Hat Tip to UK Liberty for pointing me in the direction of this report in The Guardian. Apparently the government is proposing to massively extend the scope of the UK DNA database. According to The Guardian:
"Currently, the police do not have the power to place details such as DNA and fingerprints of anyone who has committed a minor, or 'non-recordable', offence such as dropping litter or speeding on to the relevant database.
"However, the government believes there may be a case for recording the details of people who have committed minor crimes. In a briefing document promoting the consultation exercise, the Home Office claims its inability to take personal details such as fingerprints or DNA from all offenders 'may be considered to undermine the value and purpose' of having a searchable database."
The last part is especially worrying. That logic leads ultimately to a compulsory DNA database of all UK citizens - DNA recorded from birth and linked to the National Identity Register (NIR). As Gareth Crossman of Liberty says:
"The danger is that if we start adding the details of people convicted of these sort of minor offences to the database we'll come to a tipping point,' said Gareth Crossman, director of Liberty. 'The government will say: "Actually it's a bit unfair some people aren't on the database; maybe everyone should be on it."'"
Why should this matter? What danger to the innocent is there from this proposal?
Well there's a practical one. DNA identification is not infallible. Mistakes are rare but can happen. The more we rely on DNA identification the greater the chance of such mistakes occurring. And the result of such a mistake is likely to be a miscarriage of justice with an innocent person - perhaps you or me - wrongly convicted of a crime.
There's also the practical issue that an automatic reliance on a DNA database is likely to devalue intelligence led policing. Why bother trying to investigate a complex case when you can just take a few swabs and get the computer to spit out names of suspects? That approach could lead to police overlooking the very intelligence required to tackle major crime syndicates. Or terrorist cells.
Despite the practical dangers my objections are mainly ones of principle. This is another step into turning us all from citizens into suspects. We would all be suspects for every crime committed in the UK. If the computer throws up a match for our DNA then we become suspect number one even if all the facts point elsewhere.
Then there's the invasion of privacy. If such a database exists then police will be able to go to any location - maybe a coffee shop or an alternative bookshop - take swabs and get a list of everyone who's visited recently. Everywhere you go you'll leave a trail of DNA that anyone with access to the database will be able to follow. Once children are added to the database ("for their own protection") this truly would be surveillance from cradle to grave.
DNA of children stored on a database of potential criminals? Am I not just scare-mongering? I wish I was. Pressure for just such a move is growing. The Guardian reports that Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, a former president of the Police Superintendents' Association, recently wrote:
"If I had my way, the DNA we now take from newborn babies to check for genetic disorders would be added to the national database in the national interest"
I'm not a member of any political party. I don't have a vote in the Labour party deputy leadership elections. Those who do might want to bear in mind recent statements by two of the candidates, Peter Hain and Hazel Blears.
The BBC reports Peter Hain, commenting on anti-terror legislation, as saying:
"We have got to be very careful that we do not create circumstances that are the domestic equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.
"Guantanamo Bay, which was an international abuse of human rights, acted as a recruiting sergeant for dissidents and alienated Muslims and alienated many other people across the world."
If anyone remained in doubt about Tony Blair's attitude to civil liberties he admits it today in an article in The Times.
Discussing the recent absconding of three terrorist suspects subject to control orders, Blair says:
"So the fault is not with our services or, in this instance, with the Home Office. We have chosen as a society to put the civil liberties of the suspect, even if a foreign national, first.
"I happen to believe this is misguided and wrong."
Well Mr Blair, I would say the same about you. Civil liberties exist to protect us all. Eroding them in an attempt to fight terrorism is an own goal.
Talking of British terror suspects Blair says:
"Over the past five or six years, we have decided as a country that except in the most limited of ways, the threat to our public safety does not justify changing radically the legal basis on which we confront this extremism.
"Their right to traditional civil liberties comes first. I believe this is a dangerous misjudgment."
If it's a misjudgement then it's a misjudgement that people have spent centuries trying to achieve. Our civil liberties are the core of our free society, they can't be thrown away for short term gain.
People sometimes wonder why I support the civil liberties of people suspected of terrorism. It's because I support the civil liberties of people wrongly suspected of terrorism.
Britain, 2008. You're out on the street doing nothing wrong. Maybe you're looking in a few shop windows. Maybe you're waiting to meet someone. Maybe you're just strolling along. For no apparent reason the police stop you and demand to know who you are, where you're going, who you're planning to meet. If you refuse to answer their questions you could end up with a criminal record.
That's apparently a scenario the government wants to see in the UK. The BBC reports that the Home Office is considering giving police in mainland Britain an unlimited "stop and question" power. Anyone refusing to "co-operate" could be charged with obstructing the police and fined £5,000.
Of course the police can already stop and question people today. The difference is that today they need reasonable suspicion that you're up to no good. That's a subtle yet important restriction on their power. Officers know that they might have to justify their actions in a court of law. Under the new proposals police could stop and interrogate anyone, anywhere at any time - with or without a reasonable cause.
This proposal would be another nail in the coffin of the presumption of innocence in the UK. It would remove what little privacy we have left. It would shatter any remaining illusion that this is a free country where we can walk the streets without interference from the state.
If this goes ahead then the police will be able to stop and interrogate you without having to justify their actions - but you'd better be able to justify yours.
Update 28/5/2007: The BBC report has been updated and now says "Police are still likely to need a 'reasonable suspicion' a crime may be committed." It seems that the Home Office is back-pedalling following the massive condemnation of this proposal. That's welcome, however the fact that they even considered introducing this remains scary. And "likely to" isn't good enough.
Shami Chakrabarti recently had an excellent piece in the Telegraph: So much freedom lost...and on my watch. In it she gives a brief overview of some of the most significant ways that our civil liberties in the UK have been eroded during the Blair years.
Most of what Shami writes was all too familiar to me, however this line caught my attention:
"The fair criminal trial with the presumption of innocence at its heart is possibly Britain's greatest-ever export. Yet Mr Blair believed this was 19th-century nonsense that belonged 'in the time of Dickens'."
"We are trying to fight 21st century crime - ASB, drug-dealing, binge-drinking, organised crime - with 19th century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens. "The whole of our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. "Don't misunderstand me. That must be the duty of any criminal justice system. "But surely our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding people to live in safety. "It means a complete change of thinking. "It doesn't mean abandoning human rights. "It means deciding whose come first.
That's classic Blair: appearing to support a concept whilst attempting to redefine it out of existence. At first reading he appears to support the right to a fair trial, however look more carefully and he is saying that the need to successfully prosecute the guilty outweighs the need to protect the innocent.
So in an attempt to defend the majority Blair is prepared to jettison the rights, liberties and protection of the few who might be wrongly accused.
Except that it isn't just the few. Although only a small proportion of the population will ever be wrongly accused we are all at risk of this happening. The whole point of the "innocent unless proven guilty" assumption is to protect everyone equally. Human rights are universal, not a commodity to be traded away.
Blair's mistaken attempts to protect the innocent majority have actually put us at greater risk by undermining our justice system. Under his watch we've seen an increasing use of "summary justice", attempts to curtail the right to trial by jury, scrapping of double jeopardy in some cases and the admission of hearsay evidence in criminal trials.
Blair's priority has been to attempt (unsuccessfully) to protect the majority - and if an unfortunate minority suffer unfairly, so be it. It's just "collateral damage".
Dickens was, of course, a great supporter of social reform. If the right to a fair trial is a Dickensian value then I say we need more Dickensian values.
It seems the Blair government's attacks on civil liberties will continue even during the PM's farewell tour. The Times today has printed a leaked plan from the Home Office violent crime unit which if true is almost beyond belief.
The proposal is to force frontline public sector workers to report people they merely think might one day commit a violent offence. This speculation will then be collated by a national agency and shared amongst a range of bodies such as local authorites and the police.
The proposal includes terms like "sufficiently concerned" which sound good. However if staff have a statutory duty to make such reports then they will obviously cover themselves by reporting more rather than less. Remember that we're not just talking about specially trained personnel. We're talking about anyone in the public services who comes into contact with us.
If this monstrous scheme goes ahead it will in effect create a national database of gossip, hearsay and uninformed speculation - some of which will undoubtedly be malicious. Once on the database you'll probably never get off. An unfounded accusation could follow you for the rest of your life.
Consider: you've had a hard day and get into an argument with some petty jobsworth official. You raise your voice, perhaps say something silly. The official now has a legal obligation to report you as a potential violent offender. Two years later you apply for a job in a library but get rejected because the local authority computer flags you as a possible danger to the public.
The proposed new "multi-agency body" would in effect be a low-tech Department of Precrime.
It must be stressed that at the moment this is simply a leak of a set of high level proposals. It isn't official policy - then again, it hasn't been formally rejected.
What will probably happen is that Brown's government will "look again" at the plans and take action to "ensure safeguards". With a few token changes the basic scheme will probably still go ahead.
That's not acceptable. Safeguards on an idea like this are like a sticking plaster on an open vein. This plan must be scrapped totally and without reservation.
I remember a police officer once saying to me: "The last thing the police want is a police state". Whilst it's sometimes hard to believe, in general I think he's right. Sure, there are a few power-hungry individuals, especially at the top. But generally the constant calls from the police for more powers is simply a result of their perspective: they have a job to do and want to make it as easy for themselves as possible. That's understandable and a good reason why the police shouldn't automatically be given every power they ask for.
It's unfortunate that this perspective makes it very difficult for the police to argue in favour of the very civil liberties they should be protecting. Pragmatism usually gets in the way. So it's a pleasant surprise when a senior officer goes on record against the surveillance society.
Ian Readhead, the Deputy Chief Constable of Hampshire, has raised fears about the pernicious spread of CCTV, especially in small villages with low crime rates. The example he used was the village of Stockbridge in Hampshire which is on his beat.
Readhead told the BBC:
"I'm really concerned about what happens to the product of these cameras, and what comes next? "If it's in our villages, are we really moving towards an Orwellian situation where cameras are at every street corner? "And I really don't think that's the kind of country that I want to live in."
Readhead also went on to criticise other aspects of the surveillance state such as the indefinite retention of DNA taken from people who have never been charged with a crime.
When a senior police officer publicly uses words like "Orwellian" then we really do have something to worry about.
As Readhead asks: "Just how powerful do you want your police to be?"
The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) looks set to recommend the mandatory addition of folic acid to white and brown bread and flour (wholemeal would be exempt). Whilst I applaud the motives of those behind this plan it still makes me uneasy.
The reason for this proposal is to reduce the number of birth defects caused by folic acid deficiency. Some 900 pregnancies a year in the UK are affected by this resulting in Neural Tube Defects (NTD). Compulsory fortification in other countries has cut NTD rates by up to 50%.
So what's the problem?
Well, one issue is that extra folic acid might theoretically harm some people. In particular there is a possibility of additional folic acid masking B12 deficiency in the elderly. These are however strictly theoretical risks.
My problem with this is political rather than medical, it's a matter of principle. This plan would be - for all the best reasons - enforced medication. It simply isn't the role of government to do this unless there is risk of contagious disease. Enforced medication of the entire population to prevent a problem that only affects a minority of pregnant women cannot be justified.
This isn't the same as water fluoridation. Whilst fluoridation concerns me for the same reason it's not practical to give the choice of fluoridated or non-fluoridated water supplies. When buying a loaf there is plenty of choice.
The role of the government is to advise and encourage - not force. Saying that people can switch from white bread to wholemeal isn't really "choice".
One of the other options that was considered by the FSA was simply to encourage the food industry to provide more folic acid fortified bread. That I'd support. A government sponsored campaign to subsidise and promote properly labelled "Folic enhanced bread" would have my backing since it would leave the choice with the individual.
This isn't a major issue that's going to get me marching on the streets. However it does reflect a "we know best" attitude that is increasingly being adopted by the government in the UK and beyond. Forcibly improving our diet for our own good is just a symptom of a far wider problem.
One of the reasons I like the BBC is that I don't always agree with it. I reckon that a truly unbiased news organisation will upset all shades of opinion from time to time. But the recent two part documentary "CCTV: You Are Being Watched" was so one-sided that it could have been scripted by the CCTV makers.
What we saw was a two hour advert for the surveillance state. Despite the occasional throw-away line about Big Brother the privacy issues were simply brushed aside. The two programmes were simply filled with examples of the wonders of CCTV and how they had solved crimes and saved life. A brief comment from Shami Chakrabarti was all but drowned out in the sea of talking heads from the police and the CCTV industry.
Most worrying of all was the way the programme practically salivated at the idea of future developments in "smart cameras". This could mean CCTV would be able to predict we were about to commit a crime before we did so.
Department of PreCrime?
Now, I don't disapprove of CCTV completely. It certainly helps in solving crime and has some limited use as a deterrent (although even with one camera per 14 people the UK still has plenty of crime). My problem arises when CCTV is all-pervasive, surreptitious and lacking proper controls. Three attributes of the sort of surveillance this programme was advocating.
If we are to use CCTV in public places (eg streets) and private places open to the public (eg shops) then I think the following are essential:
The cameras must be overt rather than hidden
There must be legally binding rules on what can be done with the recorded footage, eg it must be a criminal offence for it to leave the place it was recorded unless requested by the police.
There must be a legal limit on how long the footage can be kept. Perhaps 90 days unless the police have requested it in regard to an open investigation
Of course nowadays it's about more than simple video footage. With the increase in technology such as face recogniton and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (APNR) such regulations must apply not just to the raw footage but to the data extracted from such footage that records our whereabouts. And these regulations must be legally enforceable, not just a fluffy "code of conduct".
If we must be monitored then that monitoring must be controlled to protect our privacy. The legal assumption should be that information gained through CCTV must not be kept, exchanged or used unless there is an overwhelming justification for doing so.
Some optimistic people have ben suggesting that Gordon Brown would abandon the expensive, intrusive and dangerous plans to impose UK Identity Cards and the National Identity Register (NIR) on the UK. That has now appears to have been a false hope.
GB: Yes. We are going through with the ID plan, and -
R4: No rethink.
GB: What I said yesterday, I think it's a very important point here, if you are in a situation, where you or I, could easily have my identity stolen, then that is a threat to my privacy and my civil liberties, and that is an increasingly common feature of our society.
So it appears that Brown is going to be as bad as Blair. The striking thing here is not just his support for ID cards but also the way he repeats Blair's trick of trying to define away our civil liberties.
If the goverment were to propose a truly voluntary scheme that protects our privacy and puts our identity under our control rather than under control of the state then I would support it. That is the exact opposite of what Tony Blair's government has planned - plans which it now seems Brown's government will implement.
Building a huge surveillance infrastructure and issuing us with a licence to live is an attack on our civil liberties, not a defence of them.
So it looks like I'll continue to vote against Labour for the forseeable future.
Even as Blair was announcing his resignation his government was up to its old tricks: burying embarrassing news.
The Home Office has to keep the House of Commons updated on the costs of the ID Card scheme every six months. The latest report was due a month ago yet for some reason was delayed. It was finally released on - surprise surprise - the day when the press were guaranteed to be looking elsewhere.
It's obvious why the Government wants to bury the figures: the projected ten year cost of the ID Card scheme has now risen to over £5 billion.
Five Billion Pounds
Of our money
On a scheme that will rob us of our privacy and reverse the relationship between the individual and the state.
Perhaps the most scary thing about the figures isn't the grand total of £5 billion but the increase. In the last six months alone the cost has risen by £400 million - over £600 million in 2007/8 terms.
Take a deep breath and read that figure again. The cost of this dangerous scheme has risen by half a billion pounds in the last six months. And it hasn't even started yet - what on earth will the final cost be? Remember, this is our money being spent on a system to monitor us
For me money isn't the major factor. I object to compulsory Identity Cards and the National Identity Register (NIR) on principle. That said, the numbers are absolutely staggering.
Five billion pounds
Of our money
Whatever your opinions about the rights and wrongs of the ID Card scheme there's no denying that this money could instead make a massive difference to the UK's schools, health services or pensions.
At last. Tony Blair has finally announced the date for his departure. With typical Blair showmanship he's managed to spin the resignation of an unpopular Prime Minister into a celebration of a decade of hagiocracy.
One thing on which Blair and I do agree: his "legacy" will be with us for years to come.
Credit where it's due, part of Blair's legacy must be his role in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland. For that I congratulate him. Unfortunately that achievement is overshadowed by his role in helping to bring war to Iraq.
Blair's long term legacy won't be measured in terms of peace and war but in terms of freedom and authority. Blair's government has presided over a massive erosion of civil liberties and a destruction of privacy in the UK. Unless Gordon Brown repeals the Identity Cards Act 2006 then the compulsory ID Card and National Identity Register (NIR) will eat away at the UK for decades to come.
This isn't a short term problem. As NO2ID said, "Blair is not Hitler. But he is building the tools of totalitarianism". Sooner or later those tools will be abused - the clock is ticking.
It probably won't affect you or me much, but what about your children and grandchildren? They may learn to curse Blair's name as his legacy turns the UK into Airstrip One.
My biggest fear following last week's election results has been that the LibDems would form a coalition with Labour in Holyrood to keep the SNP out. I've been of the opinion that the LibDems are so hungry for power they'd do anything to get it.
I seem to have misjudged them.
Interviewed on the BBC Politics Show today the Scottish Liberal Democrat campaign director Tavish Scott had this exchange:
Presenter: Do you rule out a coalition deal with Labour? Scott: Yes Presenter: So either you do a deal with the SNP or you are on the back benches Scott: That's absolutely the position
Phew. Assuming this placing of cards on the table is officially sanctioned that's good news. Now it's down to whether the SNP and the Lib Dems can find a compromise or whether the SNP go into a minority government.
The scuttlebutt I've been hearing suggests a minority SNP government, but I'm not sure. As a minority government the SNP wouldn't be able to get a referendum through Holyrood anyway - so they might as well negotiate it away for LibDem support. It's just a case of whether or not they can find a way of doing so whilst saving face.
Either way it seems that Labour are out of government in Scotland, which is a cause for celebration.
Some years ago I watched a fascinating TV programme that showed how the American authoritarians had deliberately - and successfully - set out to make "liberal" (in a social context) a dirty word. This involved first using it over-freely, usually with a sneer in the voice. Then adding negative associations such as "elitist liberals" and "liberal eggheads". This was then extended to start implying that social liberals (as opposed to right-wing economic free-marketers) were somehow unpatriotic and even dangerous. Old fears about communism were exploited shamelessly.
This barrage of guilt through verbal association was kept up relentlessly. The mud slowly stuck. Anyone in the US will know how effective this strategy was. Anyone in the UK who doubts it should just read the comments over here.
In the US today there are signs that the anti-liberal trend may be (very slowly) turning with the increasing unpopularity of Bush and his cronies. Which makes it all the more ironic that the anti-liberal campaign seems to be gathering pace over here.
Since 911 those of us who believe in civil liberties have been under attack - David Blunkett infamously used the term airy fairy libertarians the same month. We are now being labelled regularly as part of the "civil liberties industry" (I wish! I could do with the money...)
The right-wing press has picked up on the Human Rights Act (incorporation of which was one of the few good things Blair did). Any time this produces apparently lenient or counter-intuitive results the whole Act is slammed - even though in many cases the reports turn out to be false. So the whole concept of Human Rights is slowly undermined and presented as dangerous.
Then there's ID cards and the surveillance state. Here the authoritarians chant loudly the mantra "Nothing to hide, nothing to fear". So anyone who believes in privacy is automatically guilty of something.
This has been going on for years - why do I mention it now? Because I've noticed an increasing number of (mainly Labour) politicians refer to the Liberal Democrats as "the Liberals". Initially this was the occasional back bencher, but increasingly it's government and even cabinet members. The LibDems are referred to consistently as "the liberal party" - with a slight sneer in the voice. So "liberalism" is divorced from "democracy" and made to sound like an insult.
When this sort of thing is being done with increasing frequency by senior cabinet members then it can't be a simple mistake. Politicians understand the power of words. Maybe I'm being a paranoid conspiracy theorist but it strikes me as a deliberate attempt to take the UK down the US road of making "liberal" a dirty word.
Liberalism is not a dirty concept, we must not allow the authoritarians to hijack the word here the way they have in the US. So I feel the need to say it loud and clear:
The BBC have just announced that the SNP have won the Scottish election with 47 seats to Labour's 46. Now that's close.
Of course that doesn't mean the SNP will form a government. No party has a majority, there will have to be a coalition. The Lib-Dems are kingmakers.
In theory the Lib-Dems could ally with Labour and keep the old coalition running. That would be a government with no moral authority. I really, really hope that the Lib-Dems and the SNP can settle their differences and agree to a coalition.
Then we would have the dream scenario - a Scottish government comprising two parties both opposed to the imposition of compulsory ID Cards.
One of the big stories from last night's elections is the massive number of rejected ballot papers. It seems that as many as 100,000 people in Scotland who tried to vote might have lost their chance. In a small country with a population of 5 million - and a 50% turnout - that's disgraceful.
So how did it happen? How hard can it be to put a cross in a box?
For those not in Scotland, here's a summary of the process we went through yesterday:
We had three votes to cast at the same time, on two ballot papers. One ballot paper was for the Scottish Parliament. On the left hand side we had to put a single cross to choose a party from a long list, the results of this vote being decided by "top up" proportional representation (PR). On the right hand side of this paper we had to put a single cross to choose a party candidate from a much shorter list, the results of this ballot being chosen by first-past-the-post. The other ballot paper was for the local council elections. We had to place numbers against a long list of party candidates (most parties having two candidates) with the results decided by single transferrable vote (STV). Oh, and then we had to put each ballot paper a different ballot box.
No wonder people were confused. I'm a political geek and I was confused!
Does it matter? Well, in some constituencies the number of rejected ballot papers was greater than the winner's majority.
The decision to run simultaneously two elections with three different voting systems probably made life easier for politicians and officials and probably saved money. But it made a laughing stock of Scottish democracy.