Nick Clegg has been warned that his opposition to the controversial Communications Data Bill could leave Britain "at risk" after a soldier was beheaded in Woolwich, London.
The deputy prime minister is coming under increased pressure to rethink his stance on the draft law, dubbed the Snoopers' Charter. The bill, if passed by Parliament, will allow cops and spooks to closely monitor Brits online and access communications data from mobile phones, potentially without court authorisation.
It was first mooted by the Labour government and then the Tory-led Coalition, prompting Lib Dem leader Clegg to say he would not allow it to be passed on his watch. It was then quietly dropped from the Queen's Speech.
But, on Wednesday this week, hours after a young squaddie was hacked to death by two religious fanatics on bustling Woolwich High Street, Labour peer Lord John Reid appeared on the BBC's Newsnight to demand that the Coalition reintroduce the charter.
Reid, the former Labour home secretary, said the bill was a crucial weapon against terrorists and warned that it would take "some huge tragedy" for Britons to see the need for legislation.
Lord West, a Labour peer who worked as security minister under Gordon Brown, added: "The communications data bill is absolutely crucial. We may find the information we need on these mobiles is not there. It was meant to be in the Queen's speech. David Cameron and the home secretary both quite rightly wanted it, but the deputy prime minister said no and that is putting the country at risk.
"They need to look again at the bill, which has a lot of changes to stop it being a snoopers' charter. This ability is something that exists now, and will disappear. I have no doubt that if it goes we will be more at risk, so the deputy prime minister is, I believe, putting the country at risk."
Lord Carlisle, a Liberal Democrat, also backed Reid. "We have to learn proportionate lessons from what has occurred," he said. "We mustn't rush to judgment. But we must ensure that the police and the security services have for the future the tools they need that will enable them to prevent this kind of attack taking place.
"I hope that this will give the government pause for thought about their abandonment, for example, of the communications data bill, and possibly pause for thought about converting control orders into what are now called TPIMs*, with a diluted set of powers."
The bill would allow police to know who used an IP address at any given time, allowing them to trace a suspect's online communications.
Although it was dropped from the Queen's speech, a briefing note accompanying the Queen's speech explained the government's strategy in the following terms:
The government is committed to ensuring that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the powers they need to protect the public and ensure national security.
These agencies use communications data – the who, when, where and how of a communication, but not its content – to investigate and prosecute serious crimes.
Communications data helps to keep the public safe: it is used by the police to investigate crimes, bring offenders to justice and to save lives. This is not about indiscriminately accessing internet data of innocent members of the public.
It is understood that the government is still planning to introduce a Communications Data Bill in some form. ®
* Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures