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Despite Our Real Concerns, Labour Will Be Supporting the Government's DRIP Bill

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There is real concern about the Government's emergency introduction of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP). Labour shares this concern. Given that the Government are responding to a European Court judgement handed down in April, on a case heard last year, there is no excuse for rushing this legislation through Parliament in less than a week.

But at stake is something very important and this is why we'll be supporting the Government today. This Bill maintains the current system whereby communications companies store data, which in turn may be requested by the police or intelligence agencies. Losing this data would prevent the police pursuing evidence in many of the most serious investigations, for example it would remove the record of peer-to-peer file shares through which the majority of online child abuse is shared. Evidence obtained from communications is used in 95% of all organised crime prosecutions.

The Bill will be protecting the status quo, but this doesn't mean that we shouldn't use this opportunity to reflect on whether the status quo is working. The problem with forcing this Bill through Parliament in a week is it provides very little room for reflection. This is why Labour pushed for - and achieved - a number of safeguards to accompany this Bill which will let us assess both the surveillance powers the state has and the checks on this power.

Principal among those safeguards is an independent review into the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Where DRIP covers the obligation of communications companies to store information, RIPA covers the situations in which the police and intelligence agencies can access this data. It also covers the police's power to use more traditional forms of intelligence - such as opening post, following individuals or even entering and bugging homes. Labour's view is that RIPA must be at the centre of a wider public debate we must have about how we balance privacy and security in an internet age.

When I talk to people about surveillance, the message I repeatedly here is that people understood physical surveillance, and the way it is authorised, but are uneasy about electronic surveillance. There is widespread concern about what data is being collected and what authorisation is required. The original intention of RIPA was to provide equivalence between electronic and physical surveillance, so the same rules were in place for reading an email as reading a letter. But RIPA is now 15-years old and out of date. New technology is blurring the distinction between communications data and content and raising questions about data storage.

Labour still believes equivocation between online and offline surveillance capability is the right starting point, but as Shadow Home Office Secretary Yvette Cooper set out in March, we now need a review to look at these powers in the context of huge technological change. The Government initially resisted this proposal, but have now relented and they've agreed with our suggestion that David Anderson QC lead the review. As a barrister David Anderson made a reputation as a fearsome human rights advocate. As Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation he has built a reputation for being both independent and well-informed. Now we have to ensure his review addresses the very legitimate concerns people have about the level of internet surveillance. This is why Labour will be attempting to amend the DRIP Bill to make explicit mention of the review.

As Yvette said in Parliament last week, "we can't just hope these issues will go away. They won't. Because they are fundamental to our democracy, our liberty and our security". At stake is not just the powers of the police and the intelligence agencies, but also their popular support. This review of RIPA needs to be just one part of a package of measures to restore confidence in the agencies, and their oversight.

Labour also wants to strengthen Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee. The ISC should have a much broader remit, and this remit should be put on a statutory basis. The ISC should also have the same power as select committees to call and compel witnesses. Like other select committees, it may benefit from having an opposition chair.

Secondly, we need to increase the role and the visibility of the two intelligence commissioners who oversee the intelligence services. At present both are part-time, with no proper staff and they can often appear more reclusive than the agencies they oversee. These commissioners need to have the resources to back-up their powers and they need to be seen to be doing their job. The commissioners should be engaging with the public and addressing their concerns. They should also be publishing information more regularly, which is why Labour has laid amendments to DRIP to force six-monthly reports on the implementation of the Bill.

But it is the review of RIPA that should ensure no government and no party can ignore the concerns raised in recent months following Snowden. It is vital to our democracy - both to protecting our national security and to protecting our basic freedoms - that there is widespread public consent to the balance the Government and the agencies need to strike. President Obama held such a debate in the US last year after the Snowden leaks. Our focus now is that Labour's independent RIPA review - now supported by all parties - will deliver this debate for the UK too.

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