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Labour MPs abstain on snoopers’ charter. Straight talking, honest politics?

big-brother-1984Yesterday in the vote on the second reading of the Investigatory Powers Bill (aka the snoopers charter), there were just two Labour votes against. All credit to Dennis Skinner and David Winnick who were amongst the 15 votes against (plus two tellers) comprising Lib Dem, Plaid, Green and SDLP MPs and a solitary SNP rebel. No doubt this caused much discomfort to Corbynistas in the PLP who felt obliged to abide by collective responsibility. New times.

Andy Burnham had justified Labour’s (i.e. essentially his) decision to abstain on the bill by claiming that to describe the bill as a snooper’s charter was “insulting” to the police and intelligence services:

To call this a ‘Snooper’s Charter‘ I think is to be insulting to people who work in the police and security services. It implies they do the jobs they do because they like spying on people. Actually they do the jobs they do to keep people safe. I don’t think the issue is that people will generally just poke around (in your email or web browsing history).”

Most Labour members are likely to have a different view. The late Michael Meacher put it very well just over a year ago on this site:

Whenever there is a terrorist incident MI5 never misses an opportunity to demand ‘more resources’, closely followed in tandem by Cameron and May. Nobody of course would wish to deny the security services the funding and powers they need to target terrorists, but there are genuine questions to be asked as to how far extra powers are needed, especially if it is in the blanket form of mass surveillance.

The Intelligence and Security Committee responsible for overseeing the affairs of the security services and GCHQ was one of three Parliamentary committees to release a report condemning much of the draft bill. Amongst other things, it said:

…it is surprising that the protection of people’s privacy – which is enshrined in other legislation – does not feature more prominently.”

…privacy protections should form the backbone of the draft legislation, around which the exceptional powers are then built (…) Privacy considerations must form an integral part of the legislation, not merely an add-on”

…the Committee has not been provided with sufficiently compelling evidence as to why the Agencies require Bulk Equipment Interference warrants, given how broadly Targeted Equipment Interference warrants can be drawn”

To leave safeguards up to the Agencies as a matter of good practice is simply unacceptable: this new legislation is an opportunity to provide clarity and assurance and it fails to do so”

We fail to see how Parliament is expected to approve any legislation when a key component, on which much of it rests, has not been agreed, let alone scrutinised by an independent body”

The committees’ between them recommended no fewer than 123 changes. In the opinion of Liberty, the bill as it exists now contains no improvements at all, but is worse in several respects. What it describes as “downright scary” and as reasons why the bill “cannot be allowed to pass into law” are as follows:

  • Powers to hack thousands or even millions of devices en masse remain – in spite of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) recommendations that they be removed. Bulk hacking is an incredibly intrusive and potentially dangerous power that could seriously threaten everybody’s data security– yet the Home Office remains bent on legalising it despite admitting the Home Secretary can’t fully assess “the necessity and proportionality” of each hack before issuing a warrant for it.
  • The state will still be able to access bulk personal datasets – massive files of highly personal information (everything from political views to medical records) on thousands of innocent people. Despite the committees’ protests, the intelligence agencies still wouldn’t even need a specific warrant to collect each dataset.
  • The intelligence agencies will still be able to gather and analyse the internet histories of the entire population.
  • The ISC gave the draft bill’s pitiful privacy protections a slating, and said robust safeguards should form “an integral part of the legislation”. So the Home Office changed the title of the “General Protections” section to “General Privacy Protections”. Nothing else in the section has been changed. This astonishingly superficial change does absolutely nothing to protect the privacy of every person in Britain, which is compromised beyond reason by this Bill.
  • MPs, journalists and lawyers still stand to have their communications spied on:
    • If the authorities want to look at MPs’ communications relating to constituency matters (but not national, personal or any other issues), the Prime Minister must give the nod.
    • Lawyers’ communications can be obtained so long as there is an “exceptional and compelling” reason. “Exceptional and compelling” are not defined.
    • Journalists have no protection from hacking or interception. Their only safeguard is that a judge must sign off any plans to gather their communications data if the stated intention is to identify a source.
  • Targeted surveillance warrants could still be ‘thematic’ – which means they could cover thousands of people who “share a common purpose” or “carry out a particular activity” – and breach human rights. Both the ISC and the Joint Committee on the Bill warned against this.
  • The Home Office ignored recommendations for an independent Intelligence and Surveillance Commission – sticking instead with its plans for Judicial Commissioners, appointed by the Prime Minister and funded by the Home Secretary, to both authorise and oversee the use of surveillance powers – i.e. to mark their own homework.
  • Judicial Commissioners are still not required (and might not be able to) make merits-based decisions on whether to approve the Home Secretary’s surveillance warrants. As before, they only have the power to rubber stamp.

The Daily Mirror also outlines seven reasons why you should still be worried about the snoopers charter. Tory MP David Davis (who did not follow his party’s whip to support the bill) has accused the government of rushing the snoopers’ charter into law to avoid scrutiny. Even the Sun is opposed to the bill. By failing to oppose this bill at second reading, Andy Burnham is risking damage to Labour’s credibility on civil liberties. He does it not because it is a good bill worthy of Labour’s support but in order to be seen to be tough on security issues. Straight talking, honest politics? I don’t think so.

8 Comments

  1. David Pavett says:

    Labour’s response (or lack of response) to this bill is a disgrace. Andy Burnham’s leadership (or lack of leadership) on the issue is also disgrace.

    With all the means now available to provide information and encourage debate on such issues what has been done on this one? Nothing.

    This shows how difficult it is to change Labour’s deeply elitist culture for making decisions on such issues (and Labour’s left is in no position to claim that it has a more open culture).

    We have a long way to go for the Labour Party to be one in which members determine policy. A long way to go and not much time to make the changes required if Labour is really to look like a party practising open and honest politics by the time of the next general election.

    1. David Ellis says:

      David I think things are a little bit more urgent and serious than your measured response suggests. The Labour Party and indeed the entire labour movement is facing great danger. Indeed it is facing an existential crisis.

      Despite Corbyn’s victory New Labour is still running the show this and other decisions demonstrate that but nothing demonstrates it more than Corbyn’s decision to drop 40 years of Left Labour opposition to the EU and its predecessors in the name of party unity. Not only was opposition dropped but the EU is apparently no longer a reactionary bosses’ alliance but a vehicle for social progress. Under Corbyn Labour will be voting for the EU’s neo-liberal principles, austerity and Camerons assault on welfare. It is certain that as a result even with Corbyn in charge Labour’s pasokification will resume post-referendum leaving the far right to become the opposition to the Westminster Establishment as it is in France and now in Germany where there is no left to speak of. There is a historic split in the UK capitalist class that has resulted in this referendum and we are failing to take advantage and therefore rendering ourselves irrelevant. The only consolation is that whatever the result in the referendum the British capitalist class will remain split and the opportunity to rebuild the leadership of the labour movement will still be there albeit under the extremely testing conditions bequeathed to us by both right and left opportunism.

      1. Susan O'Neill says:

        I would take your response to David Pavett a lot further than you obviously would wish. I do not believe that JC can hold this party together his concessions show that he is having to pacify the right wingers and there is less compromise to the right than to his own principles. As long as the right wing have the power and they do, the Labour Party will soon start to haemorrhage members towards either socialist groups or the Green Party. The unashamed attacks by right wingers of the LP against Corbyn and momentum have not abated but they also know that without JC the LP will lose a massive number of members. My view, therefore, is to get rid of the Right/Blairites and build on what we can salvage of JC’s reputation while he still has one.

    2. Danny Nicol says:

      I agree with you that the Labour Left does not have an open culture and an open politics. I’d like to write a blog post on the relationship between Labour party democracy and EU membership, but I know this blog won’t publish it whatever its merits, so won’t waste my time.

      1. David Ellis says:

        This blog has been as silent as Corbyn about the EU Referendum and his abandonment of the Labour Left’s principled forty year opposition to it and its predecessors. Anti-politics. There is a sect like determination not to discuss the matter.

        1. Susan O'Neill says:

          Given that Corbyn has removed his anti EU history from his F/B page, there’s not much point in stating the obvious. JC had plenty reservations at the beginning of his term, now though he is saying what the right wing want him to say. The Labour Party lost so many votes with their unswerving denouncement of any referendum which would allow the people to vote, many went to UKIP and some misguided fools voted Tory because “there isn’t much to tell them apart”. But many months later we are once again being told we must, as Labour Party members all vote the way we are told to like good little sheep. The one thing that Tories had which swayed a lot of people their way is that promise of a referendum. But not the Labour Party, oh no, no, we can’t let the useful idiot voters tell us what policy we should be shoving down their throats, we’ll decide. Thus the dictatorship rather than consensus self perpetuates. As it happens, I tell Russians on F/B to stay out of EU but cannot see Britain succeeding in competitive employment markets like those of the emerging economies and so will likely vote to stay in.

  2. Bazza says:

    Time passes frustratingly slowly and Annual Conference is not for 5 months or so and there may be a policy vacuum which the Right will take advantage of until we can get left policy through Conference.
    We need a better communication flow between the small left at the top (who are surrounded by a significant number of lumps of wood) and the large generally left grassroots membership at the bottom.
    Patience is hard virtue when so many working class/working people are suffering under the Tories but the Left has to keep faith and focus.
    Get left wing delegates to Conference.
    Get left wing members on the NEC.
    Get left wing policy through Conference.
    Promote left wing ideas amongst the public.
    And select left wing Parliamentary candidates.
    I’ve been knocking on doors and leafleting every Sunday since December to help Labour locally; perhaps some of those who are constantly attacking the Leadership and seem to spend their time promoting ‘the great men and women of history’ should try it too.
    The working class/working people deserve better!

    1. Susan O'Neill says:

      I recently had a communication from Momentum who are asking for members to vote for candidates to the NEC and the NCC. The letter states “..please consider backing candidates of the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance…..Other left candidates have withdrawn in their favour and the only other candidates with any realistic chance of winning are those backed by groups on the right of the party – Labour First and Progress. Given what has been written, how does the right wing ever justify the choice of names? Labour First? (Which one? The elitist Right wing or the representative left?) and Progress? (The right of the party has not progressed at all from their two defeats in 2010 and 2015?) These shenanigans by the right wing members are bringing the whole Labour movement into disrepute but the right wingers and Blairites just don’t seem to care. Now my problem is who to vote for with regard the NEC. Any one know who is most representative of socialist views?

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