I watched and listened to the parliamentary debate on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers bill (DRIP) with a kind of grim fascination. The outcome was always inevitable – I knew that, as, I think did all opponents of the bill – but the debate itself seemed to me to be worth paying attention to. Not really in terms of the result, but in terms of the process, and in terms of the way in which parliament was engaging with the issues. There were, it has to be said, some quite wonderful speeches in opposition to the bill, and from many different directions. MPs like John McDonnell, Dominic Raab, Caroline Lucas, Diane Abbott, Pete Wishart, David Winnick, Duncan Hames, Clive Betts, Charles Walker, Dennis Skinner and of course Tom Watson and David Davis were all excellent. Indeed, as someone said at the time, the opponents didn’t lose the debate, they lost the vote.
Therein lies the problem – what was the point of the debate? The chamber was all-but empty for most of it. In the middle of the debate, I got so angry I tweeted a picture of the chamber – with a comment attached. The tweet went a bit wild…. retweeted 870 times at the last count, and included by Liberty in their summary of the debate.
I did, however, also get some serious criticism for the tweet. Some suggested I had faked it, because I missed out the caption at the bottom. Fair enough – I was too angry to get the screen capture right, but I don’t fake things. I satirise and parody, tease and joke – but I don’t fake. For avoidance of doubt, I took another soon after, this time with the caption:
Another criticism I received, quite aggressively, was that it was misleading to tweet the picture, and that most of the MPs were likely to be in their offices or their committee rooms, working hard, but following and listening to the debate as it was being broadcast throughout the house. That may well be true – and in no way was I suggesting that MPs don’t work hard. They do – well, a great many of them do – but at this particular moment, and on this particular issue, their attention was elsewhere, as was their physical presence.
I don’t blame the MPs for that part of it. Of course their attention was elsewhere – after all, they’d had this emergency debate foisted upon them at the last minute, and they already have busy lives and huge amounts of work to do, particularly with the parliamentary recess coming up, and with a reshuffle happening at that very moment. Naturally, MPs are distracted by the reshuffle – coalition MPs because their jobs are on the line, Labour MPs because they have to be ready to respond to the reshuffle. Naturally their jobs, their careers, their responsibilities come first.
That, though, is really where my tweet comes in. I said ‘This is how seriously our MPs take our privacy’. I meant it. They showed disrespect to the issue not just by not listening to the debate, but by accepting a process that meant that they only had a few hours of debate to listen to, and almost nothing to read or discuss about it. They accepted an unnecessary fast-tracking, effectively on trust – because they don’t really take our privacy seriously.
Frankly, I’m not convinced that they were listening to the debate – but if they were, that makes their voting even worse. If they listened to the debate and still voted the way they did, in a way that’s even more depressing than the more natural assumption that they were largely ignoring the debate and voting according to the whip. It would mean that they either didn’t understand the strong arguments against the bill, both analytical and impassioned – or they dismissed them as unimportant. Either way, it suggests they didn’t take our privacy seriously. At least, not seriously enough to think it needed proper, lengthy, public debate bringing in expert opinions and analysis. I’m a legal academic, specialising in internet privacy. I’ve written a book on the subject, and I’m one of the signatories of this open letter concerning DRIP – and frankly I haven’t had nearly enough time to properly analyse and understand this bill and its implications. We’ve only had a chance for the most basic of analyses – and if I can’t, how much understanding can MPs have of it?
As David Winnick, a veteran MP and member of the Home Affairs Select Committee put it:
“I consider this to be an outright abuse of parliamentary procedure. Even if one is in favour of what the home secretary intends to do, to do so in the manner in which it is intended, to pass all stages in one go, surely makes a farce of our responsibilities as MPs”
He’s right. It does. It brings parliament into disrepute. MPs should be ashamed of themselves.