Justice Minister Simon Hughes MP has called for “perpetual vigilance” in defence of civil liberties, including freedom of the press, and has pledged to “keep fighting for freedom”.
The Liberal Democrat MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, who trained as a civil rights lawyer, told the 2014 annual general meeting of the Chartered Institute of Journalists on October 25 that “the authorities are entitled to ask for new powers but often the right answer has to be ‘No’.”
He gave an assurance that he would resist calls from within the Government for measures that restrict freedom, in particular the rights of journalists. “We are all acutely aware that there are pressures in Parliament from both the right and left for more draconian measures”, Simon Hughes said. “Let me tell you – I shall keep fighting for freedom.”
He lamented the fact that the two Coalition parties did not always agree on civil liberties, for instance on the protection of journalistic sources and ‘whistleblowers’. “There isn’t always agreement across government on the important issues. There are sharp differences between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on this.”
With ministerial responsibilities including data protection and freedom of information, Mr Hughes outlined a series of initiatives from the Coalition which he said would make government “more open and accountable”, including proposals for Parliament to publish online “free of charge, for the first time ever” a statute book detailing all the latest Westminster legislation.
He also said that a “gap in the freedom of information rules” would be plugged by bringing private contractors working for the Government into the FOI system. “It is no good having contractors who work for Government departments outside the terms of the FOI Act. We will change that.”
The CIoJ meeting, which was held at the Civil Service Club in Great Scotland Yard, Whitehall, also debated a resolution from Institute Council member Mark Croucher deploring the misuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) under which anti-terrorism powers have been exploited to curtail civil rights and press freedom. “I worry about the political agenda behind RIPA”, he said.
The motion, urging the Information Commissioner to overrule any attempts by the police to misuse RIPA, was passed by CIoJ members at the AGM, and Simon Hughes promised that he would “take the Institute’s request to the Information Commissioner”.
For details of all the motions passed at the meeting, go to www.cioj.co.uk.