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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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