A tale of two bills: internet surveillance in Canada and the UK

What would happen if two parliaments considered implementing similar proposals in legislation at roughly the same time, each facing a backlash from parties and the media alike? I’d compare the parliamentary processes in each country and follow the bills through their parliamentary passage to look in detail at the methods, means and debates by which it was scrutinised, that’s what.

Some Canadians may recall that a couple of months ago, there was an uproar after the government proposed the bill C-30 – ‘protecting children from internet predators‘ bill – which proposed forcing telephone companies and internet service providers to build backdoors to allow the police, national security agencies, and the competition bureau to access traffic data (when, where, who, etc) about signals sent through their networks without ever needing a warrant, and allowing actual content to be accessed with a warrant. It was claimed necessary to fight child pornography. After an uproar, both on Twitter (where people protested using #TellVicEverything) and in the media sphere.

Just yesterday, the government floated the idea of a bill in the upcoming Queen’s Speech in May which appears to be along the same lines. Like with the Canadian proposals, the government claimed it was necessary to combat child pornography though terrorism was also mooted as a reason. Again there was condemnation on Twitter (where people protested using, would you believe it, #TellDaveEverything) and in the media.

While the precise detail of the UK proposals remain unknown, both governments have been forced by the backlash to back down slightly. Vic Toews (Minister for Public Safety in Canada) promised that it will undergo the fullest debate in parliament by being sent to committee before second reading and hence allowing a wider range of amendments to be proposed. Theresa May (Secretary of State for the Home Department in the UK) has also conceded that there will be a draft bill undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny in the next session rather than a bill brought forward straight away.

I’ve spoken about ‘first reading committees’ and pre-legislative committees before, and the differences between them are important to note. The Canadian first reading committee is the same as a normal committee stage: a bill is sent to a committee which will hear evidence and vote on how to amend it. However, the committee has more freedom to amend the bill, not being constrained by the chamber voting on the principle of the bill. Traditionally, governments are more willing to accept amendments at this stage too. The British pre-legislative scrutiny is where a committee will hear evidence and report on a draft bill and recommend amendments before the bill is introduced. While it cannot amend the bill itself, the government usually accepts many of the recommendations itself and the rest tend to heavily influence future amendments to the bill.

The two parliaments are also structurally similar. The Canadian House of Commons imported much of its procedures from the British, as did the Senate from the Lords. Differences between the two parliaments mainly lie in the handling of time and committees. Canadian MPs can usually speak for an allotted time each with the only limit being the number of MPs who want to speak while British MPs can speak for as long as they and the Speaker wish but each stage of a bill usually has an allotted period of time for debate. Canadian Senators have something similar to Canadian MPs whereas peers have no limits on speaking times nor time limits on stages of bills. Canadian MPs refer bills to departmental Standing Committees, British MPs to ad-hoc Public Bill Committees. Senators do the same to departmental Standing Committees, peers either to a Committee of the Whole House or Grand Committee (which is a committee of the whole house in another room where amendments may only be agreed by unanimity).

Of course, the political conditions in the two countries are relatively different. Canada has its first majority government since 2004, and the Conservative Party of Canada has recently gained a majority in both chambers (though the main opposition in both chambers is different, since the New Democrats have not yet had the chance to appoint Senators). The United Kingdom has its first post-election hung parliament since 1974* and the Conservative Party went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats giving it a majority in the House of Commons and a political majority in the House of Lords**.

Hopefully, this will prove to be an interesting set of bills to illustrate the way that both parliaments work as well as following the debate on the issue of internet surveillance. It’s a rare day when two bills are proposed so close to each other and are so similar in content (and controversy) too; you would hope that they would invite similar levels of scrutiny.

I’ll come back to this issue when either of the two proposals move forward and are given further parliamentary scrutiny in any way!

*Technically parliament became hung in 1996 thanks to by-elections, but that lasted less than a few months due to a looming prorogation and dissolution of parliament.
**Political majority here means that of peers taking a party whip, they have a majority. Since crossbench peers often split down the middle, this means the government wins a lot more than it used to. The average of defeats in the two parliaments after the 1999 reforms creating this hung chamber has been 0.33 per sitting day. In this parliament that figure stands at half of that at 0.16 per sitting day. These numbers are calculated from figures from the UCL’s Constitution Unit and the UK parliament. A lot depends on the attitude of the opposition in the Lords.
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