LONDON: MI5 and GCHQ have been secretly scooping up the telephone and email records of the British public for almost 15 years, the Home Secretary has admitted for the first time. The disclosure was made as Theresa May unveiled a series of new measures in the Investigatory Power Bill, which includes a law to force communication companies to help spy agencies snoop on suspects.
Other proposals will see the collection of the public's web browsing history for up to a year and judges signing off warrants for intrusive surveillance.
The overhaul of spying laws still faces tough opposition but could now make it through parliament and in to law after Labour appeared to back the measures.
In a surprise development, Mrs May confirmed to MPs that she and her predecessors have quietly approved warrants for bulk collection of communication data in the UK since 2001.
The records are kept for no more than a year and more detailed examination of the content of calls or messages would only be allowed via a warrant.
The secret authorisations have been happening since the 9/11 attacks and senior Whitehall sources insist they are vital in the fight against terrorism.
Mrs May said the Bill would establish "an investigatory powers regime which is more open and transparent than anywhere else in the world".
Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, welcomed the proposals, saying "Parliament cannot sit on its hands and leave blind spots where the authorities can't see."
The Bill will include a requirement for communication providers to assist MI5, GCHQ and the police to break in to suspects' phones and computers.
Meanwhile, police warned one in 10 paedophiles were escaping capture because their web browsing histories were not being retained. A sample of more than 6,000 child abuse alerts found that in 14 per cent of the cases officers could not identify a suspect because officers could not access their internet records. The new Bill will require such data to be held for up to a year.
A new safeguard where both the Home Secretary and a specially appointed judge will be required to sign off warrants to intercept data was criticised by all sides.
Owen Paterson, the former Cabinet minister, was among a number of MPs who warned it could delay and complicate important spying operations.
But David Davis, the Tory backbencher, who had called for judicial oversight, said the proposal would simply result in judges rubber-stamping a politician's decision.