Writing in the New Statesman earlier this year, Richard Reeves, who recently stepped down as Nick Clegg's director of strategy, argued that the Lib Dems had no choice but to kill the Communications Data Bill (better known as the "snoopers’ charter"). Three months later, after a damning report from the joint committee scrutinising the draft legislation, Clegg has declared that the bill, at least in its current form, is dead. The Deputy Prime Minister said:
Their report makes a number of serious criticisms – not least on scope; proportionality; cost; balances; and the need for much wider consultation. It is for those reasons that I believe the Coalition Government needs to have a fundamental rethink about this legislation.
We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board. We need to reflect properly on the criticisms that the Committee have made, while also consulting much more widely with business and other interested groups.
Clegg's intervention is a significant blow for Theresa May, who wants the bill in place next year and has gone as far as to claim that "anybody who is against this bill is putting politics before people’s lives".
The committee warns that the bill, which would require internet service providers to retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year, "goes much further than it need or should for the purpose of providing necessary and justifiable official access to communications data". It describes the Home Office's estimated price tag of £1.8bn over 10 years as "fanciful and misleading" and warns that ministers would be able to demand "limitless categories of data" on communications if the bill is not amended.
It does, however, concede that "that there is a case for legislation which will provide the law enforcement authorities with some further access to communications data", a message echoed by Clegg, who said: "They [the committee] were very clear that there is a problem that must be addressed to give law enforcement agencies the powers they need to fight crime. I agree."
So what is the way forward? Responding to Clegg on the Today programme this morning, security minister James Brokenshire said that the government accepts the "substance of the joint committee's report. They have accepted there is a need for us to make this legislation." However, he added, "The deadline, effectively, is the police saying they need this legislation to happen." Expect Clegg to be increasingly accused of compromising national security, if he continues to reject the bill without significant revisions.