Last updated: December 11, 2012 8:33 am

Clegg orders internet monitoring rethink

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Nick Clegg has told the Home Office to go “back to the drawing board” on proposals for police and security services to monitor email, web searches and Skype phone calls, after a cross-party committee issued a scathing report on the plans.

The deputy prime minister commissioned a joint committee to scrutinise the government’s draft legislation on communications data earlier this year, following concerns that awarding police new powers would breach civil liberties.

In its report published on Tuesday, the group of peers and MPs has accused the Home Office of using “fanciful and misleading” figures to justify its proposals, which it says go much further than is needed to pursue criminals and do not include necessary safeguards.

Mr Clegg highlighted the “serious criticisms” in the document, covering the scope of the plans, proportionality, cost and checks and balances.

While the deputy prime minister said he understood that law enforcement agencies needed new powers to fight crime, he made clear that the government needed to have a “fundamental rethink” about the legislation.

“We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board,” he said.

The Lib Dem leader’s comments will be a blow to Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary, who is keen to make progress with legislation requiring internet and phone companies to retain records of all data communications for a defined period.

James Brokenshire, Conservative security minister, said work had already begun on changing the bill to fulfil most of the recommendations of the committee.

“We’ve taken the view that as technology continues to change there was a need for flexibility,” he told the BBC’s Today programme on Tuesday. “But the joint committee said they think we should be more specific and so we’ve already started work on making changes.”

The Home Office said the new legislation was “vital” to help catch paedophiles, terrorists and other serious criminals.

“We will consider the committee’s recommendations carefully but there can be no delay to this legislation,” a spokeswoman said. “It is needed by law enforcement agencies now.”

Mr Brokenshire insisted changes could be made in “relatively short order” but one Lib Dem official said it was unlikely that it would be completed within the current parliamentary session, which concludes in May.

The report warned that the draft bill would award the government “sweeping powers to issue secret notices”, leading to companies being asked to disclose “potentially limitless categories of data”.

Julian Huppert, Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, said on Tuesday morning it was “very, very dangerous” to collect so much data on everybody in the country.

MPs and peers also criticised the Home Office for not having done more extensive consultation with the industry. “The evidence we received shows that United Kingdom [communication service providers] were not given any details about the possible content of notices before the draft bill was published, overseas CSPs were not consulted about the draft bill at all, nor was there any further public consultation,” the report reads.

Lord Blencathra, chair of the joint committee, said the breadth of the draft bill was “overkill”. “We urge the government to reconsider its zeal to future-proof legislation and concentrate on getting the immediate necessities right,” he said.

Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler

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