The current UK government in general, and the Home Secretary in particular, is beginning to exhibit a ‘repeat offending’ pattern. Here’s how it goes:
- Propose more intrusive powers of surveillance, data collection and retention;
- Fail to convince relevant stakeholders (coalition partners, electorate, courts);
- Spot a convenient bandwagon onto which to hitch the policy;
- Using (3), short-cut parliamentary process to push legislation through without proper scrutiny.
In some instances there is a Step 5, at which the legislation is ruled disproportionate, struck down, etc., but paradoxically that is then used as another reason to rush further knee-jerk legislation through with inadequate parliamentary scrutiny.
So, for instance, the DRIP Bill – rammed through parliament in a shamelessly farcical 8 days – was announced as an “emergency” measure because the government had failed to care that (over a period of months) international bodies from the UN to the European Parliament and, finally and critically, the European Court of Justice, had looked at what it was doing and found that it clearly violated the principles of necessity and proportionality.
However, the next piece of ‘repeat offender’ behaviour is that this government will on no account stop doing what it wants to do simply because that has been ruled illegal. Instead, it will change the law to make what it wants to do legal.
It will frame its legislative ambitions in terms of supposedly incontrovertible case studies: anyone who objects to the “itemised phone bill” Theresa May is asking for would clearly prefer babies to die, terrorists to win, and civilisation to crumble into ruins. This isn’t about anything as petty as your personal privacy; it’s about the very safety of society as we know it.
There are two small problems with the Home Secretary’s approach.
First, if this issue is as existentially important as she makes out, how dare she deny the IP Bill proper parliamentary scrutiny? There can only be one reason to push a 300-page, technical Bill through in three weeks, and that is to stop anyone understanding its contents.
Second, the approach she is asking for demonstrably has not worked up to now, and cannot work in future. US intelligence services say they are “drowning in data”; what they already collect is beyond their capacity to process usefully. But the Home Secretary wants her agencies to have more. The very attacks on Paris which the Home Secretary cites are a stark reminder that intrusive online surveillance (of the very kinds France has enacted) do not stop committed attackers, even if those attackers communicate in clear via SMS and social media sites.
“Legislate in haste, repent at leisure”, they say. But the IP Bill isn’t even bad because it’s done in haste. It’s just the government’s latest attempt to get its pet surveillance project onto the books; it’s premeditatedly bad, and this government shows every sign of being incapable of repentance.
The tragedy is, this time they might just get away with it.