The Guardian view on MPs and the Edward Snowden agenda

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Last weekend, Edward Snowden reminded a London audience that Britain continues to operate a communications surveillance system in which almost anything goes and to which there are no real limits. Britain’s regulatory regime, he told the Observer Ideas festival, was the wrong way round. It imposed no obligation on government to justify why GCHQ’s powers were necessary, placing all the burden on individuals and civil society to show why they were not. Even now, more than 16 months after Mr Snowden began to challenge the sweeping scale of this country’s surveillance regimes, the institutional inertia of UK government, law and politics in the face of the Snowden revelations remains immense. Neither Westminster nor Whitehall has displayed anything like the requisite urgency.

Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, for instance, remains the only body at Westminster with the authority to probe these matters in any depth or the clout to make ministers change their ways. The committee held a rare public session with the heads of the security agencies in November last year. This week, very nearly a whole year later, the committee has been holding its second such public session, hearing from an array of ministers, former ministers, police chiefs, civil liberties groups and academics. On Thursday, it was the turn of Theresa May, the home secretary, although half of her evidence was taken in camera. These new hearings are welcome. Quietly, all parties recognise that post-Snowden legislation will have to happen. Yet Mrs May has been much quicker to strengthen data retention powers and to promise bans on extremists than to ensure privacy safeguards. With the election getting nearer, this parliament may not do its duty. On Snowden, the progress is glacial. As an interrogation of power, Thursday’s session was fluffy bunny treatment.

The particular pity of this is that, within the icy fastness of the Westminster glacier, there are increasingly audible sounds of interesting stresses and strains on the need for change. David Blunkett, who was certainly not a liberal home secretary, told the committee this week that oversight should be stronger and said it was no longer sustainable to use the old paternalist argument that “we know and you mustn’t know” to maintain public confidence in agency activities. Mrs May disagreed with that in her defence of the current system on Thursday, yet even..

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