You have the right to remain silent: the war on our civil liberties

When Jacqueline Maitland was arrested at a peaceful protest against ID cards this year, it was at the behest of the Home Office. Bundled into a police car and locked in a cell, her fingerprints were taken, along with a DNA sample she was given no explanation for. Her associate Charlie was not allowed to use the telephone to arrange for her children to be picked up from school, and despite police telling Jacqueline she and her colleagues were ‘obviously not dangerous’, her four-year old son was separated from her for the full six hours’ detainment period.

Welcome to modern Britain, where the fundamental freedoms set out in the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights have been steadily and systematically dismantled since New Labour came to power: freedom from torture, freedom of speech and expression, freedom to assemble, freedom to a fair trial, and freedom to privacy. Then there’s Habeas Corpus, the idea of being innocent until proven guilty: a legal civil liberty since 1679, nullified in the blink of an eye by the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Home secretary Jacqui Smith announced this month that people “can’t wait” for the estimated £5bn ID card and National Identity Register scheme, but also admitted in one speech the proposal “should make us question closely those who manage personal information on our behalf.”

As Geraint Bevan, arrested along with Jacqueline Maitland at the NO2ID protest, points out, “We saw that the government can’t be trusted when the child benefit database was lost: so even if you trust their motives, you have to question their competence.”

We’re told the risk of fraud and identity theft will be greatly reduced, but the database, holding every detail imaginable, including fingerprints, photographs and family data, would be a hacker’s goldmine. Cardholders could also be rendered a non-person at the click of a mouse: and would be vulnerable to prejudice, discrimination and even blackmail.

Even if you do trust local and national government with your most private data, could you say the same if another party came to power several years down the line? We have no idea whose hands this data might fall into, or for what purposes it will be used. In Rwanda, mass genocide was only possible because Hutus and Tutsis carried ID cards. Mohammed Siddique Khan left an ID card at the scene of the London bombings, as did the Madrid and 9/11 bombers, and in today’s Britain, forced DNA sampling is on the way not only for convicted criminals, but for all offences- even minor traffic stops.

As Charlie Morgan-Walton of NO2ID bluntly states, “we’re moving away from a representative government to one which wants to own your right to exist.”

So do we really have to lose our fundamental freedoms in order to be safe? Are we all potential criminals in this brave new world? Is there really no way that security and liberty can be reconciled?

I set out to investigate just a couple of case studies from the endless list relating to the rapid erosion of our rights- not only privacy, but to those of free expression, speech, and assembly, and what I found was deeply disturbing for anyone who cares about the values of freedom and democracy in this nation.

Jacqueline, Geraint and Charlie of NO2ID were charged with breach of the peace along with five others in June this year after dressing up and handing out leaflets outside an Edinburgh hotel where MP Meg Hillier was chairing a ‘public’ consultation on ID cards.

“I had just finished giving my son Tiger his lunch and was doing a TV interview,” Jacqueline remembers. “We saw the police arrive, sirens blaring, and rush inside. I was expecting that we’d just be moved on, but we were never given that option.”

“It was all very friendly and happy at first,” Geraint, co-ordinator of the Glasgow branch, told me. “We chatted to tourists and staff from the hotel and children were waving at us.”

After an hour, Geraint had gone into the meeting, and at question time had asked why the planned National Identity Register (an all-inclusive Orwellian database) hadn’t been mentioned, and why the public had been excluded. “It was very secretive, and attended by stakeholders, police and councillors to gather ideas for the deployment of ID cards,” Geraint says.

Upon asking his questions, the microphone was taken from Geraint and he was escorted out by senior civil servants. “I stopped at the door and urged everyone to read our leaflet,” Geraint explains.  At that point Geraint was restrained before being pushed out of the room into a waiting TV camera. Geraint gave an interview and got ready to leave. However, before he could do so the police arrived, and were “surprisingly aggressive.”

Despite Geraint being the only member to have attended the ‘public’ meeting, nine members of NO2ID (including a 17 year-old on his first protest and a pensioner) were arrested outside, charged and released on bail. The charges were dropped just 24 hours before the court case.

“We were shell-shocked by the response,” NO2ID’s Charlie Morgan-Walton says. Jacqueline, meanwhile, says she was too upset to question the police. “I just wanted my boy,” she admits. “The day after he was very subdued and difficult to handle.”

“All of this greatly undermines democracy,” Geraint argues. “Our right to protest is absolutely fundamental to a healthy society.”

Other case studies show it’s not just our own government we need to be wary of. There are 35 US military bases in Britain, all of which are excluded from both Pentagon and MOD reports. Operating outside British law, the US military has been accused of spying on protesters who question their foreign policy and the presence of American bases on our soil.

Reverend Chris Howson, vicar of a Bradford church and member of Yorkshire Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, recently found himself the subject of US military surveillance after inviting his congregation to a peaceful demonstration at Menwith Hill near Otley in West Yorkshire- the largest electronic monitoring station outside the US itself.

“After I sent the email, the office was called by Joe McKenzie, an intelligence officer at the base,” Rev Howson explains. “He wanted to know how many people would be coming to the protest. I was taken aback, and when I asked Mr McKenzie how he knew, I was told it was ‘open source material’. I then sent a second email to my congregation, concerned we were being monitored. Immediately after, I received a call from Mr McKenzie, and he openly admitted that yes, we were under surveillance.”

“This was a legitimate, legal protest,” Rev Howson argues. “Police resources should be targeted towards real crime and terrorism, rather than those campaigning on peace and environmental issues.”

In fact, section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 has been routinely used to stop citizens from exercising their right to free expression and assembly. It gives police the right to stop and search people and vehicles and severely curtails our freedom of expression. But perhaps the most controversial piece of recent legislation is the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which makes all offences arrestable.

Despite its alarmist title (suggesting the tackling of criminal gangs, paedophile rings and human trafficking), SOCPA is more frequently used to silence campaigners, including prohibition on any protest within one square kilometre of Parliament square- unless permission has been granted by the Metropolitan Police six days prior to the protest.

Several jaw-dropping examples of SOCPA’s uses are documented by the self-styled ‘Blackbook Activists’, a collective opposing the law. These include, amongst many others: the case of Sian Murphy, who was threatened with arrest in 2006 for carrying a cake with the word ‘peace’ iced on to it; the arrest of Neil Goodwin in 2007 for dressing up as Charlie Chaplin; the arrest of Steve Jago in 2006 for possessing three copies of Vanity Fair ‘containing politically motivated material’, and the most publicised of all: the case of Maya Evans, who was arrested by two police sergeants and 12 constables for standing outside the Cenotaph with associate Milan Rai in 2005 and reading out the names of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So what are the ramifications of these case studies and the many others like them?

Blair once famously said, “The rules of the game are changing. Civil liberties arguments are…made for another age”, while Gordon Brown has reflected his predecessor’s position with the doublespeak rhetoric: “How we protect people’s liberty has to change to meet new security needs.”

Reading between the lines, what exactly does this mean in practice? It means SOCPA, the Terrorism Act and others will continue to be used against peaceful protesters, and the staggering 3000 criminal offences created in just ten years by New Labour could be joined by many more. It means plans to introduce airport facial recognition, fingerprint testing and iris scanners, and in addition, proposals to collect 19 pieces of information (including mobile phone and credit card details) from all British people travelling abroad. It means increasing our DNA database- already bigger than any dictatorship’s, with millions of innocent citizens and children on it –and the introduction of ID cards making you vulnerable to hackers, incompetent civil servants and discrimination. It means the continued practice of conducting trials without a jury- a fundamental right since the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, abolished overnight by Blunkett’s Criminal Justice Act- or worse, the terrifying trend of keeping people under house arrest for an indefinite length of time even after they have been found innocent in a court of law. It means plans to deploy ‘black boxes’ in ISPs’ networking hubs so that the government can record every website we visit, and a planned database of every email we send and phone call we make. It means an increase in CCTV surveillance (although there is already one camera for every 14 citizens, with the average person caught on camera 300 times per day). It means continued extradition of British citizens to the US under a secretive 2003 treaty, with no legal protection at home; it means police harassment and 266 state powers allowing them to force their way into your home. It means plans for trackers in every car in Britain, and the planned surveillance of potential ‘future criminals’ (ie, children). It means councils and 600 other public bodies snooping through your rubbish bins, intercepting your post and bugging phones and emails at will; it means being spied on by government bodies like NETCU, who label peaceful campaigners as ‘domestic extremists’, it means facing jail terms for speaking up on issues that matter to you. It means a total blanket ban on peaceful assembly at all MOD sites, nuclear power stations, and 16 parliamentary, royal and governmental sites. It means Orwell’s 1984, that great literary warning, is here.

“The nightmare future we are hurtling towards will give us nothing less than electronic slavery that would change forever the relationship between the citizen and the state,” says John Welford, Edinburgh co-ordinator for No2ID. “It is crucial that we all dig our heels in and shout enough is enough. In a very short space of time we will face the frightening prospect of the state knowing much more about each of us than we know about ourselves, and such a willful destruction of people’s privacy is unheard of in any democracy on earth. Whatever people sacrificed their lives for in the last two World Wars, it certainly wasn’t this.”

Note to end:
It’s worth pointing out that Meg Hillier MP and various Home Office staff were given ample time to respond to all the issues raised in this article, but none were forthcoming. However, upon explaining the nature of my feature, frantic questions were asked concerning the publication and print date and all my details were taken immediately.

First published in The Big Issue in the North, 29 December 2008

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