As reported in The Times
Cameron in showdown over spying
David Cameron rejected plans yesterday to strip ministers of the power to authorise snooping by Britain’s spies, triggering a backlash from Tory MPs.
Downing Street made clear that it was unhappy at a proposal by the anti-terrorism watchdog to hand judges the power to authorise the interception of communications.
The move dismayed many Conservative backbenchers and privacy campaigners. However, senior ministers have serious reservations about the proposal by David Anderson, QC, in a report calling for a complete overhaul of Britain’s surveillance legislation.
The plan would bring Britain into line with the United States, Australia and Canada, which Mr Anderson hopes would make it easier to persuade American technology companies to hand over information to British security services.
Downing Street and the Home Office believe that politicians, who are directly accountable to the public, should retain the powers. They are also concerned about the availability of judges to authorise warrants in the middle of the night in an emergency.
The prime minister’s spokeswoman said: “The starting point on the issue of authorisation of warrants is that we need a system with proper oversight that allows us to respond quickly and effectively to threats of national security or serious crime.”
Theresa May, the home secretary, told MPs that the report provided a basis for consultation on new legislation, with a draft bill due to be introduced in parliament in the autumn. She said: “I am not in a position to say whether the government will do one thing or another.”
At present the home secretary, foreign secretary and Northern Ireland secretary give authority for such intrusive surveillance. Mrs May personally authorised 2,345 interception warrants last year.
Under the proposal, ministers would authorise only warrants for national security purposes relating to defence and/or foreign policy.
The government could run into trouble in the Commons because of a rebellion by Conservative MPs and the Labour party’s support for the recommendation. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said: “The detail needs to be right, it needs to not add long delays into urgent processes, and it shouldn’t detract from the wider responsibility of the home secretary to assess risks to national security, answerable to parliament.”
David Davis, the former Conservative shadow home secretary, said: “It is difficult to understand how the prime minister imagines that a system that requires the home secretary of the day to approve an average of ten warrants every working day — and presumably many more on some days — is either effective or expeditious. I think the government will lose that battle if it chooses to fight.”
He predicted that half a dozen Conservative rebels would back up Labour and “bring our system into line with the rest of the world”.
Crispin Blunt, a former Tory justice minister, said that there was not a “cat in hell’s chance” of draft legislation being ready by the autumn if it had not been begun already.
The wide-ranging report disclosed that internet companies tip off customers when they are under surveillance, while American companies reject requests for intelligence from British authorities investigating plots. It also revealed that terrorist plots had been uncovered through bulk collection of internet data — a practice that has been condemned by critics as “mass surveillance”. One case involved Rajib Karim, a British Airways worker, who was identified through GCHQ analysis of bulk data linked to al-Qaeda in Yemen. He was jailed for terrorism offences in 2011.
Privacy groups broadly welcomed the report and criticised the government for looking to dismiss the recommendation to curb ministerial powers.
Thomas Hughes, executive director of Article 19, the human rights group, said: “The Anderson report has received praise for its comprehensive, commonsense recommendations. We urge David Cameron not to squander this opportunity to safeguard rights against surveillance, by curtailing ministerial powers.”
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: “This thoughtful report is in sharp contrast with the defensive whitewash from the discredited intelligence and security committee of the last parliament. Liberty has been campaigning for judicial warrants and against the snoopers’ charter for many years.
“While we don’t agree with all his conclusions, Mr Anderson’s intervention could be the beginning of re-building public trust in surveillance conducted with respect for privacy, democracy and the law.”