Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg hold a news conference to announce the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill on 10th July 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on surveillance: Cameron's cynical appeal to three of the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse

The emergency surveillance law being rushed through Parliament next week exploits all the usual moral panic suspects - criminals, terrorists and paedophiles - to undermine our fundamental rights.

Illegal spying is illegal, except when it isn't. It has just been announced that a highly unusual emergency law will retroactively provide a legal basis for collecting the data and internet browsing history of all British citizens. 

The hastily-announced Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill will force phone companies and ISPs to store data - who you text, call and contact, when and for how long - and hand it over to the security services on demand. This was already going on, but in April, the European Court of Justice ruled that the practice was unlawful. Now they’re going to make it lawful, with no discussion and no argument.

The MPs who will be voting on this legislation have not read it. They haven't had time. The whole thing is being rammed through early next week with almost no debate, with terms already agreed between the three major parties behind closed doors.

There are countless ways to define democracy, each more convenient than the next for governments looking to post-rationalise their lack of mandate, but this is surely pushing it.

This new government spying law will give even more powers to what is arguably the most intrusive, invasive state surveillance programme in any country that continues to call itself a democracy - with a promise of more to come after the next election. Scrambling to justify themselves today, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister assured furious back-benchers and an even more outraged public that this bill is about catching not just terrorists, but "criminals, terrorists and paedophiles".

Bingo. That’s three of the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse right there, the excuses which are always used to justify curtailing civil liberties online (the other one is ‘money laundering’, as cited in the Cypherpunk FAQ).

Cameron’s assurance that this legislation will help the state catch paedophiles would seem crass and desperate at the best of times. However, given that the British political establishment has lately proven itself unable to deal with paedophilia and pederasty within its own ranks, this isn't just cynical - it's goddamn tasteless.

So what does this bill mean for the rest of us? As I wrote last week:

State surveillance is only incidentally about catching terrorists. The apprehension of shady fundamentalist miscreants is the excuse used to extend the powers of our government to monitor ordinary people, whether or not they have done or plan to do anything wrong. Such tracking is an everyday invasion of privacy that changes behaviour and intimidates minority communities. In 2009-2010, more than 100,000 stop-and-searches were made under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Not one of them led to a terrorism-related arrest."

One of the cornerstones of the coalition agreement, the compromise on whose back this right-wing government glided into Downing Street, was the promise of “a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion”. How’s that going?"

What is happening here is quite simple. The basic processes of British democracy are being overridden in order to ensure that the British public can continue to be spied upon. Our democracy is being undermined so that our faith in that democracy can be further exploited.

Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is available for now. She will also be in conversation with classicist and author Mary Beard on 30 July at Conway Hall, London. More details and tickets here. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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