MPs: laws on GCHQ snooping "completely useless"

28 Jun 2013
MPs

Snooper's charter dead in the water following cable tapping revelations, say senior politicians

Revelations of mass snooping programs from GCHQ and the US National Security Agency have shown up the UK’s laws governing surveillance as totally ineffective, MPs have said.

Conservative MP David Davis and Labour deputy chair Tom Watson said Prism, and its UK counterpart Tempora, had highlighted that parliamentary supervision over surveillance was "completely useless".

"Our supervision procedures are completely useless, not just weak as we thought," said Davis, speaking at an Open Rights Group meeting chaired by Watson. "Let’s say the foreign secretary signs this off. It then comes up in the House of Commons – what does he say? That we never comment on security matters. There’s no accountability to Parliament."

Our supervision procedures are completely useless, not just weak as we thought

Although GCHQ is accountable to the Intelligence Security Committee (ISC), Davis pointed out that it reports directly to the prime minister, not Parliament, meaning surveillance operations are never openly debated.

"What Tempora has done in political terms is throw up a really big red flag saying actually we have to rethink completely from scratch about all the oversight arrangements we have," he said.

Tempora is thought to be GCHQ's extensive cable-tapping operation, with the agency allegedly scooping up huge amounts of communications data, including the content of phone calls and emails.

Davis and security experts at the meeting said it was time to rethink the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which is supposed to govern the interception of communications such as Tempora.

"There’s a provision in the legislation which says the act is essentially voluntary code, and you don’t have to follow it anyway. That’s its practical effect, I'm afraid," said solicitor advocate Simon McKay.

No snooper’s charter

Both MPs also dismissed the return of the "snooper’s charter", despite renewed interest in the communications data bill after the recent Woolwich murder.

They said the disclosures around Tempora meant the bill was unlikely to become legislation in the next year.

Theresa May had been using the Woolwich murder to try and revive interest in the bill, arguing that it was "essential" to security services, despite opposition from M15.

But Davis and Watson said more MPs were increasingly sceptical about the bill after the surveillance scandal. Davis also called on the European commission to keep up the pressure on the foreign secretary, after EU commissioner Vivane Reding asked William Hague for details about Tempora.

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