Rejected: Home Office in retreat over internet snooping ‘overkill’
The government is set to drastically revise its 'internet snooping' plans, after parliamentary reports prompted Nick Clegg to call for ministers to go "back to the drawing board".
The Home Office's plans to gather more data about mobile phone calls and other electronic communications were rejected as "overkill" by MPs and peers in two reports out today.
That gave the deputy prime minister the opportunity to criticise home secretary Theresa May's proposals, which he said were flawed in "scope, proportionality, cost, checks and 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," Clegg said. "We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board."
In an unusual step, MPs on the Commons' intelligence and security committee offered their own report reinforcing the findings of the main report out today, by parliament's joint committee, calling for significant amendments to the draft communications data bill.
The Home Office wants to force telecoms companies to retain information about the time and duration of a phone call, web visits and social media messages – and make the data available to the police upon request.
Officials have pointed out they are not seeking permission for the content of the calls to be made available – but civil liberties groups have branded the draft legislation a 'snoopers' charter'.
Today's report on the draft bill calls for narrowed powers which would only allow the home secretary to order the retention of specific types of communications data for which a 'current need' has been proven.
"The breadth of the draft bill as it stands appears to be overkill and is much wider than the specific needs identified by the law enforcement agencies," committee chair Lord Blencathra said.
"We urge the government to reconsider its zeal to future-proof legislation and concentrate on getting the immediate necessities right.
"We are confident that the safeguards already in the draft bill, together with our recommendations to strengthen those safeguards, will do just that."
MPs and peers say parliament should be given the authority to amend the home secretary's powers if and when the need arises.
Both the number of public authorities able to access the information and the definition of what constitutes communications data should be narrowed, they add.
Home Office minister James Brokenshire told the Today programme "advanced work" on the changes proposed by the committee was already underway.
"We've already started work making the changes," he said.
"We believe the changes that meet the substance of these recommendations can be met in a reasonably short order.
"We know we need to work this through with the coalition. What we want to work through on these points, recognising the deputy prime minister has set out his concerns."
The intelligence and security committee, which will produce a private report for the prime minister's eyes soon, made available a shortened version of its findings today which backed up the view of the joint committee.
"Whilst we recognise the need to take action quickly, the current proposals require further work," it argued.
Its report attacked "insufficient consultation" about the practicalities of implementing the reforms, as well as a lack of information about safeguards.
In September Clegg told his party's conference in Brighton he would block the draft bill if MPs opposed it.
"If the questions and queries and dilemmas posed by the joint committee are not satisfactorily answered by the Home Office, of course it won't become a bill or an Act," he said during a question-and-answer session. "We are taking this pre-legislative scrutiny very seriously indeed."
May has claimed that lives could be at stake if her department's proposals do not enter law. The intelligence and security committee said it expected the decline of available communications data would "begin shortly to have a serious impact" on Britain's intelligence and security agencies.
Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch called on ministers to scrap existing proposals altogether, however.
"The complexity and sensitivity of the subject required a radically different process and a totally different bill," director of privacy Nick Pickles said.
"There are challenges, but they can be solved in a proportionate way that protects privacy, is based on what is technically possible and focuses on maximising the effectiveness of data already held."
Today's report found there were just three types of data not currently being collected which could aid the work of law enforcement, however. These ware data matching IP addresses to specific users, data showing which internet services a user has accessed and data from overseas communications providers offering services in the UK.