UK Liberty

Well done to the Independent

Posted in freedom of information, law and order, relates to ordinary people by ukliberty on December 3, 2009

This story was on the front page of Thursday’s Independent:

Warning: Do not take this picture

[and a large photo of St Paul’s]

Police have been accused of misusing powers granted under anti-terror legislation after a series of incidents, ranging from the innocuous to the bizarre, in which photographers were questioned by officers for taking innocent pictures of tourist destinations, landmarks and even a fish and chip shop. …

I didn’t know this:

Every train station in the UK is covered by a Section 44 order.

I did know this:

But, due to the fear that the information could be used by terrorists to plan attacks, most of the the exact locations covered by Section 44 authorisations are kept secret, meaning members of the public have no idea if they are in one or not.

Which means any deterrent or reassurance must be near zero.

Funny old world.

And on Saturday another front page

Police forces across the country have been warned to stop using anti-terror laws to question and search innocent photographers after The Independent forced senior officers to admit that the controversial legislation is being widely misused.

The strongly worded warning was circulated by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) last night. In an email sent to the chief constables of England and Wales’s 43 police forces, officers were advised that Section 44 powers should not be used unnecessarily against photographers. The message says: “Officers and community support officers are reminded that we should not be stopping and searching people for taking photos. Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether from the casual tourist or professional, is unacceptable.” …

Hmm

Posted in freedom of information, ID Cards by ukliberty on March 5, 2009

Tony Collins in Computer Weekly:

The wording of the ruling by the Information Tribunal that two early gateway reviews on the ID Cards scheme should be published makes the Office of Government Commerce look foolish.

The Tribunal found, for instance, that the OGC had fielded several (very senior) witnesses, and there were passages in the written statements of more than one witness that read almost identically.

“The Tribunal noted in the course of the appeal that various passages in the statements of more than one witness read virtually identically.”

More detail on the points raised during the case – in particular,

Anyone reading the Tribunal’s ruling could easily form the view that the OGC as an organisation is either set apart from reality, or, for reasons nobody is sure of, obsessive to the point of irrationality about keeping gateway reviews confidential.

But from the sound work it is doing in many areas, it would appear the OGC employs committed and experienced people who show no signs of being irrational.

But their credibility, and the credibility of the organisation, continues to be undermined by the OGC’s arguing of the unarguable. The two gateway reviews on ID Cards in question should be published, if for no reason than to stop the OGC being a continued object of derision.

Where are we going with this, and where do we want to end up? (Part 3)

(Part 3 of an ongoing, indefinite series of ‘observations’.)

I’ve so far touched on erosions to the right to trial by jury, inquests, diversions away from the courts, unnecessary law, lowering and unreasonably reversing the burden of proof, and all sorts of civil orders that in fact may amount to criminal sanctions, and whether or not we are living in a surveillance state.

But how do such objectionable proposals get to the statute book in the first place?

Ideally you could do with an army of loyal and unthinking drones.

It also helps to have MPs who can vote on the bill but who won’t be affected by it because their constituencies are in a different nation – hello Scotland. 

But sometimes they aren’t quite enough, so here are a few other methods for the aspiring Government Minister.

You could create a really objectionable proposal that makes you look extremely ‘tough’ on something people are fearful of, say, terrorism – e.g. proposing to detain people suspected of terrorism for 90 days. You know that it is unlikely to get through Parliament and that there will be loads of opponents who will make a big fuss about it.  

This is brilliant, because:

1.  You will look ‘tough on terror’ and all the fuss will get you tons of favourable publicity in popular national newspapers, such as the Sun and the Daily Mail;

2.  Your opponents will look like airy-fairy, sandal-wearing, yoghurt-knitting,  intellectual pygmy, commie-pinko beardy liberals who clearly support terrorists;

3. You can offer lots of ‘concessions’ and ‘safeguards’, which will make you look fair and magnanimous (it’s like being a market trader, starting at a high price but being content to sell for less);

4.  In other words, you don’t particularly mind being haggled down to 28 days, say, because you still look tough, and you can always propose another extension in the future, where you will put Parliament and the country through a similar process.

And hardly anyone will notice if such a power will even be commenced (i.e. actually come into effect) despite you banging on about the urgency of it before we all get blown up on our way to work.

Another way of getting an objectionable proposal is the “red rag and smuggle”. Beardless but liberal David Howarth MP explains:

red rag is a provision in a Bill that is designed to attract the attention of hot-headed Members of this House, and about which the Government do not, in reality, care very much either way, while they smuggle in, largely unnoticed and unchallenged, a lot of significant stuff that otherwise might attract severe criticism.

It helps if the Bill is a relatively long, supermarket trolley of provisions and if you haven’t allowed Parliament enough time to scrutinise them all.  The Coroners and Justice Bill is a case in point: the ‘red rag’ is the inquest without jury and specially appointed coroner bit; while the ‘smuggle’ is the data sharing bit, toward the end of a 232 page bill consisting of 161 clauses and 21 schedules.

And of course there are machinations and broken promises, such as the allegations of dishonesty in relation to the Fraud Trials (without jury) Bill.  Hansard possibly only records the tip of the iceberg.

Why bother troubling Parliament at all?

Of course the above may seem like a lot of bother.  Sometimes you just want to be able to do things without troubling Parliament with the specifics. So here are a couple of ways to do that.

There’s a handy type of legislation for this: so-called ‘enabling’ legislation.  What you need to get through Parliament is legislation with broadly drawn provisions (in the form of principles rather than clauses relating to specifics) that allow you, the Government Minister, to draft secondary legislation that will de facto get on to the statute book by default. An infamous example of this was the first draft of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill – it was quite ridiculous in scope and power. But there are lots more like this, including the Coroners and Justice Bill data sharing provisions.

So here you need your army of drones and provisions that don’t sound scary, indeed quite boring.

Alternatively you could launder policy through a client (i.e. you fund it) organisation, such as ACPO. ACPO is a private company (and therefore exempt from the Freedom of Information Act) and funded by Home Office grant (and therefore somewhat beholden to it), unaccountable to the public. But of course we can blame that organisation if anything bad happens.

What sort of policies might we launder, you may ask.  DNA, fingerprint, and cell sample retention is a good example.  All the law says is that samples may be retained.  There is no detail about what they may be retained in, for how long, and under what circumstances, and who will have access, and so on.  In other words, there is no statutory basis in law for the DNA database. There has been no bill followed by scrutiny in Parliament – it exists apparently because of the policy of our unaccountable client organisation. The situation is similar with the protestor database held by the National Extremism Unit (Netcu), a branch of ACPO – again no statutory basis.  And no doubt many more.

You can also launder policy via organisations outside the country, for example the European Union.  An example of this is the European Data Directive, which has resulted in our Intercept Modernisation Programme, recording the details of our phone calls, emails and internet access.  The advantage of this method should be clear: people against such policies are likely to blame evil Europe and those Johnny Foreigners trying to run our country, rather than the people who actually pushed this through Europe via the Council of Ministers, such as our old friend Charles Clarke, then Home Secretary, when the UK was President of the Council (and again there were a number of machinations here).

What’s the point in setting up an independent decision-making process if you can ignore the outcome?

Posted in freedom of information by ukliberty on February 25, 2009

The BBC:

Justice Secretary Jack Straw has vetoed the publication of minutes of key cabinet meetings held in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.

He said he would use a clause in the Freedom of Information Act to block the release of details of meetings in which the war’s legality was discussed.

Releasing the papers would do “serious damage” to cabinet government, he said, and outweighed public interest needs.

The Information Tribunal ruled last month that they should be published. …

Straw’s statement courtesy of TheyWorkForYou.

Prised open, kicking and screaming government

Posted in accountability, freedom of information, ID Cards by ukliberty on February 23, 2009

Sam Coates at the Times has a handy clipping from the most recent Private Eye, no. 1230, which provided that apposite title:

For those who wondered why last week the Cabinet Office apparently spontaneously published details of top civil servants’ freebies from big business in the greater interests of transparency — resulting in stories like this one — the new Private Eye has the answer. 

When the Cabinet Office last week published details of junkets enjoyed by our most senior civil servants, it claimed that “the decision to publish this list reflects the government’s continued commitment to openness and transparency”.

This was, er, bollocks. The junkets only emerged following a two-and-a-half campaign by Private Eye, hassling every Whitehall department for registers of hospitality for the three years up to 2006/07.Far from being open about these, the Cabinet Office orchestrated a cover-up under which all departments would say the older information would be too costly to obtain and that details for 2007 would be published in the “new year”. That was supposed to be the new year 2008, by the way. ….

In a similar vein,

The Office of Government Commerce has spent at least £140,000 on legal fees to keep secret two early Gateway reviews on the national ID cards scheme.

Costs will rise further if government lawyers appeal against a new order by the Information Tribunal to disclose the reviews.

On Thursday last week the Tribunal ordered – for a second time – that the reviews should be published. It gave the Office of Government Commerce 28 days to release them.

But the OGC is likely to appeal the Tribunal’s decision, which means it can continue to keep the reviews secret.

If the OGC were to lose any High Court appeal, it could take the case to the Law Lords. If it lost that too, ministers could veto to stop the reviews being published. 

Computer Weekly

(more on this case at SpyBlog and Tony Collins’ blog.)