Better late than never – Brown to agree to use of intercept evidence

by Stephen Tall on February 5, 2008

As the Sky News’ ‘breaking news’ tickertape rolls along my TV screen – revealing that Gordon Brown is to agree, in principle, to the use of intercept evidence in court – it’s worth recalling the following exchange between former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It took place at Prime Minister’s Questions on 16th February, 2006, a period when – so the media told us – Ming Campbell’s performance was proving him unfit to lead the Lib Dems. Perhaps the media would have done better to focus on the questions he was asking rather than how he looked, or the way in which he asked them.

As it is, the Labour Government has wasted two years desperately trying to contrive reasons why detention without charge should be extended, when they could have been taking earlier action to strengthen the UK’s security in a proven and effective way. Tonight’s announcement is welcome. It’s also well overdue.

Anyway, let’s give the last word to Ming and Tony:

Menzies Campbell (Fife North East, Liberal Democrat): … Rather than creating ambiguous and controversial offences such as the glorification of terrorism, should not the Government introduce the effective and practical measure of permitting the use of telephone intercept evidence in our courts, so that we may bring suspected terrorists to trial?

Tony Blair (Prime Minister): As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well, the reason why there is a debate over intercept evidence is the view of the security services—not held throughout our law enforcement services—that allowing intercept evidence would damage our ability to prosecute terrorists or those involved in organised crime. That is the reason for it; it has nothing to do with civil liberties or a desire not to take action.
I suggest that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned this matter because he does not want to face up to what he and his colleagues are going to do today. The term “glorification” is easily understood by members of the public and by juries. They know exactly what it is, and they know exactly what signal we should send out if we removed any reference to it from the legislation today. The right hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friends should think again. By weakening our law on terrorism at this time from what was proposed, we would send the wrong signal to the whole of the outside world, and we would do no service to those in the police and the law enforcement agencies who are desperately anxious to get on with the job of prosecuting people.

Menzies Campbell (Fife North East, Liberal Democrat):
If the Prime Minister thinks that everyone understands the meaning of “glorification”, he should look at the definition in the Bill, which is opaque, to say the least.
Telephone intercept evidence is used in almost every other European country, and the problems that the Prime Minister describes can be addressed by adequate safeguards. If that is good enough for them, why is it not good enough for us?

Tony Blair (Prime Minister): For the very reasons that our security services have given. I know exactly why the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised this issue: he wants to divert attention from the actual issues in the Bill. That is obvious to everyone. Let us be quite clear that this is not only about the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats combining to take “glorification” out from the offence; it is also about taking out any reference to glorification from the list of proscribed groups. That would mean that we could not proscribe people who were glorifying terrorism, unless it could be proved that they were actively inciting terrorist acts. We have to send a clear message to those groups that that type of behaviour is not tolerated in this country. There is freedom of speech, but it should be exercised responsibly.