Former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve leaves No.10 Downing Street earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Dominic Grieve warns Cameron that anti-terrorism plan would breach UK law

Former Tory attorney general says proposal to prevent British terror suspects from returning home would "offend basic principles of our own common law". 

After several days of coalition negotiations, David Cameron has just delivered his Commons statement on how the government plans to fill what he described as "the gaps" in Britain's anti-terrorism armoury. As expected, he announced that the police would given the "temporary power" to seize passports at the border (currently they can only be removed by the Home Office). But he also went further and promised to explore a new "targeted, discretionary power" to prevent British terrorist suspects from returning to the UK and to reintroduce "relocation powers", which the government earlier abolished. 

In response, in a largely supportive reply, Ed Miliband criticised Cameron for "the mistake" of scrapping Control Orders in 2011, which allowed the police to relocate suspects. It is worth noting, however, that even in their tougher form, the government's TPIMs (Terrorism Investigation and Prevention Measures) remain less draconian than the measures they replaced.  

But the most notable moment came when former Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve, who was sacked in the recent cabinet reshuffle, warned that Cameron's plan to prevent British nationals from returning would breach both international law and UK law. He said: 

I do share concerns that have been expressed that the suggestion British nationals, however horribly they may be alleged to have behaved, should be prevented from returning to this country. Not only does it offend principles of international law, it would actually offend basic principles of our own common law as well.

He added: "The best course is to bring these individuals to justice". In response, while agreeing that it was best to prosecute people where possible, Cameron insisted that the most important thing was to address the "gaps" in the government's powers. While earlier promising cross-party talks on the issue, he offered no indication of how he would overcome Grieve's objection. 

After his forced departure, owing to his strong support for the European Convention on Human Rights, the former attorney general is emerging as a fierce critic of Cameron's approach. He recently warned that allowing parliament to overrule the ECHR would be "not dissimilar from Putin using the Duma to ratify his annexation of the Crimea". With Cameron likely to make human rights reform one of the centrepieces of the Tory conference, Grieve will be a useful ally for Labour and the Lib Dems. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.