Liberal Democrats launch attack on Brown’s ‘surveillance society’

By Colin Brown

Liberal Democrat leaders are to mount an attack on Britain’s “surveillance society” that threatens to wreck Gordon Brown’s hopes of a cross-party consensus on measures to tackle the threat of terrorism.

In a strategic break with the Prime Minister, Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, and his home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg will launch their offensive at their party conference next month.

They have decided that Mr Brown’s clear support for an extension of detention without charge beyond 28 days for terrorist suspects has destroyed any hope of a cross-party deal.

But they claim they are also responding to public anxiety highlighted by the Government’s Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who has warned that Britain is in danger of “sleep-walking into a surveillance society”.

Liberal Democrat leaders say Britain is one of the most spied-on nations in the world and will use the conference to launch a campaign to roll back legislation they claim has gone too far. It includes the Identity Cards Act 2006, the creation of a national identity register and proposals for wide ranging data-sharing powers across Whitehall departments.

Greater safeguards will be demanded on:

* The CCTV cameras that have sprouted up in every town and some villages, at a ratio of one for every 16 people, making Britain the most “watched” country on the planet.

* The DNA database, “the largest in the world”, which has data on 140,000 innocent people, with a disproportionate number from ethnic minorities.

* The Information Commissioner, who has no power to restrict “data mining” and data processing requests by government agencies and reports to ministers rather than Parliament.

* Requests for communications traffic data by the police and other investigative authorities which topped 439,000 between January 2005 and April 2006.

* Intercept warrants, which exceeded 2,240 in the 16 months to April 2006 under laws making the UK alone among democratic nations to have warrants granted by ministers.

Doctors’ leaders at the BMA have also called on the Government to halt a scheme for GPs to pass on sensitive information about their patients to an NHS database until they have more assurances that they will not breach data protection safeguards.

Mr Clegg said that the prospect of a cross-party consensus on tougher anti-terror measures was shattered when the Prime Minister decided on an extension of detention without charge for terrorist suspects before consultation had begun.

“Gordon Brown has gained considerable political advantage by striking a new tone on civil liberties, parliamentary accountability and cross-party cooperation. But our analysis has concluded that on substance, rather than tone, Brown remains wedded to an unchanged Blairite agenda,” said Mr Clegg.

“Brown has short-circuited any objective consideration of the facts by declaring his determination to extend the period of detention without charge still further.

“And there has been no meaningful cross-party mechanism established on counter-terrorism despite all the rhetoric to the contrary from Brown himself.”

He told The Independent: “In these circumstances we have decided to make the protection of traditional British liberties and personal privacy a major line of attack in the autumn and winter. Britain needs a champion of liberty now more than ever.”

The campaign will also attack the Tory leadership of David Cameron, saying that his claims to liberalism are unravelling.

Where we are watched

* CCTV

Britain is the world’s most watched nation. There are 4.2 million CCTV cameras, one for every 16 people. Campaigners say they are “inadequately regulated”.

* DNA data

The UK holds 3.6 million samples, the world’s biggest database, including 140,000 innocent people.

* Data Protection

Surveillance on credit cards, mobile phones and loyalty cards, and US security agencies monitoring telecommunications, require the Data Protection Act to be updated.

* Schools

Many are collecting pupils’ biometric data, often without parental consent.

* ID Cards

The Identity Cards Act 2006 paved the way for the creation of a National Identity Register and proposals for sharing data within government.

* Bugging

From 1 January 2005 to 31 March 2006, there were 439,000 requests for communications traffic data and 2,243 warrants issued. UK is alone among democracies in having warrants issued by ministers.