November 28 2023

Legislate in haste, repent in leisure

Legislate in haste, repent in leisure


Last Friday’s tragic events in Paris have led to the all too predictable calls for legislation to be rushed through – in this case the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill. Among other powers, this bill sets out for the first time detailed new laws to allow for bulk interception, bulk acquisition of communications data, and bulk equipment interference, allowing agencies to hack any devices.

We’ve seen the same thing many times before. After 9/11, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill was brought in and passed within a month – an incredible rush job for a bill that stretches to 117 pages. Its provisions included powers to detain indefinitely anyone suspected of terrorism, without charge or trial.

The atrocity of the 7/7 bombing saw the Terrorism Act 2006, which was infamously intended to introduce 90 day detention for people not even told what they were accused of. And it’s not just the UK that does this – the massive and intrusive US Patriot Act was passed just 45 days after 9/11, containing extensive powers to read and monitor citizens’ communications, allowing indefinite detention of aliens, and allowing warrantless tracking.

I understand the temptation for governments to legislate. It is a standard political response to tragedy, and has been described as the Politician’s Syllogism:

We must do something

This is something

Therefore we must do this.

But legislation done in a rush is never going to be as well thought through as legislation done properly. The pressure will be on parliamentarians to ensure the bill passes, lest they be seen as somehow on the side of the terrorists. The rhetoric becomes grander, more fundamentalist in its tone, more critical of anyone who dares dissent.

This is not good for democracy, especially when it comes to considering complex issues, and the details of state surveillance are very complex. When and how should internet records be examined by police or security forces? How to use language from telephone interception to understand the internet? Even under the original timetable, which would allow a few months for a Joint Committee of 14 to go through the bill in detail, many of us were sceptical there would be enough time to do the details justice.

When we considered the previous attempt by the Home Office, the communications data bill, we spent the best part of a year trying to extract information from them, which we then concluded unanimously was ‘fanciful and misleading’. A rush job would never have found that out.

Responding to those who want to reduce our freedoms by reducing them ourselves is not the answer.

We must tackle terrorism, and seek a way to end the tragedies that it causes. But to do that effectively, we have to tackle the causes of terrorism. If we simply perform a knee-jerk authoritarian response, we run the risk of simply inflaming the problems. Responding to those who want to reduce our freedoms by reducing them ourselves is not the answer.

Rahm Emanuel said: ‘You never let a good crisis go to waste’. However, on this occasion I’d rather take my lead from the head of MI5 when he called for ‘a mature debate’ on surveillance powers. If we try to rush legislation through, that mature debate – one of the democratic ‘freedoms’ which terrorists seek to attack – will be yet another casualty.