UK Liberty

Disinformation and the Freedom from Scrutiny Bill

Posted in freedom of information by ukliberty on May 21, 2007

Via Tim Worstall, I learn of a Dean Godson, writing for the Times:

… [David Maclean’s] real crime in the eyes of the media is not his bike,

Indeed, a lot – perhaps too much – has been made of his quad-bike, which as an M.S. sufferer he uses to get around his rural constituency, a mobility scooter being pretty useless in the mud.

Apparently the bike was paid for by his Parliamentary expenses. I have no idea whether or not this is justified, nor do I particularly care at this time, although one or two M.S. sufferers have pointed out that the taxpayer hasn’t purchased them a quad-bike, which seems a fair point.

but his sponsorship of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, which secured its Third Reading last Friday. Harold Macmillan used to say that, when the Establishment is united on a topic, it is almost always wrong. Similarly, when the media are united we should beware.

Woe betide anyone who seeks to trammel the media’s collective definition of their prerogatives. One Sunday broadsheet characterised the legislation as “East German”. Most egregious was the editorialising on Friday’s BBC Ten O’Clock News, where Gordon Brown was put in the dock for violating his commitment to open government by not opposing the Bill. One for the Corporation’s governors, surely?

Why? It seems fair comment to point out that Brown has claimed to be committed to openness but remains ‘neutral’ on the Bill, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.

Likewise a Government that ostensibly stands for openness and transparency is also ‘neutral’ on the bill, preferring to leave it to the consciences of the thirty Ministers who voted in favour of it.

I wish the BBC did point out such things – in a neutral way of course.

The Bill is not principally about MPs’ expenses, which the Speaker has pledged will continue to be openly available.

And he can change his mind at any time, because it’s out of the goodness of his heart, not a guarantee in legislation.

That’s a good idea isn’t it, putting our trust in politicians?

Especially the ones who fought so hard against Norman Baker’s (ultimately successful) attempts to have the Commons publish detailed breakdowns of MPs’ expenses – a battle that took two years to win.

In case you didn’t know, you may be interested in learning that our Mr Speaker (Michael Martin) is the Chairman of the House of Commons Commission, which fought Mr Baker all the way to the Information Tribunal (and lost). Mr Maclean is a member of the Commission.

Rather, it is about ensuring that MPs’ correspondence is exempted from freedom of information legislation. Mr Maclean is addressing the fear that sensitive communications to MPs – such as those relating to child support payments – may be released to a third party with whom that constituent is in dispute.

The Bill also helps MPs to communicate in private to the public authorities which constituents have genuine cases and which haven’t. It is the political equivalent of consultants quietly rationing NHS care for the sake of the truly needy.

Such correspondence is protected by the legislation we already have. Now, Maclean and his co-conspirators supporters have claimed that some public authorities have released this correspondence under the FOIA – well, the obvious counterpoint is that they shouldn’t have, and they should be punished if they did. Is there any evidence of any of this – crime and punishment – actually occurring? It seems not.

Regardless, as Norman Baker pointed out, it “is like suggesting that if a murder is committed, we should pass a further law making murder a criminal offence because the original law clearly did not work.”

But okay, if you think it’s unclear, let’s make it absolutely clear by explicitly exempting such correspondence from the FOIA.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why Dean Godson, like many other supporters, fails to discuss the paragraph before the bit about correspondence, which totally exempts the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the Act.

Don’t take my word for it, have a look at the bill: it’s right there in the preamble and in section 1, before the bit about correspondence, section 1 paragraph 2 (in other words not hard to miss):

1 Exemption of House of Commons and House of Lords
(1) The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (c. 36) is amended as follows.
(2) In Part 1 of Schedule 1 (public authorities) omit paragraphs 2 and 3 (which relate to the House of Commons and the House of Lords).

No-one to my knowledge has explained what that is doing in a Bill intended to protect MPs’ correspondence.

MPs’ prerogatives are an integral part of the constitution. To give but one example: the press benefit greatly from the right of legislators to raise issues “under parliamentary privilege” that would otherwise fall foul of libel law.

Is Mr Godson arguing that MPs shouldn’t be subject to the same laws as the rest of us?

Neither side in this debate has yet secured a knockout blow. But there is far more to this than the simplistic notion that MPs are featherbedding their nests.

Mr Godson is right. So why hasn’t he discussed s1(2)?

More “open” government is not necessarily better government.

Not necessarily, but fairly likely I imagine.

Also I think it’s fair to know how my employees spend the time I’m remunerating them for.

Update

The Government may have been neutral, but the Parliamentary Labour Party Committee was not.

Freedom from Scrutiny Bill votes

Posted in freedom of information by ukliberty on May 21, 2007

Public Whip now has the information online on who voted and whether it was “aye” or “no” for the Bill to proceed to the Lords.

You can see the majority of Conservatives who voted, voted “aye”.

Thirty Ministers and eight Parliamentary Private Secretaries voted for the Bill – all of whom are of course Labour – despite the Government being officially neutral (yeah, right).  Of course the Government stands up for openness and transparency (yeah, right) so why it chose to remain ‘neutral’ escapes me.

It might be worth noting that for all the Liberal Democrats’ official opposition to the Bill, only 11 out of the 62 turned up to vote.  That said, even the other 51 turning up wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome.

History repeating?

Posted in law and order, state-citizen relationship, surveillance society by ukliberty on May 21, 2007

The Stasi (Wikipedia):

The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS / Ministry for State Security), commonly known as the Stasi (from Staatssicherheit), was the main security (secret police) and intelligence organization of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The Stasi was headquartered in East Berlin, with an extensive complex in Lichtenberg and several smaller complexes throughout the city. Widely regarded as one of the most effective intelligence agencies in the world, the Stasi’s motto was “Schild und Schwert der Partei” (Shield and Sword of the Party), showing its connections to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the equivalent to the CPSU of the Soviet Union. Another term used in earlier years to refer to the Stasi was Staatssicherheitsdienst (State Security Service). …

The Stasi influenced almost every aspect of life in the GDR. During the mid-1980s, a civilian network of informants known as the Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (IMs, Unofficial Collaborators) began to grow within both parts of Germany, East and West. By the time East Germany collapsed in 1989, it was estimated that 91,000 full-time employees and 300,000 informants were employed by the Stasi. In other words, about one in fifty East Germans collaborated with the Stasi—one of the highest penetrations of any civilian society by an intelligence-gathering organization. …

The Stasi also monitored politically subversive behavior among citizens of East Germany. During the Peaceful Revolution of 1989, Stasi offices became overrun by enraged citizens but not before a large amount of confidential material was first destroyed by Stasi officers. The remaining files were later made available for review to those who were targets of Stasi surveillance; many of the reports revealed that the individual’s friends, colleagues, spouses, and relatives had regularly filed reports with the organization.

The Times (testing the waters?):

Council workers, charity staff and doctors will be required to tip off police about anyone whom they believe could commit a violent crime, under secret Home Office plans.

Civil liberties campaigners last night said that the proposal raised the prospect of people being placed under surveillance and detained even though they have committed no offence.

And a senior Whitehall official, who leaked the plans to The Times, said that it would entail a mass of personal information, including sensitive medical records, being passed around many different agencies — even if there was no firm evidence of any potential risk from an individual.

The draft set of proposals on “multi-agency information sharing” was circulated around Whitehall by Simon King, head of the violent crime unit at the Home Office. The document states: “Public bodies will have access to valuable information about people at risk of becoming either perpetrators or victims of serious violence. Professionals will obviously alert police or other relevant authority if they have good reason to believe [an] act of serious violence is about to be committed. However, our proposal goes beyond that, and is that, when they become sufficiently concerned about an individual, they must consider initial risk assessment of risk to/from that person, and refer [the] case to [a] multi-agency body.”

It suggests that two new agencies — one for potential criminals, the other for potential victims — might be created to collate reports from the front line and carry out “full risk assessments”. But the draft does not spell out what action could then be taken to head off violent attacks.  …

data abuse page updated

Posted in Uncategorized by ukliberty on May 21, 2007

Another one of the good guys

Posted in ID Cards, law and order, state-citizen relationship, surveillance society by ukliberty on May 21, 2007

[hat-tip: Ideal Government]

EADT24 (Suffolk and Essex online):

SUFFOLK’S most senior policeman last night questioned whether controversial ID cards would be the solution to major crime – saying they could become the “gold standard” for hackers.

The Government could make the cards compulsory from around 2010 in a bid to crack down on terrorism and organised crime – but Suffolk’s Acting Chief Constable Colin Langham-Fitt has voiced his doubts over their use.

He called for a full debate over the creeping increase in surveillance, saying people needed to take a “step back” to assess whether it made them feel comfortable and safer.

But he warned ID cards could even change the relationship between the police and the community, if officers are seen as “agents of the state”.

“There should be a debate about the ongoing erosion of civil liberties in the name of the fight against terrorism and the fight against crime,” Mr Langham-Fitt said.

“Are we all happy to have our cards monitored wherever we go, to be on CCTV and to have our shopping tracked? With all this surveillance available, the question needs to be asked – are we happy with that? Does it make us feel better and safer?

“I haven’t got the answers but I would welcome the debate – a debate beyond the clichéd response of ‘if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to worry about’.”

He added: “Every measure like this is going to impinge on civil liberties. The debate has to be had – are these sensible precautions in a dangerous world or are we reacting to things in the belief they will solve them but at the end of the day they might not have any impact.”

Can’t argue with any of that.

The trouble is the Government doesn’t seem interested in a genuine debate.