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By Lucy Fisher, Defence Correspondent

Daily Telegraph – 25 November 2021

The intelligence and security committee has criticised Boris Johnson over government delays preventing the publication of its annual report on Britain's spy agencies. MPs and peers on the committee have demanded Downing Street take action so their audit of the intelligence and security agencies can be released before Parliament rises for Christmas recess on December 16. In a statement posted on the ISC website this week, the committee disclosed that it handed its annual report to Mr Johnson on October 25.

While legislation maintains that the Prime Minister

"must consider whether there is any information in the report which, if published, would be prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions of the security and intelligence agencies",

the period allocated for this review is 10 days. The committee highlighted that this deadline for No 10 redacting material from its report fell on Nov 8. It said:

"The committee is still hopeful that the Prime Minister will provide notification by Nov 26 – the last possible day if the report  is to be published before the House rises for Christmas recess."

It comes in the wake of another row over Mr Johnson's administration blocking for nine months the publication of an ISC report on Russian interference in U...K politics and elections. That delay, branded "utterly reprehensible" by MPs, led to suspicion that Downing Street was attempting to "sit on" the dossier on the basis of its contents. Once published, the 50-page document found that the British government and intelligence agencies did not conduct a thorough assessment of Kremlin attempts to meddle with the 2016 Brexit referendum. Campaigners later launched action to try and compel Mr Johnson to launch an inquiry into Moscow interference in UK elections, but the High Court rejected the attempt.

The ISC also produced two reports in the five domestic terror incidents that took place in 2017 at Westminster, Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Finsbury Park and Parsons Green. Its annual report offers an update on the often clandestine activities of Britain's intelligence and security agencies.

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The committee said it had sent a final draft 2019-21 annual report to the prime minister on 25 October.

“By convention the committee requests that the prime minister responds within 10 working days. This period expired on Monday, 8 November,”

the committee said in a terse statement. The body then called on Johnson to clear the report by Friday because it was

“the last possible day if the report (which has already been delayed for six months by late returns by the government) is to be published before the house rises for Christmas recess”.

Tuesday’s complaint produced the desired result. On Wednesday afternoon, the committee confirmed that Johnson had now signed off the report, just over a fortnight after the deadline but nevertheless in time for publication before the end of the year.

Downing Street has to clear draft ISC reports to ensure they do not contain any secret material that would prejudice the operations of MI5, MI6 or GCHQ, the UK’s three principal intelligence agencies. The prime minister can demand specific redactions, although it is not clear if that has happened in this case. A series of political rows have bedevilled the work of the committee since Johnson became prime minister and refused to clear its highly critical Russia report before the 2019 general election. The report was eventually published in July 2020, seven months after the election. It concluded that government and intelligence agencies failed to conduct any assessment of Kremlin attempts to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the spy agencies were accused of taking their “eye off the ball” when it came to Russia.

Johnson then hoped to appoint former justice and transport secretary Chris Grayling as chair of the committee, but a revolt by its members led to the appointment of another Conservative, Julian Lewis, as chair. An annoyed Downing Street had Lewis kicked out of the parliamentary party for several months. Unlike other parliamentary committees, the ISC sits in secret. But it does produce unclassified reports, albeit with passages redacted, usually at the request of the intelligence agencies.