Opinion: Liberal Democrats should take a stand on state surveillance powers

ServerThe Coalition Government has announced it is rushing through emergency legislation underpinning the state’s right to keep personal data held by internet and phone companies. This is in reaction to the ruling by the European Court of Justice that at an EU directive on privacy retention had over-reached its powers and amounted to an invasion of privacy.

If the European Court of Justice says existing state surveillance powers are unlawful then we should not re-introduce them with no questions asked. Let’s have the debate as to whether the state should have these powers in the first place.

The Bill includes a termination clause that ensures the legislation falls at the end of 2016 and the next government will then be forced to look again at these powers. If our defence is that the Bill has a ‘sunset clause’ and therefore needs to be addressed again in 2016, why wait until then? There are ten months until the next General Election. Will we be in government after 2015? Possibly. Will we have 56 MPs? Unlikely. We can do more to protect the rights and freedoms that are fundamental to building our vision of a free, fair, and open society from within government. Let’s take a stand now, not in 2016 when we have no guarantee of having any influence whatsoever. Why are we not prepared to have the battle? If not us, if not now, why are we prepared to risk everything we have achieved, including the blocking of the Snoopers’ Charter, by saying we can have a debate in 2016.

For Liberal Democrats, protecting civil liberties is synonymous with creating a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life, free from the fear of the all-too powerful state. I want to be able to tell people on the doorstep that we have fundamentally changed the state so that it is no longer able to invade our privacy. Yes, we only have 56 MPs. Yes, we will be in a legislative battle against both the Conservative Party and the Labour. Yes, we may well end up losing the battle. But let’s at least have the debate now why we still have some influence in the government. Let’s prove to people that our record in government includes a commitment to protecting civil liberties by taking a stand now. We entered into government in 2010 to clean up Labour’s economic mess but also to repeal their draconian laws that eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties.

Protecting civil liberties cannot be written into a legislative Act and then be forgotten about: it is an ongoing process and one that we as Liberal Democrats must continue to uphold. The Protection of Freedoms Act based upon Liberal Democrat proposals to scrap the most intrusive and illiberal laws introduced by Labour is an achievement we should be shouting about. But the emergency legislation announced today is a chance to go even further and potentially win back some of those supporters we have lost in recent years by proving we are willing to stand up for what we believe in.

Our MPs and Ministers repeatedly tell us we are in government not because we are part of the establishment but because we want to break the establishment. This emergency bill is a chance to show everyone we are still the party that stands up for civil liberties.


Photo by Jordiet

* Alex Smethurst is a Parliamentary Assistant and candidate for Redland ward in Bristol in the local elections in May (written in a personal capacity).

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Allen 10th Jul '14 - 2:22pm

    “Why are we not prepared to have the battle?”

    Because a good career as a permanent junior coalition partner is what Nick Clegg is about. We won’t have enough MPs to force our way back after 2105, so we shall have to use charm. That means adopting a relaxed attitude to a whole host of issues, most recently fracking, nuclear power, Trident, the House of Lords, and now snooping. Gizza job Dave, we won’t be any trouble! How’s that Rose Garden looking these days?

  • “Liberal Democrats should take a stand on state surveillance powers”

    Your leaders have done exactly that. The “stand” being that the government should be able to snoop on its citizens no matter what the European Courts say.

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Jul '14 - 2:59pm

    David Allen
    “We won’t have enough MPs to force our way back after 2105”

    What, not even after 90 years? Sadly, you may be right…

  • David Evershed 10th Jul '14 - 3:00pm

    At today’s press conference, the PM said that the European Court of Justice’s objections to the EU Directive, which is the extant law in the Uk, would be allowed for in the emergency UK law to be enacted this next week. Alex Smethhurst may have missed this and can let us know next week that this is what has happened.

    If the UK law does not cover the ECJ objections then the UK law will be challenged at the ECJ, so there is no point not taking it into account in the drafting of the UK law.

    We have yet to hear from UKIP how laws made at the EU level receive insufficient scrutiny and are better made by the UK Parliament where Alex Smethhurst’s views might get a better chance of being heard.

  • If the European Court of Justice says existing state surveillance powers are unlawful then we should not re-introduce them with no questions asked

    Of course we should, if only to make it clear that Parliament makes the laws in our country, not a foreign court.

  • But Dav, you are being a little disingenuous here – the Courts make an awful lot of the law in this country anyway. Signing to the Treaty of Rome meant that European Law was recognised as being the legal highest authority. Parliamentary law, passed through the European Parliament, often through codecision powers with the European Council, will, of course, be enforced by the ECJ. The ECJ is NOT a foreign court, it is an accepted, written into treaty, part of English (and Scottish) Law, for over 40 years now.

  • paul barker 10th Jul '14 - 3:22pm

    This needs a proper debate & I cant see how we can have that debate now with everyone gearing up for next May. We could cancel the Summer Recess but what makes you think we would get better Laws from tired, grumpy MPsm many of whom have already anounced their Retirement. Lets raise the Issues in The Election Campaign & Have aproper debate in a fresh Parliament.

  • Signing to the Treaty of Rome meant that European Law was recognised as being the legal highest authority

    Yes it did, and I think it’s clear now what a mistake that was.

  • matt (Bristol) 10th Jul '14 - 4:51pm

    I would like to agree with Paul Barker (it happens), but I suspect if we just said ‘we will not sign up to this’ we would have to face the possibility of our principled objections being ignored, unheard or trammelled all over whilst Cameron and May went ahead anyway, and/or have to leave the coalition early and be prepared to take potshots from others for ‘deserting’. I guess we can take it as read now (if we didn’t know it already) that leaving the coalition early is not on the leadership’s agenda (at any cost?).

    The problem is that now our fingerprints are all over this potentially unsatisfactory and controversial legislation which the party at large would in principle like its leadership to oppose, so running an election campaign on this basis is fraught with risk, too.

    If we ever ever ever get back into government, we should try to secure an agreement which would give us control of whole ministries / portfolios, not with our ministers being the thinly spread jam in the Labour or Tory sandwich.

  • Tony Greaves 10th Jul '14 - 5:45pm

    The key bit of Julian’s piece seems to me to be:

    ” The European Court of Justice threw out the European Data Retention Directive, which underpins all collection of communications data in this country. ”

    In other words, the legislation that has been “thrown out” is EU legislation, which has been transposed by all member states not just by us? So what are all the other member states doing about it?

    Tony Greaves

  • Steve Comer 10th Jul '14 - 6:03pm

    I agree with Tony, if this is EU legislation that has been thrown out, then it needs to go back to the European Parliament for re-drafting.

    And as Alex says “let’s have the debate as to whether the state should have these powers in the first place.” Sunset clauses are a complete red herring.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jul '14 - 6:25pm

    As I suggested on the other thread, Lib Dems need to show they can deal with people’s concerns about security and not just civil liberties.

    I wish I had the time to read more about it and make a better comment, but I’m trying to give politics a bit more of a back seat at the moment.


  • Colin is absolutely right. It is now quite clear that a liberal society is not possible within our lifetimes under Westminster rule with its cosy elites.

    Only a YES vote in September followed by the drawing up of a full written constitution limiting the powers of the state and enshrining the rights of the individual can protect civil liberty. This is something liberals have yearned for for generations and a YES vote can bring it about within a matter of a year or two.

  • Richard Dean 10th Jul '14 - 8:04pm

    This country is second to none in its protection of civil liberties. Part of that protection involves detecting who the nasty people are, so as to prevent deathly outrages. If providing that protection requires some intrusion into people’s privacy then I may well decide to accept.

    The duty to protect life and limb sometimes trumps the duty to protect privacy. A party that does not recognize this, and does not incorporate it into realistic policies, is surely unlikely to be given much support by an intelligent electorate.

  • John Broggio 10th Jul '14 - 8:18pm

    “If providing that protection requires some intrusion into people’s privacy then I may well decide to accept.”

    Well, yes, our spooks were great at stopping the 7/7 bombers weren’t they?

    Maybe, just maybe, if they conducted targeted surveillance there wouldn’t be lots of rubbish for them to sort through & they could focus on the dangerous people.

  • Richard Dean 10th Jul '14 - 8:24pm

    @John Broggio
    The 7/7 atrocity proves my point – more powers are needed. My own appraisal is a common one: if there weren’t so many liberals in government then maybe we’d all be a lot safer.

  • Matt (Bristol) 10th Jul '14 - 8:39pm

    Tony Greaves asks a very interesting point, some clues towards answer to which may be found herein (even though it is Wikipedia):


    This is a Europe-wide constitutional crisis , actually, which is nice to know it’s not just us.

    Interestingly, the European Data Retention Directive originated with a plenary session of the European Council (think I’ve got that right, this is not my area of expertise) chaired by the UK, in the person of the Home Secretary, who was at the time, the oh so incredibly liberal and tolerant John Reid.

  • Matt (Bristol) 10th Jul '14 - 8:41pm

    I’m sorry, I’ve checked my facts again. It was Charles Clarke. Not much difference.

  • I think Charles Clarke was slightly more liberal, but as for tolerance, I seem to remember he was famous for losing his temper.

  • John Broggio 10th Jul '14 - 9:52pm

    @ Richard

    In case all the NSA/GCHQ treachery has passed you by, the spooks had the capability and worked at the edges of the law to do what we are now being asked to approve back in those days. They collected so much useless rubbish, they missed genuine targets of surveillance.

    We could be “safer” if we just stopped meddling in or creating foreign conflicts, thus “inspiring” fewer people to commit acts of terrorism against us. Or we could go further down the Stasi route, as exemplified by our glorious spooks. It’s a tricky choice, admittedly.

  • Richard Dean 10th Jul '14 - 10:23pm

    @John Broggio
    What you write proves my point again – more powers are needed. If you are an expert on these things then I’ll take your word for it that “spooks” need extra powers in order to be able to better “target” people, ok.

  • John Broggio 10th Jul '14 - 10:38pm

    @ Richard.

    I don’t dispute some powers are needed. I don’t accept though that we need to legitimise the spying on me, you & everyone else.

    Before mass surveillance by our Stasi state came along, we managed to thwart many an atrocity; admittedly, some did succeed, as they have done now. Back in those days though, we weren’t all automatically cast as suspects and spied upon.

    So the choice is: imperfect security with spying on everyone or imperfect security without spying on everyone.

  • Richard Dean 10th Jul '14 - 11:30pm

    @John Broggio
    I listen to everyone in this debate, and I look for rational arguments one way or the other. But, when the security forces that keep us safe are compared to the Stasi, I realize that the person I’m listening to has nothing to say.

  • Richard,
    The problem is that the security forces don’t just keep us safe. They pretty much do whatever the governnent of the day’s wants them to do and that can include producing misleading data to support a war, extraordinary rendition and spying on people for caring about the enviroment or organising perfectky legal protests. Sure they are not the Stasi, but this doesn’t mean they should be given the power to snoop on everyone or that laws should be rushed through based on a deal cooked up by the leaders of our political parties,

  • Richard Dean 11th Jul '14 - 9:21pm

    @David Gould
    A million or so UK citizens die a year, and about 100 million citizens of the globe. Does that mean we shouldn’t fight against those who wish to make life miserable for those that remain? Does it mean we should not seek to protect million or so UK babies born every year or the 100 million babies born globally each year?

  • Richard,
    Don’t you think the lib em voice is a curious place to posit the idea that there are too many liberals in government!
    Aside from that if safety was the only issue we could ban overseas travel, kitchen knives, batteries and mobile phones. We would be very safe indeed,
    Personally, I just believe it is just as illiberal to give the government the right to poke around in peoples private correspondences. This is because I’m a bit on the liberal side and a little suspicious when government agencies conspire together to remove freedoms under the pretext of a threat. Also . for instance . if the police didn’t shoot innocent people seven times in the head on a train and get away with it or important information on Diego Garcia was not too damp damaged to use and such as like, maybe I would feel differently.

  • Richard Dean 12th Jul '14 - 4:10pm

    There is no evidence that “government agencies conspire together to remove freedoms”. The 500 or so British jihadists in the Islamic State aren’t a “pretext” of a threat – they are real, and far from the only threats.

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