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An important ruling from the European Court protecting our rights

4 min read

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott MP writes that 'UK legislation relating to the powers of the state over citizens have been struck down by the European Court' and she agrees to work with the Government on a 'major legislative rethink'.

Key aspects of UK legislation relating to the powers of the state over citizens have been struck down by the European Court. This government and its predecessor have been deemed to be over-reaching in relation to those powers, infringing the rights of all citizens.

Nearly all legislation of this type is now cast in terms of combatting terrorism and organised crime, or both. After the terrible events in Berlin and previous outrages here and in other countries, there can be no doubt that the first duty of all state agencies should be to protect us all. From time to time that includes intelligence gathering and data collection on terrorists or terror suspects or on big time criminals. We are safer as a result.

But the legislation that was struck down in the European Court went far wider than that. In fact, there was no provision limiting the gathering of data to terrorism or organised crime at all. Even the suspicion of the most minor offences was enough to trigger a data trawl by the most junior officials, and in all cases the target had no right to be informed that an investigation had begun, or even that it had taken place in the past with no evidence of wrong doing found.

This is a serious erosion of our rights and liberties. All sorts of campaigners, civil liberties groups, trades unions and other organisations expressed their opposition to the legislation. It is clear how the law could be used against a wide array of individuals, journalists, whistle blowers, campaigns, internet firms and other organisations. And it was used in that way.

There were over half a million authorisations of applications to trigger data gathering in 2014 alone, which was the year the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act became law. This is way beyond what any reasonable person would think is necessary.
Many argued that: journalists were compromised as they could not protect their sources; campaigners could not plan with privacy and commercial firms could not give customers here or overseas any assurance about the protection of their data, phone or internet history.

Yet throughout the course of the parliamentary debate government sponsors of the legislation never once identified a type of serious criminal activity which could be tackled with the new legislation that would otherwise go undetected.

I became involved in this legislation almost at the end of its passage through Parliament as a new Shadow Home Secretary. I tried to raised these points in the course of the final debates. I even suggested that the courts might strike down the provision of the Act as being sweeping draconian. To be clear, this is all the courts. This is not some conspiracy of remote enemies of the UK ruling on our laws. The European Court is simply upholding the judgement made earlier, by the UK courts.

Serious crime must be treated seriously. The government could have chosen with this and successor legislation to limit the powers to terrorism and organised crime. It chose not to and that is clearly a blunder. It should also have chosen to allow genuine judicial oversight of the applications process, rather than allowing innumerable state agents and agencies to access your data, and pass it on to others. This would have provided far greater reassurance that the use of the powers was proportionate, and that factors such as corruption or other malfeasance was not playing a part. Under the current open door system, it is easy to see how a corrupt official could be trawling data on behalf or organised criminals, not against them.

There should also be exemptions for journalists, and for whistle blowers who hold all public and other bodies and individuals to account. Greater commercial protections are also needed, otherwise internet firms operating here will be frozen out of international markets, which would be a major threat to jobs and industries here.

Ordinary people are the main victims of both terrorism and organised crime. We need to wage a relentless fight against both. But government legislation in this mistakes draconian powers for effective ones.  I will be happy to work with government on a major legislative rethink.

Diane Abbott is the Shadow Home Secretary and Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

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