Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1009-1019)|
Mr Vernon Coaker, Mr Tim Hayward and Mr Stephen Webb
19 NOVEMBER 2008
Q1009 Chairman: Good morning. May
I welcome to the Committee the Minister of State for Security,
Counter-terrorism, Crime and Policing, Vernon Coaker, and his
accompanying officials, Stephen Webb, the Acting Director of policing
policy and operations, and Tim Hayward, the Director of the intercept
modernisation programme. We are being sound recorded and televised
and may I ask Mr Coaker, Mr Webb and Mr Hayward please to formally
identify themselves for the record, whereafter, if Mr Coaker wishes
to make a short introductory statement, that would be welcome.
If not, we will proceed with questions. Mr Coaker?
Mr Coaker: Thank you very much, my Lord
Chairman, and good morning to you and to the rest of the Committee.
Thank you very much for inviting us. My name is Vernon Coaker,
Home Office Minister of State for Crime, Policing, Counter-terrorism
Mr Hayward: My name is Tim Hayward. I
am the Director of the intercept modernisation programme.
Mr Webb: Good morning. My name is Stephen
Webb and I am the Acting Director of policing policy and operations
in the Home Office.
Mr Coaker: Perhaps I may open with a
couple of sentences because I know there are a number of questions
that people wish to ask and no doubt some supplementaries but
we welcome that opportunity. Can I thank the Committee for the
opportunity to come again to speak to you about the matters on
the agenda and to explain some of the thinking that we have, some
of the policies that we are pursuing and some of the issues that
we are weighing up in taking forward this whole agenda. We look
forward very much to reading the report that comes out at the
end of your inquiry and using that to inform our deliberations
and our thoughts. I do not really want to say very much more than
that, just that we very much welcome the Committee's inquiry.
I have already read some of the deliberations of the Committee
and I look forward to reading the full report when that comes
out in due course.
Q1010 Chairman: Thank you very much
indeed, Minister. Can I begin by asking if there are any core
principles that you think should underpin the Government's approach
to surveillance and data collection, and who in the Government
is responsible for ensuring that these principles are adhered
Mr Coaker: Can I say that at the core
of what we are trying to do is to ensure that we balance a number
of particular principles. The first core principle has to be,
of course, respect for human rights, the necessity to see that
as an important issue with respect to all of the work that we
do in this area. We have to cherish the right to privacy. That
is fundamental to all of us and needs to be protected. The Government
has always been clear that where surveillance or data protection
impacts on privacy that should only be done where it is both necessary
and proportionate. That is why we introduced the Regulation of
Investigatory Powers Act 2000. It was to try and regulate the
way in which these data were collected and brought in and regulate
the use of surveillance and data collection by public authorities
and make sure that was done with proper respect for human rights.
Of course, the other principle to balance up with all of that
is the desire to protect the public. Public protection obviously
has to be an important part of what we are doing and surveillance
and data collection are an essential and vital part of our trying
to ensure that we protect the public not only from terrorism but
also from serious crime. I am sure that this will be a theme throughout
the morning and no doubt throughout much of your discussion. It
is wrong to say we have people who are not interested in tackling
terrorism and serious crime and therefore are opposed to this.
It is about where we draw the line and how we have the correct
balance between these things which is absolutely essential. It
is not always easy to do that. There are judgments to be made
and debates to be had and sometimes these threats change, as also
sometimes does technology. One of the issues that we are grappling
with is technology advances, technology changes, so that also
puts increasing demands upon us. In terms of overall responsibility
within government for taking this forward, I have the responsibility
with respect to that, and I obviously meet with other ministers
in a way that is appropriate and necessary.
Lord Morris of Aberavon: Thank you very much
for your letter of 21 October explaining the Government's change
of heart with regard to the use of the RIPA. I am old-fashioned
enough to believe, Minister, that when a categorical assurance
is given by a minister to a backbench MP in the course of the
passage of a Bill the Government's word is its bond and it should
be adhered to and, while I note your explanation, it seems to
me that, although you say that you want a more consistent and
more systematic approach, the ragbag of existing powers seems
now, under the process of making it systematic, to be for a different
purpose than was envisaged when the RIPA was being introduced
and the categorical assurances were given by Charles Clarke to
William Cash. It could never have been intended, could it, when
the Act was brought in that local authorities would be able to
use these powers to survey catchment areas for schools or for
checking dustbins or the like? Indeed, some of the witnesses we
have had were positively enjoying the new powers which they have.
Q1011 Chairman: Perhaps for the benefit
of those who are less familiar with the subject I should interject
that the RIPA means the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act
passed in 2000.
Mr Coaker: Thank you, my Lord Chairman.
In answer to Lord Morris, obviously the assurance was given by
Charles Clarke as the Bill went through Parliament and that assurance
was given in good faith, but I think what happened afterwards,
and I will deal with the other point about the use of the power
if that is okay with you, my Lord Chairman, as a separate point,
was that it seemed to us there was a particular problem with the
fact that local authorities were already able to try and apply
for access to communications data. The internet service providers
were therefore having people coming to them under RIPA legislation
and people coming to them under different legislation, so there
was an inconsistency there. The Government then went out to public
consultation about the issue that had arisen, and as a consequence
of that, as you know, felt that it was only appropriate to extend
the list of public authorities which were able to have access
to RIPA powers, and that was then made subject to affirmative
resolution in Parliament. I am afraid I cannot add any more to
the explanation that that was the way to deal with this which
was felt to be appropriate. On the second part of Lord Morris's
question, I think there are some concerns about the way in which
local authorities have used powers under the RIPA legislation,
including the examples that you used, and that is why I have been
talking to my colleague in DCLG, John Healey, about what we need
to do about that, because we do not want to see legislation that
is available for local authorities to use with respect to serious
crime being used in the ways that you have indicated and also
in other ways, for example, with respect to dog fouling. Certainly
that is something we need to address.
Q1012 Lord Morris of Aberavon: Minister,
your explanation seems to be a bit thin because if that was in
the mind of the Home Office before Charles Clarke was allowed
to send his letter it might have been qualified at that stage.
Why the change of heart?
Mr Coaker: As I say, the change of heart
came because of a recognition of the problem that arose about
the inconsistency of approach that was taking place. Some people
were approaching internet service providers through RIPA legislation;
others, like local authorities, were approaching them to get exactly
the same information that they get under RIPA through other legislation,
through the Data Protection Act, some of the exemptions that exist
there, or through production orders under PACE. The debate then
became that if they were doing that and we wanted to regulate
in a way that I was trying to say in answer to the Chairman's
question, to try to ensure that it was done proportionately, consistently,
with regard to the human rights aspects that are enshrined within
RIPA, that is why we then went out to public consultation to say,
"Look: this is the situation. Would it not be better to include
local authorities therefore within that?", and that decision
was then taken and made subject to the affirmative resolution
procedure in Parliament.
Q1013 Lord Morris of Aberavon: Are
they getting no more under RIPA than they had already? Is that
Mr Coaker: My understanding is that they
had access to the powers that would have been available.
Q1014 Lord Morris of Aberavon: All
Mr Coaker: I think that is right.
Q1015 Lord Morris of Aberavon: If
not perhaps you will write to the Committee.
Mr Coaker: Of course. Let me just say
that if I am factually inaccurate on anything I will, of course,
write to the Committee, and if at any time anybody feels that
they need more information I will send that information to the
Committee. That would only be right and appropriate. As for Lord
Morris's point, I will check to make sure that that is factually
right, but my belief is that that is the case.
Q1016 Lord Smith of Clifton: Might
I ask the Minister if he is saying that the categorical assurance
given by Charles Clarke earlier now has no validity?
Mr Coaker: I am not saying it did not
have any validity. I am saying that what happened afterwards was
that there were problems with the way in which it was operated,
there were inconsistencies in the way that it was operating, and
therefore the Government at the time, and we are talking about
2003, took the view that it needed to try and regularise that
position particularly with respect to local authorities. Just
to be clear in supplementing what I said to Lord Morris, my Lord
Chairman, of course we are talking about communications data here.
It was necessary to change the framework within which local authorities
were already operating.
Q1017 Lord Smith of Clifton: Is this
not a very unfortunate precedent, Minister?
Mr Coaker: I think it is fair to say
that governments often are faced with difficult situations after
Bills are passed. I do not think this is something that you would
want to repeat. Clearly, if an assurance has been given you like
to try and ensure that that assurance is maintained, but I also
think, to be frank, my Lord Chairman, that sometimes there are
things that happen two, three, four, five, six years later
Q1018 Lord Smith of Clifton: Stuff
Mr Coaker: I think so, my Lord. Sometimes
something happens and although it is difficult you do have to
say that circumstances have changed or that there is a fresh way
of looking at it and despite the assurance that was made there
is a need to change, and that is why we did what we did.
Q1019 Lord Peston: Minister, I thought
your answer to the Chairman's opening question was cogent and
convincing in the context of serious crime and terrorism and I
think that would be the public view of the matter as well, but,
in regard to Lord Morris's question, if we then say the same powers
are being used for local authorities searching my dustbin is not
the danger that you lose public support because they say the Government
does not know what it is doing, and then you lose support for
the area in which you most need public support, namely, the anti-terrorism,
anti-crime thing? Although I personally am totally in favour of
what you said, if I got into trouble with my local authority because
I had put the wrong thing into a dustbin you would lose me totally.
I would say if that can happen I want the whole thing stopped.
I appreciate all your arguments other than that must not happen.
Does the Government not have any powers just to say, as used to
happen before human rights came on board, "Just do not do
it", to the local authorities?
Mr Coaker: Can I say to Lord Peston that
I absolutely agree with the point that he has made? I am sorry
if I did not explain myself as cogently in the second answer as
I did in the first. What I was trying to say in answer to Lord
Morris was, of course, that if powers are used inappropriately
that tempers the view. It causes people then to look at the way
the whole of the legislation is used and undermines support for
it. What I was trying to say was that in terms of the examples
that Lord Morris gave and the other examples that are used, things
like dog fouling, they are inappropriate, and when my predecessor
came in he mentioned that he thought that was inappropriate. Speaking
to colleagues in DCLG, and we are looking at what we need to do
to ensure that the powers are used appropriately and in a way
which commands the respect of the public, I think Lord Peston
is absolutely right because I think that when people understand
that local authorities are actually using them for the sorts of
things that people would want to see them using the powers for,
therefore we have to stop some of these other things happening
which undermine that support. If I can give you one example (I
have got about five) so that I do not take up too much of the
Committee's time but I do think it is an important one, the North
Yorkshire County Council used directed surveillance and communications
data authorised by RIPA to prosecute three roofers who had persuaded
11 elderly victims to pay for unnecessary work on their roofs.
These victims lost in excess of £150,000, two of the 11 victims
lost their entire life savings, and the three criminals responsible
were sentenced to between three, five and six years. I think Lord
Peston is right because we do not get the other aspects of that
right in the point that Lord Morris was making and we then undermine
the support which means also local authorities can use the power
to tackle serious criminals like the ones in the example I have