Clegg has shown civil liberties are safe with the Lib Dems in government

By vetoing the snoopers' charter and securing the passage of an amended Defamation Bill, the Lib Dem leader has proved the sceptics wrong.

While the uncharitable among you often suggest I don’t know my arse from my elbow, my recent musings could now be interpreted as a carefully constructed scheme to further the cause of civil liberties. On the other hand, it may be wild coincidence. I’ll let you make your own mind up.

A couple of weeks ago I suggested in these august pages that commentators were more effective at getting stuff done than our elected representatives. And I cited the hero of the Lib Dem grassroots and MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert, as a typical example of a politician who kept voting the right way, doing the right thing – and losing.

I clearly riled him.

Stage two of my sophisticated attack strategy was to suggest that the Lib Dems' reputation as defenders of civil liberties would be seriously damaged if the Defamation Bill didn’t get sorted smartish, and if there was any suggestion of support for any bill that could be called a snoopers' charter.

This has clearly given Nick Clegg some sleepless nights. And as I sit here this morning, stroking my white cat and pondering world domination, we see the pieces of the civil liberties jigsaw fall neatly into place.

Earlier in the week, the Defamation Bill passed into law, with an appropriate amendment introduced to prevent corporations bullying individuals using the threat of libel, as promised and expertly chaperoned through Westminster by Julian Huppert, my words no doubt ringing in his ears.

And now, terrified at the prospect of what the Guardian has started to refer to as "influential activists" doing their nut, Nick’s confirmed that a blanket record of digital activity is "not going to happen with Liberal Democrats in government". So it seems the snoopers' charter is dead and buried too (Incidentally, I bet they use another term to describe "influential activists" inside Lib Dem HQ. But I digress).

Of course, I think we all knew Julian was always going to sort out the Defamation Bill without my, um,  'help and assistance'; and that Nick would have seen the proposed Communications Data Bill as the pernicious and (not especially) thin edge of the wedge towards state invasion of our internet privacy. After all, one or two other people have made similar points.

The point is, we’re a more free society today than it looked like we would be a week ago. And we’re not going to allow a snoopers' charter onto the statute books. Civil liberties are safe in our hands. Because we’re Lib Dems – and we’re very much in favour of that sort of thing.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg makes his keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat spring conference last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.