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Passing the surveillance bill in one day is totally unacceptable

The Official Secrets Act was rammed through the House of Commons in 1911 in just one day – with the (ostensibly) unintended and undesirable consequences of a national security concept with blanket coverage that we have had to live with ever since. That should surely have taught us the lesson that precipitate telescoping of normal parliamentary scrutiny, especially on the most important issues like this latest State surveillance bill, is wrong and always turns out badly. It’s not as though any convincing reason for helter-skelter legislation has been given.

One reason put forward is the ECJ ruling on 8 April that struck down the EU directive requiring internet and phone companies to store their customers’ communications data for 12 months. But if that is a matter of such urgency for the security services, why has nothing been done about it for more than 3 months? The other reason adduced by the government was that foreign-based internet and phone companies were just about to stop handing over the content of communications as requested by UK warrants. But service providers later said they knew of no companies that had indicated they would start deleting data rather than storing it or would reject a UK interception warrant.

Nor are the ‘concessions’ offered by Cameron to obtain all-party agreement to data retention at all convincing. The bill offers the possibility of restricting the use of retention notices, but they are not spelt out on the face of the bill, which devalues the assurance considerably. Nor is it acceptable that matters of such huge potential importance will be dealt with by the small Statutory Instruments select committee rather than by the whole House. The bill offers the opportunity for a review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which is certainly welcome, but not at the price of indiscriminate mass surveillance for the next 2 years at least. Above all the clear judgement of the ECJ that mass data retention was not “proportionate” has simply been overridden rather than some more acceptable compromise being found to resolve the tension between the need for security and the right of privacy.

There is a sunset clause for the bill’s provisions, but that doesn’t come into effect for two and a half years which is likely to undermine the momentum for further reform. Rather than have this long-stop provision in case things go wrong or the law of unexpected consequences kicks in, it would be far better to halt this precipitate rush to legislation, which remains unjustified, and allow all relevant parties (Home Office, security services, civil liberties groups, parliamentarians, etc.) a breathing space for detailed examination of the issues and then to return to it when Parliament returns in September or in the autumn.

One Comment

  1. Robert says:

    And yet labour fell into the trap hook line and sinker, coalition coming up Tory Labour what a love affair that would be.

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