Earlier this week the Investigatory Powers Bill passed through the House of Commons with Labour’s support. The Bill will enshrine a series of surveillance powers into UK law, including bulk collection of everyone’s communications data. It will now go to the Lords for further consideration, and may be passed into law before the end of the year.
After months of wrangling with the government, Andy Burnham pointed to a range of concessions he managed to extract as the reason for his decision to support the Bill. These include a clause preventing the security services from spying on trade unions, an independent review into the necessity of the powers being proposed, and a more robust form of judicial oversight for surveillance warrants.
There is no doubt these concessions are a triumph for the shadow home affairs team – the product of a determined effort from Andy Burnham and Keir Starmer to ensure the Bill better protects privacy and is less likely to lead to abuses of power. In particular, Burnham was right to call the government’s concession on trade union spying a historic step. The Labour Campaign for Human Rights has long pointed to surveillance of the union movement as a clear reason why the government can’t be trusted with mass surveillance powers. Taking this out of the equation gives us cause to feel more confident about the Bill.
But as I thought more about it, my mind turned to the people who won’t get a special exception. What about the people who have too often been spied on or smeared by the police because they are considered a nuisance – Doreen Lawrence and her family, the Hillsborough families, environmental activists, even Amnesty International. All these have been victims of abuses of power by the security services or police, and none would have been covered by the exceptions Labour has managed to negotiate into the Bill.
And what about the general public? Where is their special protection from abuse of surveillance powers. What about the millions of webcam images collected by GCHQ without people’s permission? What about the fact that GCHQ collects over 40 billion communication events per day, the vast majority of which are from ordinary people who have done nothing wrong?
Of course, MPs have their own exception to the IP Bill’s provisions. If an MP is going to be subject to surveillance, the Bill requires the prime minister’s permission first. But no one else gets this special treatment.
Again, Labour should only be congratulated for securing protection for trade unions. But if it’s good enough for union leaders and MPs, why not for the rest of us? Or, put a different way, if the security services can’t be trusted not to spy on politicians and union officials without good reason, why are they trusted not to spy on ordinary people? Recent history tells us they’re only too happy to misuse their powers.
The shadow home affairs team deserve our praise for extracting so many concessions from the government. But I hope they also reflect on why those changes were needed, and whether the state can ever be trusted with such draconian powers – no matter how many exceptions you make. A vote against would have been a safer bet for privacy and human rights; and the independent review into the Bill’s necessity may yet show it would have been a safer bet for our security as well.
Whatever the case, the debate isn’t over yet.
Andrew Noakes is Director of LCHR