Julian Huppert MP writes… Communications data: we have to get this right

Many years ago my father gave me some advice: ‘don’t get it right, get it written’. If you want to do something properly you need to have a draft. That way you can go back and improve it.

Today sees the publication of the Draft Communications Data Bill. It is a first version, not a final text, and one which will be given the time and proper processes to change. It’s hard to overemphasise how different that is to the usual Parliamentary process.

A special Select Committee will go through the issues raised in the Bill, and make suggestions on how to improve it. I’ll be on that Committee, and between now and November we will be asking experts and members of the public to comment on it, and suggest where it needs to be changed.

It’s thanks to Lib Dem pressure that we now have a vital opportunity to get this right. If left to itself, the Home Office would simply have announced this Bill – or something worse – as a fait accompli, and whipped people to support it. Nick Clegg intervened to stop that from happening.

And already the Draft Bill is better than the one the Home Office proposed, as revealed a few months ago. Already there are more safeguards than there were going to be – but we are not there yet.

My position, and that of the Liberal Democrats, is absolutely clear. We oppose giving Ministers or anyone else broad disproportionate powers to snoop on the public. We must hugely tighten the controls on how communications data that has been collected can be accessed. Both of these concerns must be met in the final version of this Bill. Only then would we support it. Only then will we have a Bill which is fit for Parliament.

If we do this right, we can have a Bill that is better than the current situation. RIPA is an awful Act, and far too lax, and other pieces of legislation allow access to this data in a way that is even easier!

If only RIPA had been subject to this process, if only the Labour party had listened to our calls for proper scrutiny over the last 13 years, we might not be in this mess in the first place.

I’ve only had a quick chance to read through the Bill, and already lots of concerns spring to mind. I’m sure that as you and others look through this carefully, more concerns will come up as well.

But my immediate concern is Clause 1. As written, it gives the Secretary of State far too broad a power. It allows data collection exercises that are perfectly reasonable – but would also allow pervasive black boxes that would monitor every online information flow; an idea which is clearly unacceptable. This must be tightened up urgently. The accompanying text is much better – but I don’t think we should pass broad laws on a promise from government that they will never abuse it.

This absolutely must be changed – it is unacceptable as it currently stands.

As always, Liberal Democrats have a tough battle on our hands. But, this time, it is a battle that will be fought out in the open, and we have the time, knowledge and power to get it right.

Current controls over surveillance are awful. From a first glance, some powers suggested in this draft are worse, and need correcting. But for the first time we will have a proper debate about the legitimate scope of state interference, how technology affects our society, and how we can legislate to strike the right balance between freedom and surveillance.

Over the following months the Government will be forced to justify any new powers it wants. That is exactly what making legislation should always have been about. I’m confident that Liberal Democrats will make the most of the opportunity we now have.

* Julian Huppert is Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge.

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26 Comments

  • Adam Bernard 14th Jun '12 - 1:03pm

    Tommy: The Lib Dems have a battle not in order to kill this, but in order to turn it into something that actually adds the safeguards that we badly need. At the moment things are far from ideal, and hopefully this is an opportunity to improve on the status quo. But I agree, things are risky and Lib Dems need to be clear that if the final version is something that’s not an improvement, they will, as you suggest, veto.

  • I don’t understand why you are supporting this at all. This is exactly the same plan that Labour introduced, with the same price tag. Remember this?

    “We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.”
    http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100919110641/http://programmeforgovernment.hmg.gov.uk/civil-liberties/index.html

    Or this?

    “Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that the Government have no plans to revive Labour’s intercept modernisation programme, whether in name or in function, and that he remains fully committed to the pledge in the coalition agreement to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and to roll back state intrusion?”
    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm101027/debtext/101027-0001.htm#10102752001074

    There is no way to support this, and remain committed to civil liberties. Good luck in the next election.

  • Yellow Bill 14th Jun '12 - 1:29pm

    This is another, illiberal, erosion of civil liberties that Lib Dems opposed before the coalition.

    Now apparently they are endorsing it.

    At this rate I will not be rejoining the party for the foreseeable future.

  • What cannot happen is what happened with the NHS Bill, a lot of noise, followed by either full or partial capitulation. At some point there needs to be a true red line. I hope it is this, Julian has a good track record on these matters and I hope the leadership follows this…

  • Why don’t the Lib Dems come up with their own proposals to form the basis for negotiation , why is it always a case of Clegg reacting to Tory proposals rather than immediately countering proactively with your own? Both LD /Tory manifestoes promised an end to this sort of data retention not some vast extension.

    So what is it, have you too much respect for the posh boys? Would you have compromised in coalition with Labour like this on this type of issue? Any compromises that are won will undoubtedly leave civil liberties in a worse place than they are at present and presently the UK is the most secretive , watched over country in the whole of western europe. Nice going LDs

  • James Baker 14th Jun '12 - 3:09pm

    We should be moving towards a situation where access to this information is only allowed under the authorisation of a warrant issued by an independent judiciary. Julian is right the RIPA legislation needs reform. I don’t see how any amount of drafting can result in this bill doing that. Its whole focus is in the wrong direction. It would be easier to start from scratch. No surveillance without a warrant!

  • I’ve begun to realize that Liberal Democrats are actually, very nice people, and that is probably the stumbling block.
    When presented with ideas or draft legislation, they [LibDems], instinctively want to roll their sleeves up and help, modify, compromise, improve, make adjustments, make amendments,… and generally. ‘do the right thing’.
    However LibDems for some strange reason, seem unable to see that sometimes the right thing, should be to say…… NO !.
    This (Tory), draft legislation, is a Trojan Horse. The Tories will quite happily let the LibDems crawl all over it, to measure it for a new suit, even paint it Orange Book ORANGE, until Lib Dems, gleeful at their hard work and input, pat each other on the back, and open a bottle of Chardonnay to celebrate.
    But a LibDem, modified ‘orange’ trojan horse is still ”’A TROJAN HORSE”’, that will be used to erode civil liberties.

    You should instantly veto, shred, or throw this garbage in the bin, and instead submit a (Libem), draft…[ Repeal and Restricted Update of RIPA Bill ], which will maintain authorities relevant powers, and dissolve the intrusive snooping powers.

    INRS

  • Simon Bamonte 14th Jun '12 - 5:07pm

    This is something we would have been 100% opposed to in opposition and rightly so. However, seeing as we have no red lines we will not cross and nothing we won’t say “NO” to the Tories on, I have no major hope of this plan being dropped. After our MPs failed to stand up against alleged corruption yesterday, it appears that our part in this coalition is simply to keep the Tories happy. From tuition fees to the welfare bill to the NHS, we’ve practically given them what they want and received nothing in return.

    This snoopers’ charter is one of the most illiberal pieces of legislation in a so-called “free” country that already has the highest amount of surveillance and state intrusion in the Western EU. I’d say failure of our MPs to oppose this would be completely against what this party stands for, but we’ve already voted for plenty of legislation that directly goes against our party’s constitution, so I’m sure our MPs will line up and vote for this rubbish. To hell with personal freedom, privacy and keeping the state out of our lives…there’s Tories to keep on side!

  • “A special Select Committee will go through the issues raised in the Bill, and make suggestions on how to improve it.”

    Take two matches. One if you’re confident it will strike first time.

    Julian – you strike me as a decent, intelligent and honorable man trying to do his best for the party. I just hope you don’t get taken advantage of.

  • Stuart Mitchell 14th Jun '12 - 7:08pm

    “If only RIPA had been subject to this process…”

    More tiresome rewriting of history. As I posted here a couple of months ago :-

    “RIPA was introduced with considerable support from the Liberal Democrats. See Hansard, 26 July 2000, where there is endless praise for the Bill, and the way the government consulted [with opposition parties] during its passage through Parliament, from the likes of Simon Hughes, Alan Beith, and Richard Allan.”

  • Andrew Suffield 14th Jun '12 - 8:59pm

    I don’t understand why you are supporting this at all.

    Who are you talking to?

    Julian Huppert makes it very clear that he is not supporting this.

    However, what we have on the table here is a golden opportunity to repeal the nastier bits of RIPA and fix the rest. To ignore that opportunity would be worse than foolish.

  • Andrew Suffield 14th Jun '12 - 9:02pm

    This is something we would have been 100% opposed to in opposition

    Every party is 100% opposed to everything in opposition. That’s what opposition means.

    You may be happy in opposition, but political parties are formed of those who want to win and bring their own policies to the table, rather than sit around talking about how much they dislike everybody else’s ideas.

  • “Every party is 100% opposed to everything in opposition. That’s what opposition means.”

    Except they aren’t and it doesn’t. Numerous times the party has taken exactly the position set out by Julian above. “This is a bad bill we will work to make it better”. A simple reading of the committee stages of any bill will demonstrate that.

    “You may be happy in opposition, but political parties are formed of those who want to win and bring their own policies to the table, rather than sit around talking about how much they dislike everybody else’s ideas.”

    Again it isn’t opposition or nothing. Plenty of the party’s policies have been implemented over the years even when in opposition – because we won the argument. Devolved parliaments, freedom of information, Human Rights Act to name just three.

    “However, what we have on the table here is a golden opportunity to repeal the nastier bits of RIPA and fix the rest. To ignore that opportunity would be worse than foolish.”

    We have had an opportunity to repeal the nastier bits of RIPA in every Queens speech under the coaltion. We could have put down amendments to do that to any piece of legislation going. If that’s what we are trying to do it is a very odd starting point to begin with a bill going in the opposite direction.

    The defence of our position is something like ” we will amend this bill and block it if it is unacceptable. You do trust us to stand up to the Tories don’t you?”

  • Richard – in that case why won’t Clegg say it?

  • Daniel Henry 15th Jun '12 - 12:59am

    I think that if we neutralise the bad parts in the bill and also manage to reform RIPA then this could be a win for us!

    Julian, I am very glad thatyou’re on the committee! Knock ‘em dead! ;)

  • Daniel Henry15th Jun ’12 – 12:59am………..I think that if we neutralise the bad parts in the bill and also manage to reform RIPA then this could be a win for us!…

    Well that’s OK then; another bill sorted. When will we learn (NHS,etc.) that ‘inkering with a ‘bad bill’ doesn’t make it a ‘good bill’?
    Sadly, I have far, far more faith in David Davis’s effectiveness in opposing this than any of our MPs.

  • Andrew Suffield 15th Jun '12 - 8:44am

    We have had an opportunity to repeal the nastier bits of RIPA in every Queens speech under the coaltion. We could have put down amendments to do that to any piece of legislation going.

    You know full well that isn’t how legislation is done in the UK. The rule is one subject area per bill.

    (Although as it happens, we did already repeal one of the nastier bits of RIPA. Councils and similar LAs no longer have the power to engage in warrant-less surveillance.)

    in that case why won’t Clegg say it?

    You are also aware that Clegg is not allowed to personally make statements about this sort of thing without them being agreed with the rest of the government.

  • “You know full well that isn’t how legislation is done in the UK. The rule is one subject area per bill.
    (Although as it happens, we did already repeal one of the nastier bits of RIPA. Councils and similar LAs no longer have the power to engage in warrant-less surveillance.)”

    Kind of contradictory there!

    “in that case why won’t Clegg say it?
    You are also aware that Clegg is not allowed to personally make statements about this sort of thing without them being agreed with the rest of the government.”

    Worth looking at the “rules” which would govern this:

    “We must be different in how we think and how we behave. We must be different from what has gone before us.”
    David Cameron – introduction to the ministerial code

    “2.1 The principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, requires that Ministers should be able to express their views frankly in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached.”

    Has Nick asked that the collective responsibility be explictly set aside on this matter so he can speak freely on it? This is after all only draft legislation published for the explicit purpose of having a debate.

    Nick has already breached the principle of collective responsibility by his comments reported by Julian.

    The “rules” which stop this are those set by the government – and they can change them if they want. Actually it isn’t “they” its “we”. Where, as a point of principle, is the reason why Nick or any other of our ministers can’t speak out against legislation which wasn’t in the coalition agreement.

  • Andrew Suffield 15th Jun '12 - 7:07pm

    Kind of contradictory there!

    Not at all. We can’t go around tacking on clauses to unrelated pieces of legislation, but when one comes along that we can use, we can and have taken advantage of it.

    Has Nick asked that the collective responsibility be explictly set aside on this matter so he can speak freely on it?

    Obviously any requests he might make in cabinet are not something that would be made public.

    I don’t see why the cabinet would agree to it though. The party has plenty of spokespeople who can and are speaking up about this. Clegg’s presence in the debate is unnecessary.

    (I note that it is traditional to call for ministers to do things which the speaker knows they cannot do, in order to make them look vaguely bad)

  • “(I note that it is traditional to call for ministers to do things which the speaker knows they cannot do, in order to make them look vaguely bad)”

    Part of the problem we have is that we are trying to run a Coalition under the same rules of operation as a single party government. We should actually be challenging (and changing) the way politics is done as much as introducing policies. I’m happy to make Nick look vaguely bad in that respect because I don’t think he’s got his approach right.

    Nick has spoken out against these proposals when it was announced they would be in the Queens speech. He’s now seemingly quite happy for his position in opposition to be referred to in an on the record way. It would be a much clearer way of making legislation if it was clear just what his position was rather than doing everything by proxy.

  • Andrew – the requirement for statements to be agreed by the rest of Cabinet doesn’t seem to apply to Nick today!
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jun/21/nick-clegg-gove-scrap-gcses?intcmp=239

  • Well, good for Nick – I was afraid this one would squeeze through too!

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