Modern Liberty: my part in the war on hypocrisy

It has been a little over a week now since the government backed down on exempting MPs expenses from the Freedom of Information Act, following a sparkling example of good online campaigning from MySociety and friends.

James Graham, in the first instalment of the Carnival of Modern Liberty (can carnivals have instalments? Or is it a more fluid thing than that? Perhaps “floats”?), had something to celebrate. Week 2 of the Carnival, and he may be a little more pressed for good news, whereas bad news is around for liberals in abundance, as the Yorksher Gob points out.

And in the interests of following  up on James’ initial call to arms encouraging people to write about actions they can take against the advance of the database state, I, dear Voicer, have taken action.

I’m watching TV.

Today sees the commencement of the second reading stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill, a piece of legislation which in the words of Henry Porter:

will allow government departments to sweep away laws that prevent sharing of people’s data without their knowledge.

And he really means it. Lee Griffin has an excellent discussion of the offending provisions at Liberal Conspiracy. Effectively they provide ministers (note ministers, not secretaries of state) with an order-making power to enable any “person” (this can usually mean either an individual or an organisation) to share any private data they have in any way they wish, over-riding the provisions of the Data Protection Act. The only requirement is that the purpose of the order be “to secure a relevant policy objective”.

This enables the government to give data they hold about us to private companies, provided an enabling Order is made for the civil servant pressing “send”.

It enables the government to give data they hold about us to foreign governments.

It enables the government to allow any local government body, public body or private company to share our data with any other such body or company.

And of course it enables the government to share all our data between all its departments, regardless of their abysmal record on data errors and data loss.

Oh, and in what circumstances can these information-sharing orders be made? Times of martial law? Following international jewel heists? In the immediate aftermath of the discovery that feminism really is giving house prices cancer? Why, no. All that is required is that the sharing of information be “to secure a relevant policy objective”.

Oh yes, one other thing. The information-sharing orders can also “modify any enactment”.

Matt Wardman once offered the following description of the current civil liberties situation on my blog: the fenceposts of fascism are now in place. All it needs is for someone to come along and string the barbed wire along them.


I’ll be adding relevant coverage of the debate to this post as we go. In the meantime, the guidelines of the game suggest that I tag some blogging chaps to write about what I’ve written about above, and James suggests we particularly choose blogging chaps who maybe don’t obsess about politics all the time (fancy!) I have spent long enough in and around the public sector to use the word “outreach” with a straight face, so it’s as good as done. Will the following Non-Political Geek Citizens of The Blogosphere please stand up:


Matthew Cain

Geoffrey Chaucer hath a blog

He fails the “no political geek” test, but in the spirit of welcoming him to the blogosphere – Jon Snow


Following Straw’s opening remarks, Dominic Grieve’s  initial response did him great credit, drawing attention to the issue that had been glossed over in a set of remarks much concerned with technical reform. He spoke of the extraordinary information-sharing powers which threatened to amount to the “oppressive state”. In particular, he was concerned that this subject had been legislated on in this bill, when it should certainly have been debated on its own. David Heath supported him on all these points and Grieve responded with reference to “common cause” between the Tory and Lib Dem benches. Hm. Anyone feel love-bombed? Jenny Willott made an intervention with the precise same point as Lee makes in para 2 of the first comment below. A couple of Labour MPs responded to Grieve and Heath with accusations of hysteria.

They’re back on coroner and jury reforms now (not that those wouldn’t be a civil liberties cause celebre in themselves were it not for the astonishing information-sharing powers). Interestingly, Grieve also spoke of his commitment to ultimately reducing the prison population. Very sensible. Keep that one in your back pocket for next time you’re facing down a hang-em and flog-em Tory.

UPDATE: Ooh, Grieve’s back on data-sharing. Love bombs us again. Lists the government’s record of serial incompetence on safeguarding data and public’s trust is at an all-time low. Says all should therefore be deeply sceptical for sharing data across government. Could be a “vast increase in government power”.

UPDATE: Alun Michael is making a cretinous point about previous data-sharing enabling provisions. Cretinous because the example he cites is about a provision in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 which enables data-sharing “for the purposes of preventing crime”. Yes, that’s preventing crime. This is “to secure any relevant policy objective”.

UPDATE: Oops, this was more or less the point he went on to make! Jenny Willott intervenes on the subject of accuracy in government data.

UPDATE: David Howarth moves the Lib Dem amendment. He talks about the “Christmas Tree” nature of the bill, on which the government can hang any provision it likes.

Talks about the “Red Rag” practice in leegislating – hiding a truly insidious provision against a provision designed to be controversial attract attention. In this case the data sharing are the insidious bits. I’m going to put in his full text later because he’s putting all this much better than I am.

Revealingly, Howarth describes how the legislation is being marketed by Labour – as a means of government departments sharing data with each other. But that’s not actually what it says. It allows anyone to share data with anyone on the government’s say-so.

The critical point: it does allow the government to allow any person to share data with any other person. Right! In response to an intervention, DH confirms there’s no reason why this can’t include opinions.

“Where can we find a list of these “relevant public objectives”? Howarth wants to know.

UPDATE: And the provisions also mean the government can sell data. I thought of that in my initial post, and left it out because I thought I was being paranoid. But he’s right, all protective legislation can be overruled by the information-sharing powers within the terms of the bill.

Grieve intervenes with another good point, that there has, basically, been no public debate on the principles of data sharing with the government.

Howarth summarises on data-sharing: these provisions are outrageous and need to be considered separately. At the moment they alone justify rejecting the bill. He moves on to the jury and secrecy provisions and I need to go and eat some sausages and chips.  TTFN.

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  • Alix Mortimer 26th Jan '09 - 5:34pm

    It’s still Alun Michael. Did he just say offenders should carry out community service while wearing unicorns?

  • Alix Mortimer 26th Jan '09 - 5:42pm

    I actually don’t know how they do this every day. There is something about listening to Alun Michael’s voice that makes me feel like concrete is being poured into my skull.

    Ooh, David Howarth’s amendment is up!

  • Alix Mortimer 26th Jan '09 - 5:53pm

    Ugh, Emily Thornberry.

  • Alix Mortimer 26th Jan '09 - 6:24pm

    Doh! I left the room during abused wives.

    I must say – in full knowledge of how it makes me sound – that I’m looking forward to reading the Hansard.

  • Alix Mortimer 26th Jan '09 - 6:28pm

    Hm. Sublime Howarth immediately followed by ridiculous Howarth.

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