Julian Huppert MP writes: What does the Queen’s Speech mean for civil liberties?

So – how does the Queen’s Speech rate for those of us who care about civil liberties? Well, there’s some excellent news, and some areas where we need to keep working to get the right result.

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.

Second, the original Justice and Security Green Paper included some concerning proposals for the use of secret evidence in Civil and Coroner’s Courts – with Ministers able to decide that some evidence shouldn’t be shown to the other side. This is of course unacceptable, and I am delighted that Nick Clegg has stood firm against this. I expect a much-changed Bill when it is presented to the House, along with some better oversight for MI5 and MI6. The use of closed court sessions can only be justified in cases where our national security is at risk – not just the risk of embarrassment to a Minister – and it should be at the discretion of the judiciary. The government should not be allowed to hide its dirty laundry through secrecy. And it should never be allowed in a Coroner’s Court. The family of the deceased deserve to know what happened to their loved ones.

Finally, we have the contentious Draft Communications Data Bill. 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.

My position is clear on this – we must take a firm stand against excessive snooping by the state on our communications. It goes without saying that we oppose increased access to content of messages. But we should also be very cautious about large changes to the communications data collected and stored as well.

Whatever this Bill includes, we must reform RIPA. Far too many organisations, not just the police and security services, have access to the huge amount of data that is already stored on us. The level of authorisation is far too low, the safeguards too few. This must be fixed.

The Home Office do seem to have been forced into a climb-down on some of the proposals that were originally being discussed. I hope that what comes out as a draft is more reasonable – and that the final version after scrutiny is even better.

The Home Office will have to satisfy Liberal Democrats – and others – that existing safeguards are being strengthened, that any extensions to collection powers really are necessary and are proportionate, and that any changes represent increased rather than weakened protection for civil liberties. If they can’t, then this will simply not pass.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • Hear, hear, Julian.

  • Julian, I am astonished and disappointed that you agree with the line on Justice and Security as currently proposed. There is no evidence that the repressive measures suggested regarding use of secret evidence untested in the presence of the person to whom the evidence relates would do anything to improve national security or that without such measures our national security would be compromised. This is a shoddy proposal, veing pushed by the security services themselves. I am appalled that any member of our party would support this. Closed courts cannot be justified.

  • Sean McHugh 9th May '12 - 7:15pm

    Julian Huppert MP explains the Justice and Security Bill and Draft Communications Data Bill situation as it now stands. But I suggest that any of the security service bureaucracies whether police or Five and Six have their own agendas.

    It is natural enough for these people to believe they are pure as the driven snow and should be allowed to do anything they see fit without penalty.

    Checks and balances in the system should be tied in with chains of adamant to prevent them securing the groundwork for the police state they seem unable to imagine. If the House of Commons cannot ensure that the guardians are guarded our politics will not long survive.

    And I would suggest that no great trust should be put in any one check. Judges are almost universally drawn from the same class that believes themselves born to rule. How many of them share the opinions and the social milieu of the top ranks of the Tory Party? And that on a weekly basis?

    This stuff is profoundly dangerous. Once on the statute books, there is no limit to how these laws may be applied.

  • “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. ”

    Why does a draft bill force them to do this as opposed to an actual bill?

  • You’re trying to put the best gloss on how LD input will dilute and improve these awfullly illiberal proposals . But why did they get this far? I know, I know, you didn’t win a majority , blah , blah , blah, But surely better LD leadership wouldn’t have waved them through when they were at their earlier stages . Cameron is on-record saying Clegg never objected once.

  • Mick Humphreys 10th May '12 - 9:39am

    How does the introduction of drug-driving laws sit with our Party’s policies on drug law reform, particulary the Motion that Ewan Hoyle proposed and had approved at the Liverpool Conference last year and which you supported.

    It is well known that certain “illegal” drugs, particularly cannabis are detectable in the body up to 2 weeks after consumption, but that they have no effect on driving quite a short time after being taken. Alcohol on the other hand is undectable after only a few hours. Thus a cannabis user may be even more sober than the judge who sentences him to a £5000 fine plus prison. It seems to me that the Lib Dem Ministers simply ignore motions passed by the Party. No wonder support is dropping. Explain please.

  • Christine Headley 10th May '12 - 12:14pm

    “The family of the deceased deserve to know what happened to their loved ones.”

    And people who don’t happen to have ‘loved ones’ shouldn’t be shortchanged if they die in questionable circumstances. Inquests are for society as a whole rather than just the family of the deceased.

  • How will reforming RIPA serve any useful purpose when it already doesn’t seem to be enforced properly now, let alone after changing it?

    Police forces routinely refuse to use this Act against telecoms companies (which is odd considering that they were the ones responsible for running voicemail systems that were so easily hackable in the first place – I would have thought that the authorities would be keeping a closer eye on them). My own MP also seems to think that RIPA’s prime purpose relates to handing over encryption keys to public authorities (which completely ignores the existance of section 1 of the Act). There seem to be plenty of police forces and even some MPs that are either mistaken in their belief of what the Act covers or are being deliberately evasive.

    Either way it’s not just the media that’s a problem. Nor is it just the media that needs to be prosecuted.

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