Editorial: We should not sacrifice civil liberties in a panic

Mr Clegg cuts a lonely figure in resisting what he calls a snoopers’ charter

In the wake of a terrorist murder, the pressure is on politicians to promise some new law that will prevent such an outrage from recurring. Following the sickening murder of Lee Rigby in the streets of Woolwich, the Prime Minister David Cameron has been quick to announce the formation of a new task force on extremism and terrorism – TERFOR – charged mainly with monitoring radical clerics.

All to the good. For too long certain so-called hate preachers have been allowed to peddle a vile mishmash of anti-Western, anti-semitic, extreme homophobic and misogynist ideas among often unsuspecting congregations, even on university campuses, under the guise of religious instruction. The more closely monitored these men are the better.

But the danger is that, in the rush to silence hate preachers, we allow our leaders to hurl civil liberties into the dustbin. Witness the hue and cry after the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, forced the Coalition Government to drop the Data Communications Bill from the Queen’s Speech. The Bill obliged internet and phone providers to store all communications for a year and gave police rights to see details of these communications without needing permission.

Back in April, Mr Clegg assured listeners to his LBC radio show that plans to store details of online activity in this fashion were unworkable, and were “not going to happen” while Lib Dems formed part of the Government. Now he finds his objections to parts of the law hung round his neck. Lord Carlile, a former terrorism law watchdog and a member of his own party, writes that he told Mr Clegg earlier this month that his opposition would “come to haunt him”, adding that the murder of Lee Rigby “is an illustration of exactly what I said”.

Lord Carlile is not alone in demanding due penance from Mr Clegg and immediate re-introduction of the Bill. The Home Secretary Theresa May and two Labour former home secretaries, Alan Johnson and John Reid, demand the same. Mr Johnson says Ms May should make prompt passage of the Bill a resigning issue “if the Cabinet do not support her in this central part of what the security services do.” The Mayor of London Boris Johnson has also increased pressure on the Prime Minister, calling arguments for the law “compelling”.

Against this formidable phalanx of Tory and Labour heavyweights, Mr Clegg cuts a lonely figure in holding out against what he and others have called a snoopers’ charter. Yet it is worth remembering that a cross-party panel of Lords and MPs demanded revisions to the bill last December on the grounds that it gave too many sweeping powers to the Home Secretary and went “much further than it needed or should”.

The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Strasburger warned that the net result of the Bill might well be a “honeypot for casual hackers, blackmailers and criminals from around the world”. At the same time, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has told this newspaper that he does not believe that the Bill’s provisions would have made any difference to what happened in Woolwich.

The fact is that the security services, MI5 and MI6, already receive increased resources to deal with would-be bombers, which explains why the terrible events of 7 July 2005, when 52 people perished in the attacks on London, have not been repeated.

It may be unfashionable to say so, but Britain is already countering the threat of violent jihadists with some success. For that reason alone, we should continue to question calls to further extend police powers.

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