliamentary committee to be appointed following the 2015 general election, more than four months after the vote – and long after the appointment of select committees – and inherited a significant backlog of work.
The 8 June election has prompted the premature publication of its drone strikes report, while others have inevitably been delayed and another turnover in membership will further undermine the committee’s expertise.
The delay in appointing the committee after the last general election was compounded by the fact that the previous committee had effectively stopped work in February 2015, when the Chair, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, resigned. The ISC declined to elect a replacement and the committee effectively went into desuetude more than two months prior to the 2015 general election.
Even if a new committee is promptly appointed after 8 June, it remains the case that since the beginning of 2015, the UK has been without a legislative intelligence oversight committee for a total of more than nine months.
It is to be hoped that the new government takes note of the pointed remarks of the Chair of the outgoing committee, Dominic Grieve, in his final press release before parliament was prorogued, in which he urged:
… 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 2015 general election also saw a large turnover of membership of the ISC. The committee is reconstituted after each general election, usually with a combination of new and experienced members, but the committee appointed in 2015 was the most inexperienced since the ISC was first established in 1994.
While four members were retained, only two of those had served for the whole of the previous parliament. Moreover, two committee members have stepped down since the 2015 general election, including the longest serving committee member, George Howarth.
Two further members, Fiona Mactaggart and Gisela Stuart, are not standing in the general election with the result that even if all the remaining members are reappointed after the general election, only one, Lord Lothian, will have more than two years’ experience on the committee.
The turnover in membership and the speed with which a new committee is appointed are important for a number of reasons. As the committee has itself observed, intelligence is an area in which few parliamentarians have much experience and membership of the ISC comes with a steep learning curve.
The relative inexperience of committee members may be compounded by the need to hit the ground running. Britain is still facing a significant terrorist threat and delays in making appointments to the ISC have, in the past, left the committee struggling to keep up with events.
Most notably, this happened following the 2005 general election when a new committee was not appointed until the 12 July, several days after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London.
The committee appointed in 2015 also inherited a significant backlog of work that has inevitably been disrupted by the early election. The ISC was asked by the prime minister to pick up the work of the unfinished detainee inquiry when the judge-led inquiry was wound up in December 2013.
The ISC was provided with extra staff to enable it to analyse the 40,000 highly classified documents received by the inquiry, and has taken additional evidence from the intelligence agencies and former government ministers, but has yet to report on the issue.
In its latest annual report, published in July 2016, the committee reported that, although this was now their priority, the inquiry was still ‘expected to occupy the Committee for some time’. Significantly, the committee has asserted that its staff will continue to work on the inquiry even while parliament is prorogued, so they can ‘progress the work … in readiness for the new Committee’.
Another focus for the ISC since 2015 has been its inquiry into the use of intelligence in targeted drone strikes against UK nationals in Syria. ISC reports are submitted first to the prime minister and reviewed by the agencies concerned before publication.
Suggestions for the redaction of sensitive material are then subject to a process of negotiation between the committee and the government. Although the ISC submitted its report to the prime minister in December 2016, it did not receive a draft of the report with suggested redactions until 12 April, only days before Theresa May’s announcement of her intention to call an early general election.
In a highly unusual move, in order to facilitate the publication of the report before the election, the committee decided to forego the usual process of negotiation and published the report with all of the government’s suggested redactions.
In a robust press release to accompany the publication, the committee made clear that the report was being published ‘even if it was more heavily redacted than we would normally accept’ and that the redactions ‘are therefore precisely those as proposed by the Agencies and Departments on behalf of the Prime Minister’.
The early election also means that the government’s customary response to the drone strikes report will not be published until after the election. The government has yet to respond to the committee’s annual report for 2015–16 and the ISC has also revealed that although its annual report for 2016–17 is complete, it too will not be published until after the election.
This catalogue of delays and interruptions is an unwelcome consequence of an early general election, which many would claim has been called in the interests of political expediency. It is to be hoped that the prompt reconstitution of the ISC after the election will serve to minimise the unwelcome impact this has had upon its work.