Comms Data Bill "cannot proceed", says Clegg

Deputy PM says controversial communications bill "cannot proceed" after MP finds scope too broad and proposed benefits "fanciful"

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Comms Data Bill "cannot proceed", says Clegg

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has said that the Communications Data Bill, which proposes to allow law enforcement authorities greater access to Internet data, "cannot proceed".

"I believe the coalition government needs to have a fundamental rethink about this legislation," Clegg said today. "We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board."

He made his remarks as a parliamentary select committee published its report on the bill. The committee of MPs found that the bill was too broad in its scope and that the Home Office's cost-benefit analysis was "fanciful and misleading".

The Bill was proposed as a way to update the police's ability to intercept communications data in line with the development of the Internet, since the existing Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was written in 2000.

The committee agreed that RIPA should be updated, but said that the bill was too broad in its definition of what the police should be able to access.

"The only limitation on what communications data should be made available is that it should be "necessary". Who decides what is "necessary", and for what purpose, is not specified," it said. "[The bill] therefore should be re-drafted with a much narrower scope, so that the Secretary of State may make orders subject to Parliamentary approval enabling her to issue notices only to address specific data gaps as need arises."

It said that government had made unsubstantiated claims about the amount of data that the police need. "The government state that at present approximately 25% of communications data required by investigators is unavailable and that without intervention this will increase to 35% within two years," the committee said. "It is not clear what methodology was used to arrive at the 25% figure [and] we are of the strong view that the 25% data gap is an unhelpful and potentially misleading figure."

The committee recommended that the bill "should be re-drafted with new definitions of communications data. The challenge will lie in creating definitions that will stand the test of time. There should be an urgent consultation with industry on changing the definitions and making them relevant to the year 2012."

It criticised the Home Office's failure to consult the telecommunications industry on the viability and impact of the bill. The bill was "unquestionably a prime candidate for wide-ranging consultation at a stage when policy was still being formulated and could be amended. This did not happen."

The committee also said the government's estimates of how much the technical requirements of the bill would cost are "not robust". "Given successive governments' poor records of bringing IT projects in on budget, and the general lack of detail about how the powers under the bill will be used, there is a reasonable fear that this legislation will cost considerably more than the current estimates."

"The figure for estimated benefits is even less reliable than that for costs, and the estimated net benefit figure is fanciful and misleading," it added.

"We believe that, with the benefit of fuller consultation with [communication service providers] than has so far taken place, the government will be able to devise a more proportionate measure than the present draft Bill, which would achieve most of what they really need, would encroach less upon privacy, would be more acceptable to the [communications service providers], and would cost the taxpayer less."

Digital liberty campaigners the Open Rights Group has welcomed the MPs' report. "The report vindicates Open Rights Group's view that the current proposals should be dropped," it said in a statement. "The recommendations of the committee indicate the need for a fundamental, full and public review of digital surveillance. The committee's report demonstrates that the Home Office should not be relied upon to run this review, as it would involve broader issues of justice and human rights."

Last week, when reports of the committee's damning conclusion began to emerge, Home Secretary Thereas May attempted to drum up public support for the bill in an interview with The Sun newspaper.

"Criminals, terrorists and paedophiles will want MPs to vote against this bill," she said. "Victims of crime, police and the public will want them to vote for it. It’s a question of whose side you’re on.”

“The people who say they’re against this bill need to look victims of serious crime, terrorism and child sex offences in the eye and tell them why they’re not prepared to give the police the powers they need to protect the public."

“Anybody who is against this bill is putting politics before people’s lives," she said.