Recent decades have seen a dramatic curtailing of hard won civil liberties. These restrictions have been inadvertently cushioned by the expansion of the internet and the ability to exercise some of these rights by proxy on the web. Today we look at the scale of the civil liberties confiscations.
What are Civil Liberties Anyway?
“Civil liberties is another name for the political freedoms that we must have available to us all if it to be true to say of us that we live in a society that adheres to the principle of representative, or democratic, government.” ~ Professor Conor Gearty
These liberties can loosely be described as the right to vote, the right to life, the prohibition of torture, security of the person, the right to personal liberty and due process of law, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
In the UK they were developed through the English Charter of Liberties which extended rights to the nobility and church officials from 1100AD. Between 1213 and 1215AD groups from across England came together to draft the Magna Carta which extended a fuller group of protections and rights out to further groups. The 18th and 19th centuries saw workers movements develop to enshrine labour conditions and the rights to collective bargaining through unions and the right to strike. The first and second world wars motivated a final revolution in civil liberties including rights to healthcare, education, equal opportunities in the workplace and so on. In 1998, New Labour signed the European Convention on Human Rights into British Law with the Human Rights Act. This meant that there was legal underpinning to this bill of rights, which enshrined our civil liberties.
But before and since 1998, these rights have been eroded at a terrifying pace, particularly compared with the glacial rate at which they developed in the first place.
The ability to express our thoughts in blogs and rally in protest by hashtag may have numbed us to the reality of a bonfire of our liberties. We’ve been tweeting while Rome burned.
Personal Liberty and Due Process before the Law
Since 1649 and the passing of the Habeas Corpus Act, citizens have been protected from false and arbitrary imprisonment and restriction of their personal liberty by the presumption of innocence until proof of their guilt is established by a jury of their peers in an independent court. Yet successive governments have passed legislation which seriously undermines this principle, and allows the state and its police force to restrict liberty and confine citizens without interference by the courts.
Detention without Charge
Prior to 1984, a person could not be held by police for longer than 24 hours without a criminal charge being made against them. The Thatcher government extended this to four days. New Labour extended this first to seven days, then to 14 days, and finally sought the power to detain citizens without charge for up to 90 days, at the request of the police. Whilst the Blair government was defeated on 90 days, the period was doubled nevertheless to 28 day. The Coalition allowed this legislation to expire in 2011, returning the period to 14 days, only to apply for permission to extend to 28 days in the same year.
Meanwhile, the Anti Terrorism and Security Act 2001 allowed for indefinite detention of non British citizens suspected of committing terrorist acts, where there was not enough evidence to proceed to a court of law.
The Control Orders passed in the Terrorism Act 2006 meant anybody suspected of terrorist related activities by the Home Secretary, but without any kind of trial, can be electronically tagged, monitored, be restricted from making phone calls, using the internet, be banned from certain kinds of work, can be restricted from going certain places, have one’s passport revoked and be under a duty to report to the police.
The current government did not extend the life of Control Orders, but replaced them with TPIMS. This saw two improvements, a two year time limit and approval of a judge required. However, a recent review of TPIMS reported that the burden of proof required to administer such an order was too low and that the extreme restrictions were neither necessary nor working.
The 700 year old UK tradition of open justice has been withering on the vine with successive legislation since 1997 which allowed ‘Closed Material Proceedings’ or Secret Courts into the Justice system. First introduced in 1997 for immigration trials, they were later used for Control Order and TPIM related charges. Yet, in a stunning move this month, the Coalition government and parliament approved legislation to apply Secret Courts in civil cases. Henceforth, if a citizen takes the British government or its officials to court in cases of torture, rendition, or a whole host of other reasons, the government is able to present evidence to the judge which the claimant, defendant, media and public will never be privy to. It will allow the government to resist due scrutiny for its role in torture, rendition and other crimes. The Rev Nicholas Mercer, a lieutenant colonel who was the army’s most senior lawyer during the last Iraq war, told the Daily Mail:
“The justice and security bill has one principal aim and that is to cover up UK complicity in rendition and torture. The bill is an affront to the open justice on which this country rightly prides itself and, above all, it is an affront to human dignity.”
Freedom of Expression and Assembly
Perhaps the most readily noticeable restrictions on our liberties to those engaged in campaign and protest, has been in the arena of Freedom of Expression and Assembly. The rise in so called ‘anti-terror’ legislation throughout the period of the New Labour government has had a massive impact on our ability to organise sizable demonstrations, marches and actions without the threat of increasing militarised police force.
Right to Protest
Thatcher’s Public Order Act 1986 sought to prevent the effectiveness of public protest (such as the Miners Strike) by making it law that in order to be lawful, protest organisers had to give police six days advance notice of their action. Since this time, successive governments have used upgrades to the Public Order Act to undermine the right to peaceful protest.
The Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 granted a number of powers to police and restrictions on protesters.
In response to the protest of Brian Haw who spoke to parliament from Parliament Square for several years as a protest against the crimes of the Iraq War, the Act applied special restrictions on protest within a designated area of 1km of any point of Parliament Square. Basically, it is now almost impossible to protest outside our parliament without being arrested.
The Act created a new offence of trespassing on a designated site. The site can be Crown Land, land that belongs to the monarch or heir to the throne or land a secretary of state believes is appropriate for designation in the interests of national security.
The Act also made all offences arrestable. Previously a police officer had to determine whether he suspected a person of committing a non-arrestable, arrestable or serious arrestable offence. The powers available flowed from that determination.
There has also been a gradual militarisation of the police force which has been armed with ever escalating toolkit of measures and devices to quell dissent in the streets. These methods involve:
Snatch & Grab Arrests – Groups of police form a moving corridor into the protest, the front officers of which grab protesters at random. These arrests can also be made at police lines outside a kettle, or by plain clothes police in advance of protests (arrest occurs at 25 seconds in).
Agent Provocateurs and Violence – This was witnessed at the 2010 student protests where agent provocateurs were filmed running into the crowds, pushing , pulling and kicking student protesters in order to generate violent conditions. One student, Alfie Meadows ended up in hospital requiring brain surgery after a police officer beat him with a baton. . Instead of the police officer facing the courts, Alfie was charged with violent disorder. He was finally acquitted just this month by a jury who agreed he was defending himself and other protesters.
Martial Law & Emergency Powers
Since the Bill of Rights Act 1689, it has been illegal for the UK government to dispatch the armed forces to British streets during peace time without the consent of parliament. For hundreds of years we have lived under an agreement that citizens dissenting the government faced police, not the armed forces. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 ended this tradition. The Act means that a range of emergency powers can be applied by approval of The Queen (the Government) which would suspend the Bill of Rights 1689, Habeas Corpus, the Parliament Act 1911 (which restricts a parliament to five year terms) and others for a period of up to 21 days at a time.
The Surveillance State
The exponential rise in surveillance permitted by law in the UK makes astounding reading. Until 1986 there were severe restrictions on the police and state ability to surveil its citizens; phone tapping and the interception of private communications were inadmissible in courts and heavily penalised. However, since 1986, an altogether different approach has been adopted.
The Thatcher governments Interception of Communications Act 1985 gave permission for phone tapping. These permissions and other communication interception measures were approved in 1994 and 1997. However, the era of New Labour saw a massive roll out in surveillance under the guise of the war on terror.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 allowed the government full surveillance powers over all kinds of communications. The acts main provisions allow five new categories of surveillance from bugging of phones to spying and intercepting of communications. It allows the Home Secretary to issue an interception warrant to examine the contents of letters or communications on various grounds including in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom. It also prevents the existence of interception warrants, and any and all data collected with them from being revealed in court.
It allows the police, intelligence services, HM Revenue and Customs (and several hundred more public bodies, including local authorities and a wide range of regulators) to demand telephone, internet and postal service providers to hand over detailed communications records for individual users. This can include name and address, phone calls made and received, source and destination of emails, internet browsing information and mobile phone positioning data that records user’s location. These powers are self-authorised by the body concerned, with no external or judicial oversight.
These powers have been extensively overused by police, councils and other enforcement agencies. It has rightly been deemed as a ‘snooper’s charter’. The current rate is 30 warrants being issued a week. In the 15 months from July 2005 to October 2006, 2407 warrants were issued. Some of the most egregious cases of misuse include: a council in Dorset putting three children and their parents under surveillance to check they were in the catchment area for the school they had applied to. The council has directly surveilled the family 21 times; other councils have launched undercover operations on dog fouling and fly tipping.
There has also been a rise in CCTV operations, or the filming of people in public spaces. Britain has gone from zero to over 4 million CCTV cameras in recent decades. The country has a higher number of cameras than China despite being a small fraction of the size. Cameras are also increasingly hidden and disguised as light fittings, plant pots and other innocuous items in our urban landscape. But surely if the aim was to prevent crime, the cameras would be clearly visible?
Despite all this surveillance, there is less than one arrest per day as a result of CCTV footage. This corroborates the arguments of the arguments of those who suggest these cameras have more to do with state surveillance than public safety.
Knowledge is Power
As a result of these infringements, more and more people are being arrested and put through the court process for simply exercising their dissent. Recent notable cases include the convictions of Critical Mass for cycling on the evening of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, and Bethan Tichbourne who was arrested, convicted, receiving both a criminal record and a fine under Public Order laws for shouting ‘Cameron has blood on his hands’ while the Prime Minister turned on the Christmas lights in her town. It is time to realise that internet freedom is not enough and is itself in peril. We ignore the continued erosion of our rights at our peril. With the Conservative Party promising to abolish the Human Rights Act if it wins the next election, we are looking at the revocation of the legal underpinning of our civil liberties entirely. It is time to pay attention.