Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Lords flop as EU 'snoopers charter' is approved

An EU Directive forcing the recording of data relating to every email sent and every website visited cleared a final hurdle towards becoming law yesterday.

In the process, the House of Lords revealed itself, sadly, to be an almost complete waste of space when it comes to holding the government to acceptable democratic practice and providing some form of check and balance against extreme and unnecessary laws.

A Communications Data Bill enforcing the blanket retention of data about everyone's internet and email usage was shelved back in October after additional plans it contained to collate the information in a huge central database came under heavy fire from the Information Commissioner, the (now former) Director of Public Prosecutions and the Government's own reviewer of terrorism laws.

Back door law

Under pressure from the EU to implement by 15 March the data retention elements of the Bill that were required by the EU Directive, the government schemed to enforce retention by the back door via a Statutory Instrument.

Yesterday, that draft Statutory Instrument (hat tip Open Europe for the link) made an appearance in the House of Lords.

According to an accompanying article yesterday on ConservativeHome by Shadow Security Minister, Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, the Tories are opposed to the plans.

Sadly, that's not so much on the grounds that the blanket storage of the everyday web and email activity of millions of law-abiding people is wrong and unnecessary in principle.

Merely, it seems, on the grounds of concern about who will have access to it.

Nevertheless, Neville-Jones wrote; "I have tabled a motion calling on the Government to withdraw this instrument and bring forward primary legislation on the retention of communications data that will enable detailed – and rigorous – Parliamentary scrutiny to take place."

'No show' peers scandal

But when it came to the vote on her motion, the Baroness was unfortunately just four votes short. Consequently, the regulations were approved.

Bad enough in itself. But it's when you look at the voting record that the tale becomes utterly exasperating.

The Tory motion to strike down the regulations was supported by 55 Conservatives (out of 197 Conservative peers in total), 12 Crossbenchers (out of 205), and 18 (out of 72) Lib Dems. Together with two UKIP peers and one Independent Labour, plus a Bishop, that was 89.

Four Crossbenchers voted with 89 Labour peers, making 93 in support of the regulations as they stood.

This reveals that 196 opposition peers didn't vote (nevermind 189 Crossbenchers), yet the blocking motion failed by just four.

What a complete shambles.

Setting this number against the 127 Labour peers who also didn't vote (but would presumably have voted in favour of the regulations),
blocking these sinister communications snooping plans was on the face of it eminently winnable.

Had a few more of the missing 196 opposition peers bothered to turn up.

Explanations needed

So where exactly were our 'noble' peers?

Given the critical nature of this vote - due to a toxic combination of the excessive snooping content of the regulations and the undemocratic 'EU-plus-Statutory Instrument' way in which they were being imposed - the scale on which people have been failed democratically by Conservative and Lib Dem peers is considerable.

An urgent explanation is required from those parties as to what on earth happened that so few of their peers were present and an opportunity to block these sinister regulations was squandered.

Broken democracy

It's hard to conclude anything from the progress of these communications data retention regulations but that our so-called democratic system is today broken - virtually ineffective.

To twist an old slogan, Westminster isn't working.

The combination of the blanket monitoring content of these proposals and the undemocratic way in which they have been imposed makes this an issue that doesn't only impinge seriously on our liberties but, worse, brings the whole idea of credible democracy still existing here in Britain, and indeed Europe, into further disrepute.

The political elite, it seems, can get away with doing anything, and in any shady way, yet hardly anyone in Westminster - parliamentarians or even the media - appears to be especially interested.

And then they wonder why so few people, in response, are interested in voting when it comes to elections.

Urgent need for change

Unless this erosion of democracy is soon stemmed, only radical change to our democratic structures - not merely a change of faces at the top - will be able to rebuild faith in responsive government.

This EU path that Britain and Europe are currently travelling of remote, ever more centralised law-making together with increasingly powerless - and perhaps therefore frequently absent - national parliamentarians, cannot lead to an appealing destination.

Healthy and responsive democracy is the only true guarantor of stability and prosperity on our continent, whatever the occupants of several lavish glass palaces in Brussels may like to tell themselves about their grandiose, 1950s-styled superstate project.

Refusal by so many of our MPs to recognise how democracy is being downtrodden by the EU - to recognise how serious are the dangers of the malaise its methods are spreading throughout the post-war European democracies that have ensured over sixty years of peace - cannot go on.

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