Government gears up for battle over surveillance powers

Downing Street faces tough fight after backing away from calls to strip ministers of surveillance powers

A general view of GCHQ Scarborough
(Image credit: Christopher Furlong - WPA Pool /Getty)

A row over surveillance has broken out after a government-commissioned report suggested that ministers should be stripped of their powers to authorise surveillance warrants.

The report, compiled by David Anderson QC, proposes a complete overhaul of Britain's surveillance laws and suggests that only judges be allowed to approve warrants, a move that has been welcomed by privacy campaigners.

Anderson described current legislation as "fragmented, obscure, and variable in the protections that it affords the innocent" and called for a new law to be introduced.

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He suggests that a new judicial body, the Independent Surveillance and Intelligence Commission, be set up to take responsibility for authorising warrants from the home and foreign secretaries. Ministers would, however, be able to issue interception warrants in exceptional cases of national security.

If the government chooses to adopt Anderson's proposal, "it would be a substantial sapping of the authority of the home secretary", says The Times. Theresa May personally authorised over 2,000 surveillance warrants last year.

But a Downing Street spokesperson suggested that the government would be wary of changing the law, saying ministers need to be able to "respond quickly and effectively to threats of national security or serious crime".

That means "a battle is looming" in Westminster, says The Guardian. The Prime Minister is likely to face strong opposition from privacy campaigners, the Labour party, as well a number of Conservative rebels if he does not adopt the report's recommendations.

Amnesty International welcomed the report, agreeing that surveillance laws are in need of radical reform. "We'll need to see the fine detail here and we'll be arguing strongly for proper limits on the powers of the snoops and the spooks," the organisation's Rachel Logan told the BBC.

The former Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis is among those who wants to see changes to the law. "It is difficult to understand how the Prime Minister imagines that a system that requires the Home Secretary to approve an average of ten warrants every working day is either effective or expeditious," he said. "I think the government will lose that battle if it chooses to fight."

But Professor Anthony Glees, from the University of Buckingham's Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies was critical of the report. "Judges have a duty to uphold the law, politicians have a very primary duty to deliver national security and in these cases, which are all about national security, it is entirely right that an elected politician should decide."

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