My Lords, as a former head of MI5 and a member of the RUSI panel that reported to the Government last year, I am pleased to welcome the Bill. We in this country have had statutory powers of interception for about 30 years and actual powers of interception for 400 years at least. Overall the statutory arrangements, which have been updated from time to time, have stood us in good stead. They have been a cornerstone of the work that the intelligence agencies have done since that time. It is largely as a result of that set of powers that the agencies have been able to keep our citizens safe from terrorism and other threats, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, for the data that he provided to that end earlier in the debate.
They have also helped the police to prosecute many crimes, and that has been undertaken on a lawful and accountable basis. It was encouraging, for example, that the various inquiries that followed the revelations made by Edward Snowden, now in Russia, did not uncover any illegal activities by the British agencies. This appeared to be a surprise to some commentators, and in some cases a disappointment, but it should not have been because anyone who has worked in or with the agencies will realise that they set great store by operating on the basis of law.
Technology and public expectations move on, though, and the Bill will therefore propose a number of changes that I believe we should welcome. I suspect we will not need to make significant changes in the light of the referendum result last week. In particular, the Government have recognised the need to lay out more clearly the way in which various powers are actually used; I suspect there was a sharp intake of breath when that was decided, but in fact I think it was the right decision. As David Anderson rightly pointed out, the previous arrangements, though lawful, were, to say the least, opaque.
The powers in the Bill are necessary if the people in this country are to be able to live their lives in security, and I take as an example the use of bulk personal datasets. The use of such datasets has been the most striking development in investigative methodology that we have seen in the past 15 years, and as digital activity and life on the internet has become absolutely normalised, the use of bulk datasets has become a vital capability in enabling the agencies to make sense of the movements, associations and activities of potential terrorists and separate out the truly threatening from the background noise. It is right to make this capability and its existence clear and to ensure that the datasets are accessed on an accountable basis. There is nothing improper or alarming in using data for these ends, but it is better if we all know what is going on.
I also welcome the double lock authorisation model, which was one of the proposals made originally by the RUSI panel. It is important to keep Ministers in the authorisation loop, since the use of these powers is a matter of public concern and often of national security, which is a responsibility of government. But the judicial role can give assurance, if any is required, that Ministers are not abusing their powers. I may say that having been involved in the process of applying for warrants for 30 years at various levels within the security service, I am not aware of any case where Ministers tried to abuse their authority, but at least we will have that assurance.
Finally, it is important that in scrutinising this legislation we bear in mind that it must provide a framework to support fast-moving, complex and sometimes intensive live operations. Those using the powers on our behalf have to be able to move as fast as those who are planning a terrorist attack, importing a drugs shipment or procuring the online abuse of a child. This process cannot be mulled over at great length as operational requirements arise. I can remember in the period after the
Bureaucracy and accountability are not the same thing. There needs to be clear and effective authorisation and oversight of these powers, but it needs to be done in such a way that the powers can still be used quickly and without unduly burdensome process. Thematic warrants may well fall into the category of activities that are needed for this purpose. One of the strengths of the British approach to these issues in the past, which has not always been achieved in other jurisdictions, has been to keep operational realities in mind and to create processes that provide oversight but do not bog the agencies or the police down in unending paperwork.
As we update the legislation governing the use of investigative powers, we should not lose that vital balance between accountability on the one hand and operational realities on the other. I look forward to taking part in the further scrutiny of this legislation in your Lordships’ House.