Speaking in yesterday’s debate on the Anderson Report into investigatory powers, Paul Scrieven made the case for freedom and privacy.
My Lords, I note that I was not mentioned by the Minister at the beginning because I am not an expert on this matter. However, I am a citizen of this country and I want a safe country, but I also want to live in a country where my privacy and civil liberties are balanced with that security. That is vital. I do not think that anyone would disagree with the tone of the debate that we have had today but the crux of the matter is to ask how we can achieve that balance in the most effective way. That is why talking about technology and the balance between security and civil liberties is really important. When we discuss these issues it is also important to ask what type of country we want to live in and how we want our country to be perceived. Those questions are at the front of my mind when I address this matter. As I said, I am not a technical expert but a citizen asking those questions.
One of the key issues in getting the right balance between security and civil liberties and privacy is to judge not just what we do to the civil liberties of those who wish to harm us, but how we protect the civil liberties of 99% of the population who are law-abiding and wish to live in a secure country. The Anderson report talks about why we need to make changes, and we need to think very carefully about that balance. In particular, the report says that in its present form RIPA 2000 is undemocratic, unnecessary and, in the long term, intolerable. If that is the case, we need to think very carefully about what kind of country we want to live in, what kind of country we want to be perceived as and how we balance security with civil liberties.
During my time as Deputy First Minister of Scotland, I had the somewhat doubtful distinction of becoming the first government minister in the UK to be on the wrong end of a decision under the Human Rights Act. As a result I know first-hand of the value of that Act in giving British citizens the ability to challenge the state. The state has the power to improve people’s lives, but also the power to damage them. Such power should not operate in a vacuum – there must be a check on the state. The Human Rights Act provides this very powerful safeguard.
As the debate on the future of the Act progresses, it is essential that we do not focus only on the philosophical importance of our rights and freedoms, but that we also concentrate on the very real way in which the Human Rights Act has protected individual citizens against the arbitrary use of state power.
Writing to The Times, Lib Dem Peer Anthony Lester QC highlighted the mistake the Tories would be making in not following the recommendations of the Anderson Report:
Sir, As David Anderson, QC, underlines in his report, public trust is essential for the vital work of the security and intelligence agencies (reports, June 12; letters, June 13). We need a new legal regime that keeps pace with technology, is publicly accessible, and provides effective safeguards against the misuse of the powers of the state to infringe privacy.
The prime minister, the home office and the agencies should accept the need explained by Mr Anderson for surveillance warrants normally to be signed by judges rather than ministers. That is already the position in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The public would trust judges more than politicians to uphold the rule of law and maintain a fair balance between security and liberty. Ministerial accountability to parliament is necessary but not sufficient. Parliament amended the Justice and Security Bill to give judges rather than ministers the task of ensuring that secret trials are held only where necessary in the interests of justice. Parliament should do so again when approving the new legal framework in the proposed Surveillance Bill.
Speaking in the Queen’s Speech debate on home affairs in the House of Lords this week, Brian Paddick, Liberal Democrat spokesman for home affairs, paid tribute to Charles Kennedy and went on to warn that upcoming legislation showed that “the Government have all the hallmarks of an authoritarian, anti-libertarian, inward-looking Administration ”
They call it the heavy lifting, or – less physical, more forensic – using a fine-tooth comb. The second chamber is where detailed and precise scrutiny of legislation occurs. For Bills which raise vital questions about civil liberties, such as the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill this is all the more important. It was therefore to the surprise of Lib Dems in the Lords that it was, aside from a misplaced attempt to reintroduce the so-called “Snooper’s Charter”, almost exclusively Lib Dem peers doing the heavy lifting . At one point I passed a note to Brian Paddick and Sarah Ludford, the team with me on the entirety of it: A lot of people want to talk about the issues we’ve raised but they couldn’t be ****d (complete to taste) to write their own amendments.
Our concern, really to make sure that this sort of legislation is fit for purpose and balances the need to protect the public with precious civil liberties, is often derided. It is important to get every dot and comma right. It is therefore a badge of honour to be accused by Norman Tebbit of “dancing around on pins” or, in Michael Howard’s words, “the pesky Lib Dems”.
The Bill that came to the Lords was very different from when it was first trailed by the Prime Minister, speaking to the Australian Parliament about “excluding” people from the UK. Lib Dems in Government ensured that such claims, made for electoral reasons, were not reflected in the legislation that was finally published. This is not to say it came to the Lords in a perfect state and our work has ensured that checks and balances on the State have been increased.