What happened to the snoopers' charter?

  • 3 February 2015
  • From the section UK Politics
  • comments

What just happened? What was yesterday's Lords debate on adding data retention powers - the so-called "snoopers' charter" - to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill supposed to achieve?

After all, the Gang of Four senior peers behind it didn't, in the end, even attempt to force it to a vote.

The Gang took the view that in the light of the recent terror attacks in Paris - which had happened after the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill had been passed by the Commons - there was a clear need to revisit the issue of the Security Services' powers to monitor new forms of internet communication.

What, they asked, if there was a Paris-style attack in this country, which was later found to have been preventable, if they had had these powers?

What they had hoped for was that the government (or at least the Conservative bit of it) would have let them see the text of the draft bill that was drawn up when their original Communications Data Bill proposals were savaged by a special select committee in 2012.

This draft bill has not been seen by many people outside the Home Office, but Lord Blencathra, the former Home Office Minister David Maclean, who chaired that special select committee, is on record saying that it meets most of their objections.

Had they been allowed to see it, the Gang could then have offered up its wording as a state-of-the-art amendment; meeting most of the main concerns which surrounded the government's original proposals.

But the government wouldn't release it - this was partly because the Coalition wouldn't last very long if its member parties were forever seeking to outflank each other, when they could enlist the support of opposition parties...

So while Labour might well have supported a tougher line on data retention than Nick Clegg, it would have been seen as bad tactics and would have invited retaliation.

And in any event, Labour didn't seem keen on the idea of shoe-horning such momentous powers into a fast tracked bill, at the last moment.

That meant that the Gang were left with the original wording: the very wording that was taken apart by the Blencathra Committee.

Now, here comes the science bit…concentrate...

This meant they were offering up a wording on a very important encroachment into personal privacy, in which they had no real confidence - in the hope that the government would then have been forced to respond by digging out the new wording from its draft bill, when the amendments were sent back to the Commons, and offer it in lieu.

Many peers took the view that this was no way to run a chip shop. It would mean very significant change being introduced via one quite brief debate in the Commons and one quite brief debate in the Lords, via the so-called ping-pong process, which allows the two Houses of Parliament to agree the final content of legislation.

These powers, many thought, were so important that they could not possibly be scrutinised properly and passed into law by that means. The amendments offered up by Gang member Lord King were indeed very big. They ran from amendment 11A to amendment 11T.

So in the end the Gang never had a real chance of getting their way, and the debate they held on Monday during the report stage of the Counter-Terrorism Bill was, in the end, an exercise in keeping up the pressure for data retention laws to be introduced as soon as possible after the next election.

What happens then rather depends on who's in government… but some new attempt to legislate looks pretty likely.

The revised version lurking in the Home Office is a much more passable bill. It doesn't confer sweeping powers a huge range of agencies - one of the biggest objections to the original draft - and would only allow agencies tackling terrorism, paedophilia and serious crime access to them.

The new bill is laid out in subsections so that Parliament could vote separately on monitoring data with different degrees of sensitivity, for example, weblogs and IP addresses and there would be extensive consultation on the "permitted purposes" for which the data could be used.

And this is where the process matters; attempting to bounce through this kind of legislation is a recipe for disaster.

Maximum consultation and punctilious attention to objections may not work either. But the judgement of ministers is clearly that it stands a much better chance.