Rejection: Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, vetoed the Communications Data Bill out of the 2013 Queen's Speech
By Lord Alex Carlile
I am certain the name of Drummer Rigby and the method of his cruel assassination will become ingrained in British history. That brave young man was the essence of the Army and other soldiery that protects us all and our country – strong, lion-hearted, disciplined yet full of life.
The cruelty he endured in death will not quell the drums of his famous regimental band. Soldiers rightly will remain proud of their craft and calling. Nor will the sound of his own drum be silenced, as the background and consequences of the case are examined.
The public, rightly, are very angry about his murder. They expect that anger to be recognised not in revenge, but in thought and deeds by the Government. This requires a calm response by Mr Cameron and his Ministers, but response there must be. This may include that most difficult thing for Ministers – accepting that they and some of their supporters may have been wrong about decisions taken in the past.
As the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation between 2001 and 2011, I was asked during the time of the last Government, and later by the Coalition, to advise on what became the Communications Data Bill. This is the draft legislation that critics have casually and incautiously labelled as a ‘Snoopers’ Charter’.
I, and others including the former Home Secretary Lord (John) Reid and the former Security Minister Lord West of Spithead, have been consistent in our support of the proposed law. I was shocked when my own party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, in response to honest but siren voices ignorant of the evidence, decided to veto the Bill out of the 2013 Queen’s Speech.
The veto was a political decision, not one based on the merits. It was contrary to what are certainly the views of the Home Secretary Theresa May and probably those of the Prime Minister. The security services and the police clearly felt the need for the new law.
On May 12, 2013, just a few days before Drummer Rigby’s death, as part of an exchange of letters which otherwise I prefer to keep private, I wrote to Mr Clegg: ‘Of course, the most important issue about all this is the safety of the public.
‘If it really is the position that you have vetoed the substance of the previously proposed legislation, I fear that this may come to haunt you and the party if any terrorism event occurs which could otherwise have been avoided.’
The murder of the soldier is an illustration of exactly what I meant. The response should be immediate and clear. The Communications Data Bill, of course subject to the safeguards and scrutiny already agreed in the last session of Parliament, should be reintroduced during the coming weeks.
Insistence: Lord Carlile (pictured) is calling for Whitehall to have another look at the Bill which, he says, could catch terror suspects, murderers, drug dealers and money-launderers
This is not a kneejerk reaction. It is what has been recommended and expected by most informed sources for years. The Labour Party may need to remind itself of what it intended in Government and might be persuaded to play no parliamentary games over the Bill.
The Conservative Party (with a few exceptions) will need little persuasion. The Liberal Democrats should recognise that we, or at least our leader, were wrong to stop it.
Nobody suggests seriously that the proposals should be used to check up on school attendance or other middling local authority functions cited to rubbish the proposals. Nor is anybody suggesting routine access to the contents of text messages, emails or phone calls. What the Communications Data Bill proposes is that there should be a properly organised and regulated system to allow the authorities to know for a period, in a standardised format, the starting and end points of telephone calls and electronic communications.
This kind of material is used routinely already in the courts. It has caught murderers, drug dealers and money-launderers.
Communications data is evidence of a completely objective kind, almost entirely incapable of challenge. When linked with travel patterns in particular, it can provide compelling, even irrefutable, evidence.
I do not have enough information to say whether the death of Drummer Rigby would or might have been avoided if the Bill had been passed a year or two ago. It is possible. That inquiry should be examined by the Intelligence and Security Committee. The committee will examine, too, the level of knowledge and actions of the police and the security services in relation to the perpetrators.
Tragic: Drummer Lee Rigby, 25, from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, died as a result of a heinous act of terrorism on the streets of South London this week
In that context, we are going to have to be realistic about what the security services can do, without an unacceptable expansion of their size: the setting of priorities is part of the task we give them, and excessive hindsight may mislead. The general level of skill and quality in the leadership of MI5 and MI6 is exceptional. What I am sure of is that, whatever judgments are passed on the security services and the police, they need communications data under the regime set out in the Bill. There is no doubt that the use of such data will be capable of protecting another young soldier from beheading, and the public from the danger of Mumbai-style attacks occurring in our streets.
I, Lord Reid, Lord West and others of like mind have never favoured the recording of every website visited by every internet user, though we have been accused of that ambition. What we favour is speedy but controlled and independently reviewed access to data which is or may be relevant to a specific inquiry.
And while the Government and its committees are reviewing the consequences of the Woolwich atrocity, they should examine too the flawed decision to replace control orders with so-called TPIMS, which, though similar, remove the power to compel someone reasonably believed to be a terrorist to be relocated away from his fellow extremists.
Repeatedly judges found relocation to be justified and proportionate, because of the dangers the individual presented. The change made by the Coalition was about the perception rather than the reality of what really was liberal or illiberal.
An angry public is not necessarily unreasonable, but they are entitled at least to the protections approved in the recent past by skilled and vigilant judges who are far from being Government stooges, whose political independence is the shining light in every courtroom. Moreover, it is time the police and prosecuting authorities took a close look at websites that encourage violent Islamism, a heresy that disgusts every honourable British Muslim. On the internet a headstrong young person can be brainwashed into terrorism, find training in South Asia, link up with others and create a terrorism cell. The police should look closely too at the openly violent utterances of some leaders and sympathisers of banned organisations.
Further inquiries should focus on Islamist activities in some universities. While at Greenwich University, Michael Adebolajo would have been able to hear the likes of Murtaza Khan, who has advocated the punishment of death for homosexuals. Other universities have claimed they cannot quell debate about controversial issues even if speakers are apologists for political violence. Those who permit such meetings should recalibrate their moral compasses. Would they permit meetings designed to justify armed robberies or other organised crime (which is what terrorism is)?
What was looking like a quiet session of Parliament now looks much more challenging. In the memory of Drummer Rigby, let us not duck that challenge.