UK Lords kill attempt to sneak in new surveillance laws

Members of the U.K. House of Lords, who last week introduced amendments to an antiterror bill that would have essentially brought back defeated surveillance legislation, have withdrawn the amendments after a spirited debate in the House.

The amendments had been added to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill and would have reintroduced key planks of the Communications Data Bill, popularly known as the Snooper’s Charter.

This included a new data retention regime and very broadly-phrased clauses that would have allowed security services to force communications service providers such as Facebook to install equipment in their facilities, so U.K. intelligence and law enforcement could search through Britons’ communications metadata.

Lord King, one of the four peers who introduced the amendments, withdrew them after hours of debate on the basis that their contentiousness might sink the wider terror bill.

It was certainly a lively debate. The peers who submitted the amendments attacked the term “Snooper’s Charter” as “sanctimonious claptrap” (Lord Blair), “much emotive claptrap” (Lord West), and phrasing that incorrectly “presupposes malignancy” (Lord Carlile). Baroness Neville-Jones argued that the terrorist threat means Parliament cannot “do nothing”.

Lord Blencathra, who had chaired the joint committee that nixed the original Communications Data Bill, maintained that the term “Snooper’s Charter” was accurate, as it was so broadly termed that it could be used as just that. He argued that the sunset clause in the amendments – they would run out at the end of 2016 – wouldn’t reassure people outside Parliament and were likely to be constantly revised. Once these clauses were on the statute book “I have little confidence any government would remove them,” he said.

“If hundred of millions of pounds are spent after this bill passed, sunset is unlikely to have any impact,” added Baroness Ludford, who also pointed out that she was “not sure why we legislate” on surveillance when the spy agency is already carrying out sweeping secret programs such as Tempora.

Blencathra, like several other peers, pointed out that there are multiple reviews of U.K. surveillance legislation currently underway, and shoving in these amendments would “do enormous damage” to those efforts.

The Snooper’s Charter may still return in some form, though. Blencathra indicated that he and some others had seen a version of the bill that had been revised to alleviate his committee’s concerns. The Conservatives have repeatedly said they will reintroduce the bill if they win the general election – right now it’s only their Liberal Democrat coalition partners who are holding them back.