The Liberal Democrats’ “Freedom Bill”

While Labour continues to devise yet more illiberal policies and the Tories fail to convince that they will be an improvement, it is heartening to see that at least one of our major parties is making a firm and principled stand on the issue of civil liberties.

The Liberal Democrats have unveiled their “Freedom Bill” aimed at rolling back some of the restrictions on our freedoms imposed by Labour and the Tories in the last two decades.

It contains twenty proposals -

• Scrap ID cards for everyone, including foreign nationals.

• Ensure that there are no restrictions in the right to trial by jury for serious offences including fraud.

• Restore the right to protest in Parliament Square, at the heart of our democracy.

• Abolish the flawed control orders regime.

• Renegotiate the unfair extradition treaty with the United States.

• Restore the right to public assembly for more than two people.

• Scrap the ContactPoint database of all children in Britain.

• Strengthen freedom of information by giving greater powers to the information commissioner and reducing exemptions.

• Stop criminalising trespass.

• Restore the public interest defence for whistleblowers.

• Prevent allegations of “bad character” from being used in court.

• Restore the right to silence when accused in court.

• Prevent bailiffs from using force.

• Restrict the use of surveillance powers to the investigation of serious crimes and stop councils snooping.

• Restore the principle of double jeopardy in UK law.

• Remove innocent people from the DNA database.

• Reduce the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 14 days.

• Scrap the ministerial veto that allowed the government to block the release of cabinet minutes relating to the Iraq war.

• Require explicit parental consent for biometric information to be taken from children.

• Regulate CCTV following a Royal Commission on cameras. Continue reading

Who is encouraging the BNP Mrs Flint?

Caroline Flint, the Minister for Europe, has given a warning to trade unions that they are in danger of giving encouragement to the BNP by campaigning against companies that use foreign workers to undercut local pay and conditons.

Ms Flint said: “After the debate in recent weeks about foreign workers and EU law, the danger is that it will be misused at every opportunity by those who don’t share our progressive values. And no amount of campaigning by anti-fascist groups, however important, will undo the damage if we unintentionally boost the BNP’s campaign in Labour heartlands by feeding a climate of intolerance.”

Now I’m not saying that Flint doesn’t have a point of sorts – in the current climate it is very easy to make immigrants a scapegoat for our woes so it is important that when discussing these issues we are careful about the kind of language we use in order to avoid giving succour to the extremists. However, from what I have seen the unions have been careful to make clear that they have no problem with migrant workers per se, they just want their members to have a chance to apply for these jobs and don’t want locally negotiated pay and conditions to be undermined.

Anyway, I would take Flint’s concerns about people unwittingly causing resentment against immigrants more seriously if she was to condemn those who unashamedly promote such sentiments. Unfortunately to see a Labour Minister actively condemning the excesses of the tabloids would be an exceptional event indeed.

Furthermore, when we have a Prime Minister promising “British jobs for British workers” or an Immigration Minister who is happy to draw a connection between immigration and unemployment and accept tabloid scare stories at face value, or join in the mindless bashing of asylum seekers she might want to ask her colleagues in government to get their own house in order.

Where is the “freedom” in “Freedom of Information”?

So Jack Straw has vetoed the publication of minutes of cabinet meetings leading up to the Iraq war, after the Information Tribuneral ruled that they should be released.

Now I have to say I don’t have any strong opinion about whether it is desirable for these minutes to be released. I don’t think they are likely to contain anything we don’t know already know and we can piece together a good idea what went on from memoirs published by the likes of Robin Cook, Alastair Campbell and David Blunkett. As for the argument that cabinet meetings should remain secret otherwise it will prevent full and frank discussions, I can accept that argument up to a point but the Information Commissioner did make it clear that this was an exceptional case, due to the overwhelming public interest. I would also question, apropos the point I made above, whether someone will be prepared to speak frankly if they know that the person sitting next to them is going to reveal all in their memoirs in a couple of years time.

However, I have to ask what is the point of having a Freedom of Information Act at all if ministers are simply able to veto rulings that go against them? It simply undermines the entire principle behind the legislation. If ministers are able to decide when or not to comply with orders to release information then where is the “freedom” for the public? All the government has effectively done is to create a mechanism to request information when we should be able to demand it.

Meanwhile on the domestic front…

…Labour shows no sign of losing its enthusiasm for knee-jerk illiberal legislation. Thanks to Section 76 of the Counterterrorism Act 2008 it is now illegal to take a photograph of a police officer ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’, a condition so ill-defined that it is bound to lead to abuse and prevent people from taking photos for perfectly legitimate purposes.

The Coroners and Justice Bill allows government ministers to share personal information (including our medical records) held by any government department, overriding existing laws restricting the use of that information, and allow inquests to be held in secret.

It seems therefore to be an appropriate moment to give a plug to the Convention on Modern Liberty being held in London on 28th February (there are also events in Manchester, Bristol, Belfast, Cambridge and Glasgow). It will give those of us concerned about the erosion of civil liberties in this country an opportunity to come together, discuss our concerns and hopefuly come up with ways to halt and even start to reverse the relentless salami slicing of our liberties. There are numerous speakers, debates on a variety of subjects and a bloggers’ summit.

The UK under fire on Human Rights

Following its recent embarrassment over the supression of intelligence relating to the treatment of Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed the government is now coming under fire from all sides over its record on human rights, civil liberties and torture.

Firstly, the UK has received strong criticism from the International Commission of Jurists for undermining international law and human rights in the name of the “war on terror”.

Singling out the UK’s use of a wide range of counterterrorism laws, the report highlights allegations of complicity in torture and intelligence sharing, the practice of rendition, and the system of control orders, as areas of particular concern.

“We have been shocked by the extent of the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counterterrorism measures,” said Justice Arthur Chaskalson, former president of the South African constitutional court, who headed the study.

Former head of MI5 Stella Rimington has also voiced similar concerns, accusing the government of exploiting the public’s concern over terrorism in order to undermine civil liberties

The 73-year-old said: “Since I have retired I feel more at liberty to be against certain decisions of the Government, especially the attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy.

“It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state.”

Meanwhile, former Lord Bingham, the former law lord, complains of the extent of surveillance to which the British people are subject

It is in this context that we must review a development that is a cause of profound unease to many. It has recently been described, in unrhetorical but chilling terms, by the House of Lords select committee on the constitution in its recent report on Surveillance, Citizens and the State: “Successive UK governments have gradually constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world … The expansion in the use of surveillance represents one of the most significant changes in the life of the nation since the end of the second world war.”

He also makes a very good defence of the role of the judiciary in defending the British people from abuses of power by their elected representatives, something Jack Straw could take note of.

Such warnings are extremely timely, especially given that the extent of British complicity in the abuse and torture of terrorist suspects in Pakistan, including Binyam Mohamed, is now coming to light.

David Milliband spoke some very fine words recently on the subject of upholding our values and the rule of law.

We must respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating it, for it is the cornerstone of the democratic society. We must uphold our commitments to human rights and civil liberties at home and abroad.

I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the time and took him seriously when others were more sceptical, but those words are sounding rather hollow now.

Snouts in the trough

One of Tony Blair’s most famous soundbites from his early days as PM was that it was important for his government to be “purer than pure”. Now this quote is of course much mocked, and rightly so given events such as the Ecclestone affair and loans-for-peerages, but his failure to live up to his own standards does not mean he was wrong in principle. The fact is it is not enough for those in power merely to act within the letter of the rules governing their behaviour, it is important to act within the spirit of the rules and avoid conduct which may give the appearance of impropriety. Which is why, as Marcel Berlins points out in the Guardian today, when politicians are accused of acting inappropriately it is simply not adequate for them to merely point out that what they did was within the rules.

So Jacqui Smith may have obtained the neccessary approval to pretend that her sister’s flat is her main place of residence in order to claim expenses for her family home in her constituency, but it is still a shabby piece of opportunism. As is David Blunkett’s acceptance of a job from a company which is bidding for a contract from his former government department. And his self-pitying wingeing justification does not help one sympathise – his argument that of such things were stopped people would not want to become government ministers is risible, and the notion that he does not get involved in any way in the company’s tendering for UK business beggars belief – I mean his connections in the UK are his sole qualification for the job, it would be like me hiring a skilled plumber and getting him to paint my ceiling. Continue reading

Is the military playing dirty tricks?

It has been widely reported in the last day or so that Colonel Owen McNally, a British army officer serving Afghanistan has been arrested for leaking military secrets concerning civilian deaths in Afghanistan to Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, to whom Col. McNally was supposedly “close”.

Ms Reid has stated categorically both in a piece at CiF and in a statement issued through her lawyers that the accusations of any kind of relationship between her and Col. McNally are totally false and that she has only met him twice, both authorised meetings at Nato HQ and in the presence of other officials.

She accuses MoD officials of making “a vicious, false slur” and claims that this is motivated by criticisms that HRW has made of the US Military’s reluctance to investigate reports of civilian deaths caused by its troops. Continue reading