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The battle over the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee has laid bare its flaws

The future of the committee will depend on what the government does next

After a long delay, parliament’s joint Intelligence and Security Committee has finally been formed – but not with the government’s choice of chair. Catherine Haddon argues that the future of the committee will depend on what the government does next

After many wrangles behind the scenes, the government’s attempt to exert control over the setting up of the joint Intelligence and Security Committee failed on a simple rule of politics: learn to count. That, and a failure to understand the ambitions, and reliability, of one of its own MPs.

The surprise election as chair of Julian Lewis, rather than the government choice, Chris Grayling, caught the government by surprise. Lewis, a long-serving Conservative MP with previous experience on the committee, voted for himself and won the votes of Labour and SNP members. The government has deemed this a major betrayal and kicked him out of the party.

This affair has shone light on some of the inherent flaws of the ISC. Lewis argued that the government had itself emphasised the ‘independence’ of the committee and he was simply following its mantra. But the government’s attempts to control the election of the chair, and its reaction to Lewis’s election, pose serious questions about the strength of the committee’s independence.

The committee has, at least, an independent – in terms of party allegiance and character – chair. But if the government seeks to remove Lewis, or if it reacts by disengaging with the committee’s work, then the future credibility of the ISC, as a scrutiny mechanism for an essential but secretive part of government, is very much in the balance.

There have been continuing concerns about the ISC’s credibility

The ISC already has a credibility problem, which in part stems from its unique position amongst parliamentary committees. Created in 1994 as part of the same legislation that finally brought MI6 and GCHQ into official existence, the committee, unlike parliamentary select committees, was created by an Act of Parliament – the 1994 Intelligence and Services Act, which was updated in 2013. The legislation gives the ISC’s members unparalleled access to highly sensitive information, but its analysis takes place behind closed doors and it is reliant on the government for supplying information.

The members and secretariat of the ISC have to balance the need to build sufficient trust with the intelligence community against exerting sufficient independence to probe them properly – and the committee’s access to the intelligence agencies has always depended as much on the perceived competence and experience of its members as on their statutory powers. On occasions, this delicate relationship has broken down. This was demonstrated during the ISC’s inquiry into the UK’s history on rendition, during which it became evident that the committee was ignorant of key aspects of government policy and practice, partly because of MI6’s failure to disclose key information.

Even having lost the battle over the chair, the government still retains control over ISC publications

But the committee’s ability to operate effectively also depends on how it is treated by the government, with the Lewis election highlighting the vulnerability of the committee’s independence. Under present arrangements, the prime minister appoints its nine members following party nominations, and the appointed nine then elect the chairman from their number. Whole house elections would give the committee greater independence, but it wouldn’t solve the committee’s lack of control over what it publishes and when.  

While the Committee determines for itself what it chooses to investigate, the government still retains control over the publishing of its reports. These are released only after the agencies and the prime minister have reviewed them for sensitive information or details that might ‘prejudice the functions of the Agencies’. The decision to publish the National Cyber Security Centre’s advice to the government over Huawei shows that the government is willing to demonstrate transparency on intelligence matters when it suits, but the unconscionable delay in publishing its latest Russia report shows that the government can significantly impede the work of the committee if it chooses to do so. This further undermines its independence and credibility, and it only strenghens the case for putting the power to publish into the hands of the committee. That will require a government willing to review the legislation, which seems unlikely with the current administration.

 On top of the soon-to-be published Russia report, and the four inquiries left uncompleted at the time the general election was called, the committee has a wide range of major new issues to look into. These include the Huawei decision and the much larger question of UK-China relations, Brexit and the steps to maintain cross-European security and intelligence, and the ‘integrated review’ into the future of the UK’s foreign, defence, security policy. Other committees will also look into these areas, but none will be granted the same access as the ISC – nor be as dependent on the government.

The botched attempt to secure Grayling as chair, might, conversely, push the committee into a more independent frame of mind. But, given its reaction so far, there is a good chance that Lewis’s election will make this government less inclined to engage with the committee at all. If the ISC can’t do the job it is meant to do, and a job which is needed, then Parliament should ask itself whether this compromise model can and should survive.

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