Clegg declares that coalition "cannot proceed" with snoopers’ charter

Deputy PM calls for "fundamental rethink" after committee warns that the bill "tramples on the privacy of British citizens".

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.

Nick Clegg leaves Downing Street to attend Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.