Yesterday’s Lords debate ended up with the future of the Snooper’s Charter amendments uncertain, after considerable criticism of both the process and the principle of reintroducing the Communications Data Bill into the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill. Further debate on the amendments may come back at the report stage of the Bill.
Many Lords argued that Parliament should be given the chance to vote on the legislation, decrying the years of delay – read repeated defeats – in bringing this Bill into law.
However, one purpose behind the amendments now seems clearer. Lord Carlile and others want the publication of a revised Snooper’s Charter, which has apparently been drafted and is ready to be pulled out of the Home Office’s legislation drawer after the election, should a sympathetic Government be elected.
They in fact argued that they would have introduced the revised version, if only the government had published it. So any issues of failing to deal with the criticisms made during previous scrutiny of the Bill were the fault of the government, in the view of the proposers.
Perhaps the most amazing part of the debate was the near vacuum in discussing the necessary reform needed to deal with the current extent of secret electronic surveillance. Talk of a ‘capability gap’ and the need for new powers is an extraordinary reaction in the light of TEMPORA, EDGEHILL and other GCHQ programmes. Since the Snooper’s Charter was first proposed we have learnt of the pervasiveness of secret electronic surveillance. On the same day that the Lords were talking of a ‘capability gap’ and the need for new powers, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe reported that the mass surveillance practices of countries - including the UK - pose a fundamental threat to human rights.
Theresa May has pledged that the Snooper’s Charter should be brought into law under a future Conservative administration. Labour are a little more equivocal so far; the Lib Dems have been against it, but are yet to say if this would be a ‘red line’ issue for them.
The correct place for this debate – given Theresa May’s pledge – is the election. Amazingly, she has currently pretty much guaranteed that surveillance will be an election issue. The parties can explain what they want to do, and why. We can learn how these proposals fit in with the clear need for reform and calls to repeal the Human Rights Act can be debated. We can assess candidates for their ability to understand the issues and think independently.
At the election, Labour, the original proponents of this measure, then known as the Interception Modernisation Programme, have an opportunity to clean up their record. Lib Dems can defend their record on this issue, despite voting for continued data retention. Perhaps the Conservatives can try to amend their calls, and if not, individual conservaives will hopefully set out their own views on surveillance.
From that perspective, the Lords rushing to put the Snooper’s Charter onto the statute book would be an attempt to deny the electorate a much needed debate about human rights and civil liberties. From another, it could be seen be a cynical ploy to cause the coalition and Labour pain as we enter the final weeks of Parliament, by forcing Labour and the Lib Dem front benches to vote against Conservative and other back benchers trying to see it into law.
The Lords is an unelected revising and advisory chamber, which needs to be careful not to deny the electorate their say, and not to play party politics with an issue that impinges on everyone’s fundamental rights.