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This page provides occasional items, linked to the original articles, as we attempt to keep up with the rapidly changing situation on civil liberties.
Archive of old news service:
2002 - 2004

1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005

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Constituents threatened with their children being taken away if they speak to their MPs!

[Hat tip: Anna Racoon via abelard]

See House of Commons Hansard Debates for 17 Mar 2011 (pt 0001):

John Hemming: …I will now look in more detail at Andrew France’s case. I have some of the documentation with me, including a county court order-for proceedings that have now completely ended, so it is a public document, and there is no issue of privilege. The document is there in the courts. In the recitals, it states:

“upon the first and second Respondents agreeing that they will make no further disclosure in respect of this matter to any third party, including in particular the media and John Hemmings MP.”

It is somewhat surprising that I am such a threat to the system that so much effort will go into stopping one of my constituents speaking to me. He was wrongly imprisoned on a made-up allegation of rape, so he went through a serious process. He won his criminal appeal but he complained about a social worker in the process, so the authorities decided to start proceedings in the family courts. Luckily, an excellent judge junked it in the bin, because it was transparently such nonsense, and everything ran smoothly for the family. However, my constituent was under no illusion that had he not agreed to those recitals in the court order, the council would have taken action-he was told-which would have been to apply for a care order taking his four-year-old daughter into care.

Mr Bacon: For the benefit of the House, can my hon. Friend clarify, in case anyone did not notice? Is he saying that a court order was made prohibiting a constituent from talking to him as a Member of Parliament?

John Hemming: Exactly.

Note: The family courts in England and Wales operate largely in secret, though some inroads have been made in recent years allowing some reporting to occur.

Britain’s coalition government promises to strengthen civil liberties

From Section 10 of the coalition agreement between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats:

The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion.

This will include:

  • A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.
  • The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.
  • Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
  • The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
  • Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
  • The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
  • The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.
  • The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
  • Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
  • Further regulation of CCTV.
  • Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.
  • A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.

If they’re as good as their word, this will be a promising start to ending and reversing the onslaught on civil liberties Britain has seen over the last 15 to 20 years or so.

Proposal for Royal Mail to intercept mail on behalf of HMRC

Henry Porter comments on these proposals:

The last days of this dreadful government are being accompanied by an attack on rights and privacy that seems unprecedented during Labour’s 13-year rule.

The government is now drawing up plans to amend the Postal Services Act to allow tax inspectors to intercept and open people’s mail before it is delivered. Given the state’s ambitions to collect all communications data this is hardly surprising, but we must ask ourselves how many more rights are seized by government and its agencies before Britain becomes the GDR’s most obvious European imitator.

Currently postal workers have the right to intercept suspicious letters and packages and pass them to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and then at an agreed moment the item is opened in front of the addressee. The change in the law will mean that HMRC will be able to open whatever it likes without the addressee being present or being made aware of the interception.

As usual, the government and HMRC public relations people underplay the wide-ranging and dangerous nature of this proposal by insisting that the new measure is simply designed to deal with the problem of tobacco smuggling. But the change, disclosed in a document published with the budget, means that HMRC will be able to trawl through private mail pretty much at will.

Britain’s Stasi state rolls on…

Interesting article on stop and search

Our Kingdom have written an excellent overview of the use of and legal battles over the stop and search powers from Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

Less than a third of ‘innocents’ get DNA removed

The Telegraph recently reported:

The public also face a postcode lottery on having their profiles deleted with some forces refusing all requests while others grant almost every one, research by the Conservatives reveals.

It shows chief constables are still rejecting the majority of demands to remove the DNA of people who have never been charged or convicted with a crime despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights last year that a blanket retention policy is unlawful.

There are up to one million innocent people on the national database and the Tories are today launched an online petition calling for the DNA of people who have committed no offence to be removed.

The removal of DNA is at the discretion of individual chief constables but a survey of police forces found, on average, only 30 per cent of requests are granted.

Across the 34 forces that replied to Freedom of Information requests, some 1,372 requests of deletion were made in 2008/09 but only 411 were granted.

The study also revealed large difference from one area to another with six forces refusing all requests. In contrast, South Yorkshire and Wiltshire granted 80 per cent of more while Cleveland and Cumbria granted 70 per cent and 79 per cent respectively.

DNA to be held for 6 years in England and Wales

[I earlier misread the article. I thought they’d decided to retain for violent/sexual offences for upto 6 years, but actually they’ve changed from earlier proposals where such retention was for 12 years with 6 years blanket retention, to “merely” 6 years blanket retention].

Last year the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the British government’s policy on DNA retention of everyone who is arrested in England and Wales. The government has finally announced their new policy, namely that DNA will be held for 6 years rather than indefinitely, as was the case prior to the ECHR ruling or for 6 to 12 years as in their earlier proposals. However it is 6 years retention for all offences, no matter how trivial, and thus more draconian than anywhere else. And remember this applies to anyone arrested, not merely those charged or convicted of an offence.

The Convention on Modern Liberty: a personal view, part three

This article is the last of my series of articles on the Convention on Modern Liberty. In this article, I look at what the Convention has achieved and give a personal view on the question: What happens next?

So what has the convention achieved? A cynical person might suggest that all the Convention has achieved is to gather people together for sessions of preaching to the converted. The more conspiratorially minded might even suggest that the Convention has been deliberately set up as controlled opposition to keep the public quiet.

The Convention is already failing at merely providing “controlled opposition” in that it has succeeded in raising awareness of the erosion of liberty amongst the general public. My evidence for the raising of awareness is this: look at the coverage of civil liberties and of the Convention itself that accompanied the run-up to and the aftermath of the Convention in both the mainstream media and the online media. Helpfully, both Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Tom Harris have all attacked the Convention, providing further publicity and opportunities to raise awareness, as well as suggesting that the government and the Labour party are worried. There is also some sign that the pressure being exerted, partly via the Convention, over the data sharing clauses of the Coroners and Justice Bill is bearing fruit with hints that the measure will be watered down.

This raising of awareness also partly addresses the charge of preaching to the converted. By generating debate in the media, on blogs and on websites, the Convention has already got people talking about these issues who otherwise wouldn’t, and has got those who defend the government’s record to respond. On the day the Convention was not simply about preaching to the converted. We had people from all sorts of backgrounds and perspectives, discussing and debating the issues, including the issue of how to halt and reverse the erosion of liberty. There were MPs from across the political spectrum, activists, lawyers, authors, researchers, students, teachers, software developers, bloggers and many ordinary people attending the event whether in London or elsewhere in the country. There even people there trying to defend the government’s record and trying to defend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. People will have come away better informed about the issues, with contacts who can help in campaigning on the issues, and with ideas for what to do next. The Convention has also set up a social networking site to enable people to keep in touch with each other, discuss, debate and plan how to take things forward.

So the Convention has succeeded in raising awareness, generating debate and putting like minded people in touch with each other. It has even contributed to raising opposition to a specific erosion of privacy, namely the data sharing clauses mentioned above. This is all to the credit of those involved and is an achievement to be proud of.

However if the Convention is truly to be the turning point I hope for, much more will need to happen. The erosion of liberties has to stop and be reversed. In other words, we need to persuade both present and future politicians that eroding liberties is a Bad Idea, one that is liable to lose elections for them. And we need to do so whilst we still have a sufficient freedoms left to be able to campaign and to be able to vote. As David Davis said, by the time Britain becomes a police state, it will be too late.

We thus need to engage in the political processes of this country in order to persuade ordinary voters to vote against candidates who promise to erode liberties and to vote for candidates who promise to protect our rights.

We need to persuade people that the erosions of liberty simply give the state, and those who’d hijack it for their own purposes, more power over the public without any real benefit, that they merely amount to greater social control being exerted and they thus undermine democracy.

We need to address the false arguments that pit liberty against security, that suggest if we have nothing to hide then we have nothing to fear.

We need to ensure people are aware of the intrusive nature of schemes such as the National Identity Scheme or the database of communications data.

In the short to medium term I think we must have the following goals (at minimum!):

  • Defeat of the data sharing proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill. If these proposals go through, then personal data held by one organisation will not be safe from any government that decides the data should be shared with any other organisation it chooses. Any safeguards introduced for schemes such as the National Identity Scheme will be worthless as they can be cast aside via an order in Parliament.
  • Defeat of the plans to create a central database of everyone’s communications data. This is mass surveillance of the general public, pure and simple, and should be opposed by anyone who believes in the right to privacy. If it goes ahead, it will give the authorities considerable power over those who get in their way.
  • Defeat of the National Identity Scheme. If this scheme goes ahead, it will involve mass surveillance, linking of data and the government getting a de facto veto over our access to any products or services that require checking someone’s NIR entry or card.
  • Defeat of the current government at the next General Election. My reason for suggesting this is simple. If this government continues into a fourth term, it will conclude that the erosion of liberty has negligible electoral consequences and will push that agenda even harder than before. Halting, let alone reversing, this agenda will become hugely more difficult in such circumstances. I’d add that defeat of the above three schemes will probably require defeating the current government.
  • Repeal or reform of offending legislation to reverse the erosion of liberty. That the Lib Dems have produced a Freedom Bill involving such repeals and that the Tories have also suggested some related repeals is a sign that such a goal is achievable. However, I regard a change of government as a pre-requisite. I simply do not believe the present lot will consider such a thing if they win again.
  • Generally, to maximise pressure on the (future) government to restore civil liberties.

Success in the above goals will form a good start, but the longer term goal must be to effect political changes that entrench our liberties in a manner that prevents the ongoing, step by step, erosion we’ve seen in the past 15 to 20 years or so.

All of these goals require persuading voters that the erosions of civil liberties matter, raising awareness of the erosions and the consequences of those erosions and exposing any broken promisses or further erosions of liberty that future governments engage in. Each person concerned about these issues, whether their focus is on the erosion of due process in the criminal justice system, the rise of mass surveillance or the restrictions of freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest can play a role by telling others what they know about these issues, whether it be through blogging, writing to the newspapers, telling their friends or writing to their elected representatives.

The question left is how those who want to change things can produce effective vehicles for doing all these things. Some will work effectively within the political parties persuading them to change, others will work via pressure groups such as NO2ID or Liberty lobbying politicians and campaigning to the public, others still will blog, write newspaper or magazine articles or produce TV programs or videos on You Tube. The diversity of approaches already on display in getting us this far is encouraging - it makes it more likely that some them will succeed.

If those concerned about the erosion of liberty all resolve to act to change the situation, then it seems to me there is everything to play for.

Carnival on Modern Liberty

Part of the legacy of the Convention on Modern Liberty is the Carnival on Modern Liberty, which is a weekly round-up of liberty-related articles hosted at a different blog each week. The current edition (the seventh so far) is hosted at Liberal England. Below is a list of the previous editions:

You can submit links for each week’s Carnival at the Carnival’s home page.

What’s happening with Britain’s DNA database?

David Mery, writing in the Register:

Almost three months on from the unanimous ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) against the UK’s mass retention of DNA of innocent people, the situation has turned worse. Although eventually the UK should become compliant with the ruling, police forces are adopting a wait and see attitude, while Jacqui Smith is pushing back any response.

Meanwhile, the Government has tabled an amendment giving sweeping powers on DNA retention, use and destruction to the Secretary of State.

And later in the article:

Things got further muddled last Friday, when the Government submitted an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill, which it claims will implement the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the Marper case. Thanks to GeneWatch UK for spotting that amendment, which has otherwise not received much publicity. From a cursory reading, this amendment gives a blank cheque to the Secretary of State:

“After section 64A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (c. 60) insert - “64B Retention and destruction of samples etc

(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision as to the retention, use and destruction of material to which this section applies.

(2) This section applies to the following material - (a) photographs falling within a description specified in the regulations, (b) fingerprints taken from a person in connection with the investigation of an offence, (c) impressions of footwear so taken from a person, (d) DNA and other samples so taken from a person, (e) information derived from DNA samples so taken from a person.

(8) The regulations may make provision amending, repealing, revoking or otherwise modifying any provision made by or under an Act (including this Act).”

A delayed response, no consultation yet (though they’re often not effective) and an amendment letting the Home Secretary change the law not only to comply with the ECtHR ruling - whichever way she interprets it - but possibly to authorise new uses of our DNA without any review is what’s on the table.

The Convention on Modern Liberty: a personal view, part two

In this article, I’ll provide an overview of what was said at the Surveillance in Scottish Society sessions of the Glasgow Convention on Modern Liberty.

Please note however that there were parallel sessions on democracy (in the morning) and the liberty of vulnerable groups (in the afternoon) which I cannot cover.

Also the article below is constructed from rather haphazard notes and already fuzzy memories, but I hope it will convey a decent overview of my experience.

(more…)

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