PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on Labour’s ‘surveillance state’

by Stephen Tall on February 6, 2008

After this week’s controversy about bugging of MPs, Nick Clegg used his two questions to the Prime Minister to ask directly about Labour’s desperate efforts to keep tabs on every man, woman and child in the country. In particular, Nick focused on the fingerprinting of children at school, and demanded the Prime Minister stop the practise – a question Mr Brown preferred to ignore.

Meanwhile, the Tory leader’s PMQs’ increasingly shrill performance has become the focus this week of some criticism from the BBC’s Nick Robinson:

The leader who promised an end to ‘Punch and Judy’ has become more and more contemptuous in his attitude to the PM and, as a result, less respectful towards the office itself. … I recall David Cameron telling Tories to be aware that whatever they said would, in the end, tell voters as much about them as the person they were attacking. Has he forgotten this or am I missing something?

There’s no doubting that Mr Cameron is quick on his feet, and well able to riposte with a barbed insult. Yet this poison-tongued smoothness – combined with some glib questions and the full-throated braying of the Tory ranks – can produce a fairly unedifying spectacle which does nothing to make Dave look Prime Ministerial. His advisors would do well to steer him away from lines like today’s rather pathetic playground crack, “I think the Prime Minister had been practising that soundbite all week, and do you know what? It is still rubbish.”

Anyway, read for yourself below how Nick got on this week:

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): This week’s bugging controversy should not come as a surprise to the Prime Minister. After all, it is this Government who have turned the British public into the most spied upon on the planet: 1,000 surveillance requests every day; 1 million innocent people on the Government’s DNA database; and 5,000 schools now fingerprinting our children at school. Is that what the Prime Minister meant when he spoke so stirringly a few months ago about the great British tradition of liberty?

The Prime Minister: I take it that the right hon. Gentleman and the Liberal authorities support CCTV. I take it that they support the intercept action that is taken when it is necessary for national security. I take it that he accepts that only 1,500 intercepts have been commissioned by Ministers as a result of urgent security needs. Does he accept these things or not?

Mr. Clegg: The Prime Minister seems to see no limits. He is creating a surveillance state. Why has he consistently refused requests for more power to be given to the Information Commissioner? Why does he not do what is already done in Scotland and remove the DNA of innocent people from the database? Why will he not act immediately to stop the scandalous fingerprinting of our children at school?

The Prime Minister: People in this country are reassured by the presence of CCTV; I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not proposing to remove it. That is one very important part of the investigatory and surveillance powers that we give the police to carry out their work. I would hope that the right hon. Gentleman would look at the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and see the protections that have been put in place where there is surveillance and where there are intercepts. They include authorisation by a senior officer, the right to appeal to an independent tribunal, and a commissioner for surveillance who looks at matters and reports annually. We are taking the steps to protect the liberties of the citizens; I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support that.