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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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Whither Britons’ medical privacy? NHS patients privacy concerns to be officially ignored

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:19 pm on 5 December, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat tip: UK Liberty]

Britain’s NHS is currently in the process of uploading patients’ medical records onto a central database that can be accessed by NHS staff. Patients concerned about potential violations of their privacy (after all, these are sensitive records) have been attempting to opt out of the system using a clause in the data protection act.

The government’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has written to GPs asking them to forward on the details of those who are trying to opt out so that he can write to the patients explaining why he won’t let them opt out. According to the Sunday Telegraph:

More than 60 per cent of GPs fear that the £20 million NHS computerisation project, which has been beset by difficulties and is over budget, will be vulnerable to hackers, meaning that sensitive details on up to 50 million patients could be leaked.

The first records will be uploaded to a central NHS computer next spring from a small number of GP practices.

An eight-page letter outlining how patients’ opt-out requests are being rejected was placed on the website of NHS Connecting for Health – the Government agency responsible for the computer scheme – on Friday night.

Earlier in the day, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, had faced fierce criticism from the British Medical Association for demanding that GPs should “shop” patients who say no to the database.

Yesterday, it became clear that Sir Liam wanted the names and addresses of objectors in order to write to them to tell them that their request would not be granted because their reasons were not “genuine”. Many patients who wanted to opt out had cited a clause of the Data Protection Act, saying that uploading their information on to the summary care record – also known as the Spine – would lead to “substantial and unwarranted distress”.

The Department of Health says that only minimal patient information, such as allergies, acute and repeat prescriptions and adverse reactions will “initially” be uploaded on to the summary care record, which will not contain any diagnoses or medical problems.

A covering document on the Connecting for Health website says: “The Department’s response … explains it will not agree to their request to stop the process of adding their information to the new NHS database.

“The Department does not believe that processing their information in this way is a genuine reason linked to substantial and unwarranted distress.”

So here we have the British government demanding that patients’ medical records, containing sensitive information(*) are uploaded onto a database regardless of patients’ consent and GPs’ concerns about the security of the system concerned.

The above situation pertains to the NHS in England, I understand it a similar system is being implemented in Scotland (health is a devolved matter) and I’m currently investigating the present state of play there.

(*) Note that your repeat prescription history, mentioned in the above quotation about the Emergency Care Summary, could indicate what diseases you’ve had, or are currently suffering from. For example, a prescription for lithium might indicate you’re being treated for depression, other medicines may indicate a sexual problem.

Further info at the following links:

Fingerprint Mania

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:05 pm on 3 December, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Revised Update: It appears I got things wrong when I first updated this article.

David Mery, in the comments on this article, points out that you can be fingerprinted, and your DNA to be taken, and kept indefinitely, regardless of whether you’re charged or convicted, when arrested for a recordable offence.

In January this year, most criminal offences were made recordable, and arrestable without a warrant. Beforehand the offence had to carry more than 5 years in prison if you were to be arrested without a warrant. I.e. this is another avenue for the government to get your prints and other biometrics. The relevant legislation is Section 110 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Many thanks to David for correcting me on this point.


Should the British government make its ID cards compulsory for everyone (which Labour plan to do in 2010, with those renewing passports having to register for the cards from 2009), they’ll get the fingerprints from every permanent resident of Britain stored in the National Identity Register.

In the meantime, it seems the authorities are coming up with all sorts of schemes to get hold of them anyway:

At this rate, how long will it be before your fingerprint is required routinely for everyday tasks?

Interestingly, Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner has made the fingerprinting of school kids illegal, offering us the spectacle of (admittedly a liberal province of) China starting to protect privacy more seriously than Britain does.

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

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.

Charles Clarke claims ID cards will control “Big Brother”!

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:36 pm on 26 November, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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According the Guardian, Charles Clarke claims the government’s ID card scheme will help us control the “big brother” society:

“They are not creating, or even extending, the ‘Big Brother’ society,” said Mr Clarke.

“They are an effort to control it and to give every individual a greater right to control the use of their own identity, in a world where many wish to abuse it.”

He added: “Identity cards are only one way to contest those criminals who wish to abuse our identity in these and many other ways.”

Consider the following:

  • Under Schedule 1 of the Identity Cards Act, section 9 the National Identity Register (NIR) will include the particulars of every occasion in which its information about you is provided to someone else and every person to whom such information is provided.

    When your ID is checked against the NIR, the NIR’s information about you will be given to the checker so that the ID can be verified against it — section 12 of the Act makes it clear this is how an identity check will be done.

    Thus a record of each identity check will be created on the NIR which will thus build up a detailed record of who you’re doing business with. In addition to government bodies and public services, the government’s web site on identity cards lists the following organisations as examples of people they envisage might wish to use the identity verification service:

    • banks and building societies
    • Royal Mail and other delivery and courier services
    • libraries and video/DVD rental companies
    • mobile and fixed line phone companies and service providers
    • travel agencies and airlines
    • universities and colleges of higher education
    • retailers of all kinds, including internet-based companies
    • property rental companies
    • vehicle rental companies

    These form the vast bulk of the organisations people have to deal with in their daily lives.

    Thus the ID card + NIR form a system that records everyone’s every day activities for the government to use, i.e. it is a system of mass surveillance.

  • The NIR entries will each hold a unique National Identity Registration Number, or NIRN, that will eventually index into entries in other public databases and any private databases that use it. By doing so, it will make it a lot easier for those with access to the databases to obtain all the information held about an individual by different organisations.
  • Section 11 of the Identity Cards Act gives the Home Secretary the power to cancel and/or require the surrender of an identity card, without appeal. Given that the card will, if the government has its way, become necessary for everything from getting medical care to opening a bank account, this effectively means that Home Secretary can withdraw access to the services we need to live our lives at any time. The Act does require the issue of a new card in these circumstances, but all it would take would be long delays in reissuing and/or repeated cancellation of a card in order to seriously disrupt someone’s life.

In summary, the card will become essential for living your life, the government can take it away or cancel it at any time and they will use it and the NIR to record who you do business with and to enable all the data held about you to be drawn together to create a comprehensive picture of your life. What could be more “big brother” than that?

Response to Tony Blair’s press conference on ID cards

Recently Tony Blair gave a press conference defending ID cards and attacking the opponents. The UK Liberty blog, just recently created, has taken Blair’s speech apart here. This is well worth reading in full.

Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:09 pm on 24 November, 2006.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law, British politics, accountability.
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The Abolition of Parliament Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill was passed by Parliament back in October and is now the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006(LRR Act).

The Save Parliament weblog has responded with a post suggesting that, whilst they still had concerns, the final approved Act was much improved on the Bill and far less dangerous. Thus they argue it no longer deserved the Abolition of Parliament Bill label that various critics, myself included, had been using:

“(David Howarth) described the Bill in its earlier stages as the abolition of Parliament Bill,but now it is not. It has been filleted, dissected, deconstructed and reconstructed. It is now a better Bill because … lame-brained arguments … have been abandoned by the Government. … At that time, it was a thoroughly bad Bill that did things that were way beyond its stated scope. Now, it has been brought back under control.”

As he points out, the Bill is vastly better than it was when it was first proposed, and we have you to thank for that. This Bill was not just fixed by MPs discussing in Parliament, it was fixed by you, the general public, applying pressure to your representatives, and raising the profile of this Bill so that it could not be ignored. You should all be very pleased that we got as much fixed as we did.

So does this mean we need not worry about the LRR Act any longer? A hint that all might not be well can be seen in one of the comments, from someone called Dave Gould, on Save Parliament’s weblog:

I shall be getting my MP to write to David Howarth to find out why he thinks it’s now “under control”.

It still looks like ANY amendments/revoking of our constitution can be make by secondary legislation with the small proviso that it has to be passed by a committee of hand-picked Labour MPs first.

The argument that constitutional changes eg abolishing elections can be blocked in a judicial review is dubious at best. And who is going to fund these judicial reviews?

The crucial question then is what does the LRR Act (which has Royal Assent now) actually say? The following is an overview of the main points of the LRR Act as it relates to legislative power:

  • Section 1 sets out a broad power for Ministers to make any provision they consider would serve the purpose of removing or reducing a burden or reducing the overall burdens of any person affected by a piece of legislation. A burden means any of the following:
    • A financial cost,
    • An administrative inconvenience,
    • An obstactle to efficiency, productivity or profitability,
    • A sanction, criminal or otherwise, which affects the carrying out of a lawful activity.

    On the face of it, this is a very broad power. E.g. could abolishing jury trial in favour trial by judge, be considered as a measure to reduce burdens (both financial and administrative) on jurors and those running the courts? However there are “safeguards” to consider…

  • Section 3 sets out pre-conditions that the Minister must consider satisfied before making orders under the Act. These are:
    • that the policy objective cannot be achieved without legislation,
    • that the effect of the provision he makes is proportionate to the policy objective,
    • that the provision strikes a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of anyone adversely affected by it,
    • the provision does not remove any necessary protection,
    • the provision does not prevent any person from continuing to exercise any right or freedom which that person might reasonably expect to continue to exercise,
    • the provision is not of constitutional significance.

    A key point to note about this is that all of these preconditions are a matter for the Minister’s judgement, thus he must consider that these preconditions are met. However, they do provide scope for opposition when the orders are scrutinised and any judicial review might be able to argue the preconditions were not met. The key question in considering the impact of section 3, is therefore how much scope for scrutiny and judicial review will there be?

  • Section 4 restricts the power to delegate legislative functions such that they can only be delegated to government ministers, people who have had legislative power delegated to them in prior legislation or office holders or bodies created by the orders. It also restricts such delegation of legislative powers such that they have to be exercised via statutory instrument if they are delegated or confered on ministers of the crown.

    Note that an order under this LRR Act can confer legislating powers on office holders or bodies created by the order itself, thus cutting Parliament out of the loop completely.

  • Section 5 prevents orders being used to create, abolish or vary taxes, however it explicitly allows their application to be varied. E.g. it would be possible to extend VAT to items not currently taxed this way for example.
  • Section 6 prevents criminal penalties of more than 2 years in jail or a fine of level 5 being imposed by an order.
  • Section 7 prevents powers authorising forcible entry from being enacted via the Act.
  • Section 8 protects the Human Rights Act (HRA) and part 1 of the LRR Act itself (all sections up to section 20). This brings the LRR Act into line with the Civil Contingencies Act (CCA) which has similar protections for the HRA and the CCA itself, and was not originally in the bill.
  • Sections 9, 10 and 11 prevent the LRR Act from being used to legislate in areas devolved to the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh assemblies.
  • Sections 12 to 18 set out the procedure to be followed. The Minister must first consult with various people he considers appropriate (big deal), and then lay out a draft order in both Houses of Parliament with an explanatory document and recommendation for which of the following procedures to following:
    • The negative procedure. Parliament has 40 days to object before the order is made, either by one House passing a resolution against it or for a committee of either House to recommend rejecting it, whereupon it will fall unless the same House rejects the recommendation. The committee can only report with its recommendation after 30 days and before 40 days have passed.
    • The affirmative procedure. Parliament has 40 days to approve the order in both Houses. A committee of either House can, after 30 days and before 40 days, recommend abandoning the order in which case a resolution rejecting the recommendation is required.
    • The super-affirmative procedure. Parliament has 60 days to approve the order, or recommend changes. The Minister can enact a revised order if Parliament approves, or the original order if Parliament approves.

    Note that the Minister can recommend a procedure but either House can insist on a more stringent procedure, e.g. if the Minister recommends the negative procedure, either House can insist on the affirmative procedure or the super-affirmative procedure. If he recommends the affirmative procedure they can insist on the super-affirmative procedure. 30 days are allowed for each House to change the procedure otherwise the Minister’s recommendation applies.

    Also, orders cannot be amended by Parliament, only accepted or rejected, and even the super-affirmative procedure keeps the government in control of what finally appears in a revised order.

Overall it seems to me that the Act is a mild improvement on the Bill, e.g. its legislative powers can’t be used to amend the foregoing powers and procedures, and the Human Rights Act is protected. The powers are drawn more tightly, but unfortunately are still framed to a large degree in terms of the judgement of the Ministers creating the orders. The level of scrutiny afforded to LRR Act orders is about the same as that in the original Bill, though House committees can report on such orders they’re likely to be controlled by the government and the timescales themselves will prevent adequate scrutiny. The ability to use LRR Act orders to cut Parliament out of the legislative loop is still there, if more difficult to use.

I see nothing to stop the abolition/curbing of jury trials being enacted via these orders, other than a vigilent Parliament (the European Convention on Human Rights applies to many countries that don’t have jury trial, thus the HRA isn’t going to stop that). By the time a judicial review comes into play it’s a fait accompli to be overturned only if the Minister is found to have acted outside his powers.

I think the LRR Act now deserves the label “Undermining and Sidelining of Parliament” Act. It should be repealed. If Parliament is having difficulties coping with the legislative load that’s an argument for cutting down on the amount of legislation pushed through it, not making it easier to push legislation through by reducing the opportunities for scrutiny and for amendments to be made.

Government plans to hobble FoI act

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:07 pm on 22 October, 2006.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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As reported here, here and here, the British government are planning to change the grounds on which freedom of information act requests can be refused.

Currently, if a request is going to cost £600 pounds or more, then the request can be refused, but this calculation does not factor in reading time, consultation time or consideration time, and the government wishes to add these factors in. Tim Worstall notes (3rd link above) that this will make it very easy for requests to be turned down:

Consultation time’ ? So, we have a committee meeting to discuss how to collate the information. There are plenty of civil servants who are on the salaried equivalent of £30 or £40 an hour. Ten of them in a meeting taking two hours: Ooops! sorry, no information for you!

This will eviscerate the Act. Which is the point, of course.

Inland Revenue cocks up, causing a bankruptcy but is not liable for its mistakes

Hat Tip: Tim Worstall

Another example of how unaccountable the various organs of the British state can be, in this case the Inland Revenue which is apparently immune from prosecution and therefore cannot be held liable for its mistakes. From this report in the Telegraph (emphasis mine):

Andrew Simmonds, QC, said that the Inland Revenue had been responsible for a 52-day “negligent” delay that had helped push a builder to the brink of bankruptcy.

However, he ruled that the tax office is immune to prosecution by individuals and businesses, unlike other public services such as hospitals and police forces. Neil Martin, 38, became the first person to sue the Inland Revenue, now known as Revenue & Customs, for alleged negligence or administrative incompetence.

The builder, from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, said that his business had been plunged into a cash flow crisis after a delay in processing a crucial form.

Without the form, part of 1999 anti-fraud legislation called the Construction Industry Scheme, contractors could not pay their bills without subtracting tax at source, which caused a cash crisis for the company.

Mr Martin now faces personal bankruptcy after being left with a swingeing tax bill of £250,000 along with substantial legal costs.

So it seems that if the taxman screws up, the victim of said screw up pays the bill, end of story.

Gordon Brown grabs more power for the treasury

Hat tip: Spy Blog.

Gordon Brown has recently introduced a statutory instrument granting the Treasury sweeping powers ostensibly targetted at terrorist financing. Spy Blog’s comments indicate just how far reaching these powers are (emphasis mine):

However, the previous Orders referring to such resolutions specifically against the Taliban and Al Qaida, have been revoked by this Order, so this is, in fact a new, infinite General Power, which the NuLabour Government has grabbed for itself, without any debate about the details in Parliament.

Are they also intending to use it to “freeze the financial assets” of Northern Irish terrorists or so called animal rights extremists, since there is nothing whatsoever in this Order to prevent them from doing so ?

A worrying aspect of this Order is that according to Schedule 1 Evidence and Information the Treasury is only obliged to “take such steps as they consider appropriate”

The Treasury can “designate” anybody, and they are the only judges of what they consider to be terrorist activity or association, for which they do not have to gave any actual hard evidence.

By invoking this Order, the Treasury can demand any document or record from any British citzen or corporate person i.e. banks and financial institutions with subsidiaries in the UK, under a criminal penalty of up to 2 years in prison.

The Treasury can also hand this data over to any foreign Government.

There is also a secrecy provision, if they choose to only tell certain people or financial institutions, and not the general public about the freezing of assets, backed up by a criminal penalty of up to 2 years in prison.

There is a penalty of up to 7 years in prison for people who delliberately continue to allow funds transfers etc. in contravention of the Designation orders by the Treasury.

More over, as SpyBlog notes, section 7 of the order seems to provide a carte blanche to exempt the use of these powers from the restrictions of the Data Protection Act, the Common Law duty of confidentiality, and other protections of the privacy/confidentiality of financial data:

7. An action done under this Schedule is not to be treated as a breach of any restriction imposed by statute or otherwise.

For further details, see the original Spy Blog article and the order itself.

3 articles summarising Blair’s ongoing attack on British liberty

Articles in the mainstream media highlighting the attacks on civil liberties in Britain are becoming more common. Three recent articles that collectively summarise just how far this process has gone are as follows:

You can find much of the legislation documented on this site, e.g. a detailed summary of much of it can be found here, and the Abstracts link at the top of the page will tell you more.

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