It is a pleasure to be able to participate in today’s debate. I will move the amendments standing in the name of the Intelligence and Security Committee in a moment, but I would not be doing justice to this afternoon’s debate, on a matter of great and legitimate public interest and importance, if I were not to seek briefly to respond to the perfectly reasonable fears expressed by Anne McLaughlin.
Those fears highlight the difficulty we have in this country—certainly for Members of Parliament, but I dare say also for members of the public and certainly for non-governmental organisations interested in civil liberties—in reconciling an assessment of what the agencies may be doing in relation to bulk powers, with what those of us who have become privy to classified information by virtue of our work actually see is happening in reality. I am not sure that this is a gap that is very easy to bridge. I can only do my best to explain to the House and to the hon. Lady how I see the system working.
In an ideal world, it would always be better if we used targeted interception. If we know what it is we are trying to intercept and have reasonable grounds that are necessary and proportionate for doing so, then clearly that is what we should be aiming to do. The reality, however, is that the use of the internet today, in respect of the transfer of information, is of such an order that if there were not bulk powers to enable the agencies to look to intercept bulk and then search it to find what they are looking for, it would in practice be very difficult for the agencies to defend our security against espionage and, in particular, terrorism. That is the reality.
That point has been made repeatedly, including in public by agency heads. When Sir Iain Lobban gave evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee, the only time it held a public hearing, he explained that the idea that there is bulk harvesting of data in order to carry out a detailed examination of them is, in fact, fanciful. That is not what is happening. What is happening is that there may be the retention of a bulk group of data in which in reality the vast majority—in fact, probably over 99%—will never be looked at, except in so far as it exists as a few digits on a screen. Ultimately, the agencies are interested in the nugget—or, as he described it, the needle in the haystack—that they are actually looking for. The idea that the privacy of an individual will be compromised if it just so happens that their internet traffic is caught in that particular net is simply not real. That is the reality of what goes on.
If I may say so to the hon. Lady and to the House, I do not really think that that is very different from what was probably going on 100 years ago when somebody suspected there might be a letter in a mailbag coming down from Glasgow to London. They could identify some of the markers on it and the handwriting, so they took an entire mailbag, tipped it out and looked to see if they could find the letter they were looking for. They then put all the other letters back in the mailbag and sent it on. The only realistic difference is that at the moment we do not have to stop the mailbag, because the mail can be transferred and we can simply retain the data somewhere else.
I appreciate that this is an area where people will legitimately be anxious that this could be capable of misuse. Of course, the hon. Lady is right that it could be capable of misuse. Anybody in this House who wants to raise concerns about misuse is raising a perfectly legitimate point. The question is what safeguards we can properly put in legislation, and through the framework we create in a democratic and free society, to try to ensure that that misuse will not and does not occur. The Intelligence and Security Committee, of which I am the Chairman, is part of the process of trying to ensure that there is no such misuse.