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Clegg vows to restore civil liberties in Britain

The deputy prime minister and head of the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition government, pledged to undo some of the laws enacted by the previous Labor government in the name of fighting terrorism.

January 08, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from London — Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pledged Friday to restore "our great British freedoms," saying that too many basic liberties had been eroded in the name of keeping Britain safe from terrorism.

Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats who last year teamed with Conservatives to form a new coalition government, accused previous Labor Party governments of a relentless assault on civil liberties, pledging to reverse it.

"The British people have become accustomed to a vast array of infringements on their freedom: widespread and indiscriminate surveillance, their DNA being held [in a database] unnecessarily, the proliferation of new criminal offenses and the growing number of reasons state inspectors can barge into their homes," Clegg said at the Institute for Government in London in his first major speech of the new year.

"In the next 12 months we want to undo the damage of 13 years," Clegg said. "2011 will be the year we give people's freedom back."

From the omnipresence of security cameras to the lengthy detentions of suspects without charge, critics say Britain has become a society that has embraced Big Brother-like practices without always demonstrable benefit.

Since taking office in May, the coalition has dropped a Labor plan on national identity cards for British citizens and a government register containing personal information on all 11 million children in England.

"That momentum is only going to build," Clegg said.

But he declined to give details on the most contentious aspect of his civil liberties agenda: Britain's so-called "control orders," which allow authorities to keep terrorism suspects under virtual house arrest without charging them in court.

Fewer than a dozen people are currently under such orders. Most must wear an electronic monitoring device, are restricted on where they can go and are banned from using cellphones.

Authorities say that, if left free, some of the suspects might immediately attempt to plot or carry out a terrorist attack. But they cannot be brought to court, officials say, because the evidence against them would be inadmissible under normal judicial rules or would compromise intelligence-gathering methods and secrets if made public.

Clegg's party has called for the control order to be scrapped, agreeing with critics who describe it as an ineffective blunt instrument that not only deprives people of basic freedoms but punishes their families as well. Several "controlees" have even managed to escape.

"The true horror of this security nonsense has taken years to mature," Shami Chakrabarti, director of the advocacy group Liberty, wrote in the Times of London on Friday. "Seven out of the 46 people [who have been] subject to the system have completely disappeared — an escape rate of 15% that would get any prison governor dismissed."

But lawmakers and others in the dominant Conservative Party are urging Prime Minister David Cameron to retain the control orders and not to "appease" Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in the government.

Cameron and Clegg are now trying to hash out a solution to a problem the prime minister reportedly described as a "car crash" for the coalition. On Friday, Clegg hinted that a compromise would be unveiled soon, but gave no indication of who would give up what.

In many ways, the outcome is more important for Clegg than Cameron.

Clegg's approval ratings and his party's poll numbers have plunged over the last few months, especially among voters who now disgustedly view the Liberal Democrats as the Conservatives' lackeys. Clegg is eager to demonstrate that his party exercises real influence on government policy.

Besides a restoration of civil liberties, Clegg also said Friday that the government would tighten Britain's libel laws, which are so broad and favorable toward plaintiffs that non-Britons, including wealthy corporations and celebrities, have come here just to file suit against other non-Britons.

"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," Clegg said.

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