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.