Michael Ellis is MP for Northampton North. Follow Michael on Twitter.
An article this week on ConHome from Emma Carr of Big Brother Watch asserted that the Communications Data Bill was ‘ill thought out legislation’. As a member of the cross-party Joint Committee which spent almost six months scrutinising the Draft Bill – and which unanimously agreed the need for updated legislation – I strongly disagree.
This legislation is not, as Emma Carr and others have suggested, about "snooping" on the public. The use of communication records – the "who", "when" and "where" of a communication, but not the actual content of them – forms part of almost every serious organised crime investigation. It is a crucial tool in the fight against paedophiles, terrorists and other serious criminals.
The fact is, however, that the increasing use of smartphones and the internet is eroding this capability. As criminals adapt to a digital age, our law enforcement agencies must keep up – and they must have the tools they need to respond and keep us safe in these dangerous times. The formal requests they make nowadays to mobile and internet service providers for details about suspects’ communications are increasingly met with reports that they have growing gaps in their records. The details of communications made via the internet simply aren’t retained in a way which allows connections to be matched easily. A call or text message sent by a mobile network can be tracked, but if the same call or message is sent by a 3G network or WiFi, this information simply isn't available readily – if at all.
If no action is taken, this problem will continue to grow – meaning that crimes enabled by email and the internet will go undetected and unpunished.
Emma Carr suggests that the need for this Bill is not clear and that the capability gap has not been substantiated. This is not the case. The other members of the cross party Joint Committee and I concluded unanimously, following our pre-legislative scrutiny, that there is indeed a capability gap – and that it needs filling now.
Those who protect our freedoms from terrorists and serious criminals are clear that they need these powers. Sir 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 seen at first hand – both sitting on the Joint Committee and in my years as a barrister in criminal practice – the vital importance of intelligence and evidence obtained from communications data in bringing many criminals to justice. We must not allow this to be eroded by shying away from legislation that is absolutely fundamental to preserving our national security.
The Home Office has said that they have accepted each and every one of the Joint Committee’s recommendations and are redrafting the Bill to incorporate the substance of them all. The result of this will be a Bill that meets the needs of law enforcement, better reflecting the Home Office’s intentions and ensuring that the public’s right to privacy is respected.
The Bill should be introduced to Parliament without further delay so that our law enforcement agencies can be given the tools they need to do their jobs and to protect the public from those who exploit new technologies to do serious harm.