Sir Malcolm Rifkind Rejects Accusations He Is Not Fit To Scrutinise Britain's Spies

Rifkind as forced to defend the ISC
Rifkind as forced to defend the ISC

The senior MP who oversees the work of the British intelligence agencies has viperously defended his suitability for the role, amid accusations that he and his committee barely know what "day of the week it is" let alone what the country's spies are up to.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Conservative foreign secretary, is currently the chairman of the intelligence and security committee (ISC). Its job is to ensure the various intelligence agencies including MI5, MI6 and GCHQ behave properly and within the law.

However during a parliamentary debate on Thursday, several MPs questioned not only whether the ISC was effectively holding Britain's spies to account but whether an establishment figure such as Sir Malcolm could ever be independent enough to be in charge.

MPs were kept in the dark over whether the ISC knew about GCHQ's Tempora spy programme and were also taken aback by the revelation that the ISC did not examine the American PRISM network until after it had been made public by The Guardian.

Conservative MP Dominic Raab, a former Foreign Office lawyer, repeated his claim made in an interview with The Huffington Post UK, that the ISC was too "weak" and too willing to believe what the intelligence agencies told it.

"I am not convinced that the Intelligence and Security Committee is able to provide the oversight that we need," he said, adding: “I do not believe that the ISC has the tools or the independence to do the job properly. It is billed as a creature of parliament, but through its appointment and accountability, and under the statutory regime, it is ultimately and really beholden to the executive."

Labour MP John McDonnell said there was an obvious flaw in having people who were once in charge of the intelligence agencies subsequently overseeing their work.

"Having on the ISC and as its chair former ministers who were previously responsible for the security services leads to concerns about conflicts of interest," he said. "It could be that members are providing oversight on decisions that they made when ministers."

"The ISC needs to be led by those who are above all potential charges of conflicts of interest, which means, I am afraid to say, not the current members of the ISC."

And Conservative Douglas Carswell said on Twitter that the ISC "epitomises all that is awful about the 'usual channels' way of doing things in SW1". He added: "Is the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee aware what day of the week it is? Doubtful #GrandeesOverseeingGrandees #SW1disease"

But Sir Malcolm insisted there had recently been a "cultural revolution" in the way his committee could scrutinise spy agencies. "No other country in the world, including democratic ones, has both substantial intelligence agencies and such a degree of oversight," he said.

"We now report to parliament, not to the prime minister," he said. "Parliament has the last word on who the Committee members are. If Parliament does not like the names recommended by the Prime Minister it can reject them, and continue to reject them until it is satisfied with the names brought forward."

The heated debate was scheduled amid government anger at The Guardian for publishing information obtained from NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. David Cameron has said the newspaper reports have damaged national security and even suggested he may take "tougher measures" against the press to stop further details being released.

Tory MP Julian Lewis, a leading backbench critic of The Guardian, told MPs today that the paper had "threatened the security of our country, and stands guilty today, potentially, of treasonous behaviour."