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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 05:31 GMT 06:31 UK
'Snoop' vote stumbles
Women using mobile phone
Mobile phone records show where a call was made
Plans to extend surveillance of e-mail and telephone records have been postponed at the last minute amid growing concern from MPs about the invasion of privacy.

The Home Office says the debate has been postponed because of "timetabling difficulties", but privately officials say new safeguards are being added in reaction to criticism.

No acceptable case has been made for this "snooper's charter"

Lord Strathclyde
A committee of MPs had been due to vote on the controversial proposals on Tuesday, but the government has put the debate back.

The move comes as Conservative peers threatened to use their voting strength to block the plans in the House of Lords.

Critics claim the plan - which would allow local councils and other organisations to check private telephone records - amounts to a "snooper's charter".

That claim was denied by Home Office Minister Bob Ainsworth as he argued misunderstandings had to be dispelled.

New safeguards

Officials in many of the agencies that could get the powers could already ask for the same information on a voluntary basis, he said.

"It is in no way a snooper's charter," Mr Ainsworth told BBC Radio 4's World At One programme.

He said the measures were intended to "provide safeguards and guidance as to when people can get information and when they can't".

John Wadham, of Liberty
John Wadham says the powers would be abused
Parliament will only have the briefest of opportunities to debate the plans because they only extend laws passed two years ago.

It is possible the debate will now happen either on Monday 24 June or a week later.

The Conservative leader in the Lords, Tom Strathclyde, said if MPs failed in their duty to protect people's rights and freedoms, the House of Lords would.

Lord Strathclyde told the World At One: "It is very important that there is that parliamentary hurdle."

If officials in councils and other agencies believed a crime was being committed, they should ask the police to investigate, he argued.

Lib Dem Lords Leader Tom McNally echoed those concerns. He said the plans would not get through the House of Lords in their current form.

'Intrusive powers'

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, John Wadham, director of civil rights campaigners Liberty, questioned the government's justification for the changes to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

He questioned whether it was necessary to extend electronic surveillance powers to organisations such as district councils, the Post Office or the Food Standards Agency.

"Of course the vast majority of officials will seek to use these powers honestly and proportionately.

"But if you give such intrusive powers to so many people with so broad and vague a list of justifications, the evidence from history is that these powers will be abused."

Room for debate

Under the plan, seven government departments and a wide range of organisations will be able to look at private e-mail and telephone records.

At the moment, the powers only apply to the police, inland revenue and customs and excise.

It is not a fait accompli

Home Office spokesman

The Home Office refused to confirm a story in the Sunday Times that Home Secretary David Blunkett was planning two modifications to the legislation.

The newspaper said Mr Blunkett wanted to ensure that only chief executives of local councils, regulatory bodies and government agencies would be allowed to apply for access to confidential telephone records.

Pirate radio

This would prevent minor officials and civil servants from gaining access to private information.

Also, according to the the Sunday Times, organisations would only be given access to information that was directly relevant to their jurisdiction.

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

The Food Standards Agency, which investigates unhygienic slaughterhouses, would also use the new powers.

But a Home Office spokesman told BBC News Online there was room for debate on the legislation and it was not a "fait accompli".

The BBC's Nick Robinson
"The man in Whitehall might know things about us even our families don't"
Conservative leader in the Lords, Tom Strathclyde
"I call upon the House of Commons to do its duty"
Home Office Minister Bob Ainsworth
"This is in no way a 'snooper's charter'"

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

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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