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The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is a Committee of Parliament appointed by statute to scrutinise the UK’s three main intelligence and security agencies and other intelligence-related activities.

Statutory underpinning

Originally established by the Intelligence Services Act 1994, the ISC was reformed by the Justice and Security Act 2013 (JSA) following criticism that it was opaque and insufficiently independent.

These reforms made the ISC a Committee of Parliament; provided greater powers to receive information; and widened its remit, to include oversight of operational activity and the wider intelligence and security activities of Government. The reforms also removed a veto power previously held by the heads of the agencies, requiring that they must disclose any information requested by the ISC unless vetoed by the Secretary of State.

How the ISC works

The ISC is not a select committee. It is made up of members of both Houses and its functions and procedures are set out in the JSA. Members are nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by their respective Houses. They are subject to the Official Secrets Act 1989 and have access to highly classified material in carrying out their duties.

The ISC reports directly to Parliament. However, reports must be cleared by the Prime Minster in consultation with the agencies before they can be published. It may also report directly to the Prime Minister where necessary for reasons of national security. Under the JSA, the ISC must redact anything from a report that the Prime Minister considers would be prejudicial to the continued discharge of the functions of the agencies prior to publication. This procedure, required because of the need to report on classified information, is unique to the ISC.

In addition to its annual reports, the ISC publishes special reports. Recent reports have covered the UK’s lethal drone strikes in Syria; two reports on Detention and Rendition; a report examining the 2017 terrorist attacks; Russia; and Northern Ireland-related terrorism.

Relationship with Government

The Government’s refusal to clear the Russia report prior to the 2019 General Election caused considerable controversy given its perceived pertinence to the integrity of the democratic process, as did the time taken to reconstitute the Committee subsequently. It has been inferred that the Government may be deliberately obstructing or marginalising the Committee, by refusing access to witnesses, or delaying publication of its work.

More recently, similar tensions were inferred during the appointment of Lord Lebedev to the House of Lords. In a statement made to the House of Commons on May 12 2022, Michael Ellis, the then Minister for the Cabinet Office and HM Paymaster General, stated that the Government had, ‘provided a response to the Intelligence and Security Committee’ on the circumstances surrounding Lord Lebedev’s appointment. The ISC released a press release on the same day detailing its surprise at the announcement, as it believed its information request, ‘should have remained a private – and classified – matter of oversight’.

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