Last Wednesday night, I took part in a conference call Julian Huppert MP and other bloggers who were interested in any potential web snooping plans. When I say interested, I mean “would start frothing at the mouth if any of our MPs voted for anything remotely like what was being touted in the media at the beginning of April. In fact, most of us want to see a rolling back of the powers which already exist.
Despite our concern, a draft Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech. Julian Huppert wrote for Liberal Democrat Voice that
I am delighted to see that, following Nick Clegg’s intervention, the Bill in the Queen’s Speech is in draft form only. This is absolutely crucial, as it will force the Home Office to tell people what they are actually planning to do, rather than refusing to give any specifics, which has long been the case. It will lead to a full and open discussion – in public – about the level of data surveillance we are prepared to accept in the name of national security.
A Select Committee – perhaps the Home Affairs Select Committee, which I serve on, or one set up specifically for this task – will go through all the details. It will seek and listen to expert opinion from outside Westminster, and not just listen to the requests of the police and the security services. The onus must be on the Home Office to prove to us that these measures are needed, and that they are proportionate. ‘A spook told me’ is not a valid argument.
It was really good of Julian to make himself available to talk us through what happens next. What’s clear is that had Nick Clegg not put his foot down, there would be an actual Bill in the Queen’s Speech, to be debated in Parliament straight away. Worse, it would more likely have been part of another Bill so on its own wouldn’t even have got that much parliamentary scrutiny. This isn’t happening. We’re getting a draft, at some point in the next few weeks, instead. That will then be given over to a Committee – perhaps the Home Affairs Select Committee, or a special one set up as was done for libel reform.
That Committee will scrutinise it within an inch of its life. They will be able to take evidence from anyone who’s interested, from civil liberties groups to technical experts. After the scrutiny process, the Government will look at what the Committee has said. Only if Liberal Democrats were satisfied with the proposed legislation would a full Bill be forthcoming. If it is unacceptable to us, it won’t happen.
I would not have thought that our whips would expect most of our MPs to vote for anything disproportionate that granted sweeping powers. Julian said that we have to be careful what powers we grant to the security services because they will use all of them.
The Home Office is used to a pretty easy ride for its authoritarian proposals. It certainly had one from Labour who were quite happy at the thought of locking people up without charge for 3 months. It’s having to get used to the fact that Liberal Democrats are different and are not going to let them have their own way all the time. They’ve already had to back off from a full bill, and they are no doubt going to have to go further.
Julian was quite candid that when the draft bill comes out, there will be stuff in it that we are not going to like, that will be unpalatable to all of us. What he wants us to do is focus in very specifically on what needs to be changed. He has a reasonable amount of technical knowledge, but there are people in the party who have much more and he wants to hear from them.
Having been involved in the development of measures on libel reform, which went through a similar process, Julian was a keen advocate of this way of doing things, as he mentioned in his LDV article:
First, we have fantastic news about libel reform. I am delighted that the Defamation Bill will finally come into being. As Liberal Democrats we have long made the case that our libel laws are out-dated and in desperate need of improvement. Our current system unfairly favours the rich because the cost of lawsuits means ordinary people find it very difficult to defend themselves against false allegations. Citizens face great costs if they are accused of libel, regardless of the facts. This has had a chilling effect: justice for those with wealth, not truth, on their side. And we’ve seen libel tourism too – cases brought here because of our lax libel laws.
This Bill should address that problem, and give every person in the UK access to justice and the ability to defend their name and reputation. All of this while protecting free speech. I am very pleased to see that the Bill will give scientists and academics more protection from libel action. At the moment many scientists and academics face a real dilemma when it comes to revealing their research for fear of being sued. The cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst have shown just how bad this can be.
On a personal level, I have been pushing on this for a while – I served on the Joint Committee that studied the draft Bill, and I expect the final version to be much improved. I pressed Ken Clarke on this recently and he confirmed that peer-reviewed research should be protected from libel actions. The Defamation Bill is an achievement championed by Liberal Democrats, and one that we can be proud of.
I had been aghast at some of the things being talked about in April and there were indications that certain people in the Westminster Bubble weren’t getting it. I feel a great deal more reassured now that we’re all on the same page. Julian Huppert being part of the process is a large part of that – the man used to be on the Council of Liberty, for goodness’ sake. He can be trusted on this issue. Not only that, but he’s shown willing to listen to what people who are experts in this field in the party have to say.
I suspect strongly that there is still a long way to go in terms of winning our case within the Government on this, but the more focused and forensic our dissection of the proposals, the more chance we have of seeing off unnecessary, illiberal and intrusive measures.