A couple of weeks ago there was an emergency at the Palace of Westminster, although you could be forgiven for not knowing much about this, very little emerged from most of our news sources, and few MPs could even be bothered to turn up for the debate. As a result of this ‘emergency’ a new piece of legislation has been rushed through both houses of Parliament, gaining the Royal Assent needed to make the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Bill an Act of Parliament. The full details of the Act are still emerging, the draft Bill was only published last Thursday, just over a week ago. It is a real testament to the capacity of Parliament that they found the time and space to achieve to squeeze the Bill into the last few days of their Summer term. According to ones perspective the new Act is either replacing existing legislation that the European Court of Justice has judged illegal with something similar that will not fall foul of Brussels, or the Government has replaced one set of spying controls with a much wider set of state powers so MI6 and the Police can find out who we are communicating to and when. There are of course various positions in-between these two extremes!
My own view at this stage is that the details of the legislation are overshadowed by the abuse of Parliamentary process which our elected representatives agreed to in their ‘rush’ to achieve what one can hope they see as worthy objectives. Although the draft Bill was published as a piece of emergency legislation on Thursday 10th July, in fact the news that the EU ruling would limit the powers of our security services was declared on 8th April. A full 12 weeks before this ‘emergency’. Most of the small number of MPs who have opposed this legislation, MPs from all parties, were concerned that the Government had introduced this legislation in the last week of Parliaments work programme and that there has been no attempt to extend the sitting of Parliament to deal with this ‘emergency’ in a timely and proportionate manner. The reason for the delay was explained by one coalition MP “The Liberal Democrats and I take this issue very seriously. Part of the reason why there has been a delay since the April ruling is because the Liberal Democrats wanted to ensure that this legislation included the necessary extra safeguards to protect the privacy of our citizens, and because the decision in April was so complex, we wanted to make sure to get it right.” While this all sounds very credible, the problem is that this activity took place between the coalition parties behind closed doors so there has been no opportunity for other MPs, let alone the public at large to understand the intentions and for normal Parliamentary scrutiny to take place. Even more bizarrely the Labour front bench also took part in behind closed doors ‘pre-scrutiny’ which has led to the draft Bill being published as pre-approved by the opposition. According to David Davis MP (Conservative) “Parliament has three roles: to scrutinise legislation, to prevent unintended consequences and to defend the freedom and liberty of our constituents. The motion undermines all three and we should oppose it.” The purpose of Parliament is to scrutinise and limit the power of the executive of the Government and in this case it is hard to see how scrutiny has been achieved in the case of DRIP.
The title of this blog intentionally poses a provocative question. The Bill passed three times through the House of Lords in its passage and their Lordships apparently did not even vote on it, implying that all of them including the 26 Bishops did not oppose its words or object to the process sufficiently to delay the Bill beyond the 2 days set aside for their ‘scrutiny’. I was interested in this apparent passive acceptance, and so sent a tweet to @ChurchState the people who tweet on behalf of these 26 prelates. I asked what their view was and their reply was “@IanChisnall No. There’s no ‘CofE view’ on the legislation, and it’d be more accurate to say that the same’s true with the Lords Spiritual.” My concern is that here are 26 men who have access to the processes and the reasoning behind this emergency legislation, that they have allowed it to pass unchallenged yet they have no ‘view’ regarding it. In my opinion the way the legislation has been forced through Parliament is an appalling abuse of power, and it appears to be a substantial extension to powers that could impact all of us. Some believe it to be vital to retain our national security intact. None of us have their Lordships access to legal advice and they don’t have a view. I don’t believe that an informed democrat can possibly have no view about DRIP. So my question is why do 26 Bishops have a seat in the House of Lords if none of them has a view on something as important or as damaging as this terrible piece of democratic vandalism.
Whatever your views about 26 Bishops, if you don’t already have a view about DRIP, can I recommend two blogs. The first presents DRIP from a benign point of view, it is written by John Leech MP. Alternatively you could ask your own MP why they support the Act, unless your MP, like mine is one of only 30 to vote against it. However beware most MPs send out standard letters that are word for word identical to what their neighbours are using. For a negative perspective please check out this open letter. This legislation will either protect us from terrorists, or else lead to our society becoming subject to oppressive scrutiny that the MPs have chosen to exclude themselves from, or I suppose it could achieve both objectives!