Communications Interception: LibDem party view, round two

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceFollowing the confirmation in today’s Queen’s Speech that something that might look like the Communications Capability Development Programme is going ahead, a conference call had been (pre-)arranged with the cast of the earlier, somewhat more confrontational call. The main difference this time is that instead of being lead by a handful of Senior Political Advisors, the main speaker was none other than Cambridge’s own Dr Julian Huppert MP, who Nick Clegg has publicly deferred to on the issue of Communications Interception.

First of all, I shall start with the LibDem Win: As reported by the Guardian today, if the Tories were left to their own devices, this would probably be rammed through as part of a larger bill.

Whilst we’re not there yet, we (And I mean all campaigners here!) are already making a difference and I’m told some of the plans the Home Office had are already being torn us in the face of opposition. They have been careful not to put anything in writing so far and the full details of the most draconian measures that were in the works will probably never be publicly known, but it seems likely that any plan to put compulsory black boxes on service providers networks to snoop on traffic are already out the window, which is excellent news. Also out is apparently any suggestion that the police would simply be able to pull data from service providers directly over the Internet, without needing to request it specifically from a human.

As to the conference call itself, there was much less technical content than last time. This was partly because we know Julian Huppert very much Gets It, and if he doesn’t he’ll ask those of us that do. But also, it’s because we’re worrying about how we get where we want to be and not the unannounced detail.

As it stands, we’re waiting for the Home Office to say what they want, in writing. They may ask only for entirely reasonable things that we can agree to, but that is unlikely. Instead, it should go through a similar committee process the Libel Reform Bill that was also announced today to allow experts to pick it apart. Some of what the Home Office propose will probably be unacceptable, and we’ll kick it out. Some might be a little awkward, but a genuine attempt by the Home Office to come up with something workable towards a specific goal. We should help them on that if we think it’s a worthy goal.

I’ll sound a note of caution here: As I said above, the civil service may – hell, probably will announce draft clauses that are very illiberal. I’ve no doubt some will react with alarm if that happens. That doesn’t mean that LibDem MPs have “gone native”. It means they’ll discuss them in public and kill them there, and not in private. Secondly, don’t let it become a campaign of misinformation. I’ve heard there are already one or two organisations have put out some inaccurate information based on outdated plans, which won’t help discussions further down the line if they become the focus of discussion when they’re already dead and buried.

(On the flip side, if there are MPs being illiberal: It’s open season. Regardless of party)

In terms of next steps, the Home Affairs Select Committee has written to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, asking for more detail of what’s proposed. She should have responded today and hopefully the committee will publish both their questions and the response on Tuesday, before a full session to question her on the topic.

In parallel to this, some draft clauses will be forthcoming over the next few weeks which is the first time we’ll have something concrete to critique properly. It may be the Home Affairs Select Committee that works on this, or it might be another committee specificity formed to discuss this bill, but the key is the MPs working on it should have the chance to be fully educated on it. One memorable quote from this evening was that “any group that knows what they’re talking about won’t make daft decisions“. I hope that’s true.

Once the draft clauses are in the open, we can finally decide if what they’re thinking of doing is acceptable and call down upon them the wrath of the community if they’ve got it wrong.


  1. The coalition agreement said “We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.” Nowadays the government position all too often seems to be “Never mind the reason, feel the safeguards!” It’s just not good enough.

  2. I agree with Keith – if these proposals make it into a public draft bill then that is one stage closer to final legislation. I’m not convinced by the argument that “we’ll propose bad legislation so we can kill it off”

    And if they are bad that will mean a whole new shower of abuse we will have invited to rain down upon us.

  3. I was on the call. It’s not us who are proposing the legislation. From the sounds of it it *will* be us who block it. If what Huppert’s saying matches up to reality, what will come out of the committee process — whatever goes in — will be a bill that makes it harder, not easier, to intercept people’s communications.
    Huppert’s one of our best MPs, and absolutely solid on civil liberties. If he thinks things are going to be OK, they probably are — which is no reason not to be vigilant, but *is* a reason to give our parliamentarians (if not the Tories or the Home Office) the benefit of the doubt.

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