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Mood builds on detention without charge

Jon Bright (London, OK): Anthony's post below captures, I think, a still vague but building current mood on civil liberties. Henry Porter has been saying it for ages, but everyone else is now starting to catch on - something is under attack here, and something needs to be done to resist. Amnesty International have stuck their not inconsiderable oar in today with the release of "Ten good reasons why extending pre-charge detention is a bad idea". They have a rather Ronseal approach to titles, and I can think of a few good reasons why we shouldn't be using "pre-charge" to describe this type of detention (I'd prefer the more innocence presuming "without charge") but in general they are spot on. Two of the ones that made me think are:

Liberty, possibility and Control Orders

Jon Bright (London, OK): An Iraqi man living in Britain has been prevented from taking an AS-level in biology, according to this article in Nature. They report:

Since 2006, A.E. [the pseudonym of the man in question] has been under a control order that has limited his movements and affiliations, according to his lawyer, Mohammed Ayub of Chambers Solicitors in Bradford, UK. The order has made it impossible for A.E. to find work, says Ayub. So he instead sought to further his education. English-language courses went unopposed, but when in September A.E. applied to take the two science courses, the government told him he could not enrol...

Help scrap the ID scheme now

Moderator: Please copy this post onto your own blog!

Phil Booth (London, NO2ID): As the HMRC data breach scandal intensifies, representatives of all parties should be demanding the immediate and permanent scrapping of the Home Office's "identity management" programme. Not just the ID card, not just the database, but also the mass 'data-sharing' that lies at the heart of government ID policy. WRITE NOW to your MP via asking that he or she demand an immediate and permanent stop to all development of ID cards and a National Identity Register. You can check how your MP voted on the ID cards legislation here.

Where is the backbone?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Strong column by Henry Porter in today's Observer. He describes the absurd proposal to insist on 53 questions you have to answer before you can leave the UK. These were set out in Thursday's Daily Mail, reproduced here. Henry also slams the £1.2 billion deal the Home Office signed with Raytheon Systems, the US corporation that brought us the Cruise missile, to carry out the work - it will now have access to all our travel details, companions. Henry asks why have we allowed this to happen?

Long Response to Tim Garton Ash

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Tim has emailed me about my post "Where have you been Tim Garton Ash?". I wrote a grumpy response to his call to defend our liberties where he concluded "Let the fightback begin". Tim writes "what on earth do you mean by saying I've 'changed my mind'? When did I hint in any manner, shape or form that I have any sympathy with an over-intrusive big brother national security state?" He points out that just because he didn't write about it every week does not mean he has long been a clear spoken advocate of free speech.

Where have you been, Tim Garton Ash?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Over in the Guardian Tim Garton Ash has written an essay arguing that we need to defend our freedoms and liberties from the government's attempts to extend internment, provide phone-logs without warrants or safeguards, expand surveillance and all the things OurKingdom, among others, has been covering. Hello! I like and admire Tim and (except on Iran where is is playing the White House game) he writes well and sympathetically about the wider world which is very refreshing. But for him, now, to end an article with a cry to battle "Let the fightback begin" as if it hasn't, he is the wise man amongst us, and we have been nervously holding back, is a bit rich. For two years Henry Porter has been leading the argument in eloquent column after column in the Observer. No2ID has campaigned for even longer. Liberty has stood up for our basic rights. Taking Liberties has made a film about it. The Independent has campaigned on it. Welcome aboard, Tim. But a little bit of modesty from a latecomer saying that he has changed his mind and now agrees with the rest of us would make it a touch more convincing.

A great day for Freedom of Information

Maurice Frankel (London, Campaign for Freedom of Information): Gordon Brown’s recent Speech on Liberty is a turning point in the government’s approach to freedom of information. For the first time since 1997, a prime minister has not only spoken out clearly in favour of FOI but proposed to extend, rather than restrict, the legislation.

Does the Guardian Unlimited know what's good for it?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): There is a must read, two-page exchange of emails between Henry Porter and David Cameron in today's Observer. Henry P sets out the case against Labour with respect to what it has done over the last ten years to cut away at our freedoms and asks the Tory leader for his views. Cameron squirms yet concedes. It is clear he fears unpopularity and it is quite a coup to unveil the positioning of a likely prime minister in this manner. At a hinge point in the exchange, Cameron makes the classic politician's claim that, "Parliament has been the strongest defender of our rights over the centuries". Not true, of course. But read it for yourself HERE. Europe may get him too in the end.

Am I confused or is it jet-lag?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Just back from Washington DC and awake to the end of the Today programme with Geoffrey Robertson QC and Jack Straw on the Putney Debates. Geoffrey drives home their radicalism as the early but contemporary origins of modern liberty and trial by jury, Jack throws in the peasants revolt, Geoffrey just manages to squeeze in that we are debating principles and welcomes the Prime Minister and Straw for doing the same and the programme is quickly drawn to a close. Debating principles is for another day!

Liberty and protest

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I am going along to Trafalgar Square at 1pm to support the call for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. I was under the impression that they are being withdrawn, and that the Prime Minister was backing the Chiefs of Staff and extricating UK forces as fast as possible to be compatible with declaring victory (and if face-saving speeds exit I'm not going to demonstrate against that). But the most worrying thing about Brown's trip to Iraq was not his announcement of a further reduction of 500 spun as 1,000 but the implication, and the reports (Nick Robinson seems authoritative), that actually there has been a reversal of the exit policy. The Stop the War Coalition who have made the call have been sectarian rubbish and thrown away the greatest single mass movement Britain has seen. But there are now some good people on the platform (Eno forever!) and the entire demonstration has allegedly been banned under the anti-Chartist 1839 Metropolitan Police Act, thus making it irresistibly attractive. Henry Porter had an excellent column on this in the Observer, putting the ban in a larger context of Government closing in upon freedom and liberty. In particular the decision, made by the decree of Jacqui Smith, with no parliamentary or public debate, to allow nearly 800 quangos and authorities access to all our phone logs without a warrant. This applies to mobiles too, with full positional information. It may not be working yet but what this means is that if you attend the demonstration tomorrow and act quite peacefully the police will be able to identify and fine you weeks later without the safety of numbers. One of the themes Henry P has been banging on about is the lack of opposition to manifestly extraordinary, unjustified and - literally - unwarranted intrusion. This is a second reason I am going to the demonstration, if they want to know where I am, then I am going to tell them: I plan to keep my mobile ON.

We must have the right to do wrong

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): It seems that Liberty have published a new report on surveillance and privacy with an important new poll on public views about it. Liberty seem to be rubbish at publicity. It came out a few days ago but the first I knew about it was in Henry Porter's column in today's Observer. The report is not on-line. The sooner a copy gets to OurKingdom the sooner we can report on it.

What are the Tories afraid of?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): In a striking article in London’s pre-holiday Evening Standard (not on line) David Davis had a go at the Chindamo affair. He understood that the decision to let him stay is based on an EU directive not the Human Rights Act, nonetheless the Act was the central target of his piece. The article shows that Davis thinks - but has still not escaped that weird constitutional cowardice that has for so long afflicted Tory attitudes. He writes,

We must ditch this unjust law

Stephen Taylor (London, 5jt): This is an appeal for you to sign this petition to the prime minister, urging him to stop Mr Babar Ahmad's extradition and have him tried in Britain.

One of the uglier aspects of our 'special relationship' with the US is the enactment in law of a treaty providing for rapid extradition to the US. Under this law, bitterly criticised by our judiciary, Britain extradites for trial in America anyone wanted in a US court. We do this without question and require no evidence even of a case to answer. Our courts may intervene only to confirm the identity of the person being shipped.

Littlejohn on liberty

Guy Aitchison (Bristol, OK): On the major issues of the day, Richard Littlejohn is almost guaranteed to take what I think is the most pernicious line possible. So I was surprised, and a little unsettled, to stumble across his agreeable polemic in today's Daily Mail. "Skating towards a Police State.." contains Littlejohn's reaction to the news that police chiefs want the power to take DNA samples off people for minor offences. Littlejohn contemptuously quotes one of the main advocates, Inspector Thomas Huntley, who suggests that failing to take a sample "could be seen as giving the impression that an individual who commits a non-recordable offence could not be a repeat offender." He rightly rips into the absurdity of this reasoning with his usual high flung rhetoric. Since "non-recordable offences" can mean anything from not wearing a seat belt to letting your dog foul on the pavement, "How are the police supposed to know that the little old lady allowing her poodle to poop in a public place won't go on to commit another Dunblane massacre? Or that the spotty youth casually dropping a KitKat wrapper in the gutter may not be the next Yorkshire Ripper. You never can tell. Better to be safe than sorry. Open wide." As Littlejohn correctly points out (and there's something I never thought I'd say), what the police now propose requires a "giant leap in terms of liberty and presumption of innocence". And yet another undemocratic move towards a surveillance state. But I can't help thinking that this is slightly inconsistent with Littlejohn's pathological hatred of, what he calls, "yumen rights". Isn't strengthening our human rights, and in particular our right to privacy, the only way of avoiding Littlejohn's nightmare vision of a police state, given that we are not going to go back to the days of Dixon in Dock Green?

28 days is enough

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Brown’s integrated approach in his statement on terrorism will win him support as it seems coherent, practical, serious and sober and thus a huge relief from recent playground bullying and showmanship, as well as Cameron’s odd mixture of piety and taunting on show today in the House of Commons. But I am completely unconvinced by the extension of 28 days detention. The Prime Minister went on about how there would be parliamentary oversight. But as Nick Clegg is quoted as saying on Martha Kearney's World at One, this is "complete and utter nonsense". Parliament has long been exploited as a screen for executive decisions. It was the ritual pretence of parliamentary authority that rightly irritated Labour politicians when they were up against Thatcher. An enhanced role for parliament means giving it independent power of initiative and free votes not a further role as a patsy to executive pieties.

Police push for more powers

Guy Aitchison (Bristol, OK): I’m often struck by the way in which Government actions that threaten our most basic freedoms and right to privacy slip under the radar of the mainstream media or are blandly and uncritically reported in a way which parrots the official justifications given by the Home Office. This week ministers gave the Metropolitan police access to all 1500 congestion charge cameras, allowing them to track vehicles in “real time”. Spyblog has some interesting discussion of the media coverage. It also points out that what is really being proposed is that real time data on everyone be available to the police and any number of other unknown agencies. Spyblog strongly questions the legality of such a move. Serious questions must also be asked about the lobbying power of organisations like the Met and ACPO in a liberal democracy. The Times reported a statement by Police Minister Tony McNulty that the Met “believes that this is necessary due to the enduring, vehicle-borne terrorist threat to London.” Now this may be the case, but as Criminology Professor Ian Loader puts it in today’s Guardian in relation to terror detention, isn’t it the duty of a democratic government to question, and not blindly champion, shopping lists of powers demanded by the police? Perhaps the acid test for Brown’s Government will be the coming debate over the 90-days.

Detention without limits

Ben Ward (London, HRW): In the renewed bid by the police to extend the 28 day pre-charge detention time limit for those suspected of terrorism, hearts and minds appear to have been forgotten. Leave aside the fact that in February John Reid said that there had yet to be a case where more than 28 days was required to gather the necessary evidence. Listening to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation advocate for what amounts to judicially supervised internment, one might be left with the impression that this is a win-win situation. Custody time limits would be set aside in complex terrorism investigations, and instead a "senior" judge would decide. Flexible and fair, they suggested.

Lords rule HRA does not apply to private care homes

Jon Bright (London, OK): The House of Lords rejected today the case of an 83 year-old Alzheimer's patient who faces eviction from her private care home. Lawyers for the patient had argued that to move her would have violated her right to family life, something guaranteed under the Human Rights Act. The ruling effectively ensures that the HRA will not apply to private care homes, even those run under contract from public bodies, and could affect up to 300,000 patients in the UK. Anna Fairclough, the lawyer handling Liberty's intervention in the case, said she was "very disappointed" by the decision. Meanwhile, Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, claimed the ruling showed the need for a "Bill of Rights" to strengthen existing weak legislation. "We shouldn't have to depend on politicians and lawyers to protect our most basic liberties" he said.

Taking Liberties opens on 8 June

Chris Atkins (London, Director Taking Liberties): When I started making Taking Liberties, I wanted to look at whether we should be reducing liberty in order to increase security. After a year and a half it is now completely clear to me that the very idea that one balances the other is a myth. All the government's liberty restricting measures over the past seven years have either had no effect on terrorism (like ID Cards) or have actually made the situation worse (like the misuse of stop and search or Guantanamo Bay). Our film draws a line in the sand at a time when power is being transferred to a new leader, and is an attempt to turn the tide of this deluge of idiotic legislation. We follow the stories of normal people who's lives have been turned upside down by injustice, so we can show the ordinary public that just because they have nothing to hide, they have a heck of a lot to fear. If enough people see this film on the opening weekend, then the distributors will be able to push the film out to more screens and mean that, for once, a film like this won’t just be preaching to the choir.

Bill of Rights won't stop ID card threat

Phil Booth (London, NO2ID) "I'd be happy to have an ID card, so long as it’s got a Bill of Rights printed on the back". This is what Bill Bragg is saying, according to the report in OurKingdom. What Billy seems to be missing is the fact that the Identity Cards Act 2006 sets out powers to routinely surveille every citizen’s public and private transactions. It also gives the Home Secretary direct control over a person’s civil life and therefore - through the removal of the card - a kind of civil death. And this is already on the statute books.

Could bad things grow out of consensus?

Andrew Blick (London, Democratic Audit): In the latest Sunday Times Tony Blair described the government’s desire to reach a consensus across the main political parties’ over new counter-terrorist proposals. But where does the common ground lie?

Blair on civil liberties

Guy Aitchison (London, OK) John Reid and Tony Blair’s plans for draconian new anti-terror laws are a sobering reminder that, despite recent talk of constitutional reform and a Bill of Rights, the New Labour leopard won’t easily change its spots. In an article in today’s Sunday Times Blair argues that it is a “dangerous misjudgement” that “we have chosen as a society to put the civil liberties of the suspect, even if a foreign national, first”. For Blair and Reid the ‘outcry’ over the three terror suspects absconding under control orders is a vindication, proof that they were right in demanding ‘stronger powers’ and that parliament and the judiciary were wrong to oppose them. Reid and Blair’s preferred option to control orders is to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights so as to allow detention without trial. This means abandoning fundamental principles of justice and liberty. In a classic piece of Blair rhetoric, the man who is still Prime Minister tells us that civil liberties arguments are “traditional”. Those who make them are apparently failing to be “modern” about the threat of extremism. (Perhaps they are failing to “get it”). In a revealing conclusion he says terrorism, “will be defeated only by recognising that we have not created it; it cannot be negotiated with; pandering to its sense of grievance will only encourage it; and only by confronting it, the methods and the ideas, will we win”. Each clause is worth a rebuttal but the last is the most important. Retaining, indeed strengthening and expanding our civil rights is the way to confront the methods and ideas of terrorism.

Jury sides with peace protesters

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): On 22 May a jury at Bristol Crown Court acquitted two protesters, Toby Olditch and Philip Pritchard, on charges of criminal damage, after they had broken into RAF Fairford and attempted to disable American B52 bombers just before the 'shock and awe' offensive against Iraq began.

The defence argued that they were acting to prevent war crimes against the people of Iraq, and that even a few days delay in flights would have allowed more Iraqi citizens to escape to safety. This has been a long ordeal for the two protesters - they were first tried for the same offence in October 2006 - but they made impressive witnesses: patently honest, sincere and informed. Pritchard's evidence on the evils of cluster bombs and shells strengthened by depleted uranium, which scatter bomblets and radioactive toxins with a life of billions of years, was chilling. Defence counsel asked Pritchard: had they run or walked within the base? Pritchard replied that they had walked steadily, to lessen the chances of guards shooting at them.

FoI: We can still bury this bill

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, MP): It is sad to see a good MP like Graham Allen, who has a long and honourable track record in supporting Freedom of Information, falling for the non-arguments of the David Maclean Bill.

This is not about protecting the confidentiality of the correspondence between MPs and their constituents. That privacy is well covered by a combination of the FoI and the Data Protection Acts. No evidence beyond anecdote and hearsay has been produced that this privacy is at risk. Indeed the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has not received a single enquiry or complaint about any breach of privacy either from an MP or from a member of the public. If there is evidence of correspondence being published in breach of the above Acts then there would be a case for an Inquiry, either by the Government or by a Select Committee, into how the Acts are being implemented which could, if necessary, lead to a tightening of the legislation or the issuing of fresh guidance to public bodies about what should or should not be released. If the problem is implementation, the solution is not to exempt Parliament from its provisions but to strengthen or clarify the legislation.

MPs to vote on their own privacy

Jon Bright (London, OK): David Maclean MP's Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill will be debated in the commons tomorrow. The amendment, which would exempt both parliament and MP's communications with public authorities from public scrutiny, is defended, by Jack Straw among others, on the grounds that it preserves the privacy of constituents who have corresponded with their MPs, but has been attacked vociferously by a number of campaigning groups. The Freedom of Information blog, along with many others, argue that the existing FOI act already allows for the exemption of private communications between MPs and constituents, while Mark Fisher MP argues in the Independent that the bill has been pushed through by "procedural sleight of hand", with little real scrutiny. Both argue the real motive is to conceal parliamentary members' spending.

50,000 volts? Why the constitution matters!

Paul Hilder (Lewisham, Great that this conversation is finally opening up! But let's not forget what it has to be about - we need to keep sight of the ends behind the means. Listening to Andrew Roberts and Vernon Bogdanor's sterile crossfire yesterday morning on the Today programme (opens audio file) made me want to set off fireworks under them. This isn't about voting formulae, but lives. How we're governed can turn our shared experience upside-down – from war and peace to daily neighbourhood life. Too many real fires are already burning in our "good crisis", which is precisely what makes fixing the rules so urgent. There's Iraq, our biggest failure abroad since Suez. But the lesson should be not simply to tweak how we declare war, but also how we debate and wage it, to prepare for the uncertain century ahead. That would be a constitutional moment worth the candle. More locally, we're missing needs and dropping the ball in neighbourhoods all round the Kingdom. Lasting devolution is needed, and responsibility depends on power. This stuff is life and death, as well as PR and AV. The news that stopped me in my tracks today? Demob-happy John Reid is handing out thousands of tasers to police for use in situations of "violence"... "or threats". Who gets a license to put 50,000 volts through my body? Now that's food for constitutional talk.

Taking Liberties

Anthony Barnett (London OK): Two events in London last night pointed to awakening alarm at what is happening to our rights and liberties in Britain. Both suggest there is a growing strength and depth of the arguments. There is also a feeling in the air that resistance will be strong and effective, not least because the alliance is now stretching from the streets to the Tories.

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