The prospect has been raised by ISC chair Sir Malcolm Rifkind, but Mottram told CSW: “Obviously, if you have public hearings with the intelligence agency heads on the basis of what they do you’re not going to get very far.” He added that it makes more sense to hold private hearings.
“There is a risk that you end up with a committee which has public hearings that turn into veiled criticism of the intelligence agencies,” he warned.
Rifkind believes that public hearings could enhance the committee’s work, and told CSW that “we are thinking about it very seriously. In principle, we think it would be a good idea.”
“If you were going to have public hearings, there’s no reason in principle why the head of MI5 or MI6 or GCHQ couldn’t [take part]. They’ve moved a long way,” he added, suggesting any hearing could be “perfectly stimulating and intelligent.”
Meanwhile, legislation designed to make the ISC more powerful and independent is passing through Parliament. The committee, founded in 1994, comprises senior parliamentarians who scrutinise the work of Britain’s intelligence agencies.
The ISC has secured changes that will allow it access to more classified intelligence, grant MPs a veto over the prime minister’s choice of ISC members, and provide greater independence from the Cabinet Office. Rifkind is also pushing for more resources, in order to boost the committee’s research operations.
See also: Out of the shadows, our feature on ISC reform