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Monday, 31 January 2011

A positive step, but don't forget the hacking

The Home Secretary's announcement last week on counter-terrorism powers was a step in the right direction. It was also another step in the right direction for the Liberal Democrats as a serious party of government.

Of course they had pledged to get rid of control orders. And they haven't. Control orders have been re-badged - but they still remain. But they have been softened - and the government should be applauded for finding a middle ground between protecting the fundamental liberty of living in peace and security and finding a more liberal way of dealing with the small number of terrorist suspects who it is not possible to deal with through the normal procedures of the criminal justice system.

Many will be disappointed. Liberty accused the Government of "bottling it" on control orders. Maybe. But the Government actually deserves real credit here for marking a step change since the Labour days of complacently trampling over civil liberties. There was never a need to detain suspects before charge for in excess of forty days. The previous control orders regime was excessively restrictive. And in doing so, they created a grievance that is felt as much on the streets of Afghanistan and Pakistan as it is in the UK.

The Home Secretary's announcement was an important step in Britain moving in a more liberal direction. During the same week, we also saw more politicians and celebrities come out and say that they believed their voicemails had been hacked into by the News of the World. During the same week that the Government made it harder for councils to spy on ordinary people. But the News of the World investigation has focussed too much on issues of personality and vanity around Andy Coulson. Guilty or not guilty of knowing what was going on under his editorship, I don't think the liberal argument against the phone hacking scandal has been vociferous enough. It is completely unacceptable for there to have been any phone hacking by a major tabloid newspaper. Celebrities are not fair game. It is not okay.

And, call me an "establishment" liberal, but I have far less confidence in a tabloid newspaper wielding that power than I do over the difficult decisions that sometimes have to be made to restrict the liberties of a terrorist suspect (where, let's be honest, there is often considerable inadmissible evidence) in favour of protecting the freedom of a majority to live in peace and security.

And this is precisely the kind of liberal journey that the Liberal Democrats need to - and, to their great credit, are going on - in Government. A brave week. More progress. The coalition has taken a significant step in moving Britain in a more liberal direction than Labour had ever thought possible.

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