UK Liberty

Polly on passports

Posted in stupid by ukliberty on January 28, 2009

Polly ToynBee in the Guardian, on passports and driving licences being withdrawn in child maintenance cases:

The long and sorry history of trying to make absent fathers pay for their children gets another turn of the screw today, as the welfare reform bill has its second reading. Won’t-pay fathers could find their passports and driving licences revoked if they refuse to support their children. …

The idea is taken from Norway, Australia, Canada and the United States, where the threat of confiscation has had a good effect. In just one state, Maine, $89m has been collected from fathers through threatening to remove their driving licences. In Australia, in two years of threatening to stop non-payers travelling abroad, an extra $11m has been collected for children.

Now the battle lines are being drawn here. Families Need Fathers will fight the new law, claiming support from the Conservative party. Theresa May, newly appointed to the shadow work and pensions brief, is holding fire for now: “We need to explore the detail to make sure it is commensurate and in keeping with natural justice.”

That means Theresa May wants to make sure it is procedurally fair and proportionate.  Who could reasonably be against that?

Polly?

Last year in the Lords, a group of Tory peers succeeded in taking the removal of passports and licences out of a previous bill, claiming such a move would be against the Human Rights Act – interesting how they use it when it suits them – as it won’t require a court order to cancel driving licences and passports. Fathers would have to go to court to get their documents restored. …

In fact it was the Lords Constitution Committee (made up of four Tories, four Labour, two LibDems and two Crossbenchers, i.e. a third were Tories) that famously criticised the passport proposal at the time:

 The freedom to travel to and from one’s country is a right of great significance and should only be curtailed after a rigorous decision process. We can therefore see no justification for granting CMEC the right to remove a person’s passport and identity card without reference to the courts; as with the other sanctions in this bill, CMEC should be required to obtain an order from the magistrates’ courts.

All quite reasonable.  Still, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a jab at the evil Tories and their callous disregard for single mums and their children, eh?

1000 posts

Posted in everything by ukliberty on January 28, 2009

More statistics troubles

Posted in Uncategorized by ukliberty on January 28, 2009

Mark Easton, BBC:

Sources inside the Home Office have revealed still more anger about December’s misleading knife crime stats.

I am informed that the department’s statisticians had “no idea” that Downing Street and their own media department were putting out a release which included unchecked, inappropriate and selective numbers.

It seems that no-one in the press office or Number Ten thought it might be a good idea to have a quick chat with the Home Office’s own stats people.

Despite what the Home Secretary has said, this isn’t a story about over-excitable press officers failing to follow some internal code to the letter. The rules on statistical releases are laid down by statute – laws which had only just come into force and should have been fresh in their minds.

Oral evidence on Bill of Rights from Straw and Wills

Some uncorrected oral evidence has been uploaded to the JHCR’s website:

The purpose of this session is to follow up on our report on a Bill of Rights and Freedoms for the United Kingdom and the Government’s reply, and it is also our annual oral evidence session with the Minister of Justice and Human Rights Minister. We are pleased that we are joined by the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw MP, and Michael Wills MP, the Human Rights Minister at the Ministry of Justice.

There is a weird bit early on from Straw, during his comments on his Daily Mail interview  (incidentally he says it “was entirely accurate in the way in which it quoted me”):

Aside from the fact that I took not one but three oaths when I became Lord Chancellor, which I swore before the Lord Chief Justice, about respect for the judiciary and, as it were, protector of their independence, I happen to feel very strongly that there should be a mutual respect between these separate and distinct arms of the state: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

In the UK, we don’t separate those arms of the state: for a start, the executive is dependent on and constituted from the legislature.  I’m therefore not sure how Straw can claim they are “separate and distinct”.

I’m still uncertain about how he interprets Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights:

I think everybody has to recognise, including those who strongly support the Human Rights Act, as do I, that there is an issue of balance here and how we deal with people who may have committed very serious offences within the jurisdiction or overseas citizens whose presence here was not acceptable, how we deal with those cases within the overall framework of not sending people back to torture or death is a very difficult one. The argument is not should you, as it were, override the purpose of, say, Article 3, but where does the balance lie.

There is no balance, it is an absolute prohibition.  Of course Chahal v UK came up again, and Saadi v Italy, in which the UK Government intervened, and where the court unaminously endorsed the approach in Chahal – if there is a real risk of torture, the person must not be deported (see HeadofLegal for a good write-up). A similar point was made to Straw and he responded,

There is a balancing not of whether there should be an absolute prohibition to people’s submission to torture or death; the difficult judgments arise over whether such a risk is there in respect of sending back an individual to a particular country. … I think there is scope for a perfectly reasonable difference of view between, say, that which has been taken by the British Government (and a number of other governments; we are far from alone in that) and for example the European Court.  … I think it depends on the strength of the views.

What’s interesting here is that the Government did argue, when intervening in Saadi, that the risk of torture must be balanced against the risk to the community if the person wasn’t deported.  In other words their intervention was not about the weighing up of views of different parties about risks (not that it would have fared any better).   Does Straw really not get it, or is he playing to the gallery? 

Well, whatever; ultimately it doesn’t depend “on the strength of the views”, it depends on what the court decides.  And a good thing too. 

Later they discuss Rights and Responsibilities:

we have no intention of resiling from the Human Rights Act. 

We have never said that rights are contingent on responsibilities. Self-evidently you have a responsibility to obey the law but that does not mean that if you fail to obey the law when you go before the court you lose all rights to a fair trial. That would be an absurdity and an affront to democratic society. … In respect of health people have had very clear rights since 1948 and the establishment of the Health Service. What Alan Johnson is now doing through his NHS Constitution is saying yes, you have rights to health but you have also got obligations to keep yourself healthy and not to waste other people’s money. It does not mean if you fail to meet those obligations the doctor will not see you. What it does is seek to raise the nature of people’s behaviour and change people’s behaviour not just by the blunt instrument of the law.

I don’t think law, whether it’s run of the mill primary or secondary legislation or a Bill of Rights, should be used to “send a message”.  It should instead be used to delineate with precision, unambiguity, clarity, and consistency, what is unlawful.

Later,

In health there is the development of the NHS Constitution and in that people have rights to a wonderful health service but they have also got responsibilities to themselves, interestingly, about their own health and to take care of their own health as well as not to waste the resources of the Health Service because by wasting the resources of the Health Service then they were denying other people’s rights.

But but but,

I made it very clear that we are not saying that people’s rights to healthcare are contingent on them showing responsibility, but we are trying to create a society – and society depends on this – in which there is a greater level of responsibility and we need to raise these issues. 

So in essence the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities will be nothing more than a wagging finger!

Richard Shepherd said,

A Bill of Rights is essentially about the liberty and freedom of the citizens and it is through the democratic process and protecting the democratic process to advance all those causes that this Committee has become a plaything for special interest groups. 

Now, because Parliament is very jealous of Parliamentary sovereignty we will struggle to get it here, but we could do worse than look at the USA’s Bill of Rights‘ restrictions on government, too: “Congress shall make no law…” and so on.  

Straw made the interesting point that,

… it was not so much what those who framed the Bill of Rights had in mind, but in the 19th century through Dicey we developed a view that people’s rights were defined negatively, but it was never appropriate to define them positively, and I think we have learnt in recent decades, not least because we are now a much more heterogeneous society than we were, that you have got to define rights in a positive way as well.

But the Earl of Onslow said,

… what a Bill of Rights is there to do is to restrain executive over-exuberance, to put it at its mildest …

Then there is some realisation that Straw & co. seem to be approaching it from the law of equity, which sadly I have even less clue about than common law (i.e. none).

Hirst v UK was mentioned in relation to how the Government responds to adverse human rights judgements –  a case that went before the ECtHR regarding the rights of prisoners to vote (our Government said none of them should be able to, the ECtHR said a blanket ban was a violation of the Convention).  Lord Lester was rather critical of the Government’s “prevarication”, claiming that Cyprus and Ireland had dealt with it very quickly even though they weren’t parties:

The suspicion is that what you are seeking to do – and I am sorry to put it in this adversarial way – is to delay it until after the next election for fear that the tabloid newspapers would crucify the Government.

Straw responded that it was because the two main parties (Labour and Conservatives) agreed that prisoners shouldn’t have voting rights, so the question was how to abide by the judgement without Parliamentary support:

We have to meet our obligations but we need to do it in a way which achieves consent as well as meeting in full our obligations.

I wonder what the point is of signing up to a Convention when we ignore inconvenient judgements.

Big brother or good mother?

Posted in database state, surveillance society by ukliberty on January 28, 2009

Alice Miles in the Times:

Scene one: … Tom [new boy, placed in school by social services] is wiry, neat, quiet and bright. He knows all the answers on the paper. But he writes them very very hard, almost piercing the sheet with his pencil. His lettering veers from tiny to huge in a single line. He is concentrating hard when he suddenly leans over to Louis’s paper, and scribbles heavily all over it.  …

It would be really helpful for that teacher, that school, to know a little more about Tom at this point.

Scene two: a busy accident and emergency department. Kelly, aged 10, was brought in by her family liaison officer, who has now left. Kelly is diabetic and nobody is sure if she has been taking her insulin. Kelly is uncooperative. Her foster parents are not here. Kelly is alone. She flings her cubicle curtain shut in the doctors’ faces.

The paediatrician knows from information provided by the family liaison officer that Kelly is usually treated at a different hospital. But she asked to be brought to this one today. Nobody knows why, nor do they know the names of the doctors who have treated her at the other hospital.

It would be really helpful for that paediatrician to know a little more about Kelly.

To hear the fuss from parents’ groups and civil liberties campaigners about the new childrens’ database that was activated this week, you would think that the Government was planning to post naked pictures of our kids for public officials to gawp at. It will be hacked, they warn; it will be abused; the bureaucrats will – horrors – put details of extracurricular activities such as piano and ballet lessons on it.

Much as I enjoy the fantasy, the reality is that social services and the police are not interested in little Laura’s ballet classes.

That is a silly thing for Alice to say – indeed it is a straw man.  The police and social services are interested in indicators of misbehaviour: psychological issues, truancy, domestic abuse, household income and employment, even profiling, which is where you look for patterns of potential misbehaviour (if ballet classes were considered to be a factor in misbehaviour they will be of interest). They are also interested in evidence of people being in particular locations at particular times.  Also we must take into account that people will use the data for unauthorised / unofficial purposes.

Social services are interested in Tom and Kelly and who the hell is responsible for them; as were Tom’s teacher and Kelly’s doctor. The Government is right: an enormous amount of time, and possibly even some lives, will be saved by having the names of any professional involved in a child’s care listed on a national database. It was one of the recommendations made by the official inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié nine years ago.

No, this is what the inquiry actually said:

Recommendation 17 The Government should actively explore the benefit to children of setting up and operating a national children’s database on all children under the age of 16. A feasibility study should be a prelude to a pilot study to explore its usefulness in strengthening the safeguards for children.

It also said,

the challenge is to provide busy staff in each of the agencies with something of real practical help and of manageable length. The test is simply one of ensuring the material actually helps staff do their job.

What proponents often fail to understand is that opponents aren’t against all data sharing. Indeed, we are for the right data being shared with the right people.  What we are against are the notions that the more data and the more people who can access it the better.

Anyway…

Scene 3: Jack has been placed at his new school by social services. One day he and his mother discover in the most horrible fashion that his abusive father has found out where he lives – via ContactPoint.

Scene 4: Jill is enjoying her new college and her new town.  Suddenly she is beaten, raped, and killed by her family because she brought dishonour on them.  They found her via ContactPoint.

Scene 5: Police have no idea of who is behind a series of rapes of young women until they discover the women were (a) vulnerable and had just come out of foster care, (b) on ContactPoint, and (c) all records were accessed tens of times by one user account.

Scene 6: Jim is stunned when his mother tells him to stop going out with Jane “because that girl has issues”.  What he doesn’t know is that his mother has access to ContactPoint and has no qualms about looking up the records of young people she has come into contact with.  When pressed, Jim’s mother gives him the details, he tells a friend, and eventually the whole school is aware of Jane’s issues.

Farfetched?  

Hardly.  Indeed, Alice herself writes that,

 it appears that the children most at risk, who come from abusive family backgrounds, will have their details “shielded” to prevent hacking by dangerous relatives.

Well, we can all imagine scenarios showing how good or bad ContactPoint might be in practice.  But my point is that it does introduce new risks for all the children recorded on it, risks that tend not to be discussed by its supporters, including abuse, errors, and harm caused by good intentions but incompetent practice.

How to mitigate such risks?

By putting only those children who are genuinely “at risk” on it, by restricting access to only those people who require access, and by storing only the information necessary for the time that is necessary – uncontroversial and statutory principles.

Now, Alice does make a good point here:

I find it baffling that a mother who routinely shops online, ordering children’s kit from lunchbox fruitsticks to Doctor Who duvet covers, freely giving her address to companies from John Lewis to sellers on Amazon marketplace (who are they, anyway?), together with all sorts of personal data, suddenly feels the need to panic when it is local authorities to whom far less personal information is being entrusted.

How much detail do you think someone gaining access to your online supermarket account could glean about you or your family? The rough age of your children, their favourite food, your address, when you tend to be in or out… People seem blithely to assume that the private sector is safe, yet only yesterday, about 4.5 million people who were registered with the online jobseekers’ site Monster had their personal details stolen by hackers.

(A point recently made by Unity on LC.)

But the private sector is largely opt-in (although, as Dan rightly pointed out, it’s important to look at what happens in practice) and there are multiple jobseeker sites, online retailers and so on, which means that if one has a bad reputation or lets me down, I can go elsewhere.  Unfortunately, if the public sector lets me down or has a bad reputation I don’t have any alternative – unless of course I emigrate and relocate my bank accounts and give up my state pension / benefits.

The other thing about the private sector is that it won’t take your child away.

The public sector already holds vast amounts of data, admittedly not always securely [indeed! Nor accurately]. Think how much information a mother claiming tax credits has to give about the hours she works and even her childcare arrangements. Then children themselves give out all sorts of personal details: while a father worries about whether Eleanor’s progress at tennis is being examined appropriately by a council official, Eleanor is upstairs on Bebo sharing information with anonymous “friends” about the party she plans to attend that night, and who she is going to snog at it.

Yes, people should be careful about the information they give to other people and organisations! 

Hardly a controversial point.  And that they have to give out lots of data, or casually give out their data, isn’t an excuse to have yet another database.  No, it’s something we should think about when being asked to support yet another database, or give yet more data away.

A pity such considerations are often disregarded for “the sake of the children”, or “the greater good”, or whatever.