Nick Clegg gets it the wrong way round on data retention

 
 
The Liberal Democrat party policy passed at the spring conference was rather good – and in fairness Nick Clegg made all the right noises about the policy as it was working its way through the policy-making system. All the odder then that he’s gone for the ‘we have to sacrifice some civil liberties’ tone this time rather than seeing civil liberties as part of that very safety and security we’re defending. After all, how safe would you be if you didn’t have your civil liberties?

Julian Huppert was one of the prime moves behind that policy, and here’s his take on today’s announcements in an email to party supporters:

As a Liberal, I care passionately about civil liberties, privacy, and the need to limit abusive state surveillance.

But I also know that there is a need for the police and intelligence agencies to have the tools to do the job we give them – as long as they are carefully controlled, appropriately used, and proportionate to the threat faced.

Those concerns are key – and I have often been incensed at the way governments, whether Labour or Tory, have used threats for terrorism or anything else as a reason to chip away at our individual freedoms. We must not and will not allow this.

There is an issue we have to deal with now. The European Court of Justice threw out the European Data Retention Directive, which underpins all collection of communications data in this country. I sympathise with the reasons, but we must acknowledge that it causes real problems – we do need to have some way to keep some communications data, but under very careful control.

Some people would love to use this to bring back the awful Communications Data Bill – known as the Snooper’s Charter – that Nick vetoed last year. A number of Tories pushed it and Labour tried something similar themselves. We will not allow this to happen. We’ve blocked it once, and we will continue to do so. This legislation just allows the agencies to continue with their current abilities.

I’ve had the chance to speak to Nick and Norman Baker about this – all of us have been clear. We must keep our country and citizens safe, but not by allowing the erosion of our civil liberties and increasing unchecked intrusion into our lives.

We need legislation to allow communications data to be available, but not to store more than is already allowed. And in this post-Snowden world, we need to move towards keeping less, and finding better and more proportionate ways to do so.

We need to completely rewrite the law in this area. But that cannot be done quickly. We have to get it right, which will take a lot of work from many experts. We’ve already started that off – our ‘Digital Bill of Rights’ motion calls for a commission of experts to review all state surveillance and information from the Snowden revelations – that takes time. Nick has already started this work with the Royal United Services Institute, and they need to finish that work.

So I think it is right to agree to a stop-gap. A piece of legislation that can be passed quickly, but crucially will automatically expire at the end of 2016, giving time to write something better, and the certainty of knowing it will not just become entrenched.

And in this stop-gap legislation, we should agree to no more than was previously allowed.

And we’ve managed better than that – we’ve also negotiated and won a package of pro-civil liberties measures to go with it:

  • The Bill includes a termination clause that ensures the legislation falls at the end of 2016 and the next government is forced to look again at these powers.
  • Between now and 2016 we will hold a full review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, to make recommendations for how it could be reformed and updated.
  • We will appoint a senior diplomat to lead discussion with the American government and the internet companies to establish a new international agreement for sharing data between legal jurisdictions.
  • We will establish a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board on the American model, to ensure that civil liberties are properly considered in the formulation of government policy on counter-terrorism. This will be based on David Anderson’s existing role as the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.
  • Further reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee, so that in future the Chair must be drawn from the Opposition parties.
  • We will restrict the number of public bodies that are able to approach phone and internet companies and ask for communications data. Some bodies will lose their powers to access data altogether while local authorities will be required to go through a single central authority who will make the request on their behalf.
  • Finally, we will publish annual transparency reports, making more information publicly available than ever before on the way that surveillance powers operate.

I don’t claim that this is a perfect long-term solution. But I don’t think anyone could write down, right now, what would be perfect. And it’s a huge lot better than either the Tories or Labour would have done on their own. But because this legislation – though not the extra safeguards – will end in 2016, there will have to be a proper full discussion in the rest of this Parliament and the next on this – the status quo cannot be continued forever.

We’ve done much to be proud of to support civil liberties. We’ve scrapped ID cards, ended 28-day detention without charge, curtailed stop and search powers, ended routine child detention for immigration purposes, reformed the libel laws to protect free speech, and much more. If it was just down to us, we’d have made even more progress – but this simply would not have happened without us in Government.

UPDATE: How good are the pro-civil liberties concessions gained in return for rushed legislation?

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