Alistair Carmichael MP writes: Snoopers’ Charter debate was a circle of Hell even Dante could not have imagined

This week in Parliament we debated the Investigatory Powers Bill or, as some would have it, the Snooper’s Charter take 2. It was two days of my life that I will never have back and, after fifteen years as an MP, it was two of the most depressing days I have known. Being an MP is a great job and when parliament works as it is supposed to it can be exhilarating. When it fails to do what it is elected to do, namely to hold the government of the day to account, then it is hell. The debate on this bill took us to a new circle of hell that even Dante could not have imagined.

The Bill is rotten to its core and I wish we could have blocked it as we did in Coalition when faced with the Communications Data Bill. Dealing with Tories in government was difficult. Dealing with Tories in government and Labour in opposition is impossible.
We had two days to debate hundreds of amendments in the House of Commons. The government alone brought forward one hundred and four amendments on the first day and a further twenty on the second. After all the amendments the provisions on bulk data collection and the retention of “internet connection records” are not even half-baked. They are raw.

You would have thought that this would be grist to the mill of any decent opposition. You would be right in that. Unfortunately we don’t have a decent opposition, we have the Labour Party. There was not a single amendment in the whole two day debate on which Labour considered worthy of voting. For two days they were absent from the voting lobbies. We did get a little excited on day two when we heard through the usual channels that they were “going to vote on something”. We need not have got our hopes up – it turned out that “something” was a third reading of the bill (ie on the bill as a whole) and the vote they cast was to support it.

For our part, despite our overarching opposition to the Bill we had tabled a raft of amendments in an attempt to make the Bill a little less awful. The SNP took the same approach. I will not bore you with them all but give you a flavour below.

First, I proposed – and pushed to a vote, an amendment which would have deleted provisions in the Bill for the introduction of the collection and storage of Internet Connection Records (ICRs). Now, I’m not yet 100% clear what an internet connection record is. Nobody is – even the Home Secretary. I surmise that it will probably be your web history. This will then be stored for 12 months just in case you ever come under suspicion. Meanwhile, that information can be hacked and stolen revealing an enormous amount of detail about your life, activity and even your state of mind. I knew that when I pushed the amendment it would not pass. Andy Burnham the shadow Home Secretary had already said that whilst he accepted that ICRs were incredibly intrusive and might not even be helpful in solving crime he supported their collection in principle (God alone knows what the principle was but by this time I had given up on trying to understand the Labour Party’s position).

I also proposed dozens of amendments (yes – dozens) that would remove the Secretary of State from the warrant authorisation process. It is ludicrous that a Home or Foreign Secretary whose to do lists everyday must be enormous is forced to take time out of their day to sign warrants that really should be in the hands of judges.

David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism legislation, when he looked at the issue, also expressed shock at the amount of time secretaries of state dedicate each day to signing warrants. I am not for one moment suggesting that any Minister, past or present, would rush these decisions or approach them as a box-ticking exercise, I am sure they apply themselves diligently to the task. My argument is that they should not have to. Decisions such as this should be taken by judges in the vast majority of cases, as they are in most other western democracies, not by political figures.

I am sad to say that we send the Bill to the House of Lords in a very poor state. I know that my colleagues there will work tirelessly to amend and improve the Bill and I can only hope that Labour Lords are less authoritarian than their colleagues in the Commons. If we can’t kill the bill in Parliament then there is no doubt it will be shredded by the Courts when it becomes an Act but between now and then we will do everything we can to narrow the bulk powers, strengthen judicial involvement and increase oversight and transparency.

* Alistair Carmichael is the MP for Orkney and Shetland and Liberal Democrat Chief Whip.

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3 Comments

  • If you had a depressing two days ……. you have just given me a depressing morning reading about it …… terrible and terrible that Labour ( but no suprise) sit on there hands. If only for the days of us being involved in Government, at least able to get some imput into legislation.

  • It is depressing that once again we are seeing a government tightly timeboxing the debate in the commons on important bills. This bill really should of been in the commons for two weeks and not two days, even before we take into consideration the amendments…

  • Jenny Woods 11th Jun '16 - 9:50pm

    I read the debate in Hansard. Thank you for holding the liberal line, and thanks to all our MPs for voting against. We fought this appalling piece of legislation in one form or another for the past four years, absolutely gutting that it is finally going through…

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