Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I commend my noble friend's general approach. She is absolutely right to say that we need sensible, rational and dispassionate debate. She is right also to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on his careful, detailed and thoughtful report. She is correct in saying that the Government seek to heal divisions. That is why we were elected. There is no getting away from the fact that this is a vexed issue. The report tries to provide useful background, to enable us to find a sensible way through. The concept of options and debate carefully constructed around them will allow us to do that. I am grateful to my noble friend for her kind comments and I will be more than happy to convey her gratitude to my right honourable Friend the Home Secretary.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the Minister says that the Government are neutral but the Prime Minister said on television that he wanted to abolish fox hunting. Is the Prime Minister neutral towards his own Government? He said also that he does not have any disagreement with shooting or fishing, so he accepts that it is quite satisfactory and morally correct

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1403

to kill for fun. What is the difference between the morality of shooting a pheasant and the morality of chasing a fox?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl is better at morals and the killing of animals than I am.

Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I want an answer.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Earl is entitled to ask his question but he is in some danger of trivialising the report.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Your Lordships are entitled to disagree but that is my view. The noble Earl asked about the Government's position. I made it plain earlier that we are neutral. The noble Earl asked also about the Prime Minister's view. My right honourable friend is a Member of Parliament and clearly expressed his view. We are all entitled to express our view. The noble Earl is entitled to express his view. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, expressed his view cogently at the outset. No doubt he will continue to do so.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, could not the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, equally be applied to the maintenance of cock fighting or bear baiting? It is perfectly obvious that I am not a countryman but am I correct in thinking that most countrymen regard foxes as vermin? Does my noble friend know of any other vermin that is deliberately kept alive?

Lord Brighton of Bassam: My Lords, I may have been brought up in the countryside but do not claim to be a countryman. As to foxes being vermin, we seek to control them in different ways. Fox hunting is undertaken by some for pleasure and by some for fun. I draw no conclusion although it is not something that I particularly see as fun. The report clearly and fairly states that banning fox hunting would not make much difference to the size of the fox population. We would undoubtedly apply instead means that are commonly in use.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is the Minister aware that foxes are the most destructive vermin in this country? They are very damaging to poultry, game and other wildlife. Hunting is the most certain and least cruel way of keeping the number of foxes down. The alternative of shooting often results in the fox getting gangrene. Poisoning and trapping are in any event illegal. Will the Government bear those points in mind before doing anything to stop fox hunting?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we have heard those views expressed before and will no doubt hear them again in the wide-ranging debate on the Bill. Some people see foxes as vermin and undoubtedly that is the case. The Burns report is helpful in some of its

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1404

observations on that matter. The noble Lord asks the Government to consider his points. I have made it plain that this matter is for Parliament. All parties have openly and honestly said—and have repeated this afternoon—that the matter is one on which Parliament should decide, not Government, and that there should be a series of free votes on the options. That remains the case. From the tone of debate in your Lordships' House this afternoon, it seems that people are pleased that there will be free votes on all the options.

Several noble Lords rose—

Lord Kimball: My Lords—

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Kimball—whom I greatly respect—has not had the opportunity to contribute but we have had our 20 minutes of Back-Bench Questions. The rules of the House dictate that we should move on.

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill

5 p.m.

Lord Bach: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bach.)

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the proceedings at this point, but I believe that I can address the House on an important matter before we move into the detail of the Committee stage. I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government have taken account of the strongly developing opinion against this Bill. When we debated the Second Reading a few weeks ago, it was generally true to say that the Bill was of serious concern only to the e-community, broadly speaking. However, opposition has grown much wider since that time, which means that the Bill has achieved the rare, if not unique, distinction of having The Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian all call for the Bill to be withdrawn and reconsidered.

A similar rare combination of allies against the Bill has developed among business and financial organisations. Today, the British Chamber of Commerce has published a detailed report by an impressive panel, edited by two gentlemen from the London School of Economics and one from University College London—neither institution is normally known as a force of conservatism—which concludes, among other things, that the costs to service providers of compliance would be £650 million over five years, and continuing thereafter. It has also concluded that the effects on the economy would be well over £35 billion over five years in the transfer of business to overseas jurisdictions. These are very serious figures.

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1405

The report also says that the Bill as it stands is entirely inadequate as a mechanism to achieve efficient and reasonable interception and surveillance and that its effect is likely to be loss of confidence in e-commerce, unacceptable costs to businesses and to the UK economy, confusion and uncertainty at numerous levels of business activity and an onerous imposition on the rights of individuals. In those circumstances, can the Minister say whether the Government are treating these growing and much wider criticisms very seriously?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for intervening in this way. I should like to thank him for giving me notice of his intention to do so. Like the noble Lord, I have read the press coverage. We have received many representations. We wish to be as helpful as we can. However, the public debate has revealed some very serious misunderstandings about the Bill. We must, first, try to correct those misunderstandings because some of them are ill judged, while others are misconceived. They are also beginning to skew somewhat the debate.

We are more than happy at all times to consider serious and properly argued amendments. Perhaps it is worth pointing out to your Lordships this afternoon that we are very much in listening mode on this Bill. However, we shall not be deflected from our course; nor shall we withdraw the Bill, as suggested in some of the wilder public comments. None of our industry contacts asks us to withdraw the Bill. They ask for it to be amended in many and various respects. We shall see what we can do in that regard.

As regards some of the misunderstandings in the media, it may be useful if I quote from a letter that my right honourable friend Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has written in response to The Times editorial today, in which he runs through some of the myths:

    "The first myth is that the Bill requires all Internet service providers in the UK to install black boxes with a link to the Security Service to monitor traffic. This is completely untrue. The Bill introduces comprehensive statutory controls for the first time governing access to data, such as billing records. Access must be properly authorised for specified purposes only. This is subject to independent oversight ... The second myth is that the Bill criminalises the innocent user of technology. Again, this is wholly wrong. It targets the serious criminal. There is a sanction for not complying with a decryption notice. But the burden is on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a person has, or has had, possession of a decryption key. Forgetting passwords or keys is a reasonable thing to do, so the Bill includes statutory defences for such cases".

The Home Secretary then goes on to look at a third myth; namely, that companies will be required to surrender private keys to their entire network and will be prevented from divulging this. He says:

    "But we have made it clear that, where legitimate businesses are concerned, we fully expect that disclosing material in an intelligible form rather than a key will normally be sufficient. The Bill reflects this. It contains restrictions on when keys may be required and when the 'tipping off' provision may come into play".

12 Jun 2000 : Column 1406

We do not want to see the burgeoning e-commerce market overrun with high-tech criminals against whom law enforcement finds itself powerless; neither does industry with which we have actively engaged in consultation. So we need to update our laws. But we also need to ensure that we protect citizens' legitimate rights and that we do not overburden business. It is all about balance. I believe that the Bill strikes the right one.

As I said at the outset, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cope. We are very much in a listening mode. We want to hear what Members of your Lordships' House have to say on the very important matters contained in the Bill. We continue to listen to points that are reasonably put to us from all sections of industry. The noble Lord made particular reference to the report of the British Chamber of Commerce, which we received today. A representative from the BCC recently visited our officials. We are more than happy to meet the authors of that report, and of other reports, in order to go through some of the serious issues raised. We are seeking to find solutions to the problems.

Much of the Bill is uncontroversial and much of it is already on the statute book in another form. However, we seek to update, modernise and make more effective those parts of the legislation that require such amendment, as well as dealing with the difficult issues surrounding encryption. That is the primary purpose of this piece of legislation.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page