Sunday, December 31, 2006

"free liberties and free customs"

posted by k

When I was young, I went to look at parliament and Downing Street. Both were protected by police but there was no problem in getting close. I remember standing with a small group of tourists to gaze at the door of Number 10. The policeman standing beside the door greeted all-comers with a friendly smile.

You can't get close to Number 10 now. You can't enter Downing Street. There are gates and armed police. The armed police officers are friendly and used to dealing with tourists but the weapons are very big and automatic. The message is clear: keep away from the government.

Embarrassing the govervnment is rapidly becoming a crime. The small encampment Brian Haw established on a traffic island opposite the Houses of Parliament became one of the subjects of a hastily drafted law, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. The aim was to remove Brian Haw. It failed. The diminished encampment still stands.

No-one else is allowed to demonstrate near parliament. It's now against the law for an individual to carry a banner in a "designated area" or to read out the names of the dead.

Little liberties we took for granted are being taken away while we barely notice. We're growing accustomed to surveillance, whether it's by CCTV cameras, by our neighbours or through the immense databases that store personal information - and divulge it to a range of clients, including the government. Even though studies warn that the databases are faulty and the information seriously flawed, the government mania to spy on the people grows.

Policing is heavier than I've ever known it. Detention of protestors has become routine, whether it's surrounding a few individuals, hustling a heckler away from a meeting or kidnapping coachloads of pacifists to prevent them expressing their views. All the time the police film those of whom they disapprove.

The police wield cameras like guns. They obscure the friendly faces and threaten those filmed.

No-one says why peaceful demonstrators are being filmed nor what will happen to the records. Demonstrators take the process for granted and don't ask. Most demonstrators accept temporary detention as a hazard that befalls those opposing the government. It's only when someone unused to such conventions is caught up, filmed and detained that anyone realises how strange it is.

Government is being kept from the people who are governed.

In a democracy, citizens debate, protest, argue, talk and explore what government should do. Thought is vital. Questioning is a means by which government is tested. Lively disagreement can lead to new ideas and progress.

Now there's a new attempt to protect personal liberty. A campaign, "Future Britain", is calling for a new Bill of Rights. Several organisations are involved, including The London School of Economics, Charter 88 and Liberty. The Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats are involved as well. This makes me hesitate. I've never voted Conservative. These days political parties can prefer marketing to thought and debate. But first signs are good. There's a call for public discussion.

It's easy to see the dangers. Recent laws granting rights have excluded some individuals. Children seeking asylum seekers and the children of asylum seekers have less protection than other children in this country, and can be detained for long periods even though they have committed no crime. A Bill of Rights must protect us all: criminals and victims, strong and vulnerable, powerful and powerless.

And the state has to be persuaded to impose limits on its power.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit"

posted by k

The Freedom of Information laws are up for amendment.

PJC Journal adds comments and offers links to the consultation document.

As usual, amendments mean further restrictions. As usual, the new regulations won't be published yet.

PJC Journal suggests amendments will be introduced by Statutory Instrument. This means that MPs will not debate changes routinely but will have to read the regulations, raise questions and object. The schedule PJC Journal suggests - and the government won't confirm this - is as follows:

19th March - new regulations laid before parliament
29th March - parliamentary recess begins
17th April - new regulations come into force

That gives MPs ten days to read the government's amendments, compare them with the original Act, think them through and lodge objections. It's not long and MPs will be tired and busy at the end of a parliamentary term.

Statutory Instruments smuggle new legislation into force, without parliamentary debate or public discussion.
MPs have to be very alert to notice what powers are being enacted when so many papers are placed before them. The recent Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill was an attempt to extend ministers' powers to bypass parliament in this way. Fortunately the "Save Parliament" campaign mobilised public opposition and the scope of the Act was limited.

This time the new legislation will affect our right to know what is going on.

Laying the new regulations before parliament ten days before the recess begins suggests a plan to stifle effective debate and opposition.

The New Labour government campaigned for election in 1997 with the promise of a Freedom of Information Act. Then New Labour linked Freedom of Information to Human Rights. New Labour's commitment to both has dwindled. The government that promised "the prmotion of human rights" as "a central part of our foreign policy" told lies to promote war and defended torture overseas as a valuable source of evidence.

This government depends on lies. This government values the words of torture victims who confess to anything and incriminate anyone - so long as the pain will end.

This government is dishonest in big matters. We should not trust it on anything.

The government already tries to evade questions posed under Freedom of Information. The Foreign Office has claimed exemption for 70% of all questions posed. The Department of Constitutional Affairs has given full answers to only 39% of requests for information.

Today's Independent newspaper gives much more information and lists some of the questions which went unanswered. These include:

Can we see Home Office reports on the impact of its plans for compulsory ID cards?

Disclosure would harm the formulation and development of government policy.

Would you tell us a little more about the sweater given to George Bush by Tony Blair?

This information is not in the public interest.

Please disclose all papers concerning the role of the British Government in the arrest and continued detention of the UK residents in Guantanamo Bay.

These documents are covered by privilege and would be exempt because of national security and harm to international relations.

Can we see the documents relating to the policy discussions for the future funding of Britain's schools?

Although this information may be innocuous it could inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.

Please give us information about the cases referred to the secretive unit, known as the 'clearing house', which fields tricky or potentially embarrassing questions made under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act?

Such information would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

Some questions may be trivial. Others are vitally important. Without answers, we cannot know which are which.

The government suggests Freedom of Information is too expensive. It argues that questions may be asked for frivolous reasons.

Citizens need knowledge to play their part in democracy. Tyrants restrict knowledge and promote ignorance. Tyrants prefer subjects to citizens.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"Give the people what they want"

posted by k

Consultation of the people has returned!

Before New Labour was elected in 1997, the party's electoral machine pioneered the "focus group". At the time, it was an exciting new idea of the marketing industry. You sit people down in a group, get them talking, guide them gently from subject to subject, and find out what they think and want.

Focus groups aren't about political debate or discussion; they teach politicians to respond to the unspoken feelings of the public and package their ideas for sale. They are not about reason. They tap into unspoken, unexamined prejudices that intelligent citizens wish to conquer - and re-inforce them. Policies marketed according to focus group reports often take irrational fear as their starting point.

No wonder so many New Labour policy statements are rooted in people's fear of difference. No wonder so many New Labour pronouncements encourage fear and build hatred. Jack Straw's article on the niqab tapped into fear, fanned mistrust - and turned both into hatred. Less than three months later, a bishop wants to criminalise women who cover nose and mouth with a small piece of cloth.

There's another use of focus groups that's popular

New Labour treats focus groups as though they were part of democratic procedure. Today they announce that "people panels" will be consulted on controversial areas of policy.

It sounds good at first. But it's not consultation. It's another series of focus groups.

The Guardian website makes the role of the "people" clear. Panels will be asked "how the Government should try to influence people's lifestyle choices". The real aim is to "push forward key public service reforms" but we'll be told reforms are made in response to public concern.

Focus groups and people's panels are not democracy. They work against rational and thoughtful debate.

The advertiser wants you to believe - really believe - in this soap powder.

The fading star wants to gratify your every whim - please (above all) don't be bored.
The tyrant wants to know and satisfy all your desires - lest you begin to question and rebel.

Monday, December 25, 2006

"our condition is not sound but rotten"

posted by k

"If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it."

It's an old anarchist slogan and sometimes it seems as though it's true.

There's less trust in electoral polls every day. There are good reasons for that lack of trust:

- The British electoral system is unfair and unrepresentative. The New Labour Party's current large majority was achieved by gaining just over 35% of the vote. Given the low turn-out, this means that the government can claim the support of just over 1 in 5 of the elctorate (21.59%).

- The electoral processes in Britain are unreliable and may be subject to wide-scale fraud. This has been pointed out by a judge in one of the recent vote-rigging trials. Postal votes have been stolen and forged. The government response has included praise of a higher turn-out. But a higher turn-out can be achieved by requesting ballot-papers on behalf of people unlikely to vote and filling them in.

- Government suggestions and experiments to "increase voter turn-out" have included voting by text message, by internet and by digital TV - experiments which researchers described as "deeply flawed". But despite the dangers to democracy, the government continues to suggest innovations which prevent scrutiny of the system.

Despite this, the government repeatedly claims a "mandate" for all kinds of policies. Burying a policy in the small-print of a manfesto which few voters get to read seems sufficient to herd a majority of MPs into whichever lobby supports Mr Blair.

No wonder the electorate prefers to vote for favourite contestants in "The X-Factor", "Big Brother" and "Celebrity Come Dancing". If the voting system turns out to be skewed or the wrong person wins, it does far less damage.

It could be argued that every vote cast in a British election is cast in support of the current system - and there's no way of voting against it.

Think of some of the limits to the current system:

- you cannot vote for an honest republican. Every Member of Parliament must swear or affirm an oath of loyalty to the crown.

- elections are determined by a few thousand (at most a few hundred thousand) floating voters who shift between the three main parties in a few constituencies. As long as party loyalty persists, there will be a tendency to direct election-winning policies at the interests of that group above all others.

- should you vote for a candidate who is elected, your vote will be used as evidence that you supported every policy in that party's manifesto, as well as any policy that party happens to come up with in future.

- some policies aren't the subject of votes in the House of Commons. The renewal of Trident may eventually be subject to a vote, but the government only decided this after checking the vote could be won. The decision had already been made.

- there are no effective sanctions against misleading parliament. The vote to go to war against Iraq was rigged by presenting falsehoods to the House of Commons.

- seats in the second house of parliament, the House of Lords, are gained in obscure ways. The current police investigation points to the possibility that the power to vote in this House - and affect the government of the nation - has been put up for sale.

What is to be done?

Change requires the involvement of many. Britain is shifting from democracy to autocracy, with elections masking the power structures. Even Members of Parliament can do little and the citizens (or subjects) of the country can do less.

A starting point is the repeated expression of opinions in serious debate. If we talk about our views and why we hold them - and listen to others, giving their views serious consideration - we may just find our understanding advances. We may find new means of taking action.

In the meantime, although it's not a major advance, readers of this blog may like to vote on the Radio 4 Today programme for the law they would most like to see repealed.

I'd recommend voting for the repeal of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. I think people like Brian Haw should be able to protest outside parliament. I think people like Maya Evans should be allowed to read the names of the war-dead aloud without being arrested.

But you - like all people - can think for yourself. Make your own decision.