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'Poor people need civil liberties too'

Damian Green MP, Shadow Home Affairs Minister, gave a speech to Respublica last week that argued that civil liberties were not a middle class issue but concerned all classes, not least the poor. Extracts from his remarks are published below.

"There are many aspects of the modern Conservative Party which are significant changes from the Conservatism of recent years. Some of these changes are rediscoveries of the best aspects of historic Conservatism, and one of the most important is our determination to help the poorest and most disadvantaged. You can call this One Nation Conservatism, Tory Reform, Compassionate Conservatism or even Red Toryism, but whatever the name it represents the same decent instinct: that we have a duty to help those who need help, and that such help is the mark of a civilised society.

An essential part of the help we need to give the disadvantaged is the personal space, ability to control their own lives and freedom from the dictates of a nannying state that add up to what we call “civil liberties.” On the surface this is a counter-intuitive argument. Surely civil liberties are only of concern to a few middle-class do-gooders with more compassion than sense? Surely what the people living on our toughest estates demand is a more controlled society to protect them from their neighbours? Civil liberties, the argument runs, are a luxury item for politicians, not to be contemplated in a recession when fear of crime and disorder is rampant.

To those who argue this I say, look at the world around you. This is precisely the policy that has been practised in recent years, and it is failing. Look at the tough measures that this Government has introduced – from ASBOs and dispersal zones to databases such as ContactPoint, ONSET and the DNA Database.

Then look at the results of this so-called toughness –a substantial rise in youth crime, and over a million violent crimes in the last year for which we have figures. The results are seen in the education system too, with 324,180 fixed period exclusions from state funded secondary schools last year; and the rise in NEETs. One in six children in the UK grows up in a workless household, the highest rate in the whole of Europe.

Despite their claims about promoting equality, opportunities to rise up the socio-economic scale have lessened under this Government. The National Equality Panel recently concluded that while social background really matters, “rather than being fixed at birth, these differences widen through childhood”. As Milton Friedman put it, “A society that puts equality ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom”.

It is staring us in the face that toughness on its own is not enough. We have gone down the route of more policing, more intrusion, more databases, more surveillance, and more lecturing. The result is a divided, broken society.

Of course we need better and more effective policing everywhere -  I am not arguing that the state should stop trying to protect and encourage the poor, rather that it has been short-sighted and ineffective in the way it has tried to do so. If we actually want a long term sustainable improvement in the lives families and communities you need a proper civil society. We need to restore trust between the people themselves, as well as between individuals and the state. The difficult part of this is that they cannot demonstrate this trust unless they themselves have the freedom to express it.

If we are to start treating people as full citizens, with the full range of civil liberties - the right not to be spied on, not to be put on a database on the off-chance, not to be constantly supervised by the state’s enforcement mechanisms - we need a bonding framework. Successful communities have this. It derives from a sense of mutual responsibility which can only be exercised as a matter of free choice.

Since only truly free people can exercise these responsibilities, we should ask which freedoms particularly contribute to this instilling of civic responsibility. I believe it is the freedom to make some decisions about the vital local services which are at the heart of any community. For example, the ability to exercise some control over your local school, or at the very least the chance to choose whether it is suitable for your child, is key. We should give more power to local communities - to decide on the design priorities of the estate; to run their own children’s leisure facilities; to have a much greater input into the local policing priorities.

The argument against this, which is never quite put explicitly, is that this level of freedom is impossible for the poor - it is too risky. There is a wrong-headed insulting view that the poor are poor because they are feckless. Some are, just like some very affluent people are, but the vast majority are not. If we start from the presumption that a significant percentage of our fellow citizens are permanently incapable of exercising full civic rights, then we will never live in a stable and relaxed country.

Civil liberties are essential for the most disadvantaged on the proposition that they should not be treated differently from the comfortable and affluent. One Nation should mean one set of rules for all, and one set of rights for all. There is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same as the state.

Trust the people, in that grand old Tory phrase which should still be a guiding light to us. I know this sounds risky and over-optimistic. But what is the alternative? More and more control? Increasing public spending to hold down an underclass we have written off? This would be expensive, dehumanising and a failure. You cannot run a modern democratic country in which your civil liberties depend on where you live, what you earn, and where your children go to school. Civil liberties are the liberties of every citizen from the richest to the poorest. We should defend and enhance them, for everyone."


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