Rewrite 'absurdly complicated’ surveillance laws, say MPs

The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee has presented the Prime Minister with proposals to reform privacy and intelligence laws

The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee has presented the Prime Minister with a raft of proposals for the reform of privacy and intelligence laws.

The committee, headed by former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants to amend, rewrite or redraft seven key laws governing the intelligence services and their activities.

The committee says it has identified a number of areas “where we believe there is scope for the government to be more transparent about the work of the intelligence agencies”.

The first step, in a significant move towards greater transparency, is to consolidate the relevant legislation to publicly acknowledge all of the agencies’ intrusive capabilities.

Where it is not practicable to specify the detail of intelligence arrangements in legislation, the MPs say the government should make it clear how these arrangements will work, for example through codes of practice.

“We recognise that much of the detail regarding the agencies’ capabilities must be kept secret,” the MPs said. “There is, however, a great deal that can be discussed publicly and we believe the time has come for much greater openness and transparency regarding the agencies’ work.”

The committee took evidence from a wide range of witnesses, from across Whitehall, from privacy bodies, parliament and the intelligence agencies.

The report was driven by the breakdown in trust arising from Edward Snowden's revelations about illegal and secret mass surveillance, but Snowden’s revelations went substantially unaddressed by the MPs.

Legislation under review

  • Security Service Act 1989
  • Intelligence Services Act 1994
  • Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000
  • Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006
  • Telecommunications Act 1984
  • Counter-Terrorism Act 2008

Relevant provisions of other legislation as appropriate, representing as many as seven other Acts of Parliament.

The committee chose to focus only on the activities of the three UK services and not, as Snowden had shown, what foreign intelligence services such as the US National Security Agency (NSA) were doing in, and for, the UK.

However, throughout the 147-page report, there was an echo of what Professor John Naughton, fellow at the University of Cambridge, warned the committee when he said: “What it comes down to in the end is essentially a proposition of “trust us”, and in the past two or three years, we have seen a number of startling examples of where serious British public institutions have demonstrated vividly that they are not worthy of trust.”

By contrast, Home Secretary Theresa May told the committee that the existing Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIPA) legislation was adequate. “I think RIPA is still good legislation that is still working well,” she said.

May said she spent a portion of each working day checking and signing warrants for interception and other intrusions.

But the MPs concluded that the statutory framework governing the intelligence services does need urgent reform.

“The interactions between the different pieces of legislation which relate to the statutory functions of the intelligence and security agencies are absurdly complicated, and are not easy for the public to understand,” the report said.

The committee found no fault with any of the activities of the intelligence services, or at least none that could not be addressed by the overall legislative programme that it recommended.

The committee noted that GCHQ had been using data unlawfully acquired in the UK by the National Security Agency for seven years, but is now operating legally.

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