Last Thursday saw the annual debate in Parliament on the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee which oversees the work of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. I wound up the debate for the Opposition which meant that I was on the bench for the full duration.
The ISC isn’t like a normal Select Committee that shadows a government department. Because of the sensitivity of its brief, it holds all its meetings in private and reports to the Prime Minister rather than directly to Parliament.
It is not easy to get the balance right between the competing needs for secrecy and for accountability. Until 20 years ago, British governments did not even admit to the existence of the security and intelligence services. It was actually the Thatcher government that first took action to lift the curtain a bit and place the services on a statutory footing and the Major government that first set up the ISC.
The argument about how to ensure the accountability in a free society of agencies that of there nature must remain secret was a theme of the debate with the ISC chairman Kim Howells MP (Labour, Pontypridd) vehemently asserting the independence of his committee and expressing some pretty trenchant criticisms of how elements of the government machine had tried to lean on the committee and its staff. It would be a very foolish man or woman who tried to lean on Kim!
You can read the Hansard report here.