For those of us that have been calling for more clarity and transparency in how the intelligence and law enforcement agencies use their powers, David Anderson QC's fair and balanced Investigatory Powers Review, comes as welcome reading.
In his role as the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation he was asked to scrutinise the surveillance powers that are currently in use, as well as the safeguards in place to control them. His 373 page report and 124 recommendations will no doubt act as a major reference point in the wider debate as it unfolds.
It comes as a pleasant antidote to some of the more hyperbolic rhetoric that exists in this sphere. Early in the report Mr Anderson states that "claims of exceptional or unprecedented threat levels - particularly if relied upon for the purposes of curbing well-established liberties - should be approached with scepticism".
There are a number of recommendations to be welcomed.
Mr Anderson's focus on making the legislation clearer is to be applauded. Commenting that the current system is "fragmented, obscure, under constant challenge and variable in the protections that it affords the innocent", Mr Anderson recommends that it is time for a "clean slate". For too long these laws have been all but inaccessible to ordinary members of the public, who simply cannot understand the highly complex legalistic jargon that appears throughout the numerous pieces of legislation. His proposals to combine and amend some of the most widely used laws will undoubtedly help deal with this.
Linked to this are his recommendations on transparency. Mr Anderson argues that when new powers are used or proposed the public should be informed at the earliest possible opportunity, giving them a clearer understanding of what the agencies tasked with keeping us safe can do. Perhaps most
important is his argument that individuals who have been the subject of wrongful surveillance should be told. This allows for a person to challenge the practice in court; something that Big Brother Watch has called for on a number of occasions.
The report's criticism of the outdated and time sapping process involved in a Secretary of State signing off interception warrants is another good point. The introduction of a judge as the final point of approval will give the system more accountability and allow the legal implications that may apply to these powers the scrutiny they deserve.
His report comes as a welcome addition to the ongoing debate around access to Communications Data, the subject of Big Brother Watch's most recent research. Those arguing for ever more intrusive powers would do well to read his comments on the "Snoopers' Charter" and his assertion that no compelling case has yet been made for some of the proposed powers.
Whilst we are supportive of much of the report, there are some areas of concern. Although the examples of bulk data collection that have been presented are an interesting starting point they cannot be the end of the debate. We still need much more evidence about the use and success of this tactic before it can be deemed necessary or indeed a proportionate response to the problem.
Of course none of these recommendations or indeed any of this work will matter if the political determination to properly consider and debate them is not there or is not given the necessary time. To date the debate has been sadly lacking in the UK. This is especially true in comparison to the reaction of US politicians; who recently passed legislation reforming their own surveillance infrastructure.
Mr Anderson's report deserves the full attention of Parliament and it should now be the case that it is thoroughly discussed and its findings properly considered. The Home Secretary's response in the House of Commons was muted and the announcement from Number 10, just a few hours after the report was released, indicating that one of the recommendations is unlikely to be considered is disheartening.
Though it was encouraging to hear the announcement of a Joint Committee to scrutinise the upcoming Investigatory Powers Bill it is now important that the debate continues in the measured and transparent way Mr Anderson has demonstrated in his report. This calm and well-informed approach is vital to ensure that no new legislation is rushed through to beat the sunset clause of December 2016 outlined in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act.