It was decided at the end of the last Parliament that all Select Committees, except one, should be elected by MPs, not selected by the Whips beholden to the party leaderships as hitherto. The one exception was the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) which operates in a totally different way, untouched by the wave of accountability which swept the Commons in 2009-10 in response to the horrendous revelations of the expenses scandal.
The chair and members of the ISC are appointed by the Prime Minister and replaced by the Prime Minister as and when he/she chooses. The ISC sits in private, and when it has completed a particular inquiry, often at the behest of the Prime Minister, it sends its report directly to the Prime Minister. It is a secret back-channel within the existing power structure, but with no accountability to the public whatsoever.
When the Prime Minister receives the report, he/she can either then modify it in any way they want and then publish it though without any indication of the changes made by the PM, or can publish it in redacted form, or not publish it at all. This is not serious scrutiny; it’s rather a safe cover for the Prime Minister to pretend that a difficult (i.e. embarrassing) issue has been properly investigated, when in fact MI5/6 or GCHQ have only disclosed to the committee what they want and the Prime Minister then reveals (or does not reveal) what he/she wants.
The ISC should be disbanded and replaced by a genuine organ of democratic accountability. Like all the other Select Committees it should be elected by Parliament, and the elected members should then elect their own chair. It should be able to undertake its own investigations as the members may decide.
Where the security services are unwilling to disclose documents on grounds of national security, the committee would then have a right to ask the Information Commissioner to review the relevant documents and decide whether or not their disclosure would genuinely put national security at risk, as opposed to its being simply inconvenient to the spooks, and his decision would be final. The committee’s report, once finalised, would then be issued to the House for public consumption.
Of course it will be said that we should trust these fine chaps who are looking after the safety of the nation for us, and let them get on with their job. Well, we did, and then we found out, not from them but from the Snowden files, that NSA in the US and GCHQ in Britain had the capability to access all the phone calls, emails, texts and all other internet traffic of any individual in the Western world and that all the assurances about privacy weren’t worth the emails they were written on. The ISC never found this out and never told us.
Then we were told by the Home Office that all they gained access to was the ‘metadata’, not the content, and only afterwards we learnt that the two were actually treated by the spooks in much the same way. Then we were told by such upstanding gentlemen as the current chair of the ISC (Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a likeable Tory toff who is a classic safe pair of hands, appointed in the establishment, by the establishment, and for the establishment) that the spooks always acted strictly in accordance with the law and that all their targeting had been approved by ministerial warrant. Only later did we discover that in fact GCHQ had through the Tempora programme devised a way of obviating this altogether. Can you believe a word these self-ascribed guardians of the national security keep telling us?