Surveillance bill: Government concessions unlikely to head off revolt from Labour and Lib Dem peers

Parties still believe the Bill will amount to what has been denounced as a 'snooper’s charter'

Mark Leftly
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 31 October 2015 22:08 GMT
GCHQ Scarborough. The UK intelligence agency is responsible for vast amounts of snooping, as exposed by the Edward Snowden revelations
GCHQ Scarborough. The UK intelligence agency is responsible for vast amounts of snooping, as exposed by the Edward Snowden revelations (Getty)

The Government has moved to calm concerns that its new surveillance bill, to be introduced this week, will impinge on civil liberties.

The Liberal Democrats killed the 2012 Draft Communications Data Bill when they shared power with the Conservatives. However, David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May are poised to revive what is now known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, which revises 15-year-old legislation, after the Tories secured an outright majority at May’s general election.

A government source acknowledged that MPs from all parties, the Royal United Services Institute defence think-tank and David Anderson, the powerful Independent Reviewer of Terrorism legislation, have worried about how the proposals could lead to the state snooping on individuals through their online histories. But the source insisted that certain measures from three years ago, such as demanding that UK-based internet firms keep data that crosses their networks from overseas companies, had been dropped.

The Bill is also expected to enshrine journalists’ rights to protect their sources, while police will not be allowed to check everybody’s web browsing histories. There will also be no government restriction or ban on encryption, as some critics, who believed this contravened people’s right to privacy, had feared.

Home Secretary Theresa May will introduce the new Bill this week (Getty)

The source said: “We’re absolutely clear that key parts of the original plans from 2012 will be dropped from the new Bill. We know these powers are needed as technology changes and terrorists and criminals use ever more sophisticated ways to communicate. But we need to give people the reassurance that not only are they needed, but that they are only ever used in a necessary, proportionate and accountable way.”

However, the concessions are unlikely to prevent a Labour and Lib Dem revolt in the House of Lords, just a week after their peers wrecked the Government’s tax credit cut plans. The parties are worried that ministers, rather than judges, will have the power to issue warrants for phone-tapping or online surveillance and still believe the Bill will amount to what has been denounced as a “snooper’s charter”.

If they defeat the Government again, there will be further outcry from Conservative MPs who believe the House of Lords is breaking constitutional convention, with an appointed chamber overruling the democratically elected House of Commons.

The Government is also trying to counter criticisms that it has not done enough to help Syrian refugees. On 1 November, International Development Secretary Justine Greening will pledge £5m to the Start Network, a coalition of humanitarian agencies including Christian Aid and Save the Children, for people who have travelled to the western Balkan countries such as Greece and Serbia.

This will help fund supplies, such as towels and nappies, and is in addition to £20m handed to other organisations including the International Red Cross. But political opponents do not believe the UK has accepted enough refugees. Last week, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron called on the Government to provide homes for 3,000 unaccompanied children.

Ms Greening said: “Syrian children and their families face worsening winter conditions, many dressed in nothing but the light summer clothes they escaped in. Some are forced to sleep in the open so this latest assistance from the UK – food, water and sleeping bags – is badly needed.”

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