Skip to main content

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000: External Communications

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 30 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what guidelines Secretaries of State adopt in deciding whether electronic communications sent from the United Kingdom to a United Kingdom addressee but routed outside the United Kingdom fall within the definition of “external communications” in Section 20 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships’ House will understand why I cannot go into detail on operational matters. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 sets out that authorisations for all interceptions of communications, internal or external, must consider necessity and proportionality. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has stated that privacy is at the forefront of the minds of Secretaries of State. Great care is taken to balance individual privacy with duty to the UK’s national security. The Interception of Communications Commissioner provides thorough and independent oversight of all of these considerations.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for her reply. We now know that GCHQ is routinely hoovering up and storing prodigious quantities of the internet communications of millions of innocent people, turning us all from citizens into suspects. As far as I am aware, Parliament has not sanctioned this industrial-scale seizure of our private data by the state. Can the Minister please tell the House whether this blanket snooping on all of us is authorised by a Minister, and if so, which Minister sanctioned it, and under which section of which Act of Parliament?

I do not accept the noble Lord’s question, or indeed the points he made in it. I can assure the House that we take the interception of communications incredibly seriously. For these actions to go ahead we need a warrant from one of the most senior members of the Government as well as detailed legal advice to support it. That decision will be reviewed by independent commissioners and implemented by agencies, which are bound by legal and ethical frameworks, alongside parliamentary scrutiny through the Intelligence and Security Committee. This provides one of the strongest systems of checks and balances and democratic accountability for secret intelligence agencies and their work anywhere in the world.

My Lords, I think the House recognises that electronic communications have grown exponentially and are now global and transnational, not merely international. In order to have some perspective and context to this Question, can the Minister give us a rough indication of how many terrorist plots have been foiled and how many British lives have been saved through the legal supervision of those electronic communications?

The noble Lord makes an important point which is, of course, based on his many years of experience in dealing with this very real threat. I cannot give precise numbers here at the Dispatch Box. However, I can say that secret intelligence work is vital to our country. It detects threats that our country is facing, ranging from nuclear proliferation to cyberattacks, it prevents serious and organised crime, it prevents and disrupts complex terrorist plots and it supports the work of our Armed Forces. These are all things that protect our country and its citizens.

My Lords, perhaps I may raise the more basic point of nuisance calls. In the past, I have asked why we cannot prevent them here and I have been told that if they are international calls we can do nothing to control them. It is only the calls started locally that can be controlled. Is it still the situation that all the phone calls we get advising us to do a million things cannot be dealt with because we have no control at all?

I am not sure that I can answer my noble friend’s question. I do not have details of that in the brief. However, I can confirm that it is a question that my mother asks regularly so I probably should get the answer to it.

My Lords, does not the use of the terms “blanket” and “hoovering up” by the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, indicate a complete absence of knowledge about what GCHQ is actually doing?

I am not sure that I would go that far, but of course I take the noble Lord’s point that the function of GCHQ is an incredibly important and vital aspect of our national security.

The Joint Committee on the draft Communications Bill made a number of recommendations for improving and updating the law in this area. Do the Government have any intention of implementing those proposals?

The noble Lord will be aware that the matter has now passed through two parliamentary committees and it is the Government’s intention to bring the matter back to Parliament. However, at this stage, final proposals have not been drawn up.

The Minister mentioned that ministerial licences had been specifically granted for such interceptions. Can she kindly tell the House roughly how many licences have been issued over a convenient period—whether it be the past 12 months or the past 24 months?

I believe that that would be an operational matter. I think that noble Lords would agree that I take my responsibilities to this House incredibly seriously and that I am usually incredibly frank and detailed in my answers. However, I hope that noble Lords will bear with me when I say that that is an operational matter and that I can comment only so far on these matters.