LONDON — Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pledged Friday to restore "our great British freedoms," saying that too many basic liberties have been eroded in the name of keeping Britain safe from terrorism.
Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats who last year teamed with Conservatives to form a new coalition government, blamed previous Labour Party governments for a relentless assault on civil liberties that the ruling coalition will reverse.
"The British people have become accustomed to a vast array of infringements on their freedom — widespread and indiscriminate surveillance, their DNA being held (in a database) unnecessarily, the proliferation of new criminal offenses and the growing number of reasons state inspectors can barge into their homes," Clegg said in his first major speech of the new year, before the Institute for Government in London.
"In the next 12 months we want to undo the damage of 13 years; 2011 will be the year we give people's freedom back," Clegg said.
From the omnipresence of security cameras to the lengthy detentions of suspects without charge, Britain has become a society that critics say has embraced Big Brother-like practices without always demonstrable benefit.
Since taking power last May, the coalition has already junked a Labor scheme of national identity cards for British citizens and a government register containing personal information on all 11 million children in England.
"That momentum is only going to build," Clegg said.
But he declined to give details on the most contentious aspect of his civil liberties agenda: the fate of Britain's so-called control orders, which allow authorities to keep terrorism suspects under virtual house arrest without charging them in court.
Fewer than a dozen people are under such orders. Most must wear an electronic monitoring device to help authorities keep track of them, are restricted on where they can go and are banned from using cell phones.
Authorities say that, if left free, some of the suspects might immediately attempt to plot or carry out a terrorist attack. But they cannot be brought to court, officials say, because the evidence against them would be inadmissible under normal judicial rules or would compromise intelligence-gathering methods and secrets if made public.
Clegg's party has called for the control orders to be scrapped, siding with critics who describe it as an ineffective blunt instrument that not only deprives people of basic freedoms but punishes their families as well. Several "controlees" have even managed to escape.
However, lawmakers and others from the dominant Conservative Party are urging Prime Minister David Cameron to retain control orders and not to "appease" Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in government. Clegg hinted a compromise would be unveiled soon.