Stephen Williams MP

Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West

Communications Data Bill

Responded to an ORG supporter with this email:

Thank you for your email in which you expressed concerns about the retention of communications data under the Draft Communications Bill. Safeguarding civil liberties is a matter that my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I take very seriously. Therefore, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, insisted the Draft Bill receive pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of MPs and Peers. Please accept my apologies for the time it has taken to respond to your comments; following the publication of the Joint Committee’s report on 11th December, I am now in a better position to update you more fully on the progress of the Draft Bill.

The Draft Communications Bill makes provisions that would allow the Home Secretary to require Communications Service Providers to retain communications data for 12 months, whether or not they had a business interest in doing so. As you may know, communications data is not actual content of a communication but information generated from a communication, such as the time, duration or location of a communication made through a device.

Currently, law enforcement agencies, such as the police force and security services, have the ability to access some types of communication data from the last 12 months in order to prevent or investigate crime. However, to access the actual content of communication data requires a warrant from the Home Secretary. There are roughly 500,000 other requests from public authorities for communication data to be released each year.

On receiving your email, I wrote to the Home Office to obtain their view on the Draft Bill. The response I received was from the Minister for Security, James Brokenshire MP. The Minister gave little in the way of addressing your concerns about civil liberties, but emphasised that the retention of communications data is not automatically available to the police. He stated that, under the provisions of the Draft Bill, access is allowed only when a senior officer believes it both necessary and proportionate to pursue a specific statutory purpose, such as for criminal investigation or law enforcement.

Nick Clegg and my Liberal Democrat colleagues have had significant concerns about the Draft Bill from its inception. As liberals, we believe that any new legislation must strengthen rather than weaken civil liberties. At the Liberal Democrat Conference earlier this year, Nick made it absolutely clear that he would not support a Bill unless a case had been made for one. Therefore, he insisted the proposals be drawn only in draft and scrutinised by a committee of both Houses.

Now that the Joint Committee has reported, it is clear to me that a case has not yet been made for a Communications Bill.

The Joint Select Committee made several serious criticisms regarding the scope, proportionality, costs and checks and balances of the Draft Bill, all of which the Liberal Democrats accept and agree with. It highlights that implementing the proposals would be extremely costly and would drastically overrun the £1.8 billion estimated by the Home Office. Indeed, our own analysis of the programme has estimated that it could overrun by £9.3 billion. Furthermore, the report raises significant concerns as to the number of public authorities able to access data under the Draft Bill and the net benefit the reform would have on the public.

Nevertheless, the report has reaffirmed my belief that, in a world that is becoming increasingly technologically advanced, current legislation does not give law enforcement agencies adequate powers to prevent or investigate crime. My Liberal Democrat colleague, Julian Huppert MP, is a member of the Joint Select Committee for the Draft Bill and has made it clear that, while Ministers should not have disproportionate powers to snoop on the public, there is a real need to tighten controls on how communications data can be collected and accessed.

As the Draft Bill currently stands, it is not clear that this problem has been addressed, or that civil liberties will be strengthened by any new legislation. Clearly, the Government needs to go back to the drawing board and rethink the legislation. It is only when the Committee’s recommendations have been taken on board that the Bill will be fit for Parliament. Crucially, I believe that any new legislation must strike a careful balance between national security and individual liberty.

I hope this response helpful. Rest assured that my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I will work hard to ensure that the Coalition Government reconsiders the Draft Bill in the light of the Committee’s recommendations, and we will not support any new legislation that weakens civil liberties. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any further questions or comments on this matter, or on any other issue.

Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2013.


Stephen Williams MP

P.S Please accept my apologies for replying en-masse, I received a large number of emails on this important issue and this is the quickest way of replying to you!

Digital Economy Bill

Contacted by at least one ORG supporter.

First Email

Thank you for your message regarding the Digital Economy Bill. I have received a great many letters about this Bill in the last few weeks. People have raised a wide range of issues and due to the impending general election and dissolution of Parliament there is understandable concern that the Bill will be rushed through without proper consideration. This Bill has seen several major developments in recent weeks and so, although some of the letters I have received are older than a couple of weeks, I have found myself having to redraft this letter several times in order to ensure that I could discuss all of the issues that people in Bristol West have contacted me about, rather than presenting a piecemeal response.

Now that the election has been called this means Parliament will be recalled for two days “wash up” of all Bills that are yet to complete their parliamentary stages. Some Bills are non controversial and will go through with all-party support. This does not include the Digital Economy Bill. While I cannot be certain of the outcome at this stage, my position, and that of my Lib Dem colleagues is that, while we recognise the need to update the law, we have some major areas of disagreement with aspects of the Bill. If these concerns are not addressed then we will vote against the Bill at the final stage. What is likely to happen today (Tuesday) is that the Bill will get a Second Reading. This is approval in principle, which allows the Bill to move forward to the committee stage. It is at this stage that a Bill is normally considered line by line, clause by clause. However, the “wash up” means the consideration will last for only a matter of hours. This is deeply unsatisfactory, and in the five years that I have been your MP I have already seen too many bad laws pass that have not received adequate scrutiny…and that is in a normal Parliamentary period! To rush an important Bill through in a few hours is not acceptable when there are important differences to iron out. Therefore, if our concerns about aspects of the Bill are not addressed at the rushed committee stage, then we will vote against it at the final stage, the Third Reading, which will be later this week.

The Digital Economy Bill is wide ranging and covers issues such as a new remit for Channel 4, the classification of computer games, plans for switchover to digital radio and the future of regional news on ITV as well as the issue of illegal downloading and file sharing. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I support the creative industries and believe that many aspects of this Bill are vitally important to the continuing success of our radio, television and content industries. The digital and new media industries play a significant and growing role in the economic development of Bristol but we must make sure that any new law balances economic protection with citizens’ rights.

The first major area of controversy in the Bill is the set of proposals relating to website blocking and file sharing. I recognise the significant damage to the creative industries of downloading from illegal websites and the need for new counter-measures. However, there has been limited time for consultation and very little time before final decisions are made. The Liberal Democrats therefore do not believe that measures to address blocking of illegal websites can reasonably be included in the Digital Economy Bill and we will not support any such measures at the Committee Stage.

There has been much longer and wider debate about actions to address illegal peer-to-peer file sharing. The Liberal Democrats are unconvinced of the merits of measures such as temporary account suspension or bandwidth throttling. We will seek to amend the Bill to ensure that they cannot be introduced without proper consultation and not until evidence has been produced to prove that they are the best available option.

During the House of Lords consideration of the Bill we sought major changes to the Bill so that “technical measures” such as account suspension or bandwidth reduction will never be possible unless:

1. copyright infringers are notified by letter, without any risk of their internet connection being affected, for at least a year 2. an evaluation of the effectiveness of such “soft measures” is undertaken 3. an evaluation of the need for, and likely effectiveness of, technical measures has been completed 4. further consultation has taken place 5. proposed legislation is brought before Parliament for decision, and 6. any process to disconnect users explicitly assumes their innocence until they are proven guilty

We have also urged the music, film and videogames industries to work more urgently to develop easy and affordable ways to legally access their products in the hope that, combined with “soft measures” and an effective education campaign, disconnection is never required.

We believe that there is still more to do in respect of the proposed system for tackling peer-to-peer file-sharing. We will take further action in the Commons to improve the legislation. For instance,

- We believe there is inadequate protection in the Bill for schools, libraries, universities, wi-fi areas and internet cafes and other businesses offering internet access to the public.

- When the Bill is passed, Ofcom will have to draw up a code regulating how the notifications system works. We do not think Ofcom will have enough time to draw up this code. If the public are to have confidence in the new system, Ofcom will need more than the six months it is given by the Bill.

- We have already opposed – and helped defeat in the Lords – government proposals to give itself powers to change copyright law almost at will. We will oppose any attempt to reinstate such powers in the Commons.

We will also be seeking clarification on Clause 43 of the Bill, which deals with so called “orphan works” such as photographs, where the originator cannot initially be traced. I have met with a local photographer to discuss the concerns of photographers about this clause. I have also met with the Director of the British Library about the digitisation of their vast collection and indeed have seen digitisation of images at the Bristol Record Office in Cumberland Basin. I can see clear cultural and community benefit in making archived works more accessible. However, I believe there are too few safeguards in the Bill to protect the actual originators of the works (should they be identified) both in terms of copyright and their wishes as to the uses of their work. These dangers are even more apparent with contemporary or recent works, many of which are circulated on the internet. I believe that this clause needs a fundamental rethink.

A report published on 17th March 2010 predicted that a quarter of a million jobs in the UK’s creative industries could be lost by 2015 if current trends in online piracy continue. Commenting on it, Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC, said: “The results of the study stress that the growth of unauthorised file-sharing, downloading and streaming of copyrighted works and recorded performances is a major threat to the creative industries in terms of loss of employment and revenues. The scale of the problem is truly frightening now – let alone in the future if no firm actions against illegal file-sharing are taken.”

Our goal is to support the creative industries while at the same time fully acknowledging the issues of rights and freedoms for the individual that arise as internet technology advances. In other words action should only be taken if it is appropriate, proportionate and necessary in a democratic society. There are some who believe that no action should be taken to address the problems caused by copyright infringements on the internet. While we accept that the initial proposals from the government and the much later proposals in respect of website blocking went too far, we do not believe that the problems can be ignored.

My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I believe that many of the measures in the Bill that do not relate to illegal file sharing are important and must be allowed to go into law. However, in respect of those that do relate to illegal file sharing we will not support them in the Commons if we are not satisfied that the procedures in place are fair and allow for full consultation and scrutiny before their introduction in the future.

Please be assured that the Liberal Democrats will do everything in our power to avoid allowing this Bill to be passed as law without having been properly considered through Parliamentary debate. As the situation is likely to have changed by Thursday I will send a short update later this week.

Second Email

As promised in my message earlier this week, here is a brief update on the Digital Economy Bill's progress in Parliament. As I have said to many people who have contacted me in the last few days - the process known as "wash up" for dealing with Bills once an election has been called is deeply unsatisfactory. In my five years as Bristol West's MP I have seen many laws introduced with inadequate consideration - but my definition of "inadequate" here would include one Bill taking just three weeks! What happens at "wash up" is even worse - more than ten Bills being rushed through in two days. This can only happen because the current government has a secure majority in the House of Commons and knows that it can push things through. The only real brake on this is the knowledge that some Bills still have to clear their House of Lords stages where the Labour Party does not have a majority.

Bills in "wash up" are not subject to normal procedure. This means that far fewer MPs participate, and most Bills are not subject to a vote. Each Bill will have a Minister and team, shadowed by their Conservative and Liberal Democrat counterparts. Support was given this week by MPs who are retiring or representing London constituencies. The vast majority of MPs, including myself, were therefore not involved in the wash up discussions between the parties (and indeed, only 240 out of 646 were in Westminster to vote on the Bill). My colleague Don Foster, Lib Dem MP for Bath and Shadow Secretary for Culture Media & Sport handled the Digital Economy Bill for the Lib Dems. He made it clear during the discussions that we wished to see radical change to the Bill. If concessions were not granted on issues such as web site blocking, bandwidth throttling and orphan works, then we would refuse to support the Bill.

On Wednesday night Don's judgement was that not enough concessions on the Bill had been made. By contrast, the Conservative front bench agreed to support the government and vote for the Bill, with both parties hoping to 'nod it through'. It was therefore left to Don to force a vote, but unfortunately the Bill was passed by 189 votes to 47. The minority who opposed the Bill were Lib Dem MPs, plus some Labour and Conservative rebels - no Lib Dem MP voted in favour of the Bill.

Because of the "wash up" process, I had no reason to be in Westminster on Wednesday, and so I was in Bristol West meeting constituents. If I had returned to London at the last minute to vote, then the Bill would have had 48 rather than 47 opponents. But with both Labour and Conservative front benches giving their support to the Bill this would have been a futile journey. I fully understand that many people are angry that the Bill has now passed but the fact that both Labour and the Tories voted in favour meant that there was nothing I could have done to stop it. All three of Bristol's other MPs (all Labour, one a Minister, one a Whip and one retiring) were present and voted in favour of the Bill.

I would imagine that the next Parliament will have to look again at the whole issue of updating the law to recognise the fast changing nature of producing and distributing creative content. I am also clear that the procedures of Parliament need to be reformed - our democracy also needs to be dragged into the digital age.


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Early Day Motions

Signed Early Day Motion 263 Identity Cards 06 June 2005

That this House believes that a convincing case for the introduction of compulsory biometric identity cards and a national database has not been made, that the risks involved far outweigh any discernible benefit, that the introduction of identity cards will fundamentally change the relationship between the citizen and the state, diminish personal privacy and threaten civil liberties, that the present proposals do not provide properly costed, proportionate or effective solutions to the problems they are claimed to solve; and calls upon the Government to shelve plans for their introduction.

Signed an Early Day Motion Freedom of Expression and the UN Internet Governance Forum 30 October 2006

That this House notes with concern that internet repression is hampering freedom of expression across the world especially in Iran, Vietnam, the Maldives and China; urges companies in China, including Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, to reveal which words they have banned from blogs or have filtered out of web searches; requests that they make public all their agreements with the Chinese authorities and publicly call for the release of cyber-dissidents jailed for expressing peaceful opinions online; welcomes Amnesty International's campaign to ensure that the internet remains a tool for political freedom, not repression; and urges the UK Government to make strong representations at the UN Internet Governance Forum in Athens in November to ensure that the internet remains a tool for the free flow of information and respect for human rights and that freedom of expression is a key component to any future agreement on internet governance.

Signed Early Day Motion 845 Freedom of Information 06 February 2007

That this House expresses concern that the proposed new fees regulations under the Freedom of Information Act would allow authorities to refuse on cost grounds a high proportion of requests which they are currently required to answer; notes that the Government's consultation document recognises that this will have a greater impact on journalists, hon. Members, campaign groups and researchers than on private individuals; considers that such changes would undermine the Act's contribution to increased discussion of public affairs, accountability and trust in the work of public authorities; and calls on the Government not to proceed with the proposals.

Signed Early Day Motion 2699 Freedom of Information 10 December 2006

That this House welcomes the finding of the Constitutional Affairs Committee (HC991) that the Freedom of Information Act has `already brought about the release of significant new information and....this information is being used in a constructive and positive way' and the committee's conclusion that it sees `no need to change' the Act's charging arrangements; views with concern reports that the Government is considering changing these arrangements to permit an application fee to be charged for all requests or to allow authorities to refuse, on cost grounds, a significant proportion of requests which they currently must answer; and considers that such changes could undermine the Act's benefits of increased openness, accountability and trust in the work of public authorities.

Signed Early Day Motion 1697 Use of the DNA database 27 February 2006

That this House expresses its concern about the retention of DNA data taken from children aged 10 to 18 years who have never been charged or cautioned with any offence; notes large regional differences in retention policy between various police forces; and believes that this imbalance is being further exacerbated by the Government's unwillingness to issue clear guidelines to chief constables about the removal of innocent children from the National Police DNA Database.

Signed Early Day Motion 446 Contactpoint 29 November 2007

That this House notes the announcement by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families of the deferral of the implementation of ContactPoint to allow for an independent assessment of its security procedures by Deloitte and to address the changes to ContactPoint that potential system users have suggested, but regrets that this review will not extend to the design and content of ContactPoint; expresses concern over the safety implications of such a vast database containing potentially sensitive information in the light of security breaches at HM Revenue and Customs; further expresses concerns about the projected costs of ContactPoint; notes the conclusion of the House of Lords Select Committee on Merits of Statutory Instruments that the Government has not conclusively demonstrated that a universal database is a proportionate response to the problem being addressed; and therefore calls upon the Government to reconsider its decision to proceed.

Signed Early Day Motion 179 Software in Schools 21 November 2006

That this House congratulates the Open University and other schools, colleges and universities for utilising free and open source software to deliver cost-effective educational benefit not just for their own institutions but also the wider community; and expresses concern that Becta and the Department for Education and Skills, through the use of outdated purchasing frameworks, are effectively denying schools the option of benefiting from both free and open source software and the value and experience small and medium ICT companies could bring to the schools market.


Stephen Williams blogged on issues regarding RIPA and surveillance in April 2012: