Nick Clegg continues to oppose the Snooper's Charter. Photo: Getty
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Nick Clegg clashes with David Cameron over privacy laws post-Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack

The Deputy Prime Minister warns against the so-called Snooper's Charter returning to the political agenda.

Nick Clegg is clashing with the Prime Minister over reviewing privacy laws in Britain, in light of the terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo last week.

Both David Cameron and Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, have called for Britain's intelligence services to be given new powers to read the contents of citizens' communications, in order to avoid similar "mass casualty attacks" here.

This signals the return of the so-called Snooper's Charter to the political agenda. The Communications Data Bill, which would give the government new powers to see the contents of any of our messages, phonecalls and other communications without a warrant, will go in the Conservative manifesto for the election this year. Parker referred specifically to the supposed danger of our privacy being "so absolute and sacrosanct", and supports more powers against privacy for the security service.

However, Nick Clegg is reaffirming the Lib Dems' opposition to this legislation this week. One of his party's often-trumpeted triumphs in office is having blocked the Tories' Bill, and it appears Clegg is as determined as ever to oppose what he sees as a threat to our civil liberties.

He told the BBC's Today programme this morning that while he supports plans to, "strengthen our defences to make ourselves physically safe", he sees a law closing in on our privacy as a "slippery slope . . . if we start to censor or self-censor ourselves as a society."

His argument is that the Bill is an "unworkable proposition", because much of our communication, and industries that we rely on, are based outside of the UK's jurisdiction anyway. He also questions the efficiency and necessity of monitoring everyone's messages: "Scooping up vast amounts of information on everyone, children, grandmas, who go on garden centre websites . . . Every single individual in this country, people who would never dream of doing us harm."

Clegg also put himself on the side of civil liberties by defending our right to be, "free to offend each other in an open society", when asked about the illustrations of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. "We have laws which do inhibit people from inciting violence and hatred, but we protect the right for people to say things which other people might not like."

In a speech later today, the Deputy Prime Minister is expected to say:

The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then, in the next, advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens.

Let me be really clear, we have every right to invade the privacy of terrorists and those we think want to do us harm – but we should not equate that with invading the privacy of every single person in the UK. They are not the same thing.

The Snoopers' Charter is not targeted. It's not proportionate. It's not harmless. It would be a new and dramatic shift in the relationship between the state and the individual.

The Snooper's Charter became a symbol of the "red lines" that the Lib Dems have been able to draw in office, and therefore their ability to temper the Tories' worst excesses by being in coalition. This is how the Lib Dems are attempting to appeal to the electorate ahead of May – a heart for the Tories, and a spine for Labour. Perhaps this fresh privacy debate will do Clegg a favour in reminding the public of his ability to counter the ruling party.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.