Today’s Guardian carries an article by Charles Arthur entitled ‘Did the Tories and Lib Dems live up to their 2010 tech manifesto pledges?‘
In usual Guardian preachy style, Arthur offers up a scorecard. At least, he calls it a scorecard but there are no scores on it – merely a commentary. One or two of his observations bear closer scrutiny.
On scrapping ID cards, he offers the following bizarre criticism of the commitment in the Conservative manifesto, failing to even acknowledge that it was also in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto:
‘There were no ID cards to scrap. No national ID register was set up.’
It must be an alternate universe where The Guardian reported on 27 May 2010:
‘The 15,000 identity cards already issued are to be cancelled without any refund of the £30 fee to holders within a month of the legislation reaching the statute book.’
Or where The Guardian on 10 Feb 2011 showed images of Damian Green shredding hard drives with the caption ‘Minister helps destroys the national identity register’.
If he could be arsed to read the Annual Report and Accounts of the Identity and Passport Service 2010-2011, he would see that it cost taxpayers rather a lot of money to scrap a scheme that apparently didn’t exist. (Note 2a on page 41 if you are really interested – which incidentally suggests the figure of cards issued wasn’t 15,000, as reported by The Guardian.)
Arthur makes the following disingenuous statement about the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act:
‘The use of RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) by councils to spy on people was forestalled to some extent, but the coalition tried to introduce an extensive surveillance act in July 2014 – leaning on RIPA – that outraged privacy campaigners, especially in the light of the Snowden revelations over surveillance by GCHQ and the NSA of internet communications.’
Arthur misrepresents what actually made it to the statute book, using the weaselly form of words ‘tried to introduce’, whilst failing to report any of the safeguards that were secured by the Liberal Democrats and reported in – guess where? – The Guardian on 10 July 2014:
Those measures that could prove crucial in the longer term include:
• The “tip to toe” review of Ripa, the foundation stone of the surveillance state, to be completed by 2016, could prove particularly potent in ensuring that such state snooping in the name of counter-terrorism and serious crime is brought strictly under control. Debate is still going on whether it should be an “expert review” led by David Anderson, the counter-terror law watchdog, or a joint committee of peers and MPs.
It will issue an interim report before the general election on whether there are sufficient privacy safeguards in the post-Snowden age and whether there should be a major shakeup of the oversight regime for the security services.
• The creation of a US-style privacy and civil liberties board to ensure that civil liberties are a foundation stone of counter-terrorism legislation, rather than an afterthought. Bolstered by annual transparency reports from the state agencies, it could be the alarm system that the current oversight regime has failed to provide. It will effectively be a major expansion of the current one-man role of David Anderson.
• The appointment of a senior diplomat to lead discussions with the US government and companies to establish a new international agreement for sharing data across boundaries is also significant. This would smooth the way where US wiretap laws conflict with UK Ripa laws but also could provide a way of expanding the existing mutual legal assistance treaty rather than a “snooper’s charter” that sees British ministers issuing demands that US companies hand over ever more personal data on UK citizens.
This is a major package, albeit rushed, that will shape how we live and work in the digital world. It may just “safeguard the existing position” – these powers have been in use in Britain since 2009 – but it also provides an opportunity to introduce some civil liberties elements that up until now were missing.
Funny how there is no mention of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board by Arthur, perhaps one of the most significant legislative developments as far as surveillance goes. This is the body that The Guardian itself described on 16 October 2014 as one of ‘several embryonic cautiously hopeful signs’ in the wake of the Snowden affair – and was duly legislated for this year. A more constructive use of column inches might have been to challenge the next government to put those provisions into action.
In specific criticism of the Liberal Democrats Arthur claims there was no Freedoms Bill – omitting entirely to visit the Protection of Freedoms Act from 2010-12. If you care to look at the Act and Arthur’s criticisms, you will see that a substantial number are addressed.
Ros Taylor, former editor of guardian.co.uk/law described the Protection of Freedoms Act as a ‘a small but significant piece of legislation’:
‘This assortment of measures was intended to allay fears about DNA retention, CCTV, police and local authority powers and a number of other infringements of individual liberty (including, and very laudably, the right of men convicted of buggery to have their conviction disregarded).’
Where can you find Taylor’s comments? In The Guardian on 10 May 2012.
Arthur also states that ‘Fingerprinting of children continues, but parents can opt out of having their children take part.’ Our manifesto commitment – which he quotes just before – said ‘stop children being fingerprinted at school without their parents’ permission’. I struggle to see how what we did is inconsistent with what we committed to.
I am proud of what my own party, which has civil liberties at its core, achieved during five years of government with less than 60 MPs out of 650. Critics should remember: we were in coalition with a party that isn’t known first and foremost for its whole-hearted embrace of civil liberties, following thirteen years of a Labour government that had no regard for personal freedom and made us one of the most surveilled countries in the western world.
I have no problem when someone wishes to challenge the record of parties in government. I have no problem with someone who wishes to challenge me as a Liberal Democrat on my party’s record.
However, when readers rely on ‘quality’ newspapers to be informed, there is no excuse for such shoddy and misleading journalism in a paper that proudly boasts to the world that it won the Pulitzer prize for journalism in 2014.