2019 12 – Parliamentary Notes

Parliament Notes

Dick Barry

This was a long debate, the last before Parliament adjourned for the general election. To reduce the number of words some contributions have been omitted.

Intelligence and Security Committee Report on Russia

05 November 2019

Mr Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Ind) (Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his refusal to give clearance to the report on Russia by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.

The Minister for Europe and the Americas (Christopher Pincher) I would like to answer my right hon. and learned Friend’s question regarding publication of the ISC’s report on Russia. The ISC provides invaluable scrutiny and oversight of the work of the intelligence community to Parliament, so I am grateful to it for conducting this timely inquiry into our work on Russia. Russia’s reckless behaviour in Salisbury and Amesbury shows that, now more than ever, we cannot afford to be complacent about the Russian threat. Because the ISC deals with matters of national security and intelligence, its reports always contain sensitive information, so it is entirely right that they go through an intensive security review before publication. This report is one of a number of ISC reports that the Government are currently considering. The current length of time that this report has been with the Government is not unusual, as this has averaged around six weeks for reports published in recent years, and three to four weeks for a response to be forthcoming from the Government.

For example, the details of the counter-terrorism review following the attacks and the 2017-18 annual report were sent together to No. 10 on 12 October 2018. We were asked to respond 10 days later on 26 October. We responded on 8 November, and then the checked, proofread report was published on 22 November. Similarly, the details of the detainees report were sent to No. 10 on 10 May 2018. Again, the ISC asked for a response within 10 working days on 24 May. We responded on 30 May, and then the checked, proofread report was published on 12 June. In both cases, the process took approximately six weeks, because by law it is imperative that the process is thorough.

In accordance with the Justice and Security Act 2013, the impact of releasing sensitive information must be carefully considered by the Prime Minister on the advice of civil servants. We cannot rush the process and risk undermining our national security. There is no set timeline within the memorandum of understanding with the Committee for the Government to clear such reports for publication, and under the same memorandum there is no set timeline for a response, nor is such a deadline set in the governing legislation. I want to assure the House that the Committee is well informed of this process, which is continuing along standard parameters that apply before every publication. Once the process has been completed, we will continue to keep all relevant parties and the House informed.

Mr Grieve The Intelligence and Security Committee operates on a completely non-partisan basis to try to put information into the public domain in the national interest. This report was completed in March of this year after many months of work. There then began a process of correction and redaction needed to get it published, and that process, which involved the agencies and the Cabinet Office, was completed by early October, when the agencies and the national security secretariat indicated that they were happy that the published form would not damage any operational capabilities of the agencies. That is why, on 17 October, the report was sent to the Prime Minister for final confirmation. It is a long-standing agreement that the Prime Minister will endeavour to respond within 10 days. The Minister has indicated that there have been instances where further delay has crept in, but my secretariat tells me that it is unprecedented that we should have had no response at all explaining why any further delay is required in this case. The report has to be laid before Parliament when it is sitting. If it is not laid before Parliament ceases to sit this evening, it will not be capable of being laid until the Committee is reformed. In 2017, that took nearly six months.

I ask the Minister, how is it that the Prime Minister has claimed, through the No. 10 spokesman, that there must be further delays for consultation about national security, when the agencies themselves indicated publicly this morning, in response to journalistic inquiries, that publication will not prejudice the discharge of their functions? So for what purpose is the Prime Minister still considering it? It certainly cannot be the risk to national security, as the agencies themselves have said that there is none. Will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister does not have carte blanche to alter our reports or remove material from them, and that, if he wishes to exercise a veto over publication, he must give the Committee a credible explanation as to why he is doing so? Will he also explain why No. 10 spokesmen insisted that no publication should take place because weeks of further interdepartmental consultations were needed, when, I have to say to the Minister, this explanation was plainly bogus? Finally, will he explain why No. 10 spokesmen suggested that parts of the report had been leaked by the Committee, when it is plainly obvious to anybody who looks at the journalistic speculations that they have not? Would he now like to take the opportunity of withdrawing that particular slur, which came from No. 10?

Christopher Pincher I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his questions and for his tone. I simply reiterate the points I made in my statement. It is not unusual for the review of ISC reports to take some time. The average turnaround time is six weeks. The average response to the Committee is anywhere between three and four weeks. It is not as if the Prime Minister has not had one or two other things to do over the past several weeks, notably obtaining a good deal for Britain on withdrawing from the European Union. It is not unusual that the turnaround time is what it is.

The Prime Minister has very specific and particular responsibilities, under the Justice and Security Act 2013, to be sure that any information that ISC reports may contain is properly checked and, if appropriate, redacted. The Prime Minister takes that responsibility very seriously ​indeed, because the reports that issue from the ISC are important. They carry weight and therefore they must be properly looked at. That is what No. 10 is doing. That is what the Prime Minister is doing by referring to his officials for advice, which is his right and responsibility. As to leaks, we see quite a few of those and we deplore them all. I certainly would not want anybody to believe that what is in a leak, particularly if it appears on the front pages of certain newspapers, is believable.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab) Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. May I thank the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) for securing it and for all his efforts? I can only echo the words of the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the utterly unjustifiable, unprecedented and clearly politically motivated reasons for delaying the publication of the report until after the election. This is not at the request of the intelligence agencies. There are no foreign powers we have to consult, which was the reason for the delay of the rendition report. This is nothing less than an attempt to suppress the truth from the public and from Parliament, and it is an affront to our democracy.

We are bound to ask: what is Downing Street so worried about? Why would it not welcome an official report into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 referendum, whether that was successful or otherwise? I fear it is because it realises that the report will lead to other questions about the links between Russia and Brexit, and with the current leadership of the Tory party, that risk derailing its election campaign. There are questions about the relationship between the FSB-linked Sergey Nalobin and his “good friend”, the current Prime Minister. There are questions about the Prime Minister’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings, his relationship with Oxford academic Norman Stone, the mysterious three years that he spent in post-communist Russia aged just 23, and the relationships that he allegedly forged with individuals such as Vladislav Surkov, the key figure behind Vladimir Putin’s throne. And there are questions about the amount of money flowing into Conservative coffers from Russian émigrés, about the sources of money that paid for the Brexit campaign, and about the dubious activities of Conservative Friends of Russia. If the Minister is going to dismiss all that as conspiracy theories or smears and say that it has nothing to do with the delay of the report, I say back to him: prove it. Publish this report and let us see for ourselves. Otherwise, there is only question: what have you got to hide?

Christopher Pincher I am obliged to the right hon. Lady for giving us a run-down of her interest in smears and conspiracy theories. She wonders where Professor Stone was in the 1980s—I rather wonder where the Leader of the Opposition was in the 1980s and, for that matter, in the 1990s, the 2000s and quite recently. It is rather rich for her to suggest that somehow the Conservative party and this Government are linked to Russian disinformation, given the way that her party leadership has acted and the responsibility that her party leadership has had down the years for being hand in hand with its Russian friends. In respect of the right hon. Lady’s question about publication, the Government and the Prime Minister have a responsibility under the Justice and Security Act 2013 to look properly at the report, and that is what he is doing. The turnaround time for this report is not unusual. The response time to the Committee is not unusual. The CT attacks report and the detainee report took some time to turn around. I understand why the right hon. Lady may wish—for party political purposes in this febrile time, as the House of Commons is about to dissolve—to make the points that she has, but they are entirely refutable. I believe, personally, that they are reprehensible, and I wish that she would withdraw the imputation about the good name of the Conservative party and this Government.

Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con) I declare an interest as a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and I absolutely support what our Chairman said. This is a question of principle as much as anything else. I will not go into the details of what the report is about—there have been a lot of foxes let loose by the media—but I have this question to put to the Minister, and I feel sorry for him that he has been landed with having to answer this, rather than perhaps someone from the Cabinet Office. As far as the Committee is concerned, this report has been cleared by the intelligence and security agencies. It has been cleared by the Cabinet Office, and the civil servants and officials saw no reason whatsoever why it should not have been published. Will the Minister therefore tell the House—I do not want to hear all that repetition again—why the Prime Minister is not going to allow this report to be released and published in this Parliament?

Christopher Pincher The Prime Minister has a responsibility under the 2013 Act to properly and carefully adjudicate upon the report before him, and that is what he is doing, but it takes some time.

Stephen Gethins (North East Fife) (SNP) I pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). He and I disagree on a wide range of issues, but his fairness and scrupulousness in holding to account both his own Government and others, such as me, is a credit to the entire House. The Russian Government’s greatest victims are their own people, with human rights abuses, and human rights and democracy activists, opposition groups and minorities targeted. I spent several years working in the former Soviet Union, and we in the Foreign Affairs Committee have visited as well, and I pay tribute to the bravery of those who campaign for fairness, the rule of law and democracy in that country. Surely the greatest riposte we can make, and the greatest support we can give those campaigners, is to show that democracy, openness and transparency in the UK are something to look up to. I fear that in this case they are not.

I hope the Minister is embarrassed by what he has just heard from the members of the ISC. Their questions were damning, and I am not surprised he did not answer them. Given the threat Russia poses to elections, and given that his Government have wanted an election for months, why is this not a priority? Brexit has taught us that this Government like to hide unhelpful reports—lots of them—so prove me wrong and publish the report.

Christopher Pincher The Government are prepared to be robust and transparent with respect to Russia—look at the way we carefully collated, assessed, scrutinised and presented the evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement in the attacks in Salisbury and Amesbury, and at the way we built an international alliance that responded to that threat. We are perfectly prepared to be robust and transparent with respect to Russia. The hon. Gentleman asked about evidence of Russia’s involvement in our elections. There is no evidence of any successful Russian involvement in the British electoral cycle. I would ask him to be careful, thoughtful and considerate at this febrile time, as the House dissolves before the general election, and to allow the Prime Minister his right and his duty to assess what is in the report. Then we can produce a report in good time.

David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab) As a Labour member of the ISC, I support the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), the Chair of the Committee, and share his concerns. The security services have cleared our report, the Cabinet Office has cleared our report, and we have made recommendations to the Prime Minister. Since receiving the report, has the Prime Minister read it, and has he submitted any redactions? I do not need to know what they are, but has he read it and has he submitted redactions? If not, why does he not publish today?​

Christopher Pincher A report such as this—a sensitive report that is 50 pages long—requires careful consideration. As I said, it was submitted on 17 October and is being reviewed by all the relevant senior officials within government and at No. 10. The Committee will be informed of that process, and when the Prime Minister has concluded that the report is publishable, he will publish it.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op) We all in the House will know from our email inboxes that one of the challenges facing our current politics is that people watch too much Netflix and so are convinced that there are many conspiracies. That said, given that, as ISC members have said, many foxes have been set lose—reports about Sergey Nalobin, about Dominic Cumming’s security clearance, about Alexander Temerko’s friendship with the Prime Minister, about the use of the Lycamobile offices; given that the security agencies say they are happy to see the report, which the Government have had since March, published; given the cross-party support for it to be published; and given that Earl Howe in the House of Lords yesterday said it is the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister alone who needs to publish it, does the Minister recognise that the best way to kill the conspiracy theories is to put it out in the open? Former Prime Ministers have told us that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Why has this Prime Minister closed the blinds?

Christopher Pincher The best way to avoid conspiracy theories is for people not to peddle them, and the hon. Lady just made a valiant effort in so doing. I have explained why it is taking some time to consider the report. We will consider it carefully and make sure it is a robust report, and then it will be published in due course.

Mr Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con) I would certainly welcome a debate on covert and malign foreign interference —not only any attempts on our side but why Seumas Milne always seems to peddle the Kremlin’s line and the links between senior people around the leader of the Labour party and pro-Russian groups in Ukraine and elsewhere. There would be a lot of interesting debate there.

My question to the Minister is a broader one. Does he agree that the best way to minimise the chances of malign and covert interference in our electoral system is through the introduction of a foreign agents registration Act? The US introduced one against covert Nazi influence in 1938 and the Australians produced a foreign influence transparency scheme just last year. I will be working with the Henry Jackson Society to produce a potential template Bill. Would the Minister be interested in discussing it with me should we both be re-elected in December?

Christopher Pincher I am always interested to hear the ideas and read the reports of my hon. Friend. I would certainly be interested to see the work that parliamentary draftsmen may have to undertake in defining a foreign agent. Foreign agents tend to keep themselves rather quiet, it seems to me, so identifying them may be a challenge; but I am always interested to see what my hon. Friend has to offer. If we are both re-elected—and I wish him well in that enterprise—then of course, on the other side, we will talk.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab) Given the gaps and inaccuracies in his account of the three years that he spent in Russia, why was Dominic Cummings inexplicably granted the highest developed vetting status, yet is routinely denied access to secret intelligence? What damage is this unprecedented arrangement doing to our vital security arrangements with our Five Eyes partners?

Christopher Pincher I am not going to comment on individual public servants. All I would say is that in asking the question that he asks, the right hon. Gentleman appears to be less a Member of Parliament than a walk-on member of a show like “24”.

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con) The Minister is entirely right to say that scrutiny dispels fantasy, and this is one of those moments when I feel that scrutiny would be entirely appropriate to dispel that fantasy. There can be few Members like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), or my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), or, indeed, many other members of the ISC, who were all personally chosen by the Prime Minister for their judgment, their character and their wisdom. Would it not be appropriate—at a moment when the country is focused on the most important democratic event that we will hold for, certainly, a number of years—for the information that is needed for us to judge its legitimacy to be put before the House, so that people can see the fantasy that some are claiming, and this can all go away?

Christopher Pincher I do not question the probity of those who have compiled this report, and I certainly recognise the wisdom of my hon. Friend, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. I therefore think it unfortunate that some in the House have chosen to question the probity of Government officials and the wisdom of the Prime Minister in properly scrutinising an important report that has been laid before him. As I have said, that report went to No. 10 on 17 October. It will be properly scrutinised, but that set of considerations has not been concluded yet.   bring that information forward, but we have seen none.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab) The Committee Chair reminds us that if the Prime Minister is unable to respond within 10 days he is required to provide an explanation for that failure. He has not provided an explanation, which, we understand, is unprecedented. Why has the Prime Minister not complied with the requirement placed upon him?

Christopher Pincher It is because there is no requirement. The memorandum of understanding with the Committee is clear about the rules: there is no set timeline for a response and there is no set deadline in the governing legislation. The Prime Minister has a duty under the 2013 Act to look carefully and considerately at such reports. That is what No. 10 is doing, that is what the Prime Minister will do, and when that work is completed the report will be published