Henry Porter: Why we should believe Nick Clegg when he promises to restore liberties stolen by Labour

In yesterday’s Observer, Henry Porter, who has written widely on civil liberties ‘stolen’ by the previous government, talked to Nick Clegg about the government’s recently-announced Protection of Freedoms Bill. As you probably gleaned from the headline, Porter is generally extremely enthusiastic about the Bill, though he takes the deputy prime minister’s advice to “hold the government’s feet to the fire” by listing some additional illiberal measures which he would like to see removed.

Here’s a short excerpt from the piece:

Negotiation over the bill has been long and intense, especially with the Home Office and police over the deletion of innocent people’s DNA from the national database, which accounted for the three-month delay in publication. “I am amazed how far we pushed the whole security establishment and the Home Office in a liberal direction,” he says. “They are in such a different place to where they were a few months ago.” Last Tuesday, he presented the bill to the cabinet, where he has quite a few Tory supporters (Ken Clarke, Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve), and sold it to the rest by saying, “Let’s remember how this government is different to the previous government. This is something that distinguishes our government. Bit by bit, in quite imperceptible ways, these measures tell you profound things about the country we are trying to create.” He compares the bill to the efforts to reduce the deficit. “In terms of a lasting adjustment, or what it is to be British, this may be more significant in the long run.”

All true maybe, yet reading the bill after our interview, I find it hard to ignore the imprint of Labour’s boot on the statute book. The formalised mistrust of every adult who has anything to do with children in the vetting and barring scheme has not been abolished, merely reduced to affect half the estimated nine million to be vetted under the original scheme. And there is no mention of the interception modernisation programme – the proposals, backed by GCHQ and the Home Office, to allow email, internet usage, mobile calls and text messages to be monitored.

Clegg concedes that the new version of the control order is not what he hoped for – it is still at base a breach of the rule of law. There is no action to be taken on CCTV in schools – a development that allows Stoke Park School and Community Technology College in Coventry to install 112 cameras on its premises, at a cost of £10,000 – and little attempt to address the databases of legitimate protesters kept by police.

But there can be no doubt that scrapping the ID card and the children’s contact database, removing the stop and search powers granted under Section 44, controlling the use of surveillance by councils, reducing the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorism suspects to 14 days – especially given that it was just a few years ago that police officers and Blair were campaigning for 90 days – are welcome moves. Particularly good signs are the protection of jury trial, the extension of the Freedom of Information Act so that the public have better access to data, and the proposals to curb the spread of public CCTV systems, on which Labour spent £600m between 1997-2007, a figure that the deputy prime minister has not heard before and which causes him to exhale and wonder what the money could be spent on today.

You can read the piece in full – and it is certainly worth doing so – here.

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  • I see no Iceberg 14th Feb '11 - 8:15pm

    Clegg changed the name of Control Orders to T-Pims.
    Now that’s progress with a Blairite spin.

  • Stuart Mitchell 14th Feb '11 - 9:10pm

    Control orders – name changed and slightly watered down.
    28 days detention – Remarkably, Porter seems not to know that 28-days detention still exists in standby mode in the form of “Draft Detention of Terrorist Suspects (Temporary Extension) Bills”.
    Stop and Search powers – Porter calls them “removed” but the Home Office on its website prefers the word “replaced”.
    CCTV – the Home Office stresses that the purpose of the new regulatory framework is NOT to reduce the number of cameras.
    Child detention – still waiting for that to go, no wonder Porter fails to mention it.

    We were told that most of these things were authoritarian and should go – but none of them have. About the only thing the government HAS got rid of is ID cards – but since that was an entirely voluntary (and hardly used) scheme, the civil liberties implications seem to me to be pretty much zero.

    Meanwhile the government removes access to justice from the most vulnerable via legal aid cuts, and makes repeated threats to remove what few worker’s rights survived the LAST Tory government. The much vaunted public consultation on unnecessary laws to repeal seems to have come up with only one suggestion worth putting in the bill – allowing marriages to take place at night.

    I doubt whether many of you would have settled for this in those heady and far-off days just after the election.

  • @Stuart Mitchell who said: ‘only one suggestion worth putting in the bill – allowing marriages to take place at night.’.

    I’m not so sure about that Stuart – I have wondered about the original time set for marriages to take place and reckon that might have been the original opening hours for Registrar Offices. Now the repeal of these hours obviously gives a new-found freedom to people wanting to get married at night but I’m not sure how many people will want to do that.

    But if councils can’t keep libraries open how can they keep Registrar Offices open at night and pay OT to staff – what if the staff don’t want to work OT will they be sacked because they want to exercise a right not to work? It all seems Mad Hatter material.

    And then there’s the repeal of Section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 – this section allows in certain very complex and serious fraud trials that would be too burdensome to put jurors through that the trial can be held without a jury. Now that right is to be repealed so what about the rights of the juror that are being lost.

  • @Stuart Mitchell

    I don’t know how you get to what seems to you about ID cards, but for many of us the removal of Labour’s utterly terrifying ID card system and the incredibly authoritarian database which went with it is an achievement which justifies this government.

    Remember, if we’d let Labour back in we’d still have this vile piece of legislation. It’s marvelous that it’s gone.

  • Nick Thornsby, to save you the bother of writing again, please remember (as our dear correspondents above have already started to tell us) that Nick is the Anti-Christ and civil liberties are irrelevent.

  • I see no Iceberg 14th Feb '11 - 10:56pm

    “Nick is the Anti-Christ”

    Deputy Anti-Christ surely ? :rolleyes:

  • Tabmsn, I’m glad ID cards are going and, of course, civil liberties are not irrelevant. But correspondents are entitled to ask about things which aren’t in the proposed bill and also entitled to point to illiberal things the government are considering – such as making it harder to strike, a basic civil liberty.

    You seem to take umbrage at any criticism of the government, even when (as is increasingly the case) it comes from fellow Liberal Democrats!

  • Ed The Snapper 14th Feb '11 - 11:10pm

    As someone who has actually been to schools and colleges in Coventry, I think that installing those CCTV cameras might be a very good idea and might recoup the cost of £10,000 by preventing crimes.

  • John, freedom to strike also has to be balanced against the rights of the public to go about their business free from interference caused by those manipulating strikers to acheive their own political ends, especially in essential public services.

    If a greivance with management is genuine, it will attract majority support.

  • Tabman, you talk about “strikers” and “members of the public” as if they are two separate groups. People who work (and sometimes take strike action) are also members of the public. I’ve been inconvenienced by strikes but I still respect the basic civil liberty to temporarily withdraw labour without repercussion.

    And I don’t see why there should be a turnout threshold for a successful strike ballot when we apply no such criteria to votes for MPs, Mayors or Councillors.

  • John – “And I don’t see why there should be a turnout threshold for a successful strike ballot when we apply no such criteria to votes for MPs, Mayors or Councillors.”

    Well, two wrongs don’t make a right. And let’s remember, with a 50% turnout threshold, a strike could still be called with 25% + 1.

    i think this is a reasonable balance between respecting the right to strike and ensuring it’s not used by unscruplous union leaders as a political weapon.

  • Ed The Snapper 14th Feb '11 - 11:49pm

    “Well, two wrongs don’t make a right. ”

    True. They just make two wrongs. I look forward to the law that says that local and national elections should be conducted on the same basis as a union ballot. Personally, I have faith in union members to make their right choices for themselves. I have tended to find that union members are a lot more alert and informed than most members of the population. That makes sense being as they have made a choice to join a voluntary organisation. Surely, CamoClegg should be praising union members for their volunteering, mutually-empowering spirit in the mould of the much-vaunted “Big Society”. And what of those unions for the wealthy? Such as the Law Society, the BMA, the Bar Council…etc. When will those “closed-shop” bodies be subject to the same scrutiny as those for working-class organisations?

  • Christine Headley 15th Feb '11 - 12:02am

    @ Ecojon

    As I understand it, the hours when weddings are allowed predate electricity, and are meant to help mutual recognition in the happy couple. (I know it doesn’t work for midwinter, but I believe that was the theory.)

    Register offices aren’t open for such long hours, and I suspect their hours will remain rather shorter than most offices’ (and they have other jobs to do, like registering births and deaths,it’s not that the staff don’t work a full week). However, individual registrars will be able (for a fee) to go to all those other places where weddings can be performed – stately homes, posh hotels – at any hour of the day or night. I would think that the Unsocial Hours rate would be pretty expensive, and doubt that many people would wish to take advantage of the opportunity. But people do chuck enormous amounts of money at weddings, so if you want to get married at 2 am, why not? You might well be able to economise on guest numbers!

  • “Personally, I have faith in union members to make their right choices for themselves.”

    Indeed. Such as not to bother to vote because the issue isn’t important enough for them.

  • Tabman

    What party do you support?

    You claim to be a Liberal Democrat – all your opinions seem to be very much the same as the Tories. More libertarian than liberal democrat

    I find your arguments on the Trade Unions pretty unpleasant and it has to be said that the unions have not had much going for them in terms of ‘liberalism’ since the 1980s when it comes to their right to withdraw labour.

    Your last comment could apply to a significant number of local elections in this country – are you also supporting the minimum vote threshold for the referendum?

  • Simon McGrath 15th Feb '11 - 6:23am

    @John ” But correspondents are entitled to ask about things which aren’t in the proposed bill and also entitled to point to illiberal things the government are considering – such as making it harder to strike, a basic civil liberty.”

    you mean we should blame Nick Clegg for things the Govt isn’t actually doing.
    There must be a very long list of things the Coalition arrent doing all of which Clegg can be blamed for.

  • bazac – why are my comments about Trades Unions unpleasant? Have you actually read them?

    I have no problem with Trades Unions per se – I am a member of one. What I have a problem with is when they ahve an overtly political leadership, such as Bob Crowe, who seak to use their union members to further their own political views. And I also have a problem with the unions being associated with only one political party when their membership will come from all strands of opinion.

    And I also have a problem with businesses funding the Tories, which is why I believe that political parties should only be allowed to be funded by donations from individuals on the electoral roll, capped at £5k per annum. That strikes me as a Liberal position to take.

  • @Christine Headley

    Well thanks for that – I should have looked for the arcane rather than trying to be sensible 🙂

    To be honest I have been struggling to remember any wedding in recent years I know about that happened after mid-afternoon and it seems that probably most Registrars don’t go much beyond 4pm in real life for the obvious reasons you stated.

    The real point I was trying to make is that this is more a legislative tidying-up than clawing back a basic ‘freedom’ and in the case of hurors it is actually a removal of a ‘freedom’ in certain complex or serious fraud trials which makes me feel it sklightly odd that it is placed in a Freedom Bill in the first place.

    I believe the Registrar fee for weddings at an approved venue away from the Registrar’s Office is set by the local authority so possibly people might not be able to afford it in these straightened times and will keep their freedom if you see what I mean 🙂

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Feb '11 - 6:12pm

    @Chris: What exactly was so “terrifying” about ID cards? Were you one of the 15,000 unfortunates who voluntarily bought one? I was among the 99.975% of the population who chose to simply ignore the scheme; consequently I regarded it as a total irrelevance to my life and about as terrifying as a jam doughnut.

    You can’t even claim that the scrapping of the cards makes it difficult for some future “authoritarian” government to resurrect the idea. Most of the infrastructure behind the scheme (e.g. the National Biometric Identity Service) will continue to be developed, and the cards themselves have not actually been scrapped – in fine coalition tradition, the evil ID cards continue to be issued, just to fewer people, i.e. foreign nationals.

    Don’t get me wrong, I actually support the scrapping-well-not-quite-scrapping-but-let’s-call-it-scrapping-anyway of the scheme by the present government, but for entirely practical reasons. I don’t see how a voluntary scheme was any sort of attack on my civil liberties.

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