By David Blackman
In debates before the referendum in June 2016 I asked the question; “Which world leader stands to benefit from Brexit?” My own answer was clear: President Putin was very interested to encourage decisions which weakened Western democracies and Western cohesion.
I had little immediate response to my question, but soon after the referendum I learnt that the Electoral Commission was concerned to establish whether there had been Russian influence on, or interference in, the referendum campaign. The subject, widened to cover Russian political interference in general, was referred to the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, which at that time was chaired by Dominic Grieve.
The Committee reported on 17 October 2019: “The Committee has today sent its Report, ‘Russia’, to the Prime Minister.
“In accordance with the Justice and Security Act 2013, the Prime Minister will now consider whether there is any information in the report which, if published, would be prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions of the security and intelligence Agencies. The Committee expects to be in a position to publish the report imminently.”
‘Imminently’ turned into weeks. The threat of a general election loomed. Dominic Grieve raised the matter in the House of Commons on 31 October (its final sitting day), and he complained that the report was being blocked, though it had apparently been cleared by the intelligence and security agencies. But with the dissolution of Parliament on 6 November, the Committee ceased to exist.
Finally, on 13 December, immediately after the election, the Prime Minister cleared the report. But that was not the end of the delay, since he added that “The Russia Report is the property of the ISC and is for them to publish once the normal reappointment process is complete.”
Another excuse for delay.
Why the long delay? A dark interpretation would be that the report contained elements that could be damaging to particular politicians. The excuse was given that it could not be published in a ‘purdah period’; and information was circulated that there was no evidence of Russian interference in UK elections – but no mention of the referendum: one is left wondering.
Journalists such as Carole Cadwalladr had publicised the affair, and Labour MPs such as Ian Lucas and Ben Bradshaw had voiced suspicions. Petitions were launched, but finally on 19 March the Foreign and Commonwealth Office came up with this bland reply: “The Prime Minister cleared the ISC’s Russia report on 13 December 2019. The Russia Report is the property of the ISC and is for them to publish once the normal reappointment process is complete.”
The full response, from the Committee staff stated:
“The Government welcomes the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament’s (ISC) Inquiry into Russian activity against the UK. This is an important subject which has clearly captured the public interest.
ISC reports must go through a number of clearance processes before publication. This includes the Prime Minister carefully ensuring that reports do not include material that would undermine the work of those who protect our national security, a vital and statutory obligation as set out in the Justice and Security Act 2013.
The former Committee – former because all ISC members stood down at the dissolution of Parliament for the December 2019 General Election – submitted the report for final clearance to the Prime Minister just before the General Election. The Prime Minister carefully considered the report and provided clearance following the election purdah period on 13 December 2019.
The Russia report remains the property of the ISC and it is for them to publish ISC reports. The ISC is regulated by the Justice and Security Act 2013. Section 3(6) provides that the “ISC must lay before Parliament any report made by it to Parliament”. The effect of taking a report to Parliament is to place it in the public domain, this is a statutory requirement, which can only be completed by a sitting ISC.
Once the new Committee has been re-appointed, it will be for the ISC to decide when the Russia report should be published. Members of the ISC are appointed by Parliament having been nominated by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. The new Committee is being formed in the normal way and at the normal pace. Following the 8 June 2017 General Election, the Committee was appointed on 16 November 2017.”
The ‘normal pace’ is disturbingly slow, as we can see. The ISC is a Committee of the two Houses, and there are strict vetting procedures for the nine members. One fine day we shall know the contents of the report; but it was unjustifiably kicked into the long grass. I still wonder why it has been blocked for so long.
To end on a positive note, we may hope that the new ISC will give serious consideration to national security issues relating to China. It announced already last year:
On 6 March , the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament announced that following its current Inquiry into Russia, its next Inquiry would be into national security issues relating to China. Amongst other issues, the Inquiry was to examine the role of Huawei in the UK’s telecommunications infrastructure – and in particular to consider whether the lessons had been learned from the Committee’s 2013 report on Foreign Involvement in the UK’s Critical National Infrastructure, in which we originally reported our concerns. The Committee has noted the recent press reporting on the Government’s deliberations regarding a role for Huawei in the UK’s 5G infrastructure. This is clearly a matter of very considerable Parliamentary and public interest, and the Committee will therefore now be prioritising this aspect of its Inquiry.”
We must hope that this report, so topical, may see the light of day more promptly!