Clegg ups the volume on civil liberties

Can the government's email surveillance woes be cured?

It might have taken a few days longer than most Liberal Democrats would have liked, but Nick Clegg has finally upped the volume on civil liberties. Not only has he successfully demanded a U-turn on Ken Clarke's proposals for a vast expansion of secret trials (£), but he has ramped up the rhetoric on plans to track the public's phone calls and emails.

On Monday, he offered a rather half-hearted defence of government plans to track the public’s phone calls and emails, saying that the proposals were only “updating existing laws”. Now, Clegg has spoken out in much stronger terms, telling the Guardian:

I saw the appalling populist excesses of authoritarian home secretaries, like John Reid, under Labour. This total casual disregard for people who care about privacy and civil liberties – I am not going to allow this government to make the same mistake.

The bill will no longer appear in the Queen’s Speech; it will be delayed and go through an open parliamentary consultation process which will examine draft clauses.

But does this mean that Clegg will oppose the proposal altogether? Well, no. He retains the same position: that security services need to be able to access communications data – so details of when , where and by whom an email or call is made – if not the content, which would still require a warrant. Reiterating that the Sunday Times story that kicked off the row was “wildly hyperbolic”, he said:

There is a gap opening up in the application of existing statutory powers for the police because of the increasing volume of email and telephone traffic that is now directed via voice over internet protocol means … I am keen to lower the temperature by reassuring people that we are not doing what we are accused of wanting to do, which is to create new databases and create new powers of surveillance over the contents of people's emails.

What this comes down to is a problem with communication. Liberal Democrats and Tories alike are said to be frustrated that May did not manage the fall-out by giving a proper, detailed response to the negative coverage. It is just the latest example of the government digging a hole by failing to explain the ins and outs of a policy.

Despite emphasising his role in restraining the security services – who “will always say they need new powers tomorrow”, Clegg essentially retains his support for the proposal:

We are saying we will only think of legislating if you can prove to us that it really is necessary. And I am persuaded there is a dilemma. There just is an issue.

The Information Commissioner Christopher Graham does not agree. He has said: "The case for the retention of this data still needs to be made. The value of historic communications data in criminal investigations has not yet been elucidated." Clegg’s party, who are up in arms about this assault on civil liberties, may be temporarily allayed by a proper consultative process for the bill. But unless the arguments for why this bill is necessary are convincingly made, it will be difficult to get them – and the public – on side.
 

Nick Clegg has spoken about about civil liberties and email surveillance. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.