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Home Office “Snoopers’ Charter” passes chaotically through the Lords

But crucial victories for privacy advocates make the score 1–1

Privacy International Media Release
13th November 2003
For immediate release

The government's controversial "Snoopers Charter" was today (Thursday) approved by the House of Lords and will now become law. The decision was as spectacular as it was unexpected.

Until 2pm today it appeared that the government's proposals to place every UK email and phone account under surveillance was doomed. Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Cross Bench peers had vowed to oppose them. The Joint Human Rights Committee of the Parliament had expressed "grave reservations": about the plans. Independent legal analysis had ruled them unlawful. Grim faced Home Office Officials sitting in the Advisors Box of the Lord's had admitted they were expecting the worst.

However, at the eleventh hour the government snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. A "fatality" motion by Deputy Opposition leader Baroness Blatch provoked calculated outrage on the government benches. Her motion, which proposed to kill the government's Order outright, was a device that had not succeeded in the Lords in thirty years. Government members threatened that the very basis of the House would fundamentally change were the fatality motion was passed. The government vowed that if the motion succeeded it would exact revenge by killing any and every Order proposed by a future Conservative government.

The Liberal Democrats, which until then had agreed to block the "data retention" Orders, which mandated the long-term storage of all communication records on the entire UK population, reversed its position. By 4pm, faced with certain defeat, the Conservatives were then forced to withdraw the motions. The proposals passed unopposed.

This means that after a short period of implementation of a much derided "voluntary" retention scheme, the government will be able to pass regulations forcing all communications providers to store and yield vast amounts of information on all their customers. The data — relating to who you phoned, who phoned you, mobile phone location, emails sent and received and websites visited — can then be handed over on request to dozens of government agencies.

However Privacy International and the Foundation for Information Policy Research, which have campaigned to defeat the proposals were delighted that two important motions were approved by the Lords.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury (L-D) proposed that the Interception of Communications Commissioner should be compelled to inform "any person who appears to have been adversely affected by any wilful or reckless failure on the part of any person exercising or undertaking any of the powers and duties conferred or imposed on him by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000". This means that for the first time the oversight body must let people know when their privacy has been improperly invaded. In the past no such disclosure was made.

The Baroness Blatch also succeeded in a groundbreaking motion requiring the government to report to Parliament the extent of overseas access to personal information stored by communications providers. Such access is widespread, and available to many developed and developing countries.

A furious Baroness Blatch also put the House on notice that a Private Members Bill would be tabled next year to redress many of the problems identified by the Opposition.

However, despite these successes, Privacy International believes today was a dark moment in the history of the House of Lords. The Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights in a report released last week on the Snoopers proposals had declined to approve the Orders dealing with retention. Outlining grave reservations and fundamental legal problems, the Committee was scathing in its criticism both of the proposals and of the governments tactics — including the consultation, which it criticised for ignoring public input. The government then entirely disregarded the advice of the Committee.

"The government should never have succeeded" commented Simon Davies, Director of Privacy International. "The proposals were approved only because the Liberal Democrats caved in under pressure from unprecedented threats by the government".

"A government ignoring adverse findings from the Parliament's own Human Rights watchdog is something we would have expected from a Banana Republic. This is a shameful episode".

However Mr Davies warned that the government has still to face its toughest opposition to the proposals and predicted that the proposals would ultimately collapse. All legal advice indicates that the Snooping regulations are unlawful under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (relating to the protection of privacy). Privacy International's legal document (PDF: 200kb) on this issue can be viewed online.

Mr Davies vowed to continue fighting the proposals, first in the courts, and second through the use of more aggressive campaigning tactics. "I would have no hesitation is taking legal action against Communications Service Providers who comply with a regulation that is unlawful, regressive, dangerous and unnecessary" he said.

"Through greed and indolence the phone and Internet service providers have sold their customers' privacy down the river".


Simon Davies of Privacy International can be reached for comment on 07958 466 552 (from the UK) or on (+44) 7958 466 552 (from outside the UK). Email simon@privacy.org

A series of regulations (Statutory Instruments) recently laid before the UK Parliament intends to create a legal basis for comprehensive surveillance of communications. The regulations will allow an extensive list of public authorities access to records of individuals' telephone and Internet usage. This "communications data" — phone numbers and e-mail addresses contacted, web sites visited, locations of mobile phones, etc — will be available to government without any judicial oversight. Not only does government want access to this information, but it also intends to oblige companies to keep personal data just in case it may be useful.

Copies of all documents mentioned in this release can be obtained by contacting Simon Davies.

Privacy International (PI) www.privacyinternational.org is a human rights group formed in 1990 as a watchdog on surveillance by governments and corporations. PI is based in London, and has an office in Washington, DC. Together with members in 40 countries, PI has conducted campaigns throughout the world on issues ranging from wiretapping and national security activities, to ID cards, video surveillance, data matching, police information systems, and medical privacy, and works with a wide range of parliamentary and inter-governmental organisations such as the European Parliament, the House of Lords and UNESCO.