Civil libertarians had noticed that the Blair administration is impatient with conviction rates. We have seen real attempts to reduce the availability of jury trials and to lower the burden of proof. And we have had strong hints from the Prime Minister that he doesn’t regard the principle of innocent until proven guilty as applicable in the modern world.
Astonishingly, however, none of those is enough. A guilty plea may in future permit prosecutors to operate without court process. Idiotically the BBC captions this as “Petty criminals could avoid court“: but a better headline would be “criminal convictions without courts”. People will be convicted and punished by prosecutors and police if prosecutors or police can persuade them to confess. This is a recipe for abuse.
Magistrate’s courts may not be the most reliable finders of fact or interpreters of law, but they have no direct interest in the guilt of the defendant or in clearing up unsolved crimes. They can and do hear defenses and pleas in mitigation. They can, and very occasionally do, insist on entering a not-guilty plea if the defendant appears to be have been browbeaten or to be incapable of understanding his position.
The inevitable consequence of introducing summary police punishment will be an assertion on behalf of the authorities that those who are convicted at trial instead of submitting to official processing ought to be more heavily punished because they have somehow wasted the court’s time. Which will place the accused under more pressure to make admissions regardless of guilt, regardless of whether prosecutors abuse their position.
As the report stage of the Identity Cards Bill approaches in the Lords, a reminder of one highlight from the first day of the committee stage Hansard, 15 Nov 2005, Col.1012:
Lord Gould of Brookwood: Both the previous speakers—the latter with great emotion—were arguing for freedom. We have to ask what greater freedom is there than the freedom to place a vote for a political party in a ballot box upon the basis of a mandate and a manifesto. That is the crux of it: the people have supported this measure. That is what the noble Earl’s father fought for. But that is too trivial an answer. I know that. The fundamental argument is that the truth is that people believe that these identity cards will affirm their identity. The noble Lord opposite said that he likes to be in this House and how he is recognised in this House because it is a community that recognises him. That is how the people of this nation feel. They feel that they are part of communities, and they want recognition. For them, recognition comes in the form of this identity card. Noble Lords may think that that is strange, but it is what they feel. This is their kind of freedom. They want their good, hard work and determination to be recognised, rewarded and respected. That is what this does.
Of course it is right and honourable for noble Lords to have their views, but I say there is another view, and it is the view of the majority of this country. They want to have the respect, recognition and freedom that this card will give them. Times have changed. Politics have changed. What would not work 50 years ago, works now. It is not just me. I have the words of the leader of your party:
“I have listened to the police and security service chiefs. They have told me that ID cards can and will help their efforts to protect the lives of British citizens against terrorist acts. How can I disregard that?”.
This is not some silly idea of the phoney left. It is a mainstream idea of modern times. It is a new kind of identity and a new kind of freedom. I respect the noble Lords’ views, but it would help if they respected the fact that the Bill and the identity cards represent the future: a new kind of freedom and a new kind of identity.
This is the sort of rhetoric that makes my blood run cold. Here’s a prefiguring example:
In our state the individual is not deprived of freedom. In fact, he has greater liberty than an isolated man, because the state protects him and he is part of the State. Isolated man is without defence.
– Benito Mussolini.
Terry Eagleton (from a review of Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism in the New Statesman) elucidates the connection:
Conservatives disdain the popular masses, while fascists mobilise and manipulate them. Some conservatives believe in ideas, but fascists have a marked preference for myths. If they think at all, they think through their blood, not their brain. Fascists regard themselves as a youthful, revolutionary avant-garde out to erase the botched past and create an unimaginably new future.
All supporters of the old-fashioned conception of individual liberty, whether they think of themselves as left or right, conservative or progressive, must do what can be done. Resist. We should not expect any quarter for outdated ideas under a new kind of freedom.
[cross-posted to Samizdata]
Perhaps you think I am talking about Venezuela under the thuggish Chavez?
Nope. I am talking about Britain.
Gustave Le Bon would have something to say about this. He’d point to the sugestibility of the emotionally aroused crowd:
Almost three-quarters of the public believe that it is right to give up civil liberties to improve our security against terrorist attacks.
A Guardian/ICM poll published today shows that 73% of respondents back the trade-off, with only 17% rejecting it outright. The results provide evidence of public support for Tony Blair’s anti-terrorist reforms which he unveiled before leaving on his summer holiday earlier this month.
Full article here.
I simply do not accept there is a trade-off to be had. Our liberty is our safety.
The world is replete with counterexamples to the trade-off twitch. (One cannot call it a theory.)
Take Saudi Arabia. Civil liberty does not exist there. It is an alien concept, and, in common with other alien concepts, banned. There is no protection of citizen from state, and no limit to the actions that can be taken.
Yet terrorism is in robust health. The Kingdom’s official figures for the last two years (which one would expect to paint the rosiest picture) are 129 dead and 720 injured among civilians and security forces. More than twice Britain’s casualties among a population that may be around a third of ours–reliable figures on anything Saudi being hard to come by. (They probably have significantly more police, too.)
Tim Worstall asks: “Are We Still a Free People?“:
We have a Home Secretary who has been told by the courts that locking foreigners up and denying them their right to trial is illegal. The basic presumption is that one must either be tried and convicted, or be being held on remand while that process is put in train, for it to be allowable for the State to lock you up. His reaction on being told that foreigners have the same rights as natives was, quite amazingly, to remove that right for natives. Quite.
The most basic foundation of the relationship between citizen and state, that of the right to trial, Habeus Corpus and all the rest, has been altered. It is seriously proposed that the Home Secretary should be allowed to intern anyone at all, on no evidence that he has to reveal (and thus can be argued against), for as long as he wishes. We all know that miscarriages of justice happen, the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four being examples, even when there is an open system with judges, juries and the like. We’ll never know under the new system as no one will ever have to tell us.
Quite. The illiberal moves by this government are rather worrying.
The Civil Contingencies Act became law last Thursday in what can only be described as a blaze on non-publicity. This legislation, which represents perhaps the most serious threat to liberty in Britain since World War II, has put in place the legal tools for some future government to impose rule-by-edict.
It would be hard to overstate how grave this situation is.
If your political antennae have been sensitive to the undercurrents shimmering across the blogosphere, then you will have picked up the few postings alerting readers to the implications of the Civil Contingencies Bill. The dangers of this giant step towards authoritarianism have been publicised far more effectively both by David Carr and on Iain Murray’s personal weblog, The Edge of Englands Sword:
Lord Lucas has described the Civil Contingencies Bill as comparable to Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933 which enabled him to transform Germany’s Weimar Republic into his own personal tyranny. I have now read it, and I have to say that he is not exaggerating.
Readers could argue that this is an invocation of Godwin’s Law and that, by quoting this passage, I have lost the argument. However, this opinion is that of Torquil Dirk-Erikson, “a noted Eurosceptic writer and learned silk”. However, in considering the passage of this Act, it should also be noted that the European Constitution has a section on ‘civil protection’ as one of the coordinating powers for the European authorities.
The Government wishes to push through an updated Civil Contingencies Bill in 2004. It does not mention the EU, but the draft EU Constitution includes ‘civil protection’ as an area for ‘coordinating action’ and the current Treaty mentions the topic vaguely. The Bill also enables the creation of arbitrary imprisonable criminal offences. It enables regulations that can delegate powers to anyone or confer jurisdiction on any court or tribunal. This could be an EU body, unaccountable to government or the people.
Although the draft Constitution gives us a veto on a European Public Prosecutor (the Government says it ‘currently’ sees no reason for one) Blair has said that he opposes permanent ‘opt-outs’ or being isolated in Europe. Although the amended Bill states that it will not change criminal procedure, the Government is happy for the EU to have over-riding powers to do this via the EU Constitution.
These developments happen at a time when the Government is trying to introduce universal ID cards and a ‘population register’, and has just announced a national database to carry information on all children, not merely those ‘at risk’ (Sunday Times, 25.7.04). Again there are worrying parallels with European developments. Amazingly, MI5’s website, which is listed in Preparing For Emergencies assures us that “the subversive threat to parliamentary democracy is now negligible”.
One giant step along ‘Chavez’ Blair’s road to a ‘managed democracy’.
Cross-posted to Samizdata.
The British government is advocating the vaccination of children against particular behaviours using the forthcoming array of pharmacotherapy vaccines. These would innoculate children against a host of behaviours that the government defines as anti-social: drinking, smoking, drugs, blogging and so on.
The article explains that “Doctors would immunize children at risk of becoming smokers or drug users with an injection” and that the program would operate in a way similar to the “current nationwide measles, mumps and rubella vaccination programme.” Further the authors reveal that “such vaccinations are being developed by pharmaceutical companies and are due to hit the market within two years.”
Developments like this are monitored by the Centre for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, whose response was clear:
Richard Glen Boire, a legal scholar at the CCLE, believes that vaccinating children with “anti-drug” drugs would be “alarming and unlawful, and would signal the first time that neuropharmaceuticals were overtly used to enforce government policy.”
Aside from the human rights concerns, the UK plan raises serious health questions regarding the long-term effects of these drugs on the complex neurochemistry of the brain.
The CCLE warns that advances in the neurosciences will challenge the ability of individuals to maintain their cognitive freedom. Governments will redefine mental health to use drugs and other neurotechnologies in order to police and channel people’s behaviours.
(My thanks to Alex Ramonsky of the Entelechy Institute for alerting me to this issue).
If you are arrested, and the police take your DNA to run tests on it, and if the outcome of your arrest is either that no charges were brought against you or you were brought to trial and found innocent, it has been ruled that the state can retain your DNA records indefinitely regardless.
The moral of the story is, of course, that if you do not want the state to take your DNA and hold it on record forever because you simply do not trust the state or because you have the quaint notion that your body is your own property, then do whatever it takes to not get arrested, regardless of how confident you are that you can establish your innocence subsequently.
Lord Brown said the benefits of this procedure were so manifest and the objections so threadbare that the cause of human rights would be better served by expanding the police database rather than by reducing it.
Just as it has often been said that modern fascism is most likely to appear in the guise of anti-fascism, when some establishment figure like Lord Brown start taking about ‘human rights’ it is a fair bet that ‘human rights’ about to get trampled underfoot.
My guess is that it is only a matter of time before the police in some nations start taking samples of DNA from everyone, probably starting with all children under a programme with a name like ‘The Safe Children Act’ or something similar, probably with the ostensible reason of ‘protecting your child from kidnap by Paedophiles’ or some such drivel. I mean, after all, who could possibly object to that?
The state is not your friend.
A loyal reader sends in this ‘gem’ of a story… someone was arrested for sketching on the South Bank:
I spent four hours (having already been detained for three and a half) in a cell in Kennington police station wondering whether I might not be joining those in Belmarsh where Mr Blunkett could detain me without explanation and, in the interest of public security, refuse to divulge the alleged evidence. If the majority in this country need protecting, they had better ask who the enemies of democracy currently are.
Read the whole thing… Incredible but not surprising.
The Home Secretary has instructed the Humberside Police Authority to suspend the chief constable of Humberside, David Westwood. I have no views on the actual issue of David Westwood’s competence and whether or not he actually deserves to be suspended and ultimately sacked, but what is alarming is how Downing Street is centralising more and more decisions on local matters that have a huge baring on civil liberties.
Lawyers for Mr Blunkett are expected to ask the High Court, possibly on Tuesday, for an injunction forcing the authority to carry out his instruction to suspend the officer. This will be the first test of powers under the Police Reform Act 2002 and the Home Secretary will argue that suspension is necessary “for the maintenance of public confidence” in the force.
Colin Inglis, the chairman of the authority and the Labour leader of Kingston-upon-Hull told BBC1’s Look North: “The police authority is not a rubber stamp and if the Home Secretary expected a rubber stamp then that, I’m afraid, is not what he has got.
“The Home Secretary is not David Westwood’s line manager. David Westwood works for the police authority.
The issue is not “is David Westwood a good copper” but “do you want David Blunkett making those decisions?”. No prizes for guessing where I stand on that.
It is a long time since I have contributed anything to White Rose. And it is a long time since this article by journalist and novelist Alexandra Campbell appeared, in the Telegraph, on May 14th. Apologies on both counts, but better occasional contributions and late reports of White Rose relevant material than never, I hope you agree.
This article did not just appear in the Telegraph. It was also reproduced in full, in the “last word” slot, towards the end of the “all you need to know about everything that matters” magazine (i.e. lots of good bits from all the different British newspapers) The Week, of May 29th, Issue 462. That was where and (approximately) when I first read the piece.
Ms. Campbell, on the basis of vague CCTV “evidence”, was falsely accused of a crime, and it took a scarily long time for the system to stop persecuting her.
“In theory,” said Mark, “it’s innocent until proved guilty. In practice, whoever makes the allegation first is believed.”
Now that we are all picked up on CCTVs up to 300 times a day, and can also easily be identified electronically through swipe cards (health clubs, the office, season tickets, etc), there is a real risk of someone linking you to a passing resemblance on a fuzzy CCTV image and making an allegation against you.
It had taken about eight months to get to this point of the inquiry and I was terrified of enduring months’ more worry before I was cleared, but the police followed up my brother’s statement quickly and dropped the charges. However, they told me that current policy is to leave fingerprints, pictures and allegations permanently on file.
Checking subsequently with the police press office, I find that “fingerprints may not be held for more than 42 days”, but I find it scary that nobody really seems to know. I suspect our civil rights are being chipped away all the time in the name of crime and terrorism prevention.
The whole thing, I discovered, was based on a breach of the Data Protection Act. Companies using CCTV are supposed to show images only to authorised people, such as the police. The supermarket involved should never have allowed the receptionist and the credit card victim to see footage on demand. The receptionist, himself in charge of CCTV, should have known this. He wasn’t even following his own company’s code of practice, which asks staff who are suspicious of members to take the matter to a manager first. But he has done nothing illegal.
And neither have I. But while I struggle to have my records deleted from police files, he has drifted on and cannot, so far, be contacted. Nobody knows if he made the allegation out of boredom, spite, or genuine, if misplaced, civic-mindedness. It’s Kafkaesque, said friends. It’s a joke, said others. But it wasn’t fiction and it wasn’t funny. I was actually very lucky.
I might not have been able to prove where I was. If I’d been a lawyer, police officer, accountant or worked in financial services, my career and livelihood would also have been on the line, and if I’d been a celebrity, the story would have been splashed all over the papers before it was disproved. If the allegation had been connected to terrorism, I would have been jailed immediately.
I used to think that if you didn’t break the law, you had nothing to fear from it. Now I know that if this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.