Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester 3:46 pm, 25th June 2015
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who brought to bear his experience of the absolutely vital nature of communications data to securing the prosecution of those who are serious threats to our nation. I thank him for that.
The homework for this debate was “A Question of Trust”, the Anderson report; and “Privacy and Security”, the ISC’s report. The third bit, the report by the Royal United Services Institute, has not come out yet, so we are having the debate before all the homework is available to us.
I want to focus on the element of threat covered in the Anderson report. His remit was to focus on the threats, the capabilities required to deal with them, the safeguards on privacy, the challenges of technology, and issues relating to transparency and oversight. Two of those five issues relate to threat. Interestingly, the responses by groups and organisations interested in this subject—I have read at least two, including one from Liberty and one from Big Brother Watch—hardly alluded to the threat element at all; they focused entirely, and perhaps understandably, on privacy. To some extent, Mr Anderson gave them some cover for that, because, to quote him directly,
“claims of exceptional or unprecedented threat levels—particularly if relied upon for the purposes of curbing well-established liberties—should be approached with scepticism.”
However, he did not go on to spell out what those well-established liberties were, particularly in relation to the internet and communications data, which are still new to our society. He went on to ask what are the uniform views of the law enforcement community.
The Government could help him in establishing what those views are. The Minister might well want to comment on that.
The threat is of course enormous, and it is not just terrorism, alarming as that is. Members have alluded to at least two other elements: they include internet pornography and, perhaps most emotionally, the whole business of sexual exploitation of children. It is hard to believe that after everything that has happened in Rotherham, with all the reports on that, and in other cities across our land, anyone could imagine that that threat is not serious.
I therefore share to some extent the amazement of Lord Carlile, the Liberal Democrat peer, who, after a decade as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, was shocked when his own party leader vetoed the Communications Data Bill in the last Parliament. He implied that the veto was a political decision rather than one based on the merits of the case. I hope that the Minister, who is perhaps not renowned for his libertarian instincts, but who is renowned for his staunch support of the liberties of our people, will touch on how vital that Bill is as part of our armoury to face the threats.
There is a lot of agreement between the Anderson report and the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report. First, on the complexity of the existing number of laws, when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) says that the laws are virtually incomprehensible, it is surely time for a single, united Bill. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) says that he has his own concerns as a member of the ISC about the way in which different agencies might be able to “arbitrage” between different Bills, I think we can all agree that the Government are surely entitled to conclude that it is time for one overriding umbrella Bill.
Secondly, the two reports were not exactly the same on the issue of reform of the commission system, but it seems to me that everyone agrees that it would be simpler and clearer to have a single commissioner with overall responsibility.
There was a difference of opinion on warrants and whether they should be subject to judicial authority or continue to be the responsibility of Ministers. Mr Anderson raised two interesting points. The first was that, whatever the system is, it must have public confidence. I am not really aware that the current system does not have public confidence, but perhaps that should be explored. Secondly, he intimated that a system of judicial responsibility would make co-operation with US technology companies easier. I had not heard that before. It seems slightly improbable, but perhaps the Minister will comment on it, because it is clearly an important issue.
Thirdly, the Anderson report—and possibly the ISC report—mentioned the domestic right of appeal. I am sure that the Minister will want to say something about that. Instinctively, I feel that it is a good idea, and others probably do, too.
There was less agreement between the reports on some of the other elements. I have touched on the Communications Data Bill. Clearly there is a need to make a strong operational case, but none of us should be in any doubt about the critical role that such data
play in the prosecution of serious threats. I hope that elements of the Bill will be incorporated into the eventual law.
There was also a question mark over whether the framework for interception of external communications needs to be compliant with the European convention on human rights. That is an interesting question in itself and in relation to other activities the Government are pursuing. The Minister might want to comment on that.
There were areas of agreement in the two reports we were invited to study that the Government can take forward. There were some queries of the Government’s own responses, which they may wish to mull over and respond to. Mr Anderson also raised other question marks and issues that will need to be considered further before the final Bill emerges.
There is clearly a significant lobby group focused on liberty issues, which we all understand and all think are important. However, I want to finish by emphasising that, when we consider the details of the new law, the new commissioner, the right of appeal, the collection of third party data and so on, I hope that this House and the Minister will bear it in mind that, if a terrorist blows someone or something up, or if young girls are groomed, exploited and damaged, it is not the libertarians who will clean up the pieces, but the families of those physically or mentally scarred, the emergency services and the communities around them. It is that threat that our agencies strive against. Our task—balancing the privacy, carrying the quiet majority with us—is surely to give our agencies the tools to do the job. Those tools, by common consent, are currently not in the best shape, and in reshaping them let us never forget the vital task for which we must design them.