UK Liberty

Meg Hillier inadvertently misleading us about the NIR

Posted in ID Cards, politicians on liberty by ukliberty on February 27, 2008

At the Home Affairs Committee (1:08:00) in:

I just want to pick up, Mr Chairman, on this issue about the information being very different to what we currently hold. If you look currently at the passport database, the information on that is very much what the information will be on the National Identity Register. If you look at the current passport – I’ve got my old one here – the information that’s on the passport will be much the same that’s on the card. … the information on the identity card will be much the same as the information that’s on the current passport – the readable zone … the information on the database will include the national insurance number, update of address and a log of who has ever looked at the record. So that’s the information – I think it’s worth just nailing, Mr Chairman, as it was raised, this idea that there’s going to be a lot of different information. This information is routinely provided to people – by people to the government, it’s just that it will be held in one place.

Well, quite! That’s one of the objections to it – as opposed to little bits of this information being in lots of different baskets (hopefully held only for a specific and limited purpose, among the principles of the Data Protection Act).

What she says begs an obvious question, why do we need a new database if the information to be stored is “much the same” as on the passport database? Is it the same, or not? Of course, it is not, but she’d like you think it is.

If it is not, what else will be stored? See Schedule 1 of the Act or James Hammerton’s summary, or as NO2ID succintly put it,

50 categories of registrable fact are set out in the Bill, though they could be added to. Effectively an index to all other official and quasi-official records, through cross-references and an audit trail of all checks on the Register, the NIR would be the key to a total life history of every individual, to be retained even after death.

And why do the likes of Meg Hillier continue to obfuscate the differences, saying “it is much the same”? Oh, I am sure it is unintentional.

Later, (1:10:00):

Can I just emphasise again that the information held on the National Identity Register will not actually be 100% of people because it’s a voluntary scheme [Meg needs to read the IPS’s top ten FAQs] – it doesn’t include actually a great deal more information – well, it doesn’t include much more information than is currently held in many other databases. The benefit is that it’s held in one place, so it is really upgrading in a sense some of what we’ve already got by putting it in one place and of course the key thing is tying it securely to somebody’s identity.

Still later (1:15:00) Bob Russell points out that in earlier evidence given to the Committee,

some experts said it was more of a risk putting the information, all the eggs in one basket so to speak, but today you’ve stated that putting all the eggs in one basket is the best way of safeguarding the security of identity of people.

Indeed the Committee concluded in 2004 that “We do not think that there should be a central database with all information available to the Government on it”.

Political hot potato, Meg – catch!

Well, it’s actually eggs in two baskets if we’re using that analogy because there will be one database for fingerprints and facial image, and that will be separate to the database which will be built on the DWP database of biographical information, which is what is currently on the passport database plus those other points I mentioned.

Two? But earlier (“it will be held in one place”) you said it would be one.

Oh, that’s alright then. Forget I asked!

Of course this ignores the point that the biographical data will be held in one place, a quality source of supply for the market in personal information.

Update

Forgot to mention that Hiller said of the audit trail that they were damned if they had an audit trail and damned if they didn’t. Of course she frames the debate with the assumption that we must have a central database with all this information on it – there is no debate about that. The problem with the audit trail arises as a result of that. But you are not supposed to think about that.

An alternative to the NIR (if we are to have ID cards) is to have the information stored on the cards themselves. Then there would be no need for an audit trail. But then of course the Government wouldn’t have a database to trawl through and an audit trail to spy on what we have been up to.

Update 2

Uncorrected oral evidence now online.

Rings hollow

Posted in accountability, freedom of information, politicians on liberty by ukliberty on February 27, 2008

The Times:

British politicians yesterday attacked the decision to suppress the report of misuse of European Parliament allowances.

Supporters of the European Union and sceptics united in demanding the report’s publication.

Denis MacShane, the Labour MP and former Europe Minister, said: “Any reports on these matters should be in the public domain. End of story. MEPs, like MPs, do themselves no good by not being as transparent as possible as is the case with British MEPs from the mainstream parties.”

Kate Hoey, another Labour MP, who has led calls for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, said: “This is another example of the closed and secretive nature of the EU.”

Philip Davies, the Eurosceptic Tory MP, said: “People have long known it is a bit of a gravy train in the European Parliament and this will probably confirm their worst fears. This will further undermine people’s confidence in European institutions.”

Good for them saying it, but it does rather ring hollow given recent news about the battle to prevent us from scrutinising MPs’ expenses.

Also in the Times:

Senior members of the European Parliament turned their fire on a whistle-blower for disclosing the existence of a confidential report into widespread misuse of expenses yesterday as they voted for it to stay secret.

Can’t have the public knowing what their money is spent on, can we?

Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat who broke ranks to reveal that an internal auditor had found a number of scams being operated by MEPs, was attacked for misusing private information and for rarely turning up to committee meetings. MEPs on the Budget Control Committee voted by 21 to 14 not to publish the report, with the support of the two main groups in Parliament, the European People’s Party, which includes the Conservatives, and the Socialists, including Labour.

“We were crushed by the forces of darkness using procedural rules,” Mr Davies said. “I have been accused of bringing the Parliament into disrepute but I don’t think you should blame the messenger. It is those who practise activities akin to fraud who are bringing it into disrepute.”

Well said, and good on Mr Davies, who will no doubt now be persecuted for bring this to light.

The committee was supposed to cover the €¤107 billion (£80 billion) EU accounts, failed by the Court of Auditors for the thirteenth year in a row, but instead spent much of its time venting its spleen at Mr Davies and the auditor who wrote the report.

MEPs have been allowed a wide discretion over their annual assistance allowance of €185,952.  Mr Davies disclosed that an internal auditor had detailed various scams used by some MEPs, sometimes without technically breaking the rules, to line their own pockets. One MEP paid a Christmas bonus to an assistant worth 19 times his salary, several others set up arms-length companies to pay expenses to bogus staff and others seemed to funnel money to their political parties while claiming to be paying assistants.

In the secret report, available for MEPs on the committee to read only in a sealed room after taking an oath of secrecy, the auditor also set out a series of recommendations for changes to ensure probity and transparency.

José Javier Pomés Ruiz, a Spanish EPP member, led the attack. “Coming along and saying ‘publish’ when you have not been involved in the process, I do not think that is 100 per cent honest,” he told Mr Davies. “If you look at the headlines and look at the report, there are great differences. Passing information to the press is a misuse of information and a misuse of parliamentary obligations.”

Mr Pomés Ruiz said that the appropriate body to carry out any investigation was Olaf, the EU anti-fraud office. Mr Davies pointed out that Olaf would not have known about the secret audit if he had not alerted the world to its existence. The auditor who wrote the report was attacked for “going above his competences” by Szabolcs Fazakas, a Hungarian Socialist.

Herbert Bösch, an Austrian Socialist and committee chairman, told Mr Davies that he was wasting his time calling for the report to be published. Speaking afterwards Mr Bösch insisted that there were areas of MEP expenditure that should remain private. “I will refuse any demand to have a look at my journeys or trips because sometimes you have to meet people off the agenda,” he said.

The only British voice raised in Mr Davies’s favour was by Ashley Mote, the disgraced independent MEP recently released from prison for fiddling British benefit payments. Chris Heaton-Harris, a Tory MEP, defied the EPP group line to vote for publication, calling the decision a huge missed opportunity.

Hans-Peter Martin, an Austrian MEP ostracised after he filmed some of his colleagues signing in for the day to collect their per diem allowance, then promptly leaving, said: “This Parliament is a paradise of unjustified privileges and possibilities for real cheats. It is a central problem for democracy and credibility in Europe.”

Let us also remember that the EU auditors refused in November 2007 to sign off the EU’s accounts for the 13th consecutive year.

A ‘concession’ on 42 day detention without charge

Posted in detention without charge, politicians on liberty by ukliberty on February 27, 2008

Anthony Barnett at OurKingdom:

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): While Sunny Hundal tries to gather everyone (including a 5,000 facebook users) around ‘Not a day Longer’ and Shami Chakrabarti’s Liberty issues pungent press statements and Henry Porter warns and fumes and Stuart Weir posts in OK, the government inches forward. The latest “concession” to quote the spin – which even got into the headline as if it was the report of a fact – of this morning’s Guardian story by Nicholas Watt, is a jaw-dropping disgrace.

Jacqui Smith is to offer a concession to backbench Labour MPs in an attempt to avoid a damaging rebellion against the government’s plans to detain terror suspects without charge for up to 42 days.

Government sources indicated yesterday that the home secretary was prepared to accept a backbench amendment which would give parliament a far greater role in monitoring such detentions.

Under the proposal, MPs would be allowed to debate a decision to invoke the emergency powers within 10 days of a government decision. At the moment MPs would only be given a say within 30 days, a proposal seen as largely meaningless by critics…

One government source said: “We are getting there slowly. The 10-day idea will help colleagues who need to be nudged. We accept that the diehard opponents will not sign up.”

The new amendment is being drawn up by Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West. He is a member of the home affairs select committee, which argued last year that the government had failed to “make a convincing case that the current limit of 28 days is inadequate”.

Salter says it is time to move beyond debating the number of days. “We have got stuck in a sterile debate on the number of days. We need to move the debate to ask: is it parliament or the judiciary that should call the home secretary to account? It is MPs that need to have that oversight.”

There are few things more insufferable than MPs telling us how they are the guardians of our liberty and all the great things about Britain while the executive laughs up its sleeve and voters snort with derision. Salter is preparing to be a sell out.

No, Martin Salter is a sell out – very strongly for ID cards, very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.

Of course the judiciary with greater independence, less needs for jobs, and under stricter guidelines, who have to provide the oversight not MPs. Just this weekend I ran a piece on how even Michael White seems to be shocked at the facility with which MPs were parted from their oversight powers by the Government. What is serious about what is happening is that the government are buying votes by making paper concessions to ensure they have a majority however slender.

With respect it seems like standard fare to me. Offer a high price and allow yourself to be knocked down to one that you actually want, while not conceding any ground on what really matters (compare the Dutch auction over 90 days) – being able to detain people without charge.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, [said]:

“This is a completely illusory safeguard because parliament would not be allowed to have a meaningful debate about an individual.”

Well, quite, as a member of the Home Affairs Committee recently pointed out (see Uncorrected Oral Evidence):

Q168 Mr Clappison: I accept what you say on that, Home Secretary, but there is a difference between a general statement to Parliament and the sort of scrutiny which you are describing, which is Parliamentary scrutiny to see if a condition of legislation is fulfilled, and your condition of legislation here, before the reserve power can come into force, is that the investigation gives rise to an exceptional operational need. The question I will put to you, if I may, Chairman, is how on earth can MPs investigate the evidence, the facts, the circumstances as to whether or not there is an exceptional operational need when an operation is ongoing and there may be all sorts of factors which cannot be revealed to Parliament? How can MPs scrutinise that properly to decide whether or not that condition has been fulfilled?

Jacqui Smith: Firstly, there are, of course, four opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny in the proposals that I am putting forward: (1) there is the discussion that will happen during the course of this Bill so we can actually talk about different scenarios and circumstances in which it might happen, (2) there is the requirement for the Home Secretary to report to Parliament and the discussions that may well go on around that, (3) there is the debate at 30 days and the motion, (4) there is the subsequent debate on the report of the independent reviewer as to whether or not the Home Secretary was reasonable, carried out the decision in an appropriate way. It is the Home Secretary’s decision to make a judgment under the provisions that we have put forward. What I am saying, however, in these circumstances is that I think we have gone a considerable way to recognising the role of Parliament in being able, pre the decision, to think about the circumstances and, post the decision, scrutinise.

See also Gary Streeter’s questions at Q171-6, which Home Secretary Jaqui Smith decided to evade.

What really matters is that MPs will not be able to properly scrutinise the decision at the time about the most important issue – the individual, you know, that person who is going to be banged up without charge for 42 days.

Nor, as I have argued, should they be allowed to – they cannot be reasonably said to be informed and neutral decision-makers.

Indeed, as Jaqui Smith herself said,

I do not think it is the role of Parliament actually to make decisions about individuals. I think that is the role of the judicial system, which is why we have been very, very clear that individual detention will need very strong judicial oversight in the decision-making, and that, I think, in our system, is where we place responsibility for decisions about individual detention.

So then what is the Parliamentary scrutiny actually about?

In short, it is a fig-leaf, designed to make MPs feel better about locking someone up.

Can we not dispense with this sham?

Update

Why is the Times describing this as a “major concession”?  It isn’t a concession at all.

Information Tribunal rules MPs’ expenses system “deeply unsatisfactory”

Posted in accountability, freedom of information, politicians on liberty by ukliberty on February 27, 2008

The BBC:

The House of Commons has been ordered to provide a detailed breakdown of MPs’ second home expenses claims, after a lengthy Freedom of Information battle.

The current Additional Costs Allowance (ACA) system is “deeply unsatisfactory” the Information Tribunal ruled.

Well done to the Tribunal!

It said the “laxity” of rules on the allowance was “very different” from those in the private sector.

Commons resources boss Andrew Walker had argued publishing more details could intrude on MPs’ private lives.

But the tribunal ruled in favour of Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke and two journalists – and ordered the Commons to release the information on 14 MPs – including Tony Blair, David Cameron and Gordon Brown – within 28 days.

Each MP can claim about £23,000 a year and can submit claims of up to £250 without a receipt and up to £400 a month for food.

The tribunal noted that the guidance available to MPs on what they can claim is “incomplete”, that MPs are not trusted to have access to the list of acceptable costs “lest the maximum allowable prices become the going rate” and there are no “additional” checks on what MPs claim.

In its ruling, the tribunal said it was not its job to say how the system should work, but it had to make a judgement on existing controls.

It said: “The laxity of and lack of clarity in the rules for ACA is redolent of a culture very different from that which exists in the commercial sphere or in most other public sector organisations today.”

It said that historically MPs were allowed to self-certify, but even if that was acceptable in “modern conditions” it was inadequate as MPs do not have access to a “coherent and comprehensive statement of their entitlements”.

It added: “In our judgment these features, coupled with the very limited nature of the checks, constitute a recipe for confusion, inconsistency and the risk of misuse.”

It said the current system was “deeply unsatisfactory” and suffered an “acute” shortfall in transparency and accountability.

A spokesman for the Members’ Estimates Committee (MEC), which deals with allowances on behalf of the Commons, said: “The MEC notes the tribunal’s decision and is taking legal advice.”

They could appeal to the High Court against the tribunal’s decision, which was itself the result of an appeal against a ruling by the Information Commissioner.

You can download the decision (1.75Mb PDF) – well worth reading – from Heather Brooke’s website, particularly for the submissions made by the house (see page 23), by which the Tribunal was “unimpressed”.

Note that three years have gone by since the original requests, and some of the information requested has since been destroyed!

It is a criminal offence to destroy information to which an applicant is entitled with the intention of preventing disclosure.  Of course the destruction wasn’t deliberate in this instance!  Of course…

I think these people forget that this is our money – money the taxpayer is obliged to forfeit in order to have good governance and public services.

Why should we be prevented from knowing where the money goes?

Mr Thomas and Mr Leapman used as an illustration the claims made by Mr Blair and Mrs Beckett during the periods when they lived in [grace and favour] accommodation provided by the Government.  Given their living arrangements, what were their ACA claims actually for?

Well, quite.  And we will never know.

We would require a great deal of persuading that there would be something wrong with allowing questions to be put to elected representatives over how they have spent public money.