Ministers clash over ‘snooping’ powers

The police want new powers to look at emails and internet records to help them capture criminals and prevent terrorism. Assaults on freedom or a necessary sacrifice?

‘We cannot proceed with this Bill and we have to go back to the drawing board,’ Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has declared.

But he doesn’t speak for the Government. In fact, the Liberal Democrat leader was revealing the most dramatic disagreement to hit the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition for some time.

Theresa May, the Conservative Home Secretary, has warned that lives will be lost unless the police and security services are urgently given broad new powers to monitor email and other internet activity. Terrorists and dangerous offenders like child abusers, who make extensive use of the internet, will go undetected, she says.

Mrs May’s draft communications bill would force technology companies to keep the records of all customers’ communications and internet activity for a year, and hand over details when the security services require it.

Some parliamentarians have condemned the measures as ‘overkill’ and ‘trampling over privacy.’ They urge ministers not to bring in laws which could catch the entire online population in the security services’ net.

But other MPs argue that without updating the rules to give them access to much more data about internet use, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ will not be able to protect the country properly. The Intelligence and Security Committee is concerned that cyber-criminals and terror networks are making use of the most advanced technology to escape detection while the UK’s security is put at risk by outdated regulations that restrict surveillance.

Passions are running high, and Mrs May declares that those who object to the new measures, including Clegg and her other Lib Dem cabinet colleagues, are ‘putting politics before people’s lives’.

Watching the detectives

This moment of drama at Westminster springs from a fundamental difference in the philosophy of two parties joined together in a Government that is enacting the pure policies of neither. Conservatives tend to put law and order and defence of the nation first and Lib Dems see themselves as the defenders of civil liberties.

But the debate on these issues is one of the most common of our times: when terrorists profess a desire to murder and maim and each new week seems to bring revelations of abusers going unchallenged, should we go further to protect society from dangers that lurk within or threaten from outside? How many of our traditional freedoms should we be prepared to relinquish or compromise before the society we are defending becomes something different – something, perhaps, that we might feel less passionate about protecting anyway?

You Decide

  1. When you send an email or use the internet, does it feel ‘private’? Should it?
  2. ‘Living in a law-abiding society means everyone submitting to a degree of intrusion.’ Discuss.


  1. Creative writing: Write a first person account of what it might be like to listen in on someone else’s conversations and read their emails. Choose your genre: thriller or psychological exploration.
  2. Class debate: someone argue for Theresa May, someone else for Nick Clegg, and hold a class vote.

Some People Say...

“Nothing in modern life is private.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not a criminal or a terrorist, so why care?
That’s exactly the point: the proposals don’t target suspects, they require phone and internet companies to keep data on everyone’s communications. That could mean your email, web searches and Skype calls.
So what? I’m not doing anything wrong.
Good argument. But in some other countries, once agencies of the state like the police and security services gain powers to spy on its citizens, they can be abused. That is why some civil liberties campaigners warn about future intrusions on innocent individuals – they argue surveillance should be targeted on suspects and backed by warrants. But you may believe a blanket approach to crime prevention and detection is safer.

Word Watch

A government formed when more than one party comes together around a joint programme of policies. The current UK coalition was formed after the 2010 General Election delivered an inconclusive result: the Conservatives had the largest number of MPs but not a majority, so could not govern on their own and negotiated an agreement with the Lib Dems, the third largest party. Labour, the second largest party, is the official opposition.
Governments increasingly publish laws they want to pass in draft form, so that they can be changed to get maximum support in both Houses of Parliament, the Commons and the Lords. This is called pre-legislative scrutiny, and is designed to identify problems and build consensus.
MI5, MI6 and GCHQ
In order: the internal security service, the security service that combats threats to the UK overseas (any James Bond fan will know the difference!), and the Government Communications Headquarters, which monitors signals and communication.
Intelligence and Security Committee
This cross-party group of MPs specialises in subjects that are often secret. For this latest report, as very often, much of their interviewing had to be conducted in private and the evidence is not fully disclosed.

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