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Secret data-gathering: Government sweetens the Bill

PREVIOUS BRIEFINGS HAVE REPORTED on the threat to civil liberties from the Tories’ Investigatory Powers Bill, which now leaves the Commons for the Lords. The Bill attempts to legitimise many of the wide-ranging and unacceptable practices of the police and security services laid bare by the Snowden revelations, including the covert bulk collection of vast quantities of e-mail, internet and mobile phone traffic, and ‘equipment interference’ such as remote infection of computers with eavesdropping software.

The Bill was drawn up amid widespread criticism of earlier legislation, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIPA) 2000 and the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIPA). A 2015 draft Bill was scrutinised by a joint Committee of MPs and Peers. The Bill itself, introduced in the Commons in March, contained a number of concessions. For example, interception and equipment interference warrants would be issued by the Home Secretary (as RIPA warrants are) but there would now be ‘double-lock’ requirement for approval by a judge.

At Second Reading in the Commons it seemed that Labour’s Home Office team, led by Andy Burnham, might object on principle to the Bill, especially to its bulk collection powers. But by Report stage in June, Home Secretary Teresa May had conceded just enough extra ground to secure Burnham’s ‘on balance’ support.

The changes included agreeing to re-examination of the case for bulk powers by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC. They also included the government’s unexpected acceptance of a Labour amendment on trade union activity, prompted by anger at reports of collusion between the security services and construction industry over blacklisting. The amendment – welcomed by Unite and others – means that a warrant cannot be issued on the sole ground that ‘the information which would be obtained… relates to the activities in the British Islands of a trade union’.

The Home Office undoubtedly made its concessions with an eye to the Lords, where the Bill will be in Committee from July to September. The government lack an automatic Lords majority and will be keen to narrow the range of issues on which the Bill’s opponents can rally enough support to inflict defeats.

Despite that, the Lords are expected to force further changes, such as beefing up the Bill’s rather half-hearted protection for journalists’ sources, communications between MPs and their constituents, and lawyer-client consultations.

All these victories, actual and prospective, for civil liberties are welcome. But at root it all feels a bit too much like making the best of a bad job. Burnham still fears the Tory ‘soft on security’ jibes that outright opposition to the Bill would attract. But by voting for the Bill in principle, Labour reinforces the Tories’ case rather than challenging it, and throws away the possibility of a clean defeat in the Lords for this unjustified extension of state power – a defeat that might be impossible to reverse in the Commons, given that the Tories cannot be sure of support from MPs on their libertarian right.

So among the many lessons from this episode is that frontbench policy making is still an uneasy truce between the Labour leadership and others in the Shadow Cabinet.

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