The questions William Hague needs to answer about GCHQ and Prism

The Foreign Secretary claims law-abiding citizens have "nothing to fear" but MPs will want more reassurance than that.

After his rather unreassuring statement that law-abiding citizens have "nothing to fear", William Hague will make a Commons statement today on claims that GCHQ received data gathered through the US spy programme Prism. Papers obtained by the Guardian suggest that the UK's security agency last year generated 197 intelligence reports through the system, which gave the FBI and the National Security Agency access to the servers of nine of the world's biggest internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Skype, and has had access since at least June 2010.

The main concern voiced by MPs is that GCHQ may have used Prism to circumvent the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which requires ministerial authority for intercepting data content such as emails. In his appearance on The Andrew Marr Show, Hague declared that it was "fanciful" and "nonsense" to suggest that this was the case, but refused to either confirm or deny that the security agency had accessed the system, insisting that "This is secret work...it is secret for a reason". He also said: "What people need to know is intelligence-gathering in this country by the UK is governed by a very strong legal framework so that we get the balance right between the liberties and privacy of people and the security of the country." But MPs want far more detail on just how strong that "legal framework" is. Here are some of the questions Hague will be expected to answer. 

- When did you and other ministers first learn of the existence of Prism?

- Did you approve GCHQ's use of Prism or were intelligence officials able to make requests to directly the US authorities?

- Does the intelligence and security committee have the resources necessary to carry out effective scrutiny of GCHQ?

- Why was Prism not mentioned in the most recent report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office?

- Is this a backdoor version of the Communications Data Bill (or "snooper's charter")? 

Foreign Secretary William Hague outside Downing Street on 18 March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.