Michael Ellis is the Member of Parliament for Northampton North. Follow Michael on Twitter.
The joint committee scrutinising the draft Communications Data Bill has reported back. The issues the bill grapples with – how some of the most dangerous people in our world are exploiting new and emerging technologies to perpetrate terrible crimes – are vital. National security underwrites everything else a government does and it is of the first importance. The committee – which included MPs and peers from all three main parties, and of which I was a member – agrees with the Government on the case for new legislation in this area to protect the public and to strengthen the hand of the people who keep us safe. The Home Office has accepted the substance of all the committee’s recommendations. Now we need to get on with making this bill law and giving the police and security services the tools they need to do their jobs.
There is a clear and pressing need for legislation in this area now. As technology changes so does the behaviour of the criminals who exploit it. Laws which were framed for another time become outmoded and the police and security agencies whose job it is to protect us all find themselves on the back foot.
Communications data has played a role in every major Security Service counter-terrorism operation and in the vast majority of serious organised crime investigations in recent years. Whereas in 2006 the police and Security Service had access to 90 per cent of communications data in this country, technological advances like Skype and Blackberry Messenger now mean they are able to access just 75 per cent of that data.
The proposals are about the context, not the content, of communications – who it was sent to, where and when, but not what it says. So no-one will be able to see the words written in an email or text message. But the police – with proper safeguards – will be able to find out information on the timings and destination of communications and use that as evidence in court. This means we will have available for internet-based communications what we already have for mobile and landline telephone calls.
And there will be no central ‘Big Brother Database,’ as Labour had planned. The service providers, many of whom already retain this data in an ad hoc way, will instead be required to hold this data in a regulated and secure way and to destroy it after a year. No one feels that their liberty is compromised by information on their landline phones being retained by BT, and this is exactly the same sort of information being held in a more secure way.
Access to this information will be very tightly regulated with proper legal safeguards. The data will only be available to designated senior officers, on a regulated case-by-case basis, overseen by an independent Interception of Communications Commissioner. It will be available only if it is strictly necessary and proportionate to a criminal investigation. There will be no new powers or capabilities for the police and other agencies to intercept and read emails or telephone calls and existing arrangements for interception will not be changed.
Those who protect our freedoms from terrorists and serious criminals are clear that they need these powers. Bernard Hogan Howe, the widely respected Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has said that ‘in a significant number of cases, access to communications data is a matter of life or death’ and that ‘the proposed changes are simply to bring the current legislation up to date to ensure that we can use our existing powers effectively.’ Peter Davies, head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre which works to detect and arrest paedophiles, has said that ‘without communications data and intelligence, we would not be able to act as fast as we need to and, in many instances, we would not be in a position to act at all.’
I have been shocked that Yvette Cooper and the Labour Party have been trying to play politics with an issue of this importance. Coming from a party which in government tried to pass legislation in this area which was genuinely an oppressive snoopers’ charter, their current opportunism is all the more breathtaking. If they were in government now they would be grappling with these issues themselves, but these political tactics show that Labour are simply not fit to be trusted with national security.
New laws in this area are vital to help catch paedophiles, terrorists and other serious criminals. There is no time to waste – the laws are needed now. It is not sensible, and it is certainly not Conservative, to put the interests of criminals first and the security of our citizens and Kingdom second.