Draft Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Covert Human Intelligence Sources: Code of Practice) Order 2002

[back to previous text]

Mr. Ainsworth: That is because the RCA appeared in the Act and there may well be other parts of RIPA that are appropriate to it. That particular level of authorisation might involve a vulnerable or young person, and access to information that might be of a private nature. Therefore, the organisation would effectively rule itself out. I do not know if that is more helpful; if he is not happy with that, the hon. Gentleman might want to make a fuller contribution when I have sat down to tease out his point. The measure had to be specifically named because it appeared in the Act in the first place.

I have said what I needed to say. In my view, the orders are compatible with the rights set out in the European convention on human rights, and I can only apologise for having made a meal out of presenting matters. I hope the Committee will give its approval.

4.45 pm

Mr. Hawkins: The Under-Secretary has been a little self-critical when he suggests that he has made a meal out of presenting the orders. I do not think that he has, but I am afraid that he is going to be sadly disappointed if he expects my party to support him. We are not going to; we are against what the Government are trying to do.

I say to the Under-Secretary and those on the Government Benches—many of whom were not in the last Parliament when the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill was debated—that a lot of the warnings that we issued, particularly those of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) who dealt with the Bill in Committee, have now come true even quicker than we thought. I was on the shadow Home Affairs team at the time, as the Under-Secretary knows. I was not dealing with that Bill because I was dealing with other Government legislation such as security in the street and so on. However, I was involved in the team meetings at which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire was raising all of the concerns that we had. We all agreed that if the Government rushed ahead with a lot of what flowed from the Bill, they would get themselves into terrible difficulties.

Column Number: 007

It is a good thing that there is a code of practice, particularly in such sensitive areas; nothing that I say should be taken as opposition to the idea of codes of practice. The difficulty that the Government have got themselves into is that they have simply failed to heed the warnings, not only from my party or the Liberal Democrats, but from many people commenting on the issues. That is also the reason why a whole raft of other consequential statutory instruments that the Government were proposing that arose from RIPA 2000 had to be humiliatingly withdrawn—with no less a person than the Home Secretary appearing on television and confessing that the Government got it wrong—in response to the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) had been making,

It is not often that I see something in The Guardian with which I wholly agree. However, I found an exception that came from Simon Davies, a visiting fellow in the department of information systems at the London school of economics. Even more relevantly, he is director of the watchdog group, Privacy International. Writing in the society section of The Guardian under the headline ''Privacy debacle set to be repeated'' he said:

    ''The most entertaining aspect of the government's U-turn last week on its data-snooping proposals was the home secretary's ''we got it wrong'' interview on the BBC. But it was not the most surprising element in the saga. The most remarkable aspect was that the proposals got as far as they did. It has been less than two years since the government found itself in deep water over the introduction of the regulation of investigatory powers (RIP) bill, which forms the primary legislation for the recent proposals. The government should have learned from its mistakes. That bill provoked uproar in the House of Lords, schisms in the Commons and an icy response from business and civil liberties groups. In a well-organised series of campaigns, the government found itself outflanked and had to withdraw the most contentious parts of the bill.''

I would go so far as to say that given the Government's enormous majority from 1997, and again from last summer, that was probably the most humiliating defeat that they suffered—certainly in home affairs matters, but possibly across legislation as a whole—during the previous Parliament. Of course, this Home Secretary has marched his troops up to the top of the hill and back down again over a whole raft of matters since the 2001 general election, and continues to do so. We now see that that is likely to happen again over the Bill on which the Under-Secretary and I have been working against one another in Committee recently.

The Guardian writer Simon Davies then says,

    ''Politicians may be too busy to remember back that far, but surely that is why they employ political advisers. It should have been obvious to any amateur that the same groups and political opponents would intensify their campaign and streamline their tactics in the face of this month's proposals. From the perspective of privacy, the government has acted with appalling disregard for rights. From a strategic and tactical perspective, they made unforgivable errors.''

I say ''Hear, hear'' to that.

One reason why we have particular reservations about the code of practice is the list to which I drew the Under-Secretary's attention. I do not think that

Column Number: 008

my constituents, or those of other hon. Members, will find that executive managers in the Environment Agency, to give just one example, are an appropriate authorisation level for when a vulnerable individual or a juvenile is to be used as a source. Nor do I think that the head of the Rural Affairs Department of the National Assembly for Wales is an appropriate authorisation level for when a vulnerable individual or a juvenile is to be used as a source. That is what Mr. Davies and many groups are concerned about, and what the Opposition are concerned about. There are many other examples.

Mr. Ainsworth: It is good that the hon. Gentleman has come to a little bit of substance, because it appeared for quite a long while during his intervention and during his extensive reading from the society pages of The Guardian that he had just found an opportunist way of joining in with people who are going to be opposed to these orders. If he is going to ask his hon. Friends to vote against the measures, before he sits down, will he lay out in detail to the Committee the entire parameters of his objections to them? Instead of talking about another part of RIPA, to which we may return on another day, following a full consultation, will he turn to the measures that are in front of us and tell us, so that we can have an intelligent debate, exactly what his objections are?

Mr. Hawkins: Yes, I have every intention of doing just that. The Under-Secretary will hear me do so, but I hope that he will allow me to make my own case in my own way. I think that someone who is a director of the watchdog group Privacy International should be listened to, taken account of and have his views taken seriously. It is not good enough for the Minister to object because this was in the newspapers last weekend, although I do not quite think that the Society supplement of The Guardian would quite consider itself the society pages of The Guardian. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not a reader of The Guardian.

Mr. Davies was writing about not only what had happened before his article came out, but the whole raft of what the Government are trying to do, arising from RIPA, including what we are debating today. He said, among other things:

    ''At the most basic level, the government should have understood as a matter of pure logic that the electorate is far more savvy now about the implications of such surveillance measures, as is the House of Lords. But even in the absence of such potential political opposition, Blunkett's advisers should have known instinctively that the notion that a wide spectrum of Quangos, Government agencies and local authorities could have access without warrant''—

The Chairman: Order. I respect the comments that the hon. Gentleman is making from the newspaper, but we should be referring our remarks to the orders that we are discussing, not the full comment in the paper.

Mr. Hawkins: Of course I bow to your ruling, Mr. O'Brien, but the particular passage that I have just read out, by someone who is a respected and senior academic commentator on such matters, refers specifically to the

    ''wide spectrum of Quangos, government agencies and local authorities''.

Column Number: 009

That is precisely what is here in these very orders, as I said just before I gave way to the Under-Secretary. In looking at all the different groups listed here, we are discussing the codes of practice that give the appropriate authorisation levels. I shall not go through all of them, but what Mr. Davies says is relevant because it refers precisely to that.

I shall give a couple of further examples, as the Under-Secretary has challenged me to show the relevance of what Mr. Davies rightly says. Let us consider another case in which neither I nor my constituents would think it appropriate for a person to have such powers. The code of practice gives the authorisation level for the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science as the immediate senior officer of the head of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' prosecution division. In my constituency, and in many other parts of the country, DEFRA is a dirty word. No farmer in my constituency, after the foot and mouth debacle, would want a DEFRA official of any level to have rights over their, or anyone else's, confidential information.

We are lucky that my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) is here. He has extensive experience of leading a successful local authority. I am aware the most senior people in local authorities sometimes need certain powers. If bodies such as the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the Royal Military Police, police forces more generally, and the intelligence services were the only ones listed in the code of practice, I could well understand the provisions, and we would not have such concerns.

We are talking about people listed merely as ''executive managers'' in the Environment Agency dealing with vulnerable individuals or juveniles. What exactly does ''executive managers'' mean? Will a new graduate who, after a couple of years in a junior job, is given their first management job be an executive manager? I fear so, and I have no faith in the comprehensive list in the code of practice.

I should make it clear that there are many good safeguards in the code. We do not reject it wholesale, but we shall vote against it, because some of the people listed are clearly not the kind of people that my constituents, or those of any Labour Member, would want to have access to confidential information.

Several people in DEFRA are mentioned in the code of practice on covert surveillance, including the egg marketing inspectorate, the plant health and seed inspectorate, the horticultural marketing inspectorate, the sea fisheries inspectorate, and CEFAS. I recognise that we are talking about the threat of agricultural disease coming from overseas, and the kind of illegal importation that may well have led to the foot and mouth outbreak; although who will know unless the Government give us the public inquiry that the public and farmers have been demanding, as opposed to the internal inquiries allowed by the Government? There has been a cover-up all the way through on the foot and mouth outbreak, and the Government are so embarrassed that they will never allow a public inquiry. We will get one, but—

Column Number: 010

Previous Contents Continue

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

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 4 July 2002