The Coalition Government has a good record on rolling back the many intrusions into civil liberties by the last Labour administration. So the news headlines of the last few days have caused me some dismay. A leak from the Home Office (by who and with what purpose, I hope we will find out) suggested that the government was about to grant the security services and police their dream scenario, the ability for real time snooping into our emails and social media messages.
My initial thought was that this was just some silly speculation that had no real basis. Why would a government that had repealed Labour’s ID cards and database legislation and put to Parliament its own Protection of Freedoms Bill, contemplate such a mad idea? But although the government has changed, the civil servants and security advisers who persuaded the last lot to enact umpteen draconian laws, are very much still around, pushing for an extension of state power. It is my firm belief that this government must resist such pressure. Liberal Democrats within in the coalition will be at the forefront of resistance. In the interests of coalition harmony I recognise that there are many Conservative MPs who also value personal freedom.
A suspicion of state power and a desire to see it controlled in order to protect individual liberty is a golden thread running through Liberal history, right back to the 17th century. Whigs, Radicals, Liberals and now Liberal Democrats have consistently offered opposition to Tory and more lately Labour governments that have sought to trample over our freedoms.
In my first term as Bristol West’s MP I voted against Labour’s plans for ID cards (disobeying doctor’s orders and travelling to London to do so. I had chicken pox, not much fun at age 38!) and the extensions to the time allowed for detention without charge. Blair had wanted 90 days and eventually settled for 28. The Coalition has now smashed up the ID database and repealed the 28 days law.
So I am sure that I and my Lib Dem colleagues in the coalition will be successful in thwarting this latest grasp for more state power by the security establishment. If anything, I believe we will be able to use this opportunity to put more safeguards around existing surveillance legislation.
The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that this government will not be repeating the practices of the last one and ramming through legislation. Instead, we will have a draft Bill and full pre-legislative scrutiny. This could be done by a one off joint committee of both Houses or by the relevant select committees in both the Commons and Lords. There will thus be ample opportunity for comment and evidence offered by various civil liberties campaign groups.
We will all have to wait until the draft Bill is published before we can debate its contents. But I am confident that the speculation that it will propose legalising the mass snooping in real time of our emails and social network messages, will be quashed. It seems more likely that the recording of such traffic (rather than the content) will be brought within existing legislation covering email and more conventional communications. But this will also be an opportunity to strengthen safeguards over the authorisation of surveillance and who is permitted to use the data. There have been many abuses of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
Surveillance of personal communications is necessary to combat terrorism and tackle serious crime. But there is no reason for a wide range of government agencies or local government to have access to such information. Liberal Democrat MPs will build on our proud record in government and make sure that updating our security laws enhances civil liberties.