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UK Civil Liberties
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Wednesday, December 19, 2007  

Scotland Opposes ID Cards

I almost missed this in the Christmas build up:

Last week the Scottish Parliament passed motion S3M-1017 which restated the country's opposition to Identity Cards and other Westminster government attacks on civil liberties. The motion as passed reads:

That the Parliament believes that the fundamental liberties enjoyed by generations of our citizens must not be eroded; welcomes the commitment by the previous Scottish Executive that ID cards would not be needed to access devolved services and its proportionate position on DNA retention; is concerned at the threat to civil liberties from the UK Government's expensive and unworkable proposal to introduce compulsory ID cards; believes that the Scottish Government should not put citizens' privacy at risk by allowing the UK ID database to access personal information held by the Scottish Government, local authorities or other devolved public agencies; therefore calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that all data protection procedures comply with the principles of data protection, namely that personal information must be fairly and lawfully processed, processed for limited purposes, adequate, relevant and not excessive, accurate and up to date, not kept for longer than necessary, processed in line with individuals' rights, secure and not transmitted to other countries without adequate protection, and that audit of data under its jurisdiction is independent of government and accountable to the Parliament; further calls on the Scottish Government to review plans for Scottish Citizens Accounts on the basis of these principles, and takes the view that there should be no blanket retention of DNA samples and that the Assistant Information Commissioner for Scotland should have specific powers to carry out spot checks on the compliance by Scottish government agencies and bodies with the Data Protection Act 1998.

You can read the debate here.

The passing of this motion by our democratically elected parliament is very welcome. Unfortunately at the end of the day it's little more than a token thorn in the side of the Westminster government's plans. Even if the Scottish government chooses not to cooperate, we in Scotland will still be numbered, filed and monitored in the same way as the rest of the UK.

You might like to connect with NO2ID Scotland on Myspace.

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Friday, November 23, 2007  

ID Cards: Blunkett Defends Threatened Scheme

David Blunkett has written a letter to The Times in which he tries again to defend the unpopular ID Card scheme. His letter suggests that he has still not understood the concerns of objectors like myself.

Blunkett contends that ID Cards will make us safer because even if personal data is lost (as it will be - accidents happen) then we will be safer because biometrics will protect us against identity theft. That shows a touching faith in technology, an apparent assumption that biometrics will never fail or be cracked. They will be, it's only a matter of time. Blunkett also fails to address how biometrics will be of any use when talking to a call centre outsourced to India.

Blunkett also repeats his claim that "The database is simply about identity". Nonsense. The database will contain dozens of pieces of personal information together with an audit trail that will amount to a complete record of our lives. As such it represents a massive invasion of privacy. It is completely unacceptable for any government to demand that much information on the people it is supposed to serve.

All this comes before even considering the governments desire to encourage greater data sharing. Data sharing that will be facilitated by everyone having a unique National Identity Register Number to potentially act as a common key.

The threat comes not from ID Cards but from the National Identity Register (NIR) and the threat this poses to individual privacy and hence freedom. Whatever Blunkett's initial ideas, the database as now planned is about much, much more than identity.

The NIR is dangerous and must be scrapped.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007  

Taking Liberties

Last night I watched Taking Liberties on DVD. It's an important documentary that should be watched by everyone in the UK. People in America could also learn what they might have in store.

The film starts with footage of the disgraceful Fairford incident where police "coach-napped" peaceful anti-war protestors and breached their rights.

It then goes back to 9/11 and proceeds to document the way that the Blair government has systematically eroded basic human rights. As a civil liberty advocate I knew most of what was shown but there were a few points that were eye-openers even for me.

The film makes frequent parallels between Blair's Britain and measures introduced in countries such as Nazi Germany and Rwanda. As with the famous NO2ID Blair/Hitler advert the film doesn't say Blair is like Hitler, merely that he is building the tools of totalitarianism.

Of course some people will say that I should be happy I live in a country where I have the freedom to watch a film like Taking Liberties.

I am.

What worries me is that future generations may wake up one day to find they no longer have that freedom.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007  

Brown To Scrap ID Cards?

The Sunday Mirror today has an encouraging report headlined Brown Scraps I.D. Card Plans. According to the Mirror:
"Gordon Brown is to abandon controversial plans to introduce compulsory ID cards for all.
"Instead, the Prime Minister will focus on tightening up existing anti-terror laws and on new measures to be unveiled in Tuesday's Queen's Speech."

It sounds great, but don't start celebrating yet. This is just one report by one newspaper quoting "Whitehall sources". It's not an official position, probably it's Brown spin doctor floating the idea to see what reaction it gets.

We know how some people react - expect gnashing of teeth from certain tabloids and ex-ministers. We mustn't let them dominate this story, we need to cheer louder than they wail.

So we need to make sure Brown gets the message that abandoning ID Cards will be very popular - and win votes. I for one would be willing to reconsider voting Labour if this report turns out to be true.

What we really need is for a government to repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006 and abandon the National Identity Register (NIR). Until that happens, putting compulsory ID Cards on the back burner is a big step in the right direction.

That's what I'm going to tell Gordon Brown. What about you?

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Thursday, November 01, 2007  

Nothing To Fear?

The London Metropolitan Police have been found guilty of breaking Health & Safety laws and endangering the public in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes. De Menzes was the innocent Brazilian mistaken by police for a suicide bomber in the wake of the attempted 21/7/2005 terrorist attacks. Anti-terrorist officers chased the unarmed man into a tube station and shot him dead.

Health and Safety may seem to be strange grounds on which to bring a case such as this but it was the only legal avenue available to the de Menezes family.

I for one have no doubt that all those involved in this case acted with the highest motives. The individual police officers believed that they were facing a would-be suicide bomber. They believed they were risking their own lives to protect the public.

They were wrong.

The police had the best of intentions yet got things wrong and killed an innocent man. De Menzes had nothing to hide yet, tragically, everything to fear.

At the end of the day the police are human. No matter how much intelligence and technology they have available, they make mistakes like the rest of us.

The tragic case of de Menzes is a reminder of why we must resist calls for more and greater police and state powers - powers such as extended detention without charge and compulsory ID Cards. Such powers may not have fatal consequences but could still ruin lives.

Extreme power leads to extreme abuse, even if that abuse is accidental rather than corrupt. Excessive police and state power is something for all innocent people to fear.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007  

Cameron: The Lesser Evil?

David Cameron gave an impressive performance at the Tory conference yesterday. For once he actually looked like a serious conviction politician rather than than a Tony Blair wannabe. Unfortunately the content of his speech was less impressive.

For all Cameron's claims to the middle ground, his speech contained many of the old Tory standbys: reduced regulation of business, more private schools, welfare cuts, more people in jail and opposition to the Human Rights Act. Cameron is still true blue at heart.

And yet... Cameron opposes Labour's scheme to impose compulsory ID Cards and a huge, intrusive National Identity Register (NIR). He's committed to scrapping ID Cards and to defending the right to trial by jury.

Civil liberties - freedom - is the most important issue of all. Cameron has got it right, Brown is wrong. There is no way I will ever vote for any party that supports ID Cards and the NIR.

It's hardly surprising that so few people in Britain bother to vote. The party system means you're offered job lot of policies and values, it's an all or nothing proposition. Yet I'm one of those who stubbornly insists on voting anyway. So if Gordon Brown does hold a snap general election in November, what will I do?

It's difficult. I don't totally agree with the Lib-Dems either, and they can't possibly win. A hung parliament with them having the balance of power would probably be my preferred option. But what if I lived in a constituency where our voting system means the only real choices are Labour or Tory?

Let's assume the sitting Labour MP wasn't one of the ID rebels. What would I do?

With heavy heart I have to say that I'd vote Tory to keep Labour out. It would be the lesser evil. My hope would be that the Tories would repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006 after which we could vote them out again.

So if there is an election next month then it looks like I'll be pushing for "Anyone But Labour".

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Sunday, September 30, 2007  

Local Councils Get Phone Snoop Powers

If you live in the UK then you've just lost another significant chunk of your privacy.

The Mail reports that as of tomorrow your phone records can be accessed - without your knowledge or consent - by a host of organisations including the tax office, the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health, the Immigration Service, the Gaming Board and the Charity Commission. And, of course, the local council.

That's a lot of people who can now legally snoop on your records. They won't be able to listen in to your calls but they will be able to find out when and where you last called an ex-partner, a confidential support service or a premium rate kinky chat line.

This massive increase in government snooping powers was sanctioned by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. She has used a statutory instrument to enact the controversial Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations. At around the same date Smith signed another statutory instrument meaning that from tomorrow the government can force you to hand over your decryption keys under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

Why does any of this technical legal stuff matter? After all, you've done nothing wrong. You've got nothing to hide. You're not a terrorist, a criminal or subversive.

It's a matter of trust. You may trust this government not to abuse these wide-ranging powers - will you trust the next one? And the one after that?

Will your children trust the government in twenty years time?

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Thursday, September 27, 2007  

Letter Bombs: Anti-Surveillance Protester Guilty

School caretaker Miles Cooper has been found guilty of a two week letter bomb campaign earlier this year. He sent seven letter bombs that injured eight people including a pregnant woman.

The establishments Cooper targeted included organisations involved in government surveillance of the UK populace. He was angry at the way Britain has become a surveillance society where we are "one of the most watched societies on the planet". He had previously written to the House of Lords objecting to plans for compulsory ID cards.

Speaking as someone who argues for civil liberties and against surveillance I want to say that there is no justification Cooper's actions. Despite the strength of my opposition to the surveillance state I would never support such attacks. Violence against individuals is unacceptable.

There is a danger here that some on the authoritarian side of the arguments will, at least by implication, suggest that Cooper is representative of all civil liberty advocates. He's not and we need to make that clear

Cooper was right to be angry at the rise of the surveillance state. I share his concerns.

He was wrong to risk harming individuals. I totally condemn his actions.

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Friday, September 21, 2007  

Fancy A Drink? First Prove You're Not A Junkie

I thought it was bad enough when pubs and clubs in the UK started to insist on fingerprinting customers. Things have got worse quicker than even I could have imagined: the Oxford Mail reports that visitors to a Bicester pub were subjected to mandatory drug testing before being allowed entry.

Customers wishing to drink at the Litten Tree pub last Friday were forced to undergo drug testing before being allowed entrance into the pub. This was apparently part of a police operation aimed at tackling violent street crime - which is ironic as the testing for illegal drugs did nothing to prevent people getting blind drunk then rolling out into the streets.

The "logic" used by the police in discussing this operation would be funny if it wasn't scary. According to Detective Sergeant Steve Duffy of Banbury CID:

"We swab people's hands and then that swab is placed into the equipment and it gives a reading of the level of drug residue.

"If it's above the background level then we use the equipment to give us the power to search - it gives us reasonable suspicion."

So they're using universal low level drug testing in order to provide reasonable suspicion?!? What happened to reasonable suspicion before testing?

Nobody should ever be subjected to drug testing unless there is reasonable suspicion first. This sort of testing completely reverses the burden of proof - in order to enter the pub you have to prove you haven't been using illegal drugs. You become guilty unless proven innocent.

Customers who didn't want to be tested were told they couldn't enter the pub. Of course they could then simply go drink elsewhere, so some people will say "That's all right then".

It's not all right. These things start as occasional one-off events. Then they become more and more frequent until they're the norm instead of the exception. As Duffy said: "Bicester has no bigger problem than the rest of the country". So if it can happen there it can happen anywhere.

Will your local be next?

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Saturday, August 25, 2007  

Big Brother Cameras Proposed For UK Homes

When campaigning against ID Cards and the National Identity Register (NIR) I've frequently used the following as a hypothetical example: Most child abuse happens at home, so why not put CCTV cameras in every home to protect kids? After all, if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear.

That was intended as an extreme, ridiculous example to counteract the naive "nothing to hide..." brigade. I never, ever expected it to become real. Seems like I was the one being naive.

The Herald reports on a proposal to install CCTV cameras in the homes of drug addicts - all, of course, for the sake of the children.

It needs to be stressed that this is just the idea of one academic - Professor Neil McKeganey of the centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University - but the fact that it's even being discussed is worrying. I'm sure McKeganey has the best of motives, but his idea is dangerous. As is his argument:
"What price should we put on our privacy? The question is whether we are prepared to say the principle of the privacy of family life is more important than that of child protection. If we accept that privacy is the most important principle then there will be many more tragic cases."

Now I know what some people are thinking: these are addicts, they're dangerous to the kids, it won't affect me. That's always the way it starts: target the nasty "them", the decent "us" have nothing to fear.

Drug addicts first, who next? People diagnosed as suffering from depression or borderline personality disorders? Anyone who was themself abused as a child? People who smoke? Or who eat too much and might over-feed their kids?

First they came for the junkies...

Remember, most child abuse happens in the home. So once a sufficient critical mass of people have CCTV installed it will be a "natural" next step to put them in every home. All, of course, for the sake of the children.

Could it ever happen? I'd like to think not, but give Britain's surveillance state mentality I can't rule it out.

I remember when mass DNA testing began - it was only for those in the vicinity of particularly nasty and hard to solve murders. The concept expanded until today we are looking at a de facto national DNA database.

CCTV cameras in the streets were initially introduced in areas where there was a history of trouble. Today they're everywhere, even quiet villages.

Only criminal suspects used to be fingerprinted, today nightclubs are fingerprinting customers. Soon the government want us all fingerprinted and numbered for the NIR.

That's the way it goes with freedom: give an inch and they take it all. To protect our own liberties we must protect those of everyone - including junkies. No private home should ever have state CCTV installed.

If the SNP want to prove that they really are better than Labour, the Scottish Executive should publicly condemn and reject McKeganey's proposal.

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Monday, August 06, 2007  

Britain Gambols Towards A Police State

Henry Porter wrote an excellent article in yesterday's Observer in which he said:

"[...] it is worth underlining one sentence that needs to be written in neon across every town centre: Britain is on the way to becoming a police state.
"Writing about the crisis of liberty in Britain, I have been careful not to use these words, but today I see no other conclusion to draw."

Like Porter I've tried to avoid calling the UK a "police state". Britain is clearly not a police state according to the traditional definition. Yet the similarities are many.

In Britain today we have (deep breath): routine monitoring of our daily lives and communications, 20% of the world's CCTV cameras, over 3000 new criminal offences created in ten years, vetting for all manner of jobs and other activities, fingerprinting of children in schools, increasing use of summary justice, erosion of the presumption of innocence, restrictions on the right to trial by jury, internment without charge, the threat of compulsory national ID Cards... Some people also believe the UK government has been complicit in the US policy of "extraordinary rendition" - which, in a South American dictatorship, would have been called "forced disappearance".

The main difference between the UK and a police state is lack of actual oppression: the authorities don't need to use force, we "baa" happily as we're shorn of our rights.

How has this happened? Partly because of the piecemeal approach the authorities have taken, introducing repressive laws one small step at a time so that most people haven't even noticed. In a country that thinks Big Brother is a jolly TV show, civil liberties just aren't as interesting as celebrity lifestyles.

Where there is any resistance the fear card has been played again and again. Since 911 it has mainly been fear of terrorism - a valid fear but not one which justifies the self-destruction of our way of life. Other weapons of fear include illegal immigrants and identity fraudsters along with the paedophiles who apparently hide behind every tree.

These objects of fear are used like sheepdogs, gently herding an ovine populace away from the wide fields of freedom and into the restricted pen of a de facto police state.

Britain isn't a police state for one simple reason: it doesn't need to be. We're collaborating in our own oppression.

Of course the sheepdog analogy suggests a shepherd running everything according to a master plan. I'm not paranoid enough to believe that - and not naive enough to rule it out.


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Wednesday, July 25, 2007  

Brown Calls For Consensus Against Freedom

It appears that Gordon Brown will be less gung-ho than Tony Blair in his erosion of our civil liberties, but just as determined.

The PM's National Security Statement to Parliament set out proposals for the forthcoming Counter Terrorism Bill. The language and style are very different to Blair, appearing much more conciliatory and making a big play for "consensus". Such "consensus" could become a dangerous trap.

There were definitely some good things in Brown's speech including the setting up of a border police force and the possible use of intercept evidence in court. I particularly welcome the "hearts and minds" suggestions such as the sponsoring of English speaking imams and teaching of citizenship in madrassas.

Unfortunately there were two major problems with Brown's speech which mean that in calling for a consensus against terrorism he is in effect calling for a consensus against freedom.

Brown's first error was his continued support for imposing biometric ID Cards on innocent British citizens, along with hints at greater data sharing. This is now being wrapped up in the friendly sounding phrase "ID security within our own borders" yet it remains identity control by the state. ID Cards are the greatest threat to privacy and liberty in 21st century Britain. An ID Card is no less than a licence to live.

Brown also proposed a "further overview" of how to protect key infrastructure such as trains. I for one strongly suspect that this overview will suggest ID checks on key rail routes. That would create yet another problem for innocent people that ID Cards would "solve". It would also be yet another step towards ID Cards as internal passports.

What will probably grab tomorrow's headlines was not Brown's support for ID Cards but his ideas on detention without charge. Brown suggested increasing the length of time that UK police can hold terrorist suspects without charge to 56 days.

56 days may not sound much. Until you realise it's eight weeks - that's almost two months of detention and interrogation without charge.

Brown did at least consult with Liberty, although he made it obvious that he didn't approve of their suggestion that such internment would require the declaration of a state of emergency. Brown's preferred option appears to be to allow two months detention without charge as long as there is parliamentary oversight.

That's not acceptable. Oppression remains oppression when overseen by Parliament.

Brown ended his speech by stating a desire to create an "all-party consensus that will extend into every community of our country".

That sent a chill down my spine. Will those of us who support civil liberties be branded as terrorist sympathisers for seeking to break the "consensus"? No government would risk making such a direct accusation - but certain tabloids wouldn't hesitate for a second. And they will receive at least implicit support from certain authoritarian politicians.

Expect a ramping up of the smear campaign against civil libertarians.

So be it. Under no circumstances will I be part of any consensus against freedom.

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Friday, June 29, 2007  

London Bombing Foiled

Congratulations and thanks to all those - be they civilian, police or intelligence services - who were involved in finding and making safe the Haymarket bomb. Had it exploded it would have been an appalling atrocity. The thought makes me shudder all the more because I know Haymarket well from when I lived in London.

Every time the terrorists succeed in murder the authoritarians say it strengthens the argument in favour of repressive measures such as ID Cards.

Every time a terrorist attack is foiled without the use of repressive measures such as ID Cards it strengthens the argument against them.


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Wednesday, June 27, 2007  

Tony Blair: From Hope to Hate

I remember election night 1997. I stayed up into the early hours of the morning cheering as the extent of the Tory defeat became apparent. I clearly remember the joy of seeing Michael Portillo defeated by Stephen Twigg. The next morning the sun was shining, Tony Blair was in Downing Street and I really believed that things could only get better.

My one regret was that I couldn't be with Tony Blair to shake his hand.

Where did it all go so wrong?

It began with the economy. During the election Blair had used the rhetoric of the Tories - but few of us believed him. We assumed it was just an election ploy, that he'd discard it once he was Prime Minister. Yet instead he embraced the language of the unfettered market and failed to reverse any of the disastrous Tory privatisations.

Still there were some high points: the introduction of a minimum wage, devolution for Scotland, incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. So I was a little disappointed with some aspects of Blair's government but generally happy.

Then came 911 and the authoritarian wing of the Blair government seized on it as an opportunity. The talk of compulsory ID Cards began almost immediately.

911 was probably the defining moment of Blair's regime. Would he stand up to authoritarians like David Blunkett and defend our liberties, or would he sacrifice them on the altar of supposed security? He chose the latter - and lost my support. The UK derogated from Article 5 of the ECHR, undermining Blair's greatest achievement and paving the way for internment without trial.

Following 911 George W Bush decided to invade Iraq. It was obvious that 911 had nothing to do with Iraq but simply provided an excuse. For Blair to go along with this seemed unbelievable. The idea that he might do so without a UN resolution - collaborate in an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation - was mind-boggling. I was one of the million people who marched through the streets of London in a protest that Blair simply ignored.

As predicted, the invasion of Iraq didn't make the world a safer place - it made it a much more dangerous one. Blair's response was a steady erosion of our civil liberties, the worst being the ongoing plan to impose compulsory National Identity Cards and a huge, intrusive National Identity Register (NIR).

Apparently emboldened by his success in exploiting the terrorist threat, Blair - initially through Blunkett - extended his attacks on traditional freedoms into other areas: removal of the double jeopardy protection, attempts to restrict the right to trial by jury , constant attacks on the presumption of innocence and much, much more. In the name of protecting British society Blair has ripped up some of its most important foundations - the freedoms which people spent centuries fighting for have been discarded in a decade.

So this afternoon I'll be watching Tony Blair drive to Buckingham Palace and resign as PM. I'll be cheering as loudly as I was ten years ago.

My only regret will be that I can't be with Tony Blair to spit in his face.


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Saturday, June 09, 2007  

Non-Conformists Could Be Denied Driving Licences

The BBC reports an idea I find rather worrying: it's apparently been suggested that psychometric personality assessment could be made part of the UK driving test. Those who "fail" the personality test will, presumably, be denied a driving licence. The idea is to improve safety by identifying those who are likely to be dangerous drivers.

Now I can see why the idea appeals, there are many dangerous drivers on the road. I'd certainly approve the use of such tests as part of driving instruction to teach self-control behind the wheel. Better education, including psychological techniques for dealing with stress etc, would definitely be welcome. Psychometric tools could be useful as a method of improving self-awareness.

When it comes to more general psychological analysis as part of the driving test I'm deeply uneasy. For a start such psychometric tests are very crude - people behave differently in different situations. Because someone identifies themselves as a "risk-taker" doesn't necessarily mean they'll take risks behind the wheel. People who indulge in extreme sports are by definition risk-takers yet often some of the most careful people around; their lives depend on it.

More worrying is the suggestion in the BBC report that such tests could be used "to root out drivers prone to breaking rules". Once such non-conformists were identified by "picking up their underlying values", "instructors and examiners would then be able to modify the person's behaviour".

Emergency stop!

Are we saying that a driving licence - which most people need - could be linked to a psychological attitude of submission to authority? That people who refuse to comply and conform will be "rooted out" and psychologically reconditioned?

If such tests become a routine part of the governmental apparatus, how much further could they be extended? Could your psychological profile - adjusted or otherwise - be stored on the DVLA database? To be linked to your National Identity Register Number (NIRN) on your ID Card?

As always, I hope that I'm over-reacting and it would never come to that. Hopefully this is just a silly-season story on a slow news day. But the language being used is extremely worrying. When seen in the context of the Mental Health Bill it all has a nasty psikhushka feel about it.

It says something about our society today that people could even suggest such testing.

And it says a lot about our government that it's reportedly keeping "an open mind" on the idea.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007  

UK: New Measures Proposed to Fight Freedom

The Home Secretary John Reid today launched his discussion document proposing new powers to combat terrorism in Britain. Despite his softer presentation and calls for cross-party consensus the substance of his proposals still contains elements that are totally unacceptable.

Firstly, Reid refused to rule out suggestions that police might be given powers to stop and interrogate people without reasonable cause. The new powers aren't included in the current document but are the subject of an "internal consultation".

More immediately Reid also wants to have another go at increasing the length of time a suspect can be held without charge - previously this government has pushed for 90 days.

This is nothing short of internment without charge.

Let's do a quick thought experiment. Relax for a second. Imagine yourself asleep in you bed, at peace with the world. You feel warm, comfortable and safe.

Suddenly you're woken by a crashing sound. Your bedroom door bursts open. Armed police rush. They shout at you to get out of bed. They handcuff you at gunpoint.

You demand to know what's going on and they say you've been arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity. You tell them this is nonsense - they tell you to shut up. Ignoring your protestations they bundle you out through the remains of your smashed in front door.

You're thrown into the back of a police van which drives for hours. Eventually you arrive at a police station, they won't tell you where. When you demand access to a solicitor it's denied. They won't let you contact anyone. They refuse to tell you what you are suspected of having done. Instead they question you relentlessly. They ask about your religion, your politics, your friends and family. They ask you about names you've never heard of and show you photos of people you don't know. They repeat the same questions again and again and again.

This goes on day after day. You're kept in solitary confinement except when being questioned. After two days of interrogation you're finally allowed to see a solicitor - who knows little more than you. You aren't allowed to contact family or friends.

You're totally innocent yet they won't believe you. They just keep on and on and on with the same questions that you can't answer. They won't tell you why you're being held or what's going to happen to you.

The days turn into weeks, then months. Eventually after three months of internment you're released. You can tell that the police are reluctant to let you go and still refuse even tell you why you were being questioned. Three months of your life are gone, you've probably lost your job. There is no apology and no compensation.

If Reid gets his way that Kafkaesque nightmare could become real for any one of us at any time. It'll be unlikely, but not impossible. All it will take is one incorrect piece of information, one mix-up of names, one coincidence of you being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

John Reid said in the Commons today:
"I believe that terrorism remains the greatest threat to the life and liberty of this nation and of the many individuals who make up this country"

He's half right. The greatest threat to life is indeed from the terrorists. But the greatest threat to liberty is from government.


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Sunday, June 03, 2007  

Gordon Brown's Accountable Authoritarianism

Another weekend, another attack on our freedom. Early hopes that Gordon Brown might be less authoritarian than Tony Blair are fading fast. It appears that the new Prime Minister will simply take a different approach to stripping us of our liberties. The same old stuff with a different type of spin.

We've already heard that Brown won't be scrapping ID Cards after all. He's known to support extending the period of questioning by the police of terror suspects to 90 days (that's three months internment without charge). The BBC reports Brown speaking yesterday in Glasgow where he said:

"Because we are a country that believes in civil liberties of the individual, every time you have to strengthen the security measures that are necessary to protect our country, you also have to strengthen the accountability to parliament and the independent oversight of what police and other authorities are doing."

This is clever stuff, very different to Blair's "trust me" approach. And just as dangerous.

First, Brown starts by paying lip service to the thing he's attacking - civil liberties of the individual. Then he loads a long, rambling sentence with phrases like "you have to", "are necessary" and "to protect". These are embedded. They're not part of the main argument but are taken as given - thus avoiding debate on them. It's classic sales/NLP/hypnosis technique.

Then there's the thrust of the point: That removing our civil liberties is somehow justified if it's accompanied by accountability.

It's not. Our liberties aren't removed at the moment we're wrongly arrested. Our liberties aren't removed at the moment when some judge looks at our situation.

Our liberties are removed at the moment authoritarian laws are passed.

The vast majority of us will never suffer under these laws, will never be victims of wrongful suspicion, will never be locked up for three months without charge. Yet we might. That's the danger - authoritarian laws could affect any one of us and hence erode the freedom of us all.

Yes, oversight and accountability are necessary when giving the state powers over the individual. That doesn't mean that - as Brown implies - they are sufficient.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007  

Blair: Respect for Civil Liberties "Misguided and Wrong"

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.

That might one day be you.

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UK Police To Get "Stop and Interrogate" Powers

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.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007  

Bring Back Dickensian Values

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'."

I did a quick search and this refers to something Blair said during a 2005 conference speech:

"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.


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Monday, May 21, 2007  

UK Proposes Department of Precrime

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.


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All material copyright © 2006-2007 Trevor Mendham. Thanks to Judes for the original Atu XVIII card artwork.

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