With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 761, in clause 197, page 152, line 28, leave out “must” and insert “may”.
Amendment 762, in clause 197, page 152, line 39, leave out
“in a manner which the Prime Minister considers appropriate”.
Amendment 763, in clause 197, page 152, line 42, leave out
“contrary to the public interest or” and insert “seriously”.
Amendment 764, in clause 197, page 152, line 45, leave out subsections (4)(c) and (4)(d).
The clause deals with additional directed oversight functions. It binds the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to conducting reviews of the work of the intelligence services or the armed forces, subject to the direction of the Prime Minister. While the commissioner may request that the Prime Minister gives such a direction, the Prime Minister will only issue a direction at his or her discretion. The amendments to subsection (1) would make it read as follows: “So far as requested to do so by the Prime Minister and subject to subsection (2), the Investigatory Powers Commissioner may keep under review the carrying out of any aspects of the functions of” the intelligence services and so on.
The amendments to subsection (4) would make it read: “The Prime Minister must publish any direction under this section except so far as it appears to the Prime Minister that such publication would be seriously prejudicial to national security, or the prevention or detection of serious crime”.
The amendments would remove the power to direct that such reviews take place, and replace it with the power to request that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner undertake such a review. At present, the Bill provides that any direction made may be published only in such a form as is deemed appropriate by the Prime Minister, and may be redacted for a number of very broad reasons, including that it may be prejudicial to
“the continued discharge of the functions of any public authority whose activities include activities that are subject to review by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.”
That could include, for example, the Food Standards Agency.
The amendments to subsection (4) would limit the power to keep any request or direction secret. That would increase the effectiveness of the mechanisms for transparency and accountability in public decision making, including in respect of the conduct of the intelligence agencies and the armed forces. The provision in the Bill for the Prime Minister to direct the commissioner to undertake work that is outside the ordinary scope of its statutory duties would undermine the perception that the commissioner is independent, whereas a power to request, with discretion, keeps the perception—and reality—of the independence of the commissioner. The alternative would be to remove the clause from the Bill completely. I hope that the amendments will be acceptable to the Government, and that there will be no need to vote the clause down.
As the hon. and learned Lady says, the clause makes provision for the Prime Minister to direct the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to undertake additional oversight of the security and intelligence agencies. I say “additional” with emphasis, because clause 196 creates a range of oversight functions that are supplemented by clause 197. I think there may be a misapprehension here that the oversight is exclusively at the diktat of the Prime Minister. That is certainly not the case.
The principal oversight functions are given legislative life in clause 196. Clause 197 provides a further opportunity for oversight through investigations, as a result of the direction that the hon. and learned Lady referred to. That has many virtues. It adds alacrity, because of course it would not always be appropriate to wait for the annual report of the commissioner. It means that where matters of imminent concern are drawn to the attention of the Executive through the Prime Minister, or indeed to the attention of the Prime Minister, he can exercise this function with speed and diligence. To take out the whole clause, which would be the effect of the amendment, would take out the additional directed oversight functions that supplement clause 196 in a beneficial way.
Of course, the Prime Minister’s ability to make such directions is subject to the public interest and defined by need. It is important to add that anything the Prime Minister does in this regard cannot be prejudicial to national security, the prevention or detection of serious crime or the economic wellbeing of the UK. Indeed, the opposite is true. He acts in defence and promotion of those things. Once again, I understand that the hon. and learned Lady is probing, and it is right that she does so. However, on careful reflection, she will come to the conclusion that rather than adding to the Bill, this literal subtraction would be unhelpful.
The Joint Committee said nothing about this matter. Although it looked at these things with impressive diligence, it came across no evidence of which I am aware that suggested that such a measure was imperative. The amendment certainly would not enhance oversight. Part of my job here is to protect the hon. and learned Lady. The amendments we debated immediately before our brief lunch would have had the effect of minimising consideration of public interest. In this case, she would be minimising the ability to exercise additional oversight. On that basis, and in defence of the existing provisions, of what is right, and—might I say mildly—of the hon. and learned Lady’s own interests, I invite her to withdraw her amendment.
Well, Mr Owen, I am not going to fall into that trap, just as I did not before lunchtime. I am not sure whether it is flattery or compliment, but whichever it is, I will not fall for it. There is good reason for the amendment, as I have explained, and I wish to press it to a vote.
On reflection, Mr Owen, I do not think that there is much point in doing so; we all know which way this is going. I think that the marker has been laid down in relation to clause 197.