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My speech on the “emergency” Data Protection Bill

Commons chamberThe following is the text of my speech on the Data Protection and Investigatory Powers Bill:

I feel uneasy about the Bill on several grounds. As I am sure that we all do, I clearly accept that there is a need for a new law in order to establish a proper legal foundation to balance the right to privacy with the requirement to ensure security, but it should not be done in this way. The Official Secrets Act 1911 was rammed through this House in just one day in an atmosphere of fear and we have had to live with the undesirable consequences of a national security concept with blanket coverage ever since. Has the House really not learned that telescoping proper parliamentary scrutiny is nearly always dangerous and can lead to unexpected outcomes as we helplessly watch the law of unintended consequences kick in?

The Government’s first argument for emergency legislation does not stand up. As many have said, the European Court of Justice ruling was on 8 April. The Government wasted more than three months without taking any action before suddenly, seven days before the recess, alleging that it is critical that the Bill be passed by the House in one day. That is either panic or a deliberate attempt to blackmail the House into undiscriminating compliance.

The Government’s second argument, namely that foreign-based phone and internet companies were about to stop handing over the contents of individual communications in response to a UK warrant, does not stack up either. It has been reported that communications service providers have said that they did not know of any companies that had warned the UK Government that they would start deleting data in the light of legal uncertainty. Indeed, the Home Office, according to the Financial Times, instructed companies to disregard the ECJ ruling and to carry on harvesting data while it put together a new legal framework. The Government’s alleged anxiety that they might lose access to stored data overnight is wilfully overdrawn.

The Prime Minister’s assurances are neither convincing nor effective. He stated, as echoed several times by the Home Secretary today, that the legislation will merely maintain the status quo. That is not true. It will impose for the first time a duty on foreign-based internet companies with subsidiaries in the UK to co-operate with surveillance requests by UK agencies. We were also assured by the Home Secretary last Thursday that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000

“ensures that access to communications data can take place only where it is necessary and proportionate for a specific investigation.”

Again, however, that is misleading. Charles Farr, the lead Home Office official in this area, argued in his legal witness statement last week that general intercepts are permitted under RIPA because they are “external”, by which he meant that because communications travel via foreign server, largely based in the US, they can be intercepted indiscriminately even when there are no grounds to suspect any wrongdoing.

Lastly, the Prime Minister offered a number of specific measures to assuage the deeply held concerns about the Bill, but they do not really inspire confidence. He proposes a privacy and civil liberties board, which is of course welcome in principle but, considering that the Intelligence and Security Committee was not told about and did not find out about the indiscriminate tapping of overseas communications under the Tempora system, it is difficult to have trust in oversight boards having the resources, capability and access to scrutinise and deal with what is really happening within the security services’ manipulation of fast-changing communications technology.

The review of RIPA is long overdue and very welcome, but it is not a good omen that the circumvention of the RIPA rules to allow the indiscriminate mass surveillance that exists today is to be allowed to continue for another two and a half years without any attempt in the Bill to circumscribe those powers. The restriction of the number of bodies that can directly contact phone companies and demand access to data is, of course, right, but the current number is about 600, I think, and we are not told by how much it will be restricted. I welcome the sunset clause, but the end of 2016 is far too late. It should be for the end of 2014. For all these reasons, I cannot support the Bill as it stands.

3 Comments

  1. terry sullivan says:

    and how many labor mps failed to vote?

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      I don’t know Terry because I haven’t had time to count them. See here.

  2. Robert says:

    We all feel uneasy about this act, sadly what we needed was a strong leader what we have is Miliband.

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