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Intelligence and Security Committee

Volume 752: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what changes they propose regarding arrangements for choosing the members and chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, following the commencement of the Justice and Security Act 2013.

My Lords, Section 1 of the Justice and Security Act 2013 makes provision for the changes to the arrangements for appointing members of the ISC, to which the noble Lord refers. It provides that members of the ISC will,

“be appointed by the House of Parliament from which the member is to be drawn”,

and that the chair of the ISC will be chosen by its members from among its members. Until this Act came into effect, members and the chair were appointed by the Prime Minister.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the idea of making the ISC a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament was to improve its independence and effectiveness? Surely, this is compromised with a former Conservative Foreign Secretary in the chair, only three Labour MPs and no Labour Peers in its membership. Therefore, will the Government enter into discussions with the Official Opposition to ensure that we get a better balance on the committee, including Labour Peers and an opposition chair, so that it can obtain some degree of credibility?

My Lords, I am conscious that for some time the only Member of this House on the Intelligence and Security Committee was indeed the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and then it expanded to two. There is no reference in the Justice and Security Act to the division of the current nine members between the two Houses. Noble Lords will be aware that yesterday Yvette Cooper made a speech on further reforms and that this morning the Deputy Prime Minister made a speech in which he suggested that we should move from the current nine members to a future membership of 11, as with other Select Committees. However, he made no specific reference to the division between the two Houses.

Would not greater accountability to the ISC and Parliament be provided if the chairman of the ISC was given unrestricted access to all operational material in the agencies, with the safeguard that, where such information exceeds what is currently permissible within the law, it is provided to the wider membership of the ISC committee by the chairman only with the permission of the agency chiefs concerned? That would really increase accountability to Parliament.

My Lords, there were a number of questions about increasing the capacity of the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, as on previous occasions, mentioned the thinness of the staff assisting the committee. That is now being strengthened. In both Ms Cooper’s speech yesterday and the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech this morning, the suggestion was made to strengthen further the size and capabilities of the staff. The question of whether the chair should be drawn from the governing party or one of the opposition parties is also out there in the open. There is nothing in the Act that says whether the chair of the committee should be a member of one party or another.

My Lords, the Americans have been vigorously debating surveillance and the internet for more than six months. Yesterday the shadow Home Secretary joined in, and today the Deputy Prime Minister made an excellent contribution. When will the Home Office and the Foreign Office abandon their pretence that all is well and that there is nothing to discuss?

My Lords, the Justice and Security Act is less than a year old and was a useful step forward. I am conscious that the Snowden leaks, so to speak, and all the other questions about just how wide the collection of information by intelligence agencies across the world is, have stimulated a further debate. I have no doubt that that debate will continue, including within this House.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Foulkes asked what changes the Government propose. Do they propose any changes in relation to this matter or are they still waiting?

My Lords, we have only just commenced and set into effect the Justice and Security Act. The first public meeting of the Intelligence and Security Committee under the Act took place some three months ago, so we are still discussing the next stage. That is not particularly dilatory, given that we are moving in the right direction. We are looking at the current revelations about the sheer scale of internet surveillance, which perhaps raise further issues for discussion.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that however the chairman is chosen, and from whichever party he might come, it would be very difficult to find a chairman better qualified and with more credibility and authority than Sir Malcolm Rifkind?

My Lords, I have to preface my remarks by saying that I speak as a member of a party that values marriage but also values all stable relationships.

Sir David Omand, the former director of GCHQ, has said that,

“staff in the intelligence agencies would welcome deeper but more informed oversight, not least to protect their reputation”.

Notwithstanding the new Act, it is clear that in this digital age the pace of technological change is so rapid that I am sure the noble Lord would agree that the ISC should be strengthened further in terms of digital and technological expertise. What plans might there be for those to be strengthened in the current circumstances?

There is the question of the size, scale and expertise of the staff of the committee. The 2011 Green Paper raised the question of whether the current two commissioners, the Intelligence Services Commissioner and the Interception of Communications Commissioner, might be combined into one and given rather greater authority. What we are discovering about the speed of change with the internet—not just the hoovering up of information on the internet by government agencies but the whole question of the hoovering up of our personal information by private agencies—is an issue that we all clearly need to discuss further. The Government have been developing a draft communications data Bill on which we will all have to consider how we move forward, probably in the first Session of the next Parliament.

My Lords, I make it clear to the House, and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, that I was in no way impugning the personal integrity of Malcolm Rifkind, who is a long-standing personal friend of mine, but stating the principle of having an opposition chair for such an important committee, as we have for the Public Accounts Committee.

My Lords, we are all quite clear that this is also partly a question of transparency, accountability and public trust, and greater transparency would help to improve public trust.