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Ministers urged to re-draw 'snooper's charter' after data retention ruling

The Government is facing calls to re-draw the so-called "snooper's charter" after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found the "general and indiscriminate" retention of communications data was illegal.

Civil liberties campaigners hailed the ruling, saying ministers must now drop the requirement for communications companies to hold details of all emails and other electronic communications for 12 months.

However, the Home Office said it would continue to make "robust" arguments for the current system when the case returns to the Court of Appeal in London to consider how the finding should be applied.

The ruling came in response to a challenge brought by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson - originally with the backing of Tory MP David Davis before he became Brexit Secretary - to the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (Dripa) 2014 passed by the previous coalition government.

In its finding the ECJ said communications data enabled "very precise conclusions" to be drawn about the private lives of individuals and that only targeted retention for the purpose of fighting "serious crime" could be justified.

Legislation which provided for the "general and indiscriminate" retention of data "exceeds the limits of what is strictly necessary and cannot be considered to be justified within a democratic society", it said.

"The fact that the data is retained without the users of electronic communications services being informed of the fact is likely to cause the persons concerned to feel that their private lives are the subject of constant surveillance," it said.

"Consequently, only the objective of fighting serious crime is capable of justifying such interference."

The ruling was welcomed by Mr Watson who said the Government would have to come forward with "proper safeguards" to ensure the powers were not abused in future.

"Most of us can accept that our privacy may occasionally be compromised in the interests of keeping us safe, but no one would consent to giving the police or the Government the power to arbitrarily seize our phone records or emails to use as they see fit," he said.

A spokesman for Mr Davis said that he had withdrawn his name from the case when he was appointed to the Government.

"Like any minister, he will now make his arguments on any issue within Cabinet, and takes collective responsibility very seriously," the spokesman said.

Liberty, which supported the case, said ministers would have to amend the Investigatory Powers Act passed earlier this year, which superseded Dripa, which had itself been brought in in response to a previous ECJ ruling.

"Today's judgment upholds the rights of ordinary British people not to have their personal lives spied on without good reason or an independent warrant," said Liberty director Martha Spurrier.

"This is the first serious post-referendum test for our Government's commitment to protecting human rights and the rule of law. The UK may have voted to leave the EU - but we didn't vote to abandon our rights and freedoms."

The Home Office said it was "disappointed" with the ruling and made clear that it would continue to contest the case in the Court of Appeal.

"The Government will be putting forward robust arguments to the Court of Appeal about the strength of our existing regime for communications data retention and access," a spokesman said.

"Given the importance of communications data to preventing and detecting crime, we will ensure plans are in place so that the police and other public authorities can continue to acquire such data in a way that is consistent with EU law and our obligation to protect the public."

The former head of MI5, Lord Evans of Weardale, said it was important that a sustainable, long-term solution was found so that data retention powers could be exercised "accountably and flexibly".

"The direct impact on the intelligence agencies may be limited as the EU does not have responsibility for national security," he said.

"But the intelligence agencies work very closely with colleagues in the police and anything that impacts on their operational effectiveness would be a concern and could leave us more vulnerable to attacks such as those we have seen only too frequently in recent months elsewhere in Europe, including that in Berlin."

National Police Chiefs' Council lead on communications data, Assistant Chief Constable Richard Berry, said police needed a regime that was "practical and dynamic enough" to respond to the volume and urgency of cases they faced.

"We need the ability to make specific, necessary and proportionate requests for communications data to trace missing people and prevent and investigate crime - from burglary and domestic abuse to human trafficking and terrorism," he said.

"Any changes that impede our ability to access data quickly with appropriate safeguards will undermine our ability to keep people safe."

The ECJ is the highest court in the European Union, with responsibility for interpreting EU law and ensuring it is applied equally across member states.

The ruling may prove academic once Britain has withdrawn from the EU and it no longer has jurisdiction over the UK.

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