MPs should have longer to scrutinise the investigatory powers bill that hands greater powers to the state to access people’s web-browsing history, internet companies and pressure groups have said.
The legislation, which would give the state powers to force communications firms to store individuals’ internet connection records – the addresses of websites visited – for 12 months, will be discussed by MPs on Tuesday afternoon.
It is likely to pass its first Commons hurdle because Tory MPs are expected to wave it through and Labour is intending to abstain at this stage. The opposition support the law’s aims but has concerns about privacy.
The Liberal Democrats are planning to vote against the bill, while the SNP had indicated it would vote against but may now abstain.
The debate is expected to take about five hours and will be scrutinised further on other occasions, but several groups said the timetable was not long enough time to raise initial objections about 245 pages of legislation.
Ahead of the reading, the Internet Services Providers’ Association said: “Due to the concerns outlined above but also wider issues, our members have significant concerns about the ambitious timetable of the bill. The prime minister himself argued at PMQ [prime minister’s questions] that the investigatory powers bill is one of the most important bills this House will discuss.
“We recognise that three parliamentary committees have investigated the bill and made 123 recommendations. However, even our members are not yet fully clear about what the bill will mean for them. It is vital that parliament is provided with a sufficient amount of time to scrutinise the bill.”
Renate Samson, chief executive of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, has said the drive to get the bill on the statute books by the end of the year was “too fast”.
Senior lawyers also raised concerns in a letter to the Guardian, saying it was fundamentally flawed because it destroyed privacy.
Among those who have signed the letter are the chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee, Kirsty Brimelow QC, Tom de la Mare QC, who has been a special advocate in security cases, Sir Stephen Sedley, who is a former court of appeal judge, Prof Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, Hugh Southey QC, Michael Mansfield QC and Philippe Sands QC. Among academic lawyers, there are representatives of nearly 40 law schools in the UK.
Earlier, the Lib Dems called on Labour to do more to kill off the new surveillance laws, calling the decision to abstain from voting on the bill “gutless”.
Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, made it clear that Labour was prepared to vote down the legislation at a later stage and force the government to extend its transitional arrangements unless there were a string of changes.
But he said he was persuaded that the police and security services were losing the ability to catch criminals because of advances in technology, and that the law needed to be updated to give a “clear legal framework” for access to some internet records.
The changes suggested by Labour include:
- A guarantee that the political activities of campaigners for justice, trade unionists and bereaved families will not be spied on using the new legislation.
- A clear definition of protecting “national security” and “economic wellbeing”, which are the current conditions that justify the use of the new powers.
- A proportionate list of crimes that would justify allowing police and security services to access someone’s internet connection record.
- Restrictions on the number of law enforcement agencies that would be allowed to use the legislation.
- Better protections for the confidential communications of “sensitive professions”, such as MPs with constituents, lawyers with clients and journalists with sources.
- Approval for interception to be granted by judges on the basis of the evidence rather than merely whether the right process has been followed.
Burnham said: “The bill cannot be supported in its current form, but nor should we just oppose it because there is a deadline where the country needs new legislation.
“What I am saying very clearly to Theresa May is: here are very specific concerns that we have and unless you meet them we will not cooperate with getting this bill on the statute book by the end of the year. That is quite a significant statement.”
However, Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, accused Labour of “sitting on their hands while the government rams through a law that will erode our civil liberties”.
He said: “We want a bill that keeps us all safe, and keeps the government in check. You can’t fight terrorism by just gathering information on everybody and making it available to anyone who asks – that’s like finding a needle in a haystack that grows every day. Every pound the government spends on storing the family photos you sent home from your holiday is a pound taken away from your local police.”
The SNP has also questioned the bill’s legality. Joanna Cherry, the party’s justice spokesperson, said she accepted that the law needed an overhaul, but said the plans could “set a dangerous precedent and a bad example internationally”.
She accused ministers of trying to rush the investigatory powers bill through parliament to avoid scrutiny, and said the SNP’s concerns were shared by three parliamentary committees and campaign groups.
“The bill seeks to put on a statutory footing some powers which go well beyond those currently authorised by law in other western democracies. No convincing operational case for such powers was produced with the draft bill. It is for the government to make that case,” Cherry said.
“The SNP looks forward to working with other parliamentarians to get this right, but the government must afford sufficient time for consideration of the bill. Surveillance is a global concern, and this new legislation could be copied internationally.”
SNP and Lib Dem resistance to the bill could become a problem for the government if Labour decides that demands have not been met.
There are thought to be about a dozen Tory rebels against the bill who would be prepared to vote in favour of amendments that strengthen privacy protections.
David Davis, a Tory MP and leading civil liberties campaigner, told the Spectator this month: “We are not setting out to trash this bill, but there are going to be sensible, serious amendments to it.”
Davis told the Guardian that there would be “battles ahead” over a number of aspects of the bill to ensure greater protections for privacy.
Privacy campaigners have demanded that the bill be split to allow proper scrutiny. This would allow renewal of those parts needed to retain existing powers due to expire in December, which require internet and phone companies to retain business records for 12 months.
Splitting the bill would allow the rest of it, including powers to track all web use and to license the security agencies to hack into phones and computers worldwide, to be examined further and avoid it being rushed on to the statute book.
The government argues that the bill is needed to address a gap in police and intelligence powers that means some communication cannot be tracked. It revives some of the aims of a previous surveillance bill, which became dubbed the snooper’s charter in the last parliament and was eventually blocked by the Lib Dems.
The Internet Services Providers’ Association has also set out its concerns about the bill, including a lack of clarity about key terms, concepts and cost implications.
It said: “Of key concern in this area are internet connection records (an entirely new concept), encryption powers, extra-territorial application, but also the various definitions of data in the bill.”
James Blessing, the association’s chairman, said: “Government needs to address concerns around its intentions, definitions and costs to enable industry to make a proper assessment of the bill and help parliament scrutinise the complex proposals.”