BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 25.11.01

Interview: CHARLES KENNEDY MP, Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Is it inevitable that we will have to sacrifice some of our civil liberties to protect ourselves from terrorism.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: The government is rushing through parliament David Blunkett's Bill to give it much greater powers to deal with terrorism at home. Its critics (and there are plenty of them) say it will destroy some of our most important civil liberties. But Mr Blunkett says the most important liberty of all is to live free of the threat of being murdered by a terrorist. Well, the Liberal Democrats are appalled by the measures proposed. Their leader is Charles Kennedy and he's with me now and I must start by wishing you a happy birthday because it's your birthday today! CHARLES KENNEDY MP: Well we don't want to dwell on it, I think forty-two is not something to write home about! HUMPHRYS: Forty-two! Lucky man. Now then, the Bill. Let me quote you something you'll of heard of course "there is a plethora of Draconian measures that are eroding our civil liberties without justification" and that's one of your MPs, Norman Baker. Surely the justification is that we do not want to be bombed by terrorists and that justifies what is now being proposed. KENNEDY: Well the right to life and the right to the civil liberties that you and I enjoy as we speak, broadcasting our views, our opinions, asking questions and so on, that is fundamental and of course that must be defended. But you know you've got to bear in mind in all of this that the terrorist, the kind of person that commits the willful acts that took place in the United States a couple of months ago, they're not interested in our civil rights. They're not interested in free speech. I mean their idea of free speech is telling innocent civilians on a jumbo jet on an internal in the United States, you can go to the back of the plane with your mobile phone and phone up people, your loved ones and say "I'm going to be dead in ten minutes' time". So we have to get the balance right, that if we allow ourselves to get into a situation where in fact we are suppressing our own individual rights in the wake of these dreadful atrocities, actually the terrorist begins to win, and that's the balance that I don't think is properly judged by the government. HUMPHRYS: But the greatest threat of all is the threat to our life and if the government judges that, or lives, if the government judges that the way to deal with these terrorists who threaten our lives is to bring in this sort of legislation, then who are you to say, who are we to say they shouldn't be doing that? KENNEDY: Well there's a number of things you have to bear in mind here. First of all, too often in history and it's much easier to look at the history book than it is to gaze into the crystal ball, rushed legislation has tended to remain on the Statute Book and it's not been very good legislation. That's the first thing. The second thing that you've got to bear in mind is that when the government are proceeding as I think they should, and I think that we agree with quite a lot they're doing, there is a sense that the Home Office has dusted down from the shelves, one or two items that really don't belong in this legislation at all and think, this is an opportunity to push something through that we would otherwise have done. The religious aspects for example being a good case in point. Now... HUMPHRYS: ...incitement to religious hatred... KENNEDY: ...that is something that I think both Houses of Parliament have got to be very very careful about in weighing in the balance. HUMPHRYS: But what the polls seem to tell us is that two thirds of the people are happy with this legislation because they take the view that they are far more concerned about their right to live than the right to these particular civil liberties that may or may not be eroded. KENNEDY: Yes and I think that most people are troubled, quite properly so, by what's been developing internationally over the last couple of months, to say the least and that they are right to look to the government, to the state to protect them. But the job of legislators, both in the Commons and the Lords is to make sure that it is a judicious approach that you take to these matters and that you don't allow yourself to get too far down a track which maybe suits the interests of the state but longer term doesn't in fact serve the interests of the individual citizen. HUMPHRYS: We'll look at how the individual citizen might say my interest is going to be served by this legislation. Take the question of people with 'proven' and I have to put the word in quotes because it hasn't been proven in a court of law obvious but enough to satisfy our intelligence people and all the rest of it... KENNEDY: ...sure... HUMPHRYS: ...and people who don't deny it anyway that they have had terrorist links, links with this appalling al-Qaeda network, roaming the streets of this land at liberty. Now if what this legislation means is that those people can be picked up and locked up and may be deported or whatever, then that has to be the right thing to do at this time, doesn't it? KENNEDY: Well I think that, I mean, I've discussed this with the Prime Minister and there is no doubt that there are people as we speak, in our country who have got more than proven terrorist links, no doubt about that whatsoever and that the law of the land does not serve us well in that first of all, they should be picked up, to use that phrase. Secondly, if possible, put before a court of law, thirdly, there should be access for them to be deported to a country... HUMPHRYS: ...might not be able to deport them... KENNEDY: ...well there is... HUMPHRYS: ...because there might not be a country that can accept them because they wouldn't... KENNEDY: ...indeed. I mean there is a real practical and philosophical problem here, but we should be going down those routes before we actually find ourselves in the position that certain people who may or may not have links with disreputable organisations internationally are finding themselves falling foul of the law. HUMPHRYS: Look I'm sure everybody would agree that in the ideal world you arrest them, you put them on trial, they are convicted and they are locked up. Fine, absolutely fine. But it may well be that the evidence that would convict them cannot be presented to an open court of law because of the kind of intelligence and expert... KENNEDY: Quite: HUMPHRYS: ...knowledge that is behind it? KENNEDY: Very true and in that respect you probably have to have some kind of judicial procedure which allows such evidence to be presented but in private, or in camera, which is always a rather confusing phrase... HUMPHRYS: ...but either way not for public consumption. KENNEDY: ...yes... HUMPHRYS: ...but even then, you're nibbling in to our civil liberties? KENNEDY: Well I think you have to get the balance right and I think the whole issue here is that you begin with the starting point, which is the interests of the individual citizen and you then move to what is the legitimate protection of that citizen in terms of state power. And I do feel that David Blunkett is going rather too far, too fast, in terms of what is now being presented before Parliament. HUMPHRYS: A Select Committee of MPs have looked at this and have decided for themselves that he's not going to far, they're happy with it. Happy - I mean, who's happy with it? Nobody's delighted that we have to do it, but they believe it's justified. KENNEDY: Well I think that there are strong elements of justification involved of course but I do think that some of the aspects of this legislation are pushing the boat out just too much where civil liberties are concerned. Now I hope and I don't know yet as we speak, but I hope that over the course of the next twenty-four hours, the Home Secretary will perhaps retreat in some aspects of this and if that's the case, good and well. But if he doesn't I have to say that the Liberal Democrats will certainly vote against the Third Reading of this Bill in the House of Commons... HUMPHRYS: would do that? KENNEDY: Yes, yes we will do that tomorrow night if necessary. I don't want that to be the position but the way things are looking at the moment, I fear it is going to be the position. HUMPHRYS: But people will then see that you're voting against such things as obviously detention without trial which is a crucial part of the Bill and one that I.. that you've made quite clear is unacceptable to you. If there is no other way of dealing with those people than holding them without trial and there isn't, at least that's what the Home Secretary tells us, that's what the police say, that's what everybody seems to say, then the alternative is to leave them out there on the streets where they are a threat to us? KENNEDY: Yes but again what does experience breed in terms of this? HUMPHRYS: Have we've been quite here before, have we had this experience before? KENNEDY: Yes we have. We've had everything from the Diplock courts in Northern Ireland... HUMPHRYS: ...that's Northern Ireland, yes... KENNEDY: Well, you say that's Northern Ireland if somehow that's a different thing. Those are citizens of the United Kingdom, just like us. HUMPHRYS: Indeed they are. KENNEDY: And what did we learn from that. I think we learned that it is not good to make martyrdom of certain individuals if you can deal with it in a more properly processed legal way, which recognises the individual rights of the citizen. HUMPHRYS: So the upshot of that is that you would be happy. Happy is not maybe the perfect word, but nonetheless you would be prepared to see these people who are threats to us, to our lives, roaming the streets in effect. KENNEDY: No, I'm not in favour of these people roaming the streets. Of course I'm not. HUMPHRYS: what's the alternative? KENNEDY: Well, you know, the alternative here as often in life can only be worse and the alternative is that you and me and anyone watching this programme suffers a subjugation of individual civil rights which are central to our country. HUMPHRYS: And they might say "rather that than lose my life" KENNEDY: Well they might say that, but I think... HUMPHRYS: ...they very surely would. You would. Come on, you would? KENNEDY: Yes I certainly would, but the, as an individual I would. But I think the point is, that you can take effective action against people without the majority of law abiding, peace-keeping individual people in this country actually having to suffer a diminution of their individual civil rights. Now that is very important and if Parliament is there for anything, it is there to defend, to promote and to maintain those very principles. HUMPHRYS: Nobody would argue that it's very important, the question is where your priority lies, and at a time like this when we're seeing an international terrorist organisation capable of doing the kind of things it did in the United States threatening this country, then you have to decide on your priorities, and isn't it the case that what you're doing is you're saying .....and a lot of people say this is typical Liberal wishy-washiness, we don't want... KENNEDY:'s a very offensive phrase that the Home Secretary used incidentally. HUMPHRYS: ...well he did... KENNEDY: ...any thinking reflective person... HUMPHRYS: ...I'm sure that he is... KENNEDY: ...should in fact... HUMPHRYS: ...he talked about airy... KENNEDY: ...should in fact have a liberal sentiment when it comes to individual rights unto the rule of law. Any sensible person has that. And for the Home Secretary of the day to dismiss it as Liberal wishy-washiness I think is really arrogant and offensive. HUMPHRYS: I think he went a bit beyond that as well. I'm trying to find what he said... KENNEDY: ...he probably did... HUMPHRYS: ...airy-fairy libertarians - it's only airy-fairy libertarians who want to stop this happening. KENNEDY: ...airy-fairy libertarians? Lord Donaldson, former Master of the Rolls, one of the most senior judicial figures in the land, he's actually writing letters to The Times saying that this constitutes something of a constitutional crisis. These are not airy-fairy Liberals, come on? HUMPHRYS: You've also accused the government of tagging other things on to this Bill. You mentioned that in your first answer, some criminal measure for instance. The problem here is that terrorists often use criminal measures in order to get the funds that they need. They rob banks or whatever it is they happen to be doing and you can't always distinguish between the two, we found that in Northern Ireland certainly, so again, isn't that an unfair criticism? KENNEDY: No I don't think it's unfair, I think that inevitably and you see this with private members legislation in the House of Commons quite frequently, any government department and the Home Office is probably one of the most active departments in legislative terms, has always got stuff gathering dust on the walls that they would like to do and maybe they'll find an acquiescent back-bencher that will use his private members moment to bring it forward, maybe they might find a piece of legislation like this, which is rushed legislation, emergency legislation, to tag it on to. That is not, I don't think, a sufficient or a compelling reason for bringing in some of the measures that are involved in this particular set of Bills that both the Chancellor and the Home Secretary are now promoting. HUMPHRYS: Simon Hughes, your Home Affairs spokesman, says that you'll try to delay the Bill in the Lords. Isn't that actually being, at a time of emergency like this, given that you accept that we face a sort of state of emergency, isn't that actually irresponsible? KENNEDY: No, it's not. It's actually highly responsible, in a Parliamentary sense because Parliament should be there, and the House of Lords in fact in particular as the second guess in Parliamentary terms should be there to make the Executive of the day think twice. And the government do not have a majority in the House of Lords and I think that when you look at what will happen in the next couple of weeks when it goes before the House of Lords you will find that a combination of Liberal Democrats, I hope the Conservatives, we're working with them on this too and the cross-benchers will make them think again and that's no bad thing. HUMPHRYS: Charles Kennedy, many thanks. KENNEDY: Thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.