Ministers yesterday signalled they will rewrite a Bill which gives police and security services new powers to monitor communications, after an influential parliamentary committee branded it “overkill” and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it needed a “fundamental rethink”.
Home Secretary Theresa May said she was determined to press ahead without delay with the Communications Bill, which has been dubbed a “snooper’s charter” by critics.
But she accepted the “substance” of a highly-critical report by the committee set up to scrutinise the draft version of the Bill, which would allow a range of official bodies to monitor emails, web phone calls and activity on social networking sites.
Under the draft Bill, details of these activities – but not their content – could be kept for a year, but there would be no real-time monitoring of communications.
Police, the security services the new National Crime Agency and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) would be able to access the data, but the draft Bill also gives the Home Secretary the power to extend access to others, such as the UK Borders Agency.
The committee of MPs and peers said the legislation would give the Home Secretary “sweeping powers to issue secret notices” ordering communications companies to disclose “potentially limitless categories of data”.
And they accused the Government of using “fanciful and misleading” figures to support its case for the legislation.
Mr Clegg said he was ready to block the Bill in its current form, and called on the Home Office to go “back to the drawing board”.
“I believe the coalition Government needs to have a fundamental rethink about this legislation,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.
“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.”
Urging Ministers to take the committee’s concerns on board, Mr Clegg said the creation of any new powers must be done “in a proportionate way that gets the balance between security and liberty right”.
Conservative Security Minister James Brokenshire yesterday accepted that the legislation would have to be changed before being tabled in Parliament.
“We know that there is work that needs to be done and I absolutely accept that,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“What we want to do is work through on these points, recognising that the Deputy Prime Minister has set out his concerns and making sure that the substance of the recommendations from the joint committee are addressed.”
Mrs May used an article in the Sun to stress that legislation was needed to help security agencies keep pace with technological advances, which she said were being exploited by terrorists and paedophiles.