By Mark Wallace
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When Nick Clegg announced that the Communications Data Bill – AKA the Snoopers' Charter – was being dropped, he prompted jubiliation from campaigners for privacy, individual liberty and digital technology.
The past history of the issue, however, suggested this wouldn't be the last we would hear of the proposals to gather data on emails. This idea has come up again and again, under different Governments, suggesting it is the pet project of someone or some group within the Home Office Civil Service.
Indeed, when one campaigner tweeted "What's next?" after the Government backed down, I was cynical enough to reply:
RT @nickpickles What's next? << defeating the Snoopers' Charter again when the civil service bring it back in disguise in 6 months' time?
— Mark Wallace (@wallaceme) April 25, 2013
And lo, it came to pass. Only hours after the Queen's Speech, the BBC is reporting that the Government is looking at "fresh proposals" to pursue the same rotten idea.
As Big Brother Watch have pointed out, the actual text from Her Majesty:
…is clear that any work should pursue the narrow problem of IP matching, nothing more, and does not mandate the Government to bring forward a bill
And yet it seems that some within the Home Office are briefing tech sector media and others that the full sweep of snooper plans are back on the table, potentially up to and including new legislation.
This is a classic example of a policy which the Civil Service has decided to pursue at all costs, hence the fact it crops up so regularly, regardless of which party is in power, and is proving so hard to shake.
A year ago the Sunday Times published an article (£) which revealed the architect of the policy is Charles Farr, a former MI6 officer who is now "the Home Office's top securocrat". It was he who pushed the idea of an email database to Labour in 2009, he who proposed it to the Coalition rebranded as the Communications Data Bill, and presumably it is he who is behind today's briefing that it is back once more.
The Sunday Times also reported concerns from former Home Office officials about Farr's legislative activism, suggesting he hadn't adjusted his approach from his time in the field:
“When you’re suddenly flung into a top position with management and policy responsibility in the Home Office, you can’t go on behaving like you are in the Tora Bora caves doing deals with warlords. Your job is to advise ministers who decide policy. You can’t go around thinking you are a player in your own right. It’s a constitutional concern.”
It is indeed a constitutional concern – the Government has already come a cropper pushing a policy which it seems isn't even its own idea. Now an anonymous Home Office "spokesperson" is telling all and sundry that they are set to storm the breach for it again – despite the recent ministerial decision to ditch it.
It seems high time for ministers to tell the Civil Service what the policy agenda is – rather than vice versa.