Lord Paul Strasburger writes…Report shows that nobody thinks Home Office is right on investigatory powers

Today the Joint Committee published its report on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. This follows hot on the heels of the Intelligence and Security Committee report which was surprisingly critical of the serious shortcomings of the Bill given its previous rather relaxed approach – what a difference a new Chair makes, you could say.
I was the only member of the Joint Committee that also sat on the Committee that looked at Theresa May’s last attempt to legislate on surveillance powers – the ill-fated draft Communications Data Bill. The previous committee had twice as long to look at the Bill than we’ve had this time round, despite the fact that this Bill is far bigger. The Home Secretary promised Parliament and the public that this process wouldn’t be rushed, that is not the reality.
As the only Liberal Democrat on the committee I knew it would be tough, and I think it will come as no surprise to anyone to learn that from the committee was heavily weighted in favour of the Home Office. It was a hard slog but as always with the Lib Dems, we managed to punch above our weight. If you flick to the back of the report you’ll see that on a whole range of issues I forced votes – sometimes I got others on side and we won, others were more lonely.

Overall, there is much for us to like about the committee’s report. It recommends many changes to the Bill that strengthen the powers and independence of the new Investigatory Powers Commission. This will consist of serving and retired senior judges who will vet and have the power to overturn Ministers’ decisions to issue surveillance warrants and authorise other intrusions into our privacy. The judges will be our last line of defence against abuse of these snooping powers.

We decided that special protection for journalists’ sources and legally privileged documents must be in the Bill. We also insist that the Government makes clear in the Bill that companies providing un-decryptable encryption should not be expected to deliver decrypted data.

The report is also critical of the proposed Internet Connection Records which would keep a log of all our activity on the web and would enable the authorities to know just about everything about our lives, our hopes, our fears, our problems and a lot more.

There are several aspects of the report that are not good and we have to try to deal with them when the Bill comes before Parliament, especially the Lords. These include a crude attempt to make the judges subservient to Ministers when checking their decisions.

The report will be vital going forward, what is clear is that no one thinks the draft Bill is anywhere near right yet and the Home Office now has a mountain to climb to get the Bill into shape.

We desperately need new legislation in this area. Currently the powers are fragmented over dozens of bits of legislation, it is incomprehensible to all apart from a select few and the oversight is weak leaving major blind spots. This has meant legislation has been interpreted in ways Parliament never intended and could not have foreseen and we’ve been left with a system that the public can’t trust.

The Home Office must get this right but from what I’ve seen so far I won’t hold my breath. 

* Lord (Paul) Strasburger is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords

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