I have a confession to make. At least once a day I read Iain Dale’s blog. Sometimes I find it amusing and sometimes I find it interesting, particularly as a means of understanding the modern Conservative mindset. Occasionally, of course, I read it as an antidote to low blood pressure.
Today, he had a good rant with “This Pseudo-Fascist Plan Must be Scrapped“. This relates to the proposals on communications data and the need to preserve these for law enforcement purposes.
Reading the rant, I was surprised – not at its tone (Iain Dale is renowned for giving good rant), but at what I naively assumed was the factual trigger for the rant. It sounded as though the Government was pressing ahead with legislation on this with a view to getting it passed this side of a General Election. I was surprised for two reasons: first, that I had missed the announcement; and second, I had understood that this was not what was intended.
However, such was my faith in Iain Dale that I have only just got round to checking the facts.
And what did I find? The entire rant was based on absolutely nothing.
The Government has NOT announced that it is pressing ahead with legislation. All it has done is publish the results of its consultation exercise on the issue. And sensible commentators (not Iain Dale) have recognised that the plans have been shelved. The idea of a single Government database had in any event been dropped months ago.
I have two warnings for Iain Dale.
First, if he gets himself this worked up about something that ISN’T happening, he will need to be on heavy-duty tranquillisers long before we get into a General Election campaign.
And second, as I have pointed out before, there is a real and serious issue here that any Government must address. As I said before the consultation was launched:
“At present, telephone companies keep data on their subscribers who make telephone calls, who they connect to and for how long. They do this, so that they can bill people. For many years, it has been possible for the police to access this data as part of their investigations into crime. To do so, they have to get proper authorisation, certifying that accessing the data is proportionate to the crime being investigated and each case has to be considered individually. The data can be used as evidence in Court and does not involve tapping the call and listening to the content. Many trials rely on this evidence for criminals to be convicted – there is a murder trial under way at the moment where the crucial evidence is which mobile phones contacted each other just prior to and immediately after the murder took place.
But – and this seems to have passed the pundits by – technology is changing. Telecoms companies (both fixed line and mobile operators) are building new networks based on VoIP technology. This is cheaper and more flexible and – critically – does not require detailed call-by-call billing. The data on which so many trials now rely will soon cease to exist. The Government is therefore quite rightly going to consult on what can be done to capture this information and allow it to be used in criminal investigations where necessary.
It is not about giving the police more powers to pry into people’s personal lives. It is about not losing vital material that is currently used to catch criminals.
And, of course, new forms of communication are being created all the time (eg. on social networking sites and chat facilities built into on-line gaming). Should the police have powers to find out who is communicating with who in these new ways? That’s what the consultation is about. It is not some monstrous new assault on civil liberties. It is allowing a sensible debate about how existing powers should be modified to reflect the changes in technology.”
Unless Iain Dale wants to see the police having to fight serious criminals with even less information available to them than they have at the moment, this is a nettle that is going to have to be grabbed.