CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

HOME AFFAIRS – INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY COMMITTEE AND SPECIAL ADVISERS - 22 July 2020

HOME AFFAIRS – INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY COMMITTEE AND SPECIAL ADVISERS - 22 July 2020

Dr Julian Lewis: Given that the Minister has so much to say on this subject, it is really rather sad that it is having to be said in the context of an urgent question rather than a voluntary statement by the Government.

The Russia report could not have been produced to this high standard without the dedication, the expertise and, above all, the objectivity of the ISC’s brilliant staff, some of whom I have worked with previously, yet according to the journalist, Tim Walker, some people within Government tried to sack the secretariat and make political appointments. Will my right hon. Friend, as I still regard him, resist the temptation to fob us off with clichés about not believing everything we read in the media and give this House now a categorical commitment that no party political special advisers will be allowed anywhere near the ISC?

[The Minister for Security (James Brokenshire) [V]: I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments on the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. He will recall that he and I served on the Bill Committee establishing the ISC so he will know the weight and consideration I give to it, and indeed to the work of its officials and those who work to support its activities, inquiries and investigations. He can certainly have my assurances on the weight and support I give to his Committee.

I commend the work of the previous Committee, which produced the report that is the subject of this urgent question. I also commend all members of the Committee on the robust and rigorous work that I know they will do in the course of this Parliament.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald: Unlike the Minister, I will at least have the grace to congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on his election to the chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and he will have our backing in making sure he stays there because he is an independent-minded person and the right person to chair that Committee. Like him, I thank the Committee for publication of the report.

There is a lot of stuff in the report; this is a cow that is going to give us a lot of milk for quite some time, and it deserves to be taken seriously and considered objectively. The issues it raises in relation to actively looking the other way on interference in the Brexit referendum needs to be addressed objectively by both Government and the Opposition.

That also applies to what the report has to say about the Scottish referendum. I have banged on more about this than any other MP or politician in Scotland; in fact in Scotland, my party has a stronger record on this than any other political party. So let us have the inquiry into Brexit and the 2014 referendum campaign; let us bring that forward, and be clear that that is something only the United Kingdom Government can do – and if they do, the Minister will have my support in that.

When do the Government intend to bring forward the legislation that the Minister mentioned, for example on foreign agents, and can he clarify that there will be ample time to debate the rather confused and obscure effort across Government to counter this threat seriously?

James Brokenshire: We have produced our response to the Committee’s report, and I commend it to him. He highlights the issue about an inquiry, which underlines the fact that it is the work of the intelligence and security agencies to assess any new evidence as it emerges. Given that long-standing approach, we do not believe that it is necessary to hold a specific retrospective inquiry. If evidence were available to be found, it would emerge through our existing processes. We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the way that has been described by some. Indeed, that leads many people to think that it is more about re-arguing some of the issues of the Brexit referendum, not respecting and reflecting the outcome of that referendum. We are working at pace on the legislation and I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunities in the House to debate that, as well as other issues related to the report.

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Mr Alistair Carmichael: It was not lost on the House that the Minister did not answer the question of the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Will he do so now, please?

James Brokenshire: I was clear about the weight and importance of the independent scrutiny that the ISC provides and why, from my perspective and the Government’s perspective, we will always examine and reflect carefully on its incredibly important work. I was also clear about the importance of that being conducted in the independent way in which it has always fulfilled its role and responsibility. I am quite clear that that will continue into the future.

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Clive Efford: The Minister still has not answered the question posed by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who alleged that there was a political attempt to remove the secretariat of the ISC and replace it with political placemen or women. Was the Minister aware of that – yes or no?

James Brokenshire: I am happy to say that I do not have any knowledge of what the hon. Gentleman is saying; I do not recognise that at all. From my standpoint, it is important that the ISC is able to conduct its work and present its report to the House, given the mandate that this House provided it with through the legislation establishing it.

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Yvette Cooper: I served on the ISC in the late ’90s. We had a big Labour majority in Parliament and a Conservative Chair, the much-respected Tom King. There is a long tradition of Members of both Houses putting aside party politics to engage in independent scrutiny of the vital work that our intelligence agencies do and, crucially, to work in support of the national interest. The Government put that at risk at their peril, so can the Minister answer the question put by the current ISC Chair, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)? Will he now rule out any attempt at Government interference in the work of the ISC, any political appointments to its secretariat and any special advisers to be appointed by him? Will he rule that out now – yes or no?

James Brokenshire: I am very clear, as I have been in response to previous questions, on the need for independence by the ISC. I do not want to see its independence questioned or drawn into any doubt. It is important that the ISC is independent and rigorous. The right hon. Lady can have my assurance on the steps that I take to uphold that.]

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