A group of Home Office officials are continuing to work on plans for a giant central database of email, web browsing, phone and mobile location data, even though the laws the government had planned to legitimise it won't be put to parliament until 2010 at the earliest, and possibly not at all.
A Home Office spokeswoman confirmed on Monday that there "remains a team working on maintaining our capabilities in this area". Meanwhile a minister implied that the database could be built without any new laws.
Counter-terrorism minister Vernon Coaker declined to let other MPs see a presentation on the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) given by an official at this year's Internet Service Provider's Association (ISPA) meeting early this month. He said: "The results of the public consultation will be used to inform any decisions on the programme's preferred solution and safeguards and to determine whether future legislation is needed."
The government maintains that no decisions have been taken over IMP.
Reports last week said the Communications Data Bill, which had been set to include a mandate for IMP, will not be included in the Queen's Speech on December 3.
In fact, the IMP team has been expanded and stepped up its contact with communications providers in the last few months, according to sources familiar with its operations. Some £1bn has was allocated for early procurement and development in 2007.
Insiders said battles within Whitehall have caused delays to the Communications Data Bill, but that IMP continues.
"The Government is committed to maintaining the communications data capability and we intend to bring forward proposals to achieve this. We recognise however that this is a highly sensitive issue and because of that there is sufficient time to hold a proper public debate," the Home Office said.
It was widely expected that the Communications Data Bill would not appear in the government's legislative programme for the next session of parliament when Jacqui Smith gave a speech on counter-terrorism in mid-October. Those suspicions were apparently confirmed by the reports in last week's political pages and TV coverage, which generally cited briefings that the Bill had been delayed to allow the government to concentrate on economic legislation.
The IMP's strongest political backing comes from the intelligence services GCHQ and MI6. Voices in other departments including the Treasury and Cabinet Office are known to have major reservations about whether the whether its reported £12bn budget is justified and if it is proportionate to the difficulties caused to law enforcement by IP-based communications.
The Home Office said a consultation aimed at achieving a "consensus" on government access to communications data, announced by Smith in her October speech, will seek to set opposing minds at ease. "We are therefore bringing forward a consultation paper, outlining the challenges the UK faces, setting out how we believe these challenges can be overcome, and seeking views on the proposals and the safeguards proposed," it said. ®