It could be concluded from developments over the past 48 hours that the Government was engaging in a major rethink on two pieces of security-related legislation it had seemed wedded to. The first is the long-mooted plan for trials and inquests to be held behind closed doors where there are national security implications. The second concerns proposals, revealed last weekend, to extend the surveillance of those using the internet and social media.
Both measures had, quite rightly, come in for ferocious criticism – from campaigners, from most of the media, and from not a few Coalition MPs – as imposing potentially serious curbs on civil liberties. The plan for "secret" trials was additionally condemned yesterday in a report by the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which described such closed hearings as "inherently unfair". All this was doubly disappointing, given that the Coalition had come to office promising to repeal the repressive anti-terrorism measures passed by the previous government.
Now, though, the Government is singing a different tune. The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, seems to accept that the proposals for closed trials go too far, while the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has said that extending surveillance of the internet will appear in the Queen's Speech only as a "draft". The impression is being given, if not of a comprehensive government U-turn, at least of a readiness to renew consultation.
If this is so, it would be extremely welcome – for while the threat presented by terrorism should not be underestimated, nor should the lobbying skills of the intelligence services. And both sets of proposals threatened to tip the necessary balance far too far away from civil liberties and towards security. Yet the actual words used by ministers yesterday fell short of a complete rethink, and the desire of Mr Clegg, in particular, to present his party as exerting a seriously liberalising influence on policy must also be borne in mind. A close watch needs to be kept on what comes next, including what features in the Queen's Speech. Only then will it be clear whether the Government has had a change of heart, or has merely changed its words.Reuse content