Last week Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert did one of those webinars for party members. Like Danny Alexander’s on the Budget and Nick Clegg’s on the Queen’s Speech before, it was very informative as he took questions for an hour on the Draft Data Communications Bill and a range of other civil liberties issues.
Julian sits on the Committee that is scrutinising the Draft Data Communications Bill. The story so far is that the Conservatives wanted this measure to go through this year as part of the Justice and Security Bill but Nick Clegg wasn’t having any of that. The Bill has been published in draft form so that it can be scrutinised within an inch of its life, with evidence taken from a wide range of interested parties. Julian said that the bill as it stood was not impressive:
I don’t want you to get the impression that I think this is a good bill in any way. We wouldn’t allow the Bill to go forward in its current form.
The major problem was with the clause which gives the Home Secretary virtually unbridled power to snoop on someone’s internet activity.
Huppert also wants the Bill to significantly roll back the powers granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and only to keep data for as long as necessary. He did, however, say that there were some good bits of the Bill that might be worth keeping.
He outlined some situations where allowing the speedy interception of communications data is helpful and necessary. For example, if you have a missing child, knowing where their phone is quickly could save their life. In situations like that, there has to be a way of getting that information urgently. However, he feels that the current system for handling urgent requests is much overused. 30,000 such requests under the current system feels like too much.
Challenging the assumption that content could be kept separate from communications data is another important part of the scrutiny process.
Another huge concern is that if you force companies like Google and Facebook to hold huge amounts of data on all of our activities, somebody, sometime will hack in to that data store and help themselves to our private information.
No third runway this Parliament
The webinar took place on the day of the Reshuffle so so it was no surprise there was a question on a third runway at Heathrow. Julian was unequivocal. The Coalition Agreement is very clear that there would be no third runway and we won’t support it. He said that the inner wrangling of the Tories over the policy they’d present at the next election was their problem.
Where now for civil liberties?
Asked about the Coalition’s record on civil liberties, Julian said that there was no doubt that measures like the abolition of the DNA database and ID cards made the current Government much better than its predecessor. Good, but not great was his verdict as he gave a list of things he felt needed to be tackled, including:
- use of tasers
- expanding Freedom of Information
- ensuring people couldn’t be prosecuted for telling jokes online as in the Twitter Joke Trial.
- mosquito devices
I wonder where next for the webinar – perhaps a double header to really debate an issue would be useful with a ministerial team from one department like Vince and Jo Swinson. What do you think?
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings