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Wake up - this is a serious threat to our freedom!

October 11, 2018 11:59 AM

Sign the Lib Dem petition to defend civil liberties

The much-used and misattributed quote "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance" has come back to challenge us over the government's Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which is currently going through the parliamentary legislative process. And if we don't keep vigilant, we may well find that this government - with Labour support - has taken away important parts of our liberty.

One of the big lessons we Lib Dems learned in our five years in government (2010-15) was that you always need a balance between protection of the state and its citizens from outside threats and the need to safeguard individual freedoms as part of protecting citizens from an overbearing state. It's not an easy balance, but a few things should be clear-cut - like when individual freedoms are suppressed for no apparent security gain.

Take a look at the government's bill, and you see a frightening Big Brother approach - that's George Orwell's Big Brother, not the voyeuristic TV series that has made the name a bit of a joke and has defused the power of Orwell's seriously malevolent all-seeing monitoring processes.

For example, the bill would make it a crime - punishable by up to 10 years in prison - just to travel to certain places outside the UK specified by the home secretary. If you had a "reasonable excuse" for going (a term undefined by the bill), the burden would be on you to prove it. It would also criminalise viewing online content that is "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism", so journalists, academic researchers and the innocently curious could all face up to 15 years in prison for a single, harmless click. People could be detained at ports and airports without reason, and the DNA of innocent people could be stored for years.

And yet the government has come up with nothing that shows how these measures would help the fight against terrorism. Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights put it well when it said: "This bill strikes the wrong balance between security and liberty." That's why Liberal Democrat MPs voted against it in the House of Commons last month, and why Lib Dem peers are putting up a spirited fight now the bill is in the House of Lords.

But we need Labour support, and it's far from clear we'll get it. It's reasonable to ask what the differences are between Labour and the Lib Dems, especially at a time when the Conservatives are in power and Labour and Lib Dems are in opposition so we're frequently on the same side. But the 13 years of New Labour government (1997-2010) saw various pieces of legislation proposing new laws that amount to an unjustified and disproportionate suppression of civil liberties. Labour has never had the commitment to the rights of the individual that the Lib Dems have had.

You could say that was New Labour in government, and under Jeremy Corbyn in opposition Labour would be different. I'd like to think so, as Corbyn joined Lib Dem MPs on numerous occasions when Labour was in power to stand up for civil liberties against his own party's legislation: on ID cards, 90-days detention without charge, the power to stop and search people without suspicion, and others. Since becoming leader, he has recruited Shami Chakrabarty, who was highly respected in her long-time job as director of the civil rights group Liberty, to his front-bench team in the House of Lords.

Yet last month Corbyn ordered Labour MPs to vote with the Conservatives to approve this latest assault on basic freedoms. This follows his decision in 2016 to instruct his MPs to vote for Theresa May's "snoopers' charter", which gave the government the power to collect and read everyone's emails, texts and internet browsing histories. (And they castigate the Lib Dems for broken promises!) Caroline Lucas was the only other MP supporting the Lib Dems in opposing the government's draconian plans.

The Lib Dems have organised a petition calling on the government to defend civil liberties. You can sign it here.

I strongly urge you to do so.

Chris Bowers, Wealden LibDems Parliamentary spokesperson