Boris Johnson was responding to a question on why his government had failed to publish the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on Russian interference in British democracy.
The ISC report was completed in draft form in late March. It then went through the usual three-stage process of clearance with Whitehall and the intelligence agencies. The first stage involves fact-checking. In the second stage, the committee and intelligence services agree on redactions in the interest of national security. In the third stage, outstanding disagreements between the committee and the intelligence services are settled at a senior level.
This final stage was concluded by approximately 10 October. The report was submitted to Johnson on 17 October. It is true there is no written protocol about the length of time the prime minister has to take to consider the request, but the convention is that this takes 10 working days.
According to the committee’s Chairman Dominic Grieve: “When the 10 working days were up, we found that we were getting a wall of silence.”
At this point, Grieve raised the failure of Downing Street to respond with a point of order in the House of Commons, which was then amplified to an urgent question asking the prime minister to “make a statement on his refusal to give clearance to the report on Russia by the Intelligence and Security Committee of parliament.”
In his response on behalf of the government, the Minister for Europe and the Americas Christopher Pincher told the House of Commons: “The current length of time that this report has been with the Government is not unusual, as this has averaged around six weeks for reports published in recent years, and three to four weeks for a response to be forthcoming from the Government.”
When I spoke to Dominic Grieve he told me “the six week period is a fantasy.” He added: “It is true that it has sometimes taken six weeks from submitting to the prime minister for approval and publication, but that’s because we’ve often delayed publication to a day that suits us. The 10 days is the normal working period. There can be no need to consult over redactions because those redactions have already been agreed and therefore the report was already cleared for operational national security reasons. The statute says that while it’s true that the prime minister has an overriding right to veto publication, if he is going to use the veto, he has to inform the committee as to his reasons. Johnson has never given a reason. The explanation is entirely bogus. He simply did not wish to see this published before the election took place.”
Johnson was misleading the Question Time audience and viewers. By refusing to publish the report, it is the prime minister himself who has failed to conform with the normal timetable for publishing ISC reports.