The government will examine whether extra powers are needed in the wake of the Woolwich attack, but none of the measures in the “snooper’s charter” bill would have prevented the savage murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, has said.
The cabinet minister, who attended an emergency Cobra meeting on Thursday, defended the role of the security services, saying they had been “very successful at stopping a number of similar plots”.
But he also confirmed that a thorough investigation would be held into what, if anything, went wrong with the monitoring of the two men arrested over the murder, who had been known to MI5 for eight years but dismissed as peripheral threats.
Pickles’s clear rejection of any immediate attempt to revive the draft communications data bill, or “snooper’s charter”, is significant. The bill, which would lead to monitoring of everyone’s email, text and mobile phone use, was dropped from the Queen’s speech in the face of strong objections from the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, but a battery of former home secretaries and security ministers have demanded its revival over the past 48 hours.
The public pressure is believed to reflect the hopes of the home secretary, Theresa May, to put it back into the government’s legislative programme.
Pickles told the BBC Today programme: “What I am certain about is a free society is vulnerable to an unexplained, heavy violent attack, whether it was, as our dear friends in Norway faced a couple of years ago, a white supremacist or whether what we faced on the streets of Woolwich, a blasphemy and distortion of Islam,” he said.
“I know of nothing that would suggest that provisions that were in that bill would have made any difference in this case or would have saved the life of the young member of the armed forces.
“I think it’s probably too soon to assess the powers we need but, once the investigation is through, both aspects of the security services and aspects of the policing of these two individuals will be thoroughly investigated and no doubt recommendations will come out of that,” he said.
Pickles’s view that the communications data bill would not have helped prevent the Woolwich murder echoed a similar view expressed by Liberal Democrat sources on Thursday. It follows David Cameron’s promise that although the need for extra counter-terrorism measures would be examined, he was not in favour of a knee-jerk response. A second cabinet minister, Baroness Warsi, has also said it would be wrong to pass legislation on the back of such a tragedy.
The former home secretary Jack Straw has called for a parliamentary investigation into whether the snooper’s charter would have made a difference. Others, including the former Home Office ministers Lord Reid and Lord West and the former government reviewer of terrorism laws Lord Carlile have asked for the government to reconsider its decision to shelve the bill.
David Anderson QC, the current official reviewer of terrorism laws, has tweeted: “We have strong laws, excellent intelligence and enforcement – the attackers want us to panic, let’s hold our nerve.”