The current row over the yet-to-be-published Intelligence and Security Committee report has been a problem waiting to happen. Ever since its creation in 1994, the ISC has had to balance privileged access to the intelligence agencies against independent scrutiny. This trade-off comes with a cost – unlike other Parliamentary committees, the government retains a great deal of control over the ISC’s work.
For the most part this control has focused on the protection of national security secrets. However, over the years the committee has widened its policy remit and increasingly investigated areas which governments find politically embarrassing. As it has done so, the way the government exercises its power to redact and stall on reports has become more and more liable to result in the kind of row which we is now taking place.
The ISC, which is not a select committee, was established through the 1994 Intelligence and Security Act. Its chair and members are appointed by the PM with some consultation with the leader of the opposition and with a focus on cross-party balance.
While the ISC is not the only Commons committee to take an interest in intelligence and security matters – the defence, foreign and home affairs committees all play some role – it is given an unparalleled level of access to intelligence matters. Its members operate within the ‘ring of secrecy’ – they are cleared to see a highly sensitive information. This access is important. In order to do its job, the committee relies on briefings from members of the intelligence community. Through the course of the Iraq War, for example, it received regular updates from the head of MI6 and the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee.
But what really differentiates the ISC from other parliamentary committees is the power that the PM has over its reports. The ISC does not report direct to Parliament, it reports to the PM. An ISC report is vetted by the security services and government – and any necessary redactions made – before being published as a government paper and laid before Parliament.
The remit of the ISC has broadened since it was established. Its original purpose was to examine the ‘expenditure, administration and policy’ of the intelligence agencies, but in recent years the committee’s focus has included security policy and the topics on which intelligence informs. Alongside special reports into the circumstances of terrorist attacks, it has conducted inquiries into rendition policy and Syrian drone strikes and looked into the 5G Huawei contract.
But this row does not seem to be about what the Committee is saying about the intelligence agencies. Instead the problem seems to be what it might imply about the government. We don’t know why this report has not been published, but the row has given the impression that the government is stalling for political reasons.
It is far from a new phenomenon to see a government delay publication of a politically sensitive report. And this is not the only report causing controversy, with the government-commissioned ‘lessons learned’ report on the Windrush scandal – which was meant to be published by 31 March 2019 – yet to be released.
However, the failure to publish the ISC report, whatever the actual reason, risks calling into question the sustainability of the current set up of the committee. If there is a perception that a government will use its ability to stall ISC reports for reasons other than national security concerns, then the access versus hindrance trade-off becomes unbalanced. This would inevitably mean that the scrutiny of intelligence matters will suffer.
Heads of intelligence do not appear in front of other select committees – though other national security officials do – and the ISC is a convenient half-way house of specifically tailored parliamentary scrutiny. The row may prompt other select committees to encroach onto the ISC's remit. The ISC can't reform itself; it was set up by an act of parliament and only further legislation could change the committee's powers.
With national security at the heart of the balance between the ISC’s levels of access and its freedom to report, national security should be the only reason that the government stalls the ISC’s work. If its freedom to report is curtailed further, then Parliament will start to consider whether it is continuing to get value from the arrangement.