Andrew Allison is Campaign Manager for the Freedom Association.
Just over a week ago, no-one had heard of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Bill. Last Thursday, the DRIP Act received Royal Assent and is now on the Statute Book. Less of a drip – and more of a tsunami, such was the speed of its progress through Parliament
Looking back at the events of this week, so many of us have been pre-occupied with the reshuffle. I don’t know if the Prime Minister deliberately timed his reshuffle to divert attention away from the passing of this Act, but he may as well have done so. Important legislation affecting national security and our privacy was quietly going through Parliament with barely a mention in the mainstream media.
Law making is usually a long process, and rightly so. We expect our legislators to do everything they can to get it right first time. Mistakes and unintended consequences will always come into play, however the more rushed the legislation is, the more likely it is those mistakes will happen. Legislate in haste, repent at leisure. This was exactly the concern of many MPs during Tuesday’s various “debates” in the House of Commons. As Kate Hoey remarked on Twitter, “Just voted against rushing through the surveillance legislation in one day. Will we never learn about hastily made laws?”
The Government had more than three months to prepare and present a Bill, and it waited until just before the summer recess to do so. Not three weeks before, but a week before, and the claim that MPs’ holidays could not possibly be interrupted to debate matters of national security is laughable at best, and contemptible at worst.
It was also very disappointing to see the empty green benches in the Commons chamber. Tom Watson said this was because of the way MPs were being treated by the Government. Jack Straw thought it was because MPs were convinced by the arguments of the Government. I think it’s a mixture of both. MPs knew there was very little they could do to stop the legislation, and those that agreed with it couldn’t be bothered (or were incapable) of offering a cogent response to their critics. Others simply didn’t care.
For those of us who were watching the proceedings, all we could see were empty benches, multiple contributions and interventions from the same group of concerned MPs – and then suddenly another 450 or so MPs would appear to support the Government moments after the Division Bell rang. Parliamentarians have other work to do, however when the time gets to 6.00 pm and beyond, MPs are not busy with select committee work, for example. Sure, some of them will use the opportunity for research and catching up with correspondence, but that many of them? Or were they too busy gossiping about the reshuffle? Those who do not normally watch proceedings from Parliament will ask the same question as my wife asked of me: where did they all come from? It doesn’t show Parliament at its best.
As a privacy campaigner, I would like to put on the record that I don’t want to be maimed or killed by a terrorist any more than anyone else does. I don’t want to see paedophiles and those guilty of other hideous crimes escape justice. What I want is for Parliament to strike the right balance between what is acceptable intrusion and what is not. I want MPs and Peers to debate and scrutinise thoroughly. I want them to be given the time to conduct their own research, meet with constituents and other interested parties. I want them to have the time to come to considered opinions based on reasoned argument. No-one would tell a jury that they must reach a verdict in eight hours after hearing all the evidence in a complex trial. Why then force a similar scenario on parliamentarians?
This is where the Government fell flat on its face this week, and in doing so, not only held Parliament in contempt, but also the British people.