Labour in the dock (again)

Even in its (probable) dying days of power Labour is still being taken to task by the courts for railroading civil liberties under the pretence of protecting national security.

As the Guardian reports

The court of appeal has dismissed an attempt by MI5 and MI6 to suppress evidence of their alleged complicity in the torture and secret transfer of British residents to Guantánamo Bay.
In a devastating judgment, it ruled that the unprecedented attempt by the security and intelligence agencies, backed by the attorney general and senior Whitehall officials, to suppress evidence in a civil trial undermined deep-seated principles of common law and open justice.

MI5 and MI6 said evidence in the case, in which the Guardian, the Times and the BBC intervened, should be kept secret from everyone except the judges and specially appointed and vetted counsel.

The case concerns six Guantanamo detainees, including Binyam Mohamed, who has already won a separate case to make public information regarding his mistreatment. They have taken out a civil action against the government in respect of various abuses including torture and false imprisonment. The government was attempting to have the entire case heard in secret with evidence used in the government’s defence withheld from the claimants, a flagrant breach of natural justice. One of the judges who made the ruling, Lord Neuberger, put it perfectly –

The principle that a litigant should be able to see and hear all the evidence which is seen and heard by a court determining his case is so fundamental, so embedded in the common law, that, in the absence of parliamentary authority, no judge should override it … [it] represents an irreducible minimum requirement of an ordinary civil trial,

This follows a ruling last week by the European Court of Justice that restrictions on the payment of benefits to the wives of individuals who have had their assets frozen due to suspected terrorist activity are illegal. The restrictions included only being allowed to withdraw £10 a week in cash for each member of the household and having to regularly submit detailed reports of their finances to the Treasury. Right to the very end Labour has refused to learn that these kind of spiteful and vindictive measures do nothing to combat terrorism and do everything to undermine public support for the fight against it.

Taking Brown to task on child detention

An excellent piece at OurKingdom by Clare Sambrook, who takes apart Gordon Brown’s defence of the detention of the children of asylum seekers.

We believe that history will judge the administrative detention of children to be a moral stain on the reputation of this country, akin to slavery and child labour. One day we will look back in horror at the fact that innocent children, no different from our own, and capable of experiencing the same joy and wonder at the world and feeling the same anxiety, fear and pain were imprisoned in our name.

This issue, and the treatment of asylum seekers in general, is the great unsung scandal in this country. Meanwhile the leaders of our political parties bicker over who can be “toughest” on immigration.

H/T Justin @ Chicken Yoghurt

Standing in the way of control orders

Of the various illiberal and authoritarian measures introduced by Labour in the last few years one of the most pernicious is the use of control orders against people who are suspected of terrorist activity. People subjected to control orders are effectively under house arrest – they have a curfew of up to 16 hours a day and there are strict restrictions on where they can go and who they can meet, access to telephones and the internet is strictly limited, any vistors have to be notified to the authorities and approved in advanced. Worst of all, control orders are imposed in a way which breaches two of the most fundamental principles of justice – that people suspected of criminal activity should not be subjected to punishment without a fair trial and that they should be allowed to see and contest the evidence against them. They do have legal representation from”special advocates” but although the advocates are allowed to see the supposed evidence against their client they are not allowed to discuss it with them to establish grounds to challenge it.

The government claims that control orders are an essential element of the fight against terrorism, but it is hard to judge how true this is when we do not know what the people concerned are accused of or the evidence against them, and we are entitled to be skeptical when we hear of cases such as this, as described in an excellent article by Gareth Pierce (I would recommend anyone to read the whole piece)

On trial just before Christmas was a young Essex Muslim, Ceri Bullivant, who had been placed under a Control Order and then charged with a criminal offence when he absconded, unable to cope with the restrictions of that order. In his case the jury magnificently acquitted him on the basis that he had a reasonable excuse to breach his order. It was only later, however, in the High Court, that what lay behind the secrecy became suddenly clearer. Mr Justice Collins quashed the order itself; before he did so, an Intelligence agent giving evidence from behind a screen admitted that the tip-off which had led to the decision that Bullivant was a risk to national security and ‘associated with links to terrorists’ had come from a friend of Ceri’s mother who, after drinking heavily, had phoned Scotland Yard, which failed ever to contact the caller to ask for further explanation.

That is why we should welcome yesterdays ruling by the law lords that the use of secret evidence was a breach of the right to a fair trial under section six of the ECHR. One of the law lords, Lord Hope of Craighead summed it up perfectly -

If the rule of law is to mean anything, it is in cases such as these that the case must stand by principle. It must insist that the person affected be told what is alleged against him.

This doesn’t mean the end of control orders but if the government is now forced to release evidence which it would have previously been able to keep secret then hopefully this will be the first step to them finding a way to use such evidence, assuming it is sufficient to make a decent case, in a proper criminal trial so those people subject to control orders can have their rightful day in court. And if it is not sufficient, well it’s a pretty basic principle that in a liberal democracy if you don’t have enough evidence to convict someone of a crime thay have to be released.

The government is predictably bleating about the outcome and resorting to scare tactics

the new home secretary, Alan Johnson, called it “an extremely disappointing judgment” and said it would make it much harder to protect the public.

This of course the same Alan Johnson who many of us were talking up as our preferred successor to Gordon Brown. Well as a member of the public all I can say is that yes, I expect the government to try to protect me but I also accept that it can be very difficult, that they won’t always be successful and that there should be limits to the methods they can use.

A banker writes

No doubt by the time you read this I and my colleagues will be manning the barricades, creating makeshift shelters from upturned desks and filing cabinets in order to repel the rampaging hordes at our doors, at least if the combined wisdom of the media and the City of London police is to believed. As someone working in a bank in the City I have been subject to various dire warnings about the possible events of the next 48 hours and the various precautions we should take to protect ourselves from the inevitable mayhem.

Bankers are told to avoid wearing business clothes in order to be less conspicuous, presumably on the basis that the standard garb for anarchistic anti-capitalist protesters is polo shirts, chinos and loafers. Now even jeans and trainers are allowed, next they will be telling us to sport dreadlocks and have a dog on a piece of string. We are told to cancel routine business meetings, not to leave the building unless it is absolutely essential, people due to visit local clinics for medical appointments have had them cancelled.

Of course it is true that there have been previous demonstrations which have ended in violence, notably the May Day protests in 2000. But I also remember most of that day being entirely peaceful and good natured – I remember going out at lunchtime and there was a big party going on in Lower Thames Street with sound systems and people on unfeasibly tall stilts. It was good fun and not in the slightest threatening or intimidating. OK a few idiots spoiled things later on, but then there were also certain City types fanning the flames by hanging out of their windows waving £20 notes at the protesters.

But what really gets me is that we are essentially being braved to weather a descending hoard of alien beings, as if somehow those protesting and those of us who work in the City are different species altogether. OK, there are probably some amongst both groups who think this – protesters who see us as evil capitalists and colleagues who look down on them as the great unwashed, but I never believed this was really true before and I think this is even less so now. I expect a lot of the protesters will not be of the kind on previous demonstrations in the city – they will be “ordinary” (no disrespect meant to them or the others) people angry at the damage which has been done by certain people within our industry, and quite rightly so. And we are angry as well, our jobs are at risk or have already been lost, we have families to support and bills to pay and most of us are not earning huge salaries and getting mega bonuses. We also have friends and families who are suffering. This is certainly not a plea for sympathy, maybe some will see me as a hypocrite, but I just want to point out the absurdity of the idea of us being penned in our offices for our own “safety” from people who are no different from us who just want to vent their entirely reasonable anger and frustration at a system that has failed.

So I hope that as many people as possible turn up tomorrow, and hope and expect that it will be a peaceful (ok, noisy but non-violent) occasion. I hope the police will not be as ridiculously heavy handed as I fear they may be. And assuming I am not manacled to my desk for my own safety I will certainly pop out for a while to give my (possibly unwelcome) support.

Update (8am on 1st April): Just walked into the office to find it had been taken over by anarchists. Then I realised that it was just my normal colleagues but they were wearing jeans. Phew!

I won’t be beating my wife (well at least until 2012)

Justin at Chicken Yoghurt points out that Labour MP Tom Harris is compaining about the blogosphere not taking notice of the government’s decision to deny bailiffs the right to break into people’s homes and use force against them in order to recover debts.

Presumably it doesn’t occur to Harris that the reasons for this are
1. The people who proposed giving bailiffs these powers were his own government and since when should people get credit for deciding not to do things which are stupid and unprincipled? They deserve stick for proposing these measures in the first place not credit for changing their minds.
2. It is only postponed until 2012 when regulation of bailiffs will come in to force.

Still, I would like to inform Tom Harris that henceforth I will not be beating my wife (well at least until 2012) and I await his acclaim for my good character.

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

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.