Nick Clegg: Restoring British liberties

Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s speech on restoring Britain’s civil liberties.

Check Against Delivery


This morning I want to talk about freedom. About the hard-won liberties that we in Britain hold so dear.

This nation is built on a faith in fair play. On a historic hostility towards those who seek to impose their will on others.

Innocent until proven guilty. Equal before the law. Each individual able to think and speak without fear of persecution.

These are the standards instilled in us. They are the hallmarks of a civilised society. They are the reason that victims of oppression worldwide still look to us as proof that there is a better way.  

Yet recent times have seen those traditions badly damaged. Under Labour our civil liberties have been undermined, eroded, lost.

It isn’t just the politics that makes me care about this so much; although my party has long campaigned on these issues. It’s something I was brought up with too.

My family, like so many others, was marked by the extremes and conflicts of the last century. My mother spent part of her childhood in a prisoner of war camp. My father’s mother fled the Russian Revolution and found refuge here.

That family history made sure that my brothers and sister and I grew up certain of one thing: you must never take your freedom for granted. And you must treasure and love this country for precisely that reason.

So the Coalition Government is going to turn a page on the Labour years: resurrecting the liberties that have been lost; embarking on a mission to restore our great British freedoms.

We aren’t wasting any time, and we are ambitious about what we want to achieve. In the next twelve months we want to undo the damage of thirteen years. 2011 will be the year we give people’s freedom back.

We’ll do it in three key ways.

One: by reversing the widespread, everyday assaults on liberty that swept across Britain during the Labour years.

Two: by restoring the right balance of liberty and security in the measures taken to tackle terrorism – recognising we can and must have both.

Three: by ending the practices of closed and secretive government; giving people the information and freedom they need to hold us and other institutions to account.

Liberty under Labour

Before I elaborate on those, I’d like to just pause on the state of play the Coalition Government inherited.

Ed Balls has admitted that, when it comes to civil liberties, Labour got the balance wrong. Ed Miliband has conceded that his Government seemed too casual about people’s freedom.

But there was nothing casual about introducing ID cards. Nothing casual about building the biggest DNA database in the world, and storing the DNA of over one million innocent people.

Nothing casual about their failed attempts to increase the time a person can be detained without charge from what was then 14 days up to 90; something Labour’s new leader voted for.  

Labour wasn’t laissez faire about liberty. They presided over the most aggressive period of state interference in this country in a generation.  

They turned Britain into a place where schools can fingerprint your children without their parents’ consent. Where councils use surveillance powers designed to tackle crime to check if you’re cleaning up after your dog. Where thousands of new criminal offences have amassed on to the statute book. Where you are 7 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police if you are black or Asian. Where, in one year, we saw over 100,000 terror-related stop-and-searches, none of which yielded a single terror arrest.

They made Britain a place where you could be put under virtual house arrest when there was not enough evidence to charge you with a crime. And with barely an explanation of the allegations against you. A place where young, innocent children caught up in the immigration system were placed behind bars. A Britain whose international reputation has been brought into question because of our alleged complicity in torture.

That record is an affront to everything we stand for.

It has created a fundamental imbalance between British citizens and the British state; disempowering individuals, criminalising innocent people, fuelling mistrust between communities, and diminishing this nation’s moral authority too.

It would be easier to forgive Labour if it had simply been a lack of diligence on their part.

But the problem ran much deeper. There is a divide in politics between those of us who trust people and those who trust only government.

It is a line that divides progressive politics into two camps: old progressives, who value a powerful state, and new progressives, who value powerful citizens. Labour is on the wrong side of that divide.

Because, if you believe that the state has all the answers, you will always be pessimistic about citizens.

If you believe everything must be controlled from the centre you will protect central power at all costs. Even when that cost is basic British freedoms.

Liberals, and this Government, take a wholly different approach.

Liberals believe in the dispersal of power: in the raucous and unpredictable capacity of people and communities to make the right decisions for themselves.

We believe that social progress is driven not only by government, but also by confident, free individuals and communities, able to seize opportunities and take risks.

People cannot do that when the state is forever on their back; when their freedoms are denied and their autonomy is undermined.

So this Government is going to restore British liberties.

It is part of our wider project to resettle the relationship between people and government. Our political reforms, decentralisation, changes to public services, rebalancing growth, our focus on social mobility – these are all geared towards shifting power away from its traditional centres.

And it is that fairer dispersal of power that will guarantee British liberties in the long run. We want to empower individuals and communities so comprehensively, so irreversibly, that no future Government will easily be able to behave in ways that are authoritarian or illiberal.

It’s a power shift even a casual Labour party would struggle to reverse.

Everyday freedoms

Turning to our plan to restore British liberty.

One: dismantling the many limits on freedom that have crept into everyday life.

Two: reforming specific measures used to counter terrorism.

Three: giving people the information and power to hold the state and other institutions to account.

The British people have become accustomed to a vast array of infringements on their freedom.

Widespread and indiscriminate surveillance; Their DNA being held, unnecessarily; The proliferation of new criminal offences, and the growing number of reasons state inspectors can barge into their homes; The needless restrictions on people who want to work as volunteers.

The list goes on.

These didn’t happen overnight. They accumulated gradually, bit by bit.

Some have attracted high profile campaigns, like ID cards. Others slipped into our lives. Many now feel normal, even mundane.

And it is in that chipping away of our freedom that the real danger lies. Because it distorts our perception of what level of state interference we should tolerate.

Over time, it makes us less vigilant about our freedom. And we risk our children growing up too complacent about theirs.

So this Government is restoring British liberties with the same systematic ruthlessness with which Labour took them away.

None are too big or too minor, and we want to leave no stone unturned. I hope our record so far is proof of that.  

Our very first piece of legislation halted ID cards and scrapped the National Identity Register.

ContactPoint – the Government database containing the personal information of every child in England – has been switched off.  

We set up Your Freedom, a website to gauge people’s views on their liberties, and they flooded-in in their thousands. Views that are now directly shaping Government policy, like work we are doing on reforming the vetting procedures for volunteers and criminal records checks.

The Secretary of State for Justice now carefully scrutinises all proposals to create new offences to make sure that they are absolutely necessary. This Government won’t criminalise behaviour lightly

And we made sure that, by our first Christmas in office, not a single innocent child was under lock and key. In Labour’s last year alone over 1000 innocent children were locked up for immigration purposes. We have drawn a line under that scandal.

Over the next twelve months, that momentum is only going to build.

In the coming weeks we will be publishing our review of counter-terrorism, and I will talk more about that shortly.

By next month we will be putting forward a freedom bill: legislation that will bring together a number of measures, for example to better regulate CCTV; to properly control the way councils use surveillance powers; to limit the powers of state inspectors to enter into your house; and to end the indefinite storage of innocent people’s DNA.  

We will also be publishing a draft defamation bill to enhance freedom of speech. Again, that is something I will come on to.

In September, the independent review of the UK’s extradition arrangements we commissioned will report.

And Ken Clarke will continue to work on putting together a Repeals Bill to wipe unnecessary and obsolete laws and regulations from the statute book.  


The second strand of our programme on civil liberties centres on counter-terrorism; on upholding civil liberties while we defend our national security, strengthening both.

Recent weeks and days have seen quite a lot of commentary about the Government’s plans. Some of it wildly speculative. Some of it even suggesting that I or others see these vital issues of national security and liberty through a party political prism.

That is utter nonsense. This Government’s duty – our first duty – is to keep the British people safe.  

The threat we face from terrorists is very, very real. That is something that weighs heavily on my mind, on the Prime Minister’s mind, and on the Home Secretary’s too.

And we are clear: those who seek to hurt this nation will be rooted out; they will be punished with the full force of British justice.

But, the question we must ask ourselves is this: are the tools we have to combat terrorism effective? And do they help rather than hinder bringing to justice those who seek to destroy our way of life?

We believe, each of us in this Government, that Labour got the balance between liberty and security wrong. The created a regime that was both disproportionate in design, and ineffective in practice.

If you need any proof of that just look at control orders – the subject of much recent commentary.

Remember how they originally came about: as an ad hoc and rushed response to a number of court rulings; the creation of virtual house arrest for people who could not be tried in court; a departure from our long-held commitment to open justice.

And what is worse – as the Prime Minister pointed out earlier in the week – they didn’t even work properly.

John Reid himself described them as full of holes. Suspects have absconded. They were repeatedly and successfully challenged in the courts.

And the long running arguments around control orders have distracted from the real objectives – preventing the planning of terrorist acts and the gathering of evidence to secure prosecutions.
It was precisely to address this ineffectiveness and imbalance that the Government decided, in the Coalition Agreement, to review counterterrorism measures.

The Home Secretary deserves huge credit for the leadership she is showing on that. And I will not, today, second guess the precise outcome of that review.

Some people say we are taking too long to present our findings. But what is most important here is that we get this right.

Because this it not, as some suggest, a straightforward trade-off between liberty or security, as if one must come at the expense of the other.

It is about how we balance the two. How we underpin both. And how we can make sure people who break the law and seek to do us harm are charged, convicted, and put in prison.

The Government has not been consumed by some sort of almighty row between peaceniks on the one hand and securocrats on the other. We are determining, together, with painstaking care, how to keep people safe in a way that upholds our values and traditions.

And I believe the British people would prefer we do that properly. They have had enough of bad decisions, made in the heat of the moment, by the New Labour soap opera. This Government makes its decision through open and careful debate.

While the full details of the review are still to be decided, there will be significant reform.

Both Coalition partners believe that, at 28 days, the period terror suspects can be detained without charge is too long and we should seek ways to reduce it.

Control Orders cannot continue in their current form. They must be replaced.

And we will introduce a system that is more proportionate, in line with our long-held commitment to due process and civil liberties; that seeks to disrupt and impede would-be terrorists from carrying out their heinous crimes; and that continues to focus on bringing terrorists to justice.

Information/Freedom of Speech

The third and final strand of our civil liberties agenda is about openness, about scrutiny.

Free citizens must be able to hold big institutions and powerful individuals to account.

And not only the Government. There are a whole range of organisations who, for example, benefit from public money and whose activities have a profound impact on the public good, yet who cannot be properly scrutinized.

Citizens must know what goes on in these institutions. And they must be at liberty to speak out about the things they discover.

It is a modern right to information combined with traditional freedom of expression.

Recent years have seen some progress on transparency. Most notably through the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act.

But that progress has stalled. The Freedom of Information Act was a good start, but it was only a start. Exceptions remain far too common. And the available information is too often placed behind tedious bureaucratic hurdles.

The previous Labour Government knew this but chose to respond to repeated calls for the extension of freedom of information by kicking the issue into the long grass.

We still live in a society where important information is hoarded by the few. And, as we know, information is knowledge, and knowledge is power.

And yet, where information is available, people use it in innovative and empowering ways.

They use it to keep tabs on Government. Last Summer the Treasury began publishing what’s called the COINS database, detailing public services expenditure.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has now converted that information into an easy-to-use website that makes it possible for people to see how much is spent, where, on what, and how that is changing over time.

There are extremely impressive examples of people using public information to help their businesses. Of people using information to scrutinize public services too; something which drives up standards.

And none of this should come as a surprise. Because we live in an information age. But what is surprising is the barriers that remain.

So the Government is going to transform the access citizens have to the information we believe is their right.

Francis Maude has been doing an excellent job on this. He has imposed stringent new transparency rules on Whitehall Departments, ensuring they publish, for example, much more data on the money they spend and the private companies awarded government contracts.

Working with Ed Davey, Francis is also developing plans for a new Public Data Corporation.
It will bring existing government bodies together into one organisation, responsible for disseminating a wealth of data.

Businesses, social enterprises and individuals will find it much easier to get hold of the information they need.

As well as opening up Government, we want to go further. We believe that if an organisation’s behaviour and decisions have clear consequences for the public good, people must be able to see right into the heart of them.

So I can also announce that we are extending the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to cover potentially hundreds more bodies; including UCAS, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Ombudsman Service and many more.

As part of that, we are ending the anomaly that exempts organisations owned by more than one public authority.

And, as we shake up FOI, we are also getting rid of the 30 year rule. Let’s not forget that the previous Government commissioned a review of this back in 2007 – the Dacre Review – but then characteristically dragged their feet. So we will finish the job.

Where sensitive Government records can currently be kept secret for 30 years, we will cut that back by a decade.

Surely it can only strengthen our democracy if we reduce the time people have to wait in order to find out the full truth about the governments they have lived under, and the events they have lived through.

We’ll continue to look at how freedom of information is being implemented to ensure the public interest is put first. And to guarantee this process is itself transparent, we will use post-legislative scrutiny, asking the Justice Select Committee to carry out the work.

Of course, governments do have a duty to protect some kinds of information, in everyone’s wider interests. It’s obvious that the benefits of transparency have to be balanced against important objectives, like national security and crime prevention.  And that governments must be very respectful in handling personal information – that’s why we felt so strongly about getting rid of the National Database.  

But our starting point is always maximising transparency in the public interest – moving from a closed society to an open society.

Beyond providing greater access to information, we also need to make sure that, where people discover injustice and bad practice, they can speak out against it too.

That is why the Government is changing the law to restore rights to non-violent protest. And we are taking other big steps to enhance freedom of expression.

In opposition my party made clear that we wanted to see English libel laws reformed.

Almost exactly a year ago I made that case in a speech to the Royal Society. I argued that English libel laws are having a chilling effect on scientific debate and investigative journalism.

Of course, individual citizens must be able to protect their reputations from false and damaging claims; and we can’t allow companies to be the victim of damaging, untrue and malicious statements.

But, equally, we want public-spirited academics and journalists to be fearless in publishing legitimate research. Not least when it relates to medical care or public safety.

The test of a free press is its capacity to unearth the truth, exposing charlatans and vested interests along the way.

It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses.

Nor should foreign claimants be able to exploit these laws, bringing cases against foreign defendants here to our courts – even if the connection with England is tenuous.

It is a farce – and an international embarrassment – that the American Congress has felt it necessary to legislate to protect their citizens from our libel laws.  

This Government wants to restore our international reputation for free speech.

We will be publishing a draft defamation bill in the Spring. We intend to provide a new statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest, whether they be big broadcasters or the humble blogger. And we intend to clarify the law around the existing defences of fair comment, and justification.

We believe claimants should not be able to threaten claims on what are essentially trivial grounds. We are going to tackle libel tourism. And we’re going to look at how the law can be updated to better reflect the realities of the internet.

Separately, we are also going to address the high costs of defamation proceedings. As part of that we have published a consultation paper on proposals by Lord Justice Jackson to reform civil litigation funding – and in particular no win no fee arrangements – to make costs more proportionate, more fair.  

Our aim is to turn English libel laws from an international laughing stock to an international blueprint.


So, to sum up: the restoration of every day liberties; counterterrorism measures that uphold liberty while protecting security; free citizens able to see into, and speak out about, the organisations that affect their lives.

It is a liberal approach to freedom; a British approach to freedom.

It forms an important part of our programme to rebalance the relationship between the state and its citizens.

Our Labour predecessors will be remembered as the government who took your freedoms away.

We want to be remembered as the ones who gave them back.

Thank you.