Rifkind affair underlines that Intelligence Committee is not yet a creature of Parliament

The Telegraph revealed on Monday that former Foreign Secretaries, Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind were the latest politicians to be caught in a sting operation by journalists posing as lobbyists.

In this case, the majority of MPs approached turned down the sting but the fact some keep getting caught out with monotonous regularity must say something about the lobbying industry. MPs keep finding these scenarios credible and approaching them as if they've done business in a similar way before, because they are not far removed from common practice 

Rifkind's involvement brings an added dimension to this episode because of his status as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC), the body responsible for legislative oversight of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. The spectacle of such a figure negotiating a commercial relationship with what purported to be a Chinese company has already prompted some Labour MPs to call for Rifkind's resignation as chair of the Committee on security grounds.

The Conservative whip has already been been removed from Rifkind, but the Prime Minister has refused to intervene on his committee chairmanship, as under the legislation governing the ISC, its members can only be removed by Parliament.

Some have suggested that calls for the Prime Minister to intervene undermine the independence of select committees. This, however, may be to misunderstand the peculiar position of the ISC.

When it was originally established in 1994, the ISC was appointed by the Prime Minister following nominations by Parliament. In 2013, this position was effectively reversed with members being appointed by Parliament after being nominated by the Prime Minister in consultation with the leader of the opposition. The ISC became formally a committee of Parliament in a move which was intended to respond to criticisms that it did not offer truly independent oversight.

However, the current situation underlines that the Prime Minister retains significant latent power over ISC members in the form of the right of renomination.

Wikipedia states: 'Members of the committee cease to be members when Parliament is dissolved, and new members are appointed after the new Parliament convenes.'

A spokesman for the ISC stated to SpinWatch today:

I can confirm that the Wikipedia entry is correct.  The process of nomination by the PM and then the votes in the Commons and the Lords do indeed begin afresh in each new Parliament (so it would usually take a number of weeks after the General Election before a new Committee is appointed).

This means that Rifkind will automatically cease to be a member of the ISC in May unless he is re-appointed by the Prime Minister in consultation with the leader of the opposition. That may mean that the question of Rifkind's resignation is academic even if he can ride out calls for him to quit over the next few hours and days. 

But it also underlines the power of patronage, that the executive still retains over the ISC, even after the 2013 reforms. As the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate in Kensington, Rifkind may well have aspired to retain his position as ISC chairman, with its concomitant increased salary and influence. he will have known that such a prospect depended on a new nomination from the Prime Minister. Even if he did not allow himself to be influenced by such pressures, his position cannot be said to be independent of the executive. The ISC as presently constituted still does not provide truly independent parliamentary oversight of the intelligence services.







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