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Furore over push for gaffe-prone Chris Grayling as chair fuelled by decision to remove committee's one independent member

By Rob Merrick, Deputy Political Editor

Independent Online – 15 July 2020

Boris Johnson has handed himself an in-built majority on the committee that oversees the intelligence services, prompting fresh accusations that it is being neutered. The furore over the likely selection of the accident-prone Chris Grayling as its chair has been fuelled by a decision to strip out its one independent member.

It means the nine-strong Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) will now have five Conservative MPs – allowing them to outvote the remaining four Opposition members. The move triggered a protest in the House of Lords that Downing Street had

“packed it with willing supporters with no expertise in this area”.

Dominic Grieve, its former Tory chairman, told the Independent:

“The committee has always been independent. If that is now being departed from for partisan reasons, that’s very regrettable.”

And John Healey, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, said:

“This move is part of a pattern to surround the prime minister with yes-men. They’ve fixed the committee membership because their pick for chair can’t command the cross-party authority for this crucial role of holding the intelligence services to account.”

The move follows fierce criticism that Mr Grayling, an arch-Brexiteer who backed Mr Johnson for the Tory leadership – and who has no experience in security matters – will fail to be a powerful, independent voice. The prime minister has also triggered a storm by delaying, for nine months, the publication of an ISC report into alleged Russian interference in British politics. Although Downing Street now says it wants it released as soon as possible, there is only a week left before parliament goes into its summer recess.

The committee’s role is seen as increasingly important as the intelligence agencies gain stronger powers to intercept and hold data, and amid growing concerns about the activities of Russia and China. Its members are given privileged access to classified information and receive confidential briefings security chiefs, but decide themselves – in secret – which controversies to pursue.

The other Conservative members – John Hayes, Julian Lewis, Theresa Villiers and Mark Pritchard – are, with the exception of Dr Lewis, seen as lacking independence and clout.

The decision to remove Lord Janvrin, a crossbench peer who was the Queen’s former private secretary, was revealed as the ISC’s membership was finalised on Tuesday night. He told Huffington Post:

“I would only make the obvious point that the inclusion of a crossbencher in recent years has reinforced the non-partisan, cross-party nature of the committee and this has in my view added to its authority in holding the intelligence community to account – a crucial constitutional role in a democracy.”

Baroness Evans, the Lords leader, defended the make-up of the ISC, saying its membership had been

“proposed by the prime minister following consultation with the leader of the Opposition. On this occasion, the prime minister has decided to nominate five Conservative MPs,”

she told peers. Mr Grieve added:

“I regret the disappearance of the crossbench member of the committee, who was a very valued colleague of mine. The exact party composition of the committee is less important than the independence of the members who are on it.”