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'Yes Minister' and the case of the UK's Investigatory Powers Bill

We need more safety and security, but that doesn’t have to come at the price of privacy, and it is not helped by unclear and rushed legislation.

Julian Huppert
2 March 2016
Home Secretary of the UK, Theresa May. Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Some rights reserved.

Home Secretary of the UK, Theresa May. Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Some rights reserved.In the very first Yes Minister episode, Sir Humphrey is challenged as to why he will call a publication "Open Government", when he is totally opposed to the concept. He says: "Always dispose of the difficulty in the title. It does less harm there than in the text."

Clearly, the UK's home secretary took this advice to heart. When the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, having heard the case from the Home Office and the agencies, demanded "that an additional Part be included in the new legislation to provide universal privacy protections", the home secretary acted — and changed the title of the first chapter.

It was "General Protections", and is now "General Privacy Protections".

Clause 1 is the same as it was. So is clause 2, clause 3, clause — well, you get the idea.

Somehow, I think the Intelligence and Security Committee were concerned more with the actual content than with the title. While the title is different, the content is still invasive.

And if anything, it’s worse. More intrusion available to more people than even the draft allowed. It’s hardly an adequate response to the detailed criticisms laid out by three different parliamentary committees. They said that the draft was "a missed opportunity" — and it still is. They said that there was still "confusion" about what it meant — and there still is. And they said the Home Office should put more effort into understanding "the practical realities of how the internet works on a technical level" — and they still should. Although I suspect the officials do know more about the workings of the internet, and know perfectly well the problems with the drafting, but are under ministerial instructions to deliver a set of policy aims that are unrealistic and damaging.

So what happens now? The home secretary has heard the results of parliamentary scrutiny, and rejected almost all the substantive criticisms. It’s now down to Parliament, who have been given a very short timescale to scrutinise this massive, complex, and crucial piece of legislation.

On 14 March 2016, the House of Commons will vote both on whether in principle it agrees with this legislation — the second reading — but also on whether the timetable is reasonable — the programme motion. It is now blatantly apparent that whatever you think of the content of the bill, the timetable is unreasonable.

I hope MPs will reject both the bill and the programme motion. The Lib Dems have led opposition to excessive state surveillance, killing the last version of the Snooper’s Charter, and will keep doing so. The SNP seem onside as well, and it looks like Labour have changed their position, with increasingly welcome criticism of the speed of the legislation.

That leaves it down to finding enough Conservatives who really care about 'British values' such as privacy, or even just who don’t think things like this should be rammed through without proper consideration. David Davis will be onside — can he get the 25 or so rebels that are needed?

If you care about this issue, write to your MP now, and tell your friends to do so as well. If they are Labour, ask them to insist their party opposes the bill. If they are Conservative, urge them to oppose the bill, or at least the programme motion. And if they say no, make sure not to vote for them again.

Like all of us, I want more safety and security, but that doesn’t have to come at the price of privacy, and it is not helped by unclear and rushed legislation. We deserve better.

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