Centuries of British civil liberties risk being broken by the relentless pressure from the ‘security state’, the country’s top prosecutor has warned.
By Christopher Hope
Outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald warned that the expansion of technology by the state into everyday life could create a world future generations “can’t bear”.
In his wide-ranging speech, Sir Ken appeared to condemn a series of key Government policies, attacking terrorism proposals – including 42 day detention – identity card plans and the “paraphernalia of paranoia”.
Instead, he said, the Government should insist that “our rights are priceless” and that: “The best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions rather than to degrade them.”
The intervention will be seen as a significant setback to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith who last week saw her plans to lock up terror suspects for 42 days before being charged thrown out by the House of Lords.
It is also a blow to Miss Smith’s plans for a super-database to record the details of millions of people’s online presence, including emails, SMS messages and Facebook profiles as well as the controversial identity card programme.
Sir Ken chose to issue his tough warning about the perils of the “Big Brother” state in his final speech as DPP, days before he leaves his post at the end of this month.
He warned that MPs should “take very great care to imagine the world we are creating before we build it. We might end up living with something we can’t bear”.
Sir Ken, who has held the post for the past five years, said: “We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom’s back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security State.
“Technology gives the State enormous powers of access to knowledge and information about each of us, and the ability to collect and store it at will.”
At the last estimate, there were 4,285,000 cctv cameras in Britain.
Last week Miss Smith said the Government was examining ways to “collect and store’’ records of phone calls, emails and internet traffic.
Plans for the new snooper databases, which will be held by the Government or by phone companies, will be included in a draft Communications Data Bill, which will go out for consultation in the new year.
The new law was necessary to allow officials to keep track of potential terrorists who use social networks, such as Facebook, to plot attacks free from detection, she said.
But Sir Ken warned that increasing the powers of the state in law meant that any new powers would be “with us forever”.
He said: “It is in the nature of State power that decisions taken in the next few months and years about how the State may use these powers, and to what extent, are likely to be irreversible.
“They will be with us forever. And they in turn will be built upon. So we should take very great care to imagine the world we are creating before we build it. We might end up living with something we can’t bear.”
Sir Ken warned Parliament to resist “special courts, vetted judges and all the other paraphernalia of paranoia” in the fight against terrorism.
That risked copying “the Guantanamo model…. which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats we are facing”.
He added: “It is difficult to see who will maintain a cool head if governments do not. Or who will protect our Constitution if governments unwittingly disarm it.”
Britain was right to tackle terrorism and other “medieval delusions” through the courts, he said. This was “in accordance with our constitution”.
Miss Smith is facing a major battle to force through plans for the legislation, which could also force people who use pay as you go mobile phones to register their identities with phone companies.
Last week, Lord Carlisle of Berriew, the Government’s independent review of anti-terrorism laws, said the “raw idea’’ of the database was “awful’’ and called for controls to stop government agencies from abusing it.
There has been criticism after councils have used powers which were designed to tackled terrorism to spy on local people.
It is thought that staunch opposition from within Whitehall to the plan forced Miss Smith to abandon hopes to unveil a bill in the Queen’s Speech next month.
The Tories’ shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve, said: “Sir Ken has been at the forefront of our counter-terrorism effort for several years, so he knows the security challenges we face.
“This Government’s approach has all too often proved cavalier – unjustified powers, sprawling databases and excessive use of surveillance powers risk undermining both our security and our way of life.”
Sir Ken’s replacement from the end of this month is Keir Starmer, QC, 45, who comes from the Doughty Street chambers, and who made his name for his ground-breaking human rights work.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman, said; “Sir Ken has sounded a clarion call for freedom. He is absolutely right to highlight the dangers of a Leviathan state that wants to know all and control all about the citizens it should serve and not master.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Government agrees with the Director of Public Prosecution that technology and Communications Data is critically important in tackling all forms of serious crime as well as in the fight against terrorism.
“The Government also agrees that care is needed to agree what safeguards are needed, in addition to the many we have in place already, to provide a solid legal framework which protects civil liberties.
“That is why the Home Secretary made it very clear last week that the Government will consult widely with the public and all interested parties to set out emerging problems with technology, the important capability gaps that we need to address in collecting data and to look at the possible solutions.”