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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
'Snoop' climbdown by Blunkett
EasyEverything internet cafe
Destination of e-mails and mobile calls under scrutiny
Home Secretary David Blunkett has admitted he blundered over plans dubbed a "snooper's charter" to give a raft of public bodies in the UK access to private e-mail and mobile phone records.

I have no intention that we should be Big Brother

David Blunkett
The proposals are to be put on hold indefinitely in the face of huge opposition, which the home secretary conceded his department totally failed to predict.

The move - officially said to allow time for a rethink - has been welcomed by opposition parties.

But Lib Dem MP Norman Baker, who has led criticism of the plans, branded it a "humiliating climbdown for the home secretary".

The extension of the powers to seven Whitehall departments, as well as local authorities and other public bodies will now not be discussed in the Commons before the next session of Parliament, which starts in November.

Blunkett 'values privacy'

Mr Blunkett said there needed to be "calmer and lengthy" public discussion of the issues before new proposals were drawn up.

This is a humiliating climbdown for the home secretary

Norman Baker, Lib Dem
"We believe we got it wrong and we need to address fears people have.

"If we get this right we can get protection and privacy while tackling organised crime."

He added: "I have no intention that we should be Big Brother.

"These are issues that are too important for us to use our majority - that is why we are seeking agreement before bringing them through."

He said that despite being in public life, he valued his own privacy and understood the sensitivities surrounding this legislation.

"The time has come for a much broader public debate about how we effectively regulate modern communications and strike the balance between the privacy of the individual and the need to ensure our laws and society are upheld," he added.

Mr Blunkett's son Hugh, who works in computers, is understood to have briefed his father on privacy fears associated with the original proposals.

'Illiberal' proposal

The change of heart was welcomed by the Conservative leader in the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde, who had threatened to use his party's voting strength in the Lords to block the proposals.

"I very much hope the government will now rethink their whole proposal.

"And that they will work with the industry and have uppermost in their minds the right to individual privacy for people using the internet, looking at websites and using their mobile phones."

Lib Dem Norman Baker said Mr Blunkett deserved credit for admitting his mistake.

But he said serious questions should be asked about how such an "illiberal proposal got so far through the home office".

'Binned in its entirety'

He added: "This is a humiliating climbdown for the home secretary but I suppose he took the view that that was better than a humiliating defeat in the House of Lords, which is what would have happened had he pressed on."

Mr Baker said the proposal should be "binned in its entirety".

"It's difficult to understand how intrusive and privacy-intruding powers should be given to local councils, the Food Standards Agency and bodies like that," he added.

At the moment, the power to examine private phone records is only available to the police, Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise.

The powers - contained in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act - were introduced to combat serious crime and terrorism.

Plug pulled

But the government wanted to extend access to a wide range of organisations including local councils and bodies such as the Food Standards Agency.

Ministers are reported to have been taken aback by the scale of opposition to the proposals.

They had been due to be debated for just 90 minutes on Tuesday by a committee of MPs dealing with secondary legislation.

But the plug was pulled on the debate at the last minute following an outcry from MPs.

The government had cited the investigation of benefit fraud rings and pirate radio stations as two examples where the new powers would be used.

The BBC's Andrew Marr
"Quite a day in British politics"
Home Secretary David Blunkett
"If you are in a hole you should stop digging"

E-mail snoops
Is your privacy being invaded?
See also:

18 Jun 02 | UK Politics
17 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
12 Jun 02 | UK Politics
11 Jun 02 | UK Politics
22 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
30 May 02 | Science/Nature
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