Parliament’s record at carefully scrutinising legislation is rather patchy, which is why the recent moves towards more extensive pre-legislative scrutiny are very welcome. The number of things thrown up by such processes recently should make us all the more cautious than ever about the risks of rushed legislation.
So even if today’s press conference had been about urgent legislation to amend the regulation of paperclips, caution would be wise – all the more so when it is rushed legislation following behind-close-doors talks about security and when Nick Clegg’s introductory comments put civil liberties and safety at odds with each other rather than two things that are intrinsically linked. Civil liberties make us safer and are what security is there to protect.
But Julian Huppert at least is saying very positive things about the changes secured as part of agreeing to rushed legislation. Even he though (whisper it quietly) is human, so ‘Julian says it’s ok’ is a good reason to give the changes a fair hearing rather than immediately assume they’re fine.
Here then is my first stab at evaluating them:
The Bill includes a termination clause that ensures the legislation falls at the end of 2016 and the next government is forced to look again at these powers.
This is good – rushed legislation shouldn’t be ossified by default. It gives time to chew over the details at a more sensible pace.
Between now and 2016 we will hold a full review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, to make recommendations for how it could be reformed and updated.
Could be great, could be meaningless, could be a disaster – all hinges on who does the review and to what terms of reference.
We will appoint a senior diplomat to lead discussion with the American government and the internet companies to establish a new international agreement for sharing data between legal jurisdictions.
Again, a lot rests on the who – but also what is lacking here is clear political leadership on what the principles should be. Diplomacy when working at its best enacts principles that have been previously agreed rather than running under its own steam in a direction of its own choosing. Do we want sharing to be as easy as possible as a matter of principle, for example? Or do we think that having some hurdles in the system is in principle vital as a way of protecting against abuse?
We will establish a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board on the American model, to ensure that civil liberties are properly considered in the formulation of government policy on counter-terrorism. This will be based on David Anderson’s existing role as the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.
So we’re going to copy the US? Brilliant – they’ve got such a fantastic record of protecting civil liberties that they are the perfect role model. Oh, hang on… Though the Board’s attitude to bulk data collection has been pretty good from my (limited) understanding.
Further reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee, so that in future the Chair must be drawn from the Opposition parties.
The bigger problem with the committee is its deferential and overly trusting culture, but you can’t change culture by government fiat. So this reform is sensible if limited.
We will restrict the number of public bodies that are able to approach phone and internet companies and ask for communications data. Some bodies will lose their powers to access data altogether while local authorities will be required to go through a single central authority who will make the request on their behalf.
Good news – even though some such restrictions have already been introduced since the Liberal Democrats entered government.
Finally, we will publish annual transparency reports, making more information publicly available than ever before on the way that surveillance powers operate.
This sounds good, but there have been annual Parliamentary reports from the Interception of Communications Commissioner. Yet the reports have had a multitude of problems and year after year were almost completely ignored by MPs. Even MPs with an interest in the issue such as Julian himself and Tom Watson MP haven’t exactly been active at responding to the reports when they’ve been published.
So the overall score? Probably good, but an awful lot depends on how these reforms are played out, who is chosen for roles and what remits they are given.
With so many authoritarians in Parliament and government, that is not guaranteed to turn out well – making the question of how far Nick Clegg is willing to push the issue absolutely central to how it plays out.