UK Liberty

Jack Straw on liberty

Posted in politicians on liberty by ukliberty on December 18, 2007

In the Guardian:

Does the sun rise in the east? Has Labour enhanced rights and liberties? The answer to the second question is as unambiguously a yes as to the first.

Well, that’s arguable – at the very least! Jack Straw, of course, was an illiberal Home Secretary, so I suggest plenty of salt.

For example, he was the Home Secretary who introduced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill (as it was). In case you haven’t heard of it, have a look at some news coverage of it. Pretty much unanimously condemned.

So if Jack Straw says the sun rises in the east, I would check for myself.

But let us dwell on this, given the fashionable but false orthodoxy that seeks to deny Labour’s achievements – with its tendency to pocket all that has happened since 1997 as though it were by divine intervention.

The constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor has commented that when the history of this era is written, the last 10 years will be seen as heralding a “quiet revolution” in the way in which the UK is governed. He is correct. This period has seen a greater improvement in our democracy and people’s sense of rights than any time since the development of the franchise between 1832 and 1928. But the difference is: that took a century, this has taken a decade.

So let’s take a look at the list. First, the Human Rights Act. We really did “bring rights home”, as we said we would. At last British people have been able directly to access and to enforce positive rights in the British courts, rather than having to go to Strasbourg and wait for years in a queue. Some on the right complain that all this has been is a “villain’s charter”.

Including Labour Government Ministers!

Nonsense. However uncomfortable the idea may be, it must be the case that, in a democratic society, even those who deny rights to others have rights themselves – for example, to a fair trial.

Labour, of course, found that idea so uncomfortable that they are gradually getting rid of fair trials in favour of summary justice and introducing new types of civil orders to prevent crime.

Note that the proportion of convictions among the total number of “offences brought to justice” has decreased in the last four years.

But the Human Rights Act‘s reach has extended way beyond the police station and the criminal courts. It has made all “public authorities” – ie institutions with authority over the public – much more careful about how they treat our citizens and those others who are present in the jurisdiction.

The culture in Whitehall has been changed beyond recognition from what I witnessed as a young special adviser in the 1974-79 Labour government, when the “it’s the man in Whitehall who knows best” attitude was still dominant.

The Human Rights Act has been one key factor in changing that, the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) 2000 another.

Which of course the Labour Government made all but toothless and wants to further undermine.

Seriously, does anyone think it is fair that someone making a request under the FOIA is beset by delays, appeals against independent decision-makers, and still has no resolution 1158 days since making the original request?

When the act was going through parliament, some of the pressure groups claimed that it would be no better than John Major’s non-statutory FoI code. Funny how we don’t hear that charge any more. Everyone knows what a difference it has made to openness and accountability of governance – including for journalists.

Well, perhaps the situation is better than it was, but of course it is by no means perfect, as many journalists will tell you.

And indeed, why would it be? As someone more eloquent than me wrote, “Government is set up to hide its failures and publicise its successes” – with this motivation in mind, why would it want us to access the really juicy information? It would be a surprise if it didn’t exempt a lot of information, as indeed it has, and delayed and appealed and destroyed the rest.

The point being that the Government only wants to appear to support Freedom of Information – where its interests conflict with those of Freedom of Information, I think we can safely bet on the Government withholding the information.

Likewise for human rights, say the freedom to protest: even something as innocuous as eating a cake or reading aloud the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq can get you carted off to court. Something Labour introduced (the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act).

Where the Labour Government’s interests coincide with our freedoms and rights, all well and good; where there is conflict, the Government will fight tooth and nail to ensure it comes first, not you.

The end of section 28, the equalisation of the age of consent, toughened race laws and duties for everyone against indirect and direct discrimination,

Again, loopholes there and compliance isn’t universal, even in the public sector.

the Disability Discrimination Act,

Worth noting that there are two: 1995, and 2005.

a minimum wage, the end to the appalling primary-purpose rule, independent investigation and adjudication of complaints against the police.

Again, perhaps better than it was, but sometimes the IPCC will use a police service to investigate complaints against the very same police service – seriously, does anyone think that is a fair process?

All this and devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But not England, of course. There are regional assemblies, however, but even those are pertinent to Labour’s record, because what Labour did was this:

  1. Using a referendum, it asked people in the North-East if they wanted an elected regional assembly;
  2. The people said NO.
  3. Labour decided not to bother with the other two referendums it had originally planned for other regions, and give the regions unelected assemblies regardless. The unelected assemblies having power to overrule local, elected authorities on certain issues.

And Jack Straw calls this an unambiguous enhancement of our liberty.

And, little noticed but a personal obsession of mine since the early 90s, we have established the Office of National Statistics on a basis wholly independent of government.

A 1997 manifesto commitment, and not quite complete at the time of writing. I think it will be March/April 2008 when the legislation comes into effect.

Now, with Gordon Brown’s Governance of Britain agenda (pdf), the executive’s prerogative powers on war and treaties are rightly to be replaced by parliamentary powers,

And what about the use of the prerogative with, oh I don’t know, the Chagos Islanders? Something I think Jack Straw was responsible for when he was Foreign Secretary.

the role of the civil service will be legislated by parliament, and we will soon be consulting with the public on the development of a British bill of rights and responsibilities.

However, rights are not free consumer goodies, but fundamentally about how we relate to each other – our neighbours – as well as how we are protected from overweening power of the state. We have “freedoms to” do things in a free society, but “freedoms from” as well. The freedoms from fear, crime and terrorism are as important as positive freedoms. No constituent of mine has ever complained to me that our strengthening of the criminal and antisocial behaviour laws is incompatible with their sense of rights. They are just happy that crime and disorder is down and that they can enjoy a quieter life.

Very few people bother to imagine themselves in a situation where they are stopped and searched under the Terrorism Act for wearing a T-shirt that says “Bollocks to Blair”, or for entering a tube station without making a point of looking at the nice policeman (but not too intently, mind). They are unaware it happens, they cannot imagine themselves in such a situation, they cannot imagine it happening to them.

That Straw’s constituents haven’t complained to him is therefore hardly an argument that there have been no infringements.

Now, liberty, as a judge put it, and a Labour Home Secretary disagreed, means the freedom to do as one wishes – in other words, a freedom from restraint. We may do what we like provided it isn’t explicitly prohibited.

Where the exercise of someone’s freedoms infringe on my freedoms, that is, they do some sort of non-consensual harm (physical, mental, reputation, etc), there should be some sort of legal remedy available to me, or exercised on my behalf.

That is one of the functions of government: to protect our freedoms against those who infringe them, but not to the extent that we or the government disproportionately infringe the other’s freedoms.

People also talk about ‘positive’ freedoms – that is, the freedom to do, rather than freedom from something. Freedom of opportunity, say.

But in either sense, traditionally there has rarely been talk of freedom from “fear, crime, terrorism”, or illiberal Home Secretaries, per se. Jack Straw and his ilk, in using such language – such as the “right not to be blown up” – are just clouding the issue.

Now, great that (well, if) anti-social behaviour is decreasing. But this has been gained at the cost of anti-social behaviour orders and other measures.

There is always a trade-off.

Of course, and particularly since 9/11, there have been some acute issues about whether protections we have sought – especially over pre-charge time for terrorist suspects – are proportionate and fair. We are all acutely aware, as Jacqui Smith has spelt out, of the care that has to be taken – for example over any extension of 28 days. But consider what might have happened if there had been no Labour government over the last 10 years.

Well, there wouldn’t have been all of Labour’s infringements on our liberties. See for example Henry Porter’s handy list.

We wouldn’t have had Blair, for example, saying that “Unfortunately we were unable to maintain the legislation, which we wanted to do, which would give us the power to detain people [without trial]”.

You know, if you really want to know about Labour’s record on civil liberties, just read that one sentence – it says it all – utter contempt for the tradition of freedom in this country, for example habeas corpus, which goes back to the 12th century. The right to challenge the legality of one’s detention, vs. the exercise of arbitrary executive power – in other words, Blair wanted to be able to point a finger at you, and say “he’s a terrorist, lock him up”, and you would be locked up.

Also have a look at Blair’s views regarding the law vs. expediency.

How loudly did Straw, the great supporter and defender of liberty, protest against any of that?

In the aftermath of 9/11, whichever party had been in power would certainly have strengthened counter-terrorist legislation, and almost certainly have extended the potential period of pre-charge detention to 28 days – and maybe beyond. What they would not have done would have been to introduce the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Race Relations Amendment Act; make life infinitely better for black and Asian people, gay and lesbian people, the disabled; and made a better reality of freedom and rights for everyone in this land.

Useless speculation, really. Other parties may not have introduced such legislation, or they may have introduced better legislation. Your guess is as good as mine. It’s worth noting, though, that a Disability Discrimination Act (the 1995 one) was passed some two years before Labour got into power. So, if Jack got that wrong, what else did he lie about get wrong?

We know they would not have done so because they did not do so when they had the chance.

Conversely we know that with this Government it gives rights with one hand and infringes them with the other, so obviously that will continue – right, Jack?

In many cases – as with section 28 – they did quite the reverse. Yes, the sun does rise in the east. And yes, we have deepened and extended civil liberties for all.

I just wonder if politicians such as Jack Straw really believe what they write and say. If they do, they are stupid; if they don’t, they are dishonest.


One Response

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  1. Polly Toynbee on liberty « UK Liberty said, on December 18, 2007 at 4:47 pm

    […] Feed Jack Straw on libertyanother broken promiseJCHR report on Counter-Terrorism Policy and Human Rights: 42 daysOn the […]

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