U.K. Parliament Debates “Snoopers’ Charter”

The British government’s controversial attempt to pass sweeping new surveillance powers was debated in Parliament for the first time Tuesday, with opposition politicians raising privacy concerns.

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT’S controversial attempt to pass sweeping new surveillance powers was debated in Parliament for the first time Tuesday, with opposition politicians raising privacy concerns and calling for significant changes to the plans.

The government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill — the so-called snoopers’ charter — was published in November last year. If passed into law in its current form, it would mandate a data retention regime unprecedented in any Western democracy, forcing internet companies to store records showing every website visited by every person in the U.K. for a period of 12 months. The bill also codifies powers that would allow British security agencies to conduct large-scale hacks of computer networks, and it will also hand spies the power to secretly monitor journalists and their sources, as The Intercept has previously reported.

During Tuesday’s debate in Parliament, the government’s home secretary, Theresa May (pictured above), defended the proposed law, stating that it was “world-leading legislation” necessary to combat terrorism threats. However, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Scottish National Party representatives criticized the bill and vowed not to support it unless it is rewritten in several areas.

“The truth is we are some way from finding a consensus in the form that this legislation should take,” said Labour’s Andy Burnham. “We’ve recognized the country needs a new law, but I’ve also said that the government’s bill is not yet worthy of support. There are significant weaknesses in this bill.”

Following the debate, there was set to be a vote to pass the bill to the next stage of parliamentary scrutiny. The Labour and Scottish National parties both said they would abstain, while the Liberal Democrats announced they would vote against the bill, calling the proposed legislation “awful.” However, the governing Conservative party, which has a narrow majority of members in the Parliament, will almost certainly obtain enough votes to move the bill forward.

The months ahead will see the continuation of a heated debate around the government’s proposals, which have faced severe criticism in recent weeks. On Tuesday, 200 legal experts signed a letter in The Guardian asserting that the Investigatory Powers Bill “fails to meet international standards for surveillance powers” and “may be illegal.”

Earlier in March, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to privacy criticized the draft law as “disproportionate,” and said that it would “undermine the spirit of the very right to privacy.”

Meanwhile, three separate British parliamentary reports have raised concerns about the scope of the broad surveillance plans. In February, one of the committees that scrutinized the plans made 86 detailed recommendations for improvements and said that the government had “a significant amount of further work to do before Parliament can be confident that the provisions have been fully thought through.”

Update: March 15, 2016, 15:30 ET
As expected, members of Parliament have voted in favor of the surveillance bill. It was approved by 281 votes to 15 and will now move to the next stage of parliamentary scrutiny — known as the “committee stage” — during which the legislation will be debated in detail and various amendments proposed.

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