The Coalition Programme for Civil Liberties

Posted: May 23rd, 2010 Tags: Comments: 1 Comment »

A couple of days back the new Conservative-LibDem government published its programme for government. The most important section for me was, of course, that on civil liberties. Here’s what the document had to say on that issues along with my comments:

We will be strong in defence of freedom. The Government believes that the British state has become too authoritarian, and that over the past decade it has abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties. We need to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness.

• We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion.

A good position statement which contrasts strongly with Blair’s attempts to “redefine” freedom for the 21st century and New Labour’s constant use of fear to justify authoritarian measures.

• We will introduce a Freedom Bill.

Sounds good but we need to see the detail. The problem with any Freedom Bill or Bill of Rights is not what goes in but what’s left out.

•We will scrap the ID card scheme, the National Identity register and the ContactPoint database, and halt the next generation of biometric passports.

The best news and essential for civil liberties. They also need to go one step further and actually repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006. A note about passports: international agreements only require a digitised version of your photo, Labour tried to use passports as an excuse for collecting other biometrics such as fingerprints.

•We will outlaw the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.

An excellent start but not quite enough. There are many ways schools can apply pressure to get parents to “consent” to kiddyprinting: “If you don’t consent to Jimmy being fingerprinted he won’t be able to use the library or attend after school club”. Kiddyprinting is evil: it indoctrinates kids into believing that biometric surveillance is the natural order of things. Requiring consent isn’t enough, kiddyprinting needs to be made illegal.

•We will extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.

Sounds good, let’s see the details.

•We will adopt the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.

Excellent. The Scottish system doesn’t generally allow the retention of DNA from innocent people (there are some exceptions). The coalition could still go further as the GeneWatch article explains.

•We will protect historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.

Another good start that needs more detail. Hopefully we’ll also see no further moves towards summary justice (eg on the spot fines) and no further reversals of the burden of proof.

•We will restore rights to non-violent protest.
•We will review libel laws to protect freedom of speech.

Again good high level goals.

•We will introduce safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.

Not good enough. New Labour made much of the “safeguards” it provided with every piece of new legislation. These “safeguards” then proved next to useless or were watered down (remember the history of RIPA). If safeguards are needed to protect innocent people against legislation then it’s bad legislation.

•We will further regulate CCTV.

About time, however “regulate” sounds a bit tame. When it comes to protecting civil liberties we need strong legislation with teeth, not industry codes of conduct and self-regulation.

•We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.

Presumably this means scrapping New Labours plans for ISP communications retention under the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP), which is an essential no-brainer. Will the new government go further and legislate against such long term data retention? And how will they respond to EU Directive 2006/24/EC which requires email header retention?

We will introduce a new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.

Presumably this is an extra review stage for legislation, which would be welcome but not spectacular. We really need a change of culture so that governments of all colours see criminalisation a last resort rather than a first choice.

We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties. We will seek to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties.

This is simply a political fudge – the Tories want to scrap the Human Rights Act, the LibDems to keep it. So they set up a Commission to avoid making a decision.

Overall a very good start. Much of it needs more detail but that’s fair enough – this was only a series of bullet points on one of 31 headings. As a skeleton it’s looking good.

However there are a couple of notable omissions. There’s no mention of #phnat, protecting photographers or removing blanket police stop and search powers. I would have liked to see a commitment to remove Section 44 of the Terrorism Act.

There was also no reference to the Digital Economy Act with its provisions to censor the web and remove net access from people without requiring criminal level burden of proof. In fact, outwith this document, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said the new government will not repeal the Act.

So overall I give the coalition’s plans on civil liberties 7, maybe 8 out of 10; there’s lots of good stuff there but more detail is needed and there are a couple of major omissions.

Of course this is still just a plan, we’ll have to wait and see how much actually comes to pass. The biggest threat to the plan is, as usual, “Events dear boy, events”.

And The Winner Is…

Posted: May 11th, 2010 Tags: Comments: No Comments »

So, after five days, it’s all over. David Cameron is Prime Minister and we have a LibDem-Conservative government. I’m no fan of the Tories and bore no ill will to Gordon Brown personally, but I reckon this was probably the best result from a list of bad options.

We don’t yet know all the details of the deal between the two parties but we can make some initial assessments as to the winners and losers.

The big losers are the LibDems. Following the LibDem vote collapse Clegg was left in a very difficult position without the bargaining influence he probably expected. He couldn’t force through a settlement to satisfy both his supporters and the electorate. Had Clegg done a deal with Labour, the public would have been furious at them keeping the losers in power; by doing a deal with the Tories he has seriously annoyed a large chunk of the party faithful as well as all those who voted LibDem to keep the Tories out. And anyone in government over the next few years will suffer the backlash from dealing with the deficit. Even with a different voting system I expect the LibDems to be wiped out in the next election.

Talking of voting systems, other losers are all those who want proportional representation. The country will apparently get a referendum on AV – a referendum that the LibDems might not win. AV is a lot better than the system we have now, but it’s not proportional.

Lower paid people and public sector workers are also likely to be losers. They are likely to suffer as the Tories aim to cut spending there rather than increasing the tax paid by higher earners. The LibDems might be able to blunt the Tory axe but it will still fall.

But there will be winners. The New Labour assault on civil liberties has been brought to an end and hopefully there will be some rolling back of the damage they’ve done. Both LibDems and Tories are committed to scrapping ID Cards and the National Identity Register (NIR), hopefully that means repealing the ID Cards Act 2006. There are also opportunities for scrapping Section 44 of the anti-terrorism Act, forcing the police to destroy the DNA samples of innocent people, reducing spending on CCTV surveillance cameras and ANPR vehicle tracking, etc.

So there will be plenty of losers but one big winner: freedom.

I’ll settle for that.

Gordon Brown To Resign – Where Now the LibDems?

Posted: May 10th, 2010 Tags: , , , , , Comments: No Comments »

Gordon Brown has done the honourable thing and announced that he will resign as soon as his current caretaker role has been completed. He’ll be out of Number 10 by autumn at the latest. The theory is that by pre-announcing his resignation Brown will “unlock” a possible Rainbow Coalition with the Lib Dems. So, would a Labour-LibDem coalition without Brown be acceptable? Or would it remain a deal with the devil?

Personally I’ve never had a great problem with Gordon Brown the man. I quite like Mr Grumpy. My problem has been the way he has continued authoritarian Blairite policies to trash our civil liberties. It’s the policies I object to, not the person. So whether or not I can support a deal between the LibDems and Labour depends on the policies that’ll be followed be whoever replaces Brown.

There seem to be two names in the frame. One is Alan Johnson, the other – by far the favourite – is David Miliband. What are their views on issues such as ID cards and the National Identity Register (NIR)?

According to theyworkforyou both voted strongly in favour (see: Johnson’s record and Miliband’s record). In addition Johnson voted strongly for New Labour’s general anti-terrorism laws, as did Miliband.

That’s not a good start. Of course this might just be loyalism on display, but it makes it difficult for either of them to scrap the scheme. Johnson as Home Secretary has said that ID Cards will never be compulsory for Britons – a misleading formulation that ignores the real problem, the compulsory register.

I’m afraid I really can’t see either of these two presiding over a repeal of the Identity Cards Act 2006 and some of New Labour’s other appalling illiberal legislation. At best they might agree not to make things worse.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’d like to be – I have no love for the Tories. Maybe an outspoken Labour “rebel” will unite Labour under an anti-Blairite banner – but who?

Unless Clegg can get a guarantee that (as a minimum) the ID Cards Act will be repealed by any new leader then I still, reluctantly, oppose the Rainbow coalition.

Addendum: Since posting this I read about yet another abuse of Labour’s terror laws. Add scrapping Section 44 as one of my prerequisites for accepting a Labour government.

Yellow Red Lines

Posted: May 9th, 2010 Tags: , Comments: No Comments »

The Liberal Democrats’ Social Liberal Forum has issued a call for a “Government of National Unity”. The post includes a list of “red lines” that the LibDem leadership are urged not to cross in any coalition. The post is carefully noncommittal about whether the LibDems should side with the Labour or Tory party, however the red lines seem aimed at the current negotiations with the Conservatives.

As they stand the red lines seem fine: no increase in economic inequality, no real terms cuts to frontline public services this year, no worsening treatment of asylum seekers, no watering down of the Human Rights Act. But from my point of view there’s one missing.

These red lines may well be good enough to keep any Lib-Con coalition in line. Unfortunately they’re not nearly strong enough to control the authoritarian government style of New Labour. The commitment to the Human Rights Act is great, as is listing ID cards as an example of government waste But for any LibDem coalition to get my support the list of red lines must include “no to further erosion of civil liberties”.

Personally I’d prefer an absolute commitment to reversing Labour’s attacks on freedom but I realise that wouldn’t fit the “red line” concept. A refusal to attack civil liberties is the absolute minimum I’d like to see the LibDem negotiators adopt: “We will not collaborate in any further erosion of civil liberties”. Ideally I’d like them to add “and will actively seek to reverse existing oppressive legislation”.

Without such a red line the Social Liberal Forum is simply tempting Nick Clegg to succumb to temptation and swap freedom for PR.

The Last Temptation of the LibDems

Posted: May 8th, 2010 Tags: , Comments: 2 Comments »

Most of the press seems to think that some sort of LibDem/Tory deal is almost inevitable, be it a formal coalition or a confidence and supply arrangement. Failing that they reckon Cameron will head up a minority Tory government.

I’m not so sure. Gordon Brown has one trump card which he’s been waving around – PR.

The Tories don’t want true voting reform. They might support tinkering around the edges or even a Commission they can ignore, but they’d never AV or PR for Westminster. The best they’d accept might be something like the Jenkins Commission which, like Blair, they could ignore. If the LibDems want true electoral reform then their only choice is to do a deal with Gordon Brown.

Do they want voting reform? Of course. It’s number one on their wishlist. Without it a Tory pact would be short term gain, long term pain – they’d be wiped out at the next election as voters take revenge. They’d be right back where they were for most of the 20th century, a third party with no significant power or influence.

Add to that the understandable distaste many LibDems have for a Tory pact and the temptation to do a deal with Brown will be very strong. It looks like a better long-term deal: take a bit of flack now from a furious right-wing media in exchange for the chance to get real power in the future.

What’s so wrong with that? Why not prop up Brown for a couple of years in exchange for getting a decent voting system?

The problem is New Labour’s appalling track record on civil liberties. It’s simply not compatible with Liberal Democrat philosophy.

If Brown offers the LibDems the top prize of electoral reform he’s unlikely to add much else to the package. We’d probably get some token declaration that ID Cards would remain “voluntary”, but we already have that and we know it’s a meaningless blind. Would Brown really be willing to scrap the flagship project, let alone repeal the ID Cards Act? I doubt it. The LibDems might, just might, be able to stop Labour taking away any more of our freedoms. I doubt they’d be able to get back any of those already lost.

So the price for PR would probably be giving up on the very social liberalism that defines the LibDems. A deal with Brown without cast iron guarantees on restoring civil liberties would be a huge sell out.

Don’t do it Nick.

Disappointment, But Not Yet Disaster

Posted: May 7th, 2010 Tags: Comments: No Comments »

I’m not a member or an unqualified supporter of any political party, but it’s no secret that of the three main parties I’m closest to the Liberal Democrats. Since a LibDem majority is practically impossible under the current system I was rooting for a hung parliament with a strong LibDem presence, That would allow the LibDems to either control the Tories on the economy or force Labour to respect civil liberties.

Well, I got the hung parliament but not the strong LibDem result.

It’s definitely a disappointment. If Clegg does a deal with the Conservatives then I doubt he’d now have enough influence to turn the spectre of Thatcherism. But a LibDem-Tory pact wouldn’t be a diisaster.

Of course Clegg might decide to side with Labour. I doubt he’d now have enough influence to prevent further erosion of our freedoms. That would be a disaster.

Here We Go Again…

Posted: May 7th, 2010 Comments: No Comments »

Well, I had stopped doing this blog due to lack of time. I still don’t really have time to do it but just can’t stay away. The election seems an appropriate time to restart.

I make no promises as to what I’ll write here or how often, I guess we’ll all have to wait and see!