UK Politics

Tory-Labour pact could save data bill, says Lord Howard

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Media captionTheresa May: "We need to see if there are additional steps we should be taking to prevent radicalisation"

Labour and the Conservatives could unite to push through the controversial communications bill despite Lib Dem objections, a former Tory leader says.

The bill, allowing the monitoring of all UK citizens' internet use, was dropped after a split in the coalition.

But Lord Howard said David Cameron had "to act in the national interest" following the Woolwich murder.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said Labour would work with the government but only on a revised bill.

'Who's contacting who'

The Communications Data Bill would have given police and security services access, without a warrant, to details of all online communication in the UK - such as the time, duration, originator and recipient, and the location of the device from which it was made.

It would also give access to all Britons' web browsing history and details of messages sent on social media. The police would have to get a warrant from the home secretary to be able to access the actual content of conversations and messages

The bill - dubbed the "snoopers' charter" by opponents - was shelved earlier this year after Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said it was "not going to happen" while his party was in government.

But following the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week in a suspected terror attack, a number of senior political figures have called for the bill to be revived.

They include two former Labour home secretaries, Lord Reid and Alan Johnson.

Mr Johnson told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme it was vital to know "who's contacting who" - although the bill would not automatically give access to the content of any communications without a warrant.

"We need to get this on the statute book before the next general election and I think it is absolutely crucial, indeed I think it is a resignation issue for a home secretary if the cabinet do not support her in this central part of what the security services do," he said.

One element of the original bill did make it into the Queen's Speech - a plan to find a way to more closely match internet protocol (IP) addresses to individuals, to identify who has sent an email or made a call.

'Horrible attacks'

Home Secretary Theresa May said there was also a reference in the speech to further "work that needs to be done in this area," and that work was now happening.

"I've always been clear that access to communications data is essential for law enforcement agencies and the intelligence agencies," she said.

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Media captionFormer Home Secretary Alan Johnson says a proposed Data Communications Bill should be a "resignation issue" for Theresa May

"We need to ensure that we're giving our law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies access to the tools that they need to fight crime, paedophiles and terrorists."

Former Conservative home secretary Lord Howard said Labour support could allow Mrs May to squash a Lib Dem revolt.

"If the Liberal Democrats maintain their opposition to it, I think there's a case for the Conservative Party passing that legislation with support from the Labour Party," he told BBC Radio 5 live.

"The prime minister's got to act in the national interest to give the protection to people of this country that they need and deserve from horrible attacks of this kind, and I think the Communications Data Bill could be an important element in that programme."

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan told the BBC the original bill would have given the home secretary too much power, been too expensive and did not have the right checks and balances.

"If she [the home secretary] wants to come back with a new bill, of course we will work with the government to make sure we can give the police and the authorities the proportionate powers that they need," he said.

'Purely political'

Criticism of Mr Clegg's opposition has also come from within his own party, namely from Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile, who until 2011 was the independent reviewer of government anti-terror laws.

Lord Carlile told the BBC that while it was not known whether the bill would have prevented this incident, "it might have [and] it would certainly help to prevent similar incidents in the future".

He also said that universities needed to take the issue of radicalisation much more seriously.

"They would not allow people to speak on campus who advocated how best to commit an armed robbery or how to be a paedophile," he said.

"And yet they are allowing people on their campuses who are allowed to speak about the virtues of violent jihadism which is designed to bring about political change - that is organised crime."

Senior Lib Dem Simon Hughes said his party would fully support the matching of IP addresses mentioned in the Queen's Speech, but was not convinced by the need for "the general monitoring of everything" that the original bill proposed.

He said there was "no evidence at all" that the bill could have prevented the Woolwich killing.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said he was concerned the legislation was not clear enough.

"What the British people don't want is the thought that every email that they send and every single communication they receive is being monitored," he said.

"I think there's a difference between content and form. But at the moment, I don't think that there are sufficient safeguards.

"I think it's right that we should be cautious and we get all those safeguards out into the open."

Emma Carr, deputy director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "It is remarkable for politicians to be jumping to legislation to monitor the entire country when all the evidence to date shows this horrific attack would not have been prevented by the communications data bill.

"The draft bill also prohibited the authorities from looking at the content of messages and surely we should expect people under the kind of surveillance possible in this case to be having their messages read?

"It is the wrong solution and would divert resources from focused surveillance operations at a time when the agencies are already struggling to cope with the volume of information available."

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