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Dominic Raab: Exposing this Government's assault on our historic liberties

Dominic_raab Dominic Raab is the author of The Assault on Liberty – What Went Wrong With Rights, published today by 4th Estate. The book will be launched this evening at the Institute for Economic Affairs. Dominic was a legal adviser at the FCO between 2000 and 2006, and Chief of Staff to respective Shadow Home Secretaries between 2006 and 2008. He is now Chief of Staff to Shadow Justice Secretary, Dominic Grieve, but stresses that the views expressed here are personal to the author.

As Britain braces itself for recession, it faces another – surreptitious, but no less serious – crisis of confidence. Our liberal democracy is based on individual freedom, the rule of law and parliamentary democracy. Yet, since 1997, the government has wrought a seismic shift in the relationship between the citizen and the state – attacking our most basic rights of protection against the state, whilst shoe-horning swathes of new claims on the state into the ever-elastic language of human rights.

The Assault on Liberty

Liberty forms part of Britain’s bedrock. Millions died defending the freedoms we take for granted today. In 1939, Churchill characterised Britain’s defiance of Nazi Germany as a war ‘to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual … a war to establish and revive the stature of man’. For all its trivial talk about Britishness, this government has undermined the basic freedoms that underpin our way of life.

It is not just political controversies like 42 days and ID cards. The assault on liberty permeates our daily lives. Wake up in the morning, and neighbourhood spooks are following paper boys to check their permits, monitoring the rubbish we put outside and snooping on people walking their dogs (to check where they poop). Hardly a sensible use of resources, when hard-pressed taxpayers are struggling to pay bills and violent crime has nearly doubled. Then consider the impact on the children trailed home from school by council spies to check their catchment area. Their mother complains: ‘My daughter is still having trouble sleeping. She’s asking if there is a man outside watching us’.

Leave home for work, and we enter what is increasingly a surveillance society. In one day, the authorities monitor a thousand emails, text messages and internet searches - in London, you will be watched by three hundred CCTV cameras. But are we safer? Home Office research shows 80% of CCTV is not fit for purpose, with ‘little overall effect on crime levels’, and careless officials are as likely to lose – as protect – the personal data hoarded on mammoth databases.

If you duck the prying eyes of the state, beware the spot fines dished out on trivial grounds. Gordon Williams was fined £30 for smoking in his van (classified a place of work), while an 82 year old with Parkinsons disease was fined £35 as she snoozed in her car (because her disabled permit was upside down in the windscreen). Some challenge these petty abuses of power – to get common sense justice – by refusing to pay the fines and electing the ancient British right of trial by jury. Prosecutions against Kate Badger (for allegedly dropping an apple core) and Janet Devers (for selling ‘fruit and veg’ in pounds and ounces) collapsed when faced with a jury. Even that defence is under attack – the government has repeatedly tried to erode the role of juries over the last decade.

If you get through the day unmolested, you are not safe once home. An Englishman’s home used to be his castle. But the state now has over a thousand separate powers to force its way into your home – including to check baby-sitting credentials and inspect the height of hedgerows. CCTV was used to spy on a couple in their bedroom at night to monitor their parenting skills. And thirty-nine year old mother was ASBO-ed for singing Gary Glitter classics in the bath.

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear? The broad security net increasingly sweeps up the innocent. Sally Cameron, a property developer in Dundee, was detained for four hours under terrorism powers, just for walking home along a cycle path. Worse, Lotfi Raissi was arrested by UK police after 9/11 and held without charge on flimsy grounds for over four months, long after the FBI had discounted any involvement in the terrorist attacks. Stabbed twice in prison, he suffered two nervous breakdowns.

And God forbid you express an opinion of your own. Britain’s proud tradition of free speech is under strain from a toxic mix of draconian security powers and stifling political correctness. A 15 year old boy attending a peaceful demonstration, holding a placard calling the Scientology a ‘dangerous cult’, had his sign seized and was threatened with prosecution on ‘public order’ grounds. Likewise, eccentric Oxford Street preacher, Philip Howard, was ASBO-ed for proclaiming ‘Don’t be a sinner, be a winner with Jesus’ – absurd when you think how lax the government is on extremists like Abu Hamza, left free for years to incite violence.

Rights Contagion

As our fundamental freedoms are pawned off cheaply, Britain is suffering a rights contagion – with endless novel grievances metamorphosised into human rights. The ban on torture, inspired by Nazi atrocities, has been stretched to allow claims to NHS healthcare and state benefits. The courts accept the possibility of human rights claims to drain repairs and environmental protection. And the government is contemplating a whole new brand of economic and social rights. Historically in this country, liberty-based rights protected the citizen from the state. But, New Labour’s approach to human rights inflates the role of the state, promoting dependency on it. This creates three problems.

First, legal turmoil. The rule of law requires predictable rules. Yet, the rapid spread of rights creates widespread uncertainty, saddling public servants with stultifying bureaucracy and paralysing legal liabilities. Police and probation authorities feel compelled by expanded legal interpretations to put the privacy of dangerous criminals above public protection. Prisons settle claims by drug-addicted prisoners for the hardship of going clean, to avoid risking liability in court.

Second, the proliferation of rights - through judicial legislation at the European Court of Human Rights, exacerbated by the Human Rights Act – conflicts with basic principles of democracy. New law is created - and public services prioritised - by lawyers and judges in courtrooms, when they should be debated and decided by elected law-makers.

Third, the expansion of novel rights – and accompanying compensation culture - undermines social responsibility. Parents, police and teachers have been shorn of their traditional respect. The public just see common sense turned upside down. The right to family life now facilitates divorce. Prisoners claim the right to twigs to practice paganism in their cells. And a paratrooper, who lost his legs and suffered brain damage from a Taliban landmine, has to haggle for the same compensation that a transsexual soldier gets for injured feelings, having been required to wear a male uniform. 

A British Bill of Rights

The inflation of rights beyond fundamental liberties has devalued the currency of human rights in general, when British liberty has never been more important. The answer is to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights, based on the core rights in the European Convention, but halting the conveyor belt of new rights. A British Bill of Rights would enable us to stay within the Convention - but mitigate our exposure to erratic case-law from Strasbourg, and avoid importing wholesale the continental model of human rights. It would provide greater clarity and stronger protection for our fundamental freedoms, but give maximum flexibility to restore democratic control over - and check - the flow of novel claims dressed up as human rights. There are no quick fixes, no panaceas. A Bill of Rights can’t cure cancer or stop global warming. But it can reverse the assault on liberty – and put rights back in their proper place, within the wider architecture of our democracy.


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