Last Updated: 5:22PM GMT 28 Feb 2009
'This Labour government has done more than any before it to extend liberties and constrain government." Well, Jack Straw, the Justice Minister, believes it, or at least said it. Millions of British voters have a rather different picture of the last decade of Labour government. They see a succession of extensions of state powers, justified by the need to combat terrorism, but used by local authorities to check that householders are recycling correctly or not cheating on their application to get their children into a good school.
Mr Straw is right in one sense, however. The European Convention on Human Rights, which Labour formally incorporated into British law, is a constraint on government, and it specifies a number of fundamental liberties which must be maintained. That, of course, is precisely why some Labour ministers now want to find ways round it, and why Tony Blair, when he was prime minister, said that Britain might have to opt out of it.
Furthermore, Labour's biggest extension of the state's power has yet to be made law: identity cards are still a proposal rather than a reality, and they may never actually make it beyond aspiration, not least because of the billions that it will cost to introduce them, money which the Government does not have. It has given it all to the banks.
Labour ministers have unquestionably shown themselves willing to restrict liberty in order to achieve what is claimed to be a gain in security – and it is not necessarily the wrong choice to make. It can be right to give up some liberties in order to diminish our chances of being the victim of a terrorist bomb. We all accept that it is reasonable to allow the authorities to search our bags before we board a plane, for example. The trouble for the Government as it seeks to enlist support for its new schemes – to enable officials to monitor your use of the internet, for example – is that the debate has been poisoned by blatantly unnecessary extensions of surveillance powers. It is now almost impossible for any measure that will increase state power to be introduced without people thinking that it is part of a vast conspiracy by the Government to turn Britain into a version of Orwell's Big Brother state.
That places the police in a quandary. Because leading policemen such as Sir Ian Blair, the former commissioner of the Met, allowed themselves to be recruited by the Government in its drive to advertise the merits of ID cards, the police have come to be seen as on the side of Big Brother. They insist that they are not. They say they are simply desperately concerned that unless they get powers to monitor internet use and traffic, they will be deprived of a fundamental tool they need if they are to be able to fight crime effectively.
Here's their argument. At the heart of every prosecution against organised criminals, against fraudsters, and against terrorists, is evidence of a conspiracy: proof that the men in the dock were linked, and they talked together before the crime was committed in order to organise it. At present, most criminals talk to each other on either land-lines or mobile phones. The phone companies keep records, so the police, once they know the phone numbers the criminals use, can obtain them and thus the evidence that the bad guys were plotting together. This doesn't necessarily require them to listen to the conversations: sometimes just the evidence of time and location is enough.
The problem is that criminals are increasingly switching the kind of telecommunications networks they use. Many of them now use the internet and the free services available on it, such as Skype. The companies that provide those services do not keep records: why should they? They give the service away free, and record-keeping is expensive. But for the police that spells disaster. "I'm not kidding you," one high-ranking officer told me. "If we don't get the ability to monitor those services, our ability to track criminal conspiracies will be destroyed."
So keen are the police to be able to track internet calls, they're willing to pay the service providers to keep records. "We accept that there's a cost to it, one which private companies may not be willing to pay. We're willing to help," the same officer explained to me. He insists that the new power they want to track internet use will actually do no more than enable them to keep up with technological change – but the police dare not plead for it in public. "It'll be counter-productive," the officer stated. "People will lump it in with ID cards and the rest, and just think we're part of a government conspiracy. But this is a basic necessity, and if we don't get it, we'll be unable to gain vital evidence against thousands of criminals."
It is a testament to how widely the Government is perceived as opposed to civil liberties that the police now don't think they can argue openly for the new monitoring power they need. Sorry Jack – but even the cops think you're tainted with the Big Brother brush. It may mean that the police will lose the power to crack criminal conspiracies. And that really will place us all in greater danger.