Approval of warrants issued in urgent cases

Part of Investigatory Powers Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:45 pm ar 12 Ebrill 2016.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Solicitor-General 5:45, 12 Ebrill 2016

This is, of course, an important issue that has already seen a good deal of consideration for the Government and a move away from the original proposal to three working days; the hon. and learned Gentleman is right about that.

Although we are considering the matter carefully, at this stage the right balance is being struck between the interests of the security services and the other agencies in ensuring that crime is detected and prevented at the earliest possibly opportunity, and the interests of preserving the balance between the rights of the individual and the need to deal with crime and threats to national security. I am happy to consider amending the relevant draft codes to deal with the question about the notification to judicial commissioners, so that it is made clear on the face of the code that that should happen as soon as reasonably practicable. That wording is more appropriate than “immediately”, given that it may take a small period of time to draw together the materials that the commissioner will wish to review when considering whether to approve the warrant.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West made a point about decision making in a vacuum. The commissioner will have the decision of the Secretary of State and all the materials upon which that Minister has made the decision, as well as access to further material. I think it is clear that the decision maker will have everything they need and more to come to an informed and reasoned decision based upon the principles of judicial review. On the basis of my undertaking to consider amending the draft code of practice, I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras feels able to withdraw the amendment proposing the word “immediately”.

Let me deal with the central points about the decision and the length of time within which the warrant should be approved. The effect of the amendments would be to reduce that, and I recognise that the Joint Committee that undertook the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill made a similar recommendation. We have therefore responded in an appropriate way by shortening the window within which urgent action can be taken. That has been widely welcomed. It is an important consideration and an example of how, throughout this procedure, the Government have taken note of reports, listened and acted accordingly on those recommendations.

It is not in anybody’s interests to create so tight a statutory framework that decisions end up being rushed. I therefore consider that the three working days now provided for in the Bill should give sufficient time for the judicial commissioner to be presented with and to consider the grounds upon which the Secretary of State decided to issue the urgent warrant. My worry is that by reducing the time period even further, we would give the commissioner even less time, which would lead to the sort of decision making that would perhaps not be in anybody’s interests, let alone those of the state.

Amendment 91 seeks to define urgency on the face of the Bill and to replace the definition currently provided for in the draft statutory codes of practice with a narrower definition. As the Committee will appreciate, we must provide law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies with an operationally workable framework. We will have failed with this Bill if we provide the agencies with the powers that they need, but with ones that cannot keep up with the pace and scale of the threats that we face. I know that it is always a challenge for legislators to try and—to use the modern phrase—“future-proof” legislation, but it is important that we create a framework that is not only clear and simple to understand, but sufficiently flexible to take into account the fact that, from month to month, the nature of the threat changes.

I am afraid that the effect of the amendment would be to curtail that ability because the definition would be too narrow. The draft statutory codes of practice, which we have all been considering, define urgency, which is determined by whether it would be reasonably practicable to seek the judicial commissioner’s approval to issue the warrant in the requisite time. That time period would reflect when the authorisation needs to be in place to meet an operational or investigative need.

The code sets out the three categories with which we are familiar: first, where there is the imminent threat to life or serious harm, and I gave the example of a kidnap case earlier. The second is where there is an valuable intelligence-gathering opportunity, where the opportunity to do so is rare or fleeting—that might involve, for example, a group of terrorists who are just about to make that trip overseas and are making the final preparations to do so. The third is where there is a time-limited significant investigative opportunity—here I speak with years of experience of dealing with drugs cases—such as the imminent arrival of a major consignment of drugs or firearms, when timing is of the essence.

I am afraid that narrowing the definition of urgency so that it only relates to an immediate danger of death or serious physical injury to a person would mean significant lost opportunities when it comes to investigation and gathering of intelligence. It would have an impact on the ability to act in a way that would allow interception at a time, for example, that would be apposite to capture a particular drugs seizure.

Another example would be the terrorist cases that I deal with week in, week out—in terms of the function of the Law Officers granting consent to prosecution. If, for example, a group was making final preparations to travel out to Syria to join Daesh, it would cause a problem for the security and intelligence agencies if they were not able to seek urgent authorisation to intercept telephones because there was no immediate danger of death or serious physical injuries.

In my considered opinion, I am afraid that the amendment would allow a significant gap in the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ ability to keep us safe. I do not think that any hon. Member in this House wants that to happen. I know that it not their intention but it is my genuine concern. On that basis, I invite hon. Members to withdraw the amendment.