Theresa May is facing calls from senior Tories and the opposition to improve the investigatory powers bill to allay concerns about privacy.
In a debate for the second reading of the bill, Ken Clarke, the Conservative former home secretary, and Dominic Grieve, the Tory former attorney general, suggested there could be improvements to the new laws that overhaul the state’s surveillance powers.
The bill passed easily with 281 for and just 15 against, mostly comprising Liberal Democrats, while Labour and the SNP abstained. However, almost 50 Conservatives were absent, suggesting many may not be happy with the legislation as it currently stands. If the SNP and Labour had voted with the Lib Dems, it would have been comprehensively defeated.
Labour and the SNP abstained as they remain unconvinced about whether privacy is adequately protected, while the Liberal Democrats are going one step further and voting against the bill, which has been nicknamed “snooper’s charter”.
It will hand law enforcement agencies more access to people’s internet connection records but also make sure judges oversee the granting of warrants for interception.
The home secretary said privacy was “hard-wired” into new controversial surveillance powers and they would not give security services generalised access to people’s web browsing histories.
But Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, said he wanted to see a general presumption in favour of privacy along with at least six other improvements before the party could be persuaded to back the bill.
Clarke twice pressed May on whether judges should be given stronger powers to oversee interception of communications warrants.
As the bill is currently drafted, judges will be able to disagree with the home secretary’s granting of a warrant on matters of process but not substance. “Questions of judgment and proportionality are the most important of all, that worry me most,” Clarke said.
He said it was necessary to be “vigilant against some future administration abusing” the powers and pointed out that “all kinds of curious public bodies” would be able to get access to huge amounts of extra information. “I doubt the wisdom of that,” he added.
Clarke said he was troubled that use of the powers could be justified on the wide-ranging grounds of “economic wellbeing” and “national security”.
Grieve said he supported the bill as it was necessary but hoped ministers would accept it was “capable of further improvement” and he trusted that “during its passage, it performs the equally important role of being seen as an upholder of freedom and liberty”.