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Communication problems: Back to drawing board for controversial snooping bill

11 December 2012

12:03 AM

11 December 2012

12:03 AM

The joint committee examining the controversial draft Communications Data Bill has reported back, and it’s not good news. The report’s damning findings about the draft legislation from the Home Office has led Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to call for it to be redrafted, and a hostile Tory MP to describe the plans to monitor internet users’ activities as ‘on life support’. The committee said:

‘Our overall conclusion is that there is a case for legislation which will provide the law enforcement authorities with some further access to communications data, but that the current draft Bill is too sweeping, and goes further than it need or should.’

The report warns that ‘the draft bill pays insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy’, and that many of the provisions were set out in such a way that the public would be right to be alarmed. It said undertakings by officials in evidence sessions to the committee that the powers the bill afforded would not need to be exercised in full were insufficient, adding:

‘An undertaking, whether by officials or by ministers, that a power will be used only to a limited extent, is of little value. Once a power is on the statute book, it is available to be used, and also to be misused or abused, at any time in the future. It is hardly surprising that a proposal for powers of this width has caused public anxiety.’

So though there is a case for the Bill, the committee believes it needs re-drafting, and the new legislation should include up-to-date definitions of communications data, which the MPs and peers felt were absent from the current bill.

Nick Clegg agrees with the Committee, and is today calling for a re-write. He says:

‘Their report makes a number of serious criticisms – not least on scope; proportionality; cost; balances; and the need for much wider consultation. It is for those reasons that I believe the Coalition Government needs to have a fundamental rethink about this legislation.

‘We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board. We need to reflect properly on the criticisms that the Committee have made, while also consulting much more widely with business and other interested groups.’

Conservative MP Dominic Raab, who Coffee House reported over the weekend was pressing ministers for more details on the safeguards on internet users’ data, says the legislation needs major changes if it is to survive:

‘This report casts doubt on the security case for such sweeping surveillance powers, the impact on privacy, their workability, the cost and flawed consultation. It is difficult to see how Parliament could vote for the scheme. The proposals are on life support. They’ll need major surgery to pass in any shape or form.’

Theresa May still wants to push the legislation through, but she no longer has the support of the Lib Dems or Labour. Home Office ministers have put considerable effort into promoting the legislation, notably with May suggesting that anyone who opposed it needed to look the victims of serious crime in the eye and tell them why they didn’t want the Bill to go ahead. Then the Liberal Democrats and Conservative MP David Davis were irritated, pointing out that the case for the legislation was still being examined: today that case doesn’t look quite as easy to rest as the Home Secretary might have hoped.

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