Baroness Sally Hamwee writes…”Pesky Lib Dem” Lords win crucial civil liberties changes to Counter Terrorism Bill

David Pickett photo Scooby Doo gang PEsky LIbDems legoThey call it the heavy lifting, or – less physical, more forensic – using a fine-tooth comb.  The second chamber is where detailed and precise scrutiny of legislation occurs.  For Bills which raise vital questions about civil liberties, such as the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill this is all the more important.  It was therefore to the surprise of Lib Dems in the Lords that it was, aside from a misplaced attempt to reintroduce the so-called “Snooper’s Charter”, almost exclusively Lib Dem peers doing the heavy lifting .  At one point I passed a note to Brian Paddick and Sarah Ludford, the team with me on the entirety of it: A lot of people want to talk about the issues we’ve raised but they couldn’t be ****d (complete to taste) to write their own amendments.

Our concern, really to make sure that this sort of legislation is fit for purpose and balances the need to protect the public with precious civil liberties, is often derided.  It is important to get every dot and comma right.  It is therefore a badge of honour to be accused by Norman Tebbit of “dancing around on pins” or, in Michael Howard’s words, “the pesky Lib Dems”.

The Bill that came to the Lords was very different from when it was first trailed by the Prime Minister, speaking to the Australian Parliament about “excluding” people from the UK.  Lib Dems in Government ensured that such claims, made for electoral reasons, were not reflected in the legislation that was finally published.  This is not to say it came to the Lords in a perfect state and our work has ensured that checks and balances on the State have been increased.

Major changes have been made, such making sure that a judge must agree to the use of temporary exclusion orders and extending  powers for the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation so he can better scrutinise measures affecting our civil liberties.

It’s not only the privacy and civil liberties issues in the Bill where Lib Dems have ensured change. David Cameron talked in Australia about “rooting out the extremist narrative”.  The ‘Prevent’ and ‘Channel’ programmes, designed to stop radicalisation, have undergone much reform in recent years, and Lib Dems challenged putting them on a statutory footing. We raised again and again the fears of polarisation and discrimination that have been expressed to us in briefings, one of which said “It has been deeply disappointing to us that many of the valid concerns we have raised … have not been more robustly supported by the Opposition.”

The cost to local authorities is exercising us (and them) considerably. Paul Scriven had rather more financial information to share than the Minister, and quite reasonably asked why if, as we were told, there would be no cost to local authorities, the impact assessment included (albeit low and disputed) estimates. Paul and I both made use of the powerfully critical response to a consultation by Sutton. I asked for an assurance that authorities can share services, and was pointed to a provision about combined areas, which may come as a surprise to Sutton which has been working with neighbouring Tory Croydon.

The impact of Prevent and Channel on the education sector was a significant concern. The Lords has more than its fair share of university connections, with Vice-Chancellors and academics on all sides, so the outcry (rightly) about academic freedom and freedom of speech was no surprise. Lib Dems, including Ken MacDonald, Andrew Phillips and the ever-effective Shirley Williams raised the real danger that the duties in the Bill could override existing duties on Universities precisely to encourage free speech and promote academic freedom. The protection of academics’ and students’ rights of free debate – including tackling head-on and in person people with extreme views, is part of democracy.

Margaret Sharp and Sal Brinton were passionate about the effect on all levels of education, including schools and further education colleges.  Progress has been made the Government has agreed statutory recognition of the duty to promote freedom of speech in further and higher education, and to add measures to protect academic freedom.

Would a Lib Dem counter-terrorism bill look like this? Of course not. Would a Conservative counter-terrorism bill look like this?  No, indeed it would not!  But what is clear is that, unlike the official opposition, it was Lib Dems who were willing to make sure that the Bill leaves the Lords in as good shape as possible. When we finished on Wednesday at close to midnight, the number 2 Government spokesman, a relatively new Conservative, congratulated me: “We’ve counted and, leaving aside the retention and access to data amendments, which aren’t really part of the Bill, you had the majority of the amendments”. Apart from wondering how a minister or official had time to count them up, I did think: Well, that’s our job.  And if we are “pesky” in doing it, so be it.

 
Photo of the “pesky” Scooby Doo gang in lego by David Pickett.

* Sally Hamwee is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, and the Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities.

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7 Comments

  • Chris Rennard 7th Feb '15 - 2:16pm

    No one party ever has a majority in the House of Lords and this means that the very effective speeches by Sally and all the colleagues that she named here are as she says not just contributions to a debate; they often help to amend legislation and to very substantially improve it. Michael Howard may be annoyed that “the pesky Lib Dems” stop the Conservatives getting away with iliberal and very ineffective measures. We also did so when the last Labour Government was trying to introduce measures such as 90 day detention without trial. Former Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews wrote a brilliant book exposing the deeply unpleasant record of the last Labour Government on civil liberties and we blocked many of their worst proposals. The House of Lords generally operates in such a way as to allow a party that is not “the Government” or “the opposition” to make its case and to win votes. Whatever happens in the General Election, we should be demanding reform of parliamentary procedures in the House of Commons which would also allow a party there that is not ‘one of the biggest two’ to make a distinctive case such as Sally shows here, and to let the parliamentary arithmetic decide the outcomes.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 7th Feb '15 - 2:51pm

    It’s clear that being called “pesky” by Michael Howard is a badge of honour.

  • Neil Sandison 7th Feb '15 - 3:08pm

    Lets carry on being “pesky “these people hate being put under the microscope of scrutiny and explaining how things will work what the implications are and to whom they will be accountable .Liberal Democrats should never walk away from asking challenging questions.

  • Sarah Ludford 7th Feb '15 - 4:32pm

    The only thing missing from this excellent account by Sally is a recognition of and tribute to her leadership and her incredible hard work, as on so many Home Office Bills of which there is a constant stream. Not only is she putting in such long hours on the bench time after time, but she is also spending days and weeks in meetings, communicating with ministers and officials and peers in other groups as well as the LibDem team, drafting amendments etc in the quest for a better and more Liberal text. Sally gets results. I just hope to goodness she gets the chance of a bit of R&R in recess the week after next because next up is the Modern Slavery Bill back in the Lords.

  • suzanne fletcher 8th Feb '15 - 8:11am

    Thank you Sally and Lords team, for exceptional, and not widely known work. Long live the pesks 🙂

  • The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are coming up with such poorly thought through legislation over the past 3-4 years, that there is a case for a blanket post-legislative scrutiny exercise. I’m proud of the (often unheralded) efforts of the libdem peers.

  • Tony Greaves 8th Feb '15 - 7:56pm

    That must be Sally on the right!

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