IPB As Britain's Snoopers' Charter approaches its highest hurdle yet in Parliament next week, Theresa May has made some concessions to its contested provisions, particularly those affecting privacy, sensitive professions, and access to medical records.
The Home Secretary's concessions will provide some protections to MPs and journalists' communications. For the former, information they've transmitted in the course of their professional duties must only be accessed if the Prime Minister himself has signed off on it. As for journos, their work comms will only be fair game after the bill's proposed judicial commissioner has considered their access to be in the public interest. A further concession will raise the standard for bulk access to medical records to “exceptional and compelling” cases only.
However, The Guardian has reported that the official opposition in Parliament, the Labour party, “intends to press for further changes, including stronger safeguards in five areas: privacy, using internet connection records only in serious crime cases, toughening rules on the judicial authorisation of intercept warrants, stronger safeguards on the use of medical records and other bulk datasets, and protections for legal and journalistic confidentiality.”
The Home Office had previously responded to the Intelligence and Security Committee's alarm about the lack of privacy provisions in the bill by simply adding the word “privacy” to the title of Part 1 of the bill, but the new concessions include a clause which prohibits authorising snooping where the information could reasonably be obtained by less intrusive means.
These issues and amendments proposing them will be brought forward as the Investigatory Powers Bill proceeds to report stage in the House of Commons next week. Over Monday and Tuesday, members of Parliament will be given an opportunity to openly debate the bill, which has been examined by a specially constructed committee established after only 15 MPs voted against the bill at the second reading.
Unlike the second reading of a bill (the first mostly happens when it is published), which takes only a macro-view of whether the bill's main principles are justified, the report stage of a piece of legislation provides MPs the opportunity to go into detail regarding its powers and propose amendments.
Although the Labour party won a review of the bill's bulk hacking and snooping powers, it then demanded even more concessions. At the time the shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, stated that: “The Bill in its current form does not adequately address the concerns raised about privacy. I continue to believe that an overarching privacy clause must be included at the start.”
Burnham's statement has been given the nod by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which today published its 47-page report providing legislative scrutiny of the snoopers' charter (PDF), accepting that the bill "could be improved to enhance further the compatibility of the legal framework with human rights".
The committee's chair, Harriet Harman, said: "The Bill provides a clear and transparent basis for powers already in use by the security and intelligence services, but there need to be further safeguards."
"Protection for MP communications from unjustified interference is vital," Harman notably added first. Its report found that simply "consulting the Prime Minister before interference with communications of Members of Parliament provides an adequate safeguard" and suggested that, "in addition the Speaker or Presiding Officer of the relevant legislature should be given sufficient notice of the decision to interfere with such communications to enable them, if they so wish, to be heard before the Judicial Commissioner."
This would not simply affect the House of Commons, but also the Lords, the devolved legislatures and the European Parliament, and Harman stated that similar protections were then suggested "for confidential communications between lawyers and clients, and for journalists’ sources...", adding "the Bill must provide tougher safeguards to ensure that the Government cannot abuse its powers to undermine Parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account." ®