Opening emails, closing public courts – the Government has got itself in another fine mess. The Home Secretary, as so often when the going gets tough, has gone to ground. The Deputy Prime Minister is briefing against plans he personally signed off a few months ago. Little wonder everyone is so alarmed.
Yet this debate is too important for such incompetence. Some Government proposals go too far. Others are unjustified or unclear and more safeguards are needed. But there are also significant national security and criminal challenges to be addressed. No one wins from this debacle. Ministers need to get a grip fast, otherwise national security, liberty and confidence will all be undermined.
Three separate issues have become entangled. First, there is a problem over foreign intelligence sharing. The Government argues that complex civil case law has created an unintended loophole in the principle that each country controls its own secrets. The Intelligence and Security Select Committee has warned that other countries – particularly the US – are withholding important information for fear it could be published without their agreement as a result. Action is clearly needed to resolve the problem.
However, plans for closed court procedures are not about protecting foreign intelligence, but handling civil claims against British organisations. Even security experts agree the Green Paper is too widely drawn – proposing secret procedures to be invoked whenever "sensitive" material is at stake. The Government has failed to explain how these plans are proportionate to the problem it faces.
On greater internet surveillance, we still have little clue what the Government plans. The police and agencies need to keep up with new technology – for example to disrupt terror plots. But privacy needs to be protected. The devil is in the detail and detail comes there none. Ministers also need to recognise the wider problem. Parliament is being asked to introduce new powers to protect freedom and safety. Yet the justification is based on secret information. In the modern world, few are comfortable supporting big legal changes based on ministerial testimony alone. Government oversight plans are still too half-hearted to deliver the checks and balances we need.
None of this is easy. Labour in government rightly introduced stronger powers to deal with terrorists and stronger safeguards through the Human Rights Act. Both were criticised. But these issues are too important not to have more clarity, responsibility and leadership now. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister must get a grip, pull the final legislation from the Queen's Speech, and start proper consultation on the detail of plans and safeguards. For the sake of our liberty and our security, they need to get it right.
Yvette Cooper is the Shadow Home Secretary
- More about: