Surveillance: Citizens and the State - Constitution Committee Contents

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 and Security.

  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 to?

  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 absolutely right?

  Mr Coaker: My understanding is that they had access to the powers that would have been available.

  Q1014  Lord Morris of Aberavon: All of them?

  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 happens?

  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 just given.

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