My Lords, before I start my speech today, I want to say a few words about Charles Kennedy. Many on these Benches knew Charles very well and his loss is being felt acutely by Liberal Democrats across the country. Our thoughts are with his family at this time. As many others have said, Charles was an extraordinary communicator. His passion for social justice and Liberal Democrat values inspired not only those on these Benches but people of all parties and of none, not least because of his principled stand against the Iraq war.
For him to die so young is a loss not just to the Liberal Democrats but to political life across the board. He will be sadly missed. I am told by colleagues who were here at the time that during the late night ping-pong on control orders during the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, Charles appeared at 5 am to tell weary Lib Dem Peers to keep up the good fight on what was one of the biggest battles on the protection of civil liberties of the new Labour years. Remembering his commitment to protecting rights and civil liberties is perhaps the most fitting tribute as we discuss these issues today.
I intend to concentrate on some of the home affairs issues outlined in the Queen’s Speech. My colleagues will cover other aspects. One of the first Bills that this House will be asked to consider is the Psychoactive
Substances Bill, which will outlaw not just specific so-called legal highs but anything and everything that has a mind-altering effect unless it is specifically listed as being exempt or is covered by other legislation such as the Misuse of Drugs Act.
I believe that an authoritarian approach, where blanket laws prohibit everything unless the Government allow it, sets a potentially dangerous precedent. The Bill is well meaning, with the current practice of selling so-called legal highs on the high street, one molecule different from a banned substance, in packets marked “not fit for human consumption”, is a nonsense. But we must ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this Bill? If the purpose, as it surely should be, is to prevent harm, the misuse of drugs should be treated as a health issue and not a criminal one.
We have seen from our experience with those drugs already classified as illegal that making dealing in those substances a criminal offence simply pushes the trade underground into the hands of criminals where there is even less control over quality, active ingredients and who can purchase them, all of which significantly increases the potential for harm. There should at least be consistency and some basis in science. If the Government are to exempt mind-altering substances on the basis of relative harm, as they intend to do with alcohol and tobacco, should they not also look at exempting substances currently covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act, and at synthetic mind-altering substances that are clinically proven to be less harmful than alcohol and tobacco? Surely licensing, regulation, education and treatment are the positive ways forward, rather than criminalising even more of our young people. This Bill would simply add to the confusion surrounding the attempts to protect people from the harm caused by misusing drugs and push pleasure-seekers into the hands of criminals.
We will also be presented with a new investigatory powers Bill. We only recently reconsidered the draft communications data Bill when another attempt was made to introduce it as an amendment to a counterterrorism Bill before this House. We had a long and informed debate on the issues and we decided that we were content with the reviews that are currently under way by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation and others. I argued then, and I will continue to argue, that the powers the Government seek to convey on the police and the security services would seriously impinge on individual rights to privacy while failing to deliver what the police and the security services actually need.
In short, terrorists are using internet-based encrypted methods of communication that cannot be deciphered without the support and co-operation of those providing the services, most of whom are based beyond British jurisdiction. Currently, international co-operation and agreement enable the police and the security services to present their evidence to overseas service providers, who, if convinced by that evidence, voluntarily give up the information. International co-operation and agreement are the way forward, not giving the police and security services blanket access to our private data. At the same time as the Government seek to erode personal privacy with their new investigatory powers Bill, they could also diminish citizens’ ability to take action against the agencies of the state for infringing such rights were the Human Rights Act to be repealed.
There has been much discussion and coverage of the European Union Referendum Bill. To date, the focus has almost exclusively been on the negative impact on the economy, not only of leaving the EU but of the damage caused by the uncertainty over a referendum that could result in the UK’s exit. What need to be brought to the fore—as the right honourable Kenneth Clarke MP did at the weekend in an interview on the BBC’s “Sunday Politics”—are the significant European-wide crime fighting initiatives that are currently in place, ranging from serious and organised cybercrime to the abuse of children and human trafficking, all of which could also be placed in jeopardy by our leaving the European Union.
We then have the extremism Bill, the need for which was trailed by the Prime Minster during the election campaign, when he said:
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone”.
As far as policing is concerned, if the Government intend to inflict further cuts on the police service, we will have seriously to reconsider the whole basis on which British policing is based: policing by consent. I hope that the Government do not sleepwalk into undermining that principle.
Overall, the Government have all the hallmarks of an authoritarian, anti-libertarian, inward-looking Administration who would rather peddle crowd-pleasing, superficial, nationalistic policies than seek genuine solutions to the real problems facing this country and its people. I hope to be proved wrong. I am justifiably proud of what the Liberal Democrats achieved in the last coalition Government and I intend to be equally proud of what the Liberal Democrats will do now that we are freed from the shackles of coalition. In an election poster, the Liberal Democrats were portrayed as an iron fist in a velvet glove. My Lords, the gloves are off.