POLITICS
16/11/2017 12:02 GMT | Updated 16/11/2017 13:17 GMT

Six-Month Absence Of Parliament's Spy Watchdog Attacked As 'Unacceptable'

Claims that Labour wanted Kelvin Hopkins on committee

PA Wire/PA Images

A six-month delay in establishing Parliament’s spy agency watchdog is “unacceptable” and should never be repeated, one of its leading members has declared.

Senior Tory MP Keith Simpson told HuffPost UK that the Intelligence and Security Committee’s crucial work overseeing MI5, MI6 (pictured above) and GCHQ had been undermined by the failure to approve its new membership.

Theresa May finally re-established the ISC late on Wednesday night, announcing three new members would be Labour’s Caroline Flint and Kevan Jones and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford.

The committee has not met since April this year, despite the string of terror attacks in London and Manchester and the increasing Russian cyberhacks of the UK. Labour MP Mary Creagh this week said it should be urgently established to tackle “the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine our democracy”.

The Prime Minister has the final say over appointments to the watchdog, but HuffPost UK has also been told that part of the delay stems from confusion within Labour over the potential nomination of backbencher Kelvin Hopkins.

PA Wire/PA Images
Suspended Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins.

Hopkins, who was suspended by the party this month over alleged sexual misconduct, was suggested by Jeremy Corbyn’s office as an alternative to Flint this summer.

However, Labour whips are understood to have advised the leadership that the security agencies, which vet all nominees, would be highly unlikely to approve the Luton MP because of his “leftwing” past.

Flint’s name was then restored as one of the party’s three formal nominees, along with former defence minister Kevan Jones and previous ISC member and ex-minister David Hanson, senior sources said. The claim was dismissed by Labour sources as ‘a red herring’ in the wider delays.

No.10 finally approved the full ISC list of members this week. Leading Brexit critic Dominic Grieve, who is expected to be reappointed as the chairman next week, will be joined by fellow Tories Simpson and Richard Benyon.

The House of Lords is set to be told next week that former Tory chairman Lord Ancram and former Buckingham Palace official Robin Janvrin have also been reappointed.

BBC
Senior Tory MP and ISC member Keith Simpson.

HuffPost has calculated that the Intelligence and Security Committee has been out of action for 16 months out of the past 35 months, thanks to delays to its membership before and after the 2015 and 2017 general elections.

Former chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who stepped down from the committee in 2015, has said it is a “disgrace” that it has taken so long to establish it.

But Simpson is the first serving member to express the deep unease felt at the delays.

“Those of us who have been on the committee find it unacceptable that it’s taken so long to be reestablished,” he said.

“This is an important Parliamentary committee and it has that important role of oversight of our intelligence and security agencies and the coordinating organisations within the Cabinet Office.

“There is a backlog which needs to be completed and there’s also real consideration of all that has happened in the past year, including the terror attacks, and what if anything our agencies knew about them.

“And finally the Prime Minister quite rightly identified in her Lord Mayor’s Banquet speech this week that there is the issue of the threat of cyber warfare. A number of MPs had their internet hacked this year too.”

Simpson pointed out that the committee’s annual report has yet to be published, and its inquiry into extraordinary ‘rendition’ of terror suspects had been put on hold.

PA Wire/PA Images
Armed police during the Westminster Bridge terror attack.

“What we are looking for is to say to No10 and the ‘usual channels’, you really can’t do this again. If in four years’ time there’s a spring general election, it’s right and proper that this committee be set up by the summer recess. You really can’t have a delay for this length of time.”

When asked about claims that Hopkins had been a possible nominee, Labour sources said that only three names were put forward by the party and Hopkins was not on the list submitted. “Kelvin is a red herring. Why did the Government take so long?”

But other sources said that Hopkins was certainly discussed as a nominee. The veteran backbencher was appointed to Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet last year amid the attempted ‘coup’ against his leadership.

Former Chief Whip Rosie Winterton had advised that allegations had been made about Hopkins’s personal conduct, but he was still given a role in the shadow team. He was suspended this month following claims of inappropriate conduct towards a party activist.

All members of the ISC have to be Privy Councillors and Blackford was appointed to the Privy Council to ensure his place. Hopkins would have needed a similar promotion to allow his membership of the committee.  

In his last public statement as chairman, Grieve urged all political parties to “prioritise the appointment” of the new committee after the June 8 election.

“It is not in the public interest for oversight of the intelligence community to be left unattended for any period of time,” he had said.

The new Joint Committee on National Security Strategy has also been created, with Labour’s Margaret Beckett and Dan Jarvis appointed.

The Cabinet Office said that the delays to the ISC were not out of line with previous waits for approvals. Sources added that its “different nature” from Select Committees meant that it was inevitable it would have different process of appointment.

Rifkind told the Sunday Times last week that the ISC should have been re-established with its existing members while waiting for new candidates to receive security clearances.