Government retreats on digital 'Big Brother' plan
Home Secretary accused of mishandling surveillance proposals
Plans to allow the authorities to monitor the online activity of every person in Britain were pushed back last night after being condemned by MPs of all parties.
The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced that the contentious measures would be published only in draft form and would be subject to widespread consultation – concessions that could delay the proposals for at least a year. In a letter to Mr Clegg published in The Independent today, 17 Liberal Democrat MPs welcomed his intervention but warned him their support could not be taken for granted on the issue.
A storm erupted this week after it emerged that legislation to allow the police, intelligence services, councils and other public bodies to obtain details of messages sent via Skype and social networks would be included in the Queen's Speech.
The disclosure provoked anger among Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs alike, who warned that the proposals contradicted the parties' opposition to a similar Labour scheme – and were not included in the Coalition Agreement. There have also been recriminations within the Coalition as Liberal Democrats – understood to have been backed by some Tory ministers – accused Theresa May, the Home Secretary, of mishandling the issue.
Mr Clegg told the BBC yesterday that the most contentious parts of the legislation would be published in draft form to enable "proper scrutiny and examination and stress-testing". He said the Government would "consult and think whether existing powers are sufficient", adding: "People should be reassured we will not ram something through Parliament."
His comments came just hours after Ms May made a passionate defence of the proposed measures – which the intelligence services originally wanted in place by the summer – as essential for tracking down criminals, paedophiles and terrorists.
The planned Bill would also reportedly allow GCHQ to obtain information "on demand" and in "real time" without a warrant, and require internet companies to install hardware tracking telephone and website traffic.
In their letter, the Liberal Democrat MPs make clear that Mr Clegg will have a rebellion on his hands if the Government allows a major expansion of surveillance.
They write: "Liberal Democrats in government will not follow the last Labour government by sounding the retreat on the protection of civil liberties in the United Kingdom. It continues to be essential that our civil liberties are safeguarded, and that the state is not given the powers to snoop on its citizens at will."
They continue: "It is absolutely vital that the public get a chance to see and debate the details of any proposals to extend state surveillance, not just being presented with a Home Office fait accompli. It is also essential that the initial plans include adequate safeguards – which should be stronger than the current weak controls."
David Cameron also sought to lower the temperature among his backbenchers yesterday, insisting he was opposed to creating a "snoopers' charter".
He said: "This is not about extending the reach of the state into people's data; it's about trying to keep up with modern technology."
The proposals would not allow the authorities to read the contents of messages, but to track whom internet users have contacted and when and where the contacts took place.
Last night the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch described the moves as a U-turn – an interpretation fiercely disputed by the Government.
Nick Pickles, the group's director, said: "This is a victory for everyone who cares not only about privacy, but living in a country where the Government does not put every one of its citizens under surveillance.
"If new powers are needed, then let the Home Office come and make the case. It isn't for innocent people to justify why the Government should not spy on us."
Stephen Williams, a Liberal Democrat MP, took a swipe at the Home Office's "inept" handling of the issue.
"If there has been an attempt to bounce us into backing this, then it has backfired, because any legislation will be scrutinised in incredible detail," he said.
Fracking is turning the US into a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia
Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: Details emerge of two young Iranians using stolen passports in search for a better life
Three-quarters of Britons are saying it wrong - the top ten most common mispronunciations
Oscar Pistorius trial: Athlete's friend asked him if 'he was f***ing mad' after shooting through sunroof
How climate change helped Genghis Khan: Scientists believe a sudden period of warmer weather allowed the Mongols to invade with such success
Britain's top vet sparks controversy with call for ban on slashing animals' throats in 'ritual' slaughters for halal and kosher meat products
Exclusive: Impact of immigrants on British workers ‘negligible’
Katie Hopkins continues campaign to become Britain's most hated talking head with poorly timed Bob Crow tweet
Ukraine crisis: Russia pledges to 'retaliate against sanctions' as Ukrainian president says Crimea vote will not be recognised
The quiet diplomat: Catherine Ashton - recognised and admired in all the world’s troubled countries, yet ridiculed at home
Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
- 1 Watch: The student election Macklemore parody that isn't completely awful - and all the others that are
- 2 Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
- 3 First Kiss: Filmmaker gets 20 strangers to make out on YouTube with awkward results
- 4 Joanna Lumley’s garden bridge over the Thames gets £30m seal of approval from Government
- 5 Ian Wright breaks down in ITV documentary charting his rise to England and Arsenal striker
£20000 - £25000 per annum: Inspiring Interns: One of the largest mobile advert...
£20000 - £23000 per annum: Inspiring Interns: Our client specialises in creati...
£30000 - £50000 per annum + Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: Private Cli...
£30000 - £35000 per annum + Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: Residential...