Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill

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Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I am pleased that you are in the Chair, Mr. O'Hara, and that Mrs Michie will share your task.

The sittings motion seems perfectly acceptable, but I should like to raise a couple of small points. First, given that the Budget takes place next week, will the Committee sit on Tuesday afternoon? Secondly, do the Government intend the Committee to sit on Thursday afternoons? If the Minister will clarify those points, we will happily support the sittings motion.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): I am delighted that you are chairing the Committee, Mr.O'Hara.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) raised some serious issues that will help us to judge whether the sittings motion is appropriate. I contributed to the debate on Second Reading, and do not intend to repeat the points that I made in that speech. However, they will be relevant as we give detailed consideration to the Bill.

Has the Minister had time to look at the representations made by organisations such as the Alliance for Electronic Business and the Internet Services Providers Association, which have picked up on some of the technical matters to which I referred on Second Reading? Not least among those is the need for clarity in defining what is a public telephone network and what is a private telephone network, and where the two overlap. That is especially important given the way in which the telecommunications industry is driving forward intranets and internal company networks, and many people are unclear as to how they will be affected. My hon. Friend referred to cost structures, which are important, as are many of the technical matters that arise, especially in part III.

Has the Minister considered the point made on Second Reading about clause 46 notices? The problem is often not so much that the person required to reveal information is guilty, but that he or she could be guilty if, for some reason, he or she fail to reveal the private key and have to be assessed as to whether they are behaving properly or reasonably.

Those are important matters, as are the wider issues raised by the Foundation for Information Policy Research, to which we shall return in the course of the Committee's deliberations. I should be pleased if the Minister could deal with them under the sittings motion.

I know from previous experience that interception is difficult and, in this new technological age, it is handled very differently to how it was handled in the past. The Government must prove that the Bill is a correct and sensible way forward, which will underpin the new networks and not cause a loss of confidence. Encryption is vital to the performance of the new networked economy, and draconian interception powers could not only undermine confidence, but drive people offshore. We shall return to these key questions during our debates on the details of the clauses.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): In welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara, I express my delight at being selected to serve on the Committee and to participate in the deliberations on the Bill.

I hope that the Minister will not take the Opposition's failure to vote against the Bill on Second Reading as an indication that we are content with much of its content. Of course, we agree with the notion that the Interception of Communications Act 1985 needs upgrading because of new technology and the direction in which the world of technology is moving. The broad principle that we need to update that legislation is not in doubt.

However, having sat on the Electronic Communications Bill Standing Committee, it seems to me that difficult competing interests need to be balanced. I am not sure that we shall be able to address them particularly rapidly. In debating the sittings motion, we must have regard to the conflicting needs of crime fighters, who need greater and more clearly defined powers to intercept communications, and businesses, which do not want overweening regulation that would impede their ability to do business efficaciously. We must also have regard for the legitimate interests of individual citizens who wish to see their civil rights adequately protected.

In the light of those broad concerns, I echo the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire. It would be useful to hear whether the Minister has given further consideration to the concerns about clause 6 expressed by the Opposition on Second Reading. The Government are rightly concerned about social security benefit fraud, yet clause 6 makes no specific provision for a Department of Social Security official to have an interception warrant granted in his or her favour.

The Home Secretary said, on Second Reading, that that was not a problem because the police would routinely investigate social security fraud, that it would be the subject of criminal investigations and that there was no need for the Bill to cater for the granting of interception warrants to social security officials. We take issue with that. I would like to hear whether the Minister has received any further representation since Second Reading, and whether the Home Secretary's comments still hold good. My instinct is that they may not.

I shall move on to the issues raised by clause 13. On whom will the cost of providing an interception capability fall, and what will the magnitude of such costs be? I refer to the views expressed by the Internet Service Providers Association on that point:

    If ISPs in the UK are made to carry the burden of the costs of interception, at best they will be at a disadvantage compared to their European and international competitors and at worst will be unable to operate. It does not seem that this position would help make the UK ``the best place in the world for e-commerce''.

Transforming the UK into such a place is the laudable objective set out by the Minister's colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry. They are right to wish this country to be the best place in the world to do e-commerce, but has the Minister had an opportunity to take on board the representations from that association and other trade bodies? Can he give us an early indication of the cost structure arising from the obligations imposed on service providers by clause 13?

I echo the point made on clause 21 by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire about the burdensome nature of bill logging. Has the Minister received further representations since that point was raised on Second Reading? Can he give us comfort on that now, or will we have to table detailed amendments later, which would affect our sittings?

Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned about clauses 46 to 49, under which the onus is on an innocent party—who may not have a nefarious reason for losing a key—to show why he could not provide the necessary key on request. That is the reverse of being innocent until proven guilty. Does the Minister have anything further to report? If he has not given the matter further thought and does not intend to say something now, I can envisage long and detailed technical and jurisprudential debates on that provision.

I am also concerned about part IV and what seems to be an area that can be cleaned up. A set of commissioners was appointed by legislation passed by the previous Conservative Administration—a Security Service Act commissioner, an intelligence services commissioner, a chief surveillance commissioner and surveillance commissioners working under him or her—but they have no dedicated, highly qualified and highly professional secretariat to help them with their work. We could with profit examine whether that regime could be streamlined, made more coherent and supported by a secretariat. That would raise many questions as to how it could be financed and set up.

I hope that we shall have an enjoyable debate. Some of the faces on the Government Benches are friendly and distinguished. I am sure that we shall have an interesting debate, but I trust that in the light of my questions—[ Interruption.] I have no wish to ruin the Minister's career or bring it to a speedy halt. It seems to be going quite well at the moment. I hope that we can have early replies to some of the questions that my hon. Friends and I have asked, so that we can decide whether this is a proper and adequate sittings motion.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): I rise to make two straightforward points. The first is my usual one about the shambles the Government have got the House into on Thursdays. I see that the sittings motion includes a provision to sit at 9 o'clock on Thursday morning, finishing at half-past 11 or 25 minutes past 11 or maybe, at your discretion, Mr. O'Hara, after that time. Then, in the afternoon, we sit at another extraordinary time of

2.30 pm.

I find sittings at 9 o'clock on any morning uncivilised, ungentlemanly and not in the finest traditions of the House. I say that as a parliamentarian who believes that no breakfast should be taken before 9 o'clock in the morning.

My main concern is for the Minister. We all have our personal concerns about having to consider this important Bill at such an unearthly hour, but let us consider the Minister. His officials may receive the provisional order of selection the previous night. They may then work frantically to make up the Minister's book and put the amendments and briefing notes in the correct order. The Minister will no doubt want a briefing with his officials before coming to the Committee and that will have to be at a diabolically early hour if he is to be in the Committee ready to perform at 9 o'clock. He may try to have a briefing late the night before, but, with the best will in the world, the submissions may not be ready then. My plea is on behalf of the Minister because it is a little unfair, and that is bad for the Committee. We may want to obtain important answers from the Minister, but he may have received a skimpy briefing in his car at ten minutes to 9 as he rushes to service the Committee.

11 am

I am sure that shortly after 9 o'clock this morning the Minister had a briefing with his officials on the contents of the Bill, the first few clauses, the sittings motion, the order of consideration and the matters that may arise this morning. That is sensible and proper and allows him to respond fully and adequately to us, but I would bet that on Thursday morning the quality of the Minister's replies, with the best will in the world, will fall considerably.

Following Pepper v. Hart, we may find that, a few years down the line, the Home Secretary will have to come to the House to say that yet another learned judge must be asked to intervene and rule on a point of law because of a comment made by the Minister in a Committee that sat at the crack of dawn on a Thursday morning when he was inadequately briefed.

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