House of Commons Library

The Intelligence and Security Committee

Published Tuesday, November 5, 2019

This paper describes the functions and powers of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is responsible for scrutinising the UK's intelligence and security agencies. It outlines reforms to the Committee under the Justice and Security Act 2013, and summarises recent inquiries. It also explains the recent controversy surrounding the Committee's inquiry on Russian activity against the UK and the Government's refusal to permit publication of the report prior to the 2019 election.

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The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is a Committee of Parliament appointed by statute to scrutinise the UK’s three main intelligence and security agencies and other intelligence activities.

Originally established by the Intelligence Services Act 1994, the ISC was reformed by the Justice and Security Act 2013 (JSA) following criticism that it was insufficiently independent and opaque.

These reforms made the ISC a Committee of Parliament; provided greater powers to receive information; and widened its remit, to include oversight of operational activity and the wider intelligence and security activities of Government. The reforms also removed a veto power previously held by the heads of the agencies, requiring that they must disclose any information requested by the ISC unless vetoed by the Secretary of State.

The ISC is not a select committee. It is made up of members of both Houses and its functions and procedures are set out in the JSA. Members are nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by their respective Houses. They are subject to the Official Secrets Act 1989 and have access to highly classified material in carrying out their duties.

The ISC reports directly to Parliament, although it may also report to the Prime Minister where necessary for reasons of national security. In addition to its annual reports, the ISC publishes special reports. Recent reports have covered the UK’s lethal drone strikes in Syria; two reports on Detention and Rendition; and a report examining the 2017 terrorist attacks.

On 17 October 2019 the Committee sent a report on Russian activity against the UK to the Prime Minister. Under the JSA, the ISC must redact anything from a report that the Prime Minister considers would be prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions of the agencies prior to publication. This procedure, required because of the need to report on classified information, is unique to the ISC.

A General Election was subsequently announced, to take place on 12 December 2019. On 5 November 2019, the final day before the dissolution of Parliament in advance of the election, the Prime Minister had not given confirmation that the report could be published. Dominic Grieve, Chair of the ISC, asked an urgent question in the House of Commons as to why the Prime Minister had not given confirmation within the standard 10 days, enabling publication of the report prior to the election. He highlighted the public interest in the report because of its relevance to the integrity of the democratic process. He also expressed disappointment that the Committee had not been given reasons for the delay, and suggested that in the future, the ISC may wish to reform procedures to ensure that the same thing did not happen again.

Commons Briefing papers SN02178

Author: Joanna Dawson

Topics: Intelligence services, Terrorism

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