Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:07 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Strasburger Lord Strasburger Non-affiliated 9:07 pm, 2nd June 2015

My Lords, we live in dangerous times—the danger of imported terrorism from various parts of the world; threats from newly aggressive Russia and China; and danger from rogue nuclear states such as Iran and North Korea. However, the biggest peril we face is losing, or throwing away, the freedoms, liberty, privacy and lifestyle that have set this country apart from others in the world—the very way of life that Islamic State, al-Qaeda and groups like them seek to destroy.

If we are not careful, we will allow misguided people within our country and Government to turn Britain into a country where the authorities know everything about the private lives of all of us. Even under a benign and well-meaning government, these excessive powers are vulnerable to misuse by rogue elements within it or by criminals at home or abroad. Worse still, the ability to know everything about everyone would be ripe for wholesale abuse by a less well-intentioned future regime, which would find that it possessed ready-made tools for repression.

We must deny the Home Secretary and her most ardent securocrat, Charles Farr, their attempt to have pretty well unlimited and untrammelled access to the most private data of everyone in our country. In fact, we should be reducing, not increasing, their reach into the lives of innocent citizens. They have shown no inclination whatever to consider the possible unintended consequences, if they are unintended, of the draconian powers they are demanding. They do not believe, and they cannot see, that there are compelling arguments to restrain those powers and that there is another side to the coin. They hardly engage at all with those who speak for the need for constraints on intrusive powers, for proper authorisation, for transparency and for oversight. When they are forced to enter the debate, they do so only in the most desultory and reluctant manner.

When the investigatory powers Bill is published, we can hope that it will bring the existing legislation up to date and clearly restrict the occasions when snooping is permitted. We can hope that the Bill will remove the hidden loopholes that have allowed the state massively to expand, completely in secret and behind closed doors, its prying into our private lives without the informed permission of Parliament and the people. We can hope that the Bill introduces more independent authorisation procedures which ensure that intrusions occur only when they are necessary and proportionate. We can hope that, for the first time, there will be meaningful oversight to ensure that non-compliance is discovered and punished. We can hope that the Bill contains these reasonable and essential provisions, along with others which are so important if these powers are to have legitimacy with the public.

I, for one, am not holding my breath. The Home Secretary and Mr Farr both have plenty of previous form, and it is not encouraging. They have demonstrated time and again that they are either incapable or unwilling to come to Parliament with a balanced package that protects the population from harm by permitting the most aggressive intrusion into the lives of major criminals and terrorists but which leaves the rest of us alone. The Government have repeatedly made the pro forma statement that all UK surveillance is conducted within the law. This has recently been shown to be untrue, and in any case it is a worthless claim because the legal structures surrounding surveillance are riddled with flaws and loopholes—some, I believe, inserted deliberately. For example, the Home Office has recently had to admit to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that the flimsy protections that should prevent interception of ordinary citizens’ communications without a warrant are being circumvented on a wholesale basis. This is because the Home Office decided that anyone who uses popular services such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and many others are exempt from protection from unwarranted snooping merely because the servers of those companies are located outside the UK. With gaping holes like that in our legislation, who needs to break the law?

No sensible parliamentarian will deny our police and security services all the powers they need to investigate and prevent serious crime and terrorism, but these highly intrusive powers to pry into all aspects of a person’s most intimate and personal life must be very strictly targeted on individuals who are genuinely suspected of planning or perpetrating the most serious crimes, and no one else. The state has no right to snoop on the rest of us; it is as simple as that. The current legal framework fails to make the distinction clear, and for that reason it is not fit for purpose. It also fails to deliver an oversight process which works so that abuses of the rules, such as they are, will probably be detected and punished. For that reason, too, it is not fit for purpose. With the Conservatives no longer constrained by the principles and common sense of the Liberal Democrats, there is every reason to fear that the forthcoming legislation will be long on more intrusive powers and decidedly short on limitations on the use of those powers, and the oversight to make sure that those limitations are being observed.

Two days ago, American lawmakers made the historic decision, prompted by the Snowden revelations, to start reversing four decades of ever-increasing intrusion into their citizens’ affairs, and to introduce real transparency into the use of these powers. I put it to noble Lords that it would be perverse and completely unacceptable for our Government’s response to Snowden’s disclosures of secret and unauthorised mass surveillance in this country to be for the state to try to go deeper and deeper into places where it has no business.

With the sad lack of a substantial number of MPs who will fight for our privacy and our liberties in the other place, it will be up to Peers on all sides of this House to fill that vacuum on behalf of British citizens. We must stand firm against unbalanced and disproportionate prying into our lives. We must insist on clearly defined limits on the use of these surveillance powers and must diligently search out and destroy the loopholes that the Government will no doubt insert again. We must ensure that the oversight of the use of these powers is so effective and penetrating that it acts as a real deterrent to abuse. It will be our duty not just to stop but to reverse the hidden drift into more mass surveillance, more snooping on the innocent and more gratuitous prying into our lives by people who have no need and no right to do it.