Intelligence and Security Committee
Bill Presented
2:30 pm

Photo of Jacqui Smith

Jacqui Smith (Home Secretary; Redditch, Labour)

My right hon. Friend, who speaks from experience, refers to the very important balance that we have to achieve. In my view, it is fundamental to the Committee's role that it has the fullest possible access to classified material in order properly to carry out its functions. That, in itself, creates a constraint on the extent of the openness that is appropriate. It is a careful balance that we wrestle with whenever we consider the nature and reform of the Committee.

Let me explain in greater detail how we propose to move towards greater transparency and accountability. First, on the appointment of ISC members, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 contains the explicit provision that ISC members are to be appointed by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. It is the Prime Minister who is ultimately responsible for national security matters, so he is accountable for them to the House. It is therefore right that he should retain the ultimate say over who is admitted to that inner ring of secrecy. Within that framework, however, there is scope for giving a much greater role to Parliament. The White Paper proposed adopting a process similar to that for Joint Select Committee appointments. Following that model, the Government propose that future nominations for membership of the ISC should be put before the House by the Committee of Selection. Members will then have the opportunity to vote on the nominations that will be put to the Prime Minister for appointment. This model will ensure the full participation of Parliament in a transparent appointment process. It requires a new Standing Order of the House, which is the subject of the third motion in my name. The Government will seek to put comparable arrangements in place for Lords ISC members.

Further measures will assist members of the ISC in fulfilling their statutory duties and add further emphasis to their independence. With the Committee, we will explore how some hearings might be structured to allow unclassified evidence to be heard in open session, as is generally the case with most Select Committees. Given the nature of most of the evidence that the Committee hears, evidence sessions have hitherto been conducted in private. That was, and on most occasions will remain, a prudent requirement for the protection of national security. The Government believe, however, that the public would welcome the opportunity to understand better how the Committee works. There could be no better way than to see it in action.

We and the Committee will therefore look for opportunities when the subject matter would allow Ministers or agency heads—the chair of the Secret Intelligence Service, the director-general of the Security Service and the director of GCHQ—personally to give evidence in public briefing sessions.

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