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A letter from Sir Humphrey Appleby to the Home Secretary

This letter originally appeared here.

Dear Home Secretary

You are fortunate that the SNP and Labour Party courageously abstained from the vote on the Investigatory Powers Bill, content with government assurances that mass surveillance of British citizens is not government policy. Mass surveillance is not, and could never be, government policy. Merely government practice.

I congratulate you on your much-quoted claim that the Investigatory Powers Bill will contain a “world-leading oversight regime,” requiring a “double-lock” of both judicial and executive approval. This reference to judicial oversight is a excellent applied example of the Law of Inverse Relevance, which (as I’m sure you know) states that the less you are going to do about something, the more you have to talk about it.

You already have the power to appoint the judges and give them guidelines. Even if you mistakenly appoint unhelpful judges, there would be no problem: judges, like trains, may be impartial but they have to run along the lines that have been laid down.

However, the invention of the so-called ‘double-lock’ mechanism is something of a master-stroke (I hesitate, Home Secretary, to describe it as a mistress-stroke). Your ‘double-lock’ recognizes that judicial oversight is too important to be left to the judges, and will ensure that confused and be-wigged adjudicators can, when necessary, be saved by their political masters from making unfortunate legal errors. Judges obviously cannot be allowed to be the final arbiters of what is lawful. Only a non-lawyer, such as yourself, will be sufficiently neutral about the law to fulfill these awesome responsibilities.

Your oversight plan follows the excellent precedent that the Prime Minister set by appointing Grayling as Lord Chancellor: at last we had the benefit of a non-lawyer as head of the judiciary, appointing judges, reducing the availability of Legal Aid to ordinary people, and increasing court costs to make sure that the courts pay for themselves. A legally unqualified and totally inexpert Lord Chancellor and Minister of Justice was the necessary first step in placing the legal profession under the control of central government, and it guaranteed that few people would be able to afford to sue the government when their privacy is invaded.

Happily, Grayling was succeeded by Gove, echoing the well-established Civil Service practice of never appointing an expert as the head of a government department. Ministers, like Permanent Secretaries, should be generalists, who are able approach problems with open minds entirely uncluttered by prior information or expert knowledge. That is what has made Britain what she is today. There remains the potential problem of unwarranted interference from European Court of Human Rights but Gove, Grayling and Boris are all doing their best to head that off on your behalf.

Meanwhile, no one can possibly accuse the government of lack of transparency. Quite the opposite, in fact. It has not only issued the Investigatory Powers Bill itself (245 pages), it has added 6 draft Codes of practice (44 pages + 37 pages + 112 pages + 83 pages + 99 pages + 18 pages = 393 pages), Explanatory Notes (86 pages), the Operational case for bulk powers (47 pages), the Operational case for internet connection records (31 pages), a Home Office Memorandum (31 pages), the Government response to pre-legislative scrutiny (96 pages) and, for good measure, a Comparison of the Danish system and Investigatory Powers Bill (8 pages). A total of 937 pages. I have no doubt that every interested member of the British public will read these absolutely fascinating pages from cover to cover.

Your humble and obedient servant,

Sir Humphrey Appleby

NB: Jonathan Lynn produced this letter in association with Privacy International.