Simon Hughes and Nick Clegg oppose Cameron’s Snoopers’ Charter plans – or do they?

Last night, Liberal Democrat Justice Minister Simon Hughes expressed his opposition to David Cameron’s plans to legislate to give security services the right to intercept the internet communications of suspected terrorists.

He said:

It is vital that the police and intelligence agencies are able to investigate and prosecute terrorists, including surveillance of communications. The Liberal Democrats have moved quickly in Government to plug the gaps in existing legislation to bolster these abilities.

Future security measures must be proportionate, justified and necessary – and not trample on our civil liberties. The so-called Snoopers’ Charter, which would see the internet browsing of every single citizen stored for a year, fails these very reasonable precautions.

The idea that you protect free speech by spying on every law-abiding person in this country is a contradiction in terms. You can’t have an open society if you are constantly worried that the state is prying into your daily life.

In a specch last night, Nick Clegg said:

The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then in the next advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens.

He went into more detail on the Today programme, helpfully transcribed by the Guardian:

Let’s remember, the so-called snooper’s charter was about was about storing the social media activity and the websites visited by every single man, woman and child in this country – by everyone ….

It’s not about dark [spaces on the web]; it’s about do I think scooping up vast amounts of information on millions of people – children, grandmothers, grandparents, elderly people who do nothing more offensive than visiting garden centre websites – do I think that is a sensible use of our resources and our time and does it address the issue which you quite rightly identified and the agency quite rightly identified which is, as technology mutates, as this globalised industry becomes more and more global, how do we make sure that we continue to have the reach into those dark spaces so that terrorists cannot hide from it?

He defended the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish the image of Mohammed on their cover  because “we have to keep our values safe.”  He said that we shouldn’t self censor for fear of causing offence. You can’t have freedom unless you have the right to offend people. People should not seek to impose their ideas on those they share society with.

The Guardian criticised him for emphasising opposition to the snoopers’ charter when the issue was about intercepting the communications of known suspects. He said that the right to privacy was qualified.

If someone wants to do us harm, we should be able to break their privacy and go after their communications.

That presumably means that if there is evidence that someone is suspected of being involved  in terrorist activity, then the state can intercept their communications. He mentioned earlier in the interview that the Home or Foreign Secretary could issue warrants to do this. I can’t see either a Labour or Tory Home Secretary every saying to the spooks: “I’m not convinced about this one. Get me some proper evidence.”  There is a bit of  a tension here because we always used to say, and Liberty said so too, that control orders were too draconian, because we should be able to use intercept evidence to actually take people through the justice system and deal with them if they have been up to no good. If you have the right to intercept phone and mail, then what about messaging and social media for individual suspects? Is there an argument that that is logical? My worry is that if you are going to be against mass surveillance because it’s disproportionate and none of the state’s business what people are buying on Amazon or posting on Facebook, we need to be sure that when the state does put people under whatever kind of surveillance that it is done fairly and proportionately and based on evidence. What we could end up with is surveillance of a particular section of the community which would be even worse and would enhance rather than diminish the threat of terrorism.

The Guardian also criticised Nick over his comments about the hideous flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Nick said he hadn’t heard of the case.  If I’m honest, I do find that odd given that it’s been everywhere. It’s not as if Badawi’s story is new. Eric Avebury wrote about it on here 2 years ago. I guess as a blogger myself whose views would incur just as much disapproval from the Saudi regime, I feel particularly strongly for Badawi. and am ore likely to take notice when I see something like that happen.

Tim Farron certainly knew about itbcause he tweeted about it on Friday:

There have been a few cases where Nick says he hasn’t heard of stuff and you wonder how that can possibly be. He usually has the right reaction, though,  in this case:

I’m not aware of this case, I haven’t heard of it before, but my immediate reflex would be precisely the same and that [it] is a profoundly illiberal and draconian way to deal with someone who is expressing opinions which may not be agreed with by the Saudi regime but nonetheless are reasonably held and reasonably expressed.

On relations with Saudi Arabia he said that while it was important to criticise them, it was also important to work with them on things we agreed on. That’s very much in common with things Paddy has been saying – that we need to have short term alliances with people who don’t share our values in order to tackle specific problems.

I think we need to be open about those differences, and absolutely not shirk expressing them, but not necessarily pulling up the drawbridge to all cooperation altogether. That wouldn’t serve our interests either.

I can’t help but be reminded of Vince Cable’s steadfast refusal to socialise with the Saudi King way back in 2007 because of the country’s “appalling” human rights record. Global realpolitik might require a different way today, but the old one sits most comfortably with me.

You can listen to Nick’s Today programme interview here from around 2 hours 10 minutes in.  Even if you disagree with him, he’s saying the most liberal things of anybody in British politics. I do think we need to put some thought and energy into how we promote civil liberties in an environment where 70% want greater restrictions.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • jedibeeftrix 13th Jan '15 - 12:14pm

    “Let’s remember, the so-called snooper’s charter was about was about storing the social media activity and the websites visited by every single man, woman and child in this country – by everyone …. It’s not about dark [spaces on the web]; it’s about do I think scooping up vast amounts of information on millions of people”

    I heard clegg saying much the same on r4 this morning. A powerful performance, and I am very much agreed.

  • This is more like it.

    I think of all the things I don’t like we’ve implemented in Government, and several fundamental objections to the emerging 2015 manifesto, but I’m reminded that the Lib Dems are the only party making these arguments and taking a stand against an all-powerful state infringing our freedom, and I remember why I joined this party.

  • “That presumably means that if there is evidence that someone is suspected of being involved in terrorist activity, then the state can intercept their communications”

    I agree – and to me this is proportionate.

  • I assume that Hughes will speak strongly and passionately against any legislation, and then abstain during the vote?

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