The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) examines the policies, expenditure, administration and operations of the seven Agencies and Departments which form the UK Intelligence Community (UKIC):
- MI5 (the Security Service);
- MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service);
- GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters);
- Defence Intelligence in the Ministry of Defence;
- the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) in the Cabinet Office;
- the National Security Secretariat (NSS) in the Cabinet Office; and
- Homeland Security in the Home Office.
The Committee sets its own agenda and work programme. Its Inquiries tend to concentrate on current events and issues of concern, and therefore focus on operational and policy matters, while its annual reports provide consideration of administration and finance.
In conducting its Inquiries the Committee does not set terms of reference since it is essential that the Committee is able to follow the evidence and is not constrained in its scope.
The Committee takes evidence from Government Ministers, the Heads of the intelligence and security Agencies, senior officials from across the UK Intelligence Community (UKIC), expert witnesses such as academics and journalists, and other interested parties. The Committee is supported in its work by the Office of The Intelligence and Security Committee, a small team of analysts and investigators (including legal, technical and financial expertise where required). The evidence sessions are held in private due to the classified nature of the subject matter.
Publication of Reports
Under the Justice and Security Act 2013, the Intelligence and Security Committee publishes its reports by laying them before Parliament.
There is a well-established and lengthy process for publishing the ISC's reports, due to the sensitive nature of the information the Committee handles.
First, the Committee circulates its report around the UK Intelligence Community (UKIC) to provide them with an opportunity to ensure that it is factually correct (i.e. that the facts and figures used are up to date - opinions and conclusions cannot be amended).
Once that is agreed, the report is sent out to give UKIC the opportunity to put forward requests for the redaction of text which they consider would harm their capabilities (for example, by revealing their targets, methods or sources). Each request must demonstrate what harm would be caused by the publication of the text. The Committee considers each request from the perspective of national security: where the Committee agrees that the information would damage national security it is redacted from the report. In order to ensure as much transparency as possible, where material has been redacted this is marked in the text by ***. The Committee aims to ensure that only the minimum of text is redacted from each report.
If an organisation considers that any of the redaction requests which the Committee has rejected would cause serious damage to national security if published, then the process moves to the third stage, when the Head of that organisation must appear before the Committee to explain exactly why publication would be so damaging. This is discussed between the Committee and the Head of the organisation concerned and, at that meeting, agreement is reached as to the text which can be published in the final version of the report.
Once these three stages have been completed the report is sent to the Prime Minister to consider. Under the Justice and Security Act 2013 the Committee can only lay its reports before Parliament once the Prime Minister has confirmed that there is no material in them which would prejudice the discharge of the functions of the Agencies or - where the Prime Minister considers that there is such material in the report - once the Prime Minister has consulted the Committee and then they have then excluded the relevant material from the report. While there are no timescales for this process set out in the relevant legislation, as a matter of convention the Committee sends its report to the Prime Minister clearly requesting that confirmation be given within a standard ten working days.
Once confirmation is received from the Prime Minister, the Committee then determines a date for publication of the report to allow for a number of administrative processes to take place (such as proof-reading, printing and organisation of a press conference). This administrative part of the process usually takes around three weeks although this can be shortened when necessary to meet the Parliamentary timetable.
Government Responses to ISC Reports
The Government is required to respond to the Committee's reports: the Government Response is a substantive document which provides an explanation of what the Government will do in response to each of the Committee's recommendations.
Under the Memorandum of Understanding the Government is required to provide its response within 60 days of the Committee's report being published.
Differences between the ISC and Select Committees of Parliament
The ISC is a Committee of Parliament, but is established by statute. This means that it operates in quite a different way to House of Commons Select Committees or House of Lords Select Committees. The table below demonstrates this by comparing;
How they are set up,
How Members are appointed,
How the Chair is chosen,
Who the Committee Reports to,
Who the Committee is Responded to by
|The Intelligence and Security Committee||Select Committees of the House of Commons||Select Committees of the House of Lords|
|Remit||To examine the expenditure, administration, policy and operations of the UK Intelligence Community (UKIC).||To examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the relevant Government department.||A Lords select committee is appointed by the House through orders of appointment setting out the committee's remit, powers and membership. A committee may be appointed to perform a particular task, on completion of which the committee ceases to exist. Certain committees, listed in SO 64, continue in existence from one session to the next.|
|Set up under||Statute (the Justice and Security Act 2013)||The Standing Orders of the House of Commons||The Standing Orders of the House of Lords|
|Membership appointed by||Both Houses of Parliament||The House of Commons, following internal elections within each political party which has been allocated places on the committee.||The House of Lords, following the recommendation of the Committee of Selection.|
|Chair chosen by||The Committee Members||The House of Commons||The House of Lords, following the recommendation of the Committee of Selection.|
|Evidence sessions||Held in private||Open to the public||Open to the public|
|Reports to||Parliament||The House of Commons||The House of Lords|
|Responded to by||Government||Government||Government|