Today in Parliament MPs are to debate the second reading of the Investigatory Powers Bill. I believe the Bill, as currently drafted, is not fit for purpose and joined with more than 200 other leading lawyers in writing a letter to The Guardian newspaper outlining my objections. This is why.
What is the Investigatory Powers Bill?
The Investigatory Powers Bill is described on the UK Parliament website as:
A Bill to make provision about the interception of communications, equipment interference and the acquisition and retention of communications data, bulk personal datasets and other information; to make provision about the treatment of material held as a result of such interception, equipment interference or acquisition or retention; to establish the Investigatory Powers Commissioner and other Judicial Commissioners and make provision about them and other oversight arrangements; to make further provision about investigatory powers and national security; to amend sections 3 and 5 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994; and for connected purposes.
The Conservative government introduced the Bill in the House of Commons on 1 March 2016. At this first reading stage there is no parliamentary debate about the substance of the Bill. That comes at the second reading stage, today.
After the debate the Speaker calls for objections. If there are none, the Bill proceeds through second reading without a vote. If Members disagree, a vote is taken.
If the Investigatory Powers Bill passes the second reading it progresses to the Committee stage, before proceeding to a third reading.
Why Legal Experts Object to the Investigatory Powers Bill
The Bill, as drafted, fails to meet international standards for surveillance powers.
This is because it:
- gives public authorities, such as the police and security agencies like GCHQ (the government’s monitoring agency), generalised (as opposed to targeted) access to the contents of electronic communications such as emails and digital records. Consequently, the Bill’s use of “bulk interception warrants” and “bulk equipment interference warrants” may be illegal.
- allows for “targeted interception warrants” to apply to groups of people, organisations, or premises instead of applying to specific individual targets.
- does not include a “reasonable suspicion” requirement. This means that surveillance could be used on people, organisations, or premises where no criminal involvement or threat to national security is present.
If the Bill is passed, the effect of these proposals is to allow the police and security agencies unfettered access to our most private communications, including emails, phone calls, medical records, bank statements, etc.
It may also lead to expensive and time-consuming legal challenges and further Parliamentary reform.
Because our right to privacy in the UK is under threat the UN’s special rapporteur on privacy criticised the UK government in a report to the UN Human Rights Council. He said that the UK has a leading role on the world stage and ought to “desist from setting a bad example to other states by continuing to propose measures, especially bulk interception and bulk hacking” which run counter to recent European court judgments and “undermine the spirit of the very right to privacy”.
I couldn’t agree more. I urge Parliament to carefully consider the implications of this wrong-headed Bill. It must be fundamentally changed at this stage to ensure that any future Act at least meets international standards, and that the UK’s position as a leading democracy is not undermined.
Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who specialises in civil actions against the police.