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6.33 pm

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): I support the Second Reading of the Bill, which represents a significant step forward for the protection of human rights. Much expertise has been shown today--although I must own up to not having expertise in many of the fields that have been covered--and as a relatively new Member, I think that we have had a fine debate that has done the House a service.

I welcome the closer regulation of covert surveillance and interception of communications by our law enforcement and security agencies. We must aim to create a robust and comprehensive framework for regulating the use of all the techniques. The Bill is timely and represents the up-to-date legislation that is needed in an age of rapid communications developments and because of the consequences of the Human Rights Act 1998. It must be sensitive and, as many other hon. Members have said, must strike a balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of the state. We have heard many measured contributions, which augurs well for the Committee. I trust that it will deliver good legislation that has all-party support. I strongly agreed with the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), save on one point. He said that the House would return to this subject in five or six years, but the pace of change in telecoms and other communications suggests that we might do so in six to 12 months.

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The Bill contains no new law enforcement activities and covert surveillance by police and other law enforcement officers is not new. I recognise the overwhelming need to detect and prevent crime, particularly serious crime in respect of which such surveillance is most commonly used. One is always conscious of the dividing line between these sometimes conflicting issues, so I welcome the proper regulation by law and external supervision--for the first time--of covert surveillance and other techniques. Among other things, that will ensure that law enforcement operations are consistent with the duties imposed on public authorities by the ECHR and the 1998 Act.

The first interception legislation was the Interception of Communications Act 1985. In the comparatively short time since its enactment, the world of communications has changed beyond most people's belief. Parliament and the legislation that we enact must try to keep up with those changes, otherwise criminals will find ways to thwart law enforcement and serious criminals will have the advantage. That is a challenge for us all, but we must also protect the privacy of the individual and not overburden fledgling businesses.

The Bill goes a long way to achieving the balance that most Members of the House require. It is a fundamental reform that places police, law enforcement and intelligence and security agencies on a properly regulated statutory basis. Enacting such legislation is not a new departure and, in many ways, the Bill marks the completion of a 15 or 20-year reform programme that started with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. It was followed by the Security Service Act 1989, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Police Act 1997, which introduced a code of practice on intrusive surveillance.

The Bill will supplement those measures and provide a statutory framework that will give individuals better protection and ensure that there will be no reduction in the ability to wage war on those who perpetrate terrorism or are involved in the narcotics trade. Interestingly, my research showed that 52 per cent. of all heroin seizures in 1998 resulted directly from intelligence interception and it is estimated that the total value of drugs seized in that way was more than £185 million. There is a clear need to ensure that interception and the fight against crime are not undermined. At the same time, protection of the individual must be uppermost in our minds. That is the challenge for the Committee, which I am sure will come to the right conclusions. I welcome the Bill.

6.38 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): The hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) is absolutely right: we have had an intelligent debate. As one who has little knowledge of intelligence operations, I shall be cautious and approach only one aspect of part III. Since the Bill's publication, I have been listening to a number of police inspectors and chief inspectors who will want to use its provisions, and they particularly like certain aspects of it. One recently gave me the example of a known paedophile with whom the police had been dealing. He was a member of a ring and the sort of gentleman who believes that there is nothing wrong in his activities. Most, if not all,

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the members of the ring were arrested and convicted, but this individual was not because he successfully protected all his electronic information so that neither the police nor the security forces were able to break the code or the key. That individual did not go to court, and has disappeared for the moment.

The police feel that this aspect of part III is desirable. They have asked for it, and they are looking forward to it. However, their difficulty is that, despite the promises, good words and good intentions of part III, it collapses when we come to clause 49(5), to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) referred, because the punishment does not fit the crime.

Lightheartedly, I should like to ask the Minister to put himself in the shoes of a well-known paedophile--perhaps we could call him Gary, and imagine a little more hair and some high-heeled shoes to add some character. As a paedophile, Gary believes that it is acceptable to have sex with children. He thinks that the bulk of society is completely out of step. He belongs to a group called the paedophile information exchange, and he and his disgusting friends use the internet to exchange data, ideas, names, photographs and even films related to their paedophile activities. That is all stored electronically, and protected by a sophisticated encryption system.

Our imaginary friend Gary is under investigation by the police for suspected paedophile activities. As part of the investigation, the police have collected our Gary, along with his computers, floppy disks, CD-ROMS and his full action DVDs. Gary is somewhat relaxed, because all his data are protected and the police have failed to get into his files in the past. He anticipates that he will be all right, until his solicitor explains that the Bill provides new powers that enable the police to insist that he produces the key to unlock the evidence.

Our imaginary paedophile Gary knows that if the police had access to that information they could arrest him and many of his paedophile colleagues. It is hoped that they could also locate and arrange help and protection for the many children that he and his friends have abused. He also realises that he will be charged and almost certainly convicted for a range of offences, starting with possession of indecent photographs and pseudo-photographs of children through to rape and buggery of children. He would face a sentence of 10 years or life for many of those offences.

Gary realises that there is ample evidence that he, and he alone, has regular access to much of this information. His solicitor advises him that, if he refuses to produce the key, on summary conviction he would face a term of six months and perhaps a fine, and on conviction on indictment he would face two years and a fine, of which he would probably serve a few months. His choice is obvious.

Obviously, I am not accusing the Minister of being a paedophile. But I am asking him to put himself in the shoes of someone accused of either paedophilia, theft with a maximum penalty of 10 years, obtaining property by deception with a maximum penalty of 10 years, false accounting with a maximum penalty of seven years, forgery and counterfeiting with a maximum penalty of 10 years, or robbery with a maximum penalty of life.

I hope that the Minister, when he winds up, will note the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. Assuming that the first part of

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that clause is satisfactory to the Committee, it would be right and proper to include an appropriate sentence. In the eyes of the policemen who will put this measure into action, it will not work unless the penalties are considerably stronger.

6.44 pm

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford) is to be congratulated on the excellence and brevity of his speech. Brevity is what we should all seek to achieve. However, I am afraid that I shall be a little longer than my hon. Friend, but I shall try to give as good value.

First, I must put on the record the fact that I am a professional adviser to the Telecommunications Managers Association, and I have a reasonable--certainly from my poor pocket's point of view--shareholding in Cable and Wireless and British Telecom. I am also the unpaid vice-chairman of the parliamentary information technology committee in the House, and the unpaid vice-chairman of the European informatics Market group.

I also want to boast a little, because I have had a good year in Bills--it has been far better than when I supported the Government. Being in opposition has something to be said for it. When the draft of the Electronic Communications Bill was first published, my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench were kind enough to show me a copy. They and I felt that it contained some objectionable elements, especially on key escrow. We had detailed discussions with Ministers, and to their credit they decided not to go ahead with those objectionable parts of that Bill. The Department of Trade and Industry sensibly passed on those difficult issues to the Home Office, which was not quite so sanguine about doing away with those objectionable aspects.

I recently served on the Committee considering the Utilities Bill. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the Second Reading debate. Immediately I was put on the Committee, I spoke to DTI officials--my reaction to the inclusion in the Bill of the telecoms industry was to ask, why? The Government have a manifesto commitment to change the regulation of communications, and the White Paper that was published in the autumn proposed just that. In my first speech on that Committee, I told the Government that that part of the Bill was nonsense and should be changed. The Government said that there was no problem, but last week they decided to withdraw the telecommunications aspects--for which they gave a lame excuse--and the water provisions, but we still do not know why they did that.

Perhaps the Minister would be so kind as to take notice of what I am saying. My advice to my Front-Bench colleagues was that we should vote against this Bill. It is the most appalling legislation that I have ever seen. It could probably be amended in Committee, but it needs an enormous amount of amendment. The great advantage of terrible legislation is that it often never gets used. We stay up all night, put legislation on the statute book, but the courts and the police never use it. I am reminded of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which gives various people powers to protect data. There has hardly been a successful prosecution under that Act. It was aimed at hackers, but has been more or less ignored.

When I first read the Bill, I was directed to the technical clauses, but I thought that if I was to understand it, I might as well start at the beginning. Clauses 1, 2 and 3 are

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extraordinary. If we let the Bill go through in its present state, what will be the position of those who have transferred from one party to another with their pagers intact? Having been told by the Whips that they are no longer authorised to receive messages, doing so will be a criminal offence punishable by two years in prison. That may seem a minor issue, but one ex-member of the Conservative party still uses his pager to the benefit of the Labour party. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) may very soon leave the Labour party, and he no doubt still has his pager.

We are being told that the Bill is necessary to upgrade and modernise the regulation of the internet. However, it contains nothing that will assist people in getting information that is passed over by package switching, which uses many different routes. If that is to be done effectively, one has to put the tap on the end of the wire from which one is trying to get the information. That has always been done in exactly the same way. I shall go into more detail about how we could help the police to catch criminals.

What about temporary files? I discovered on the parliamentary data video network that our system captures temporary files when someone is using a remote access to this place. Someone who is authorised to use the system but not to see someone else's e-mails can access them. I printed some off to show that it can be done. I understand from my reading of the Bill that it is still possible to do that without being caught by the legislation. The only problem is that the Officers of the House who set up the system will be caught by it. We shall have only a few people working for us shortly, because they, too, will end up in prison for two years.

What about the interception of postal packages? When I am opening the hundreds of letters that I regularly receive, I often look at one and say to myself, "Hang on a minute, this is not for me; it is for my namesake, my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce)." I shove the letter back in its envelope, write on it "Sorry, Malcolm--opened in error", and send it to him. The Bill is so badly drafted, however, that under it I will have committed an offence that could put me in prison for two years. I will not just have read what is written on the envelope, which I am entitled to do to help the letter to reach its correct destination, but I have intercepted some postal system illegally. Hon. Members shake their heads, but I have read the Bill carefully, and I suspect that others should also be concerned.

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