Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was branded “irresponsible” by a Conservative former police minister today for blocking new powers for security services to monitor the emails and internet use of suspected terrorists.
Following the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week, Home Secretary Theresa May is hoping to resurrect the Communications Data Bill, which Mr Clegg vetoed from inclusion in this month's Queen's Speech.
Critics have branded the bill a “snooper's charter” and argue it would act as a recruiting sergeant for terror groups.
And The Independent quoted unnamed “senior security sources” today as saying that MI5 does not believe the legislation would have helped prevent the soldier's murder.
But Tory MP Nick Herbert, who served as police minister under Mrs May from 2010 to 2012, said that opposition to the bill was driven by “paranoid libertarianism” and accused its critics of “missing judgment”.
Writing in The Times, Mr Herbert said: “Nick Clegg is being irresponsible in preventing the Government from bringing the measure forward.”
He added: “To claim that letting the security agencies find out who terrorist suspects have been talking to is as evil as hacking down an unarmed soldier is a sign of missing judgment.
“The call, after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, to revive a Government bill that would allow the authorities to monitor the online activity of possible terrorists has been met with a paranoid libertarianism that denies any sense of proportion...
“Using new technology to intercept terrorist plots doesn't recruit terrorists. It jails them.”
Mrs May made clear at the weekend that she wants to revive the legislation, which would require internet companies to retain records of emails and social media messages for a year and allow police and security agencies to access the data, but not the content of messages.
The Home Secretary told the BBC: “I'm clear, the law enforcement agencies, the intelligence agencies need access to communications data and that is essential to them doing their job.”
Her call was backed by Labour's former home secretary Lord Reid and ex-security minister Lord West, as well as Lib Dem peer and former reviewer of anti-terror legislation Lord Carlile.
But Mr Clegg has set his face against the bill, leading some Tory MPs to speculate that he might retaliate to any Conservative bid to resurrect it by telling his Liberal Democrat MPs to vote with Labour for a mansion tax.
Emma Carr, deputy director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "Mr Herbert is engaging in exactly the kind of ill-informed knee jerk the Prime Minister warned against.
"His article is littered with factual errors, contradicting the director general of MI5 and criticising measures he himself voted for. He also entirely ignores the fact that existing law allows the police and security services to monitor suspected terrorists, while the Communications Data Bill expressly forbids the content of messages to be viewed.
"The mature response is to calmly review the facts when they are known and ask whether the Communications Data Bill is the best use of billions of pounds when the security services are already struggling to find the resources to deal with the data they already have. It is regrettable a former minister has decided to act in such a cavalier fashion and is willing to play fast and loose with the facts to make a political point."