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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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Gordon Brown and Freedom of Information

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:59 pm on 24 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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The Telegraph reports that Gordon Brown will block the government’s attempts to water down the FoIA:

The Chancellor is ready to block plans drawn up by Lord Falconer which critics claim are designed to make it more difficult for people to obtain information from Whitehall.

I hope the Telegraph is right about this as it would be a welcome move, since Lord Falconer’s proposals would seriously weaken the FoIA.

There is also the matter of David MacLean’s Freedom of Information (Amendment Bill) that exempts Parliament from the FoIA. On this, the Telegraph reports:

Mr Brown wants to see the Private Members’ Bill, which was tabled by David Maclean, the former Conservative chief whip, rewritten to make clear that MPs will still have to publish full details of their expenses and allowances.

With David Cameron, the Conservative leader, adopting a similar position, Mr Maclean said last night that he was prepared to change his Bill to ensure that there was a statutory requirement to publish MPs’ allowances.

Whilst making the publication of MP’s expenses a statutory requirement would be a welcome move, it does not address the fundamental problem with David Maclean’s bill, which is that it would exempt Parliament from FoIA completely and thus the public would have no right to any information about Parliament’s business other than that which Parliament chooses to
release itself. Making it mandatory to publish the expenses would still leave all other information down to Parliament’s whim. And it would still exclude all MPs’ correspondence with public authorities.

The bill should either be dropped or should be amended to specifically exempt MP’s correspondence on behalf of their constituents with public authorities (the ostensible concern Maclean claimed to be addressing with his bill).

I’ll comment on David Cameron’s approach to this later.

The Freedom of Information Act and MPs’ correspondence

Posted by James Hammerton @ 12:06 am on 23 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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In my previous article on this topic, I noted that proponents of the bill claim the bill is necessary to protect MPs’ communications with, or on behalf of, their constituents from being released. This justification for the bill is set out in some detail in the Public Bill Committee’s consideration of the bill at a meeting on the 7th February 2007.

I shall respond to several points:
(more…)

Latest on the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:03 pm on 22 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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MPs voted for this bill last Friday and it now heads up to the House of Lords. However the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have pledged to block the bill in the Lords.

The latest version of the bill can be found here.

Proponents of the bill claim that it is necessary to protect the communications of members of the public with their MPs from publication. The problems with this argument are:

  • The bill exempts both the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the FoIA, i.e. the public will no longer have a right to know with regards to the business of Parliament. Parliament will decide for itself what information it releases.
  • The bill also exempts all correspondence between MPs and public authorities, not just the correspondence that references information about constituents.
  • Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act already exempts information where its release would violate the Data Protection Act, and releasing information about what a constituent has said to their MP would count.

I will return to the arguments put forward by the proponents of the bill later.

Update on bill to exempt parliament from the freedom of information act

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:12 pm on 26 April, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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This blog earlier reported on the private member’s bill going through Parliament, sponsored by Tory MP and former Tory chief whip David Maclean, that would exempt Parliament and all correspondence between MPs and public bodies from the provisions of the freedom of information act. Last Friday (20th April 2007), this bill was thought to have been killed offf after Lib Dem MP, Norman Baker, and a few others, spoke until its allotted time had run out.

However, due to other private member’s bills apparently not being ready to be debated, the bill is back in Parliament tomorrow (27th April 2007) and Norman Baker et al will need to try again to kill it off.

Note that Norman Baker is the Lib Dem MP who fought for MPs’ expenses to be released as public information and David Maclean is a member of the committee that fought against Baker on this matter, every step of the way.

The expenses of members of the Scottish parliament have been published routinely, under the devolved Parliament’s own FoI measures, for several years now.

“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.

British government proposes raising school-leaving age to 18

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:47 pm on 8 April, 2007.
Categories political liberties, British politics.
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Catchup-mode again.

Back in March, the government proposed raising the school leaving age to 18, with sanctions such as £50 fines and ASBO-style “attendance orders”.

Since then, there has been critical commentary from the following bloggers that’s worth reading:

Fabian Tassano and others have since set up Educational Conscription, a blog dedicated to resisting this measure, suggesting that the new plans are simply a form of conscription and asking whether it is right that people considered old enough to (in no particular order) get married, join the army, have children and learn to drive (as 17 yr olds can) should be forced to stay on in education.

2 new sections added to ID cards briefing document

I have added two new sections to the identity cards briefing document I produced earlier. These sections cover how one gets an ID card and when you will have your identity checked under the scheme.

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…)

EU and british government to fingerprint kids

I realise I’ve been a bit slow on reporting on this but here goes anyway. Early in March, The Register reported that the government apparently plans to take the fingerprints of children as young as 11 for biometric passports:

Home Office minister Liam Byrne told ITV1 television’s The Sunday Edition that the Identity and Passport Service wanted to fingerprint all children over the age of 11 and keep their particulars on a database.

The reason, he said, is because it is currently possible get a 10 year passport without biometrics while a child and still be carrying it validly at age 17, the age at which a biometric passport would be issued to someone who applied afresh for their travel permit.

According to this article, the European Union has already agreed to fingerprint children as young as 12:

A Home Office spokesman said it is bound by the rules of the European Schengen agreement, which Britain isn’t signed up to, but has vowed to mirror, to introduce biometric fingerprints to British passports by 2009.

The spokesman said the Europeans hadn’t decided on a minimum age for demanding that someone proffer their biometrics at border control.

However, the European Council pretty much already agreed last summer that children as young as 12 would be stored on Europe’s fingerprint database.

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