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Will Civil Liberties Be An Issue At The Next Election?

That’s the question posed today by the popular PoliticalBetting.com website, who are covering the Convention on Modern Liberty.

Damn right it will!

With the launch of the Freedom Bill from the Liberal Democrats and a fringe event at today’s Convention looking at where the Conservatives truly position themselves on civil liberties, it seems the opposition parties are forming an offensive.

Civil Liberties is one of those issues that will rarely if ever garner electoral support for its political movements. Haltemprice & Howden still stands out as a largely anomalous campaign. It is staggering that in 30 years of asking, the issue still doesn’t register on the Ipsos MORI issue tracker, and is unlikely to if it remains in its current format. The Mori options, generated by respondants, are almost entirely ‘tax and spend’ priorities, rather than significant concerns, and I think the poll gets treated as such. Getting more abstract principles to break through as principal concerns is very difficult.

This comment is fair game, but I think we’ve reached a point where our liberty and freedoms are at risk like never before (in non-wartime).

There was an interesting question from a member of the audience at the Convention this morning on how we engage “Sun” readers rather than “Guardian” readers. The Freedom Bill from the Lib Dems is a great starting point – but as it’s party political it may not reach the masses, who are often turned off the moment they say the name of a political party.

Hopefully as a result of this convention we will have formed a clear message to take to all members of the United Kingdom. If that message can influence the decision makers not just in political parties, but in the media, academia and volunteer organisations, the message will reach wider society in a coherent, clear way. Then, and only then, it might just become THE issue at the next General Election.

Convention on Modern Liberty – TODAY

Convention on Modern Liberty - February 28th, London and around Britain
The sold out Convention on Modern Liberty in London has got underway. If you can’t be there you can watch the event live here.

You can also watch the event streamed live at Aston University in Birmingham, followed by a discussion on “Preventing Violent Extremism? State surveillance and community organisation”

Jack Straw – Is He For Real?

Following comments earlier in the week, Barcode Nation asked just who, other than Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith, is speaking out in support of the government?

Well today, we found out, after reading Jack Straw‘s comments in the Guardian.

Not only does he take a swipe at tomorrow’s Convention on Modern Liberty:

More generally, despite the claims of a systematic erosion of liberty by those organising this weekend’s Convention on Modern Liberty, my very good constituency office files show no recent correspondence relating to fears about the creation in Britain of a “police state” or a “surveillance society”.

But not only that, he goes on to claim that this Labour government:

“has done more to reinforce and strengthen liberty than any since the war.”

The sheer cheek of this claim is almost beyond belief! One of the comments sums up my feelings perfectly:

  • An end to peaceful protest within a mile of Parliament.
  • ID cards.
  • Over 60 pieces of personal information before you can travel.
  • Internet monitoring.
  • Phone call monitoring.
  • The politicization of the police.
  • One-quarter of all the CCTV in the world.
  • Racist ID cards for non-EU nationals.

And you have the bare-faced cheek to say that you have extended liberties? You are a liar, Jack, and not a very good one. We want our freedom, and our country, back.

Lib Dems Launch Freedom Bill

The Liberal Democrats have gone on the offensive with the launch of The Freedom Bill.

The Freedom Bill would restore civil liberties and democratic rights in Britain – and with your help we can make it happen. The Freedom Bill will reverse laws introduced under successive Conservative and Labour governments, reinstating ancient freedoms like the right to trial by jury and preventing modern infringements such as the National Identity Register.

The Liberal Democrats are determined to resist the slow death by a thousand cuts of our hard-won British liberties. Some of the changes detailed here may seem small in themselves but taken together they cumulate to a colossal loss of personal freedom in less than two decades. George Orwell’s 1984 was a warning, not a blueprint. Yet the Big Brother society is growing. Our forebears who fought so hard for the rights we have had stripped away would be shocked at what we’ve lost.

The Bill includes a mixture of existing and new policy, all centred on regaining the freedoms that have been slowly eroded over the last 20 years. Highlights include scrapping ID cards for all, removing all innocent people from the DNA database and scrapping ContactPoint, the database of all children in Britain.

The Freedom Bill includes the following measures:

  • Scrap ID cards for everyone, including foreign nationals
  • Ensure that there are no restrictions in the right to trial by jury for serious offences including fraud.
  • Restore the right to protest in Parliament Square, at the heart of our democracy.
  • Abolish the flawed control orders regime.
  • Renegotiate the unfair extradition treaty with the United States.
  • Restore the right to public assembly for more than two people.
  • Scrap the ContactPoint database of all children in Britain.
  • Strengthen freedom of information by giving greater powers to the Information Commissioner and reducing exemptions.
  • Stop criminalising trespass.
  • Restore the public interest defence for whistleblowers.
  • Prevent allegations of ‘bad character’ from being used in court.
  • Restore the right to silence when accused in court.
  • Prevent bailiffs from using force.
  • Restrict the use of surveillance powers to the investigation of serious crimes and stop councils snooping.
  • Restore the principle of double jeopardy in UK law.
  • Remove innocent people from the DNA database.
  • Reduce the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 14 days.
  • Scrap the ministerial veto which allowed the Government to block the release of Cabinet minutes relating to the Iraq war.
  • Require explicit parental consent for biometric information to be taken from children.
  • Regulate CCTV following a Royal Commission on cameras.

This high-profile principled stance will hopefully fuel the debate on civil liberties and make it a real issue at the forthcoming general election. You can read the full text here and sign the petition in support and to get updates on the campaign’s progress. I encourage all of our readers, regardless of party affiliation, to forward The Freedom Bill onto as many people as they can. We need a full and frank debate on the future of our freedoms in this country and this is a great vehicle for that to happen.

ID Cards Database Spyed On By Council Staff

We now have proof that all the government’s waffle about our identities being safe and secure in their care is a load of cr@p.

Computer Weekly has revealed that staff at THIRTY local authorities have been responsible for “serious security breaches” in the government database that will form the core of the national ID cards programme. Sensitive personal records have been viewed on the Customer Information System (CIS) run by the Department of Work and Pensions, which contains information on anyone with a National Insurance number and will be used as the basis for the National Identity Register.

“Regrettably, checks have identified some local authority staff are committing serious security breaches,” the DWP told local authorities in its Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit General Information Bulletin on 15 January.

“DWP will support your local authority to ensure appropriate disciplinary or prosecution action is taken, and may consider prosecuting directly under social security legislation,” it said.

The bulletin said staff should not access CIS records about or on behalf of their or their colleagues’ friends, relatives, partners, or acquaintances. Nor should they share their government passwords with other people.

The DWP said the breaches were all “view only” accesses of personal information stored in CIS records where there was no business justification for the access.

That is no comfort to me! Whether someone is “just looking” or making changes makes no difference – the privacy of my personal information has been compromised.

We need a rapid response and a rapid rethink from government on this crazy plan. Campaigners have been adamant since day one that this data would not be safe from prying eyes. Now we have undeniable, concrete proof.

Government, it’s over to you…

Religious Affiliation Can Be Removed From Lebanese ID Cards

An interesting development from Lebanon where the Government has ruled that citizens can remove their religion from their identity cards.

One of the arguments against ID cards is the possibility of discrimination. For proof, you need look no further than Lebanon, where ID cards were the equivalent of death warrants. According to the BBC News article:

During the civil war, which lasted through the 1970s and 1980s, different militias aligned with various religious groups would set up checkpoints and ask for the identity cards of those who tried to pass. People would often be shot on the spot if their documents revealed the “wrong” sort of religious affiliation.

“These identity cards killed so many people,” says Samer Juidi, a 21-year-old business marketing student in Beirut.

“I want to be seen as Lebanese. Not Lebanese Christian, not Lebanese Muslim but just Lebanese,” he adds.

Whilst it’s unlikely this kind of discrimination would be seen in Britain, it’s a worrying possibility if people’s religion, health and criminal records are available at the touch of a button.

Lobby group Human Rights Watch say this is merely a token gesture, saying religious affiliation still governs the life of every citizen. But as a first step, this is surely welcome news.

Assessments of child database to remain secret

The assessments of the controversial ContactPoint database at the “early adopter” local authorities will remain secret, it has been revealed.

In a written Parliamentary answer, the children’s minister Beverley Hughes said ContactPoint assessments are internal documents and not intended for publication.

“The monthly assessments are undertaken by local authorities and are project documents internal to the local authorities themselves. Local authorities provide the information to the department on the basis that it will be used to enable the department to assess progress, provide targeted support where necessary and to share good practice. It is not collected for the purpose of publication. The assessments are not intended or designed for publication,”

I understand internal project documentation is unlikely to be published without a fight. However, this concerns the safety of our children, so surely we have a right to know if there are any concerns with the operation of this database before it is rolled out nationwide?

Do ID Cards Create Second-Class Citizens?

Regular visitors to the Barcode Nation will know I am a big fan of Henry Porter’s Blog on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free. In his latest post, Henry brings us the story of the struggles faced by a UK born barrister married to a Sierra Leone born UN worker, in trying to move in and out of the UK.

She concludes: “Of course, probably the only solution for most of our strains and anxieties is to settle elsewhere, where we are not treated like second-class citizens or criminals, But why should I? I work hard in my country – I volunteer for public bodies. I fought hard to gain my professional qualifications then a career.”

Happy Birthday Liberty – 75 Today

Civil Liberties campaign group Liberty celebrates its 75th birthday today.

A press release on their website contains some interesting quotes, a few of which are reproduced here:

“The work of Liberty is now even more important than it was when it was founded 75 years ago. The threats to our freedom come increasingly from state authoritarianism which now uses the war on terror as an excuse for doing so. Unless we stand against it we shall lose what we are being told we must defend.” Tony Benn

“We are bombarded with a variable menu of national anniversaries, commemorations, exhortations to be proud of Britain. But I find it harder to think of anything more worthy of celebration than the fact that since 1934, in spite of whatever else, somewhere in our country, the struggle to maintain civil liberties has been kept alive. Congratulations to Liberty on 75 years!” Colin Firth

“The tradition of civil liberties is fundamental to any civilised society, and Liberty has been protecting the rights of the individual since 1934. The battle is far from over. In an over-governed nation it has become fashionable to disregard individual liberties, both great and small. This makes the task of protecting freedom and privacy even more vital. I wish Liberty a very happy 75th birthday.” Sir John Major

But on this day of celebration, it’s worth asking the question, could Liberty do more? The threat to our basic human rights and civil liberties has never been greater in most of our lifetimes, yet is Liberty gaining enough coverage? Are they bashing down enough doors? (not literally, of course), and are they engaging with the general public enough? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Blunkett warns of “Big Brother” Britain

David Blunkett MP, the man who introduced the idea of ID cards during the Blair years has emerged as its latest opponent. Perhaps opponent is too strong a term, as the former Home Secretary does support the idea of cards for foreign nationals. But, when speaking at Essex University this week, he is expected to warn the Government they are in danger of abusing their power by taking Britain towards a “Big Brother” state.

He will come out against the Government’s controversial plan to set up a database holding details of telephone calls and emails and its proposal to allow public bodies to share personal data with each other.

His surprise intervention will be welcomed by campaign groups, who regard him as a hardliner because of his strong backing for a national ID card scheme and tough anti-terror laws. The former home secretary will propose a U-turn on ID cards for British citizens, although he agrees with plans to make them compulsory for foreign nationals.

According to reports, Blunkett still believes Labour has got the balance between liberty and security “broadly right”, but will criticise them for letting legislation be used for purposes wider than originally intended – no doubt with a nod toward the data sharing provision within the Coroners and Justice Bill.

There is now a long, long list of people speaking out against ID cards on economic terms, practical terms, and ethical terms.

A question from the Barcode Nation – who, other than Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith – is speaking out in support?