Queen's Speech 2012: Privacy and Open Justice in the firing line but progress on Free Speech

09 May 2012

Today Liberty responded with dismay as plans for a new Snooper’s Charter and Secret Courts were included in this year’s Queen’s Speech. But it welcomed the proposed Defamation Bill as advancing freedom of speech.

Ministers have revived plans for a Snoopers’ Charter which would see the collection and storage of “communications data” – the records of e-mail, text, phone calls and web browsing – for the entire population. A similar scheme was shelved by the Labour Government in 2009 following a fierce backlash and its fresh inclusion in the Queen’s Speech represents a u-turn on the Coalition’s May 2010 promise to “end the storage of internet and e-mail records without good reason”. Liberty today launches its No Snoopers’ Charter campaign against the proposals.

Meanwhile the proposed Justice and Security Bill would see secretive Closed Material Procedures extended to all civil proceedings. This dangerous and unnecessary move would not only overturn centuries of Common Law fair trial protections – it would undermine the vital constitutional principle that no-one, including the Government, is above the law. Liberty recently launched its For Their Eyes Only campaign in response and will continue lobbying against these plans.

Elsewhere in the Queen’s Speech however there was good news for free speech in the form a new Defamation Bill, which the human rights community has been actively campaigning for. Sadly there was still no mention of reforming Britain’s unfair extradition laws – something both Coalition partners promised while in opposition.

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, said:

“Two years ago, the Coalition bound itself together with promises and action to protect our rights and freedoms. As the strains of governing in a recession begin to show, politicians of all parties should remember the values that we are all supposed to share. Whilst action on free speech is extremely welcome, proposals for secret courts and a snoopers’ charter risk allowing no scrutiny for them and no privacy for us.”

Contact: Liberty Press Office on 020 7378 3656 or 07973 831128

NOTES TO EDITORS:

1. The Government claims the Draft Communications Data Bill will “maintain” the ability of law enforcement to access communications data. In fact the proposals will dramatically increase the amount of information retained on the phone calls, emails, texts and web habits of the entire population. Access to this information is not limited to law enforcement but is instead granted to all local authorities and hundreds of other public bodies for a wide range of purposes that have nothing to do with crime fighting. The vast data collection will turn a nation of citizens into a nation of suspects and allow the authorities to build a very intimate picture of someone’s personal life and such blanket surveillance will inevitably lead to discrimination.

2. The Government claims one of the benefits of the Justice and Security Bill will increase scrutiny of the security and intelligence agencies ensuring that where an individual challenges an action taken by the Government, such claims can be properly investigated and scrutinized by the courts. But in reality the Bill will seriously undermine vital public scrutiny of Ministers, Security Services and public bodies. It will introduce the controversial and highly flawed system of Closed Material Procedures and Special Advocates into the ordinary civil law. Secret evidence – never disclosed to the claimant, the claimant’s lawyer, let alone public or press – will be used to defend serious allegations in cases where the Government claims that the material might damage the “public interest”. The only people allowed to be present in court will be the judge, the Government itself and the Government-appointed Special Advocate, leaving the Government’s evidence dangerously unchallenged.

3. Read Liberty’s evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the Draft Defamation Bill that was examined in the last parliamentary session: http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/pdfs/policy11/liberty-s-evidence-to-the-joint-committee-on-the-draft-d.pdf