UK emergency surveillance bill approved in Commons

A much-criticized emergency surveillance legislation has cleared the UK’s House of Commons after a prolonged session. Angry exchanges were overheard during the sitting, alleging abuse of power.

Opposition came from a group of up to 56 MPs from the three main parties after each party’s spokesperson conceded on the need for new laws.

The data retention and investigatory powers bill was agreed at third reading by an overwhelming majority of 416, after MPs voted 449 to 33 in favour.

Earlier that day, Labour Member of Parliament Tom Watson’s cross-party bid to force the legislation to expire by the end of the year was defeated 454 vote to 56, majority 398.

UK opposition sees the act as conducive to excessive surveillance and potential abuse of power. The government did agree to have additional reviews of investigatory regulations – both a general review at ministers’ own initiative to be completed by the election and addition reviews of the bill every six months, proposed by Labour.

The House of Lords will take a more in-depth look at the bill on Wednesday and Thursday as ministers want to have it sent for royal assent before this weekend.

Bitter complaints were sounded from backbenchers across the Commons, criticizing the bill’s forced passing in just one day.

Watson said: “Parliament has been insulted …[This is] democratic banditry resonant of a rogue state.”

Home secretary Theresa May defended the data retention and investigatory powers bill as a much needed set of proposals that would strengthen national security and public safety. She justified it as necessary following the European Court of Justice ruling this April. The Court of Justice concluded that the EU directive on data retention had overstepped its original intent and powers and was an invasion of privacy. Labour’s acceptance of the bill is seen as a return to the original law before this ruling.

The ECJ ruling said that extended collection and storing of location, texts, phone calls, emails and internet use can paint a very detailed picture of an individual’s personal life and can be seen as a severe intrusion of privacy. The judges said that the blanket retention of such data for 6 months to 2 years, without the proper safeguards, can go far beyond the scope of monitoring serious crime and terrorism. The new restrictions stated that any proposed legislation must be in accordance to human right law. This meant that any requests by local and national security institutions had to be clearly delimited in time period, location and connected suspects.

UK government has said that this ruling would put under scrutiny existing legislation, which could mean that ISPs and communication companies would start deleting vital data. Ministers claim that the bill would only preserve the status quo and would not create new powers for government.

UN commissioner Navi Pillay has criticized the bill, saying that the data retention and investigatory powers bill — also known as the Drip bill — would not address existing European privacy concerns. Pillay says that this motion should be subject of wider public debate.

“To me it’s difficult to see how the UK can now justify rushing through wide-reaching emergency legislation which may not fully address the concerns raised by the court, at time when there are proceedings ongoing by the UK’s own investigative powers tribunal on these very issues,” Pillay said in Geneva on Wednesday.

Privacy groups state that surveillance powers which would allow security institutions and the police to collect personal communications for up to 12 months have been widely rejected by courts in the rest of the European Union. Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Cyprus have all rejected such initiatives, deeming them unconstitutional.

Former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald, the Liberal Democrat peer, defends the Drip bill, claiming that this initiative only reconfirms existing practice. He says that the expiration date of December 2016 would require a replacement and along with it, more liberal reforms.