Theresa May’s plans for a “snoopers’ charter” were in crisis last night after Nick Clegg called for a “fundamental rethink” of plans to give sweeping powers to the police and the security services to monitor everyone’s internet use.
A parliamentary committee condemned the moves as disproportionate, an invasion of privacy and drawn up without proper consultation. In a damning report, it also condemned the Home Office for supplying “fanciful and misleading” estimates of how much the project would cost the taxpayer.
The Liberal Democrats are now preparing to block the draft Communications Data Bill, which has been widely condemned by civil liberties groups as well as several Conservative MPs.
Mr Clegg said: “The Coalition Government needs to have a fundamental rethink about this legislation. We cannot proceed with this Bill and have to go back to the drawing-board.”
He put himself on a collision course with Ms May who argues the moves are essential to catch terrorists, criminal networks and paedophile rings which turn to increasing sophisticated forms of communication to evade detection.
Under her plans, public bodies would be able to instruct internet service providers to store information about every website visit, as well as emails, mobile calls and messages sent on social media, webmail and Skype. The data collected would include the time, the duration and recipient of communications, but not their contents.
But the committee, which was set up at Mr Clegg’s insistence to scrutinise the proposals, sounded the alarm over the scheme. It condemned the Bill as unjustified and intrusive and called for the plans to be substantially rewritten.
It acknowledged there was a case for legislation to take account of technological advances, but protested that the Bill paid “insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy and goes much further than it need or should for the purpose of providing necessary and justifiable official access to communications data”.
The joint committee, comprising MPs and peers of all parties, added that the proposals would give the Home Secretary “sweeping powers” to issue secret orders to communications companies to keep and hand over “potentially limitless” types of information.
It called for the proposals to be narrowed, and safeguards added to them, to prevent abuse and to strike a “better balance between the needs of law enforcement and other agencies and the right to privacy”.
The former Tory chief whip Lord Blencathra, who chaired the committee, said: “The breadth of this draft Bill as it stands appears to be overkill.”
The committee was also was scathing about a claim by the Home Office that it would cost £1.8bn to run the scheme over ten years, but recoup three times that amount. It said: “Some of the figures are fanciful and misleading”.
Last night Ms May insisted she was determined to press ahead with the controversial measures within months. She said: “The longer we leave it, the greater the gap becomes and the harder it will be for the police and security services to get on with their job of saving lives.”
She said she was “open-minded” about making changes to her plans, but a spokesman for Mr Clegg said: “There’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done.”
The Conservative MP Dominic Raab said: “It is difficult to see how Parliament could vote for this scheme. The proposals are on life support and they'll need major surgery to pass in any shape or form.”
Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said the Government was “making a complete mess of a very important issue”.
She said: “Given the importance of technology in fighting crime, the Home Secretary needs to urgently rethink this legislation and get her approach right so that the police can do their job in fighting crime whilst the public have confidence their privacy is well protected too.”
Isabella Sankey, the director of policy for Liberty, said: “It is clear that a proper public consultation would leave this Snoopers’ Charter, not just in the long grass, but dead and buried for good.”