20th December 2013, 10:33am
Guarding the guards – Parliament's 'turf war' over scrutiny of spy agencies may not be over
Confidential documents The leaders of Britain’s spy agencies may now be accountable to Parliament for the first time but the turf war over who should be able to call them to account may not be over, according to a new academic study.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) was established by the then Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd in 1994, as a ‘unique and special’ committee which would provide a mechanism for oversight of the intelligence and security services, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, without compromising national security.

Legally it was not a committee of Parliament, but a statutory committee selected by and reporting directly to the Prime Minister. Its meetings were held in secrecy, evidence sessions were never published, and its reports were redacted by the Cabinet Office before publication.

Following more than a decade of discontent among other politicians, most notably the Home Affairs Committee, Foreign Affairs Committee and the Joint Committee on Humans Rights, the ISC’s special status changed this year with the passing of the Coalition Government’s Justice and Security Act 2013.

The ISC became a statutory committee of Parliament, proposing to hold some of its meetings in public, produce an annual report to Parliament and the Prime Minister, and with its members to be appointed by Parliament following nominations from the Prime Minister. In November, the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ gave evidence to the ISC in public for the first time.

In order to better understand the role of Parliament in the scrutiny of the intelligence services, and the potential impact of a change in the status of the ISC, researchers from the University of Lincoln, UK, interviewed more than 100 politicians from the House of Commons and the Lords, including current and former ISC members, former Secretaries of State and Ministers from the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They also analysed inquiries and reports spanning 20 years since the ISC’s formation.

In their findings, published in the respected academic journal Parliamentary Affairs, they suggest that the tensions which have flared between the ISC and other select committees over the years may not have been resolved for good.

Professor Hugh Bochel, from Lincoln’s School of Social and Political Sciences, explained that parliamentary interest in the activities of the intelligence and security services had increased substantially in the last decade, particularly since the 9/11 terror attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“The old Cold War attitude that spies should remain entirely in the shadows has gone,” he said. “The ISC has found it harder to justify its ‘special and unique’ status to operate outside the gaze of Parliament. It has been a constitutional anomaly for almost 20 years, and at various points the tensions between the ISC, government and select committees, in relation to demands from Parliament for greater cooperation and transparency, has infuriated some MPs and Peers.
“Far from being a mechanism for scrutiny, the ISC has been accused of being used to close down opportunities for parliamentary oversight. Some of those we spoke to described a ’turf war’ between the ISC and certain select committees whose interests overlap with security and intelligence issues.
“The recent change in the ISC’s legal status, which makes it the main focus for parliamentary oversight of the intelligence community, may be a step in the right direction, but tensions with the select committees are likely to continue if the ISC, and the government, continue to regard it as unique and special.”

The paper ‘New Mechanisms for Independent Accountability’: Select Committees and Parliamentary Scrutiny of the Intelligence Services by Hugh Bochel, Andrew Defty and Jane Kirkpatrick appears in the advance access version of the journal Parliamentary Affairs (November 2013), published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Hansard Society (Parliamentary Affairs (2013) 1-18 / DOI:10.1093/pa/gst032)
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