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Parliament’s intelligence and security committee claims work on Iran being hampered by slow response to inquiries

By Dan Sabbagh, Defence and security editor

Guardian Online – 13 Dec 2022 14.36

Parliament’s spy agency watchdog has complained that MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the other spy agencies that it oversees were failing to respond to its inquiries in time – meaning that work on an inquiry into Iran had been delayed. The all-party intelligence and security committee (ISC) also warned that ministers had failed to expand its remit to include the growing intelligence activities contained within government departments, leading to “genuinely troubling” gaps in oversight. Members of the ISC said it

“had been severely hampered over the past year”

by the failure of Britain’s spy agencies

“to meet standard deadlines”

in response to its inquiries. It had excused the spy agencies at first because of the pandemic, but said the problem had continued. It also warned that if the committee’s oversight was frustrated it would be unable to

“provide any assurance to the public or parliament that the intelligence agencies are acting appropriately”.

The body said it had called on Britain’s spy chiefs “to account for these failures” and “to provide assurances on a suitable way forward”.

Members had begun an inquiry into Iran in November 2021, but complained that

“the initial evidence provided was insufficient”

and they had asked for more information from the spy agencies. But by the end of March 2022, when the report was compiled, this had not been received. Iran is seen as a growing threat in the UK. In November, the head of MI5, Ken McCallum, warned that Tehran had made at least 10 threats this year to kidnap or kill people in the UK deemed “enemies of the regime”.

Its other complaint was that intelligence and security activities were

“increasingly being devolved to policy departments”

without any expansion of the committee’s remit through appropriate legislation. The result, the committee said in its annual report published on Tuesday, was an

“absence of proper scrutiny, which can only be carried out by the ISC”,

which members concluded was “genuinely troubling”.

Government units whose work contains classified aspects not covered by ISC oversight include:

  • the investment security unit in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy;
  • the counter-disinformation unit in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport;
  • the transport security, resilience and response group in the Department for Transport;
  • the intelligence policy department in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; and
  • the Joint Biosecurity Centre in the Department of Health and Social Care.

Committee members said they had repeatedly raised concerns but had been rebuffed by officials. In January, Stephen Lovegrove, the then national security adviser, told Julian Lewis, the committee’s chair, that ministers did not feel bound by previous assurances to keep updating the committee’s remit.

Unlike parliamentary select committees, the ISC is a special committee created by two laws to scrutinise the work of Britain’s spy agencies. It conducts inquiries and holds meetings in secret, but releases redacted reports – with the approval of Downing Street – on subjects of interest, such as Russia, China and extreme right-wing terrorism. The nine-member committee is chaired by Lewis, a Conservative, who was elected in opposition to Chris Grayling, the preferred candidate of the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, with the support of Labour and Scottish National party members. It had been felt that Grayling would have not been independent enough of the prime minister.

The annual report has to be approved by the prime minister, currently Rishi Sunak, before it can be released, to ensure there are no national security concerns about parts of the document. But the report was held up for several months as final clearance was sought and has only just been published before the end of the parliamentary year.