April 10th, 2014 —
The speed with which you responded to publication of Sir Antony May the Interception Commissioner’s report yesterday was impressive.
I did not notice a response to the European Court of Justice’s important – and relevant – decision  on the ‘wide-ranging and particularly serious’ interference of the Data Retention Directive with two fundamental rights of our citizens, the right to privacy and protection of personal data. Perhaps I missed it.
Either way, I am concerned that your statement yesterday that Commissioner’s report ‘provides authoritative… assessment of the lawfulness, necessity and proportionality of the intelligence agencies’ work  may mislead the public. This could be avoided if you are willing to clarify and reassure the public on the points I will outline in this letter.
First, in my view, you need to clarify the limits of the Commissioner’s statutory function. As he said himself, contrary to your assertion, he is ‘not appointed or authorised to oversee all of the activities of the intelligence agencies, only those specified in s57(2) RIPA.’ 
Second, his report in fact expresses significant concern about the potential for institutional overuse of powers to request information on communications data, inadequate records kept, and lengthy periods for over which public bodies store such data.  Again, contrary to your statement, the Commissioner draws attention to the variable practices of law enforcement and intelligence agencies and the absence of regulation of the storage and use of communications data, in contrast to regulation on contents data. Here the Commissioner concludes that he is not satisfied that data retention periods are justified and he is not able to comment on the use to which such data is put.  He points out that, because of inadequate material on communications data provided to him, his own statistics are ‘liable to be misleading.’ 
You will know that the ECJ confirmed yesterday that communications data does indeed provide precise information on the private lives of citizens, as many human rights organisations have claimed for some time. By demolishing a major part of the apparatus used by the intelligence agencies – the requirement on telecommunications companies to retain data – the decision strongly reinforces calls for an end to ‘mass snooping.’ It is no co-incidence that the Information Commissioner shares some of the EJC’s concerns about unnecessary retention of communications data.
Third, as the Commissioner points out,  it is not, with respect, for either him or you to answer the legitimate policy questions posed on the adequacy of existing safeguards to British citizen’s privacy in the age of Internet use. That must for parliament, and must follow informed debate. The report must not be used as a device to bypass proper parliamentary scrutiny of RIPA, and whether it is indeed fit for purpose.
In the light of these points, I must ask you to reassure the public by:
(i) clarifying your statement on the Commissioner’s report. This must include public acknowledgment of the concerns of Sir Antony May; and your intention to promote informed public debate on the adequacy of RIPA in parliament;
(ii) implementing the Commissioner’s 299 recommendations with an emphasis on those involving serious non-compliance;
(iii) providing the Commissioner with full access to information on both the periods and use of communications data so that he can complete performance his duties;
(iv) revising the Acquisition and Disclosure of Communications Data Code of Practice immediately to address the Commissioner’s concerns in the short term.
I also urge you to read the APPG on Drones Submission to the Home Office as part of the Consultation on Covert Surveillance. The Submission further highlights the need for review of the regulatory framework which applies, inter alia, to the storage and retention of surveillance data obtained by civil drones. In my view the Submission is made pertinent following the European Commission’s proposals to introduce tough new regulation of storage and use of data obtained by surveillance drones, also published yesterday. 
Given keen interest in the effect of the ECJ decision in the UK now,  I invite you to respond in advance of this Friday’s meeting in Brussels  although I will understand if this not possible.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Tom Watson MP
West Bromwich East
2. as reported: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/apr/08/david-cameron-welcomes-all-clear-spy-agencies-surveillance-watchdog-anthony-may
4. See for example paragraphs 3.48-3.56, 4.21 and 4.29
5. 3.56, 4.21
6. 4.23 [check]
9. Data Retention Regulations: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukdsi/2009/9780111473894/contents
10. I understand that Member States were scheduled to meet regarding the implementation of the Directive, but will now presumably discuss the implications of ECJ judgment
March 25th, 2014 —
Response to the Defence Select Committee report on Drone use.
“This important report reinforces what many MPs have been saying for some time. The MOD must act now to increase public confidence in the UK’s drone use.
“There are gaps in policy that need to be addressed. We need an informed public debate about this new era of war making technology. Parliament should know about our own lethal operations and the various ways we support the drone programme of the United States – shared communications systems, shared data, shared assets and exports.
“All future action has to comply with our own understanding of human rights and the laws of war.”
March 21st, 2014 —
“What do you think of Western civilisation?” A journalist once asked of Gandhi. “I think it would be a very good idea” he replied. I feel the same about George Osborne’s so-called pension ‘reform’. As I wrote yesterday, the Chancellor is not reforming Britain’s pensions industry. He’s unravelling it. But that’s not to say that we don’t need the kind of real change that could have been announced in the budget – we do. For too long, savers have been punished by a pensions industry that is too complicated, too unresponsive to the needs of retirees and too inflexible.
My friend Rachel Reeves, who is responsible for Labour’s policy on welfare and pensions, has worked tirelessly to expose the problems in the annuities market. She has written that £1 billion of pensioners’ hard earned money is lost every year by savers missing out on the best possible deal. That’s unforgivable and unsustainable. But the answer is to fix a broken and important market. Not to pull the rug out from underneath the pensions deal that protects individuals, families and the taxpayer alike. The kind of reform that Rachel has pushed for is what we deserve. A right to completely independent advice – so that everyone can shop around for the best deal. A cap on the fees – which are sometimes incomprehensibly steep – so that no-one has to fork over more than 0.75% of their hard-earned money.
And I would go further. If you have a pension pot that, once translated into annuity payments, would give you a return that is less than the Living Wage then you should be able to cash that in tax-free. Why? Because it doesn’t live up the pensions deal that is so important to securing our collective future – it doesn’t equip retirees with the salary replacement that insulates them and the taxpayer from risk. So yes, reform. Urgently. But that is not the same as the reckless, cynical and calculating manoeuvre we saw from the Government on Wednesday.
You see, George Osborne is not reforming pensions. He’s robbing Peter (Generations’ X and Y) to pay Pauline (Baby boomer) in an effort to boost consumer confidence and create a feel-good, short-term boom in the run up to the 2015 election.
Millions of Baby Boomers will be handed a tax-free lump sum – to ‘buy a Lamborghini’ in the words of the pensions minister. That money has been built up in a partnership between the worker, the state and the employer – it has been specially protected and had special tax treatment. It is a shared pot that was designed to create collective resilience in our economy. Now, it can disappear over night and the people that have supported the creation of Baby Boomers’ pension wealth – Generations X and Y – who have helped to support and protect these pots of money through their taxes and through their own payments into occupational pension schemes are faced with the prospect of being punished. Whilst their parents are snapping up buy-to-let properties with their injections of easy, tax-free cash, young people are struggling to buy a home of their own.
And whilst some moral hazard has been negated by lifting the basic state pension above the means-testing threshold, a myriad of other services are on a needs-must basis – social care, for example – many more older pensioners will find themselves in poverty having spent their pot too early. The taxpayer will foot the bill.
The Chancellor has stolen from young people in order to finance a giveaway for what remains of his ‘core vote’. In doing so, he has threatened the deal between savers and the state on pensions. He has added fuel to the flames of a housing bubble that excludes young homeowners to the benefit of amateur slum landlords. He has betrayed young people by leaving them to foot the bill further down the road. And he has sought to fundamentally undermine the collective principle at the heart of our welfare state. I don’t oppose the Chancellor’s annuity policy because I’m on the side of financial services. I oppose it because I’m on the side of fairness, of responsibility and of principle ahead of low politicking. Reform is essential. But it’s different from vandalism. And that is what Osborne is guilty of with this budget.
If you’re under 45, you need wake up and smell the coffee. You are being screwed. The Labour party also needs to wake up and smell the coffee. These people are the future. They need us to fight for them. PS Here’s the Buzzcocks, dedicated to Steve Webb.
March 20th, 2014 —
The annuities market evolved in the UK as an early example of the state, the individual and the private sector co-operating to protect one another from the everyday risks that we all face. It’s a deal. When you pay into a pension the state doesn’t treat that like it does other income or even other savings – it gives you special tax breaks, special rewards and special protections. Why? Because in the end, whilst saving for a pension protects you it also protects the wider community. When you’re protected by a pension, that means that the taxpayer doesn’t have to pay out for you in later life. You get an income when you get to a stage where you don’t want to, or can’t, work anymore. The state gets a population of resilient and independent older people who have provided for themselves. It’s of mutual benefit. David Cameron used to call this a ‘nudge’ policy. What the Chancellor announced yesterday fundamentally threatens that deal. It says to the individual – pay into this pot, take the tax breaks and the special protections, then do whatever you want with it later on. It’s a one-sided charter for tax avoidance that misunderstands why our carefully constructed mixture of the public and the private works for pensioners and works for the UK as a whole. If there’s no special obligation on pension money – such as the compulsion that you use it to buy an annuity to protect your income and protect tax-payers from having to support you – then why should there be special privileges for pension savings? People will tell you that ‘it’s your money, you should decide how to spend it’. The whole point is that it just isn’t that simple. Yes, you paid in. But so did the taxpayer. And the government has every right, therefore, to ask that you spend it in the manner it was intended when we were stumping up the cash. George Osborne’s policy will come into effect one month before the next election. Millions will suddenly be allowed to empty their pension pots. Of course, most people will be cautious, careful and responsible. But even so, the special deal between the state, the individual and the market will have been eroded. Massive lump sums will be in the hands of individuals with all the everyday temptations and risk-taking that we all know so well. And once that money is blown, it will be the wider community that has to pay. Labour, with its collective values and belief in mutualism must oppose these proposals at all costs.