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What I learned watching the Lords try to sneak the snooper’s charter through the back door

No dahling, this is just between us. Shutterstock

Fans of The Simpsons might recall an episode entitled Mr Spritz Goes to Washington. Krusty the Clown gets elected to Congress and the family receives an education in the activities required to get things done in the political capital. Against the ever-decent Lisa’s better judgement, they surreptitiously attach a change to air traffic control law to a bill giving US flags to orphans. The provisions get passed, thereby curing the Simpsons’ recent air traffic noise pollution problem created by Mayor Quimby.

A version of the Simpson’s 2003 scenario played out in recent days in the House of Lords. A group of peers had attached 18 pages of amendments to the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill currently being [fast-tracked]( “) through parliament.

These amendments effectively amounted to an attempt to sneak what has been dubbed the snooper’s charter into law by the back door. This is basically the same snooper’s charter that was only recently emphatically rejected by a parliamentary committee.

It requires all communications service providers to retain metadata on browsing activity, email correspondence and social media accounts for a period of 12 months – thus dramatically expanding the state’s surveillance capacity in the name of fighting terrorism and organised crime.

The bill was junked the first time round because many MPs felt the costly measures it proposed failed to respect the privacy of citizens and that the Home Office was using "fanciful and misleading” excuses to undermine fundamental human rights.

Inside the sausage factory

Watching laws or sausages being made was not a pastime recommended by Otto Von Bismark but what passes for debate in Westminster really should be compulsory viewing.

But I logged in anyway, to watch the Lords debate this bill again, with a fresh focus on the recent attack in Paris. This latest session in the sausage factory was illuminating in many ways. For a start, I learned that baddies are bad and that we should be afraid of them. And while the Lords don’t really understand newfangled technology, those baddies definitely do.

Luckily for their lordships, four of their number have substantial experience as members of the security establishment, and they came to save the day by clipping the thoroughly discredited snooper’s charter to the already hugely problematic Counter Terrorism & Security Bill.

They and their supporters argued we need targeted rather than mass surveillance (although how that squares with bringing in a mass surveillance bill is anyone’s guess). They also informed their fellow parliamentarians that action is urgently needed, otherwise they will all be blamed for not taking a stand.

Don’t wait for evidence on the problem, they urged, the nation’s security is too important for that. And certainly don’t listen to the “emotive claptrap” being peddled by opponents. This bill is needed to protect children. Thank goodness someone is thinking of the children.

Perhaps it’s a little harsh to suggest there is no evidence that this bill is needed. Crossbench peer and onetime police commissioner Ian Blair, for one, was clear on this point.

It was communications data that enabled the French police to establish a connection between the two men who shot 12 people dead at the offices of Charlie Hebdo last month; and again between those men and the assailant who killed a police officer on the streets of Paris and four others in a Kosher supermarket the same week.

This is, of course, the only way the police could have worked out the Kouachi brothers were brothers and certainly the only way they could have worked out that the two attacks were connected (other than the widely shared online video in which the third man, Amedy Coulibaly, explicitly stated as much).

Additionally, I learned we must immediately stop referring to the amendments to the bill as the “snoopers’ charter”. It’s an affront to the police and security services that attributes exclusively malign motives to these brave men and women.

Voices of reason?

Batting for the opponents to the Krusty the Clown manoeuvre were a number of members of the upper house, who were angered at the way the technological gap between the goodies and baddies is being exaggerated.

The police already have excellent data handling and processing systems, they argued, and have said all they wanted was the “who, where and when”, not the “sweeping powers” the snooper’s charter represents.

They point out that clause one of the snooper’s charter is so obscure and so broad that it effectively has no limits. It essentially gives the government lawful access to all communications data with no meaningful oversight or control.

Parliament should not pass general and obscure laws that give security apparatchiks carte blanche to do anything with no checks and balances. It would be an affront to parliamentary democracy to bounce these kinds of powers into law by attaching them, in undiluted form, to a fast-tracked bill.

Back to the drawing board

During this debate, Conservative peer and Home Office minister Michael Bates confirmed, as various members of the Lords had claimed, that the government has snooper’s charter 2.0 waiting in the wings.

This masterpiece of parliamentary drafting can’t be made available yet but some people have seen it and it is said to address almost all the concerns parliamentarians raised about the first version.

And so the peers dropped their attempt to slip the amendments through on this occasion, withdrawing the amendment.

And in the course of dropping it, Conservative peer Tom King made a very important point:

What I do know is that the moment you get a terrorist outrage is when all the wrong things are decided. The pressure comes on that something has to be done, and it is much better to have decided in advance what you are going to do, in a measured way.

Yet it was King who pulled a Krusty the Clown by trying to tack the amendment onto the bill in the first place – using the Paris attacks as leverage. So perhaps what I learnt most of all while watching their lordships, is that securocrats never let a terrorist attack go to waste.

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