An email from a Liberal Democrat on counter-terrorism should not make me despair…

Nick Clegg has sent the following email to party members this evening about the new counter terrorism measures taken by the Government. There is no doubt that had he not been constrained by Liberal Democrats, David Cameron would have gone much, much further and what has emerged is as liberal as it is likely to get. But I don’t have to like it. Here is what Nick said:

It is hard to avoid the news of the violence and humanitarian suffering coming from Iraq and Syria. I am appalled by the idea of British people travelling abroad to fight in the name of a murderous and extremist ideology. The murder of the journalist James Foley is truly shocking, and we know that around 500 British citizens have travelled to fight in the region. Whilst not all of those who have travelled abroad will be a threat to the UK, we need to react and ensure that those who attempt to return to the UK do not present a threat to the British public.

However, I want to be clear that I will not allow a knee-jerk reaction, nor will Liberal Democrats agree to sweeping new powers that remove our hard-won civil liberties. How we respond to this new threat should be targeted, proportionate and protect our commitment to international law and human rights.

That is why we have looked closely at our existing powers and proposed a number of changes to ensure that we have taken the right steps to protect the British public. Today, we announced a number of proposals. We are making it a statutory requirement for airlines flying to the UK to provide advance passenger information and to carry out screening where we believe it is necessary. We also, in a similar way to our existing powers for football hooliganism, have proposed a new power to allow the police to temporarily seize a passport at a port or airport and retain it for up to 30 days pending investigations into the person intending to travel. This decision would always be subject to scrutiny by a court, and would enable us to stop people travelling abroad to fight for an extremist group. We will also make the government’s de-radicalisation programme a statutory requirement, ensuring that every organisation has a duty to challenge violent extremist views.

There are further powers to consider, but we must do this very carefully. First, we want to look at how we deal with those who are returning to the UK from the region. We need to protect the public and help those who have travelled abroad to reintegrate into our society. But there may also be circumstances where it would be beneficial to our security to exclude, on a temporary basis, UK nationals who are know to have fought for ISIL and where there is a risk that they will carry out attacks in the UK. We are looking at options here and no final decision has been taken. Crucially, we will not do anything which renders people stateless and puts us in breach of the UN Convention on Stateless Persons.

Finally, we will be looking in close detail at how we deal with those people who are subject to Terrorism Prevention Injunction Measures (TPIMS for short). David Anderson, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, has made a number of recommendations about strengthening this existing power. We will listen carefully to David Anderson’s advice, but to be clear, we will never agree with Labour to restore their illiberal and ineffective Control Orders, which the Coalition government repealed in 2011.

I’m acutely aware how precious our hard won civil liberties are, and how greatly our party values them. It is always right that we consider what measures and powers the state needs to keep citizens safe from the very real threats our country faces, but as long as I am in government I will ensure that it is done in a measured, proportionate and evidence-based way that protects, not undermines, our way of life.

I worry that any young Muslim man going anywhere, even to Paris to watch the Tour de France or to Pakistan for a cousin’s wedding, might end up subject to time-consuming and illiberal investigations that prevent them travelling for no good reason. The presumption of guilt implicit in that is not a good look. Making a “deradicalisation programme” statutory sounds like the sort of thing no liberal should ever want to be a part of, especially as putting it on a statutory footing would appear to defeat the object. I’m also not sure that looking to the laws relating to football hooliganism as an example is a particularly good idea. A friend informed me this evening that people could be banned from going to football matches for a decade, merely on suspicion of disorderly behaviour as a result of another New Labour assault on civil liberties. The statelessness issue is still clearly up for grabs too. We’ve managed not to break any international treaty obligations so far, but you know that Cameron is desperate to get that through. What is wrong with just prosecuting people when they commit crimes? 

Labour and the Tories together could vote highly illiberal measures through the House of Commons. That may yet happen. Surely it is best for a Liberal party to stand up entirely for civil liberties. Our track record needs to be more than just “reasonable” on a touchstone issue like this. I am not convinced that the balance is right. Our job is to protect people from the excessive use of state power. I’m not sure we’ve done it.


About caronlindsay

Scottish Lib Dem internationalist, mum, LGBT+ ally, Doctor Who, Strictly, F1 and trashy tv addict and blogger. Servant to two spaniels. She/her.
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