Opinion: Securing civil liberties

Along with other civil libertarians I’ve dedicated my time to fighting off Labour’s encroachments on our freedoms and liberty. This struggle has found me working with traditional Labour members, Greens, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives; everyone from anti-corporate Libertarian Socialist to Euro-sceptic UKIP activists. People of all tribal loyalties and ideological outlooks have come together in non-partisan campaigns like NO2ID, and events like the convention on modern liberty. Not because they have sought to make their ideological explanation of why our liberties have been encroached the dominant one, but because they realised achieving a shared goal required finding the common ground and putting aside differences. If such an approach and style of collaborative politics can work on one issue it can surely be applied to others.

The struggle isn’t yet over. The Home Office has contingency plans in place for its identity scheme, and there are entrenched authoritarians that will decry innocent people being removed from the DNA database or giving up powers for random stops and searches. With plans for biometric passports, and a civil service ethos of data-sharing there will be future challenges. Already threats loom on new horizons, for instance The Political Parties and Elections Act allows for the creation of another national population database, and from 2011 onwards, and the Electoral Commission will, “report annually to Parliament on the progress of the voluntary collection of personal identifiers – National Insurance number, signature and date of birth – from electors, to make sure that the conditions are appropriate before any move to compulsory provision of identifiers”.

Supporters of ID cards such as Epstein have already pounced on administrative problems with implementing an ‘antiquated Victorian’ voting system (that has successfully worked for many year with minimal electoral fraud) to extol the virtues of an electronic voting system with compulsory biometric fingerprinting and individual registration.

As much as the new coalition will have to be on its guard for such pitfalls that lie ahead, it can now bring onside the pressure groups, academics and campaigners that came together in events such as the convention on modern liberty to offer guidance and advice. Whatever the dangers, things looks promising for Liberty. Of course we will remain vigilant, eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty yet with talk that a ‘Freedom Bill’ or a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ will form part of the program of government, the greatest prize of freedom and liberty seems in reach.

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13 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 13th May '10 - 2:33pm

    This would be an excellent moment to read Schneier’s latest essay, which deals with how idiotic worst-case thinking leads to bad things.

  • A long time coming, and one of the things Labour doubtless would not have given up in any rainbow coalition, having remained committed on these fronts in the face of overwhelmingly negative public opinion. Personal Liberty has always been a cornerstone of the Liberal ethic and its good to see this reflected in government.

  • Just don’t forget your party’s pledge to repeal the Digital Economy Act. You got a lot of support because of your stance on this issue. As a result, many people, including myself, voted Lib Dem for the first time.

  • Alan Milnes 13th May '10 - 3:59pm

    Last week proved our antiquated electoral system needs updated – can’t believe you would defend it.

  • Nishma, Harrow 13th May '10 - 4:03pm

    I always voted Lib Dem, but only joined two years ago after becoming increasingly furious with Labour’s constant drip, drip, drip erosion of our civil liberties.

    As a long standing civil servant I have to remind people that Ministers determine policies we merely implement them. Am pleased to say I have only ever worked on policies I believed in.

  • Identity cards will be scrapped under plans announced by the new Conservative and Lib Dem coalition government, new Home Secretary Theresa May has said.

    Their abolition is among measures the parties have agreed to reverse what they say was “the substantial erosion” of civil liberties in recent years.

    Other proposals include reforms to the DNA database, tighter regulation of CCTV and a review of libel laws.

    Labour claims ID cards help tackle benefit fraud and identity theft.

    The Tories and Lib Dems have both opposed ID cards from the outset, arguing they are expensive, intrusive and have done little to tackle the most serious threats to society such as terrorism and organised crime.

    In a statement, the Home Office said it would announce “in due course” how the process of rescinding ID cards and the accompanying National Identity Register would move forward.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th May '10 - 8:22pm

    the most serious threats to society such as terrorism and organised crime

    Terrorism is not a serious threat to society. If you add up all the harm caused by terrorism, in this country or the world, it’s still way down at the bottom of the list with lightning strikes (the financial fallout from the destruction of the WTC has bumped it up significantly to reach that point; it used to be closer to meteor strikes).

    Now, fearmongering about terrorism and irrational government responses to it, those are serious threats to society. But this is something that we do to ourselves. Read Schneier’s article for a detailed analysis.

  • James Elsdon-Baker 13th May '10 - 10:58pm

    “James, d’you either approve of the inefficient provision of benefits and other state services, or a libertarian position of their dissolution?” –

    Alec, a bit off topic but personally I approve of an efficient system of providing benefits that reduces the complex bureaucracy that has developed, for instance it’s madness that poor people are now taxed only to have to go through a bureaucratic system to get it redistributed through the tax credit system. In terms of state services it depends what we are talking about here, generally I don’t think the state is the best way of providing things. Many charities are far more innovative in meeting demands, and could be supported more as external agencies via taxation. However in some instances for example in the provision of infrastructure where there is a lack of market competition then the state or even new forms of cooperatives can be effective. In terms of identity management, the state should have no part in that.

  • James Elsdon-Baker 13th May '10 - 11:08pm

    Alan, just to clarify. What I’m defending is the way in which the electoral system is administered with physical ballot papers, sealed ballot boxes, returning officers, agents overseeing the actual count. I am not defending FPTP as other systems could be administered in a similar manner. What I’m critical of are proposals to move to a system where individuals have to register on the electoral role, and in doing so provide documents and unique identifier information for instance their NI number and submit to compulsory fingerprinting and votes are counted electronically rather than by people.
    Epstein’s comment in the Manchester Evening News advocates what I’m riling against and flagging as an area of possible future concern:
    http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1239396_opinion_angela_epstein

  • Andrew Suffield 14th May '10 - 2:52pm

    On the other hand, we have the potential to kill lots of people.

    Schneier’s article is a detailed explanation of why your thinking is deeply flawed.

    (Meteor strikes have the potential to kill lots of people, too)

  • The erosion of civil liberties was one of the main reasons for my joining and supporting the Liberal Democrats and it is a pleasure to see the overnight transformation of the Home Office website – let’s hope it is properly followed through with action.

    What has been done over the last fifteen years (it could be argued to have started to a minor extent with the Tories before NL) seems to me to be the putting in place of the foundations of a potential police state. I understand from most recent comments on this blog that I am in a minority in holding this opinion.

    It is tempting and easy to blame only Ministers for their political leadership in actively taking us down this route and to lay the blame squarely at Labour government, however I’m not sure it is that simpe.

    At the Convention for Modern Liberty Helena Kennedy said that she thought there must be something funny in the drinking water at the Home Office. The Schneier essay may explain what’s wrong at the Home Office outlining as a potential reason the fallibility and bias of flawed human thinking.

    While I deeply dislike what has been done by the Labour leadership and in particular by its Home Secretaries, I have long suspected that there other agencies jointly responsible for the erosion of our civil liberties, albeit with the best of intentions.

    Directly or indirectly these agencies potentially include the civil service, particularly the Home Office, various IT companies and the police services and associated organisations.

    As a long standing civil servant I have to remind people that Ministers determine policies we merely implement them. Am pleased to say I have only ever worked on policies I believed in.

    I find it very hard to believe that civil servants have no influence over policy or the way policy is implemented.

    In a number of recent government “consultations” the basic assumption seems to be that government has to gather as much information as possible about every citizen into a mass database as a pre-requisite for implementing any number of policies. Was this just New Labour policy on display or was the civil service itself showing that it has fallen under the spell? If it is true that the civil service just follow orders, this fervour for the endless collection of information about us should now diminish rapidly, and I certainly hope it does.

    I also suspect large IT consulting companies have sold Ministers and (to what extent I don’t know) senior civil servants, and the police, on the idea of huge databases and other technology are a silver bullet to cure all evils, all-the-while scaring themselves and the ministers silly about the level of threat. Which conveniently leads to multi-million (or billion) pound contracts for them.

    I hope I’m wrong but I suspect the civil servants, IT consulting companies and police have to some extent been the tail wagging the Ministerial dog… or at the very least have been responsible for collectively worring each other silly. I sincerely hope the new administration will not be so easily swayed and wish Theresa May luck in keeping perspective on the “terrible threats” she will be briefed about every day. It would help if she and all her colleagues remind themselves that we will all die, and we cannot all be protected from every perceived (or real) threat. They might remind themselves at the start of each meeting how many peolpe die each day of in descending order of: cancer, heart disease, road traffice deaths, other accidents, murder, and finally and perhaps least importantly, terrorism. Then decide how to act proportionaly. (If the health service could calculate how many people die due to not having their medical info on an instantly accessible database they could probably add that to the end of that list, and stop SCR’s).

    The Home Office has contingency plans in place for its identity scheme

    I would be interested to understand what you mean by this – do you simply mean it has a rollback plan available to destroy the NIR, or do you suspect some other plans the Home Office has to keep ID cards going in some form even if policy states otherwise?

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