River Wissey Lovell Fuller

SOAPBOX - Civil Liberties

March 2004

Ron expresses strong views on civil liberties!

Civil libertarians (who seem to be closely affiliated to those who promote the concept of political correctness) are this month's target for my moans. I recognise the need to watch out for our civil liberties and not to offend particular groups or individuals, but things have gone too far.

For example when it was stated recently that in this country we have more CCTVs per head than in any other country. There was an immediate outcry, with newspaper articles and letters complaining that, just as in George Orwell's '1984', we are being kept under surveillance by 'Big Brother' and that the authorities were invading our privacy and removing our liberty. These complaints have followed on moans about speed cameras. There have also been hands held up in horror at the suggestion that we should have smart ID cards.

We are all in favour of individual freedom but we cannot all do as we please. In any society there is a need to have laws and a balance has to be struck between the laws on one hand and individual liberty on the other. There is no point in having laws, however, if they are not enforced. CCTV cameras and ID cards are aids to enforcement. CCTV cameras in public places act as a deterrent to the law breaker and help to protect the law abiding; a similar statement can be made in relation to speed cameras. Cameras in shops, banks and other establishments provide protection for the staff by virtue of their deterrent capabilities. There are numerous instances where CCTV records have led to convictions of criminals that otherwise would have gone unapprehended.

The advantages of smart ID cards in reducing the opportunity for people to behave fraudulently are obvious; they also offer a means of keeping track of immigrants and identifying illegal immigrants. If we had ID cards and the associated ID numbers it would help to prevent people from assuming a new name as a means of escaping their liabilities and it would not have been so easy for the police to overlook Ian Huntley's past records simply because he changed his name.

Apparently hundreds of thousands of people are reported 'missing' each year. Most are subsequently located but there is a worryingly large number who are never found. Some might argue that anyone has the right to break contact with all their relatives and friends if they so wish, although it is a very unkind act to leave them worrying that they may have been killed or kidnapped. ID cards could help the police and other organisations to establish that the missing person is alive and well, even if they do not wish to be contacted, and inform relatives of that fact, or, alternatively, they could help establish that the missing person may have been the victim of foul play.

The Data Protection Act in its present form is another example where the effort to protect individual liberty and privacy has gone too far. There are countless examples where the Act has resulted in nonsensical situations. I even heard recently of an instance where the police claimed that they were not permitted to hold on record the name and address of a key holder to a premises. Had it not been for the Data Protection Act, Ian Huntley's full record would have remained on file and those two girls would probably still be alive today. Because of the Act it is illegal for an employer to hold notes on an employee that he is not prepared to show to that employee on request; similarly a teacher cannot hold notes on a pupil, student or parent, neither can a doctor hold notes on a patient, yet there must be times when it would be kinder for individuals not to know what others have noted, or advantageous to the note taker to be able to make notes in confidence.

The rules in relation to police entrapment is another associated area where the protection of the rights of the individual appears to have gone too far. It seems as though it is not generally permissible for the police to catch a criminal by enticing him into a trap but I am not clear why that should be so. I can see that some judgement may be required in these situations but entrapment in principle seems perfectly reasonable to me. The law does behave strangely at times, however (too often in fact). There was a case last year when a paedophile was caught by a trap set on the internet as a result of which he was convicted. I was very pleased to see it but it did appear to be a clear case of entrapment. At about the same time the police and customs people brought a case against an international ring of criminal money launderers. It was the culmination of a major investigation that had cost in excess of £1million. There seemed little doubt that the criminals involved were guilty and had been profiting on a large scale where each had made millions. The case against them was rejected, however, because it was claimed that the police had been guilty of entrapment. I did not understand the difference between the two cases unless it was just another example of the way in which those with money can manipulate the law.

To my mind the whole point with all of this so called curtailment of civil liberty is that the law abiding individual has nothing to fear. Speed cameras, CCTV cameras, ID cards, data held by the police or others, or police entrapment, none of these encroach on our privacy or our liberty. All we need to ensure is that we remain a democracy and that we never have a regime that misuses the powers we have allowed our government to have.

Ron Watts

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