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Liberal controls on state surveillance

April 4, 2012

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  Why would a government that had repealed Labour’s ID cards and database legislation and put to Parliament its own Protection of Freedoms Bill, contemplate such a mad idea?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  The Coalition has now smashed up the ID database and repealed the 28 days law.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.

34 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    April 4, 2012 11:42 pm

    Now to repeal ACTA and get rid of 90-99% of our CCTV cameras.

    Watch out for 2012 Olympics being used as an excuse to erode our freedoms still further.

  2. April 5, 2012 8:15 am

    When the draft Bill is published there will be a consultation so ideas welcome. Agree with you that govts down the ages have tendency to use popular events as excuses for unpopular measures!

    Disagree re existence of CCTV – many crimes solved by it and makes public feel safer in many places like stations. It’s use of the images that’s important to control.

    • robertjessetelford permalink
      April 15, 2012 4:51 pm

      I think having staff on stations is perhaps a good idea, though, Stephen. Is the coalition government doing much about that? Or are you closing ticket offices?

      Revealed: the DfT’s plans to close ticket offices: Railnews:

      • April 17, 2012 10:44 am

        I assume you’re referring to the McNulty report, which reviewed the cost effectiveness of British railways compared to other European operators? The DfT has not announced any plans in response yet. I agree that staff presence on trains and stations is desirable. Ironically, none of Bristol’s local stations have been staffed for decades…

  3. April 5, 2012 9:00 am

    Stephen, without trying to get too nerdy on you, the problem I have (and many people on /that/ conference call, it seems) is that the technology to monitor the details of “who and whom” will also implicitly gather the “what”. Also, safeguarding the mass of data gathered will be an absolute nightmare and almost certainly will lead to breaches and misuse of that data

    • April 5, 2012 1:11 pm

      I don’t mind you being nerdy! Fortunately, and I’m sure they won’t mind me saying this, but the two LD MPs who lead on this issue from outside govt, Tom Brake and Julian Huppert are very much nerds on the technical issues. In a discussion I had with Lynne, Tom and Julian on Monday the technical obstacles to what is likely to be proposed were raised. I am happy to stick to the principles and let colleagues mull over the technicalities!

  4. smoothsilk permalink
    April 5, 2012 9:32 am

    I am sure the government won’t be interested in what I write in my Emails. If they are interested it is probably because its illegal, & the same with phone calls. I think the greater good of “all citizens” is what matters most. CCTV has proved invaluable in fighting crime. I am for ID cards which could replace driving licences/passports/car insurance/medical info etc all into one document. I would like much greater care made of where the info is stored & who has access to it, not like in the past, leaving it on trains or wherever.

  5. rosemary permalink
    April 5, 2012 3:09 pm

    Why didn’t we have this discussion when records of our telephoning habits were first stored?

    • April 5, 2012 4:22 pm

      Don’t know – but it’s generally true that society has become much less deferential and not so willing to trust the “powers that be” to know what’s good for us all. Surely that’s a good thing. Politicians and governments now have to spend far more time consulting and explaining. Whether this makes people any happier about decision making, it’s hard to say. Some bemoan the lack of “strong leadership” while others are never satisfied whatever politicians do. The internet has accelerated this process, spreading information but also fuelling cynicism.

  6. philip permalink
    April 5, 2012 5:39 pm

    I won’t even start to debate the pros and cons; suffice to say that if this notion make it through to legislation then this longtime conservative, and more recently libdem, voter will be voting elsewhere.

    • rosemary permalink
      April 7, 2012 8:32 am

      For UKIP presumably?

      As with VAT on pasties, the Liberal Democrats’ differentiating tactics are drawing attention to EU directives that they are passionately in favour of our bowing to.

      The differentiation they need to demonstrate here is not between the two modern liberal parties in the UK Coalition, but between all libertarians and the strangling dictatorship that is the EU. This particular EU directive enables all EU governments, police, and security forces to track all our private communications, not just our own authorities.

      Just imagine what the Liberal Democrats would be saying if we were to have such an arrangement with the Americans! I say this in sadness, as a liberal, and the descendant of a long line of liberals.

      I wasn’t a bit deferential, Stephen, but extremely unhappy when the tracking of our private telephoning habits first started – well before the attacks on New York.

      However, as Smoothsilk indicates, 2012 is a tricky time for us to be saying an outright no, and I think as Stephen says, we need to look more at the details behind this party political leak.

      • rosemary permalink
        April 7, 2012 8:41 am

        PS I mean an outright no to the tracking of the last 1/4 of our private communications, given that 3/4 of them are already being monitored.

  7. rosemary permalink
    April 10, 2012 7:41 pm

    The EU adopted the Data Retention Directive in March 2006. The stated purpose of the
    Directive is to achieve an EU-wide harmonisation of mandatory retention of communications data. It was proposed in a package of measures following terrorist atrocities in Europe in 2004 and 2005 and was pushed through during the UK presidency of the EU at the end of 2005.

  8. rosemary permalink
    April 11, 2012 9:41 pm

    The Polish experience of this EU Directive may be of interest:

  9. philip permalink
    April 11, 2012 11:21 pm

    Thank you Rosemary. I might even have to vote UKIP, as you hint, if this goes ahead. Or should I say “if this is not stopped”.

    • rosemary permalink
      April 12, 2012 11:44 am

      And for those of us who don’t want to vote UKIP outside EURO elections, there is still snail mail!

  10. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    April 13, 2012 5:51 pm

    Put the Police back on the streets. Stop funding PC projects. Control our borders. Teach English history in schools. Withdraw from EU. Put England first. That has just come through my door from The English Democrats. Whats the problem with that.

  11. John permalink
    April 17, 2012 11:30 am

    If this gets through while the Liberals are ‘in power’ I don’t think I’ll ever vote again.

    Who proposed this anyway, and if the LD’s are against it then why aren’t I hearing it reported?

  12. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    April 17, 2012 3:56 pm

    A couple of weeks to go before the referendum for a Mayor. Anybody know what powers this position will have, or is it a secret until after the result?

    • rosemary permalink
      April 18, 2012 9:56 am

      All I can glean, Paul, is that it isn’t so much a secret as that it hasn’t yet been decided.

      Perhaps Stephen can very kindly tell us a bit more?

      • April 21, 2012 12:56 pm

        each large city is negotiating a “city deal” with central govt, which will involve the devolution of powers and finances. Bristol’s deal will be concluded after the referendum, as will most other cities’ deals. It’s a reasonable assumption that a Mayor would get more powers than the existing Leader.

      • rosemary permalink
        April 21, 2012 6:04 pm

        Thank you, Stephen. Do you mean more powers than the Leader vis a vis Central Government; or more powers than the Leader vis a vis the rest of the local authority, councillors and officers alike?

        These are both real shifts in power. Ideally, one might want both. Or neither, depending on one’s hopes and fears.

        It is doubtful whether Bristol has known strong leadership since the floating harbour was built in the early 19th century, an astonishing feat for its day.

        There seems to have been no Bristolian equivalent of the Chamberlains in Birmingham, or Herbert Morrison at the LCC.

  13. philip permalink
    April 21, 2012 12:01 am

    According to last night’s E Post a lot of the notices advising of the referundum haven’t been received. You can read it online at
    The PDF gives a decent comparision of ‘council leader’ vs ‘mayor’. The EP has come out strongly in favour of a mayor.

  14. April 21, 2012 8:46 pm

    Rosemary – this is all off topic! But a Mayor would have more powers locally (which would be devolved down by Westminster) but also would be a more powerful voice for the city – to the outside world as well as in London. The PM has pledged to create a “cabinet of mayors” to shape policy for city regions.

  15. rosemary permalink
    April 27, 2012 9:25 pm

    I’m afraid this is off topic too, Stephen, but as it is the only topic we are allowed to hear about at the moment, I feel bound to raise it here in reaction.

    Once again we are being subjected to a deluge of synthetic moral outrage about politicians and journalists mixing. One again it is made out to be a national emergency. As if no-one ever had dinner or a drink with the BBC, no-one had ever cosied up to them to get their message across or got up early to go on their programmes. As if no-one ever gave the BBC vastly more favourable treatment over other broadcasters and web-sites, and at public expense too.

    All this is going on in the Bubble during a week when a report has come out about 100,000 women in the UK being genitally mutilated; when another has come out about the growing numbers of teenage girls being brutally treated by their misogynistic boyfriends; when a diplomatist has been blinded walking across a grave yard; and when families are being exported around the country to find them housing. There is also the little matter of Spain being dangerously near the brink……so the hacks are foaming at the mouth and rearing up once again, over Hackgate!

    Where is the sense of proportion and responsibility on the part of the political world in all this? We all know the opposition want to bring down the government on any pretext; we know the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, the Mail, the Mirror, the Observer, and the Telegraph all want to bring down NI. So why don’t the rest of you in the Bubble just stand up to these vociferous interest groups, including cheap opportunists like Simon Hughes, and tell them the steerage of the ship of state is not going to be neglected all over again just to oblige their selfish ambitions?

    This is the year of the Olympics and of the Diamond Jubilee. A year in which the police and security services need to concentrate on security and policing as never before. There are also severe inherited problems to deal with, which require unity and steadfastness on the part of the Coalition. There are only so many weeks the media can keep up this frenzy, so stop the panic and just ignore them. Get on with the serious business of government. And show us the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have it in them to see a thankless task through. The only poll which matters is the one on the day of the general election.

    • rosemary permalink
      April 28, 2012 8:13 am

      Another actual emergency, as opposed to a synthetic one, is that first born children are being turned away from their local schools.

      • rosemary permalink
        April 28, 2012 8:31 am

        Liam Byrne summed up Labour Party government with the words: “There is no money.” Robert Jay has done the same for his own profession and for the media bubble with: “This is such fun.”

  16. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    April 29, 2012 11:24 am

    And, with the overwhelming numbers of jobs created going to foreign workers, what hope is there for the young, unemployed, of all races and backgrounds, born in this country?

    • rosemary permalink
      April 29, 2012 7:50 pm

      One hope Paul is to improve the schools, and the attitude to work that they inculcate into their pupils.

  17. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    April 30, 2012 10:45 am

    Rosemary. Do you mean “education,education, education.”

  18. June 15, 2012 10:54 pm

    I’m glad to read you have an anti-intrusion stance and trust you will be voting against the Snooper’s Charter.

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