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More safeguards needed to protect MPs communications, claims parliamentary body

Joint Committee on Human Rights argues Investigatory Powers Bill protections are ‘inadequate’

An influential UK parliamentary committee has called for the government to introduce stronger measures to protect the communications of lawmakers and peers from interception by the police and security services.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights warned today (2 June) that the protections offered in the Investigatory Powers Bill, which will give sweeping snooping powers to police and the security services, were “inadequate”.

“A key role of parliament is to hold the government to account and the Bill must provide sufficient safeguards to prevent the government from abusing its powers of surveillance in a way which undermines the legislature’s constitutional role,” according to a 40-page report released by the committee.

“Members of the public should also be able to expect their communications with MPs to remain confidential,” it said.

The report will increase the pressure to add new protections to the Bill, following recent revelations by Computer Weekly over the extent of monitoring of parliamentary communications.

Computer Weekly revealed earlier this week (1st June, 2016) that GCHQ has been able to harvest traffic details of all parliamentary emails – including details of the sender, recipient and subject matter – for at least three years.

Meanwhile, US law enforcement agencies have access to parliamentary documents and email through Microsoft Office 365 software, under secret directives given to Microsoft under controversial US surveillance laws.

The Human Rights Committee, made up of 12 members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, concluded that measures announced by the government to require intelligence and law enforcement agencies to consult with the prime minister before intercepting MPs’ communications did not go far enough.

It called for the speaker or the presiding officer, in the case of devolved parliaments, to be given prior notification of any decision to intercept parliamentary communications, or any warrant affecting member’s communications.

The speaker or presiding officer should have the option of being represented before a Judicial Commissioner, to make representations over the scope or precision of the warrant, it said.

The committee also called for measures to strengthen the protection for privileged legal communications between lawyers and their clients in the Bill, and for stronger safeguards to protect journalists’ sources.

“Protection for MP communications from unjustified interference is vital, as it is for confidential communications between lawyers and clients, and for a journalist’s sources. The Bill must provide tougher safeguards to ensure that the government cannot abuse its powers to undermine Parliament’s ability to hold the government to account,” said Harriet Harman, chair of the joint committee. 

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