My Lords, being the 36th speaker in a Second Reading debate has some advantages and disadvantages. The advantage, of course, is to be able to listen to and, I hope, learn from the substance and detail of the points that have been made. I have tried to do that this evening—other than when I have been called away to another fraternal Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. The disadvantage, of course, is that almost everything has been said. Therefore, I will confine my remarks to two or three simple points which I freely admit do not arise from my understanding of jurisprudence, expert legal training or philosophical depth but from my experience as a practitioner in government. I admit that I have authorised and used intercepts—I hope for the benefit of the people of this country—and, therefore, I wish to say a few words about necessity and proportionality and perhaps a little about scrutiny.
Why do I think that the Bill as a whole is necessary? Of course, details of it will have to be discussed and debated but in my view it is necessary because I have seen at first hand thousands of British citizens’ lives saved not only by intercept but largely by intercept and intelligence based on intercept. Leaving aside when I was Northern Ireland Secretary, when I was Home Secretary I dealt with some 40 to 60 cases of counterterrorism of greater or lesser significance. Almost all of them involved more than one country. I recollect one case where there were almost 20 countries. It is not only the interception of communications, but the global nature of the communications which are now an essential field for interception if we are to protect the lives of British citizens. In one case, which I mentioned earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, the potential victims numbered 2,300 to 2,400. There were seven aeroplanes involved in the plot which was foiled in August 2006. Without going into detail, we were watching, at various stages, minor actors in that tragic drama. It was only through intercept, and some of the powers enshrined in this Bill, that, fairly late in the day, we discovered that we were looking at a subset and the main players were actually somewhere else. It is practical experience which has convinced me of the necessity for this type of power, not in every detail but in general.
Secondly, I do not think proportionality can be discussed unless we see it in the context of two things. One is the threat, and the changing nature of it. The other is the changing nature of communications. Both of these have been touched upon today. In other words, the objectives of the intelligence agencies, Ministers and the counterterrorist authorities have not changed; what has changed is the world, and particularly the nature of the threat and the nature of communications. As we know, the threat now stands at the second highest level—severe—which means that a terrorist attack is “highly likely”. That is not my view but that of the analysts and the authorities who decide these things. As the noble Lord, Lord King, mentioned at the beginning of this debate, the nature of the threat has changed even from 15 to 20 years ago. The threat from the IRA was big enough but they did not tend to want to blow themselves up or be caught. That change makes it much more difficult and reliant on prevention through previous intelligence. In 2014, some 10,000 Europeans went to Syria as jihadists. It is estimated that about 5,000 of them have returned to Europe. In Britain, the numbers are roughly 800, with 400 returned. Last year, the intelligence services foiled seven major plots here, 13 in France and various others throughout Europe. Where they did not succeed, we saw the tragedies of Tunisia, Brussels and Paris. Proportionality has to be seen against that background.
The world of communications has changed. As several noble Lords have said, we now live in a cyber world. Cyber is not an amalgam of technologies. It is not just a means of communication. Cyber is the first man-and-woman-made environment. It now permeates absolutely everything. It gives unparalleled opportunities for people to reach out for education and information; it has an amazing potential to liberate human beings. However, like all forms of technology, it has an amazing capacity to be used for evil as well. It is the communication method of choice for terrorists who would do evil—I am responding to this only in terms of counterterrorism.
I remember using one of the first digital phones, back in 1985 on a march from Gartcosh to London. I was given it by a press organisation that wanted to cover the march for jobs. It weighed as much as a brick; it looked like a brick; it was as useful as a brick. You had to charge it for 12 hours to get 20 minutes off it. Now, between 3 billion and 4 billion people in the world are using the internet on mobile phones for communication. They are the communication method of choice for the terrorists themselves. Although it brings unparalleled opportunities for good, it also does for bad. We have to empower the intelligence agencies and those trying to counter the use of that internet technology not just for communication purposes but for propaganda, recruitment and radicalisation purposes as well.
While I have no doubt about the proportionality of the generality of the Bill, my final point is about oversight and balance. I am sorry that my noble friend Lady Kennedy is not in her place because she said earlier on that she had been surprised by the humility of my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Blunkett. Well, it is a lucky day as I was going to give her a surprise as well.