A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Henry Porter’s “Civil Liberties Postcard”

In Uncategorized on April 10, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Election 2010

David Weber

I like Henry Porter’s idea, in the Guardian’s Comment is Free, of a ‘Civil Liberties postcard’ to run past all election candidates. That isn’t to say I agree with him on every question, because I’m sad to say I probably don’t. But it’s a fantastic idea, centred around an issue which really needs to be highlighted this election, even if I might have chosen slightly different questions personally.

Civil Liberties are, unfortunately, probable to take a back seat this election. This is because every election in the past decade (and more) has been dominated by the economy, crime, and education (2005 was, admittedly, also defined somewhat by Iraq, but impotently so, as both of the major parties had supported the invasion). This is a pity, because politicians’ ability to influence the former is marginal at best; the middle is victim to a persistent misrepresentation by the media (and not just the tabloids), which is probably itself a big influence on the erosion of civil liberties. Only with education has seen any fresh thinking recently, with both opposition parties coming out with some interesting ideas for reform, even if they do dodge the crucial bullet of how to improve education for the poorest in society. All in all, this stranglehold on election politics unwittingly conspires to restrict any meaningful choice to the very marginal, and casts far more important issues, which politicians have far more influence over, into the shadows.

Civil Liberties is one incredibly important, and far-reaching area. I am not wholly blaming the media for its marginalisation as a cause, as campaigners themselves bear a portion of the blame in their persistent placing of CCTV cameras far above more important issues, as well as other less easily condemnable issues such as the DNA database. This is where I probably most strongly disagree with Porter, not just in principle but from pragmatism — I do not see a widespread loathing of Public Surveillance and police databases, and many indeed probably strongly link them with the fight against crime. Abusive laws, travesties of justice and erosion of basic legal rights, however, tend to stir even the most apathetic of us.

So the fact that the economy is drowning out much needed debate on laws which castigate people as morally guilty until proven innocent, laws which create modern debtor’s imprisonment, and the removal of the right to trial by jury when the State sees it as inconvenient; is truly tragic. The latter only managed to prompt lukewarm criticism in the media after the trial had concluded, rather than when it was first instigated, a horrible reflection on a media which increasingly regards suspects as guilty until proven innocent.

What is most amazing, however, is the blatant way in which trial by jury was infringed back in 2003. Normally when laws are brought in modifying civil liberties, politicians are quick to stress safeguards that accompany them. When addressing the problems of jury-tampering, however, politicians did not explore ways in which to transform courts to make this less of an issue (for example, drawing from Greece policy, composing a panel comprising more judges and fewer jurors, working together to determine guilt in complex cases). They simply removed the jury altogether, as if it were an optional extra, a comfort only necessary when it was cheap enough to provide, a moral luxury. Such thinking in a modern liberal democracy is shameful.

But my own additional concerns aside, where do I stand on the Civil Liberties postcard?

1. Do you support the introduction of ID cards?

A: No. Interestingly, a few years back I argued strongly for the introduction of a continental ID card system (as opposed to Labour’s excessive vision), but couldn’t even work up the enthusiasm to support this for long. It strikes me as fundamentally unhelpful to introduce a law criminalising people who do not want to carry means of identification.

I don’t necessarily see it as the worst attack on civil liberties in modern times. I see many benefits to having a comprehensive system of identification, but at principle is the sort of society we have. It should be one which is not excessively punitive upon those without easy means of establishing identity, and ours has arguably gone too far down that road already (as experience of relatives at their bank has proven). I do not want to go further down this road. So consider me pragmatically as well as ideologically opposed.

2. Do you think Police are abusing stop and search powers?

A: Loaded Question. Of course, I think some police will be abusing stop and search powers, and some authorities will possibly even have an abusive policies. However, I do not feel the force as a whole is likely to be sponsering widespread abuse. I may, of course, be wrong, but it’s a point on which I have to be persuaded, not take on faith.

On the other hand… I do think that simply scrapping the S&S form, as the Tories have proposed, is hopelessly naive. The form was brought in for a reason, and social inequalities are such that scrapping it could cause damage to communities who feel they are unfairly targeted. And the means to improve the process already exist, through technology — IE issuing police with hand-held recorders, enabling them to speed up the form process. Consider this a typical politician’s answer if you like.

3. Do you agree with the European Court of Human Rights which has criticised the retention of innocent peoples’ DNA on a national database?

A: Tricky. In principle, possibly, but in practice, I don’t think I would go this far. I think the police should certainly be allowed to keep the DNA of suspects of the most serious crimes for a time. It’s not fair, no, nor is it equal treatment, and there are possible perverse consequences to this (IE leading to a bias against former suspects that acts against efficient investigation), but I suspect the pros might outweigh the cons. By the way, isn’t it the record that is kept of the DNA, rather than an actual sample? I’ve never been clear on this point, and would welcome clarification.

4. Do you support calls for greater regulation of surveillence powers, including the number and use of CCTV cameras?

A: Yes. Although I’m not convinced that the number we have is necessarily a bad thing. However, they could certainly be safeguarded more thoroughly, including possibly taking them out of the direct control of the police.

5. Do you oppose government powers to track and store communications data from emails, texts and calls?

A: Yes.

6. Do you support the Human Rights Act in its current form?

A: YES! Make no mistake: you have to support it, for the sake of a unified system of justice. EU law is superior to British law in this area, so if the HRA is amended, then all it will do is create a two-tier system of justice, where the richer can afford to go to the ECHR for superior rights, and the poorer can’t.

7. Do you think the right to peaceful protest is being curtailed by heavy-handed policing?

A: Partly. I have a feeling Stephen Wan might be able to offer a more informed perspective than I. I definitely think that policing methods have been partially responsible for curtailing protest rights, and I think kettling tactics were definitely over (and mis) used last year. On the other hand, I think a lot more of the erosions to protest rights occurred through legislative and executive decisions.

8. Are you in favour of a public enquiry into allegations of British involvement in torture?

A: Yes.

9. Do you think everyone should have a right to hear the evidence against them before being subject to a control order?

A: Yes. Control orders have long been a sickening loophole around justice, far worse than the most draconian detention without trial proposals.

10. Do you support a review of Labour’s legislative programme in order to identify and then repeal those laws which have curtailed individual liberty?

A: Yes and no. A badly worded question which ilicits a vague answer. I support a review of more than just Labour’s legislation, but the legislation which most frequently causes travesties against liberty. However, I don’t automatically support the repeal of all laws which have curtailed individual liberty (an argument with a libertarian will show you that virtually all laws, at some point or another, qualify as such), and I think the assault against individual liberty begun a long time prior to New Labour.

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