I have a list of measures passed by this Coalition Government that I can’t stand. I call it the FFS list. A measure has to be monumentally awful to get on to that list. The changes to the Immigration Rules that Theresa May is planning are on it, as is the removal of ESA from people after a year. It’s a very short list, but it affects a lot of lives in an absolutely heart rending way.
Slightly different, but still in the same league, is the Draft Communications Bill published today. You can read all its 123 pages of measures and guidance notes here. I must confess I haven’t yet, but I will. Nor do I claim to understand all of it. But that’s ok, because there are people like Zoe who combine impeccable liberal credentials with an understanding of the technical nitty gritty. If this measure was passed in its current form, it would be straight on to the FFS list. Clause 1 is full of the sort of wide ranging power granted to a secretary of state that brings anyone who cares about civil liberties out in hives. Apparently it won’t be used in an inappropriate way. Aye, right. Let’s just not take that chance.
Thankfully, though, thanks to Nick Clegg putting his foot down, this Bill is purely a draft. If you’ve ever seen me write a blog post, you’ll know that the first draft is nowhere near what eventually appears. Rather than allow the Home Secretary to tack a bit about Communications Data on to another crime bill, he’s insisted that this issue is scrutinised within an inch of its life. If it hadn’t been for Nick, make no mistake, this Bill would be being rushed through Parliament now, probably as part of another measure, and it would have very little scrutiny.This is different, though. We have 169 days to change things.
What happens now is that a Parliamentary Committee of 12 from both Lords and Commons hears evidence from a wide range of people with an interest in the Bill. Yes, the Police and the Home Office and the spooks will want to have their say, but so too will Liberty, Big Brother Watch, ISPs and the like.
What’s particularly good is that one of our poster boys for civil liberties (well, you can’t get much better than a former Liberty Council member) Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge. He’s pretty well clued up on this as I’ve found during several Conference calls now. What he wants us to do is hone in on this Bill, dissect it and build an evidence based watertight case for amendments which provide the maximum safeguards.
Some of you will ask why we don’t just kill it now. Well, we will if this scrutiny process doesn’t come up with a Bill we can accept. But if we do that we are still left with RIPA, the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which has been augmented with deeply authoritarian nasties over the years. Last year there were 540,000 data requests. That’s far too many, and some only need the authority of a Police inspector. The Draft Bill does reduce the number of people who can get access to data but it needs to go further. As far as I’m concerned, the best form of authorisation comes from a Judge issuing a warrant so I want to see more of that.
So half a million data requests plus – and what for? The Home Office hasn’t really broken it down, but I’d really like to see how many there are for different types of cases.
Anyway, your mission, dear reader, should you choose to accept it, is to go through the Bill with the finest tooth comb you have and help Julian build an absolutely watertight case for a massive redrafting of this Bill to improve it beyond recognition and ensure that the freedom of citizens to go about their business on the internet, to exchange bitchy Facebook messages, to indulge in secret geeky obsessions or just to indulge your Amazon habit without the unwarranted intrusion of the State. The Committee has to report by the end of November. That’s just 169 days. So, get to it. Where we want to get is somewhere around the policy we passed earlier this year:
a) ensuring that there shall be no interception of telephone calls, SMS messages, social media, internet or any other communications without named, specific and time-limited warrants;
b) guaranteeing that any communications data kept by service providers in accordance with the EU Data Retention Directive are kept securely by the service providers, and that they be only released to government bodies with strict and strengthened safeguards;
c) ensuring that service providers are not mandated by law to collect communications data by any method that would also provide access to content information, unless specifically authorised by a warrant;
d) ensuring that service providers are not mandated by law to collect third-party communications data for non-business purposes by any method;
e) renegotiating the EU Data Retention Directive and changing how it is implemented into UK law, to provide a better balance towards privacy.
I will keep you posted as the Committee is formed. There will be two Lib Dems, Paul Strasburger, along with Julian. They will probably start taking evidence in September. I’ll let you know how to contribute your views.
Oh, and by the way, if you read anywhere that Nick Clegg is happy with the draft bill, it’s total bollocks. He hasn’t spoken to the press about it. Both the BBC and the Daily Fail apparently had him quoted as being happy with it and he is not. And he’s prepared to kill any bill that doesn’t have appropriate safeguards.
These next five months are important for civil liberties. Let’s demolish the nasties in this Bill clause by clause and end up with something workable and sensible which guarantees civil liberties – or nothing at all.