David Maddox: Suspicions over ‘snoopers charter’

‘BIG BROTHER’ bill could result in defeat for UK government, writes David Maddox
The bill would allow security services and police to tap into peoples personal data. Picture: PAThe bill would allow security services and police to tap into peoples personal data. Picture: PA
The bill would allow security services and police to tap into peoples personal data. Picture: PA

The timing of the release of the latest James Bond film, Spectre, so close to the publication of the UK government’s Investigatory Powers Bill may just be one of those happy coincidences, but not for the first time art appears to be imitating life, albeit with added fast cars, special effects and nicely pressed, tailor-made suits.

For those who haven’t seen Spectre yet, the plot focuses on Bond thwarting attempts at world domination through surveillance and control of personal data.

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It underlines many of the insecurities people have about the ease with which governments and multinational organisations can monitor and control our lives in the name of security and protection.

And with the perfect timing of Daniel Craig leaping from a collapsing building, Home Secretary Theresa May this week launches the bill that for many people is a snoopers’ charter. The surveillance bill will for the first time properly set a legislative framework for the spies, security services and police to tap into people’s personal data in a bid to prevent major terrorist attacks, stop serious criminal gangs and crack paedophile rings.

The reasons appear to be noble enough, but the suspicion is always that, given access to those powers officially, the authorities and individuals within them will not stop there.

The Edward Snowden and Wikileaks revelations have already suggested that the authorities have been willing to operate outside their powers and excessively.

While this has been denied, the suspicion of a Big Brother state remains a concern for many.

And there is justification. Back in the early 2000s, when Tony Blair’s Labour government brought in some surveillance to tackle terrorism, it was discovered that councils were using the powers legally to check whether children really lived in the school catchment area their parents claimed to be in.

So Mrs May and Prime Minister David Cameron, who were both prevented from progressing this agenda by the Lib Dems in the coalition, now still face a stiff task to persuade a majority of MPs to back the bill.

At the head of a libertarian Tory rebellion is the former shadow home secretary David Davis, who was Mr Cameron’s main rival for the party leadership back in 2005. Mr Davis is warning the government that it will not get a majority if it does not put a safeguard into the plans which means a judge has to approve every request to tap e-mails or social media accounts.

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For ministers, it may be a demand too far. They argue that there is often not the time to take requests to a judge and that, as people accountable to the electorate, then they – the ministers themselves – should stand or fall by a final decision that could be more subjective than purely legal.

In terms of controversial legislation, this is the bill that could cause the most angst and ire, to the extent that the government could face a real threat of defeat in the Commons.

But more hangs on it than just the security of the nation (as important as that is). Mrs May still has realistic, if slightly dwindling, hopes of being the main rival to Chancellor George Osborne as Mr Cameron’s successor as Tory leader when he steps down in the next few years. A failure here could be a fatal setback for her.