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Lord McNally: My Lords, I apologise for entering the Chamber a little late for what was obviously a well prepared response to the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cope. This Bill seemed to start off as something of a "sleeper" in terms of public concern in that it went through the Commons stages without a great deal of public debate, although it was thoroughly dealt with in Committee in the other place. However, judging by my postbag anddare I say it?my e-mails, as well as comments in the editorial columns of the newspapers, there has been a growing concern since our Second Reading debate not just from civil rights lobbies, but increasingly from industry that this Bill is not good enough.
The Minister said that the Bill was "uncontroversial". That is a very generous comment for a Bill about which there is growing doubt as to whether it covers the relevant areas of technology. As I said, there is also increasing concern on the part of both industry and civil rights lobbies. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, was courteous enough to tell me what he planned to do; indeed, judging by the thoroughness of the Minister's reply, I think that the noble Lord may even have given him a nod and a wink in that respect.
Rather than go through the toil and the turmoil of a Committee stage which, if the Government's complacency remains, I fear will result in some defeats for them, would it not be better to take away the Bill and perhaps hold some public hearings and obtain some more expert advice on it? I believe that the Government are heading for the rocks if they do not realise that the warnings that have been given from
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as ever, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his careful reflections. He always speaks with great common sense. However, I thought I had made it plain in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, that we are aware of the growing volume of concern. Two editorials on this matter appear today in the Guardian and The Times. I have read those and I understand the arguments that are put forward. As I said earlier, I am more than happy to listen to concerns. As always, I have invited noble Lords to discuss points of the Bill that trouble them. It is an important piece of legislation. We are certainly not complacent about it, far from it, but it is a necessary piece of legislation. It makes plainI think perhaps for the first timethat we need to have a proper regulatory framework for the interception of communications. It tries to addressI believe that it succeeds in thisthe serious issue of the way in which technology is changing and evolving. That is no easy exercise. I can well understand that people may be concerned, as the noble Lord suggests.
Committee stage gives noble Lords a full opportunity to discuss the detail of legislation with a view to improving it. I recognise the strength of opinion on certain issues. We shall try to be as helpful as we possibly can as we proceed through the Committee stage. However, as I say, this is essential and important legislation. Our security services, our police service and many of the agencies covered by the Bill would be seriously concerned if we were to be deflected from our intended course of action. We should try to concentrate on resolving the serious issues of concern as best we can in Committee to improve the Bill. As I say, we are ready to listen to all views on these matters.
The noble Lord said: I have tabled a large number of amendments to the Bill. I shall try to deal with them as expeditiously as possible. In this case I think that it would be best to start with a short exposition from the
This, and subsequent debates today, will, quite properly, seek to scrutiniseas I suggested earlierthe provisions of the Bill, which is a complex piece of legislation. The Bill has already been improved by scrutiny in another place. I repeat that it is for this Chamber to seek further to improve it.
During our debate on each of the amendments it is worth reminding ourselves what the Bill is all about, and why it is crucial that we legislate on these matters. As we are debating Part I today I hope that no one will mind me trying to put the Bill into perspective. This legislation is all about countering the threats which are posed to our society by criminals and terrorists. I believe that that is commonly agreed. The threats exist now and, in our view, the current legislation is either out of date or the law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies have been working on a non-statutory basis which we must rectify before the Human Rights Act comes into force in October. We should bear that date strongly in mind this afternoon.
This is an important Bill. Rather than backing up that claim with generalities or poorly researched figures, I shall give the Committee some facts regarding the effectiveness of interception. Successive governments have shied away from giving too much detail about its effectivenessfor reasons which we shall debate laterbut these figures give an indication of just how successful interception is.
During 1996 and 1997 lawful interception of communications played a partoften the crucial partin operations by police and HM Customs which led to 1,200 arrests; the seizure of drugs with a street value of some £600 million; and the seizure of some 450 firearms. During a 12-month period during 19981999 Customs seized 1.25 tonnes of Class A drugs, and made 93 arrests in connection with those drugs, through interception. In fact, in 1998, 52 per cent of the total amount of heroin seized by Customs was a direct result of interception. The total value of drugs seized in 1998 as a result of interception was in excess of £185 million. This comes to over 10 per cent of the total sum spent on drugs per annum in the United Kingdom, an amount which could cost the country up to £500 million each year.
Meanwhile, in work against alcohol and tobacco smuggling, recent Customs interception operations have been so successful that the number of staff working on interception against these targets has doubled. Just this morning I saw some updated figures on the results that interception continues to achieve. By their very nature, it is not possible to share these figures publicly and I shall not do so. However, I reassure the Committee that the results I have just mentioned continue to be highly relevant. These are important powers for law enforcement. We, the public and businesses alike, cannot afford to do without them.
The Committee will note that I have not given any figure or quantification of the success of interception against terrorism. However, I assure the Committee that it is an equally potent weapon and has contributed significantly to the prevention of terrorist atrocities, including some which would undoubtedly have caused loss of life and extensive damage to property. I have today seen the latest monthly results accruing from interception. They remain impressive and I have no doubt of the benefit which serious criminals and terrorists would derive if we were not to bring our interception legislation up to date. Therefore, while I do not wish to labour the point, we need to consider what the Bill is designed to achieve and work towards that.
As I said earlier, I have seen comment in the press today. There are some serious misconceptions around. We have tried, and will continue to try, to get our message across. But this debate must be rational and based on the facts. When all sides have considered all the facts, we can focus on specific suggestions for improvement of the Bill. I am happy to do that but before accepting any changes, I shall want those who propose them to have a full understanding of their impact.
I refer to specific points on the amendment. With regard to Amendment No. 1, Clause 1(1) of the Bill creates the offence of unlawful interception, and then goes on to provide defences to that offence in subsection (5). But through the act of interception, the interceptor may commit other offences or torts, in particular under the Human Rights Act. The final part of subsection (5) ensures that there is a defence to those liabilities.
I trust that the noble Lord understands where we are coming from in terms of this particular clause and that those few comments will assist him in considering whether he wishes to withdraw his amendment.
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