One of the marks of a good Home Secretary is a healthy wariness of those in authority who come begging for ever-greater powers. The former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke failed on that score. Just over a decade ago, the police persuaded him that they needed the freedom to lock up terror suspects for 90 days without trial. The rebels who defeated the Labour plan were right: ten years later no one has presented a case of a suspect who committed an act of terror because they had to be released before the 90 days were up.
Theresa May, who has confronted the police unions with such admirable fortitude, is now showing worrying signs of falling into the same trap as Clarke. This week she published a redrafted Investigatory Powers Bill, after the original one published last year was savaged by a succession of parliamentary committees for its casual expansion of state surveillance powers. The revised bill comes with long documents pleading the case for its two most contentious provisions: the scanning of huge volumes of telecommunications data in order to identify patterns of phone and internet use, and the retention of data on all computer users’ internet activity for 12 months. What powers the security services already possess in the field, claims the first document, have foiled seven terror plots since November 2014.
We can take the Home Secretary’s word for this. But both documents miss the point. The problem with the government’s proposals is not that the powers available to the security services and to those parts of the police which investigate serious crime are too great. By and large, Britain’s spy agencies have earned the right to be trusted: they are not asking for any extra powers and have never abused the powers they have.