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9.59 pm

Mr. Charles Clarke: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to.

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Mr. Clarke: The Bill is a major advance for the United Kingdom's legislative system. It advances coverage of the European convention on human rights to a range of activities conducted by the state. It is important to ensure that we are able to update our actions in relation both to human rights and to technological processes. The Bill gives citizens rights that they have never had before in relation to surveillance by the state. It gives me great pleasure to move Third Reading, to which I hope that the House will agree.

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10.1 pm

Mr. Heald: I beg to move,

At the outset, on Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made it clear that the Opposition were concerned about many of the Bill's aspects, but agreed with the principle that crime fighters should have the powers that they need to investigate crime. Concessions have been made on the Bill, but they are not good enough. That is why we have tabled our reasoned amendment.

The concessions are not good enough because the powers that the Bill makes available to the crime-fighting authorities are inadequate; the Benefits Agency will not be able to intercept in serious cases of benefit fraud, the penalty provided in clause 49, when there is a failure to provide a key needed to decode information, is only two years, whereas it should be 10; and the Government's failure to agree in Committee with our proposal for a power of search, as requested by the National Criminal Intelligence Service, has ensured that the powers being made available are inadequate.

The Bill provides for over-regulation, but not for adequate protections. Industry is saying that, if it is to be required to have an intercept capability that it agrees with, there should be clarity about what is proposed. Individual companies should have a right of independent scrutiny of such a proposal. We have therefore suggested a technical approval board, a right of appeal, a review and many other measures that would give confidence to the internet service provider industry. All those issues affect confidence.

As we have heard in our debates today, internet service provider companies are already tip-toeing offshore to avoid those liabilities. There is uncertainty about the possible bill of more than £30 million for the provision. Additionally, the role of consumers has been ignored. They believe that they own the internet, and they want the confidence of knowing that the internet will not be over-regulated and that their every conversation will not be overheard.

The offence provided in clause 49 has been described by an eminent barrister as a "repugnant" offence, which requires a person to prove his innocence and carries a penalty of two years' imprisonment. We say that any penalty is wrong if an offence is unjust--if it breaches the golden thread of justice that means that a person is innocent until proven guilty. In the United Kingdom, one should not have to prove one's innocence. That long-standing principle has served this country well for hundreds of years, and it should be upheld.

The Bill is improved--it is getting better--but it is not good enough. It is not good enough for the authorities who are desperately trying to fight against crime, drug traffickers, paedophiles and money launderers. It is not good enough for the businesses in the new economy that are afraid of over-regulation. It is not good enough for the ordinary citizen, who may be faced with having to prove his or her innocence--something that an Englishman or woman should not have to do.

8 May 2000 : Column 612

10.4 pm

Mr. Cohen: I shall not detain the House too long. I congratulate the two Ministers on the courteous way in which they have presented the Bill and on the carefully argued case that they have made in the House and in Committee. However, I still think that the Bill raises some concerns.

Last month, the Government announced that £22 billion had been raised from sale of the next generation of mobile communications licences. Part I, chapter II permits every one of those new-style connections--internet as well as mobile phone--to be monitored by 1,000 or so self-authorising officials.

The Government have said that they want an often illiterate generation, produced by the previous Government's policies, to become the e-literate generation, adept at using the internet. Under the Bill, details of every website visited can be collected by hundreds of diverse bodies, including 400-plus local authorities and 50 police forces. They can use the powers under chapter II and have two authorising officers each.

Of course, the police and MI5 face challenges and the Bill rightly helps them, but I am not sure that it is appropriate to put on the same level bodies such as the egg inspectorate, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society or NHS Estates. The Bill is too widely cast. It is not far short of outrageous that officials can authorise themselves to obtain communications data, without an effective check on the exercise of such powers.

The Government appointed a Data Protection Commissioner to protect privacy. In this important area, the Bill gives the commissioner no explicit role. She is not even a relevant commissioner. Her briefing on the Bill was scathing, effectively saying that the Government were taking too casual an approach to the protection of individual privacy.

An article in The New York Times only last week pointed out that the United States was moving towards much stronger protection of personal data. It said:

It said that Clinton planned

The Bill has lost an opportunity to do that, and it should be stronger on the protection of individual privacy, to balance the overall emphasis on helping MI5. There is to be a code of practice in association with the Bill. The balance must be restored by making that code a strong one.

10.8 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes: The Bill first came to us on Second Reading just two months ago, and the House registered then how important it was. The Liberal Democrats took the view that, although it had some defects, it was necessary to ensure that if, with the development of technology, communication was intercepted or data about communication were collected, that should be covered by the law. That remains our view.

Many of the large number of Government amendments showed that the Government have listened and moved. In many cases, they listened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam

8 May 2000 : Column 613

(Mr. Allan), who cannot be here tonight, but to whom I pay tribute. Many of their arguments, and those of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and his colleagues, have been accepted. We welcome the improvements, and the Bill is unarguably better than it was following Second Reading.

I pay tribute to those outside the House who have helped: Justice, Liberty, and especially Mr. Caspar Bowden from the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

We must decide whether the concerns of constituents and business people have been sufficiently accommodated so that we can accept the Bill. The Conservative party suggests that the Bill has such defects that we should refuse to give it a Third Reading. We do not agree. The Conservatives give three reasons. First, they say that the Bill does not give crime fighters the powers that they need, but the Bill in fact contains adequate powers. The Conservatives tabled new clause 1 and we tabled new clause 7, as alternatives to part III, but the Conservatives' proposal of a 10-year prison sentence option across the board was wrong and their additional powers were therefore inappropriate.

Secondly, the Conservatives argue that the Bill

However, we believe that an accommodation can be reached. We have not yet received full assurance on the point, but we have received some assurance that costs will be met. We hope that the Government will go further in the other place. Thirdly, the Conservatives argue that the Bill

We share their view that the reversal of the burden of proof in clauses 46 to 49 is wrong. However, it was noticeable that, when the same provision was before the House on Third Reading of the Terrorism Bill, the Conservative party did not make the same objection. If it thinks that the reversal of the burden of proof is wrong, it must argue that consistently and not be selective.

We are consoled by two thoughts as we support Third Reading. First, the other place will seek to amend it, and we may have to rely on the issue of the burden of proof being corrected there. The House of Lords may again have to come to the rescue of the defendant against the state. Secondly, from 2 October, the European convention on human rights will be part of our law. It is unfortunate that the Government are leaving the parts of the Bill that we think go too far to be struck down under the convention and it would be better if the Bill were right without having to be challenged in the courts. However, if the Bill goes beyond the powers that the state should have, the courts will find in favour of the citizen.

The Bill is necessary. It is not perfect yet, but it is improved. We hope that the Lords will take the signals from this place and correct the one remaining significant objection--to part III--that we still have to the Bill.

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