By James Kirkup | The Prime Minister used a speech in London to defend his Government’s record on civil liberties in the light of last week’s Labour rebellion over the detention of terror suspects and the high-profile challenge being mounted by David Davis, the former Tory front bencher.
Some 36 Labour MPs last week voted against the Government’s plans to hold terror suspects without trial for up to 42 days, with Mr Davis subsequently announcing that he would resign and fight a by-election on the issue.
Mr Brown began his premiership last year promising to extend legal freedoms, but has faced growing criticism over his actions in office.
Today, he attempted to answer those criticisms, insisting he remains committed the cause of freedom and arguing that he has taken some of his most controversial decisions because of a “fundamental responsibility – to take the actions that are necessary.”
Critics including Mr Davis have said that the 42-day plan is a fundamental violation of the right to be free of arbitrary state power.
Mr Brown today partly answered that charge by pointing to the judicial and parliamentary scrutiny of detention powers, but mainly by arguing that they are necessary to protect the majority from attack.
“The challenge is how to match a change in our laws with stronger safeguards, so we protect both the civil liberties of the individual and the security needs of all individuals,” the Prime Minister said.
Pointing to changes in technology, travel and communication systems, Mr Brown suggested that notions of liberty and security must be updated.
He said: “New challenges require new means of addressing them. But at all times the enduring responsibility remains the same – both protecting the security of all and safeguarding the individual’s right to be free.”
He cited plans for a national ID card as an example, claiming that the system will actually enhance basic rights by protecting individuals from fraud and theft.
“Opponents of the identity card scheme like to suggest that its sole motivation is to enhance the power of the state – but in fact it starts from a recognition of the importance of something which is fundamental to the rights of the individual: the right to have your identity protected and secure.”
Speaking to the Institute for Public Policy Research, Mr Brown pointed out that MI5 is monitoring 2,000 terror suspects in the UK, in 200 networks with 30 current plots.
Mr Brown said: “The modern security challenge is defined by new and unprecedented threats – terrorism, global organised crime, organised drug trafficking, people trafficking, to name but some.
“This is the new world in which government must work out how it best discharges its duty to protect people.
“New technology is giving us modern means by which we can discharge these duties, but just as we need to employ these modern means to protect people from new threats, we must at the same time do more to guarantee our liberties.
“Facing these modern challenges, it is our duty to write a new chapter in our country’s story – one in which we both protect and promote our security and our liberty, two equally proud traditions.”