This morning the new Liberal Democrat / Conservative coalition government of the UK, headed by David Cameron as Prime Minister, have announced a "major programme of civil liberties". Both parties share common policy ground on this issue, and have come together to produce the following commitment:
- A great repeal or freedom bill to scrap the ID card scheme and the national identity register and the next generation of biometric passports
- Extending the scope of the Freedom of Information bill to provide greater transparency
- Adopt protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database
- Protecting trial by jury
- Reviewing libel laws to protect freedom of speech
- Further regulation of CCTV and other items
This is great news for civil liberties campaigners. Personally, although my politics are rather to the left of either Lib Dems or Tories, I'm delighted to see baby steps towards consensus politics in the UK. No compromise can please everyone, but it should provide concessions to both sides. It is inevitable that the Lib Dems will make more concessions than the Tories, the latter having a greater electoral mandate; I think anger that the Lib Dems have "sold out" is misguided. Let's hope that this move towards a more mature, sophisticated politics of negotiation continues.
The Register describes how the Tory / Lib Dem compromise has resulted in a "best of both worlds" situation on biometric passports:
Both parties went into the election committed to scrapping ID cards and the NIR, and though the LibDems were the only major UK party to pledge to add biometric passport enhancements (adding fingerprints, and possibly other weird stuff if you believe Meg Hillier) to the bonfire, the UK has no international obligation to deliver a second-generation passport. They would have been a tempting and easy cut for the Tories if they'd been able to govern on their own.
So far so good. The website for the Home Office Identity and Passport Service reports that the "how" of scrapping ID cards will be announced in due course:
Both Parties that now form the new Government stated in their manifestos that they will cancel Identity Cards and the National Identity Register. We will announce in due course how this will be achieved. Applications can continue to be made for ID cards but we would advise anyone thinking of applying to wait for further announcements.
Until Parliament agrees otherwise, identity cards remain valid and as such can still be used as an identity document and for travel within Europe.
The emerging Cabinet for the new coalition government offers other clues to the progress of liberty over the next parliamentary term. Some have commented that the appointment of Ken Clarke as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor bodes well for the Human Rights Act despite Tory plans to scrap it, as Clarke described this aspect of Tory policy as 'xenophobic and legal nonsense' back in 2006 (source).
Interestingly, the Tory Great Repeal Bill seems to be a groundbreaking example of wikipolitics - unique in the manifestos of the three main parties. The wiki page invites users to submit oppressive or invasive legislation to be considered for repeal, saying:
This experiment in direct democracy allows ordinary citizens to have a direct say in drafting of legislation, which is believed to be the first of its kind.
Campaign groups are already wondering what legislation will be included in the repeal - the Open Rights Group are particularly concerned about the Digital Economy Act, and Big Brother Watch want to see Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 rolled back. The latter is listed under the civil deregulation section of the Repeal bill, but the Digital Economy Act is not yet listed on the wiki; perhaps the Open Rights Group are correct to look to the Lib Dems for this.
But it's not all good news. The appointment of Peter Ricketts as National Security Adviser (on Cameron's new National Security Council) is a grave setback. Ricketts is buried deep in the UK's complicity in torture, and has repeatedly acted in defense of the use of torture, including being involved in the censorship of the recent FOI release on this topic.
There is an admirable libertarian streak running through the Tory party, embodied in Cameron as the representative of the "new Conservatives". But many of their members and MPs are still inclined towards authoritarianism. We should not rest on our laurels yet.
The coalition's response to the banking crisis will be an interesting test of their commitment to liberty throughout their government, not just as an opening crowd-pleaser. Banking reform is prioritised in the new agreement. It will be interesting to see how Tories reconcile their commitment to citizen liberties with their loyalty to big business. As Thomas Jefferson is often misquoted as saying, banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. The civil liberties section of the new agreement is cause for celebration, but it will be interesting to see how much those libertarian values trickle down into the rest of the coalition's policies.
BREAKING NEWS: As I was typing this article, Liberal Conspiracy have published an exclusive leak of the full text of the coalition agreement. The Civil Liberties section is reproduced below in full:
10. Civil liberties
The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion.
This will include:
- A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.
- The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.
- Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
- The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
- Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
- The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
- The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.
- The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
- Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
- Further regulation of CCTV.
- Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.
- A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.