It’s up to Labour to protect our civil liberties

Katy Clark

The latest Guardian revelations about NSA spying have been met with a furious reaction in Berlin and Paris, after it emerged that the American spy agency has been tapping the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel and carrying out mass surveillance in France. Both countries are now openly calling for a new set of transatlantic rules on security service and intelligence behavior.

Our Government, meanwhile, is largely out of step with our European partners. The Prime Minister sheepishly signed up to an EU statement expressing concern about the latest revelations, but back at home the Tories continue to prove they have lost all credibility on civil liberties. Instead of joining the mounting calls for proper scrutiny of Tempora, GCHQ’s own mass data surveillance programme, Tory MP Julian Smith used a debate in Parliament last week to ludicrously call for the Guardian to be prosecuted for its role in revealing the programme. The Home Office Minister James Brokenshire then responded by claiming the Guardian has harmed national security.

As Tom Watson has rightly argued, the Guardian is acting in the public interest by disclosing information about Tempora and other spying activities. What we now need is a public debate about mass surveillance and proper parliamentary scrutiny of our intelligence services. The call by John McDonnell in his Early Day Motion for an independent review which reports to Parliament is a helpful contribution to the debate. But instead of this, what we are getting from the Tories is a diversionary attack on freedom of the press.

Sadiq Khan wrote last month that Labour is now the party of civil liberties. And so we must be. It is up to us to champion this agenda and put the country on a different path.

This goes further than Tempora and the NSA revelations. The Conservatives are presiding over a growing assault on our civil liberties. In August David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was held for nine hours by police at Heathrow airport under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. This came after Greenwald published the Tempora revelations. Lord Facolner, who helped introduce the Act, said these extraordinary powers were only intended for use against people suspected of involvement in terrorism. But they are now being used to harass those who are trying to scrutinise the intelligence services. This should worry us all.

Then there is the lobbying transparency bill, which is now progressing through Parliament. The bill aims to gag charities and campaign groups such as Amnesty International, compromising their ability to raise awareness of important causes, including human rights. This is a restriction on freedom of association and a threat to the sort of strong and vocal civil society we need to hold government to account.

And the Tories have now pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act, which places explicit protections for rights such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly in UK law for the very first time.

As for Tempora itself, the revelations that GCHQ has been tapping into and storing the digital data of millions of people, without the knowledge of either the public or Parliament, are deeply alarming. And yet the Tories seem intent on shooting the messenger rather than investigating the programme and addressing legitimate concerns. Written before this kind of mass data surveillance was even possible, our surveillance laws are desperately out of date. MPs have never even had a vote on Tempora. Maybe it’s time we did.

Labour has not always got it right on civil liberties. After 9/11 and the London bombings, the national security imperative sometimes got in the way of balanced decision-making.  As for the proposals to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge, we must never again try to introduce something so draconian that it undermines the free society we are supposed to be protecting.

Ed Miliband has pledged to reclaim the British tradition of liberty. We are strongly opposing the lobbying bill, and fiercely defending the Human Rights Act. And Labour MPs lined up to speak in defence of the Guardian at Smith’s debate last week. But there is more we must do. We must hold the Government to account on Tempora and the rest of the spying allegations. This could very well become the biggest debate about the balance between security and liberty in our generation. Let’s make sure we come down on the right side and prove that we really can be the party of civil liberties.

Katy Clark is Labour’s MP for North Ayrshire and Arran

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