Fight to secure better source safeguards in snooper's charter bill moves to House of Lords: 'This is about protecting the public'

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Members of the House of Lords yesterday took up the fight to get better protection for confidential journalistic sources placed in the Investigatory Powers Bill.

The bill, dubbed the snooper’s charter, has already been passed by the House of Commons with some limited protections from state surveillance for journalists and their sources. But editors, publishers and the Naional Union of Journalists are all pushing for further safeguards to be included.

The bill sets out a legal framework which allows law enforcement bodies to view internet and telecoms data.

Labour’s Lord Rosser said: “We have already secured amendments to the bill providing that judicial commissioners, when considering a warrant, must give weight to the overriding public interest in a warrant being granted for the use of investigatory powers against journalists, and that they must ensure that it is in keeping with wider and more general privacy points.

“However, there are still matters outstanding on this point, including the extent to which the bill does or does not provide for the same level of protection for journalists as is currently the case under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

“There is also the question of the definition of who is and who is not a journalist now that we are in the digital world. The Government Minister in the Commons accepted that a solution needed to be found and said: ‘I am happy to say that we will look at this issue with him’ — the shadow Home Secretary— ‘and others in greater detail as the Bill enjoys its passage through this House and the other place’ with the reference to ‘others ‘ including the National Union of Journalists.”

He added: “This is not about preserving the special status of individuals who work in journalism or the legal profession, or indeed as parliamentarians, but about protecting the public and their ability to raise issues through these channels on a secure and confidential basis.”

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Strasburger is expected to play a key role in the House of Lords bid to secure further protection for journalists and their sources in the bill.

He said: “There needs to be much better protection in the Bill, as we have already heard, for privileged communications such as those between lawyers and their clients, journalists and their sources and MPs and their constituents.

“The next topic is the bulk surveillance powers that indiscriminately collect everyone’s private data. They are currently under review by David Anderson QC. When a similar review was undertaken in the USA, the bulk powers were found to have made no serious contribution to detecting and preventing crime, and were discontinued. We must ask ourselves why the UK should travel in the opposite direction.

“The only new power in the Bill, as has already been said, concerns internet connection records, which are highly intrusive, difficult and expensive to implement and of no interest whatever to the security services. They were abandoned in 2014 in Denmark, the only country that has tried to do this before, because they failed to deliver the expected benefits. It is my view that ICRs need to be deleted from the Bill. The request filter appears to be a classic wolf in sheep’s clothing, and it will need careful examination before it can be allowed to remain in the Bill.

“Finally, the threat to encryption needs to be removed from the Bill. Strong encryption, as the Government have recognised in this House, is vital to our personal security and the integrity of our finance and commerce sectors. The Government are fond of calling the Bill ‘world-leading’. That is true in some respects, but not necessarily in ways that we would want to celebrate. If it were enacted unchanged, innocent UK citizens would not be far behind their North Korean and Chinese counterparts in a contest to be the most spied-on population in the world. The powers in the Bill are very broad and very intrusive—more so than in any of our democratic allies.”

The Conservatives are in the minority in the House of Lords so a combination of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Crossbench peers could defeat the Government if it opposes greater safeguards for journalists and their sources.

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