Committee says no to draft Communications Data Bill

The draft Communications Data Bill has today been roundly criticised by the committee of MPs and Peers, who make clear that the draft Bill is not fit for purpose and unacceptable in its current form. The report makes clear tinkering and minor changes are nowhere near enough – this draft bill is unacceptable to Parliament and if there is to be legislation, it is back to the drawing board for the Home Office.

Big Brother Watch gave oral evidence twice and submitted three pieces of written evidence. One of those submissions outlined the steps that could be taken, both with and without legislation, and we are pleased the committee has recognised this, urging the Home Office to do more to improve existing legal channels and for much more evidence on the problem to be produced. Consultation with industry and civil liberties groups, badly lacking before the draft bill, is an essential part of any legislation and the committee makes clear that they share this view.

Lord Blencathra, who chairs the joint committee scrutinising the Bill, said:The breadth of the draft Bill as it stands appears to be overkill and is much wider than the specific needs identified by the law enforcement agencies. We urge the Government to reconsider its zeal to future-proof legislation and concentrate on getting the immediate necessities right.”

The report is highly critical of the evidence presented, saying: “We are of the strong view that the 25% data gap is an unhelpful and potentially misleading figure,” while highlighting “the figure for estimated benefits is even less reliable than that for costs, and the estimated net benefit figure is fanciful and misleading.”

The report uses the word ‘misleading’ on numerous occasions, while highlighting that the lack of consulation, detailed evidence and the fact that presently the information available is not used to best effect.

Nick Pickles, Big Brother Watch director, said: “The committee has exposed weak evidence, misleading statements and fanciful figures and unanimously rejected this draft Bill’s proposal to monitor everyone’s emails, web visits and social media messages. The complexity and sensitivity of the subject required a radically different process and a totally different bill. There are challenges, but they can be solved in a proportionate way that protects privacy, is based on what is technically possible and focuses on maximising the effectiveness of data already held.

“After such a damming report, Parliament cannot support the draft Bill and it is now essential that if proposals are brought forward, they are comprehensively re-written and based upon the clear evidence and proper consultation that this draft Bill fundamentally lacked.”

Julian Huppert, one of the MPs who sat on the Joint Committee, made clear how he saw the report:Our cross-party, cross-house committee has unanimously agreed that ‘‘the draft Bill pays insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy, and goes much further than it need or should’, that the costs proposed are ‘not robust’ and likely to ‘cost considerably more than the current estimates’. On the flip side, the Home Office’s claimed benefits are ‘fanciful and misleading’. The whole scheme ‘could actually reduce the amount of communications data available in the United Kingdom’ and uses the language of RIPA that is ‘out of date and should not be used as the basis of new legislation’

“After this damning report, it is clear that the Bill as it is cannot proceed, and is dead in the water – if the Home Office want to update any powers, they need to start again, consult properly, and only produce something that is proportionate, workable and affordable. There is no prospect of them getting the broad powers they have asked for in this Bill.”

The committee is clear – the draft Bill must not become a bill, and tinkering around the edges is not good enough. It’s back to the drawing board for the Home Office.