Cops accessing journo sources with RIPA? Use your powers properly, moan MPs

Home Affairs Committee: 'We're astonished but carry on'

MPs calling on an overhaul of the eight-year-old communications data guidance for UK cops and spooks who use snooping measures have accused the Tory-led government of missing its own review target.

The Home Office rebutted the criticism this morning by promising to publish a revised RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) code of practice before the end of 2014.

In the autumn, Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Paul Kennedy began probing claims that police had used RIPA to identify journalistic sources.

It came after it was revealed that police investigating Plebgate had secretly obtained the phone records of the Sun's political editor.

The Home Affairs Select Committee's chair Keith Vaz argued in the politicos' latest report on the UK's use of surveillance powers today that the law was "not fit for purpose".

He said:

We were astonished that law enforcement agencies failed to routinely record the professions of individuals who have had their communications data accessed under the legislation. Using RIPA to access telephone records of journalists is wrong and this practice must cease. The inevitable consequence is that this deters whistleblowers from coming forward.

The recording of information under RIPA is lamentably poor, and the whole process appears secretive and disorganised, without proper monitoring of what is being destroyed and what is being retained. We are concerned that the level of secrecy surrounding the use of RIPA allows investigating authorities to engage in acts which would be unacceptable in a democracy, with inadequate oversight.

The Home Office has failed to publish its review within its own timetable, and not for the first time. It should hold a full public consultation on an amended RIPA Code of Practice, and any updated advice should contain special provisions for dealing with privileged information, such as journalistic material and material subject to legal privilege.

It is vital that the Home Office use the current review of the RIPA Code to ensure that law enforcement agencies use their RIPA powers properly.

The committee put forward five recommendations in its report, including demanding oversight for the extensive "national security" powers gifted to the government under Section 94 of the Telecommunications Act.

Kennedy's office "should be given further resources to carry out its job in an effective and timely manner", the MPs added, especially in light of the investigation into the use of RIPA to lift details about journalistic sources.

The handling of privileged information, such as legal and journalistic material, needed a full revisit, the panel said.

It added that the "secretive and disorganised" use of communications data by British g-men, police officers and other authorities proved that RIPA was inadequate.

Security minister James Brokenshire trotted out the Home Office's official line in response to the report:

A free press is fundamental to a free society and the government is determined that nothing is done which puts that at risk. Communications data is an absolutely critical tool used by police and other agencies to investigate crime, safeguard national security and protect the public.

There are measures in place to ensure that police powers to access this data are not abused. We have also been working to strengthen the relevant code to ensure extra consideration should be given to a communications data request involving those in sensitive professions, such as journalists.

He claimed that the revised code would be published within the next few weeks along with the promise that Brits would be able to fully scrutinise the plans.

In July, when the government rushed the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act through Parliament, it claimed that the code of practice around intercepting privileged information would be beefed up.

What that meant in practice, was that the law depended on a "senior" cop to determine whether such snooping could be justified. So that's alright then! ®

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