GCHQ oversight

Last Updated: 17 Apr 2016
The Prime Minister has overall responsibility within Government for intelligence and security matters and the agencies. Day-to-day ministerial responsibility for GCHQ lies with the Foreign Secretary.

GCHQ acts in accordance with UK law. 

We are governed by a legislative framework consistent with human rights legislation and are subject to rigorous oversight by both Parliament and senior members of the judiciary. In a democratic society it is vital that security services are as transparent as possible without compromising operations.

Independent scrutiny

The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) of Parliament is a cross-party committee of MPs and Lords that oversees the work of the UK's Intelligence Services.

The ISC regularly visits GCHQ, and takes evidence from the heads of the agencies, ministers, other senior officials and civil servants. The ISC held its first public evidence session with the heads of the intelligence and security agencies in October 2013.

The ISC reports annually to the Prime Minister, and these reports are published and debated in Parliament. The ISC is also able to produce ad hoc reports, where it feels that there is an issue that merits separate investigation.

GCHQ is also overseen by the independent Intelligence Services Commissioner and Interception of Communications Commissioner, both of whom are former senior judges. They have complete access to GCHQ personnel, operations and documents to perform their function. They examine warranted or authorised operations and monitor GCHQ's compliance with the law.

In addition, complaints by the public against GCHQ are investigated by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT). Members of the IPT are drawn from the judiciary and senior members of the legal profession, and can ask the Intelligence Services Commissioner to assist in providing information from GCHQ.


The law


Old Bailey

GCHQ acts in accordance with UK law.

GCHQ's functions - what we can do - are set out in the Intelligence Services Act 1994 (ISA).

We are primarily a foreign-focused intelligence agency, with a signals intelligence role that can only be exercised for three limited purposes:

  • In the interests of national security
  • In the interests of the economic well-being of the UK
  • In support of the prevention or detection of serious crime.

GCHQ has a role providing advice and assistance (known as Information Assurance) to certain UK bodies, as set out in the ISA, for the protection of communications here in the UK. We also have a role in advising and assisting the public sector in securing their own communications.

The ISA also set up the Intelligence and Security Committee, now replaced by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC), the parliamentary oversight body which scrutinises GCHQ.

The ISC is an all-party Committee. It was originally set up to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the three intelligence and security agencies - GCHQ, MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), but its functions were recently increased under the Justice and Security Act 2013 (JSA) to provide for further access and investigatory powers.

The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) requires public bodies, like GCHQ, to protect citizens' rights under the European Convention on Human Rights - GCHQ always acts in a way which is consistent with the HRA, supported by internal training, culture and ethics procedures.

Interception of communications operations are authorised under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000(RIPA). Warrants authorising interception can only be issued by a Secretary of State. Before an interception warrant can be issued the Secretary of State must believe that a warrant is necessary on certain, limited grounds and that the interception is proportionate to what it seeks to achieve. These grounds are that interception is necessary:

  • In the interests of national security; or
  • In the interests of the economic well-being of the UK; or
  • In support of the prevention or detection of serious crime.

RIPA also requires safeguards to be in place to limit the use of intercepted material and related communications data.

RIPA sets out the functions of two independent Commissioners, senior judges who have oversight of GCHQ's activities; the Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Intelligence Services Commissioner. GCHQ has a duty to cooperate with those Commissioners and to disclose all such documents and information they might require.

GCHQ is also under the same duty to disclose in respect of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which is where proceeedings for certain HRA claims can be brought, and is the appropriate Tribunal to consider any complaints submitted to them about GCHQ and others.


Ministerial responsibility


No 10 Door

The Prime Minister has overall responsibility within Government for intelligence and security matters and the agencies. Day-to-day ministerial responsibility for GCHQ lies with the Foreign Secretary. For some operations, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 (ISA) and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) require additional authorisation.

The role of GCHQ in Government

In May 2010 the Government established the National Security Council (NSC) to oversee all aspects of Britain's security.

The NSC is chaired by the Prime Minister. Permanent members are:

  • Deputy Prime Minister
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
  • Home Secretary
  • Secretary of State for Defence
  • Secretary of State for International Development
  • Security Minister
  • Heads of GCHQ, MI5 and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)
  • Other senior officials, as required

The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) produces intelligence assessments for UK Government ministers, and sets priorities for intelligence-gathering by the UK intelligence agencies. The JIC draws its membership from senior officials in:

  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  • Home Office
  • Treasury
  • Ministry of Defence
  • Department for Business, Innovations and Skills
  • Department for International Development
  • Cabinet Office
  • Heads of GCHQ, MI5 and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)
  • Chief of the Assessments Staff

The senior officer responsible to the Prime Minister for supervising the work of the JIC is the JIC Chairman, who ensures that the JIC's warning and monitoring role is carried out effectively.