MPs and peers rebuke Sunak over lack of national security oversight | UK security and counter-terrorism

Rishi Sunak has been accused of hiding national security matters from proper oversight by a frustrated parliamentary intelligence watchdog.

The intelligence and security committee (ISC), which is made up of senior MPs and peers, pointed out that it had held annual meetings with the prime minister to scrutinise the government on national security issues every year for 20 years since it was set up in 1994.

But in its annual report the ISC said that is had not met a prime minister since a meeting with David Cameron in 2014.

In a rebuke to Sunak and his predecessors it says: “This is unacceptable and reflects the disengagement from the ISC of successive prime ministers.”

It urged Sunak to arrange a meeting “as a matter of priority”, adding: “There are matters of significant constitutional importance at stake.”

The committee, which includes retired members of the military, also chided the prime minister and his government for failing to meet standard deadlines, often by several months, for responses to its inquiry.

It said: “If the ISC’s oversight is being frustrated, then it cannot provide any assurance to the public or parliament that the intelligence agencies are acting appropriately and therefore that they merit the licence to operate that parliament has given them through their statutory powers. As the national security adviser himself acknowledged: ‘The intelligence community’s licence to operate is dependent on credible oversight.’”

Under a memo of understanding (MoU) with the ISC, the prime minister is supposed to respond within 60 working days to its reports. The committee complained that its report into extreme rightwing terrorism (ERWT) did not get a substantive response until March – 261 days after it was published.

It also questioned why this response tried to minimise a key potential threat from rightwing extremism highlighted in the report based on evidence from intelligence chiefs.

It said: “The committee is perplexed that while the director general of MI5 made it clear to the committee there was a particular challenge in determining extreme rightwing activity online which could translate into ‘real-world’ terrorist activity, the government response appears to play down this problem, noting only, “[we] judge that the majority of ERWT activity of concern (short of actual terrorist attacks) is likely to occur online in the years to come”.

The panel expressed particular alarm that it had not been given oversight into how security responsibilities had been devolved across Whitehall, despite past assurances by ministers that its remit would be extended to cover any new bodies.

It said the government had opposed efforts to add the departments to the committee’s remit by updating the MoU between the ISC and the prime minister, therefore in effect blocking “all attempts to ensure effective scrutiny by parliament”.

The activities include the investment security unit in the Cabinet Office; the telecoms security and resilience team and the counter-disinformation unit in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology; the transport security, resilience and response group in the Department for Transport; the office of communications in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; and the intelligence policy department in the Foreign Office.

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Sir Julian Lewis, the senior Tory MP who chairs the ISC, said “the current lack of oversight” in these areas was “a matter of serious concern”.

He added: “It is deeply disappointing that effective scrutiny of national security issues is being prevented, in direct contravention of commitments given to parliament. We question whether the government has really thought through the consequences of its current position.”

The report also warned about the increasingly sophisticated threat of Chinese espionage.

It said: “Chinese activity has become ever more sophisticated and pervasive in cyberspace; a substantial global espionage campaign seeks to meet political, socioeconomic and strategic objectives. They are increasingly targeting third-party technology and service supply chains, as well as successfully exploiting software vulnerabilities.”

It added: “China has also identified several existing and emerging technologies as being vital to its future national security, notably artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and semiconductors. It has continued to direct significant resources into research and development and continues to push for technical supremacy.”


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