The Queen's Speech: "Snoopers' charter" attacked by campaigners

 

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Controversial "snooping" proposals and plans for more court hearings in secret will go ahead "allowing no scrutiny for them and no privacy for us", campaigners said today.

Politicians of all parties should remember the values everyone is supposed to share before pushing through the reforms, civil rights group Liberty said.

Plans to enable courts to sit behind closed doors when considering issues of national security and powers to monitor emails and internet communications will all be part of the Government's programme of reforms in the next 12 months.

Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty's director, said: "Two years ago, the coalition bound itself together with promises and action to protect our rights and freedoms.

"As the strains of governing in a recession begin to show, politicians of all parties should remember the values that we are all supposed to share.

"Whilst action on free speech is extremely welcome, proposals for secret courts and a snoopers' charter risk allowing no scrutiny for them and no privacy for us."

Under the draft Communications Data Bill, authorities would not be able to view the content of email and text messages, but could identify who someone was contacting, how often and for how long, and could also access internet browsing history.

The Government has said the plans are needed to tackle crime and terrorism and to ensure the police and security services can keep pace with developments in technology.

But they have already exposed tensions within the coalition over its stance on civil liberties.

The communications data will be kept for up to 12 months by service providers and the role of the Interception of Communications Commissioner will also be extended to oversee the collection of the data.

The Justice and Security Bill will also reform the way sensitive evidence from the security services is handled in national security cases.

Under the moves, a defendant or claimant and their lawyer would be barred from the closed part of the hearing, removing the adversarial nature of the justice system and leading to fears that evidence may not be tested properly and miscarriages of justice could take place.

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has said the powers were needed to ensure other countries, particularly the United States, were happy to share intelligence without fear of it being exposed in British courts.

It is also designed to ensure courts can fully consider all the evidence in civil claims made against the Government to prevent it being forced to settle cases which it believes has no merit.

It follows secret multi-million pound payouts to 16 terrorism suspects, including former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed, last November after they claimed they had been mistreated by security and intelligence officials.

Nick Pickles, director of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "The Home Office have been very good at saying what the problem is, but seem intent on keeping the technical details of what they are proposing secret.

"Is it any wonder that the public are scared by a proposal for online surveillance not seen in any other Western democracy?

"If someone is suspected of plotting an attack the powers already exist to tap their phone, read their email and follow them on the street.

"Instead of scaremongering, the Home Office should come forward and engage with the debate about how we improve public safety, rather than pursue a policy that will indiscriminately spy on everyone online while the real threats are driven underground and escape surveillance."

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public.

"We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes.

"Communications data has played a role in every major Security Service counter-terrorism operation over the past decade and in 95% of all serious organised crime investigations.

"It is vital to law enforcement, especially when dealing with organised crime gangs, paedophile rings and terrorist groups."

The Queen said the plans would be brought forward, "subject to scrutiny of draft clauses".

It comes after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made clear the proposals could only proceed if they took into account and protected civil liberties.

PA

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