Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion since 2010, and former leader of the Green Party.
Weekly surgeries for constituents.
Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill
The straw man—or straw person—has been evident in this debate this afternoon. Several Members have suggested that those of us who oppose this Bill somehow oppose the retention of data per se. I wish to make it clear that I have not heard anybody say that. Everything is about the terms on which the data are being retained.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind gave the impression that I had suggested that the Court of Justice of the European Union had said that the data could not be retained.
Of course it did not say that. What it said was that the terms under which data are retained have to be proportionate. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, who unfortunately is not in his place, suggested that I had not looked at the ruling. I can confirm that I have. Paragraph 59 makes it clear that what the Court of Justice is asking for is an end to blanket retention. It says that
“retention must relate to specific threats, and be confined by specific criteria, such as a time period, geography, or a set of people of interest.”
We are talking about the terms and the conditions of that data retention. Let us consider the fact that there are plenty of countries that seem to be able to tackle serious crime without undermining their citizens’ civil liberties through blanket data retention. I am talking about Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece and Sweden.
Dr Huppert, who is in his place, tried to reassure us that there were all these safeguards that would make us feel comfortable. One of those safeguards, and the only one that is actually written into the Bill, is the sunset clause, which is two and a half years away. Many Members have already said why that does not give us comfort, which is why I am supporting the amendment that would bring it forward to six months. None of the other measures to which the hon. Gentleman referred is in the Bill.
An awful lot of people watching this debate will be absolutely staggered that the Liberal Democrats, who have, to their credit, been upholders of civil liberties in the past, are here undermining them. What we see here is a willingness to trade off this blanket retention of data, which many people believe will be deemed illegal, with concessions that may or may not be forthcoming in the future. We have always known that new Labour had an authoritarian streak, but we had hoped that the Liberal Democrats would stand up for civil liberties. Many people today will be sad to see the way in which they have caved in on this issue.
We have been repeatedly told that the Bill simply maintains the status quo, and there are plenty of legal experts who will argue that that is not accurate; we have heard many of their statements repeated in the Chamber this afternoon. Notwithstanding the fact that the status quo has been ruled a breach of fundamental human rights, the provisions in the Bill, specifically clause 4, extend the territorial reach of the law relating to data retention, bringing overseas communications companies that provide services in the UK into the scope of RIPA.
Even those parts of the Bill that do not constitute going further than the status quo are deeply worrying. It has been confirmed that they breach fundamental human rights in their scope and in their totality. There are also more specific concerns with many of the Bill’s provisions. Clause 1, for example, retains authorisation for hundreds of public authorities to acquire communications data while the framework for granting access to that data is worryingly open to abuse. Barring local authority access, there is no requirement for independent prior judicial authorisation when communications data are sought by public bodies.
That means that the potential for ongoing and wide-scale privacy infringement is enormous and has been realised in the shape of roughly half a million requests a year from public bodies since 2009. The actual scale of infringement is difficult to assess. We still do not have a
full picture across all the public bodies that are able to access communications data of the type of investigations for which data are accessed, the extent of access and the number of individuals affected. The European Court of Justice has however confirmed that privacy is being breached even though to what extent is unfortunately still a secret.
Moreover, while we are told that communications data played a role in 95% of all serious criminal investigations over the past decade, we have no idea about the exact nature of that role. That makes it difficult to judge exactly how significant the blanket retention of data is in averting terrorist attacks, for example. When crimes are successfully prevented, we are not told whether communications data are central or peripheral to the operation; nor are we told whether data lead to successful prosecution or whether prosecution could have been secured without access to the data. That is why we need a proper debate. The interception of communications commissioner has already warned that far too many requests for data are being made and that he is struggling to keep up with them. The idea of loading more on to the commissioner is unsustainable. We should not be pushing this legislation through in a day; we should be having a proper and full debate.
Digital Economy Act
Opposes the bill, referring to it as 'rash and ill thought-out, having been rushed through this parliament against all the advice of the experts.' She raised questions about the dis-proportionality of the bill, and has criticised it as an 'illiberal' policy.