A ‘mature debate’ on surveillance? Yes please!

Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, has said in a speech that he is hoping for a ‘mature debate’ on what he calls ‘intercepting communications data’ rather than surveillance: I’m sure that most people working in the area would very much welcome such a call. I know that I do. Mature debate is exactly what is needed. The question that immediately springs to mind is whether what Andrew Parker means by ‘mature debate’ is the same as what I would understand by the words. The record of the intelligence and security services and the government in relation to such a debate is not a very convincing one: it has been those who challenge surveillance powers who have shown more desire and willingness to debate than the services and their masters in government.

To suggest otherwise – indeed to hint that those challenging them have behaved like petulant, hyperbolic children – flies in the face of the experience of the last few years. There has been hype on both sides, of course – I can see why Parker and others dislike the term ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, for example – but on the other side the claims have been equally lurid and offensive: the suggestions by Theresa May and others that privacy advocates have ‘blood on their hands’ for opposing new powers have been regular and repellent. The record of seeking debate, however, has been distinctly one-sided. Back in 2012, when the coalition government first put forward the Communications Data Bill – dubbed by its ‘hyperbolic’ opponents the Snoopers’ Charter – the intention was to push it through without any real debate at all. Indeed, the hints were that it would be passed in a matter of weeks before the London Olympics. It took a lot of pressure to force the bill into proper scrutiny, and a special Joint Parliamentary Committee was eventually formed to examine it. Debate was very much sought by those interested in interception and surveillance powers: over 600 pages of written evidence was submitted to the committee from more than 100 witnesses (including myself). So yes, we want mature debate, whenever we get the chance.

That first batch of ‘mature debate’ did not get the results that the proponents of the Communications Data Bill wanted: the report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee was highly critical, and after the intervention of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, the bill was dropped, with a promise of further debate and a new Bill to scrutinise. That new Bill, however, never materialised (though I understand that it was drafted) and neither did the promised further debate. Again, it was not those who challenged surveillance and interception that were avoiding the debate. Very much the opposite: we wanted more information and more debate, and our questions were largely fobbed off.

That debate, however, began to happen even without the participation of the intelligence and security services, when in June 2013 Edward Snowden dropped his bombshell on the whole business. The debate that followed might not have been mature at all times, but it was a debate – despite the efforts of the intelligence and security services, not because of those efforts. Indeed, most of the efforts seemed to be to shut down the debate, to shut Edward Snowden up, along with those in the media who worked with him, arresting them at airports, smashing their hard drives and so forth. Keith Vaz questioning whether Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger ‘loved his country’ was a particularly mature part of this debate. All this was accompanied by yet more mature suggestions about opponents of surveillance having blood on their hands. The maturity level was immense.

Then, when the mature debate actually began – the three big inquiries, from the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation and the Royal United Services Institute – along came the next attempt to shut down that debate: DRIP. The shabby process through which the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act was rushed through parliament in a matter of days without any opportunity for public debate and only a few brief hours of parliamentary debate – in a mostly empty chamber with MPs preoccupied with preparations for the forthcoming election – was about as far from opening up to mature debate as could be imagined. Barely a debate at all, let alone a mature one.

Even after that, there was a further attempt to force through legislation without debate – four members of the House of Lords, all associated in the past with the security side of government, tacked on pretty much the entire, rejected Communications Data Bill to the back of another bill, very late in the parliamentary process, to try to sneak in those powers once more without debate.

So, Andrew Parker, let’s have this mature debate. Please. As soon and as deeply as we can. But don’t pretend that you’ve been seeking it all along, or that those who are challenging you have wanted anything else.  What is more, let’s make sure it is a mature debate, and not the sort of ‘debate’ that happens when one side has all the power and has predetermined the result, like a parent telling a three-year-old what the rules are for their behaviour. A mature debate must leave a chance for different results. In this case in particular, mature debate does not mean a Brian Clough style discussion where you tell us your opinion, we tell you your opinion, and we agree that you are right. There has to be a possibility – and you have to be open to this possibility – that the powers of the intelligence and security services are in practice (as well as in law) curtailed. If there is no possibility of change, the debate – mature or immature – is meaningless.

Are you ready for this kind of debate? I hope so. Let’s have it as soon as we can.

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