4 Nov 2010

MPs propose radical changes to surveillance bill

9:08 pm on 4 November 2010

MPs have moved to significantly curb new legislation giving Government agencies extensive powers to plant recording devices in private homes or offices, conduct remote searches of computers, and force people to answer police questions.

Parliament's Justice committee says the bill goes too far, and does not contain enough safeguards for the public.

The Search and Surveillance Bill seeks to update the law to reflect technological advancements and make it consistent across the statute books.

The committee held extended hearings in recognition of significant concerns raised about the extension of powers and the range of agencies that would be able to use them.

Numerous amendments have been recommended, most of which impose restrictions upon the proposed new powers.

The committee recommended limits to examination orders, which are court orders allowing police to require a person to answer questions if they have previously refused to do so.

People face a year in jail for refusing to obey the court order.

The select committee says the orders should be limited to investigations of serious offences, which it defines as those carrying a penalty of more than seven years' jail, and insists the generally-held right to silence will still be maintained.

It says the same threshold should be imposed on warrantless searches proposed in the bill, and the ability of enforcement agencies to plant video recorders in private homes.

The committee also recommends limits on the circumstances under which people's personal computers could be searched by remote. One situation would be when there is no other option because there is no physical location to search.

An amendment has also been recommended to require an agency carrying out a remote search to notify the person concerned by email.

As written, the bill allows police to issue search warrants without having to include the name of the issuing officer.

The committee finds that unacceptable, and says if the officer's name is not on the warrant for security reasons, there should at least be some way of identifying the officer.