Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Allan: I shall not request that we vote on each of the amendments in this group, as I want to get home before midnight.

I am grateful to the Minister for his full response-it will be useful to have it on the record. He is good at resisting the temptation to say, ``Your amendment is deficient, so I am not going to talk about it''. That is an incredibly irritating approach that we have not yet experienced during the Committee's proceedings.

The Minister said that communications data cover a multitude of sins-from basic subscriber details, to itemised billing and to information that is more inclusive and will become increasingly so. Given the way in which the technology is moving, the dividing line between content and communications data is likely to blur rather than strengthen, and it will be increasingly hard to say which is which.

I do not intend to press the amendment. However, I hope that the Government will consider whether a tiered framework is necessary. That is apparently the view of the data protection commissioner, who, in welcoming the Government's proposals, pointed out that the grounds for wishing to obtain certain kinds of communications data should be subject to prior external scrutiny-ideally by a judge or at least by an independent body such as the commission that the Minister talked about. There is a case for scaling the response according to the kind of information involved. I accept that basic subscriber detail information should be at a fairly low level, but some trapping of communications data could be at a higher level.

It is difficult for the police to carry out directed surveillance-and they will not do so without a strong incentive-but it will be easier for them to use the technology to carry out its equivalent. Given that the test that we shall debate when we reach later clauses is so low as to cover any crime, there will be a temptation for police officers to intercept wide ranges of communications data. They would be able to justify that on the legal grounds of suspicion of a crime, which potentially applies to large numbers of people. As the technology will enable them to intercept data more easily and straightforwardly, they are likely to use it far more often than directed surveillance, which subjects citizens to an equivalent degree of intrusion. That remains an issue of concern-less so in respect of lower levels of data, more so in respect of more comprehensive kinds of data.

I leave the Minister with that thought and hope that he will consider whether there should be a tiered structure to reflect the technological changes in communications data, which, in terms of their possible release to the authorities-whether appropriately or inappropriately-is becoming increasingly intrusive. Having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 150, in page 23, leave out lines 1 to 3.

The amendment relates to the definition of communications data, which the Minister mentioned. It is relatively easy to understand what subsections 4(a) and (b) mean, but I am troubled by subsection 4(c). The amendment, which would delete it, is a probing amendment to try to discover what it means.

6.45 pm.

Mr. Charles Clarke: First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the rapier-like lucidity and brevity of his intervention. In the absence of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, I want to put that on the record.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. At first sight, if the communications data does not fit into the first two categories, it should not be made available. However, as the hon. Gentleman will know from his professional experience before entering Parliament, those who break the law take measures to avoid detection. For example, where they are not required to leave subscriber details for a phone or internet account, they may decide not to do so. Where they can pay cash, they will, instead of leaving payment details. Any data held by the communications service provider relating to an account could be the vital piece of information that identifies the user. Where necessary, and as one of the designated purposes, the Bill would allow interception of a telephone where the subscriber's real identity was unknown. However, the amendment, which I know is intended as probing, would restrict the ability of law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies to find out who owned it. The purpose of subsection (4)(c), which the amendment would delete, is to operate in circumstances in which the data is not otherwise available. It is worth reminding the Committee that no notice may be authorised unless the authorising officer considers that the communications data is necessary and proportionate. Clearly, the decision is subject to scrutiny by the commissioner.

I agree that it is a belt and braces provision-the core of the clause is in subsections (a) and (b), asthe hon. Gentleman indicated-but I hope that I have answered his inquiry about subsection (c).

Mr. Heald: That has been helpful. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21

Obtaining and disclosing communications data

Mr. Heald: I beg to move amendment No. 151, in page 23, line 13, leave out

    designated for the purposes of this Chapter and insert `specified in section 6(2)'

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 153, in page 23, line 34, leave out ``designated'' and insert ``specified''.

No. 154, in page 23, line 36, leave out ``designated'' and insert ``specified''.

No. 155, in page 23, line 38, leave out ``designated'' and insert ``specified''.

No. 156, in page 23, line 40, leave out ``designated'' and insert ``specified''.

No. 157, in page 24, line 1, leave out ``designated'' and insert ``specified''.

No. 160, in clause 24, page 25, leave out line 45.

No. 161, in clause 24, page 26, line 12, leave out from ``(e)'' to end of line 17 and insert

    `with which the persons specified in section 6(2) hold office, rank or position'.

Mr. Heald: The purpose of the amendments is to recognise the importance and significance of the power to obtain communications data, which should be treated as invasion of privacy. It is appropriate only in serious cases, and should be justified. The amendments would introduce a more rigorous regime for communications data and the obtaining of it.

We agree with the numerous bodies that have commented that the assumption that data access represents a lesser intrusion into rights of privacy than interception is misconceived. Modern software technology, friendship tree technology and so on can be very intrusive. Every aspect of a person's life can be pried into. The data protection commissioner has questioned the distinction made in the Bill between the requirements for gaining access to data in an intercepted communication and those for gaining access to other communications data. She cites various reasons for that.

There should be a similar regime, at least to an extent, to that for an interception warrant. Those who can give authorisations should be those listed in clause 6(2) as able to apply for an interception warrant. The long list of those who can be designated persons, which is a result of the wide definition of a relevant public authority, should be scrapped.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter in the way that he has. As he said, the amendments would restrict the agencies that could apply for communications data to the intercepting agencies. The main practical effect of that would be to channel requests from all the police forces in England and Wales through the National Communications Intelligence Service. NCIS handles all the interception warrants on behalf of those police forces, because each force makes only a small use of interception and because recording centres are hugely expensive and require specialist technical and linguistic staff to operate them.

As I explained in responding to the earlier amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Hallam, communications data are a completely different means of gathering intelligence. I addressed the hon. Gentleman's point about data access being a lesser intrusion, but I maintain that interception-and even directed surveillance-is a much greater intrusion than the collection of communications data. He may disagree, in which case he will say so, but I rigorously defend the proposition that the widespread collection of communications data is less intrusive.

The use of communications data, which is widespread, must be carefully controlled-that is why the Bill has been introduced-but it is a tool that every police force uses every day. Every police force has a unit set up to process the requests. The standard to which each unit operates is laid down nationally and backed up by a national training course.

The communications industry has input to the data through the Association of Chief Police Officers telecommunications group, which holds regular meetings and has agreed a detailed framework of voluntary co-operation. I emphasise the word ``voluntary'' in the light of our earlier debates. That framework includes the standards that each party can expect of the other. For example, each police force has a single point of contact from which all requests for communications data must come, and the system has the confidence of the communications industry.

To pass all police communications data requirements through NCIS would create an extra level of bureaucracy and would not add much value to the process. As it would be operating nationally, NCIS would have no knowledge of the reasons for the requests. It could follow procedures, but it would not have the same day-to-day understanding of the issues. That would slow down urgent applications and would undermine the work that has been done-and is continuing-by the ACPO telecommunications group in building up confidence.

The framework introduced by the Bill reinforces the useful work that has been done and places it on a firm statutory footing, which is an advance for personal liberties in this area. It removes the liability that suppliers of communications data had under the Data Protection Act 1988 and places it on the agency requiring the data; it provides a clear and independent oversight mechanism that has not existed previously; and people will be able to complain to the regulation of investigatory powers tribunal if they believe that their communications data have been accessed improperly.

For those reasons, we believe that the Bill will improve the present arrangements. I understand why the hon. Gentleman moved his amendment, but in the light of current practice and the way in which matters are evolving in relation to communications data, I hope that he will accept that it would not be appropriate to remove the power from police forces and deal with every issue through NCIS. I hope that, on consideration and with that clarification, he will consider withdrawing the amendment.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering

©Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 28 March 2000