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Sneaking Snooper's Charter in by the back door is the best argument yet for abolishing the Lords

The House of Lords is meant to be a place where those with specialist knowledge and experience can offer suggestions or amendments of how to improve the bills the Commons puts through - not remove our fundamental freedoms on a whim.

Today sees a debate in the House of Lords over a government surveillance bill - but not just any debate, though. It's going to feature some "outrageous trickery", in the words of Green peer Jenny Jones, thanks to the machinations of four peers late last week.

Amendments made by four peers - including former Met commissioner Ian Blair - to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill would give the intelligence services the same powers that the long-quashed Snooper's Charter once included, but which were blocked by Nick Clegg in 2013. (Ironically, one of the peers introducing the new amendments today is Lord Carlile, a Lib Dem peer.) The last-minute addition of serious changes to the right to privacy of the average British citizen has outraged campaign groups and parliamentarians. The Open Rights Group has called it "an abuse of procedure", pointing out that the language used in the amendments has been lifted effectively unchanged from the earlier, rejected bill.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason for this attempt to revive the zombie Draft Communications Bill (its proper name) is that there is a significant section of the political establishment which demands the powers it offers, and which has been stymied at doing things the conventional way. Those powers included:

  • Compelling internet and communications companies to store all customer data for at least 12 months. That means every text, every call, every Snapchat and every webpage visited, kept in a database somewhere just in case it's needed for a police or security services investigation.
  • Mandating "deep packet inspection" of internet traffic. Currently, your ISP only has access to the metadata relevant to your internet use, so the data about the data - the names of the sites you visit, how long you browse them, etc. Deep packet inspection would give GCHQ the right to examine every piece of data coming in and out of the UK, giving access to all but the most encrypted data. This technology is mainly used by other governments around the world, such as Iran's and China's, to suppress access to uncensored information and keep tabs on dissidents.

The amendments introduced by the four peers for debate today deal with the first of these two changes, but already the speed and suddenness with which they were introduced has led to a split in the governing parties. Nick Clegg has again stated his and his party's opposition to the proposals, but the amendment has been given the best possible chance of avoiding proper parliamentary scrutiny - proposed on Thursday without warning, and submitted for a simple up/down vote, meaning that the debate on the floor of the Lords today is the only chance for any hurriedly-formed coalition to oppose it.

It's a profoundly undemocratic move, especially considering the severe criticism these policies were given when assessed by a joint parliamentary select committee for a year when the original bill was proposed. Lord Blencathra has written to Lord King (one of the group of four who proposed the 18 pages of amendments) to make it clear that the committee he chaired "found fault with nearly every part of it", calling it "too sweeping" in its powers. The cost of forcing private companies to keep all of this data - and the cost if there was a leak - has been estimated into the billions.

The justification given by this group of peers for their actions is that the security services have asked for these powers, which is not in itself good enough. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris earlier this month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was among those groups who warned that they may be used as justification by the security services for reducing personal liberties even more, with rushed legislative action like this. They were right to worry.

By doing this, though, these peers demonstrate just what a rotten thing the House of Lords is. In a way, the Snooper's Charter is exactly the kind of legislation that befits such an institution - both hacked at over and over by opponents but never quite killed, staggering on purely because the will to survive is too strong to allow taking them behind the toolshed and put them out of their misery. Acting like the House of Lords in its current state is anything other than a bodge job put in place by Tony Blair's Labour government, and that finishing the job was never a high enough priority on the agenda for the next decade, is an absurdity. Whatever expertise peers bring to the legislative process doesn't outweigh the threat that unelected, unaccountable friends of other unelected, unaccountable parts of the political establishment can shape legislation like this.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.