Our rights are not disposable
The government's setback over DNA records does not mean an end to its attacks, writes Ted North
Many on the left are rubbing their hands together at what they consider to be favourable prospects arising from the developing recession. It is true that the changing face of global politics arising from the financial crisis poses profound challenges and opportunities for communists and the working class as a whole.
But it is by no means certain that the left will be the beneficiary. Our strategic task - the establishment of a single party of the Marxists - remains at an embryonic stage and is now given added urgency, as is the development of a communist programme. Crucially, we must take the lead in addressing democratic questions.
The revolution we envisage must be the conscious product of the majority of society. This means a project premised on extreme democracy - not the shabby pretence of it that the bourgeoisie upholds. Communists must reclaim the concept and be its strongest advocates, leading the fight in defending and advancing democratic rights.
Let us take a recent example. On December 4, in a unanimous decision, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that retaining DNA samples of people cleared of charges was unlawful. The UK has no legal right to challenge the decision. It was almost the 300th example of the government falling foul of ‘human rights’ legislation.1
This marks a temporary setback for a government determined to clamp down on democratic rights. Tony Blair made clear his desire for a DNA database of everyone in Britain. Of course, we do not need genetic evidence to prove the crimes of Blair and his cronies - a glance at Afghanistan and Iraq is more than sufficient.
The Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 and Criminal Justice Act 2003 codified a huge increase in the number of entries in the DNA database. The former allowing the retention of DNA of people charged with an offence; the latter of those merely arrested. Today the British police hold one of the largest such databases anywhere in the world, containing the details of nearly five million people. This is nearly five times as great a proportion as are held in America. About 40% of black men are on the database, more than four times the number of whites.2 Establishment figures such a Lord Justice Sedley and president of the Black Police Association Keith Jarrett favour ironing out this imbalance by extending the database to the entire population.
The government has happily allowed private companies access to the data.3 In addition, clear security problems were demonstrated by the ‘DNA espionage’ of five civil servants in Birmingham, who copied confidential records in an attempt to set up a rival to the official Forensic Science Service. It is not hard to imagine tampering with the database in order to frame the state’s political opponents, or similar scenarios.
The government has yet to determine its detailed response to the Strasbourg ruling that its current practice is discriminatory (the implication being everything would be fine if the wishes of Sedley and Jarrett were granted). However, the precedents are not good. For example, in Hirst v UK, the European Court ruled that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections contravened the Human Rights Convention. Even so nothing has been done to change this, more than three years later.
If it decides to remove from the database anyone not convicted of an offence, then at best the records of some 800,000 individuals will be deleted. This would still leave more than four million, many of whose crimes will have been either driven by economic need or little more serious than possession of a small quantity of cannabis.
As of late November, ID cards have begun to be issued to ‘foreign nationals’. In time they will be mandatory for everyone. In reality the physical card is merely the tip of the iceberg, being one manifestation of the wide-ranging ‘national identity scheme’, the result of the Identity Cards Act 2006. The National Identity Register will store more than 50 categories of information, and future governments will be able to expand this yet further. Gordon Brown has talked of features such as iris-scan doors directly linked to the police.4
In 1995 Tony Blair attacked “wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on compulsory ID cards.”5 But that was when the idea was coming from John Major’s Tories. Now the Labour Party leadership, which, as everyone knows, has always been about as firm on political principles as a bowl of jelly, is the keenest advocate of the scheme. Meanwhile David Cameron claims he is fundamentally opposed to ID cards.
Opinion polls reveal falling public backing for the scheme. Where there is support, it is more a reflection of the media campaign against ‘benefit fraud’ and other ‘soft’ factors. A project that would produce a much higher return, of course, is one to retrieve the billions of pounds which the rich fail to pay in taxes every year through a combination of offshore bank accounts and various evasion schemes.
There is little evidence that ID cards will help the government’s declared goal of ending international terrorism. Thus, in contrast to all sorts of respectable figures wheeled out to voice their support, we have seen examples of such notables as the former director general of MI5, Stella Rimington, who publicly described the scheme as “bogus”. It is well known that both the 9/11 and Madrid 2004 terrorists all carried valid ID. And in Germany there have already been examples of forged biometric cards.
Aside from the issues discussed above, there is the rising cost of implementing the scheme. Not to mention the general lack of trust in the government/state, which has in recent times suffered several embarrassing incidents of loss of confidential information.
The potential for mass opposition is presumably an important factor in explaining the bureaucratic way the scheme is being imposed, along with an opaque timescale. A number of means to partially introduce ID cards by stealth will be employed, such as passport applications and ‘help’ for young people in opening a bank account.
The home office has said that something like 265 governmental departments and many tens of thousands of private companies will have access to the database.
Supporters of the government line on DNA and ID cards say they are crucial to prevent not only terrorism and ‘benefit fraud’, but crime in general, illegal immigration and whatever else the Daily Mail lobby is kicking up a fuss about. Yet we must see this issue in the context of the continued onslaught on democratic rights.
Back in the 80s the Tories brought in legislation such as the Public Order Act 1986. More or less a direct response to the miners’ strike, it introduced changes like the requirement to request police permission for a demonstration six days in advance.
“Things can only get better” was New Labour’s slogan. For supporters of democracy things have only got worse. The Terrorism Act 2000 introduced a sweeping range of new measures, such as allowing the police to hold suspects for up to seven days without charge.
The first time the act was wielded was when it was used to stop and search a PhD student near an arms fair where he was involved in a protest. The police’s action was later ruled unlawful (R Gillan v commissioner for the Metropolitan Police 2006), but this has not stopped thousands of obviously non-terrorist-related examples of the legislation’s use.
The definition of terrorism contained in the act is deliberately vague; it includes the “use or threat of action” designed to influence the government or the public for a political, religious or ideological cause. It is also includes damage to property. Subsequent legislation, the Terrorism Act 2006, tinkered with the definition, but it remains sweeping. It is not difficult to see how most of the left could be defined as terrorist if the state so wished. Likewise, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 is flexible enough to be used against any number of targets.
If it was not so serious, it might be amusing to run a competition for ‘most ridiculous use of anti-terror law’. Potential candidates might include Sally Cameron, a 34-year-old property developer, who was arrested for walking on a cycle path.6 Clearly, the government feels there is some threat from bicycle-based terrorism.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 gave the government wide-ranging powers to intercept communications, with thousands of warrants issued soon after it was passed. Ever expanding records of text messages, phone calls and internet use are a serious threat to both individual privacy and potentially to political opposition.
Passed in the wake of 9/11, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 allowed the indefinite detention of non-British nationals. Considering all that has gone before, it will hardly be a surprise that this sweeping power does not require something as time-wasting and expensive as a trial.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 means British citizens can be given ‘control orders’. Once again no trial is necessary for suspects to be forced to regularly report to police stations, have restrictions imposed on the making of phone calls and use of the internet, and, amongst other impositions, be electronically tagged.
The Terrorism Act 2006 represented a further stepping up of the onslaught.7 Thankfully the government’s aim of allowing detention for up to 90 days without charge was defeated. Following this a Tory motion to ‘merely’ double the existing 14 days was passed. Twenty-eight days is, however, a long time to endure the deprivation of liberty, lack of sleep, intimidation and worse.
The limit on detention without charge is two days in America (although, of course, that is somewhat extended for Guantanamo Bay internees), the same as in Germany. In France it is six days and even in Russia, increasingly criticised by western leaders as ‘undemocratic’, the limit is five days.
The new act also outlawed “encouragement to terrorism” and “dissemination of terrorist publications”. The first to fall foul was an angry (and rather sad) young woman, Samina Malik, the self-styled “lyrical terrorist”. Her conviction, based on ‘pro-terrorist’ poetry and possession of manuals, such as one for the Russian Dragunov sniper rifle, was overturned earlier this year by the court of appeal. With the ever-multiplying attacks on democracy, 1984-style ‘thought crime’ is something we will see more and more.
The Counter-Terrorism Bill 2008 narrowly slithered its way through the House of Commons, despite opposition from the Tories, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party. It would have allowed suspects to be detained for up to 42 days without charge, removed the right to silence, and extended the range of circumstances where a case could be tried without a jury. The bill was heavily defeated in the House of Lords.
In the event of, for example, another terrorist attack in Britain, we could expect both the Tories and their lordships to fall into line. And I am sure there will be further infringements of our democratic rights and freedoms not yet dreamed up further along the line.
While it is the Labour government that is currently driving the steamroller, Conservative hands are hardly clean. Their hypocrisy in claiming to be defending ‘civil liberties’ is a joke. To the Tories’ ‘liberty’ remains liberty for the rich. The fact that people like David Davis can pose as the defenders of ‘civil liberties’ shows how bad Labour is, not how good the Tories are. We can expect the same, if not worse, from a Conservative government.
With the government hell-bent on a ‘database state’, backed up by more than four million CCTV cameras already in place and the increasingly loose legal framework of things like anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) and attacks on free speech such as ‘religious hatred’ legislation, further elementary rights are under threat.
Communists must be the advance guard in the battle for democracy. We must not abandon such questions to the Liberal Democrats or even the Tories. The proletariat is the only truly democratic class. For bourgeois parties of whatever shade, democratic rights are disposable.
1. The Guardian December 5.
3. For example, see The Daily Telegraph July 25.
4. The Independent August 6 2006.
6. The Times October 17 2005.