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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.
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2002 - 2004

1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005

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Taking Liberties, The Movie

Taking Liberties is a documentary film charting the erosion of civil liberties since 1997 has been produced and is due to be released in cinemas on June 8th. There’s also a book accompanying this. It’ll be interesting to see how much of mountain of the liberty eroding legislation this government has produced gets covered.

On the proposed “Stop and Question” powers

Britain’s (soon to be ex-)Home Secretary, John Reid has apparently proposed that the police should be given powers to stop and question people (see also the Telegraph’s and BBC’s coverage), possibly without needing to have “reasonable suspicion” of those they stop. Those stopped will have to identify themselves and answer questions about their movements, on pain of imprisonment and/or a £5,000 fine. Ironically this would involve establishing powers in mainland Britain that are due to be phased out in Northern Ireland.

Putting the assault on liberty (in particular the assault against the right to silence) this represents to one side, an interesting question here is whether such powers will be effective in combatting terrorism, the ostensible “raison d’etre” behind the proposal.

Now bear in mind that the police can already ask anyone anything they like, but no one is required to answer any of the questions. They can also arrest those that suspect of involvement in terrorism and place people under surveillance and also have stop and search powers. The government can also place control orders on people suspected of involvement in terrorism. For the proposed powers to make a difference they’d somehow have to catch those they aren’t already investigating/catching using existing methods.

There’s a simple reason for thinking it won’t make much difference — an actual terrorist questioned under these laws will simply give a cover story. Unless the police are prepared to surveil those they question, then they are unlikely to uncover the lies told to them by any criminals or terrorists they stop. Yet if they are prepared to surveil them, they don’t need to stop and question them under these proposed powers.

The impact therefore would seem to me to be that the police will get fairly reliable information about what law abiding people are doing, plus unreliable information from others whom they’d use existing powers to investigate anyway. And of course some law abiding people may not wish tell the authorities what they are doing, despite it being perfectly legal, since it may involve betraying confidences, advertising that one is a member of an unpopular group, or revealing an affair. I.e. it may involve revealing sensitive information that could be used against them by unscrupulous police officers.

It’s also worth considering the words of Cardinal Richelieu in this context:

If you give me six lines written by the most honest man, I will find something in them to hang him.

The point being of course that if you get enough information about an individual then a determined mind can cherry pick and/or reinterpret bits of it to paint that individual in a suspicious light, and power such as this, give the authorities the means to obtain such information for the purposes of harassing/silencing individuals who might challenge their power.

Finally, UK Liberty, Iain Dale, Tim Worstall and Samizdata have all given good commentary on this issue.

“Talking” CCTV cameras in Britain: “Big brother” getting silly?

CCTV in Britain has become so pervasive that Britain has 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras despite only having 1% of the world’s population, and anyone who walks through any major town or city centre is likely to get caught on hundreds of them.

Now, the use of “talking” CCTV cameras in town centres has started to be pushed, where the CCTV operators can talk to the people they’re viewing, the ostensible purpose being to tell them off for “anti-social behaviour” and/or to deter crime.

For example, recent reports have them being employed in Middlesborough, Gloucester and Blackpool, and recently it has been announced that talking CCTV should be extended to 20 English towns. According to this report from the Telegraph, the 20 towns that will receive grants for talking CCTV are: Southwark; Barking and Dagenham; Reading; Harlow; Norwich; Ipswich; Plymouth; Gloucester; Derby; Northampton; Mansfield; Nottingham; Coventry; Sandwell; Wirral; Blackpool; Salford; Middlesbrough; South Tyneside; and Darlington and competitions will be held in schools for school children to become the “voice of CCTV” in these areas.

This Orwellian idea seems fundamentally wrong headed for various reasons:

  • As Spy Blog point out, CCTV cameras can often zoom in on people some distance away, thus to get their attention may require the warnings to be very loud. Even without the issue of zooming, the systems would have to be loud enough to be heard over traffic, the noise of people milling around and even roadworks. Thus at night these systems may disturb people’s sleep and during the day they may disturb office workers.

    If there’s more than one person around it may be unclear who it is the CCTV operator is talking to/shouting at, especially when you consider that it can be difficult to know from where noise broadcast over public address systems is coming.

    Spy blog also point out that people could play tricks by broadcasting their own “faked” CCTV shouting in an area where the talking CCTV is used. All it would take is a portable stereo system and loudspeaker, and perhaps some equipment to record “genuine” CCTV shouting.

  • It seems to me that fundamentally there’s a lack of accountability in this scheme. The CCTV operator, located in a room that may well be miles away from the scene, will be shouting orders at people who cannot respond directly to him and who won’t know who’s shouting at them - note that the schemes reported above will use recorded school children’s voices for some bizarre reason! The CCTV operator also won’t hear any verbal responses, and will only be able to rely on seeing a picture of what’s happening. Once you have power with a lack of accountability, it’s only a matter of time before someone abuses that power.
  • The CCTV camera will not give the complete picture of what’s happening and there’s limited scope for further investigation by the CCTV operator to make sure he’s got the right person or that he correctly saw what they were doing, thus it is likely the CCTV operators will mistakenly accuse people of crime or anti-social behaviour, indeed this has already happened in Middlesborough.

It would be far more effective in terms of crime fighting to get police officers pounding the beat, whose visible presence will deter crime and much of what is called “anti-social” behaviour and who will be in a far better position to decide whether someone should be told off or some other intervention should be taken than someone in a far-off who sits watching CCTV all day.

Bowland Dairy Farms, the EU and the rule of law

I’ve been meaning to cover this story for ages, because it suggests that the rule of law in the EU can be brushed aside by the European Commission, who have ignored a ruling of the European Court of Justice.

Tim Worstall reported on the case of Bowland Dairy Farms here and here, citing Christopher Booker’s story in the Telegraph.

In summary, Bowland Dairy Farms, an £8million per year business selling curd cheese to five EU countries, was visited on June 12th 2006 by officials from the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO). After a 90 minute look through the farm’s paperwork, they claimed that the milk in the curd cheese broke EU regulations on anti-biotic residues and issued a “rapid alert notice” that the farm’s products were unsafe.

The UK’s Food Standards Authority (FSA) subsequently did an inspection and disagreed, and allowed production to resume. However the FVO insisted the milk did not comply with EU rules, to which the FSA responded that the FVO inspectors were confused over which type of milk was being used. The FSA made a statement to all EU members that there was no evidence of contaminated milk being used and that the cheese was perfectly safe to use. The Commission appended its own negative comments to this statement and maintained the ban.

Bowland Dairy Farms took the FVO to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the highest court in the EU and supposedly the ultimate arbiter of EU law. On Sept 8th, after considering the case the ECJ found completely in Bowland Dairy Farms’ favour, and ordered the Commission to withdraw its statement about the farm and the ban. The Commission refused twice, and the ECJ ordered the Commission to stand aside on September 12th. The Commission tried to append a statement to the court order saying they’d merely lost on a technicality, and the judge order this to be removed.

On September 27th, the FVO reinspected the farm and found little wrong. However, in October the Commission asked its standing committee to approve a ban preventing Bowland Dairy Farms from any further trading, without the court orders or any evidence being presented to the committee. The committee duly voted for the ban. An EU-wide directive was issued preventing anyone from placing curd cheese manufactured by Bowland on the market and apparently has the force of law. Bowland Dairy Farms are no more.

The scary thing about this is that the actions of the European Commission in doing this were clearly illegal — they had been ordered by what is supposed to be the highest court in the EU to lift the ban and they refused and instead pursued it with more vigour. Surely this means that the rule of law has been brushed aside in this case? And if so, what’s to stop the rule of law being brushed aside in other cases?

Farmer’s herd of cattle destroyed because of unspecified “irregularities” in paperwork

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:16 pm on 1 April, 2007.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics, European Union politics.
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Christopher Booker, writing in the Telegraph, tells us the story of David Dobbin, a farmer who had his herd of prize-winning cattle, worth at least £500,000, destroyed by DEFRA officials, enforcing EU regulations, on the basis of unspecified irregularities in his paperwork:
(more…)

British government unveils new “criminal justice” proposals

As reported in the Times, this week the British government unveiled a new set of big brother/police state criminal justice proposals:

Every suspect in contact with the police faces having their DNA placed on a national database under government plans for a huge extension of “Big Brother” Britain announced yesterday.

All children will also undergo regular compulsory checks to discover if they are at risk of turning into criminals. They would face the crime test at key stages of their development, including when they start school and at 11.

The children of prisoners and Class A drug addicts would be “actively case managed” by youth offending teams in the crime strategy unveiled by 10 Downing Street .

The Government said the plan should “establish universal checks throughout a child’s development to help service providers to identify those most at risk of offending. “These checks should piggy-back on existing contact points such as the transition to secondary schools.”

It was not clear whether the check would involve an interview with a child, or if it would comprise a review of school and police records.

Ministers are also planning to allow police to take the DNA of suspects, to expand the use of scanning equipment to help to detect explosive devices in crowds, and to scan mail for drugs.

Useful commentary on these proposals include the following:

The proposals themselves can be found here. I intend to comment on them directly in due course.

Serious Crime Prevention Orders: punishing people who haven’t broken any laws

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:45 pm on 18 January, 2007.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
Edit This Permalink to this article

Readers may recall the proposals for Serious and Organised Crime Prevention Orders being discussed here last year.

Now, as commented on in the Telegraph, the British government has published the Serious Crime Bill, Part 1 of which introduces this measure (under the revised term “Serious Crime Prevention Orders”).

According to the Telegraph article:

Until yesterday, we fondly believed that only a jury could decide whether any of us had committed a serious crime. That fundamental principle was torn up when the Government published its Serious Crime Bill.

This allows judges, sitting without juries, to make orders which, if breached, would put us in prison for five years.

Two conditions must be satisfied before the court can make a serious crime prevention order. First, the judge must be satisfied that someone has been “involved in serious crime” — anywhere in the world.

To be “involved”, you do not have to have committed a serious offence, or even helped someone else to have committed it. All you need to have done is to conduct yourself in a way that was likely to make it easier for someone to commit a serious offence, whether or not it was committed.

And:

The second condition for a serious crime prevention order is that the court has reasonable grounds for believing it would prevent, restrict, or disrupt involvement by a person in a serious crime in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

(more…)

Ministers expect the police to apply for super-ASBOs against 300+ people per year, without those people needing to do anything illegal

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:01 pm on 14 January, 2007.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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[Hat tip: Tim Worstall]

The Times reports:

TONY BLAIR is to mount a final assault on Britain’s thug culture by introducing restrictions that will curb potential yobs’ movements even before they have committed an offence.

After attempting to tackle antisocial behaviour, he is proposing to introduce a “violent offender order” (Voo) targeted at those whom police believe are likely to commit violence.

These new “super-Asbos” will be aimed not only at people who have a history of violent behaviour or who have just left prison but also those who may not yet have committed an offence.

According to a Home Office document outlining the plan, to be published next month, the measures will ban potential trouble-makers from certain areas or mixing with certain people, alert police when they move house and possibly force them to live in a named hostel, give details of vehicles they own and impose a curfew on them.

The orders will last for at least two years, with no upper limit. Any breach could lead to up to five years in jail. Ministers believe police will apply for 300 to 450 Voos each year.

In other words, despite having acted perfectly lawfully, if the police think you might at some unspecified future point commit a violent offence, they can apply for you to be banned from certain areas, tell you who you can associate with, impose curfews or force you to live in a specific hostel.

(more…)

Primer on the attacks on British liberty

David Mery, who commented on an earlier post, has produced a useful primer on the attacks on liberty in the UK.

Guardian: Met Police request powers to arrest people who use “offensive” slogans at protests

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:11 pm on 3 December, 2006.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law, freedom of speech, British politics.
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According to a recent report in the Guardian, the Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Tarique Ghaffur, wants the police to be able to arrest protestors who use “offensive” chants or slogans:

Police are to demand new powers to arrest protesters for causing offence through the words they chant and the slogans on their placards and even headbands.

The country’s biggest force, the Metropolitan police, is to lobby the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, because officers believe that large sections of the population have become increasingly politicised, and there is a growing sense that the current restrictions on demonstrations are too light.

Trouble at recent protests involving Islamic extremists has galvanised the Met’s assistant commissioner, Tarique Ghaffur, into planning a crackdown. His proposals are due to be sent to Lord Goldsmith, who is reviewing how effective the current laws are in tackling extremists.

And:

The police want powers to tackle a “grey area” in the array of public order laws. At present, causing offence by itself is not a criminal offence.

“There must be a clear message that we will not allow any extremist group to display banners or make public statements that clearly cause offence within the existing law,” the document says.

This would be the definitive end of the right to protest in Britain if it comes to pass.

Freedom of speech, if it is to mean anything, must mean the freedom to express what you believe to be true, even if it is unpopular and causes offence to someone.

If this proposal is enacted, then it will effectively end the right of political protest in Britain — the powers that be will likely become “offended” when it suits them to shut down a protest.

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