A parliamentary committee is having its powers weakened when we’ve never needed it more
The Times – 16 August 2021
Britain’s secret state works in the shadows. It also works for us. Parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) is thus an essential part of our democracy. It is the only independent body where our political representatives can, on our behalf, quiz spymasters, see classified material and judge what they find. Our secret agencies have extraordinary capabilities to snoop on data and intervene in people’s lives. The ISC is a crucial safeguard against far-reaching decisions (and mistakes) based on whim and cloaked in secrecy.
Yet the ISC is in trouble. Since its reconstitution in 2013 as a properly independent body, Whitehall has repeatedly tried to obstruct its work.
The committee – eight senior MPs and a peer at present – has had to fight to appoint its staff and choose the topics for its investigations. Its Russia inquiry (for which I was the first witness in 2018) was shamefully delayed at every stage. Boris Johnson blocked publication of the Russia report before the 2019 election: presumably for fear that voters might read some direct criticism into its cautious language about the openness of our political system to foreign mischief-making. They would have been absolutely right to do so. Dirty money is rotting our democracy.
Worse, the prime minister delayed the ISC’s reactivation after the election, and tried in July last year to impose the docile Chris Grayling as its chairman. Only a deft, brave manoeuvre by Julian Lewis MP foiled this plan. He now heads the committee. Downing Street’s petulant reaction was to punish the veteran security expert with a six-month suspension from the Conservative parliamentary party.
Now the government is trying to make parts of Britain’s shadowlands out of bounds for the ISC. The immediate issue is a new law blocking foreign takeovers of British companies on national security grounds. Those decisions were made in the National Security Council, which is overseen by the ISC. Now they will be made by ministers in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). They will be guided by secret material provided by the intelligence agencies to a new investment scrutiny unit based in the department.
The BEIS committee in the Commons cannot scrutinise that. It does not have the expertise, security-cleared staff and members, or bug-swept premises, to deal with secret material. Most importantly, it lacks the statutory power to demand it.
Only the ISC can do this. The cross-party committee has politely suggested that its mandate be expanded to include the secret aspects of the investment security unit’s work. Nothing is stopping the government accepting this. The ISC’s remit is set out in a memorandum of understanding that lists explicitly only MI6, MI5, GCHQ, Defence Intelligence, the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, and the Cabinet Office’s Joint Intelligence Organisation and National Security Secretariat. But it also includes “those parts of departments whose work is directly concerned with intelligence and security matters”.
After initially seeming willing to widen the ISC’s role, the government reversed its position. Lewis, in a rare protest, told MPs that this was “surprising and disappointing”.
Creeping unaccountability is not wholly surprising, though. Amid the other hassles, the previous committee, chaired by Dominic Grieve, tried to examine the role of Britain’s special forces. Their work is too secret for the defence committee. But it is not part of the ISC’s remit. During an inquiry into the rendition (and, in effect, torture) of terrorist suspects, for example, the ISC asked to see the relevant military interrogation manual. It was not forthcoming.
The “fusion doctrine” now at the heart of Britain’s national security makes the question more urgent. The new thinking recognises, rightly, that foreign influence operations may (and do) target swathes of national life not previously seen as vulnerable, including universities, media and the financial system.
Countering these threats means, among other things, fusing the capabilities of the intelligence and security agencies with other bits of government. Finding out whether a suspect individual is a nutcase, a crook or a spy, for example, determines the response. As with BEIS, the committees dealing with education, media or banks cannot effectively scrutinise the secret side of government decision-making.
The ISC has an excellent record. It does not leak (even when its members are boiling with frustration at government misbehaviour). It has consistently spotted dangers that politicians overlook. It highlighted in 2013 the threat from Huawei’s role in our 5G telecoms infrastructure, when ministers were prattling about how the Chinese high-tech giant was friendly and trustworthy. Only last year, after the United States cracked the whip, did Britain flipflop.
In a remarkable but little-noticed debate in the Lords this year, a scrum of national security heavyweights piled in on the government’s treatment of the committee. Among them were former ISC members including Tom King, its first chairman, and Robin Butler, a revered former cabinet secretary.
Lord Butler blames “pique” and “embarrassment” in Downing Street. The committee is now examining the threat from China, where the government’s record is even flimsier than it is on Russia. The ISC has the right to ask hard questions about topics that ministers would most like to keep private. That may inconvenience our rulers. But it is something we should cherish.