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Nick Clegg: “It’s not obvious” what the UK can do legally on new terror powers

The Deputy Prime Minister admits that effectively stripping suspected terrorists of their UK citizenship is difficult in terms of Britain’s legal obligations.

Nick Clegg: "it's not obvious what one can do in a way that is consistent with our legal obligations". Photo: Getty

David Cameron announced to the Commons yesterday, when discussing strengthening Britain’s anti-terror legislation, that the government would continue talks on preventing Britons fighting with Islamic State (formerly known as Isis) returning to Britain, alongside additional powers to seize passports of suspects. This was a softer line than was being briefed over the weekend, which suggested the Tories in government’s strong intentions to introduce new measures to effectively strip suspects of citizenship.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, although obfuscating on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, did hint that this plan would be too difficult to achieve within the international law to which the UK is bound.

Discussing the proposals related to suspects’ passports, he admitted: “At the moment, it is not obvious what one can do in a way that is consistent with our legal obligations. The prime minister, quite rightly, said we are not going to do anything which clashes with both our domestic and international legal principles and obligations.”

He then went on twice to point out that it is already possible for the authorities to confiscate individuals’ passports temporarily under the Royal Prerogative, and suggested that this existing mechanism was enough, saying “I don’t think it’s controversial” to propose confiscating suspects’ passports, “as we already have the Royal Prerogative”. He said it would give the “police and security agencies and others” a “window” of opportunity to investigate certain figures attempting to return to the UK, and arrest them if necessary.

The Lib Dem leader added that, “as a country of the rule of law”, which the UK upholds “unlike these barbaric, medieval types in Isil”, it would only legislate “in keeping with our best domestic traditions”.

However, Clegg was a bit stronger on how Britain could be led into military action against IS. Cameron told the Commons yesterday that if emergency action needed to be taken, he could decide to act and tell parliament afterwards. Clegg, however, commented that, “clearly any British government that takes a decision to be involved in military conflict should always try to seek the permission of parliament first… I cannot stress enough, I have long believed – what is now the convention – that parliament [should have the say over whether British military forces are engaged abroad] is very important.”

Although admitting that there may be “emergency reasons” to act before consulting parliament”, he insisted that the priority should be that, “it needs to be done in a way that is democratically accountable”.

It has been widely reported how the Lib Dems have been clashing with the Conservatives over the civil liberties and legal implications of the desires of the latter for new anti-terror measures. Although Clegg refused to be drawn on these disagreements, it’s clear that both the existence of a coalition, and the precedent for asking parliament whether it endorses military action, puts significant brakes on the UK government’s approach to its intervention in foreign crises.