UK coalition under pressure over ‘Big Brother’ monitoring plans and secret courts

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By a Newsnet reporter
 
The UK coalition has come in for fierce criticism over its plans to allow the British state to monitor internet use and communication of all UK citizens.
 
The outcry follows plans for a new law that would allow the UK Government’s information monitoring services GCHQ to access individuals’ emails, web-browsing, social networking and phone calls as they happen.

Supporters of the proposals have argued that safeguards will be in place in order to ensure the new powers are not abused.

The move is also backed by the Labour party who themselves tried to introduce similar legislation in 2007 – a move that was blocked by then by the Tories.

However critics have pointed out that safeguards have not yet been spelled out and that the risk of innocent people being targeted will be high.

Chris Fox, former head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the idea was “fraught with danger for the innocent vast majority”, not least because criminals would try to pretend they are law abiding citizens.

“If you are investigating crime you have targets… it just seems to be overkill and intrusive for the 99.9% of the rest of us.”

Deputy First Minister Nick Clegg defended the new legislation and said it would be published in draft first to allow for debate.

The Lib Dem leader insisted that the safeguards would absolutely guarantee protection for civil liberties.

“There’s been a lot of scaremongering, a lot of myths about in the media over the last couple of days,” he said.

“Any measures will be proportionate.  They will not sacrifice people’s civil liberties, we will not create a new government database and we will not give police new powers to look into people’s emails.”

Mr Clegg claimed that the Tory/Lib Dem coalition would not ram the legislation through parliament, however according to the BBC a senior Home Office source said the proposal “absolutely will not be dropped or even delayed”.

However the Lib Dem leader faces a backbench rebellion with news that sixteen Lib Dem MPs had signed an open letter condemning the move.

Home Secretary Theresa May will be quizzed on the proposals by a Commons Select Committee next month.  Mrs May has claimed the move will help bring “criminals, paedophiles and terrorists” to justice, and “ordinary people” would have nothing to fear.

Meanwhile it has also emerged that the UK coalition are actively considering plans that would allow so called ‘secret trials’ to be held in the UK.

The plans would allow special advocates to examine documents relating to the trial of defendants; however the defendants would have no right to have their own side heard.

Senior Lib Dems are said to be unhappy with what many people will see as a further erosion of civil liberties.

MPs and peers on Westminster’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) have said that no case has been made by the UK Government for more court hearings and inquests to be heard in secret. 

Human rights campaign groups said the JCHR’s concerns were proof that the proposals should be dropped.

Clare Algar, executive director of Reprieve, said: “To destroy our centuries-old tradition of open justice is bad enough.  To do so based on unfounded gossip and misunderstanding would be nothing short of criminal.”

However Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has insisted they are “a common-sense solution to a genuine problem”.

Mr Clarke said “British intelligence agents obviously cannot give evidence in open court about their sources, their techniques and their secret knowledge.

“This means that there is a compelling case for changing the current rules which stop judges considering any sensitive intelligence evidence at all, even where the case hinges on it, in compensation hearings or other civil cases.”

The plans also include “a cast-iron guarantee to the Americans that any intelligence shared with the UK will never be disclosed without the Americans’ consent”.  This guarantee has echoes of the struggle to obtain secret CIA communications relevant to the trial of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.