The UK parliament should have more power to scrutinise the authorisation of interception warrants, according to former home secretary David Blunkett.
“I don’t know anyone who has really believed that parliament scrutinises the warrants system,” he said this week during a Select Committee meeting scrutinising the draft Investigatory Powers Bill.
“The commissioners have and they produce annual reports. But parliament, other than this annual debate, doesn’t and hasn’t. I see no reason why we shouldn’t have a much more thorough report on the numbers of decisions taken and the nature of those decisions.”
The veteran Labour MP, who also served as the secretary of state for work and pensions during the Blair administration, played a key role in the implementation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), a law that has since provided legal cover for spy systems used by GCHQ such as Tempora.
Currently, oversight is provided in the form of annual reports from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC), however under RIPA [Section 19] it remains illegal for any MP or secretary of state to discuss key details of the warrants issued if asked.
Yet during the recent Select Committee Blunkett indicated parliament should be given more access to authorisation statistics.
“I have said it before when the then-foreign secretary William Hague reported to parliament on the back of what happened with Snowden – we can be a lot less sheepish about all this without actually putting the intelligence and security services at risk and I think we should examine how we might do that more openly,” he said.
During his time as a secretary of state, Blunkett said he personally authorised up to 2,500 warrants a year while he also revealed he only turned away roughly “two or three” percent of interception requests.
We have always collected
The draft Investigatory Powers Bill would give enhanced snooping powers to government and police forces and yet in many cases these powers are not new, Blunkett said.
“We have always collected,” he added. “It’s been collected and it’s been held. The records have been there under the old telecommunications system. They weren’t accessible in the same fashion they are now or at the speed they are accessible but the process was the same, wasn’t it?”
Additionally, the Investigatory Powers Bill proposals contain a so-called ‘double lock’ that, in theory, provides greater oversight and protection by making a judge sign off on warrants. Yet Blunkett indicated this will only slow down the warrant process.
“There is a presumption in our present political environment that judges know better than anyone else and are better at all sorts of processes than other people,” he said.
“I think they are very good at interrogating and being able to make judgements in the critical judicial system but I don’t think they are better or worse than senior politicians at making a judgement on whether the evidence placed before them in these circumstances stands up.”
Instead, Blunkett believes the judiciary lacks the ability to act on impulse, a key component of making warrant decisions.
“If I might be controversial, sometimes you weigh the evidence and use instinct and instinct is no less valid from those who have come through years and years of the political process and have been publicly scrutinised themselves than it is for judges.
“The politician is accountable,” he maintained.
Asked if the Investigatory Powers Bill, coined the Snoopers’ Charter by opponents, is a worthwhile update to current surveillance law, the former home secretary said he believes it is now necessary.
“We have moved from an analogue to a digital age and we have needed for some time to update the former telecommunications procedures and safeguards into the age we are in at the moment,” he said.
During the last Select Committee it was revealed that proposals to force internet providers to store metadata for the required 12 month period would cost up to £17m a year.