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Intelligence and Security Committee Report

Volume 800: debated on Tuesday 5 November 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in another place on the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russia. The Statement is as follows:

“The ISC provides invaluable scrutiny and oversight of the work of the intelligence community to Parliament, so I am grateful to the committee for conducting this timely inquiry into our work on Russia. Russia’s reckless behaviour in Salisbury and Amesbury shows that now more than ever we cannot afford to be complacent about that Russian threat.

Because the ISC deals with matters of national security and intelligence, its reports always contain sensitive information, so it is entirely right that reports such as these go through an intensive security review before publication. This report is one of a number of ISC reports that the Government are currently considering. The current length of time that this report has been with the Government is not unusual as this has averaged around six weeks for reports published in recent years, and three to four weeks for a response to be forthcoming from the Government.

For example, the details of the CT attacks review and the 2017-18 annual report were sent together to No. 10 on 12 October 2018. We were asked to respond 10 days later on 26 October. We responded on 8 November and then the checked, proof-read report was published on 22 November 2018. Similarly, the details of the detainees report was sent to No. 10 on 10 May 2018. Again, the ISC asked for a response in 10 working days on 24 May. We responded on 30 May and then the checked, proof-read report was published on 12 June 2018.

In both cases, the process took approximately six weeks because by law it is imperative that this process is thorough. In accordance with the JSA 2013, the impact of releasing sensitive information must be carefully considered by the Prime Minister on the advice of civil servants. We cannot rush this process at risk of undermining our national security.

There is no set timeline within the MoU with the committee for the Government to clear such reports for publication. Under the same memorandum, there is no set timeline for a response, nor is such a deadline set in the governing legislation. I want to assure the House that the committee is well informed of this process, which is continuing along the standard parameters that apply before every publication. Once the process has been completed, we will continue to keep all relevant parties and the House informed”.

My Lords, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, knows, the feelings of this House were made perfectly clear yesterday: this report should be laid before Parliament today. There is no doubt about that. It affects matters highly relevant to the next period of general election campaigning and it is vital that the public and this House know the contents of this report.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister a straightforward question: has the Prime Minister read the report? If the Prime Minister chooses to withhold this information from the public until after the election, when it is eventually published—which it will be—how will he tell UK voters that he was acting in their interests and not his own?

My Lords, first, as I said, the Prime Minister is acting within the orders laid down. This is not a formality. The Prime Minister’s approval for the publication is vital. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, it is a statutory requirement within the JSA 2013. A report such as this is reviewed by the relevant senior officials within government before going to the Prime Minister for final approval.

As I said in the repeat of the Urgent Question, the committee is well informed of the process. I shall not comment further on the process, apart from to say that the Prime Minister is considering the report.

My Lords, in 10 years on the Intelligence and Security Committee I became familiar with the extreme care that the agencies and the Cabinet Office take when seeking redaction of anything whose publication might imperil national security. Does the Prime Minister want to substitute his own inexperienced judgment at this stage for the judgment of those agencies and the Cabinet Office? Has he some other reason for delaying the report—perhaps something to do with his complicated relationship with President Trump—or does he simply not want anything that might embarrass him to be published at this stage, in which case that is not a provision that the Act makes?

I respect that the noble Lord speaks with insight and experience on this matter, but I am sure that insight and experience lends itself to the fact that the Prime Minister needs to consider the report submitted to him. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, this is a formality. It is enshrined in legislation and he is doing just that. Any other thing is mere speculation.

My Lords, while I entirely agree that this report should be published in the public interest, and I reinforce what has been said, does my noble friend agree that it would be wrong to see the publication of the report as an act of hostility towards Russia? Many of us deeply regret the fact that the Russians were not invited to the D-day celebrations this year. They should certainly be invited to the celebrations on 7 and 8 May next year. They lost 26 million people in the Second World War. While it is important that we are correctly informed of what they are up to at the moment, we should not forget our historical debt.

I hear what my noble friend says. I am sure I speak for everyone in your Lordships’ House when I say that we all should pay tribute to those who lost their lives during the Second World War, battling Nazi aggression across Europe, and to the many Russian civilians who lost their lives. I reiterate to my noble friend that our differences and disagreements with Russia are not with the Russian people. However, we have seen Russia commit aggressive actions. As I am sure my noble friend acknowledges, Russia committed an act right here on UK soil in Salisbury and should be held to account for it. We have been asking for its co-operation on this matter. On the wider issue of talking to Russia on important security issues, I, as Minister for the United Nations, reassure my noble friend that we continue to engage with Russia on important issues of global affairs in fora such as the UN Security Council.

My Lords, in view of the Government’s answer to the questions on this subject yesterday, can the Minister give the House a categorical assurance that there is nothing in the report that embarrasses the Government in any way?

As my noble friend made clear, and as I have repeated today, this is a sensitive report. It is important that it goes through the full process. That is exactly what is taking place, in accordance with legislation. The Prime Minister will respond accordingly. I shall not add any other comment to those I have already made.

My Lords, I am sure the report may well be sensitive but, as I understand it from the exchanges in this House yesterday, all the relevant security agencies have already given their approval for publication. Why does the Prime Minister not have confidence in their judgment?

First, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and this Government have total confidence in our agencies, which do a sterling job in keeping us safe. According to law, however, it is not for those agencies to comment. The Prime Minister provides the final approval after taking all matters into consideration. That is the process being followed.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Does the Minister not understand that hiding behind the customary approach has led substantially to a belief that there is something in the report that the Government do not want published in the course of a general election? If that charge ultimately proves correct, the Government will necessarily suffer grave embarrassment for their approach to this matter.

Again, the noble Lord has great insight and I am sure he would share my view that this is not about hiding but about following due process. In the Answer to the Urgent Question that I repeated, I reiterated that this is not unusual or the only report currently being considered by No. 10 and the Prime Minister. All that is being done is that due process is being followed. The Prime Minister takes his responsibility very carefully and he will give approval for publication in due course.

My Lords, I declare an interest, having been the deputy chairman of the JIC for three years, director of naval intelligence for three years, chief of defence intelligence for three years and Security Minister for three years. It seems that usual procedures are for the obedience of fools. This seems a slightly different report. While I would be the first to say that we must never give away any of our country’s secrets, I do not believe that in this case there is any likelihood of that. This has a nuance of something else. By holding it back, we are creating an area of uncertainty and a feeling that something is being hidden. Will the Minister go back and ask again whether the Prime Minister could read the report—I do not believe he has from what the Minister has said—and then, having read it, perhaps make a rapid decision to have it released?

The noble Lord knows that I respect his insight and experience greatly, but I reassure him that more is being said about this than is warranted by the facts. Due process for a report is being followed—this is not unusual practice. As I indicated in the original Statement, the standard procedure is being followed, and the Prime Minister is giving the report due consideration. The noble Lord knows how much I respect his opinion. I agree with him about the importance of issues of national security. The Government take their responsibility seriously, as does the Prime Minister, and it is right that he gives this matter due consideration.

My Lords, will the noble Lord consider this point? Even if the Prime Minister, following the Act, refuses to publish the report today, can the noble Lord assure the House that if there are sensitive matters in terms of Russian interference that require security services and other agencies of state to take necessary precautions in the six weeks leading up to the next election, they will do so, irrespective of whether the report is published?

My Lords, the noble Baroness uses the word “refuses”, but there is no refusal to publish; we are merely following due process. On her latter point, I reassure her that, as noble Lords who have served in various offices of state, particularly at the Foreign Office or the Home Office, as security Ministers or Ministers dealing with counterterrorism will know, this is not a case of waiting for the publication of a particular report. If there is a threat to the United Kingdom, we will deal with it there and then with the robustness that it deserves, with the Government working hand in glove with the security agencies.

Clearly, one of Mr Putin’s main priorities is to weaken NATO on any occasion that he can. He is clearly working very hard on Turkey at present, and some people are saying that he may well have some success in that direction. What is the Government’s strategy for dealing with this threat?

As the noble Lord rightly points out, Turkey is a member of NATO. We continue to use NATO channels and, importantly, we have been talking directly to Turkey. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken to President Erdoğan a number of times over the past few weeks, and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to the Foreign Minister of Turkey on matters of bilateral importance and on the situation in Syria. We take Turkey’s membership of NATO very seriously. NATO has kept the peace across Europe since the Second World War. As the noble Lord points out, it is important that NATO’s commitment continues, and Turkey is an important part of that alliance.