A coalition clash over the home secretary's "snooper's charter" legislation has opened up at the highest level, with Nick Clegg bluntly telling Theresa May: "We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board."
The deputy prime minister's open opposition on the touchstone issue of civil liberties is fuelled by a storm of criticism from a high-powered committee of MPs and peers who, in a report on Tuesday, describe its "sweeping powers" as "overkill" and warn that it "tramples on the privacy of British citizens".
The parliamentary scrutiny committee, which includes the former cabinet secretary Lord Armstrong and three ex-cabinet ministers, says the home secretary's draft communications data bill must be completely rewritten if it is to meet the committee's substantial concerns about its scope, ineffective safeguards, cost and lack of wider consultation. "This bill is dead in its current form," one MP on the committee said.
The MPs and peers describe the Home Office's estimated price tag of £1.8bn over 10 years as "fanciful and misleading".
They also warn in their report that a "request filter" at the heart of a new tracking system of everyone's emails, web use and social media messages is "essentially a federated database of all UK citizens' communications data".
May responded by saying she remained "open-minded" about the drafting of the legislation but insisted she remained determined to introduce it before the session ends next spring and get it on the statute book before the next election. "Labour tried to bring a bill forward previously but they ducked the tough decision in the end. I am certain I am not going to duck that decision," May said.
She added that she hoped to open cross-party talks with Labour to get her draft bill on the statute book without the support of her Liberal Democrat coalition partners.
But this was immediately ruled out by the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper. She said the report showed May was "making a complete mess of a very important issue" and "needed to urgently rethink this legislation".
Cooper's reaction means that May's timetable now faces further delays. The MPs and peers on the committee are demanding another round of consultation with the industry and others before any new bill is produced. She will face a battle against time if she is to bow to the almost overwhelming political pressure to completely redraw her legislation and still get it on the statute book before the 2015 general election.
Clegg, who insisted the bill be put through the pre-legislative scrutiny committee, said the report made serious criticisms of the bill, on its scope, proportionality, cost, checks and 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 agreed with the committee that fresh legislation was needed to modernise the capability of the police and security services to track internet and mobile phone use. "But that must be done in a proportionate way that gets the balance between security and liberty right," he said. "Any modernisation of the powers, including possible new legislation, must meet the concerns of the joint committee by having the best possible safeguards and keeping costs under control."
The peers and MPs say that if clause one of the bill that "gives the home secretary sweeping powers to order the retention of any kind of communications data by any communication service provider" was significantly narrowed, and safeguards were put in place to ensure that any new powers were not abused, then a workable bill could be introduced.
"It would allow the security services, law enforcement agencies and a few other public authorities access to the communications data they need to protect and serve UK citizens without trampling on the privacy of those citizens. That is something the current draft bill does not achieve," says the report.
The peers and MPs rejected the Home Office case that the extensive powers were needed to "future-proof" the legislation in the rapidly changing world of technology. They suggest that instead of a blank cheque to require the collection of limitless categories of communications data, each specific type, such as internet protocol addresses or weblog histories, should require specific parliamentary approval.
They also require specific legislative approval for potentially up to 600 other public bodies, including the egg marketing inspectorate, to get access to the data. At present the home secretary is proposing to use her powers to give them access on a case by case basis.
The former Tory Home Office minister Lord Blencathra, who chaired the scrutiny committee, said: "The breadth of the draft bill as it stands appears to be overkill and is much wider than the specific needs identified by the law enforcement agencies.
"We urge the government to reconsider its zeal to future-proof legislation and instead concentrate on getting the immediate necessities right."
The report says the volume of communications data, which tracks who is talking, texting, messaging and tweeting whom, when and from where but not the content of the messages, has grown considerably since original legislation was passed in 2000.
There are now more than 500,000 requests a year for such data from internet and phone companies.
"We accept there is a case for legislation which will provide the law enforcement agencies with some further access to communications data, but we believe the draft bill pays insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy, and goes much further than it need or should," conclude the MPs and peers.
Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, who sat on the scrutiny committee, said: "Our committee found the Home Office draft bill to be far too broad, very expensive, poorly evidenced and potentially unworkable. The home secretary claimed originally that 'only suspected terrorists, paedophiles or serious criminals will be investigated'. Even she now accepts that was not true, and data would be kept on all of us."
He said the bill could proceed only if the Home Office looked again: "They must consult properly, talk to the experts, do proper costings and have a far more limited proposal.
"It was absolutely ridiculous for the home secretary to ask for a snooper's charter based on political scaremongering, when what we actually need is sensible reforms working with the major tech companies."
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