Four-square behind

Image caption The Counter-Terrorism Bill will be the focus of activity in the Lords next week

It's back!

What critics have dubbed the "snoopers' charter" will be debated again in the House of Lords on Monday.

The "Gang of Four" Lords King (Conservative ex-defence Secretary) Carlile (Lib Dem former independent reviewer of anti-terror laws) Blair (crossbencher and ex- commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) and West (Labour ex-security minister) have been trying to amend the government's Counter-Terrorism Bill to give the security services new powers to obtain communications data.

Opponents say this would amount to mass surveillance of internet communications by the state; supporters say it is increasingly essential to track terrorists who have been quick to see the potential of communicating through social media and even online game networks.

It would require internet providers to keep records for at least a year of every website visited by a subscriber…a proposal which first surfaced in the Communications Data Bill, a few years back.

The initial version was shredded by a Joint Parliamentary Committee under Lord Blencathra, the Conservative former Home Office Minister, David Maclean, which concluded that the powers were far too sweeping and unclear. That bill was shelved.

Off the shelf

A new and watered down set of powers was later included in DRIP - the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act - but a draft bill giving more extensive powers, designed to meet the objections of the joint committee, was vetoed by Nick Clegg on civil liberties grounds and has been gathering dust on a Home Office shelf, ever since.

So much for the back story.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the Gang of Four decided it was worth attempting to bring back the powers originally proposed in the Communications Data Bill, and they essentially offered a dusted-down version of its wording as an amendment to the Counter-Terrorism Bill earlier this week.

They didn't force it to a vote, but used the committee stage debate to take the voices.

And now they're bringing back a similar amendment for the report stage debates which begin on Monday.

Narrower scope

The argument is that since MPs finished their consideration of the Bill before the Paris outrages, it is worth offering them another chance to consider this issue, so the Lords should put the data retention powers in, bounce the Bill back to the Commons and let MPs decide whether they now seem justified.

Lord King has also narrowed the scope of the amendments so that only the police and security services and a couple of other big agencies would have access to the proposed powers, for the purpose of fighting terrorism and major crime.

They would no longer be available, in the withering phrase of one senior Tory, "to the Egg Marketing Board."

He also proposes a "sunset clause" so that the powers would expire at the end of 2016, and would have to be renewed by Parliament - making the whole thing a temporary fix.

But he and the Gang seem unlikely to get their way. What they'd really like is to offer peers the redrafted version of the Communications Data Bill created in response to Lord Blencathra's committee.

He has seen this new incarnation and pronounces it much better - meeting at least 95% of their objections.

Coalition dynamics

The stumbling block is that he also thinks that it would be unwise to ignore the intra-coalition objections that caused it to be shelved.

He argues that on a subject this sensitive it would be a mistake for the Conservative part of the government to pull a fast one and release the text so an attempt could be made to plug it into the current Bill, in the teeth of Lib Dem objection.

That kind of game-playing, however high the motives, could destroy the trust necessary to legislate after the election, he believes. And he's sure there will be another bill after the election.

The Gang's amendments have yet to pop up on the online "marshalled list" for debate on Monday - but as of this morning they were determined to table them, although they may not be visible to the outside world until Saturday, or even Monday morning.

Because this Bill is being fast-tracked, the normal deadlines for amendments have been relaxed a bit, at Labour's insistence.

But without the backing of at least one of the main parties, it is hard to see the amendment getting passed.

None of the Gang are doing this as a piece of pre-election performance art - but that is not to say that some of those encouraging them might not have that thought in the back of their minds…..

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