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Theresa May’s fieriest prose can’t overcome the opposition to her draft Data Communications Bill

By Peter Hoskin
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What’s going on with the draft Data Communications Bill, then? Judging by Theresa May’s mini column for the Sun this morning, you’d think that the Tory leadership is basically standing its ground against the concerns of Nick Clegg and others. The Home Secretary does nod towards “suggestions about how our plans could be improved”. But she also adds that “I will not allow these vitally important laws to be delayed any longer in this Parliament,” before finishing, “This law is needed and it is needed now. And I am determined to see it through.”

But, as the day has worn on, that position has looked less and less equivocal. First, the Home Office minister James Brokenshire appeared on the Today Programme to say that a redrafted Bill could be delivered in “short order”; then No.10 also talked up a rewrite. And is it any wonder? The opposition to the draft Bill, and its provisions for expanding the range of telecoms data held by providers and accessible by the state, is now extremely formidable. The Guardian articles here and here give a good sense of it all; and from them we might identify four of the disgruntled forces:

i) Labour, natch. “But the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, immediately ruled out the suggestion that Labour could be called upon to help get the legislative plans through parliament. She said the report showed May was ‘making a complete mess of a very important issue’ and ‘needed to urgently rethink this legislation’.”

ii) The Liberal Democrats. “A coalition clash over the home secretary's ‘snooper's charter’ legislation has opened up at the highest level, with Nick Clegg bluntly telling Theresa May: "We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board.”

iii) Prominent Tory backbenchers. “David Davis told the Guardian: ‘This bill needs to go straight back to the drawing board. What it requires is a wholesale rewrite.’ Even then, Davis said, it would still probably not make it on to the statute book before the next general election.”

iv) Prominent select committees. “The parliamentary scrutiny committee, which includes the former cabinet secretary Lord Armstrong and three former cabinet ministers, says the home secretary's draft communications data bill must be completely rewritten if it is to meet the committee's substantial concerns about its scope, ineffective safeguards, cost and lack of wider consultation. ‘This bill is dead in its current form,’ one MP on the committee said.”

And, from earlier news reports, there’s a fifth too:

v) Web royalty. “Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has sharply criticised the government's ‘snooper's charter’, designed to track internet, text and email use of all British citizens, as ‘technologically incompetent’. … He said Wikipedia would move to encrypt all its connections with Britain if UK internet companies, such as Vodafone and Virgin Media, were mandated by the government to keep track of every single page accessed by UK citizens.”

It’s difficult to imagine how Theresa May can truly overcome this five-pronged fork that’s set against her. If the Bill is to survive, then surely rather drastic changes will have to be made to it. But if those changes don’t arrive quickly, then it will probably be as David Davis says: the Bill will not make it through Parliament before 2015. The choice facing the Home Secretary is basically between compromising her plans or seeing them come to nothing.

What’s curious, then, is how the Tory leadership has stuck by this draft Bill for so long. When the Coalition was formed there was much talk of both governing parties uniting over civil liberties — but, all too often, the Tories have ceded that ground to the Lib Dems. There’s still plenty of room for cooperation in these areas, if only because so little of it has gone on so far.

> It’s worth re-reading the column that Jill Kirby wrote on all this last week: Theresa May mustn't browbeat Parliament into accepting the Data Communications Bill


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