24 April, 2006: Look out! There's a SAFETY ELEPHANT on the rampage!

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So, I've been driven to write by an idiotic speech by that right herbert, our very own Safety Elephant, the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke. Earlier this evening he spoke at the LSE on the subject of ``The media and civil liberties''; his basic thesis being that New Labour hasn't eroded our civil liberties and anyway it's only doing it for our own safety.

The speech is remarkable in that almost every factual assertion Clarke made about the recent legislation of his department was false. Even for a modern Home Secretary this is a remarkable achievement -- the sort of thing better left to Prime Ministers.

Some choice examples. Clarke:

[Journalist Simon] Carr asserts, for instance, that, ``damaging GM crops is defined as a terrorist act''. Where is this idea from? Nowhere in terrorism legislation is damaging GM crop fields defined as a terrorist act.

False. As I have remarked before, the definition of ``terrorism'' in the 2000 Act is extremely broad; damaging a plantation of genetically modified crops certainly involves ``serious damage to property'' (s.1(2)(b)) and therefore if it is done ``to influence the government'' and ``for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause'' (s.1(1)(b) and (c)) -- as ``direct action'' campaigners against GMO do -- it qualifies as terrorism.

Next:

[W]hat about the statement: ``People wearing satirical T-shirts in a `designated area' may be arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The City of London is a permanently designated area.'' Wrong again. There is no such provision in any Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The Terrorism Act 2000 gives (s.34) the Police the power to designate an area, and any person in such an area who fails to comply with an order to leave the area given by a constable in uniform commits an offence. This power applies to anyone in a designated area, whether or not they are wearing a ``satirical T-shirt''. The whole of London is in fact a Designated Area under the Act, according to this leaflet from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

Next on to my strange attractor, ID cards:

And I particularly like this one: ``The National Identity Register may be used to record every sort of personal information-- such as withdrawing more than 200 from the bank, getting prescription drugs, voting, applying for a mortgage, taking out an insurance policy, applying for a fishing licence.'' Wholly untrue, I am glad to report.

It is Clarke who is wrong here. Under schedule 1, paragraph 9 of the Identity Cards Act, a record of ``particulars of every occasion on which information contained in the individual's entry has been provided to a person'' will be made on the Register (commonly referred to as the `audit trail'); s.12 of the Act makes clear that the process of `verifying your identity' using an ID card requires that information from the Register be supplied to another person and therefore details of each such identity check will be recorded.

Identity checks on various types of transaction have been advanced in Home Office documents like this one on Special Issues Research; Charles Clarke gave other similar examples in this column in the Times. The specific idea that cash transactions over a certain level be subject to identity checks is supposed to be a way to prevent money-laundering. Public services -- such as applications for fishing licences, purchasing drugs on prescription, and so forth -- can be made conditional on identity checks using powers in the Act.

And:

The information that can be held on the National Identity Register covers only basic personal information roughly the same as that needed for a passport.

This is false, as a brief perusal of schedule 1 of the Identity Cards Act shows, though of course the Home Office's attempts to confuse people as to the difference between ID cards and passports means that they will probably be increasing the amount of personal data required in an application for a passport.

[The NIR] will not include details of withdrawals of cash from bank accounts, medical records or even whether someone has obtained a fishing licence.

All of this information may be recorded in the ``audit trail'', or recorded in other government databases and then connected to records in the NIR by means of a unique number (the National Registration Identity Number) so that it can trivially be retrieved in connection with an individual's NIR record. The Regulatory Impact Assessment gives (p13) the use of the audit trail information for surveillance as an explicit goal of the scheme, and identifies, ``stay[ing] in hotels, rent[ing] accommodation, hir[ing] cars, buy[ing] mobile phones, and generally carry[ing] out their activities'' as things which would be made harder for terrorists by this surveillance -- and by implication, things which would be subject to surveillance through the audit trail.

Later, Clarke had the gall to whine that,

These pieces [by journalists describing the provisions of anti-civil-liberties legislation] are in my opinion symptomatic of a more general intellectual laziness which seeks to slip onto the shoulders of modern democratic states the mantle of dictatorial power.

-- he might be well served by looking closer to home for individuals guilty of ``intellectual laziness''. From this point on, appropriately enough, he made no further substantive points but simply lapsed into the usual ``9/11 means the world has changed and therefore everyone is compelled to agree with every stupid idea we're prepared to throw at you.'' Actually the last bit of his speech reads a lot like the Euston manifesto -- it's full of vague waffle about how the existence of dictatorships means we should ignore things that democratic governments do wrong. Sigh.

So, that was mostly about ID cards, so you get holiday photos:

Brrrr! Splosh!


Copyright (c) 2006 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.