Emergency surveillance bill a 'stitch-up' says Tom Watson

It may have cross-party support, but first-tracking measures on eve of MPs' holidays is controversial

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:26 ON Thu 10 Jul 2014

Campaigning Labour MP Tom Watson has protested at the cross-party "stitch-up" to rush an emergency bill through Parliament that will reinforce the intelligence services' ability to access records of phone calls, text messages and emails sent and received by suspected terrorists.

David Cameron has tweeted that he will be announcing the details later today, saying the consequences of not acting are "grave".

The government is denying that it amounts to a 'Snooper’s Charter' for the security services and – in the wake of heightened fears of a terrorist attack by British-born Islamists returning from Syria and Iraq – it has secured the support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Briefing: does UK need rushed 'anti-terror' bill?

The bill, which was being explained to a special meeting of the Cabinet this morning, will force phone and internet companies to keep records of communications and web usage for possible access later by the security services.

The bill will not give security services the power to review the content of phone calls - only location, date and the phone numbers involved.

Cameron and Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister, say it is needed because the companies could destroy the data following a ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in April which removed the obligation on telecoms companies to retain records of when and who their customers have called, texted and emailed.

As The Guardian reports, this would have "serious consequences for investigations, which can take many months and which rely on retrospectively accessing data for evidential purposes".

The government has won Labour support for the bill after giving an assurance it will include a so-called “sunset clause” as a protection against the unfettered invasion of privacy, which means it will only last until 2016 and then automatically expire, unless it is renewed. Ministers insist it does not extend the powers of the intelligence services to intercept communications – that it only keeps existing powers in place.

Other safeguards promised include the creation of a new Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to examine the impact of the law on privacy and civil liberties; a review of the controversial RIPA - Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act - and annual government transparency reports on how these powers are used.

However, as Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, blogged after being briefed on the proposed legislation: "To pass any new law in just a week is rare. So too is it to have the backing of all three main parties even before it is published.

"On a subject as sensitive as giving the police and security services access to phone and internet data this is bound to be controversial."

Robinson was quickly proved right. Tom Watson came on Radio 4's Today programme to protest that a deal had been done between the three main parties to allow the bill to be rushed through in the dying days before the House rises for the summer recess and MPs skip off for their holidays (sorry – hard work in their constituencies).

"It will be steam-rollered through. If you are an MP you might as well not turn up for work next week because you don’t matter," said Watson.

He vowed to vote against a timetable motion which will limit time for debate, blogging: "No matter what you think about this issue, if you care about democracy, make sure your MP does not walk through the chamber and vote for legislation nobody has had the chance to debate and question."

Watson could be in a small minority however. As well as being demob-happy, many MPs will be distracted by another event the Prime Minister is rumoured to be preparing for early next week – his last major reshuffle before the May 2015 general election.

At least that could free up the Minister without Portfolio, Ken Clarke, a noted critic of anything impinging on civil liberties, and top of the list of these expected to leave the government in the reshuffle, to join Watson in raising doubts about this measure. · 

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And of course we may all rest assured that this massive increase ion surveillance will not be misused.
Perish the thought!