‘Snoopers Charter’ – sweeping state powers!

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Police filming marchers on Saturday’s demonstration against the Trident nuclear programme
Police filming marchers on Saturday’s demonstration against the Trident nuclear programme

‘IT beggars belief that the government is blundering on with its snooping power-grab completely disregarding the concerns being raised from all sides,’ said Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director on Tuesday.

She was responding to the surprise publication of the government’s Investigatory Powers Bill. She said those opposed include ‘no fewer than three of its own parliamentary committees, every privacy group in the country, the UN and tech firms like Apple’.

Allen continued: ‘It’s like adding extra storeys to a burning building. Even the USA is rolling back its surveillance systems because of concerns over people’s right to privacy. These surveillance measures go too far, too fast. Basic protections are simply not there, including proper independent judicial oversight – the very least required.

‘By rushing the supposed “redraft” of this huge and complex Bill through an impossibly short timetable, the government is showing contempt for parliament – every one of the three committees of parliamentarians who have considered their plans told them they needed serious work. This unseemly haste to push on without them giving the Bill due time suggests a complete disregard for those consulted and the unanimous concerns raised.’

Amnesty noted that a letter published in The Telegraph on Tuesday, ‘criticises the speed with which the proposals are being rushed through parliament and calls for more extensive debate over the measures’.

The rights group stressed: ‘The letter was signed by politicians from all the political parties, experts from the legal profession, technical experts and the heads of all major privacy organisations.’

Last year it was revealed that GCHQ had been spying on Amnesty International.

Liberty, Big Brother Watch and Privacy International joined Amnesty International UK and Open Rights Group in signing the letter to the Telegraph.

Other signatories included Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Law Society president Jonathan Smithers. The letter read: ‘All three parliamentary reports on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill concluded that it does not meet the requirements of clarity, consistency and coherence.

‘They call for new drafting, further safeguards, further evidence and further consultation. Given these recommendations, the government’s intention to pass the Investigatory Powers Bill this year is not in the nation’s interest. There is no need to be bound by this time frame.

‘The powers, which expire this year, to give law enforcement access to data could be dealt with as a separate Bill. This would allow a comprehensive Investigatory Powers Act to follow next year after adequate consultation.’

Renate Samson, Chief Executive, Big Brother Watch said: ‘The government are squandering a golden opportunity to create a law fit for the digital age. By publishing hundreds of pages of clauses and codes of practice less than a month after the proposals were so roundly criticised by three parliamentary committees, the Home Office have shown a complete disregard for the process of parliamentary scrutiny.

‘This Bill should be divided to deal with the sunset clause on our communications data quickly, leaving the more detailed, intrusive powers for proper consideration over a longer period of time. Surveillance is no longer a niche issue. In a connected world, where everyone is a digital citizen, these powers will impact us all. This Bill, and the manner in which it is being rushed, fails to provide time for MPs who will be voting for these powers to consider them and understand them properly.’

When the bill was first announced, Liberty said: ‘As ever greater amounts of our lives are stored, shared and sent online, a detailed and intimate picture of you can be pieced together – revealing much more than any search through your bedside drawer. Don’t we all deserve some basic protections?’

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said on Tuesday: ‘Less than three weeks ago, MPs advised 123 changes to the majorly flawed Draft Bill. The powers were too broad, safeguards too few and crucial investigatory powers entirely missing.

‘Minor Botox has not fixed this bill. Government must return to the drawing board and give this vital complex task appropriate time. Anything else would show dangerous contempt for parliament, democracy and our country’s security.’

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: ‘On first reading, the revised Bill barely pays lip service to the concerns raised by the committees that scrutinised the draft Bill. If passed, it would mean that the UK has one of the most draconian surveillance laws of any democracy with mass surveillance powers to monitor every citizen’s browsing history.’

l Also on Tuesday, Amnesty International repeated its call for a public inquiry into the circumstances leading to the 1998 Omagh bomb and the investigative failures that followed. The call came as the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland withdrew charges today against the only remaining suspect charged with the bombing.

On 15 August 1998, 29 people were killed – including a woman who was pregnant with twins – and over 200 people injured when a car bomb exploded in Omagh, County Tyrone. The Real IRA subsequently claimed responsibility.

The rights group said: ‘Amnesty believes that an inquiry is needed in order to investigate comprehensively the circumstances surrounding the Omagh bomb and to ensure lessons are learnt, including from the failure to carry out adequate investigations into the bombing.’

In September 2013, the Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers ruled out the possibility of holding a public inquiry into the bombing. Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International, Patrick Corrigan, said: ‘The collapse of this case means that the families bereaved and those injured by the bomb are left without answers about what happened that day and whether it could have been prevented.

‘The failure of the State to deliver justice through the criminal courts only reinforces the case for an inquiry to help deliver truth. The Secretary of State must now revisit her indefensible decision to refuse an inquiry into the Omagh bombing.

‘The families have been drip-fed information over the years, with new wounds opened each time and with none of the alleged bombers ever being held criminally responsible. What the bereaved, and Northern Ireland more broadly, deserve is the fullest account possible of what happened in Omagh, delivered by an independent inquiry, with cooperation from all sides. All that families want is the truth. Surely that is not too much to ask?’

Amnesty is urging the UK authorities to establish an independent inquiry without further delay, and called on the Irish and United States governments to offer full cooperation with the work of such an inquiry.

Amnesty said: ‘Despite criminal investigations, a civil case, a Police Ombudsman investigation, and other reviews in the UK and Ireland – including one conducted by the UK’s former Intelligence Services Commissioner, the full contents of which have not been made public – serious questions remain outstanding about alleged state failures in the lead up to and the aftermath of the Omagh bomb.

‘In particular, there are unanswered questions concerning the gathering and sharing of intelligence material both between the RUC and MI5 and, internationally, between UK authorities, Ireland’s Garda Síochána, and the United States’ FBI.’