When parliamentary committees produce reports with recommendations, the government is obliged to publish a considered response, explaining whether or not the recommendations are being accepted. This can take months, and generally responses are a bit waffly. Because a recommendation is an implicit criticism, instead of saying “no”, governments prefer to say “not necessary, because we are already doing X, Y and Z”.
But today we got the official response (pdf) to the ISC report within an hour or so of it being published. And it was more blunt than these documents normally are. Here are eight claims or recommendations in the report that have been rejected by the government.
1 – The government has rejected the ISC’s call for an inquiry into Russian interference in the Brexit referendum. See 11.38am for the full quotes.
2 – The government has rejected claims it “badly underestimated” the threat from Russia. The committee said:
Until recently the government had badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required.
In response, the government said:
The government has long recognised there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the UK and its allies, including conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, influence operations, and cyber-attacks. As such, Russia remains a top national security priority for the government.
3 – The government does not accept that responsibility for countering the threat from Russia is “unnecessarily complicated”. Referring to how responsibility is allocated, the committee said:
There are a number of unnecessarily complicated wiring diagrams that do not provide the clear lines of accountability that are needed.
But the government said:
There is a clear line of accountability for HMG’s policy on Russia: the Russia and Ukraine NSIG [national security implemention group] reports to the national security adviser and to ministers on the national security council. Ultimate ministerial oversight is provided by the prime minister.
4 – The government does not accept that the MI5 needs to work more closely with the police on the threat from Russia. The committee said:
It is our view that while MI5 already works with the police regional counter-terrorism units (which have responsibility for hostile state activity) there is scope for them to work more closely together in this area.
But the government said:
MI5 has already developed closer working with police and Home Office partners in tackling the threat posed by hostile state activity, including working together closely on a number of hostile state activity cases.
It cited the response to the Salisbury novichok attack as a good example.
5 – The government rejected claims it needed better channels of communication with Russia. The committee said these were needed to “reduce the risk of miscommunication and escalation of hostilities”. The government said channels of communication were in place.
6 – The government refused to commit to giving the Electoral Commission more powers. The committee said:
We have already questioned whether the Electoral Commission has sufficient powers to ensure the security of democratic processes where hostile state threats are involved: if it is to tackle foreign interference then it must be given the necessary legislative powers.
But the government said:
The government notes the committee’s comments on the Electoral Commission and we continue to consider the recommendations from the Electoral Commission itself to enhance their powers. The commission has civil sanctioning powers that apply to referendums and elections. More serious criminal matters can and are referred to the police, and then considered by a court of law.
(Many Brexiters in government would rather abolish the Electoral Commission than give it extra powers. It is one of their least favourite government bodies, not least because of its investigation into Vote Leave.)
7 – The government refused to commit to toughening the Sanctions Act. The committee said:
The NCA also underlined that there are several ways in which the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 is too restrictive. The NCA outlined changes they would wish to see to the legislation
– including serious and organised crime as grounds for introducing sanctions; and
– providing for closed material proceedings to protect sensitive intelligence in the granting of, and any appeal against, sanctions (the special immigration appeals commission procedures offer a useful model for this).
But the government said the act already had “relevant provisions that would allow for sanctions in the interests of national security, in the interests of international peace and security and to further a foreign policy objective of the government”.
8 – The government rejected claims it had unreasonably delayed publication of the report. The ISC delivered the report to No 10 in time for it to be published before last year’s general election. In its news release the committee said that it was “a matter of great regret” that the report was not published in November, and at the press conference the Labour MP and committee member Kevan Jones said the excuses given by No 10 for the delay were untrue. (See 11.22am.) No 10 has denied this. (See 2.42pm.)