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Clegg ups the volume on civil liberties

Can the government's email surveillance woes be cured?

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

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.