National Security and Civil Liberties – Getting the balance right

Speech on national security by Security Minister James Brokenshire to National Security Summit at Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre on 3 July.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It is a pleasure to be here today. And it is a particular honour to address those of you in this room - and I know there are many of you - who play a vital role in protecting the people of this country.

As Security Minister, I have the privilege to see the amazing work that many of you do every day to keep our country safe. And I know what a difference you make.

Threats to our freedoms

As we’ll hear during today’s summit, the threats facing our country are many and varied.
* The terrorist who kills, maims and seeks to spread fear.
* The extremist who exploits our commitment to freedom of speech to incite hatred and violence.
* The drug dealer who lays waste to our communities.
* The cyber fraudster who steals our data and our money.

Different perpetrators, causing harm to their victims for different reasons and in different ways.

But these threats also have something in common: all of them threaten our way of life and the freedoms we hold most dear.
* Our freedom to live.
* Our freedom to go about our business in peace.
* Our rights to privacy and to free expression.
These freedoms are fundamental to the nature of the society we want to live in. They have been threatened in the past. They are fragile and hard-won. And they remain under threat today.

It has been a challenging few months for those who are working to protect those freedoms. The despicable murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich was a reminder that the threats we face are real and enduring. And at the same time, there has been intense public scrutiny of our response to those threats.

There has been a rich public debate about the scope of counter-terrorism powers. There has been discussion in Parliament about the so-called Snoopers’ Charter. And concerns have been expressed about the possibility of unfettered state surveillance.

Anyone reading the papers over the past year could be forgiven for thinking that the main threat to our freedoms in fact comes from those working so hard to protect the public across a range of national security issues. It is a sobering thought.

I know that this isn’t true. You know that this isn’t true. And most of the people in this country know that this isn’t true. But it is right that we should be challenged and that we should challenge ourselves.

I would not want to live in a society in which powers to fight terrorism and organised crime were granted or exercised lightly. The reality is that protecting our national security, just like policing our streets, relies on public trust and on the legitimacy it confers.

We can only protect the public if people trust that we are acting effectively and responsibly in their name. And we must always be alive to the risk that our work could inadvertently undermine the very freedoms we are trying to protect.

Balancing security and civil liberties

So I want to focus my comments this morning on a question that should be of concern to all of us: Are we striking the right balance between national security and civil liberties, between collective security on the one side and individual freedoms on the other?

The question itself contains a false assumption. There is not always a direct trade-off between security and civil liberties. They are often mutually reinforcing: insecurity tends to erode civil liberties, and the denial of civil liberties often fuels insecurity.

But it is also true that there is sometimes a trade-off, and it is those occasions that tend to fuel debates over whether the pendulum has swung too far in either direction. It is those occasions that present us with difficult choices that we cannot and must not duck.

The stakes are high: our way of life is shaped by the choices we make. This is not a new question of course. Nor is it unique to the UK. But it is perhaps more pressing than at any other time in our history.

Information technology is transforming our world. It is creating new opportunities for business and leisure, and is providing us with new ways to communicate and keep in touch with each other. But it also provides new opportunities for those who mean us harm, as well as for those of us who are in the business of countering threats to our security.

It is raising new questions about what the State should and should not do in response to those new threats. I believe that our system and the principles under which we operate remain valid and effective in this new environment, but it is right that we should be challenged on whether we are getting the balance right.

I want to argue this morning that the Government is getting this right; That we have taken a careful, principled and pragmatic approach to finding the right balance; and that as a result we have strengthened both security and the protection of cherished civil liberties.

One area where the need for re-balancing was most apparent when we first came to power was the suite of national security powers on our statute books.

We reviewed our counter-terrorism powers and legislation to ensure they were both effective and proportionate. A number of significant changes were made.

We abolished Control Orders, which were not as effective as they needed to be and the Courts struck down some of the more stringent elements of the regime.

We replaced them with Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures - providing a robust and effective means for dealing with terrorist suspects who we cannot yet prosecute or deport, but without imposing restrictions on individuals indefinitely with no end in sight.

We reduced the limit for detaining terrorist suspects before charging them from 28 to 14 days.

We repealed previously over-used terrorism ‘stop and search’ powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, replacing them with a much more limited power.

And we reviewed powers to stop, search and question people at the border, completing a consultation on the application of these powers in December last year with measures now coming before Parliament.

These changes have introduced greater proportionality to our counter-terrorism legislation.They demonstrate our commitment to ensuring we are striking the right balance between national security requirements and civil liberties considerations.

Communications Data

But the threats we face continue to change and continue to evolve. And the use of technology is intrinsic to this changing and challenging threat picture.

If we are to safeguard our fundamental freedoms, we have to keep pace with these changes. You will all have seen coverage of proposals relating to Communications Data.

Communications Data refers to information about a communication, rather than the content of the communication itself. I’m talking here about the “who, when, where and how” of a communication, not the “what”.

The digital equivalent of the envelope, rather than the contents of the letter itself. Communications Data is crucial in identifying individuals involved in criminal or terrorist-related activity.

Establishing links between these individuals and their associates and building an intelligence picture of the networks intent on harming this country.

But significantly, Communications Data is also admissible as evidence in court. It can and does provide invaluable support to an investigation and lend significant weight to the prosecution of terrorism and serious and organised crime cases.

We have recently seen it used in prosecuting those responsible for child sexual exploitation in Oxford.

It was intrinsic to the prosecution of those responsible for the death of Rhys Jones in Liverpool, as well as proving how they sought to cover their tracks.

And it was used in the investigation of the attempted bombing on a nightclub in London, and the subsequent attack on Glasgow Airport.

But it is right that its use is properly bounded by safeguards. That communications data is used to uphold our freedoms rather than constrain them. That’s why access to this data is governed by a strict legislative framework.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, or RIPA, communications data can only be sought by public authorities authorised by Parliament to do so. Requests must be for a specific purpose such as the prevention or detection of crime or in the interests of national security.

As is proper, there are demanding levels of consideration and authorisation required before activity can take place.

As we examine what further changes are needed to maintain this capability through technological change, striking the right balance between collective security and individual freedom is a key part of our consideration and will inform the proposals which we bring forward.

The Changing Threat

But the Terrorist groups that plan attacks or operations against us usually do so in secrecy. Their preparations are conducted with the precise intent that they will not be detected.

So some of the methods we use to combat these threats must therefore in turn be secret, just as they must always be lawful. This places us in a quandary.

Full disclosure of what we do to keep this country safe would only benefit those who mean us harm. But in a society like ours, it is also vital that what we do is subject to a clear legal framework and bounded by effective oversight.

Indeed, it becomes even more important to ensure that the oversight arrangements are sufficient to reassure the public that what we are doing is effective, proportionate and fair.

You will be well aware of the current public debate about what the State should and should not do when it comes to gathering intelligence to protect the public.

As you might expect, I don’t propose to comment on leaked information or specific matters of intelligence. What I will say, is that there is no doubt that secret intelligence is vital to our country.

Our ability to obtain secret intelligence allows us to detect threats to our national security. To protect our economy against those seeking to steal this country’s intellectual property and to prevent serious and organised crime.

In seeking to obtain this vital intelligence, UK agencies operate within a strict legal and policy framework, and act within the law.

This country’s security and intelligence agencies are subject to rigorous parliamentary, judicial and Ministerial oversight. Parliamentary, in the form of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which has recently been granted additional powers to hold the Government to account for its security and intelligence activities.

Judicial, in the form of the Interception of Communications and Intelligence Services Commissioners, who oversee all three agencies.

And Ministerial, in the form of the Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary who I know both take their personal responsibilities very seriously indeed.

Ensuring that the use of any covert techniques is subject to thorough and rigorous safeguards and oversight has always been and will remain central to our approach to national security.

I’ve focused this morning on this Government’s commitment to achieving a balance between the national security measures and the civil liberties and freedoms that our efforts seek to protect.

I’ve outlined how we go about achieving this.

Proportionality, a clear legal framework and rigorous scrutiny and oversight are at the heart of this.

As I’ve said, we constantly challenge ourselves to make sure we are coming down on the right side of this delicate line, and we welcome the challenge of others.

We want to see continued public debate that will enable us to strike the right balance, as the world around us continues to change. Some of this work is necessarily out of the public eye.

That does not mean, of course, that it is exempt from scrutiny.

The public would not accept this, Government could not allow this, and security professionals - like many of you gathered in this room this morning - would not want this to be the case.

Getting the balance right will ensure that those charged with safeguarding our national security are provided with the necessary tools to do this vital work.

But perhaps even more importantly, it will ensure that you continue to enjoy the trust, confidence and support of the public.

And in so doing uphold the values that define us as a country and define the fundamental purpose for which our security efforts are there to protect.

Published 3 July 2013