link to briefings documents at

Magna Carta Plus News

back to index page
orientation to the news at

short briefing dcuments at

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


Should MPs’ and candidates’ addresses be private?

I’ve been meaning to post on this for a while. The Register reported:

Members of Parliament have voted themselves the right to withhold their names and addresses from publication. Candidates at Parliamentary elections will get the same right.

This is perhaps less surprising than it ought to have been. Last May, the High Court ruled in a Freedom of Information case that MPs’ addresses should be public information. British citizens ought to be able to check on MP expense claims, or to monitor the living arrangements of individuals such as the Home Secretary.

In July, the government used an order in the House to overturn this, arguing that some personal information – particularly that relating to addresses and travel information – should be withheld from publication on the grounds of national security, and also the possibility that MPs would be harassed.

In October, Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East raised the matter in the Commons. He praised the Leader of the House, Harriet Harman MP, for her “decisive intervention” in respect of the High Court case.

He pointed out that the High Court’s “dangerous decision” to allow addresses to be revealed was based on the fact they were published every four or five years anyway and asked: “Can we now consider closing this loophole?”

There are a number of points one can make about this:

  • Anyone wishing to harass an MP merely has to wait for them at the House of Commons or their constituency office.
  • In order to vote this country’s elections, I have to register my details in the publicly accessible electoral roll, as does anyone (including MPs) who wishes to vote in an election. If MPs addresses are to be kept secret, why not voters? Surely this is equivalent to me hiding my address from my employer?
  • Contrast the attitude here with requirements on members of the public to register their details in numerous government databases, accessible to numerous public officials, and often run very insecurely, in legislation that these same MPs have voted for.
  • If the MP’s address is secret, how are voters to know if the MP is lying about living locally?

But there is a further issue. The MPs didn’t even debate the measure:

Second, and more worrying, was the way in which this measure was introduced into the House on Monday, as an amendment, with no debate permitted, to the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

No matter how desirable a new law, it might be thought that a debate about its desirability would be even more desirable.

In vain, backbench MP David Heath raised a point of Order as to “whether there is any precedent for taking a Division on a completely undebated new clause, which falls in a later group that we have not yet reached, which is in the hands of Back Benchers from an opposition party and which has not even been moved”.

Mindful of her responsibility to the House, and the weight of centuries of democratic tradition weighing down on her shoulder, Deputy Speaker, Silvia Neal replied: “I have made a decision, and given my ruling and the reasons why this vote has been taken. I have nothing further to add.”

If they’re not going subject legislation to scrutiny, and they wish to hide from the public, then I say sack the lot of them, for they serve no useful purpose.

Lawyer-client privilege no bar to surveillance, say Lords

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:12 pm on 27 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
Edit This Permalink to this article

The Register reports:

Solicitor Manmohan Sandhu was charged at Antrim Magistrates’ Court with incitement to murder and intending to pervert the course of justice. The evidence against Sandhu consisted of recordings of conversations he had with clients in a room in Antrim police station.

Sandhu claimed that it was against the law for police to record his discussions with his clients because of legal professional privilege. A Divisional Court backed his claim, but the case was appealed to the House of Lords.

Lord Carswell in the House of Lords said that RIPA does allow for the surveillance of privileged communications.

“In its natural and ordinary sense [RIPA] is capable of applying to privileged consultations and there is nothing in its wording which would operate to exclude them,” he wrote in his ruling. “It seems to me unlikely that the possibility of RIPA applying to privileged consultations could have passed unnoticed [in Parliament]. On the contrary, it is an obvious application of the Act, yet no provision was put in to exclude them.”

Lord Carswell said that legal professional privilege cannot be absolute, that it has to have exceptions. “If it were not possible to exercise covert surveillance of legal consultations where it is suspected on sufficiently strong grounds that the privilege was being abused, the law would confer an unjustified immunity on dishonest lawyers,” he wrote.

“There may be other situations where it would be lawful to monitor privileged consultations, for example, if it is necessary to obtain information of an impending terrorist attack or to prevent the threatened killing of a child,” said Lord Carswell. “The limits of such possible exceptions have not been defined and I shall not attempt to do so, but they could not exist if the rule against surveillance of privileged consultations were absolute.”

List of official harrassment of photographers in UK

Further to my recent coverage of the war on photography, via UK Liberty I came across Matt Wardman’s list of incidents involving official harassment of photographers in Britain.

eBorders arrest rate worse than that for random stops and searches

I wrote earlier about the arrest rate (1 in 28,276) of the e-Borders scheme. It appears that e-Borders generates a lower rate of arrest than random stops and searches. UK Liberty writes:

I thought readers would be interested to know that the arrest rate for eBorders, an ostensibly targeted screening program, is many times worse than that for ostensibly random stops and searches under s44 Terrorism Act 2000.

Thanks to James Bridle’s FOIA requests for figures for s44, we know that the Met’s use of s44 has so far resulted in 2,108 arrests out of 191,478 stops and searches - arrest rate 1.1%.

[update 20 March] Or take David Mery’s calculation (see comments below). There were 3,469 arrests out of 275,300 S44(1) and S44(2) stop and searches in England and Wales - arrest rate 1.26%.

Is the bill to rescind AIG bonuses a bill of attainder?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 12:29 pm on .
Categories democracy and the rule of law, US politics.
Edit This Permalink to this article

According to

Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, predicted Congress’s efforts to rescind American International Group Inc.’s bonuses through higher taxes would be thrown out by the courts. He said the legislation before lawmakers violates the constitutional ban on bills of attainder, which restricts lawmakers’ ability to punish individual Americans.

“It’s basically targeted on a small group of people, which is technically a bill of attainder,” Gregg said.

See also: Wikipedia on “Bill of attainder”.

State-owned bank, RBS, asked potential customers if they were members of political parties

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:59 pm on 15 March, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
Edit This Permalink to this article

Fraser Nelson, writing in the Spectator:

FN: Could you repeat the exact question again?

RBS: Is she a member of any political party, basically? (note: he was referring to my mother-in-law)

FN: I must admit I’m not entirely happy with answering that question. I don’t see what relevance it has to…

RBS: [He says a supervisor will call me back, as one of the company directors lives abroad]

FN: But listen, I mean when you call back, we may be prepared to answer that political question. But can you explain again one more time why it’s relevant?

RBS: It is put upon us by the Financial Services Authority to try and omit any money laundering and things like that. It helps us crack down on fraudulent merchants by asking these types of questions.

FN: But I don’t understand why, say, if she is a member of the Conservative Party or Labour Party, that is related to fraud?

RBS These are questions thrust upon us by the Financial Services Authority, sir. It would be the same no matter where you apply for merchant services, the same question would be asked. It is legally binding. It’s to try and omit any fraudulent activity. I presume the reason why we ask that question is because there is a high volume of fraud in that sector. Where people who are of that sort of nature maybe are inclined to commit fraud. I’m not for a minute implying that she will do. But that’s just trying to protect us and you, as well, you see.

Later on he also writes:

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I agree with the Coffee Housers who say this is cock-up and not conspiracy. But the FSA say this Politically Exposed Person (PEP) is simply part of anti-fraud toolkit (it has been for years, apparently) so there is no requirement to ask it of every new client. RBS took it upon itself to pose this question, around the time of its state ownership. I’m sure the timing was also a coincidence. I accept it was a blunder, magnified by the attempts of its baffled call center staff to interpret the question. But whatever the explanation, whether it be accident or design, consider the end result: we have a state-owned bank asking clients if they are “politically exposed”. And that just won’t do.

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.

British Government to require voters to provide ID to register to vote

The Times reports:

In an historic shift, which comes after years of campaigning by the Electoral Commission and The Times, the Government finally agreed yesterday to end the system whereby one person in each household names all those eligible to vote in their property.

Voters will be allowed to register individually on the electoral roll from the autumn of 2010 by either signing a form or providing identification. Household registration will still be an option until the autumn of 2015, when individual registration will become compulsory if it is given approval by the Electoral Commission.

Michael Wills, the Justice Minister, called the decision “radical and unprecedented” last night.

Campaigners have been pressing for individual registration as a way of tackling rising electoral fraud, such as “ghost voters” who are registered but do not exist in a house and fraudsters who apply for bogus postal votes.

A report for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust found last year that there have been at least 42 convictions for electoral fraud in Britain in the past seven years.

In 2004 a judge quashed the results of two local council elections in Birmingham after deciding that there had been systematic large-scale postal-vote rigging. The judge said that he had heard evidence of fraud that “would disgrace a banana republic”. In 2007 a Tory councillor was found guilty of using bogus postal votes to ensure that he was voted into office in Slough.

A number of comments:

  • The government made it easier for people to apply for postal votes, with the result that they made it easier for voting fraud to take place.
  • This proposal is being put forward as a solution to a problem the government created with earlier policies. It makes voting, whether by post or otherwise, more difficult, and gives the government more power over the voting process by determining the form of ID required to register to vote. An unscrupulous government could use this measure to disenfranchise voters.
  • If the National Identity Scheme goes ahead, it’ll only be a matter of time before having a valid entry on the National Identity Register becomes necessary if you’re to register to vote.

Did the British government rewrite the law to avoid contractual obligations with Railtrack?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:07 pm on .
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
Edit This Permalink to this article

Tom Winsor, the former Rail Regulator recounts how the British government rewrote the law to avoid some contractual obligations:

Trying to legislate to annul an inconvenient contract binding on the State (or a state-owned bank) would do massive harm to Britain. What company in its right mind would place reliance on a contract with a Government that is prepared, after the contract has been signed, to use its legislative pen to strike out the clauses it later decides that it doesn’t like? If we go down this route we get close to the status of developing countries, such as as former Soviet republics, where foreign private companies need special protection against political interference in their contracts with host governments. Their technique is usually to set up enforcement of the contract in a neutral third country, with direct recourse against the foreign-held assets of the state in question. Is that really where the British Government wants to take us?

Unfortunately, the present Government has form. In 2001, the Government’s No1 hate figure then was Railtrack. Ministers decided it had to be taken out, and a cunning plan was devised in the Treasury to euthanase the company and get its assets for nothing. To do this, in the words of Mr Brown’s closest adviser then, Shriti (now Baroness) Vadera, they decided to “engineer the solution through insolvency”. If they could persuade the High Court that Railtrack was insolvent, the plan would work.

But Railtrack was not insolvent, because of indemnity clauses in franchise contracts between the State and the private railway companies. Those companies had separate contracts with Railtrack, under which they paid track access charges. If the politically independent Rail Regulator increased the sums the franchisees paid Railtrack, they had back-to-back contractual rights to get the extra money from the State. Very awkward.

Ministers knew that if they simply refused to pay, the franchisees would sue and win. And so the Government decided that it would neutralise these inconvenient contractual indemnities. Emergency legislation was drafted to enable ministers to order the regulator not to increase Railtrack’s income. The indemnities in the franchises would, therefore, never be triggered, and ministers would not have to pay out. Railtrack would be bust.

But hold on, the regulator might not acquiesce. The legislation would be extremely controversial. It couldn’t be passed quickly enough to stop him raising Railtrack’s charges before the door was bolted. Just before the Government revealed this supposed fait accompli to me, Shriti Vadera anxiously warned her colleagues that if I were to resist, “it could make the compensation claim huge”.

When I was told at the very last minute about their great scheme, I was struck not only by the fact that the Government was prepared to do this, but by the information that it had been cleared by both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.

Despite these very improper threats, I told Railtrack I was prepared to use my powers and race the legislation to the finishing post. But Railtrack had given up, and didn’t fight back. The legislation was ready, but it wasn’t used. Railtrack regarded the threat of it as enough, and went quietly into that long dark night. Threatening companies with legislation to extinguish their contractual rights was obviously a desperately clever thing, and it was kept for the next time some enemy of the State with an inconvenient contract had to be dealt with.

On October 24, 2005, having repeatedly insisted that the independence of the economic regulator for the railways was sacrosanct, Alistair Darling tabled a Commons motion congratulating the Government on the legislative threats it had made to me. So now we know what he thinks of contracts that government later wishes it hadn’t signed. The damage caused by the Government’s handling of Railtrack was severe, and it took years for confidence to recover.

« Previous PageNext Page »


© magnacartaplus.org2008, 2007, 2006 [1 December]

variable words
prints as variable A4 pages (on my printer and set-up)

abstracts of documents on UK Acts of Parliament click for news from orientation to orientation button links to other relevant sites links

Powered by WordPress