The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, passed in 2000, one of the most insidious Acts of Parliament in modern times, set up a tribunal with the power to investigate any complaints against MI5, MI6 or GCHQ, including complaints about surveillance activities of the police or any other public bodies. Very little at first was heard about this Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), and it was only the Snowden revelations that have brought to light how farcical those arrangements are and how contemptuous the Establishment is about the independence, integrity and effectiveness of the system for holding to account one of the most secret and potentially wayward powers within the State.
For a body whose independence from the Home Office is absolutely essential for its proper and reliable functioning, it is actually secretly operating from the Home Office itself! It is also funded by the Home Office. And the senior member of the secretariat of the IPT is thought to be a Home Office official who worked in the Department’s covert investigation policy team and then in their office for security and counter-terrorism. It is scarcely surprising therefore that since the IPT was set up 14 years ago, of the 1,500 complaints which it investigated, only 0.6% were upheld – and half of those were all from one family who had complained about surveillance from the local Council.
Perhaps the key consideration here is: did the IPT uncover the bulk surveillance operations by GCHQ or not? If they did, did they raise merry hell with GCHQ and get it stopped, or at least make the information public? If they did not know mass surveillance was going on right under their noses, what use are they? Worse still, the IPT clearly sees itself as there to serve the intelligence agencies. It argues that that it needs to do its work in secret to preserve the trust and co-operation of the agencies it is supposed to be investigating. Its naivety is breathtaking. The president of the court, a high court judge, recently claimed “There is nothing we cannot see. We are confident that we are shown everything”. How does he know? And after the non-revelation of GCHQ’s mass surveillance, his declaration is surely one of crass gullibility. The learned judge won’t even disclose whether the IPT has made any secret ruling on mass surveillance because the rules say it can’t without the express permission of GCHQ itself! What a stitch-up.
The idea that this offers a fair and balanced investigation of the spooks’ activities is laughable. It is just a facade to give a pretence that complaints are possible, whereas actually it’s a kangaroo court. There are usually no oral hearings at all, and the 8 lawyers who sit on the IPT reach their decisions simply by consulting the documents provided by the agencies. Under all the rules of English law this is a farce. Even if it is found that someone has been spied on, the IPT simply concludes that it is lawful, and there is no right of appeal. It is really shameful that such a fake can have existed in secret for so long.