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Why the ‘snooping’ Communications Data Bill will not pass through Parliament

5 October 2012

12:23 PM

5 October 2012

12:23 PM

I believe in evidence-based policy, and if the Home Office or anyone else claims that they need new powers over the people of this country, the onus is on them to demonstrate what they need and why. They should never assume that they will always get what they want, simply because they ask for it. Politicians owe it to the people to question the needs, not just roll over and concede our hard-earned freedoms on request.

Obviously there is always a balance to be struck when deciding how many powers to give the state. We benefit from having an effective police force – but give the police too many powers, and we put too many restrictions on people’s freedoms. Orwell’s 1984 is the terrible consequence.

The use of communications data – the who, how, when and where of communications, but not the content – is definitely useful for the police, security services, and many others. There is no doubt that if hunting for a missing child, it is useful to know from where he or she made a phone call from.

But we cannot simply allow the police to have a full record of all information, backdated for a year, just because it may be useful. In exactly the same way, none of us would tolerate having a CCTV camera in every room, just in case it might become useful someday to look at the last year’s records.

So there is a need to strike a balance. A need for the police to demonstrate that they actually need any new powers, and that the benefits outweigh the harms – as well as the financial costs.

The current position is that records are kept of every call you make, text you send, website you visit and more, for 12 months. This can then be made available not just to the police, but to a wide range of public bodies, from local councils to the food standard agency. And they do ask – some 500,000 requests are made each year. The oversight is not as strong as it should be – in the Police, an inspector can sign off the requests, and in other bodies it can be even easier.

But the Home Office has pushed for many years to have even more access to communications data. For example, because some websites – such as Google and Facebook – are hosted overseas, they are not bound by the existing UK law.

The Home Office tried this under Labour, and were rebuffed. Now they are trying it again under the Coalition, and look set to be rebuffed too. But years of effort have gone into drawing up proposals for a massive increase in surveillance and data gathering.

Now, in all those years of work you might think that the Home Office had found out what use it makes currently of communications data. Not just anecdotes, but real figures – a breakdown of the 500,000 requests each year, what they were used for, how many people were affected and so forth. No such luck. The Home Secretary referred to ‘Paedophiles and Terrorists’ – the standard bugbears that we are all, of course, against – but the Home Office simply had no figures available to justify this. The best they had was a two-week snapshot, which omitted terrorism and had no listing for paedophiles. Having little information on how the existing powers are used gives no comfort that the future powers would be used appropriately.

Originally, the Home Office plan was to slip these new proposals in with the Crime and Courts Bill, currently going through Parliament. If this had been the case, there would have been minimal scrutiny of what was being proposed – only a few of us would have looked enough at the details to care – and coupling it with important things like the National Crime Agency would have made it hard to oppose.

Nick Clegg stepped in, however, and insisted that this be a Draft Bill, subject to detailed parliamentary analysis before being formally proposed to Parliament. I have to confess, I hadn’t at the time realised just how important a step this was. Rather than the Bill passing quickly through, a committee has been set up, currently meeting three times a week, to hear from experts and members of the public, going through all the proposals, and weighing them up carefully. We and the public are now far better informed about what currently happens under RIPA, what the Home Office claims it wants to do, and what the Draft Bill actually says.

There are many problems with the Bill as it stands, with more and more becoming apparent every day.

Just to give a flavour, it starts with a power to allow the Home Secretary ‘by order’ to collect any communications data she likes, in whatever way she likes. The Home Office claims it would only use a limited set of these powers – but we should never give carte blanche powers like that to the Home Secretary, whoever he or she may be.

And then there’s the cost. The government estimates that this will cost 1.8 billion pounds, over the next 10 years; an absolutely huge figure, with so little justification. And even the Police don’t seem to be persuaded this is the right way to spend money. When I asked the Met Commissioner recently how he would spend £1.8 billion over 10 years, he listed neighbourhood policing, training, and better use of ANPR and fingerprinting; communications data didn’t merit a mention.

Nick Clegg has announced recently that he plans to listen very carefully to the report of the committee, and in particular to my advice as to what to do. We’re still going through that process, and I will wait to see the rest of the evidence before deciding finally. We will report in November.

But from what I have seen so far, this is a seriously botched Bill, unfit in principle and in detail. It seems to have been thrown together without evidence to support the need for such wide-ranging powers. This is a Bill that should not and will not get support in Parliament.

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