THE ability of UK spy agencies to combat terrorism will be severely hampered without powers to monitor every email, phone call and web visit, a parliamentary committee warned yesterday.
Advances in forms of communication mean MI5, MI6 and the British government communications headquarters GCHQ will increasingly lose the capability of spotting and monitoring potential terrorists, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said.
The warning came as the coalition split on the plans to extend snooping powers deepened. A defiant Theresa May, the British Home Secretary, insisted she was determined to get the measures into law during this parliament.
The open row came after a separate Commons committee said the planned extension of powers was "overkill" and could create a national database of personal communications details by the back door.
The joint committee, which was set up to scrutinise the draft plans, said the moves would "trample over privacy" and could lead to authorities carrying out "fishing expeditions" into people's internet and phone activities.
Measures in the draft Communications Bill will allow the government to order communications companies to keep every detail of their customer's activities for up to a year. Ministers say it is necessary to allow the police and intelligence agencies to stay ahead of terrorists and major criminals who are able to exploit all forms of modern communications.
They say the authorities will be able to see who is in contact with whom and when, but not the content of any communication. Mrs May said: "This was a (coalition) government commitment. It was recognised this was so important to protect the UK from a number of threats including terrorists, paedophiles and criminals."
But Mr Clegg said: "We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board. That must be done in a proportionate way that gets the balance between security and liberty right."
The ISC heard evidence on the plans from the security and intelligence agencies in private and released a brief summary of its report yesterday.
It said: "We recognise that changing technology means that the agencies are unable to access all the communications data they need, that the problem is getting worse, and that action is needed now."
It concluded: "We believe that the decline of available communications data will begin shortly to have a serious impact on the intelligence and security agencies."
However, the ISC said the government needed to do more to convince Parliament and the public if the bill in its current form was to be passed.
The separate, joint committee report was more critical and said the bill needed a "significant" rewrite. The committee was set up to allay concerns by Mr Clegg over the proposals.
It said the proposed, blanket powers to demand any or all communications to be retained were too sweeping and must be narrowed.
A better balance needed to be drawn between the needs of enforcement and security agencies and the privacy of the public. Estimated costs and benefits from the scheme were also described as "fanciful and misleading".
The committee also raised the prospect of an effective national database being set up.
Under the latest bill, communications companies will each have a database of their own to hold the information.
However, there are also plans for a filter system that would automatically draw details from each database when a request came in. (© Daily Telegraph, London)