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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.
Archive of old news service:
2002 - 2004

1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005


The government’s record on protecting personal information and identity documents

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:57 pm on 19 May, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance.
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One of the arguments the government has been using for its Identity Cards scheme is that it will help secure people’s personal information and protect them from identity fraud by providing secure identity document. When considering this claim, it’s worth considering the competence of the people who are putting it forward, i.e. the government and in particular the Home Office. The record is not impressive:

The Identity Cards Act will create a national identity register storing every name you’ve been known by, every address you’ve ever lived at and, each time your identity is checked who checked it and why. It will also feature a unique National Identity Registration Number issued to each individual, which will eventually index to all the other government databases thus making it much easier for people to steal information about you. The government claims this scheme will help to secure your identity, but given it is responsible for the above shambles, would you trust them?

Renew for freedom

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:54 pm on 7 May, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties.
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With the passing of the Identity Cards Act 2006, the No2ID campaign has launched its Renew for Freedom drive, urging people to renew their passports during May (i.e. by the end of this month!).

renew for freedom - MAY 2006 - renew your passport

The aim is to get as many people as possible to renew their passports now, before the point at which passport renewal entails registering on the planned National Identity Register (NIR), the centralised database that forms the backbone of the identity cards scheme. If the scheme is to be successfully opposed and scrapped, it will be important to ensure that a large number of people simply refuse to register on the NIR. Renewing your passport now will ensure that you won’t be compelled to register on the NIR in order simply to be able to travel abroad. Of course the government intends to compel everyone to register eventually, but if the numbers who are unregistered are kept high enough it simply will not be viable for them to do so. If nothing else though, renewing now gives those who wish to resist this scheme more room for maneouvre.

More on Charles Clarke’s attacks on the media

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:29 pm on 27 April, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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Further to my previous article, it appears that Charles Clarke’s article was a condensed version of this speech he gave to the London School of Economics. My thanks go to “TD” on the uk.politics.misc newsgroup for pointing this out. TD’s article is worth reading (they usually are!).

I note the following (in addition to the example TD discusses):

Carr asserts, for instance, that, “damaging GM crops is defined as a terrorist act”. Where is this idea from? Nowhere in terrorism legislation is damaging GM crop fields defined as a terrorist act.

Section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000 defines terrorism in such a manner that causing serious damage to property to advance a political cause, and influence any government is an act of terrorism.

If you regard destroying fields of crops as “serious damage to property” (which could after all amount to thousands of pounds or more worth of damage) then it follows that anti-GM crop campaginers who engage in the destruction of such crops are causing serious damage to property, for a political cause, with the aim of influencing the government and are thus engaged in terrorism as the Terrorism Act 2000 defines it.

The National Identity Scheme is being introduced to safeguard people’s identities, not track their lifestyle or activities. The information that can be held on the National Identity Register covers only basic personal information roughly the same as that needed for a passport. It will not include details of withdrawals of cash from bank accounts, medical records or even whether someone has obtained a fishing licence.

This is patently false. Section 9 of Schedule 1 of the Identity Cards Act specifies that the information stored in your NIR entry should include information about every occasion on which information from the NIR entry is divulged to another person and every person to whom the information is divulged.

Thus if you register with, for example, a medical clinic and they are required to perform an identity check, then a record of that identity check and the fact that it was the clinic who made it will be stored in the NIR. The government wishes to make access to public services dependent on such identity checks.

Likewise if you go to the bank and carry out a high-value transaction and they check your identity, it will reveal the fact you had your identity checked by that bank to anyone with access to the NIR.

Our passport system currently simply does not record such information. Moreover, a future government could bring an area of life under surveillance by the simple expedient of running identity checks in that area. E.g. requiring identity checks at political protests or meetings would effectively enable the government to record who was at those meetings.

Quite clearly, the NIR will end up tracking people’s activities via the audit trail.

And let me conclude with one of the more ridiculous statements: “The presumption of innocence is no longer a fixed legal principal”. This is complete nonsense. In this country that you are innocent of an offence until proven guilty.'’

With this statement, Clarke neatly ignores the following laws this government has brought in (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • you need not be convicted of an offence to be placed under a control order, and thus you may be curfewed or even placed under full blown house arrest without a trial. The evidence and the accusations against you can be withheld from you thus scuppering your ability to defend yourself from such action.
  • several sections of the Terrorism Act 2000 reverse the burden of proof requiring people to prove their innocence in various matters, see here for details.
  • the Football (Disorder) Act 2000 allows travel banning orders, requiring people to hand in their passports to specified police station, to be imposed without proving they’ve committed an offence.

These are just a handful of the numerous examples of this government attacking civil liberties and pursuing authoritarian policies.

Chris Lightfoot has also made some pertinent comments on Clarke’s speech.

Charles Clarke accuses British media of “poison” in coverage of attacks on civil liberties

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:21 pm on 26 April, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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Britain’s Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, recently wrote an article for the Guardian (entitled “Lazy and deceitful”) which can be found at the Guardian website.

In the article, Clarke claims that “a pernicious and even dangerous poison is now slipping into some parts of this media view of the world” and that “In the absence of many of the genuinely dangerous totalitarian regimes, the media has rhetorically transferred to existing democracies, particularly the US and the UK, the characteristics of those dictatorships.”

He castigates various commentators for using terms such as “creeping authoritarianism”, “police state”, “fascist”, “holocaust”, “gulag” and “apartheid”.

However, in the Guardian article, he does not provide any examples of the usages of these words that offends him.

As far as I’m concerned, the government is guilty of creeping authoritarianism, has laid down all the legislative apparatus required for a police state and has pursued policies more commonly associated with fascist states than with democracies. Britain has not become the sort of society we saw in the USSR, Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy, but the government has enacted highly authoritarian laws that curb people’s liberties and expand the power of the state.

Even a cursory glance at the “criminal justice” and “anti terrorism” legislation this government has brought in or proposed will reveal numerous examples, such as lowering or reversing the burden of proof, allowing people suspected of crime to be punished without being convicted of an offence, enabling numerous public officials to snoop on people’s lives without independent oversight or accountability and attempts to sideline Parliament and to enable rule by decree.

The other terms I grant do not apply to the behaviour of the current government, or to that of the US.

I have seen someone compare the recently acquired powers of house arrest to those used against people in the apartheid era (see this article), not to demonstrate that Britain is under apartheid but to demonstrate that Britain has acquired deeply draconian laws under this government and to demonstrate how damaging house arrest can be for those placed under it. This is a perfectly valid point to make.

He then writes:

“Writing on these pages, Jenni Russell claimed that “Tony Blair’s administration is removing the safeguards that protect all of us from the whims of a government and the intrusion of a powerful state. It is engaged in a ferocious power-grab.” These are ridiculous assertions, unsupported by any hint of understanding of the balance of powers that
exist in our society.'’

The assertions are not ridiculous, they are a statement of fact. This government has removed longstanding safeguards that protect us from being wrongfully imprisoned or punished.

To take some brief examples, under legislation this government has introduced you can have your assets seized (Proceeds of Crime Act 2002), or be placed under curfew or under restrictions on who you can meet or under house arrest (Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005) using control orders, or be banned from travelling to football matches (Football (Disorder) Act 2000), all without being convicted of an offence.

In the case of control orders, you won’t even get to see the evidence or accusations made against you or who made them.

By removing the requirement to proof beyond resonable doubt that person has committed a crime, and in some cases by even reversing the presumption of innocence, this government has made everyone more vulnerable to false accusations, whether made maliciously or by mistake. The government has thus seriously weakened the ability of the innocent accused to fight false accusations.

In doing so the government has also undermined the reliability of the criminal justice system — by lowering the burden of proof they make it more likely that the wrong people will be targetted and punished in the fight against crime and terrorism, leaving the real culprits free to continue their activities.

Regarding the claim of a power grab, this is fact. Not only does the weakening of the safeguards mentioned above the state more power over the individual by making it easier to jail or otherwise punish him, but the government has been engaging in a power grab in other ways too.

Jenni Russell mentions the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill which, in its current form, would give ministers the power, via parliamentary orders, to alter any legislation they choose and any laws they choose and to delegate legislative power to any people they choose, whilst limiting Parliament’s ability to scrutinise such orders to the extent that at best each House only gets one vote on the orders, at most 60 days to consider the orders and cannot amend the orders. The government can even nominate a procedure be used whereby the order becomes law unless an opposing vote is organised in each House — i.e. without a vote being necessary.

This would give the executive an unprecedented level of power in Britain.

There is also the Civil Contingencies Act which gives cabinet ministers all the authority of an Act of Parliament and the Royal Prerogative — i.e. absolute power under Britain’s system of government — subject to only very minimal restrictions and a need to renew emergency powers every 7 days unless Parliament gives approval for longer timescales. The previous Emergency Powers Act was more limited than this and required Royal consent.

Then there is the Identity Cards Act 2006 which will give the state unprecedented powers to gather information about people’s lives and track them, whilst making it possible for someone to be effectively made a non-citizen by simply deleting, corrupting or flagging their NIR entries or (on a temporary basis) by cancelling their ID cards though the government is obligated to provide a new one. This scheme will give everyone in officialdom ample opportunity to boss people around and interfere in their lives.

Clarke baldly asserts that it is ridiculous to claim the government is engaged in a power grab or that they have undermined the safeguards that protect individuals from the abuses of state power without even attempting to address the points raised by Jenni Russell, let alone anyone else. It is Clarke who is being lazy and deceitful, not those who are alarmed by the destruction of the rule of law and the accumulation of power by the British state. Much of the offending legislation is documented elsewhere on the Magna Carta Plus site.

How ID cards were abolished in post WWII Britain

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:40 pm on 1 April, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance.
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Graham Stewart, writing in the Times, tells the story of how Britain’s wartime ID cards, whose use extended into peacetime, were eventually abolished:

The 1945 Labour Government decided that a scheme introduced as a temporary emergency measure on the outbreak of war in 1939 should continue in peacetime. After all, ID cards assisted the great task of national bookkeeping. Long after the threat diminished from strangers with Mitteleuropean accents asking the way to the nearest deep water port, ID cards still facilitated the efficient administration of food rationing. They were also required when applying for new passports.

However, Clement Attlee’s bureaucratic citadel found itself besieged by a small band of individuals defending their right to be awkward. At the forefront was the British Housewives’ League. A delegation assembled outside Parliament in April 1951 to burn their ID cards. A downpour risked turning their protest into a damp squib, although Mrs Palmer of Sidcup managed to destroy her card by setting fire to it in a coffee tin, while Mrs Irene Lovelock of Canterbury was — as The Times reported — “partly successful with a frying-pan”.

These redoubtable women were not the sort to welcome comparison with Gandhi, but their passive disobedience campaign was gathering momentum. The previous year, Clarence Harry Willcock refused a police officer’s demands to stop his car and show his ID card with the explanation: “I am a Liberal.”

He was duly arrested. But his case reached the High Court in June, 1951. Although the conviction was upheld, the Lord Chief Justice cautioned that the extension of legislation beyond its original limited intention “tended to turn law-abiding subjects into law breakers, which was most undesirable, and the good relations between the police and the public would be likely to suffer”.

Willcock became, briefly, a national figure — the little man standing up against an overweening and officious bureaucracy. On a mandate to “set the people free”, the Tories won the ensuing general election and promptly scrapped the accursed identity card.

Now, again we have a small band of individuals campaigning against the new identity cards scheme, in the form of the No2ID campaign, and a pledge from the Tories’ shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, to scrap the bill. Could history be about to repeat itself?

The fact that Davis voted with the government when the Bill returned to the House of Commons for final approval does make one wonder at his sincerity.

Anyway, if history is to repeat itself, it’ll require the next aim of the No2ID campaign to be realised, namely “to make running on a platform that supports (in fact, that does not actively oppose) compulsory registration, a National Identity Register and ID cards political suicide for any party or politician going into any sort of election”.

Tory peers cave in on Identity Cards Bill

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:06 pm on 29 March, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance.
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After several rounds of “ping pong”, as the Identity Cards Bill was sent back and forth between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the British government has finally got its way after Tory peers in the Lords accepted a “compromise” allowing people to opt out of getting a card (until 2010) when they renew or apply for their passports (from 2008 onwards).

However, people applying for or renewing passports will still have to register on the National Identity Register and thus the only difference made is in the timing over when they are actually issued with a card. This “compromise” is thus worthless, as it leaves the governments planned database, which will record people’s activities in considerable detail, unscathed.

Yet again the Tory party has shown itself to be unreliable at defending civil liberties in Britain.

Why the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is worse than the Civil Contingencies Act

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:55 pm on 16 March, 2006.
Categories democracy and the rule of law.
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In my earlier coverage of the Abolition of Parliament Legislative and Regulatory Reform(LRR) Bill, I think I have underestimated how much power it gives to government ministers. I now think this bill actually gives more power to government ministers, in practical terms, than the Civil Contingencies Act (CCA).

The CCA explicitly gives Ministers both the powers of legislating via an Act of Parliament and the powers of the Royal Prerogative. However those powers are supposed to be invoked only in an emergency, are time limited to 7 days, albeit renewable, and have various other constraints such as not modifying the CCA itself or the Human Rights Act. There are protections for the courts and criminal offences created under CCA regulations can carry only 3 months imprisonment.

The possibility that the LRR is worse than the CCA was pointed out to me when discussing the bill in this thread on the usenet group, uk.politics.misc. One poster makes the following points:

  • The LRR is designed ostensibly to be used in the normal course of governing, where the Civil Contingencies Act (CCA) is supposed to be used only in emergencies.
  • The LRR can amend any legislation, where the CCA cannot be used to alter the CCA itself or the Human Rights Act.
  • The LRR can be used to delegate legislative power, without apparent limit, to anybody the specified in an appropriate order.
  • The LRR can be used to alter or abolish any rule of law.

The key matter I hadn’t considered fully before is this. The orders under the LRR can be used to confer legislative power on Ministers, such that they would then be able to legislate without any reference to Parliament at all. Given the government’s ability to control Parliamentary procedure (e.g. to ensure the negative resolution procedure is used), it would be possible for such a transfer of power in the favour of Ministers to occur without any vote in Parliament occurring!

This transfer could be achieved by sneaking the measure into a suitably large and convoluted order that implements a policy strongly backed by the governing party, and hoping it will either not be noticed due to the lack of time for scrutinising the order (this lack of time being arranged by the government) or if it is noticed it will be allowed through because the governing party’s MPs and Peers do not wish to abandon a key policy.

Remember there is no possibility for making amendments that would allow MPs or Peers to selectively modify problematic areas of the parliamentary orders. At best a request to revise the order can be made to the government which the government can consider and reject, or for that matter implement in any way it pleases. The Ministers will be in control at every step unless MPs or Peers vote the order down in its entirety.

I thus fear that if this bill passes we will not only see increasing amounts of legislation passed via parliamentary order with little or no scrutiny, but we will see Ministers being given increasing powers to legislate directly without reference to Parliament. The bill really should be entitled the Abolition of Parliament bill. The Abolition of Parliamentary Scrutiny Bill moniker I’ve been using in some posts is thus too mild a description of the threat this bill makes to Parliament’s role.

March for Free Expression on 25th March

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:55 pm on 15 March, 2006.
Categories political liberties.
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A march to support free expression, as a response to the furore over the Mohammed cartoons, is being organised for the 25th March in Trafalgar Square, London.

The organisers also need to raise £2500 pounds and are asking for donations, via PayPal, at their web page.

Backers of the march include the National Secular Society, the Libertarian Alliance, the Free Muslim Coalition and the Samizdata website/bloggers.

Yet more diminution of Parliament’s role planned.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:47 pm on 12 March, 2006.
Categories democracy and the rule of law.
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Geoff Hoon, the current Leader of the House of Commons is proposing to limit the number of questions MPs can ask:

The right of MPs to table questions is to be curbed for the first time in the history of parliament, according to a confidential document being circulated to ministers by Geoff Hoon, the leader of the house.

He proposes in the consultation document that MPs be limited to 10 questions a day after a huge rise in queries, particularly since the last general election. Part of the blame is being put on MPs’ researchers drawing up a lot of questions.

Yet again we see the government trying to limit the ability of Parliament to hold it accountable. Clearly they do not like their policies and actions being scrutinised.

Patriot Act renewed in the US.

The US Patriot Act, passed after 9/11 with various temporary measures has now been renewed, albeit with a new sunset clause that will make it expire after 4 years. Some extra safeguards have been put into the bill, though it is unclear how much difference they will make.

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