The so called War in Terror throughout the first decade of the 21st century didn’t end terrorism. It did however, bring an end to centuries of hard won civil liberties. This was achieved by making people more afraid of isolated instances of murder, than constant abuses of power by the state. Now, the government is seeking to use the death of Drummer Lee Rigby to drive through a snooper’s charter to allow our internet communications to be monitored by the state and security forces.
The Snooper’s Charter
The Communications Data Bill was vetoed by Nick Clegg earlier this month on the grounds that it was a step too far and failed to balance security concerns with the need to protect civil liberties. However, in the wake of the murder of off duty soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week, the government is seeking to resurrect the bill, exploiting anger and fear at the murder to drive it through. A senior Tory told The Independent: “I suspect any opportunity to strengthen pressure on the naysayers will be taken. She (Home Secretary Theresa May) is absolutely determined to do something on this.”
Theresa May’s plans include the tracking of every internet users email, internet and social media use. There has been swift and robust responses from the five big internet companies Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Yahoo – who issued a joint letter to the Home Secretary stating they will not voluntarily follow the draft legislation. They viewed the legislation as threatening the UK’s position as a leading digital nation and a champion of freedom of expression in the world.
The Home Secretary’s own Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee opposes this legislation, claiming it ‘trampled on the privacy of British citizens’.
The propaganda machine has kicked into full gear, with Labour Peers Lord West and Lord Reid accusing Nick Clegg of ‘putting the country at risk’ by opposing the Snooper’s Charter. Tory MP and former Police Minister Nick Herbert has also struck out, branding Clegg ‘irresponsible on terror’. In the wake of an awful murder, the human urge that ‘something must be done’ is being ruthlessly exploited by an increasingly authoritarian state – composed of all political parties – to have people voluntarily handover their last remaining civil liberties.
In 2009, the former head of MI5 Stella Rimmington accused the British government of exploiting the fear of terrorism to pass laws intended to restrict our civil liberties. She was right. In recent years, an astonishing amount of legislation has been passed curtailing civil liberties, the right to protest and the right to fair and open justice in Britain. The Labour government passed 25 Acts of Parliament and 50 individual measures to restrict civil liberties for UK citizens in the name of ‘national security’ in its thirteen year term. Here is a breakdown of the rights already lost.
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 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 days. 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 allows 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 could be electronically tagged, monitored, restricted from making phone calls, using the internet, banned from certain kinds of work, restricted from going certain places, have one’s passport revoked and be under a duty to report to the police – all without trial or any intervention from a court.
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
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 an increasingly militarised police force.
Right to 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, the Act applied special restrictions on protest within a designated area of 1km of any point of Parliament Square. It is now almost impossible to protest outside our parliament without being arrested.
The Act also made all offences arrestable. Previously a police officer had to determine whether s/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 human corridor into the protest, the front officers of which grab protesters at random, dragging them out of the kettle and arresting them. 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 recently 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 other acts 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.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 allowed the government full surveillance powers over all kinds 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. 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. The HMRC used the powers recently in efforts to suppress a whistle blower who exposed the head of the HMRC had been making sweetheart deals with Goldman Sachs and other large organisations reducing their tax bills by millions.
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. If the aim was to prevent crime, wouldn’t the cameras would be clearly visible?
Despite all this surveillance, there is less than one arrest per day as a result of CCTV footage – suggesting these cameras have more to do with state surveillance than public safety.
The End Game
As a result of these infringements, ever more people are being arrested and put through the court process, simply for 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 Beth Tichborne who was arrested and 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. And now, the same calls are coming again. We cannot allow ourselves to fall for the same line, and lose our last remaining rights.
Convention on Modern Liberty – get acquainted with the facts. Know the nature of your rights.
Reprieve – a great organisation working on open justice, an end to capital punishment and supporting Guantanamo and other unlawful detainees across the world.
Defend the Right to Protest – excellent information, together with direct action to defend the right to protest.