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
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.