There have been worrying signs since the formation of the Coalition government that its support for civil liberties might not be strong as advertised. It was, above all, a shared commitment to rolling back the intrusive powers given to the state by New Labour which provided the glue that brought the Tories and the Lib Dems together with the Coalition Agreement proudly announcing plans to “restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness.”
With increasing numbers of Lib Dems uneasy, as it becomes obvious how much has been surrendered to the Tories on economic and financial policy, the civil liberties agenda will have to bear much of the weight of long-term co-operation between the two parties. But barely two months into the new government, a number of decisions raise serious cause for concern.
The first indication of backtracking was the government’s decision to push ahead with the construction of the Summary Care Record, a central medical database that will store records of all major illnesses, allergies and prescriptions and make the data available to NHS personnel across England and Wales. This database, which assumes consent unless you explicitly opt out of it, raises serious privacy concerns whilst its cost and effectiveness have been repeatedly questioned by medical professionals. The Conservatives promised last year that they would "dismantle" central NHS IT infrastructure and then Lib Dem health spokesperson Norman Lamb labelled the scheme “a disastrous waste of money” that should be abandoned. These firm commitments have now been downgraded into a review of the scheme – something quite extraordinary when you consider the state of the public finances and the Coalition's professed commitment to our privacy. It seems reasonable to suspect a determined alliance between Whitehall functionaries committed to control from the centre and corporate interests determined to keep the government hooked on large-scale projects.
Having shown its flexibility on the “database state”, the new government performed a similar act on the question of detention without charge. Theresa May, the home secretary, announced she would seek to renew for six months the measure that allows terror suspects to be held for 28 days without charge. Although May promised that this was only a "temporary measure", and that the government would be "be looking to reduce it over time" it hardly bodes well. May will come under massive pressure from the security services and people within her own department over the next six months to keep the period of pre-charge detention at 28 days. The new government should have taken the opportunity to renounce one of the most draconian and controversial legacies of the “war on terror” and underline its commitment to due process. Experience suggests if these decisions are not taken early, ministers become captured by the interests of the status quo. David Davis, the former home secretary who resigned when the Commons approved 42 days, pointed out that the six-month extension is “unnecessary and regrettable” given there have been
no cases in the last four years where it has been necessary to go beyond 21 days. Even [with] the Heathrow plot – where innocent people were held for 28 days – it has now been proven that those that were charged after this period could have been charged in less than 14 days.
There are further worrying signs in the government's attitude to the raft of knee-jerk authoritarian measures brought in over recent years to deal with so-called “anti-social” behaviour. The government this week refused to heed the Council of Europe’s call for a ban on “Mosquitoes”, the devices used by councils to disperse young people with a high frequency noise not audible to adults. Nick Herbert said that the government “do not see this as an issue on which we should intervene" despite the Council of Europe’s clear warning that they contravene human rights. Alongside ASBOS - which the government also shows no signs of repealing – these sinister instruments have come to symbolise the criminalisation and collective punishment of young people by a state that pays scant regard to their rights. A government which thinks it appropriate to deploy devices originally devised for use against rats, mice and cockroaches against children can be called many things, but not, I’m afraid, a liberal one.
Alongside these decisions, it is becoming clear that in some areas, such as the regulation of CCTV, Tory ministers are coming under pressure from their backbenchers to dilute the commitments in the Coalition Agreement. The Lib Dems, who have already swallowed so much, should not accept this for one moment. The Coalition parties came together in a supposedly “liberal moment” united by a project to undo Labour’s authoritarian expansion of the state and its powers. When the Coaltion announced its freedom agenda, Anthony Barnett immediately welcomed its committment to "protect" our liberty even while it sought to "rein it in". He also thought that its plans for democratic reform were "likely to prove the most significant fault-line in the Coalition" rather than its budget. But now, just two months in, some of the decisions the Coalition is taking suggest it is not, after all, protecting our liberties. This is very disturbing indeed.