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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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The Elected Representatives (Prohibition of Deception) Bill

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:44 pm on 18 October, 2007.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics, accountability.
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A private member’s bill just published makes it an offence for Britain’s elected representatives to make statements they know to be “false, misleading or deceptive in a material particular”. Such a bill might help to restore trust in politics, but as a private member’s bill, it is not likely to get very far.

More details at my personal blog.

Roundup on Britain’s national identity scheme

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I hope to post more regularly in future. For the moment I’ll be in catch-up mode, rounding up stories in particular areas. Today’s round up is on Britain’s National Identity Scheme:

  • Under a recent statutory instrument, invoking section 38 of the Identity Cards Act 2006, the Identity and Passport Service(IPS) can now employ credit reference agencies, such as Experian, to verify identity information given during passport applications. The IPS will also be in charge of issuing identity cards (eventually all passport applications will involve registering on the NIR). So it looks like credit reference agencies are likely to be employed to verify data for ID card applications as well.
  • The Register reports that from 2008, the General Register Office, currently part of the Office for National Statistics, will be transferred to become part of the Identity and Passport Service. This means that the IPS will beceome responsible for the register of births, deaths and marriages. The Register comments:

    The government has followed up the effective merger of the ONS’ population register with the NIR by subsuming the GRO in the IPS Borg, and the uncontentious register that previously existed will, as of next April, be run by an organisation which proposes to make money out of compiling and continually updating the “biographical footprint” of every live individual in the UK (see here for more detail on the identity verification service and its roots in IPS’ Personal Identification Project, PIP).

  • At their annual conference, the Tory party re-affirmed their commitment to scrap the identity cards. Both David Davis and David Cameron, the Tory leader, included this pledge in their speeches. However they haven’t yet gone as far as the Liberal Democrats in pledging to repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006 and rolling back other surveillance state measures.
  • As of 2nd October, Spy.org.uk had been waiting for over 1,000 days for a disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act relating to government reports on the ID card scheme, despite both the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal ruling that the reports should be disclosed. The government is appealing the decision to the High Court. The High Court has set March 4th & 5th 2008 for the hearing.

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.

Latest developments on Freedom of Information in Britain

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:51 pm on 25 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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Latest developments regarding Britain’s Freedom of Information Act:

  • Alistair Darling, a government minister, has expressed concerns about the use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain civil servants’ advice to ministers and MPs’ correspondence with Ministers, suggesting he wants tighter restrictions on the FoIA over such communications. In his leaked letter to Lord Falconer he writes:

    First there is the position of MPs’ correspondence under the Act. Disclosure of letters between MPs and Ministers, even if ostensibly innocuous, will inhibit the dialogue between MPs and their constituents and MPs and Ministers. It can’t be right that a constituent’s affairs could be made public because he asked his MP to write to a Minister. And if we are to live under the constant threat of publication, this will prevent MPs from expressing their views frankly when writing to a Minister. We need urgent advice on what the position is.

    Second, I am concerned that the FOI Act, as it appears, prevents us from protecting robustly and across the board advice from officials to Ministers. Here again we should be able to guard more effectively against the incremental harm to the policy development process that must inevitably arise from the disclosure of individually innocuous submissions.

    He concludes:

    For immediate purposes, I would ask that officials, led by yours, conduct a speedy review of these aspects of the FOI.

    On MPs’ correspondence and advice to Ministers, we need to examine whether a more robust approach is possible to applying FOI exemptions and the scope for a more generic approach to guard against incremental harm from individual disclosures.

    On coordination between Departments, it would be helpful if officials could examine interdepartmental arrangements for handling FOI requests, taking in the role of the Clearing House, to ensure a consistent and rigorous approach to cross cutting requests. I expect this would entail clear instructions across Whitehall from your Department.

    Beyond that, we will need to watch Information Tribunal case law carefully and in due course consider whether change to the legislation is needed to redress an apparent imbalance between the “right to know” and the protection of private space where necessary for good governance.

  • There are reports that Lord Trefgarne may have decided to sponsor David Maclean’s Freedom from Scrutiny Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill in the Lord. Without a sponsor the bill will fall. From the Press Gazette:

    Critics of a backbench bid to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act today vowed to do everything possible to stop it becoming law amid confusion over whether it has found a Tory backer in the Lords.

    The Liberal Democrats said Lord Trefgarne had agreed to sponsor David Maclean’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill - a claim later confirmed by Government sources.

    Maclean, the Tory former chief whip, refused to confirm the reports but said: “He is one of a few people I am talking to about it. There is no rush.”

    Meanwhile, a Conservative Party spokeswoman insisted a sponsor had not yet been secured in the Lords.

  • Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner has stated he hadn’t received any complaints about MPs’ correspondence with their constituents being released, undermining the case being made for the bill by its proponents. From the Independent:

    Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said he had not received any complaints from members of the public that their correspondence with an MP had been wrongly disclosed under the terms of the two-year-old legislation.

    Note that the legislation is actually 7 years old, but has only been in operation since 1st January 2005.

David Cameron and Freedom of Information

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:06 pm on 24 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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After failing to turn up and vote (which Menzies Campbell, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also failed to do) when the House of Commons voted for the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, David Cameron has instructed Tory peers to block the bill:

David Cameron has told Conservative peers to vote against a controversial
bill introduced by one of his own backbenchers which would exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act.

The Tory leader said he wanted to find a way to protect MPs correspondence but that he could not support the private members’ bill, pushed through the Commons last week by former Conservative chief whip David Maclean. “If it could be amended in such a way that we are happy with, we would
consider it, but at the moment, it is no go,” Mr Cameron said.

In my view, this is the correct approach. The bill as it stands will exempt Parliament from Freedom of Information Act(FoIA) and will also exempt all correspondence between MPs and public authorities. The ostensible concern behind the bill was to protect the correspondence MPs made on behalf of their constituents with public authorities. If the bill had been written simply to protect this correspondence, then it would be a reasonable amendment to our current FoIA legislation making it absolutely clear such correspondence is not to be released.

Such correspondence should already be protected by the Data Protection Act, and sections 40 and 41 of the FoIA, but some MPs have expressed concern that this existing protection isn’t working. A bill targetted at strengthening this protection is fine, though I suspect issuing better/simpler guidance on the matter to the relevant public authorities would also be a solution.

However, I don’t understand why a bill completely exempting Parliament and the totality of MPs’ correspondence with public authorities was proposed as the means of dealing with this problem.

Finally, David Maclean has proposed to amend the bill to make publication of MPs’ expenses mandatory. Welcome as this move is, it misses the point which is that Parliament should not have a blanket exemption from the FoIA.

Gordon Brown and Freedom of Information

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:59 pm on .
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.

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