Beefed-up surveillance watchdog to oversee Whitehall investigatory powers

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 4 September 2017 in News
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New investigatory powers commissioner begins role inspecting use of state surveillance by public authorities

The Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office will oversee state surveillance. Credit: Pixabay 

The first ever investigatory powers commissioner officially starts work this month overseeing and regulating the use of surveillance by public authorities, including intelligence agencies, HMRC, and other Whitehall departments.

Lord Justice Fulford, the senior presiding judge for England and Wales and now investigatory powers commissioner, has been tasked with ensuring the lawfulness of acts of surveillance such as intercepting phone calls, running agents and bulk collection of communications data.

He heads up the new Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO), which was introduced under the Investigatory Powers Act – dubbed by critics “the snooper’s charter” because it allows state agencies to intercept communication and access some databases and records regardless of suspicion of criminal activity.


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The IPCO replaces work done by the previously separated chief surveillance, interception of communications, and intelligence services commissioners.

Whitehall departments are subject to IPCO oversight, alongside GCHQ, MI5, SIS, the National Crime Agency, all police forces, the Serious Fraud Office, HMRC, local authorities and prisons.

Fulford said this meant that for the first time, investigatory powers would be overseen by a single body "applying a consistent, rigorous and independent inspection regime across public authorities".

“This is an important milestone as we start to implement the new oversight powers set out in Investigatory Powers Act.”

Fulford leads a team of 70 – initially staff from other oversight bodies, and including 15 judicial commissioners made up of current and retired judges from the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

They will inspect hundreds of public authorities each year, and – once it has commenced – will be responsible for the “double-lock” process, whereby intrusive surveillance warrants authorised by a minister will also have to be approved by an independent judicial commissioner.

Home secretary Amber Rudd said Fulford will play a vital role in providing the enhanced safeguards the government has introduced. 

She said: “The Investigatory Powers Act offers a world-leading oversight regime to ensure the powers the security and intelligence agencies and law enforcement use to investigate crimes and protect the public are used responsibly and proportionately.”

Fulford, who was a judge of the International Criminal Court in the Hague from 2003 to 2012, will serve a three-year term.

Sir John Goldring – intelligence services commissioner from January 2017 until the post was folded into the beefed-up IPCO this month – will be Fulford’s deputy. 

His final annual report, as well as those of the now-abolished surveillance and interception of communications commissioners, will be published soon.

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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