Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Please note that this page does not yet reflect the reforms to the ISC introduced by the Justice and Security Act 2013 and will be updated in the near future.

What is the role of the Committee?

The ISC was established under the Intelligence Services Act 1994. The Committee's statutory remit is to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the three Intelligence Agencies (SIS, the Security Service and GCHQ). The Committee also takes evidence from the Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, National Security Adviser, Chief of Defence Intelligence, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and other officials from across the intelligence community.

Is the ISC a parliamentary Committee?

Whilst the ISC is made up of Parliamentarians, it is not a Committee of Parliament. Under the Intelligence Services Act 1994, the Committee is required to report to the Prime Minister rather than directly to Parliament. In practice, however, the ISC operates much like a Joint Committee of Parliament, and carries out a similar scrutiny role.

Who is the Committee accountable to?

The Committee reports to the Prime Minister, who is responsible for publishing the Committee’s reports and laying them before Parliament. Whilst the Committee sends its reports to the Prime Minister, he cannot change the facts in them (as it is sometimes alleged) – they are published exactly as the Committee has written them. The Government traditionally produces a Government Response to the Committee's reports which is usually published on the same day. Both the Committee’s reports and the Government’s responses are available on the Committee’s website. The Committee’s annual reports are the subject of debates in both Houses of Parliament.

How are Committee Members appointed?

The Committee consists of nine Members drawn from both Houses of Parliament (although none can be a Minister of the Crown). Following nominations from Parliament, Committee Members are appointed by the Prime Minister, in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.

What security clearances do Committee Members hold?

Members of the Committee are subject to section 1(1)(b) of the Official Secrets Act and therefore have access to highly classified material in carrying out their work. (As Members of Parliament, they are not subject to the security vetting procedures that officials undergo in order to have access to such material.)

What evidence does the Committee consider in carrying out its work?

The Committee obtains information from a variety of sources. The main source of information comes from evidence sessions that are held with the heads of the three Agencies, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and senior officials from across the intelligence community. In addition to oral evidence sessions, the Committee may also request written evidence and briefings from the Agencies.

Does the Committee consider evidence from outside Government?

The Committee frequently considers evidence from people or organisations outside Government. Such evidence may include, for example, reports of other Parliamentary Committees, reports from non-governmental organisations and pressure groups, press and media reports, etc. When undertaking special investigations, the Committee may also hold formal evidence or meetings with relevant parties.

Can the Intelligence Agencies withhold information from the ISC?

Under the Intelligence Services Act 1994 the Agencies are required to disclose information to the Committee in order to discharge their statutory functions properly. There are provisions allowing the Agencies, in rare circumstances, to refuse to disclose certain “sensitive” information. However, to date no request for information made to the Agencies by the ISC has been denied on these grounds.

Why does the Committee not scrutinise and report on the intelligence Agencies’ operational functions?

The Committee is required by law to report to the Prime Minister on the policy, administration and expenditure of the three intelligence Agencies. Whilst the law does not require the ISC to oversee the operational work of the Agencies, neither does it prohibit it from doing so. The Committee frequently needs to consider operations in order fully to understand aspects of policy. Examples of the ISC considering operational matters include the Committee’s Review of the Intelligence on the London Terrorist Attacks on 7 July 2005 (published in 2009) and the report on Rendition (published in 2007).

Does the Committee investigate complaints?

The Committee does not investigate individual complaints. It is the remit of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal to investigate complaints against the Agencies (see ‘Other Oversight Bodies’ below).

Does the Committee report on its work?

Yes, the Committee is required by statute to report annually on its work to the Prime Minister. The Committee may also, from time to time, produce special reports on specific areas of interest.

When does the Committee publish its reports?

As required by statute, the Committee sends its reports to the Prime Minister: it does not publish them itself. It is then for the Prime Minister to decide when a report should be published. While the Prime Minister is required by law to lay the Committee’s annual reports before Parliament, there is no statutory requirement for the Prime Minister to publish special reports.

Why does the Committee redact its reports?

The full versions of the Committee’s reports, including sensitive material, are submitted to the Prime Minister but, when published, sensitive material that would damage national security is blanked out (‘redacted’). This is indicated by *** in the text.

The intelligence and security Agencies may request the redaction of sensitive material in the reports which, if published, would damage their work (for example by revealing their targets, methods, sources or operational capabilities). The Committee considers these requests for redaction in considerable detail and the Agencies must demonstrate clearly how publication of the material in question would be damaging before the Committee agrees to redact it. The Committee aims to ensure that only the bare minimum of text is redacted from its reports and believes it is important that Parliament and the public should be able to see where material has been redacted, rather than keeping this secret. This means that the published versions of the Committee’s reports are the same as the one sent to the Prime Minister: there is no separate ‘secret’ report.

Under the existing legislation the Prime Minister has the power to redact material without the Committee’s consent, making a statement to that effect when he lays the reports before Parliament. To date, this has never happened.

How often does the Committee meet?

The Committee meets at least weekly while Parliament is sitting, although it usually meets more frequently. In its Annual Report the Committee specifies the number of evidence sessions, meetings and visits undertaken during the year.

Why does the Committee only meet in private?

Due to the sensitive nature of the material discussed, most of the Committee’s meetings must be held in private in order to safeguard national security. The Committee may take evidence in public if it chooses.

Does the Committee have an Investigator?

The Committee has a General Investigator - a former senior police officer - who is tasked by the Committee to investigate and report on specific areas of the intelligence Agencies’ work. The Committee can also call upon independent legal advice from Treasury Solicitors and financial expertise from the National Audit Office.

If the Committee is independent, why is it part of the Cabinet Office?

The Committee has been hosted by the Cabinet Office since it was established in 1994. These arrangements were for ease of administration as the Cabinet Office was a central department used to handling classified material and with suitably security-cleared staff to assist the Committee. Although hosted by the Cabinet Office, the Committee is operationally independent. The Cabinet Office has no control over the Committee’s data, records, staff or procedures. Furthermore, neither the Cabinet Office nor the Agencies control its work programme or the content of its reports.

What is the role of the Committee Secretariat?

The Committee Secretariat’s role is to provide support to Members of the Committee in carrying out their statutory work. This involves liaising with the intelligence and security Agencies and other government departments; researching and analysing evidence submitted and open source material; preparing briefing for the Committee for its evidence sessions and meetings; and assisting the Committee in writing its annual reports and special reports. The Committee Secretariat is staffed by security-cleared civil servants seconded from various Government departments (although, by convention, not from the Agencies) who act independently on behalf of the Committee.

Who are the former Chairs of the ISC?

The Rt. Hon. Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, 2010  2015

The Rt. Hon. Dr Kim Howells, Oct 2008  2010

The Rt. Hon. Margaret Beckett MP, Jan  Oct 2008

The Rt. Hon. Paul Murphy MP, 2005 – Jan 2008

Baroness Taylor of Bolton, 2001  2005

Lord King of Bridgwater, 1994  2001