I take the balancing of security, privacy and democratic freedom extremely seriously. Throughout my political career I have shown a healthy wariness towards the power of the state – though it is of course vital that government be proactive if it is to keep citizens safe in this dangerous and volatile world.
With these ideals in mind, I welcome the safeguards included in this Bill and supported by parties on both sides of the political divide. Importantly, the Bill is not intended to extend or create new powers, nor to impose obligations on communication companies beyond those that are currently in place. It is thus much narrower in its intent than the Communications Data Bill proposed in 2012, and serves primarily to maintain the existing status quo.
Following a European Court of Justice judgment in April 2014, the Bill replaces the legal provisions previously included in the EU Data Retention Directive with a new, national framework. The Bill also addresses some of the ambiguity of this previous system – for instance clarifying the obligations of communication companies based overseas. It also introduces robust new safeguards that build upon existing UK legislation regulating access to data, including a more formalised Code of Practice and regular reviews by the Interception of Communications Commissioner.
It is important to emphasise that this Bill only permits investigation of how, when, where and by whom a communication was made. It does not include the content of conversations, but rather ensures that telephone and internet providers continue to hold on to the ‘meta-data’ which has proven so vital to investigations in recent years.
This information has been used in 95% of serious and organised crime investigations by the Crown Prosecution Service, as well as every major counter-terrorism operation for a decade. In truth, without intruding into the content of conversations, information mined in this way has put criminals behind bars and helped keep this country safe from those that would do it harm.
As a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, democratic oversight of the security services is a matter which I take incredibly seriously. During debates, I helped support an amendment to clarify the Bill’s remit and ensure that data can only be used on clear national security grounds. Nevertheless I accept that increasingly the distinction between ‘data’ and ‘content’ is becoming blurred. So what is crucial is that investigations must always take place in a necessary and proportionate manner – one that protects citizens’ rights as much as it keeps them safe from physical harm.
Alongside the safeguards outlined elsewhere in UK legislation, I am confident that this Bill achieves such a goal. As I made clear in recent speeches on the matter, this is a narrow and limited Bill which is only a precursor to other legislation. It maintains the existing regime for accessing communications data, shifting the regulatory framework from the European level to national government. It introduces a range of new safeguards, while permitting important ongoing investigations to continue. In doing so, it helps to protect UK interests, citizens and democratic values from harm.
Please click here to read Mark’s contributions to the debate on Clause 3 — Grounds for issuing warrants and obtaining data, of emergency legislation being passed to allow the security services greater access to data.