Snoopers’ Charter back in the Commons

The Snoopers’ Charter, as the Investigatory Powers Bill is colloquially known, returns to the House of Commons over the next couple of days.

As you would expect, Alistair Carmichael has been working on many sensible amendments to the Bill which are supported by Liberty. It is also good to see that the SNP been on this as well. I was none too pleased when they didn’t oppose the Bill at Second Reading when there was a chance to kill it for good and even more worried when it wasn’t singled out for mention in the SNP’s Holyrood manifesto, unlike many other issues reserved to Westminster. I’m glad to see that they are supporting or indeed have come up with some good stuff.

Labour has its name to a few of the amendments supported by Liberty but we have learned that holding our breath when waiting for them to stand up for civil liberties is not the wisest course of action.

Liberty has prepared a pretty comprehensive briefing on the Bill, which manages to be technical yet encapsulates the key principles.

One of the most important for me is the idea that there should be reasonable suspicion before action is taken. The current Bill doesn’t provide such safeguards:

One of the greatest problems, recurrent in every power in the Bill, is the lack of a reasonable suspicion threshold for surveillance powers to be authorised.

Intrusive powers can be authorised in order to ‘prevent and detect serious crime’, or even (in the case of communications data’) to collect tax, prevent disorder, or in the interests of public safety. However, these general purposes are left wide open to broad interpretation and abuse without requiring a threshold of suspicion. A requirement of reasonable suspicion, when the purpose of preventing and detecting serious crime is invoked, would prevent the abusive surveillance of campaigners, unionists and victims by undercover police; police surveillance of journalists’ lawful activity; and the Agencies’ surveillance of law-abiding NGOs and MPs that we have seen in the recent past. However, the threshold would allow for authorisation of powers for serious and violent crimes.

The principles behind the amendments limit the powers of public bodies to authorise intrusive surveillance and they should be welcomed.

This stuff is important. The Government wants to enshrine in law huge and sweeping powers to legitimise surveillance on spurious grounds. It needs significantly re-writing to make it even half way to being acceptable.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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