BIG DEBATE: Emergency powers to fight terrorism—or a snooping charter?

Norman Baker and Emma Carr

Norman Baker and Emma Carr - Credit: Archant

Emergency powers for State surveillance on our phones and emails abroad in the war on terrorism have passed the Commons stage after a European Court ruling made EU-wide retention of data invalid. Critics say the “State Snoppers’ Charter” rushed through in a day was abuse of Parliament. Home Office Minister Norman Baker insists it doesn’t take away our Human Rights. But liberty groups like Big Brother Watch believe the promised “safeguards” to protect our privacy aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Norman Baker and Emma Carr

Norman Baker and Emma Carr - Credit: Archant

Norman Baker, a Sussex Lib Dem MP brought up in east London and educated at the Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park, explains that the new legislation on state surveillance brings us into line with the European Charter, despite scepticism by opponents:

I am concerned by some suggestions that the emergency legislation we published on July 10 doesn’t comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. This is simply not true.

As many people know, the European Court of Justice overturned the EU Data Retention Directive in April. They did so on the basis that this particular directive was incompatible with Europe’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which requires that EU law is consistent with the Convention on Human Rights.

The reason was that the Directive lacked any safeguards, allowing member states to compel phone and internet companies to store data—but said nothing about how that data should be accessed or for what purposes.

I want to be crystal clear about this. The court was talking about the EU directive, not our own domestic laws.

The UK implements the directive in part using a pre-existing framework of checks and balances under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. While that Act has rightly come in for criticism, not least by the Lib Dems, the basic framework for accessing data that it sets out IS compliant with the Convention on Human Rights.

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We are making changes to our system where the court ruling is relevant to the UK situation, set out in the regulations that accompany the Bill.

The Bill does not extend existing State powers. It maintains the status quo for a finite period. It makes sure in the meantime that there will be a root and branch review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2002, with new legislation in 2016.

Failing to act now means large amounts of data will be deleted over the next few weeks.

Far from rolling back human rights, it actually advances our civil liberties.


But Emma Carr, acting director of Big Brother Watch, believes monitoring by the State is out of control, despite the safeguards:

The Commons debate on the Data Retention Bill was something to be witnessed, with MPs from all parties berating or welcoming the legislation with equal measure.

The bill follows a European Court ruling making the directive on EU-wide retention of data invalid, due to its disproportionate nature.

The new Westminster legislation introduces wide-ranging changes to Britain’s digital surveillance laws to retain data.

The Home Office claims that data retention powers with their “strong safeguards” don’t change the status quo.

It is the “safeguards” that MPs have been quick to point out when their support for retaining data has been questioned—while at the same time forced to acknowledge that few details have appeared in documents currently available to the public.

One such safeguard, an annual transparency report, is certainly laudable—yet here the status quo is a failure of oversight.

The Home Office has been aware for several years of failings in recording how existing powers are used.

For instance, the Interception of Communications Commissioner has stated that “the unreliability and inadequacy of the statistical requirements is a significant problem.”

The public and even the government have absolutely no idea how many individual data records have been accessed. Instead, we are given an arbitrary number of “approvals”.

If nothing else, the only data available when the Home Office attempts to resurrect the Snoopers’ Charter for the umpteenth time will be the data it chooses to gather.

It is worth remembering the Prime Minister’s words in 2011, that “information is power—it lets people hold the powerful to account with the tools to take on politicians and bureaucrats.”

Indeed, giving people an incomplete picture under the guise of a “safeguard” is bad government and disingenuous.

If the Home Office is serious about giving the public a meaningful picture of how their data is accessed, it must not be allowed to set the rules on what data is recorded.