Ken Clarke raises data protection fears

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has warned the European Union not to sacrifice individual freedoms in the battle to boost security.

He said the UK had experience of the "authoritarian extremes" of the previous Labour government on the issue of data protection, with more than one million unconvicted citizens on the national DNA database and attempts to introduce compulsory ID cards.

Now, he said, Europe had to guard against the risk of an authoritarian response "which stifles democracy and provides succour to our enemies".

Mr Clarke was speaking at the British Chamber of Commerce in Brussels in the midst of ongoing negotiations on updating Europe's data protection laws.

A new EU-US deal on the collection of airline passenger information is due to be agreed later this year - but the Guardian newspaper claimed that a leaked document reflecting the state of negotiations so far showed that Washington was pressing for the right to keep EU passengers' personal data for 15 years.

The move would revive controversy about breaches of EU privacy laws, with MEPs expected to raise objections in a vote in the next few weeks.

Mr Clarke said that the pooling of information was necessary in modern society, but added: "The challenge is having a system of rules that are subtle and grounded enough to protect those three crucial rights: privacy, safety and freedom.

"The watchword for me in relation to data protection is flexibility.

"A preoccupation with imposing a single, inflexible, detailed data protection regime on the whole of the EU, regardless of the peculiarities of different culture and legal systems, carries with it serious risks."

He went on: "I am optimistic that there's a common sense solution on this. Our experience in the UK is that security, freedom and privacy are possible.

"We do not agree with those who say that we have to choose between being safe, being free and being private. We must protect all these basic rights."

Mr Clarke said there was no doubt that EU countries had to improve their current data protection regime, while respecting the fact that "different nations need different nuances".

That meant agreeing the broad approach at EU level but not "arguing endlessly" over the details.

The EU was a union of member states with the nations as the "fundamental building block", with separate national legal and judicial systems and procedures but the shared belief in the values of democracy, rights and the rule of law.

He warned: "We must guard against regulations that are so obsessively concerned with data protection that they fail to recognise that harm can result from failure to share information.

"My view is that the correct approach (on data protection) is one that recognises shared values but rejects a one-size-fits-all way of delivering them.

"We each have constitutional and cultural identities to which we are attached - the EU should not be challenging them."