Northern Ireland

MPs criticise plans to increase 'monitoring' powers

Person using a laptop
Image caption The actual content of emails, calls and text messages could be accessed without a warrant

MPs from Northern Ireland have criticised government plans to extend powers to monitor people's phone, email and internet records.

Ministers in London said the change was needed to help fight crime and terrorism, but critics warned it was an attack on privacy.

The proposed new law, which the Home Office said would be brought in "as soon as parliamentary time allows", would extend to social networking sites and internet phone services such as Skype.

It would also reportedly allow intelligence officers to access emails, calls and texts as they happen, without a warrant, rather than retrospectively.

The move has been condemned by the South Down MP Margaret Ritchie.

"Regardless of whether or not GCHQ would require a warrant to view the content of emails or texts, the opening to them of access to details of who citizens communicate with and which websites they view without a warrant is a disgrace," she said.

"This flies in the face of every conceivable kind of civil liberty."

Her criticism was shared by the East Londonderry MP, Gregory Campbell.

He said "the majority of people would take exception to the plans".

The DUP MP also said his party had not had a formal discussion about the proposals but when the plans were brought to the House of Commons his party would examine them in "a very robust way".

Alliance MP Naomi Long said she "would be opposed to the proposals as they are an assault on democracy and privacy".

The East Belfast MP said she believed the status quo should be retained.

Critics

"The current arrangements whereby requests to intercept data have to go through a judicial process for me strikes the right balance between the need for the state to protect its citizens and the right of citizens to a private life and freedom," she said.

The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, said critics were being too alarmist over the plans.

He insisted the idea would not amount to government snooping.

However, the proposals have been slowed down after an intervention by the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

He said the government would not "ram legislation through parliament" and said people should wait to see the full proposals before judging them.

He told the BBC: "There's been a lot of scaremongering, a lot of myths about in the media over the last couple of days."

'Haphazard'

The Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Vernon Coaker, said the government's proposals were "still very unclear".

"The haphazard way the government has announced and handled this is quite shocking given that these are such vital issues for our national security, personal privacy and public confidence," he said.

Mr Coaker added that it was "particularly important for public confidence in Northern Ireland" to get the right balance between preventing terrorism and protecting people's privacy.

The proposals which may be mentioned in the Queen's Speech will be first published in draft.

A senior Home Office source said the proposals "absolutely will not be dropped or even delayed", but its "passage through the Commons is still being discussed".

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