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Our job as citizens

Strengthening human rights laws, protecting civil liberties and combating the database state are all interlinked, says Stuart Weir

October 14, 2008
5 min read

Henry Porter has long been an impassioned tribune for civil liberties in his Observer columns, explaining in detail just how our wretched government is shutting down our freedoms while extending state power intrusively into almost every area of our lives. He apparently receives up to 500 emails a week expressing ‘deep bewilderment and anger’ about the way things began to go sour under Tony Blair, who said that ‘civil liberties arguments are not so much wrong as made for another age’.

Porter is bewildered, as his recent submission of evidence to the parliamentary joint committee on human rights (JCHR) shows. His account of the losses we are sustaining is shocking in its detail – but that’s not what he’s bewildered about. What astonishes him is that there has been scarcely any parliamentary or public resistance to a draconian trend that in the 1980s would have had people protesting in the streets. (There is, of course, a lot of resistance but it is fragmented and barely visible.) Clearly Henry Porter feels he is on his own.

Porter partly identifies the root of the problem – executive dominance over parliament – and analyses why there has been so little parliamentary and public concern. He also finds scapegoats – the human rights committee itself (too calm), parliament, the media and, astonishingly, the Human Rights Act (HRA).

‘The truth is that we may have taken a false sense of security from the presence of the HRA on the statute book,’ he writes. ‘Indeed, there seems every reason to suspect that the act has served the executive and civil service as an alibi while the balance between state power and individual freedom has been critically altered in the state’s favour.’ Porter says the HRA ‘has allowed the executive and civil service to roll back individual choice, liberty and privacy and has done almost nothing to defend the British public from the accumulation of centralised power’.

This is an odd and potentially damaging notion. The act has done nothing. It is failings elsewhere that the government is exploiting. What has let us all down, as Porter also says, is the absence of coherent analysis, scrutiny or opposition in parliament, of debate about the direction of our society, and of understanding and exposition in the media. I think he is unjust to the JCHR: the committee has published accurate analysis of the odious counterterrorism laws, and much good work elsewhere – using the HRA, incidentally, as its yardstick. Parliament has raised its game, but MPs too often pass the buck to the House of Lords. Porter thinks the judges have performed well, but Keith Ewing’s lectures at the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies make remorseless criticisms of their weakness.

That said, it is true that we have all underestimated the growth of the database state, a phenomenon that is hidden behind the debate on ID cards and disguised by the way in which inroads on our privacy and the right to ‘respect for private and family life, home and correspondence’, as set out in article eight of the HRA, have been accumulating piecemeal. Behind ID cards lurks the national identity register, which will require 49 pieces of information covering important transactions in our lives, and behind that lurk plans for a ‘transformational state’, centralising and sharing the information the authorities hold on us. In other words, an almighty surveillance structure is envisaged, through which the man in charge, Sir David Varney, admits that the state will know ‘a deep truth about the citizen based on their behaviour, experience, beliefs, needs or desires’.

Porter also tells of a new proposal to collect 19 pieces of information, including mobile phone and credit card numbers, from people travelling abroad. The government plans to use them to ‘fight terrorism and international crime’, and for ‘general public policy purposes’ – mass surveillance.

A broad-based convention on liberty and human rights is being organised in November at the Logan Hall in London to try to piece together all the urgent issues that confront us, arouse and inform public opinion and help to unify and spread the many sources of resistance (see opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom for details). I believe that those of us who care about civil liberties and human rights must frame a concerted response to the losses we are suffering from both the counterterrorism laws and the less obvious dangers inherent in ID cards and the database state. This should be the main task.

I also believe that the HRA should be strengthened to encompass ancient protections, such as trial by jury, and new elements such as economic, social and cultural rights. At the same time, its crucial balancing act, embedding the protection of human rights and liberties in a partnership between parliament and the courts, is a vital democratic solution to the age-old problem of relying on unelected judges to protect them. In the end that is our job, as citizens.

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