CCTV cameras have often been at the forefront of Labour’s civil liberties problems. Photo: Getty
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The civil liberties audit: how does Labour do?

From 90-day detention to the DNA database, Labour has a mixed record on civil liberties. Big Brother Watch digs into the details.

As Big Brother Watch approaches its fifth anniversary, and as we look forward to the looming general election, we are taking stock of the state of civil liberties in the UK. In our 2015 manifesto, we have conducted an audit of the successes and failures of both the coalition government and Labour in opposition and, quite frankly, the diagnosis isn’t good, particularly on where Labour stands or perhaps more specifically, what a voter can expect from a potential Labour government.

If our manifesto were a school report, our conclusion on Labour’s stance on civil liberties could be summed up with “some improvement but needs to apply itself more consistently”.

No one can disagree with the fact that Labour has had a turbulent relationship on civil liberties. While they now claim that they are “proud of their record”, they will forever be the party that attempted to introduce compulsory ID cards, 90 day detention without trial and the creation of the largest DNA database in the world. That is their legacy and they have done little to overcome it. With mixed messages and a failure to position properly around the debate as a whole, Labour has certainly missed opportunities to show the electorate where its principles lie regarding the public’s fundamental freedoms and liberties.

Let’s look at what was happening pre-2010. It will come as no surprise to many that it was the late Tony Benn who raised concerns about Labour in this area. Speaking at the Big Brother Watch launch in 2009 he stated that the government had an obligation to “serve the people, not rule over them”. That these issues were too important and too fundamental to be left to party politics, that “it is not a matter of left or right, Tory or Labour”.

It wasn’t just old stalwarts who went out on a limb to convey to the public that lessons had to be learnt from the past. Chuka Umunna, then a parliamentary candidate, was the only Labour representative to take to the main stage at the 2009 Convention of Modern Liberty. Despite the fact that it was inevitable he would face audible hostility from the audience, he stood his ground. He accepted that there was a need to reform the discussion, particularly in areas of the media where civil liberties were being portrayed “as protecting the rights of people suspected of blowing up buses”. Instead, he argued that what was required was a more positive re-framing of the argument and that it needed to be people like him will making it an election issue. For a brief moment it made advocates think ‘is this the repositioning of the Labour Party?’.

Yet it wasn’t to be. Almost as soon as there was a glimmer of hope it disappeared as quickly as it came. The authoritarian line was too easy to fall back on.

This was evident in Labour’s 2010 general election manifesto, which only mentioned civil liberties twice. In both cases, it was to cite examples of where Labour could be proud of their track record: the removal children’s DNA profiles from the database and the tightening of surveillance rules. The hard line remained with pledges to install more CCTV cameras, an offer of a “new biometric ID scheme”, and promises to maintain the DNA database regime.

The 2010 Labour party conference failed to provide any change on where the party should stand on these issues and attempts to re-evaluate Labour’s position were unclear if not hypocritical. In his first speech as leader Ed Miliband argued that he would not let the coalition government “take ownership of the British tradition of liberty”. He accepted the broad use of anti-terrorism powers had been wrong and yet stood by the previous Labour government’s stance on CCTV and DNA. Indeed, the then shadow justice secretary Jack Straw’s comments that the coalition’s policies meant that only criminals would benefit from “this madness”, reaffirmed that for some that Labour’s old position was, and always would be, the correct one.

Since then, there has always been an undercurrent of confusion as to how far to push a new agenda when it comes to civil liberties, coupled with the fear of contradicting the policies of Straw and his government contemporaries.

For instance, when speaking to the BBC, Ed Balls (as shadow home secretary) claimed that more CCTV cameras were needed, if only to just make people feel safer. Yet when pushed, like Miliband he too conceded that 90-day detention was a “step too far” and that the Labour government had “got the balance wrong”.

The same can be said for Yvette Cooper’s time as shadow home secretary. She too has argued against the coalition’s policy to restrict DNA use, but welcomed restrictions being placed on the use of surveillance powers by local authorities. Or reacting to the Snowden revelations by calling for a radical shakeup of the oversight and legal frameworks governing the spooks, yet enthusiastically backing the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP) and the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill.

It would be remiss of me to mention DRIP without mentioning the role played by Tom Watson in getting it into the public domain early to allow for as much public scrutiny as was possible. It was certainly unfortunate that the line became one of process, rather than of principled issues and surveillance.

Similarly, Cooper’s intervention in the Draft Communications Data Bill, aka the Snoopers’ Charter, debate was minimal. While ruling out helping the Conservatives pass the Bill without the support of their coalition partners, this wasn’t due to concerns regarding civil liberties, but concerns regarding funding and expense.

It is the efforts by a small but vocal minority in the party with led us to the conclusion of “some improvement” mentioned at the beginning of this article. While it is indeed true that the days of proposing sweeping powers to detain people without swift and due legal process may be over, there has been a failure to provide us with a legitimate alternative to what the coalition has offered. However, this isn’t quite enough to suggest that the 2015 manifesto won’t present more of the same.

At this point, Labour has a serious opportunity to reassess and take ownership of the debate, providing a balancing act that was once largely the domain of the Liberal Democrats. Yet this will be impossible until Ed Miliband decides what his Labour Party actually stands for. Let’s hope that it is more towards Tony Benn’s “serve the people, not rule over them” mantra, rather than what we have seen in the past.

Emma Carr is the director of Big Brother Watch

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.