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.