“Being director of legal affairs at Government Communications Headquarters [GCHQ] was the best job in the country – every day I leapt out of bed wanting to go to work.”
So says Michael Drury, until last year director of legal affairs at the Cheltenham-based intelligence agency.
Last September Drury quit his much-loved job in the upper echelons of the secret service to join Lincoln’s Inn firm BCL Burton Copeland as a partner.
It was, he says, an inevitable move decided upon back in the 1980s, when he was working for the SFO and prosecuting clients represented by the firm.
“It’s been the longest courtship in legal history,” he reflects.
He has been in private practice for nearly six months, but Drury insists he has no regrets about leaving the public sector.
“The work I did before was truly vital, both nationally and internationally,” Drury explains. “Clearly, private practice is never going to be as important in those terms, but to the individuals involved it’s the most important thing in the world and that fascinates me.”
During his 15 years at GCHQ Drury advised both the Government and the military on some of the most sensitive national security issues in play at the time.
He reels off a list of matters that arrived in his inbox, in no particular order: the Iraq conflict; the Afghanistan conflict; 9/11; 7/7; the Human Rights Act; the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) (2000); the Bribery Act; and the age of the internet.
Drury was closely involved with the development of Ripa, which has been used at home and abroad to legalise surveillance tactics.
More recently, as highlighted by the national press, powers have been used (some say abused) by local authorities to monitor homeowners’ disposal of rubbish.
Drury says the legislation was originally devised in reaction to the Halford case, a sexual discrimination claim brought by the former assistant chief constable of Merseyside Police. In 1997 she won a claim against the then home secretary Jack Straw after she claimed her phones had been tapped. It was a legal technicality, says Drury, and one that Ripa created justifications for.
“History has recreated the legislation to say it was a national security measure, but it wasn’t,” he insists. “You can have the debate about whether it’s become too intrusive, but it’s not about the abuse of Ripa. All officials have done is use the powers the act allows. To suggest there was some sinister Labour plot to distort the legislation is simply wrong.”
Justification and proportionality, he says, are key, and as long as the authorities can prove they have both, it is fair for them to use the powers that are available to them.
That said, Drury recognises that the same press hysteria that surrounds Ripa is starting to circle the Bribery Act, which he also advised on and which is due to come into force in April.
“People are obsessed with entertaining and whether they can still take people to lunch,” Drury says about the act. “The real philosophy of the law is to put the UK at the top of the pile in terms of outlawing bribery and corruption.
“The consequences of aspiring to a high standard is that you’re bound to catch others, and the Attorney General’s guidance on what criteria should be applied when deciding to prosecute will help with that.”
Drury insists that throughout his career with GCHQ he was not pressurised into being politicised, despite the political tensions that surrounded his role.
“One of the things that distinguished GCHQ was that national security issues were never politicised. Whatever stripe of administration was in, they never sought to politicise,” he stresses.
Nevertheless, he had to maintain relationships with Whitehall and ensure those in the public eye were sending out the right messages. While Drury never reveals just how close he was to formulating the intelligence that helped provide the case to engage in conflict in Iraq, there is a suggestion that he was involved in the legal issues behind some of the tactics that the military and the Government formulated.
Drury says the agency has always worked within the law, which is essential in international waters.
“In reality your credibility suffers if you don’t comply. You lose justification for what you’re doing,” he says. “That philosophy is driven throughout the organisation – you’ve got to have credibility.”
As a partner in a niche white-collar crime practice Drury is a gamekeeper turned poacher. And while he may no longer be working on matters of international importance, he is still enthusiastic about his future with BCL.
“The motivation isn’t any less,” he says. “I’m an enthusiastic person.”