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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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Philip Johnston on the Wilders case

Posted by James Hammerton @ 2:11 pm on 15 February, 2009.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics, European Union politics.
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Philip Johnston has an excellent article in the Telegraph on the Geert Wilders case:

What, then, possessed the Home Office to ban Wilders – an unprecedented action against a democratically-elected politician from a European state, who is entitled to free movement within the EU? By any measure, it was an extraordinary decision; yet it was not even raised in parliament, the supposed guardian of our freedoms, though some MPs have commented on the ban, largely to support it.

Were Wilders a terrorist preaching violence against particular groups, it could be understood on public order grounds. The order issued by Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, read: “The Secretary of State is of the view that your presence in the UK would pose a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society. The Secretary of State is satisfied that your statements about Muslims and their beliefs, as expressed in your film Fitna and elsewhere would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK.”

Yet what possible threat to public security is posed by a Dutch MP showing a film, in private, to a smattering of peers on a Thursday afternoon in February? Of itself, the film does not call for violence against Muslims; indeed, it suggests that Islam is a cause of violence, a view with which you are entitled to agree or feel strongly about, but not to prohibit.

The reason for the ban appears to have been the possibility of protests by some Muslim organisations against Wilders’s visit. In other words, his freedom to express a view and the liberty of peers to hear it in an institution supposedly devoted to free speech, were set aside in the face of intimidation – the opposite of what happened in the Rushdie case, even if that author was forced into hiding.

What is particularly insidious is the application of double standards. One of those most opposed to Wilders’s visit is the Muslim peer Lord Ahmed, though he denies allegations that he warned parliamentary authorities that 10,000 demonstrators would take to the streets. Yet two years ago, Lord Ahmed invited Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a Palestinian previously detained on suspicion of fundraising for groups linked to al-Qaeda, to Westminster to meet him. When he was criticised for doing so, he said it was his parliamentary duty to hear Rideh’s complaints. He does not appear to see any contradiction with the position he now adopts against his fellow peers.

Geert Wilders: some links

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:21 pm on 14 February, 2009.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics, European Union politics.
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By now most readers will probably have heard of the upcoming prosecution of Geert Wilders for his views on Islam (e.g. as expressed in Fitna) and of him being banned from entering the UK. Unfortunately, my time is pressed so I’ve not been able to cover this in the way I’d like to.

My position is that if Wilders has not been inciting violence then there is no case for either the prosecution or the ban on him entering the UK. As far as I can tell, he has not been inciting violence.

I disagree with his desire to ban the Koran on precisely the same grounds as I disagree on prosecuting him for expressing his views of Islam. I believe in freedom of speech, and regard the causation of offence as insufficient grounds to ban the expression of someone’s views.

Anyway here are various links to articles covering the story:

Journalist threatened with legal action for exposing nonsense

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:05 pm on .
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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[Hat tip: UK Liberty]

Ben Goldacre writes:

Two days ago I posted about a 7th Jan 2009 broadcast in which their presenter Jeni Barnett exemplified some of the most irresponsible, ill-informed, and ignorant anti-vaccination campaigning that I have ever heard on the public airwaves. This is important because it can cost lives, and you can read about the media’s MMR hoax here.

To illustrate my grave concerns, I posted the relevant segment about MMR from her show, 44 minutes, which a reader kindly excerpted for me from the rest of the three hour programme. It is my view that Jeni Barnett torpedoes her reputation in that audio excerpt so effectively that little explanation is needed.

LBC’s lawyers say that the clip I posted is a clear infringement of their copyright, that I must take it down immediately, that I must inform them when I have done so, and that they “reserve their rights”.

However LBC seems to have reckoned without the internet as Goldacre later writes:

Since LBC unwisely threw their legal weight around to prevent you from being able to freely experience and ponder that astonishing 44 minute tirade against MMR, the inevitable has happened. The audio has been posted on a huge number of websites around the world, over 120 blogs so far are linking to the story, and more importantly, hundreds of thousands of people are talking and reading about the ignorance that Jeni Barnett exemplified in that worrying broadcast. It has been covered in the Times, and an Early Day Motion is being set down in parliament.

Well said

UK Liberty writes:

I can’t see how the blanket retention of all data relating to all journeys in and out of the UK can possibly be proportionate, particularly as the data they store now only leads to 0.0036% of travellers being arrested (no information on convictions, as per usual). This is even lower than the proportion of people arrested (for any reason) after being searched under s44 Terrorism Act.

A taste of life under the National Identity Scheme

Henry Porter relates the story of a friend of his whose wife is required to get an ID card as a foreign (US) national:

I am passing this story on because I have had my first taste of what a state with ID cards would be like, and I have found it very depressing and actually much more scary than I thought I would. The reality of this apparently secure and efficient ID card system is that it is wide open to human error, technical failures and abuse.

A mistake on an ID card will take a very long time to correct, and their mistake becomes your problem, your responsibility. It is a very disempowering and depressing process where a citizen becomes a cog in a vast machine.

This is not just your video club membership, or your supermarket loyalty card … this is your citizenship and identity, allowing you access to services and allowing you to leave and enter the country.

My wife has been unable to travel since early January because of this mistake by UKBA. We are hoping no family emergencies occur before UKBA get around to returning her passport and ID card.

I still have a slight worry that if we complain publicly then someone within UKBA may have the power to vindictively sabotage my wife’s future leave to remain in the UK … not something I have ever feared before in this country. I also don’t want my wife to end up being deported to Samoa by mistake!

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear indeed…

MP accuses Brighton police of scare tactics

David Lepper MP has accused Brighton Police of ‘scare tactics’:

In a surprise intervention David Lepper, Labour MP for Brighton Pavilion, said the police’s decision to photograph people entering and exiting the Cowley Club in London Road for a meeting about the environment last week appeared designed to scare activists rather than prevent crime.

Mr Lepper has written to Chief Supt Graham Bartlett, the force’s divisional commander for Brighton and Hove, demanding why officers were posted opposite the venue on Friday.

Members of the Cowley Club, which was hosting a meeting of environmental protest group Earth First, were confronted with four uniformed officers outside the Somerfield store, opposite the venue, snapping visitors using a paparazzi-style lens.

Sussex Police has said the photography was part of ongoing police work to gather information to support future operations. But Mr Lepper yesterday dismissed the police’s response and said he wanted an explanation.

He said: “It looks more like an attempt to intimidate people going in and out of the Cowley Club rather than genuine surveillance. To have such a large number of uniformed officers with a camera with a telephoto lens seems like it’s meant to deter people from going in there.

“I accept that police need to gather information but this is a ham-fisted way of doing it.”

Britain’s war on photography

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:44 pm on 13 February, 2009.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law, British politics, culture of suspicion.
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For some time now I’ve been gathering stories regarding the harassment and general suspicion of photographers in Britain. Note that the basic position in law is that it is perfectly legal in Britain to take photographs in public streets (though some erosion of this is occuring under “anti-terror” laws), yet it seems to me that photographers are increasingly finding themselves challenged by both the police and other officials.

A further issue is that people photographing or videoing protests are increasingly being obstructed or harassed by the police, as are the protestors themselves.

Finally, on February 16th a new law comes into force that the police may use to prevent people filming or taking photos of them. A mass protest against this law and the harassment of photographers has been organised for 11am on this date.

Below is a selection of various stories illustrating the problem, including some stories related to the legal situation and official campaigns that fuel suspicion about photographers:
(more…)

Universal DNA database - Britain changes tack

[Hat tip: The ARCH Blog]

In 2008 the European Court of Human Rights held that holding the DNA samples of people who had never been convicted of a crime was a breach of their right to privacy, thus bringing into question the policy of indefinitely holding of DNA samples of over 570,000 people who were never convicted of any crime.

Despite this, the government has indicated that it intends to store DNA samples in an NHS database:

The Connecting For Health register – due to come online in 2012 – will hold the electronic medical records of everyone in the UK.

But many fear it will breach patient confidentiality, as a million doctors, nurses and receptionists will have access to it. The surprising admissions came out of a House of Lords inquiry into genetic medicine last month.

When asked if it was ‘valuable to combine genetic data with personal medical data’, Prof Davies replied: ‘The Government is absolutely determined to exploit this research opportunity.’

When Ms Primarolo was asked if it was likely the database would one day hold patients’ DNA, she said: ‘I think the long-term objective would be yes.’

Furthermore, Genewatch points out the Coroners and Justice Bill contains powers to create such a database by stealth (from www.publicservice.org.uk):

A nationwide DNA database could be created by stealth, a report has warned, because of the new data sharing proposals currently passing through parliament.

A GeneWatch report has warned that the DNA collected for medical purposes in the newborn screening programme could be shared with the national DNA database without any need of further legislation.

The Coroners and Justice Bill, which is currently going through the parliamentary debate process, includes proposals for Information Sharing Orders. These allow any government data to be shared for reasons other than its initial purpose. As it stands, the Data Protection Act requires data to only be used for the purpose it was first taken.

GeneWatch said that if the new data sharing proposals are voted in, then the government could implement this plan via an Information Sharing Order without parliamentary oversight. Instead all Information Sharing Orders will be scrutinised by the Information Commissioner, with his opinion available to MPs in writing, and will also face a Privacy Impact Assessment.

Meanwhile, the Times reports:

Every baby born a decade from now will have its genetic code mapped at birth, the head of the world’s leading genome sequencing company has predicted.

A complete DNA read-out for every newborn will be technically feasible and affordable in less than five years, promising a revolution in healthcare, says Jay Flatley, the chief executive of Illumina.

Only social and legal issues are likely to delay the era of “genome sequences”, or genetic profiles, for all. By 2019 it will have become routine to map infants’ genes when they are born, Dr Flatley told The Times.

This will open a new approach to medicine, by which conditions such as diabetes and heart disease can be predicted and prevented and drugs prescribed more safely and effectively.

The development, however, will raise difficult questions about privacy and access to individuals’ genetic records. Many people may be reluctant to have their genome read, for fear that the results could be used against them by an employer or insurance company.

So we have a stated government intention to create a DNA database storing samples from every person, proposed legal powers that could be used to achieve it with the barest minimum parliamentary scrutiny, plus a private company claiming the technology will soon be in place to do it.

It thus seems to me this will happen unless people act to stop it.

Spy centre will track you on holiday -Times Online

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:06 pm on 8 February, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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The Times Online reports:

THE government is building a secret database to track and hold the international travel records of all 60m Britons.

The intelligence centre will store names, addresses, telephone numbers, seat reservations, travel itineraries and credit card details for all 250m passenger movements in and out of the UK each year.

The computerised pattern of every individual’s travel history will be stored for up to 10 years, the Home Office admits.

The government says the new database, to be housed in an industrial estate in Wythenshawe, near Manchester, is essential in the fight against crime, illegal immigration and terrorism. However, opposition MPs, privacy campaigners and some government officials fear it is a significant step towards a total surveillance society.

Britain’s legislative incontinence

Via UK Liberty, I found John Ozimek’s article in the Register, describing the problems the courts are having in keeping up with the law:

Late last year, an appeal in R. v. Chambers [2008] EWCA Crim 2467 was halted at the 11th hour when it turned out that the regulation which the defendant was appealing and under which he had previously been found guilty had in fact been superseded by new law… some seven years previously.

This only came to light when a draft judgment on the case was passed to a lawyer at Revenue and Customs, who spotted the error and instantly alerted the court. Confusion all round, and while the court dialogue didn’t quite match exchanges regularly heard under the jurisdiction of the infamous Justice Cocklecarrot, it is possible to detect prosecution counsel shrivelling beneath the displeasure of Lord Justice Toulson

Echoing recent comments by Lord Phillips, head honcho in our legal system, Lord Justice Toulson blamed this chaos on four factors - first, that “the majority of legislation passed today is secondary legislation”. That is, it is not passed directly by parliament, but is the result of Ministers laying regulations before parliament (statutory instruments).

Then, “the volume of legislation has increased very greatly over the last 40 years”. In 2005 alone, there were “2868 pages of new Public General Acts and approximately 13,000 pages of new Statutory Instruments” – to which should be added another 5,000 pages of European Directives and Regulations, plus the outpourings of our new devolved assemblies.

Assuming a page can be read every 5 minutes, then an MP would have to spend 79430 minutes reading the Acts of Parliament and the SIs for 2005 alone. That’s over 55 days of continuous reading, or over 165 days of reading continuously for 8 hours (almost 30 devoted to the Acts), just to read each of 2005’s SIs or Acts once. How on earth can MPs provide even remotely adequate scrutiny of legislation given such volumes of it to read? SIs of course are given the barest minimum of scrutiny - they cannot be amended, and (at best) there is only one vote in each House to approve them after a 90 minute debate.

The above calculation excludes European Directives and the explanatory notes that accompany Acts of Parliament and SIs. In his book “How to Label a Goat”, Ross Clark notes (on page 239 at the start of Chapter 18) that in the year starting June 1 2005 there were 29 Acts of Parliament, with 3592 SIs. Once you included the explanatory notes for this legislation, you had a total of 100,000 pages to read.

That’s equivalent to over 1041 working days worth of continuous reading. Even if you could reach a page per minute, it’s still over 208 working days of reading. And that’s just 1 year’s worth of legislation and supporting documentation.

And they say ignorance of the law is no excuse.

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