Summary of Westminster Hall surveillance debate

ORG Advisory Council members MPs Tom Watson and Julian Huppert as well as Conservative MP Dominic Raab called for a discussion on ‘oversight of intelligence and security services’, which took place in Westminster Hall. 

This debate finally provided a platform for all aspects of the debate in Britain to be discussed. You can read a transcript of the debate on Hansard, or you can watch a video of the session. The most relevant issues were:

  1. The Intelligence and Security Committee’s ability and suitability to provide oversight of the intelligence agencies
  2. The legality of RIPA and Tempora 
  3. Consensus on whether mass surveillance is occurring

1. The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is the independent body charged with the oversight of the powers of the intelligence agencies. It was the committee’s ability and suitability to scrutinise the intelligence agencies’ extensive powers that caused one of the main divides in the chamber.

On one side were those who believe the ISC does not have the capacity for the oversight required because it is under-resourced. David Winnick expressed concern over the committee’s accountability and John McDonnell mentioned that there is a potential for conflicts of interest (as members of the ISC may have previously been involved with the work of the security services, for example former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind). 

On the other side (including the chair, members of the ISC and the Minister of Security) were those who believed the committee is perfectly equipped to perform the necessary oversight. Malcolm Rifkind, the chair of the ISC, explained that recent reforms have already implemented some of the changes suggested. 

A noteworthy exchange was between George Howarth (ISC member) and Tom Watson. In his statement, Mr Howarth made the assurance that the ISC had already looked into the legality of PRISM and Tempora and issued a relevant statement in July. Tom Watson then asked “was July the first time that the Committee had examined Prism, and was that after the Guardian revelations?” Followed by laughter across the room, Mr Howarth then explained that the examination came after the publications and that he was unable to disclose details of their examination. 

Eluded toward the end of the debate by Malcolm Rifkind and the Minister for Security James Brokenshire, was that much of the detail of the oversight should be withheld from the public.  In fact, when asked by Mr Meacher why the ISC did not know about the Tempora programme when it was launched, Malcom Rifkind responded that there is actually no way of knowing if the Committee knew about it prior to the Guardian publications; “We are given classified information, and the whole point of an independent Committee having access to top secret information, whatever that is, is that we do not announce what such information is”. 

This is the fundamental difference between the two sides. Tom Watson made clear to the Minister that the discussion on oversight was about scrutiny and ensuring that proper safeguards are in place when implementing new technology that is not covered by existing legislation. The Minister’s answer to this was simply, that the intelligence agencies always operate under strict policy frameworks and within the law. The problem with these responses is that they offer absolutely no answers to concerns over the reliability of the ISC as expressed by David Winnick in his statement to the debate. It seems as though we are meant to accept the law isn’t broken, just because the law exists.

Within this discussion also lies the question over what information the public is entitled to know. If not for the sake of scrutiny, should people not know if their information is being collected and stored under privacy rights granted to them in a democracy? Julian Huppert referenced this right to privacy multiple times in his opening statement.


2. On the question of legality, the house was roughly split between two groups. Those who believe the ISC was operating within British law (Ben Wallace and Hazel Blears both specified that Tempora complies with British law, making no reference to international agreements). This team of MPs seemed to be satisfied with the assurance that the intelligence agencies wouldn’t do anything illegal.  

Then was the group including Julian Huppert, Dominic Raab, John McDonnell and Tom Watson that called for an investigation into whether there had been a breach of law. In addition, Tom Watson and Dominic Raab called for a review of the legislation if mass surveillance was legal. Mr Watson said “If the Minister is telling us that the law permits such fundamental abuse of liberty, the law is wrong and must be changed.”

The Regulation for Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was referenced by both parties to support their respective arguments. According to the MPs that supported the legality of mass surveillance, the security agencies were operating in accordance with RIPA. According to the MPs that questioned mass surveillance’s legality, RIPA is extremely complicated and vague. Michael Meacher said that instead of curtailing surveillance activities, the Act facilitated them. He also said:

“RIPA is so poorly drafted—one almost wonders whether that was deliberate—and is open to such broad interpretation that it allows Government agencies such as GCHQ to do whatever they like.”


3. There were also MPs who didn’t believe mass surveillance is taking place. The very peculiar argument formulated sounded like this: 

First, for the sake of national security it is necessary for intelligence agencies to maintain an edge (as phrased by James Brokenshire) by having access to all this information. As Martin Horwood phrased it “if we are to find needles in a haystack, we need to allow people to look at the haystack”.

Julian Lewis then added “The question is whether we then have access to the irrelevant parts of the haystack, or legally supervised targeted access to those needles in the haystack, which can be detected as a result of modern technology. This is all about the mass collection, mass storage and interrogation of mass data so collected and stored.” 

The response to this was that intelligence agencies should continue with their surveillance and investigation, but not collect everyone’s information. As Julian Huppert said in the current situation “we are all suspects whose personal histories can be foraged through if ever there is interest in us later.”

However, the answer to this, from Malcolm Rifkind, was that in fact mass surveillance isn’t taking place at all because no human being looks at the vast majority of the information collected. 

Martin Horwood also said: “A lot is said, and a lot of allegations are made, about mass surveillance, but if it was really taking place, it would—apart from being wildly impractical—be straightforwardly illegal.” This seems to miss the point, as the precise purpose of the discussion is to find whether the mass surveillance operations are legal.

On the whole, the debate was quite useful in formulating the arguments and providing a basis for further discussion. The essential differences were that one group of MPs had the blind faith that the intelligence agencies were operating under law. This faith seemed to stem from official statements that say intelligence services always operate according to the law.

The other group of MPs were not satisfied with these statements and wanted a more stringent investigation.

To see how these arguments develop, be sure to follow the ISC’s open evidence session with the heads of intelligence agencies, next Thursday 7th November.