Government Blundered With Rushed Surveillance Laws

When the government introduced the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act last year, it was nothing if not controversial. A lot of people were concerned about the fact it gave the government the power to collect communications data from suspects (who could and in many cases presumably would still prove to be innocent). The fact that an act allowing the government to intrude deeper into people’s private lives was rushed through parliament in just a few days – an absurdly short timescale compared to most other pieces of legislation – didn’t do much to endear it to the public or to civil rights organisations such as Liberty.

Now, one year on, a possibly unprecedented legal challenge has left the act itself and the rushed nature of its introduction looking like one big blunder on the part of the government. Not just the controversy of the act but concerns about its actual legality gave rise to a legal challenge from within the government’s own ranks, with two MPs taking the case against it to the High Court. A court challenge to government legislation from MPs is certainly very unusual, and some believe this is the first time it has happened at all.

Deputy Labour leader candidate Tom Watson and Tory David Davis challenged the act on the basis that the government had failed to comply with laws protecting the human rights of its subjects. It had the support of the human rights group Liberty, which criticised the way the act was “was privately agreed following discussions between the then three main party leaders” and then “became law within just three days.” This, Liberty said, “[denied] time for proper parliamentary scrutiny, amendment or even debate.”

The High Court has now decided that the challenge was perfectly well-founded; in its hurry, the government failed to comply with not one but two pieces of EU legislation designed to protect the rights of ordinary people. Both the Human Rights Act and the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights contain provisions designed to protect the right of a government’s subjects to privacy which the UK government has infringed. The ruling (against which the government says it will appeal) has basically cancelled out the offending parts of the act – though this will not take effect until next March, giving the government time to come up with a new, better thought-out plan that will be more compliant with international law.

The timing of the ruling is also unfortunate for the government. It coincides with wider discussions about government surveillance and individual privacy as the government seeks to introduce yet more legislation designed to help it monitor people’s private communications. David Cameron is championing a ban of popular messaging services like WhatsApp, based on a reluctance to “allow a means of communication between people which… we cannot read.” This particularly well-publicised measure forms part of a wider raft of unpopular proposals dubbed “the snoopers’ charter.”

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