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Lib Dems attack 'gutless' Labour over surveillance bill

March 16, 2016 9:22 AM
By Rowena Mason, Anushka Asthana, Alan Travis - Political Correspondents in The Guardian
Originally published by Rutland and South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

Labour plans to abstain in Commons vote but will seek changes at later stage to legislation that Lib Dems and SNP oppose

Snooper's CharterLabour is facing calls to help other opposition parties kill off the government's new surveillance laws, after the SNP and Liberal Democrats said they would vote against the legislation.

Labour plans to abstain on the investigatory powers bill at second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday because it supports the main aims of the legislation, but it wants the government to include greater privacy protections.

Lib Dem and SNP critics of the bill want Labour to take a tougher stance against the legislation, which would give the state powers to force communications firms to store individuals' internet connection records - the addresses of websites visited - for 12 months.

The Liberal Democrats, who blocked the legislation under the last coalition government, said Labour's decision to abstain was "gutless" and called on the party to reverse its decision.

Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, made clear Labour was prepared to vote down the legislation at a later stage and force the government to extend its transitional arrangements unless there were a string of changes.

But he said he was persuaded that the police and security services were losing the ability to catch criminals because of advances in technology, and that the law needed to be updated to give a "clear legal framework" for access to some internet records.

The changes suggested by Labour include:

  • A guarantee that the political activities of campaigners for justice, trade unionists and bereaved families will not be spied on using the new legislation.
  • A clear definition of protecting "national security" and "economic wellbeing", which are the current conditions that justify the use of the new powers.
  • A proportionate list of crimes that would justify allowing police and security services to access someone's internet connection record.
  • Restrictions on the number of law enforcement agencies that would be allowed to use the legislation.
  • Better protections for the confidential communications of "sensitive professions" such as MPs with constituents, lawyers with clients and journalists with sources.
  • Approval for interception to be granted by judges on the basis of the evidence rather than merely whether the right process has been followed.

Burnham said: "The bill cannot be supported in its current form but nor should we just oppose it because there is a deadline where the country needs new legislation. What I am saying very clearly to Theresa May is: here are very specific concerns that we have and unless you meet them we will not cooperate with getting this bill on the statute book by the end of the year. That is quite a significant statement."

However, Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, accused Labour of "sitting on their hands while the government rams through a law that will erode our civil liberties".

He said: "We want a bill that keeps us all safe, and keeps the government in check. You can't fight terrorism by just gathering information on everybody and making it available to anyone who asks - that's like finding a needle in a haystack that grows every day. Every pound the government spends on storing the family photos you sent home from your holiday is a pound taken away from your local police."

The SNP also said it would vote against the legislation and questioned its legality. Joanna Cherry, the party's justice spokesperson, said she accepted that the law needed a thorough overhaul, but said the plans could "set a dangerous precedent and a bad example internationally".

She accused ministers of trying to rush the investigatory powers bill through parliament to avoid scrutiny, and said the SNP's concerns were shared by three parliamentary committees and campaign groups.

"The bill seeks to put on a statutory footing some powers which go well beyond those currently authorised by law in other western democracies. No convincing operational case for such powers was produced with the draft bill. It is for the government to make that case," Cherry said.

"The SNP looks forward to working with other parliamentarians to get this right but the government must afford sufficient time for consideration of the bill. Surveillance is a global concern, and this new legislation could be copied internationally."

The SNP and Lib Dem resistance to the bill could become a problem for the government at a later stage if Labour decides that its demands have not been met.

There are thought to be around a dozen Tory rebels against the bill who would be prepared to vote in favour of amendments that strengthen protections for privacy.

David Davis, a Tory MP and leading civil liberties campaigner, told the Spectator this month: "We are not setting out to trash this bill, but there are going to be sensible, serious amendments to it."

Davis told the Guardian that there would be "battles ahead" at a later stage over a number of aspects of the bill to ensure greater protections for privacy.

Privacy campaigners have demanded that the bill be split to allow proper scrutiny. This would allow the renewal of those parts needed to retain existing powers due to expire in December, which require internet and phone companies to retain business records for 12 months.

It would allow the rest of the bill, including its powers to track everyone's web use and to license the security agencies to hack into phones and computers worldwide, to be examined further and avoid it being rushed on to the statute book.

The government argues that the bill is needed to address a gap in police and intelligence powers that means some communication cannot be tracked.
It revives some of the aims of a previous surveillance bill, which became dubbed the snooper's charter in the last parliament and was eventually blocked by the Lib Dems.

The Internet Services Providers' Association (Ispa) has also set out its concerns about the bill, including a lack of clarity about key terms, concepts and cost implications.

It said: "Of key concern in this area are internet connection records (an entirely new concept), encryption powers, extra-territorial application but also the various definitions of data in the bill."

James Blessing, Ispa's chairman, said: "Government needs to address concerns around its intentions, definitions and costs to enable industry to make a proper assessment of the bill and help parliament scrutinise the complex proposals. "

At the weekend, Barack Obama questioned the way tech companies were making smartphones so strongly protected that they could not be broken into by law enforcement agencies.

The US president told a technology festival in Texas: "The question we now have to ask is: if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong there's no key, there's no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?"

His remarks come after the FBI took Apple to court in an attempt to force it to break into a smartphone owned by one of the gunmen in the San Bernardino massacre.