by Steve Beasant on 23 August, 2013
Being a Lib Dem Minister in Government has both its pleasures and its downsides. One of the downsides is that if anything hits the headlines concerning civil liberties there are some in the Party who instantly assume that Lib Dem ministers have been passive and quiescent whilst human rights are trampled under foot. The case of David Miranda, and more broadly what we are doing regarding the use of the Schedule 7 powers which were used to detain him at Heathrow is a good case in point.
I’ve read with interest the views of a wide range of Liberal Democrats, both here on Lib Dem Voice and further afield. It is clear that many Liberal Democrats, understandably, feel deeply uneasy about the detainment of someone who was travelling on behalf of a journalist. The freedom of the press is an essential liberty, and the work of investigative journalists plays an important role in holding government and private organisations to account.
It is also important, however, that despite this sense of unease, we respond to the facts and not hypothetical scenarios. That is why Liberal Democrats working in the Coalition have been very clear that we are awaiting the report of David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. David Anderson is in a unique position. He has access to the most secret information, is an experienced lawyer, and is able to make a clear, professional and non-partisan judgement about what constitutes an abuse of anti-terrorism powers. As a party which cares deeply about protecting civil liberties, it is important we await his verdict on the detention of David Miranda.
But there is a broader and very important point here, and one which goes back to the overbearing curtailment of civil liberties which we saw during the last Labour government. This is why I have been so surprised in recent days to hear Labour speaking out in favour of civil liberties. I have many memories of the long nights Liberal Democrat MPs and Peers endured to fight the Labour government during their intrusive, prolonged and unnecessary legislative drive to limit British civil liberties. The Liberal Democrats should be rightly proud of the successes we have had in this government, such as the passing of the Protection of Freedoms Bill. But, inevitably, we are still working to amend other pieces of legislation.
Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is one of these powers which we are seeking to limit. It is clearly a broad and over-bearing power. Examining people at ports and airports is necessary for public safety and UK security, but at present this power goes too far. In December 2012 the Home Office undertook a public consultation to examine the use of Schedule 7 powers, and David Anderson QC also made a series of recommendations to reform the use of these powers. At present, we have proposed a number of changes to Schedule 7 in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. The Bill is at report stage in the House of Commons, and Jeremy Browne MP is working on the Liberal Democrat side of the Coalition to navigate the Bill through Parliament.
The proposed changes to the powers include:
* A reduction in the maximum period of detainment from 9 to 6 hours
* The extension of the right to have a person informed of their detention
* The right to consult privately with a solicitor when detained at a port (currently only available when someone is detained under Schedule 7 at a police station)
* Examination beyond one hour will require formal detention, ensuring access to legal advice
* The introduction of a requirement for a detention to be periodically reviewed
* A requirement to make provision in the statutory code of practice about the training of examining or review officers
* The repeal of the power to take an intimate sample
* And the introduction of an express provision for the copying and retention of information from a seized item, for example the call history information stored on a mobile phone.
These changes will reduce the potential for this power to be a misused; will protect the rights of those the power is applied to; and crucially still ensures that police at UK borders are capable of ensuring the safety of UK citizens. As someone who is proud of the achievements of the Liberal Democrats in Government, I look forward to this Bill passing over to the House of Lords, and having the chance to walk through the division lobby with my fellow Liberal Democrat Peers in support of these changes.
I recognise the serious concerns raised over the detention of David Miranda, and await David Anderson’s review. But importantly, Schedule 7 is a power which needs reform, and one which the Liberal Democrats have the opportunity to do so as part of the Coalition. Let me assure Liberal Democrats that those of us in Government will work to ensure that happens.Leave a comment