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Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament: Special Report

Volume 800: debated on Monday 4 November 2019

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why the Prime Minister has not provided confirmation within the usual 10 days that the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament’s Special Report on Russia may be published, and whether that confirmation will be provided today so that the report can be laid before Parliament in advance of Dissolution.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, and declare an interest as an occasional reviewer of national security matters.

My Lords, reports from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament must go through a number of processes before publication. Those processes apply to the report to which the noble Lord refers in his Question. The Prime Minister will respond to the committee’s request to publish this report in due course, once the usual processes have been completed.

The Minister’s response echoes two unsatisfactory explanations aired in recent days for this irregular state of affairs. The first is that redaction remains to be completed. This report has already been through the full redaction process with the agencies and the Cabinet Office. In the ISC’s experience, prime ministerial confirmation has always been a formality. The second explanation is that time is needed for the Government to respond, but the Government’s aim and usual practice, as set out in a 2014 memorandum of understanding, is to respond not when a report is published but within 60 days. This unjustified delay undermines the ISC and, I am afraid, invites suspicion of the Government and their motives. Will the Minister advise No. 10 to think again?

My Lords, I must correct the noble Lord in several respects. The length of time for which this report has been with the Government is not at all unusual. It is one of a number of ISC reports which the Government are currently considering. In this instance, the Government are following the standard process which applies before every publication. A memorandum of understanding with the committee sets out the relationship between it and the Government. This does not include a timetable for the Government to clear such a report for publication and there is no set timeline for a response. Nor is such a deadline set in governing legislation.

Having said all that, I realise that the subject of this report is a matter of particular public interest and have no doubt that noble Lords’ comments will not be lost on those in No. 10.

In due course, the Government will release the report for publication, but the processes must be gone through first.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that there have been press reports in the past two or three days on this. There have been what look to be official select leaks saying that actually, the report exonerates everyone regarding Russian money. However, the Guardian this morning states that the report deals with allegations that,

“Russian money has flowed into British politics in general and the Conservative party”.

Edward Lucas in the Times this morning reports that he understood clearly that the report was on track towards imminent publication last Thursday and has since been blocked by No. 10. Given those reports, which are damaging for the Conservative Party at the start of an election campaign, does the Minister not think it extremely wise to ensure that the report is published as soon as possible, before it becomes more of a campaign issue?

My Lords, I note the noble Lord’s comments. The governing Act—the Justice and Security Act 2013—makes it clear that the impact of releasing potentially sensitive or sensitive information needs to be considered carefully by the Prime Minister on the advice of civil servants. That process cannot be rushed; I say that with some emphasis.

My Lords, I have had the privilege of appearing before the ISC many times in my career; it is always a bracing experience. Does the Minister accept that the committee is widely renowned for the quality of its judgments and the value of its advice? Does he further accept the central point: that the ISC is the only Select Committee of Parliament that requires the Government’s agreement to publish its reports? When Ministers say that they need time to respond, they miss the point that what is being asked for is publication of the report; the response can take its time. There is a clear public interest in the national security implications of Russia’s adversarial conduct.

I concur completely with the noble Lord’s points. The ISC does its job in an exemplary way and has been chaired exemplarily by my right honourable friend Dominic Grieve. Its reports are thorough, in depth and substantive. However, I must depart from the noble Lord in his implication that there is a special case here for accelerating the process of publication.

I say again that the length of time that the Government have had this report is not at all unusual. It was delivered on 17 October, which is not a very long time ago. The Prime Minister is entitled to take his view on what the report contains.

My Lords, will my noble friend take back to his department and to the Prime Minister the clear strength of feeling across this House—and the sense of urgency, given that we face Dissolution tomorrow—that the report should be published? Indeed, as far as the House has been informed, there is an urgency to this matter. The report does not require consideration; all it requires is publication. Everything else has been arranged.

Understandably, the committee has access to highly sensitive information that allows it to carry out its oversight duties. The reports it produces often contain information that, were it to be released, might damage the ability of those the ISC oversees to discharge their functions. That is why the governing Act allows for a period of time for the Prime Minister to consider the report carefully. That is what is happening at the moment.

My Lords, I regret the implication in that question: the noble Baroness is implying that the Prime Minister does have something to hide, and I repudiate that suggestion in emphatic terms. The normal processes are being exercised and the report will be published in due course.

My Lords, did not the process of clearing this report start on 28 March, seven months ago? Only the final stage of its being cleared by the Prime Minister started in October. Also, is not the point of the report that it is relevant to an upcoming general election? The Government should make a particular effort to ensure that it is in the public domain. Please will the Minister ask No. 10 to think again?

My Lords, I am sure that the sense of urgency expressed by the House, including by the noble Lord, will not be lost on my colleagues in government and I shall ensure that the correct messages are sent through.

My Lords, the Minister has said that the report is to be published “in due course”. Can he give your Lordships’ House an absolute assurance that that does not mean that it will be kept back until after polling day? As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, has rightly said, it would be outrageous if the public were not given the reassurance that we hope is in the report, long before polling day. Does the Minister recall that in the Queen’s Speech, the Government committed themselves to,

“protect the integrity of democracy and the electoral system in the United Kingdom”?—[Official Report, 14/10/19; col. 3.]

Can he think of anything more important than to reassure the nation at this stage that our electoral system is not to be undermined by foreign interference?

My Lords, these are indeed extremely topical and important matters and I do not depart in the least from the premise that the noble Lord has articulated. In the UK, we have seen no evidence of successful interference in our democratic processes, but we are not complacent. We know that there are those who would wish to do us harm and try to divide us, but I can say without equivocation that that will always be met with a robust response. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is no less committed to ensuring the integrity of the electoral process than is the noble Lord himself.

My Lords, the Minister is being very careful in his choice of words. He is conflating the process by which government as a whole has to consider the report, and that includes a process by which the various agencies have the opportunity to ask for various things to be redacted. That is widely understood, so unless the noble Earl is able to confirm that that is not the case, those agencies have agreed what redactions are necessary. Given that, the only item remaining is the Prime Minister’s approval and therefore the only issue is this: has the Prime Minister not had the time over the past fortnight, or is there something in the report which he feels would be embarrassing if put in the public domain now?

My Lords, no. This matter rests entirely with the Prime Minister. Of course, agencies have a role to play but, in the end, it is his decision and he is entitled to take that decision in his own time, in accordance with the security considerations that he perceives in the report.