"British freedoms for British People"
Thank you for that introduction. It painted a bleak picture of the authoritarian state built up under thirteen years of Labour rule.
What struck me after my own arrest, and my successful campaign to have my DNA taken off the database after I was cleared, was the anger in the letters that came in from those in a similar position. Former army officers, magistrates, grandmothers in small towns who had never dreamed of offending, were all united in their distrust of the police and the authorities more generally. These are the people we have always thought of as the backbone of respectable society. Alienating them from the law enforcement authorities would be a disaster. This is one of the quiet ways that New Labour lost Middle Britain.
And even Labour’s new leader seems to agree. Ed Miliband claimed in his Conference speech last week that he wants to ‘reclaim’ liberty for the Labour Party. He has admitted that:
“I've said throughout this campaign that I believe New Labour was at times too casual about the liberty of individuals.[..] We made mistakes over ID cards and 42-day detention and how we handled stop and search powers. ”
Words are cheap. Will we see action from Ed Miliband?
Civil liberties used to be a minority interest, largely associated with the left of the political spectrum. It is a sign of how the world has turned that an organisation like Big Brother Watch has been created, and that a new centre-right Coalition Government has made one of its early priorities the restoration of civil liberties we used to take for granted. And it is not just the Liberal Democrats that care about freedom and privacy – as Conservatives we do as well.
Labour had a history of reaching for a database to solve a problem. These databases were presented as being for the convenience of the citizen, when the overwhelming driver is the convenience of the state. It wanted as much information as it could assemble on databases. Worse, it wanted the right to use that information as it saw fit, without any agreement from the citizen affected.
And so the new Coalition Government is taking immediate action to dismantle the database state, and start to restore traditional British freedoms. The Coalition Agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats states that “We share a conviction that the days of big government are over; that centralisation and top-down control have proved a failure…In short, it is our ambition to distribute power and opportunity to people rather than hoarding authority within government” .
The Identity Documents Bill marks a significant turning point. It is a clear symbol of the move away from the ideology underpinning Labour’s overreaching state control – that government knows best .
But it hasn’t been an easy journey. In 2004 I rebelled against a three line whip for the first time to vote against Identity Cards. The Conservative Party itself wasn’t on the right side of the argument then. And when we started campaigning in 2006, as the Shadow Home Affairs Team, against Labour’s ID cards plan, polling showed that the public was against us – they had accepted Labour’s argument that this was a necessary law and order measure. It took political leadership to turn that around. However whilst the campaign may have been based on ideology the arguments we made that gradually brought voters round to our point of view were practical – the scheme’s inefficiency and cost to the taxpayer. The Labour Party responded by constantly changing its explanation for the need for ID cards – from terrorism; to illegal immigration; to identity fraud, and finally under their fourth Home Secretary in as many years, that it would be practical.
Those in this room know that the real threat was both the cards themselves, but the National Identity Register behind the whole scheme. This would have meant that even those who applied for a passport would have had to sign up to compulsory systems which backed by biometric information, fingerprints or eye scans. The National Identity Register held almost 50 pieces of personal information. It was a Conservative manifesto commitment to scrap the National Identity Card Scheme, and the first Bill we brought before the House of Commons.
There is still a lot to be done. In Opposition we also tried to make the case against other intrusive measures, in particular the DNA database. It is unacceptable that the DNA of innocent people, not arrested for any serious charge, should be retained indefinitely on the National DNA database.
We need to break down the surveillance society. Britain leads the world in the use of CCTV, with one estimate suggesting there are up to four million cameras in the UK . Almost sixty thousand of these are controlled by local authorities, which equates to 1 council-owned CCTV camera for every 1000 people in the country. Walking down the street in England a person can be captured on CCTV up to three hundred times in one day . And whilst there is one surveillance camera for every 14 people in the UK, some studies suggest that between 60% and 80% of the images they produce are judged inadmissible in court due to their poor quality. This autumn’s Freedom Bill will contain our proposals to reform the DNA database and the regulation of CCTV.
Another controversial measure is stop and search. There were over a million stop and searches of people in 2007-08, with the Metropolitan Police accounting for more than forty percent of all stop and searches recorded in England and Wales . Some of these were under section 44 for terrorism purposes, which the then Government’s own Independent Reviewer of Terrorism criticized for being used inappropriately, saying that “examples of poor or unnecessary use of section 44 abound” . And so the Home Secretary has already announced a review of all terrorism powers to ensure we focus them once again on the purpose they were intended for. We must end mission creep.
These are policies the Home Office are working on. Many of our colleagues across the Government are equally committed to reversing Labour’s authoritarian measures – Eric Pickles has announced changes to local authority powers to spy on their citizens, such as RIPA. Phillip Hammond has cut funding for unnecessary speed cameras. And Tim Loughton is examining why our children are on so many Government databases. The largest of those started by Labour, ContactPoint, was set up under the Children Act 2004 and was designed to hold basic information on all children under 18 in England. As of last March there were 12.4 million records on ContactPoint with a further 445,000 records in the archive . The Coalition Government has already announced plans to scrap this database.
It will be slow but we have started, piece by piece, to disassemble the database state.
And there will be future battles. We do face a very real threat of terrorism, from extremists of different types. The police are sceptical about having powers removed from them. The Labour Party is determined to outflank us on the right on crime. Alan Johnson suggests Labour hasn’t learned. This is a genuine pity. We will see victory when we finally get all political parties to accept the importance of protecting our civil liberties.
One contemporary issue that looks likely to become a battleground is about our response to measures brought in by Holland and France to ban woman from wearing the burka. There is a genuine difference of opinion across the Party and Parliament on this.
I understand that many people feel uneasy about the Islamic full veil. There are clearly times when people need to be able to identify themselves and show their face, such as at airport security or when their identity is in question. It’s not an unreasonable for MPs to ask that those attending their surgeries remove their veils for face to face meetings, although Muslim women are of course perfectly entitled to say no. What would not be sensible would be for us to get into instructing or prescribing how people should dress in their everyday lives. It is a fundamental aspect of our British values that we should be able to be different without being separate.
It is true that this can be seen as a microcosm of arguments about integration. The Labour Government’s relativist, multicultural approach led in many cases to informal segregation and suspicion between some communities. But integration of Muslims, and different Muslim communities, is a long-term goal, requiring leadership from within communities. We need to construct a single nation unified by the British traditions of tolerance, liberty, democracy and enterprise, where all can prosper.
But this cannot be achieved by top-down diktat. Even if it could, the Conservative Party believes that an arbitrary ban on what British citizens choose to wear in the street would represent an attack on British traditions. The rights of freedom of speech and freedom of worship are key rights in this country that we should rigorously uphold. It would be wrong for the Government to tell people what they can and can’t wear at all times. Under this Coalition Government, there will be no burka ban in Britain.
Poor people need civil liberties too
I chose the broad title of my speech today-‘British freedoms for British people’ - as I wanted to remind us, the modern Conservative Party, why we need to care about civil liberties.
As a One Nation Conservative, I believe we have a duty to help those who need help, and that such help is the mark of a civilised society. Therefore while we start to reform our society, rolling back the state and enhancing individual liberties, we must ensure that this group of the most disadvantaged also see the benefits. An essential part of the help we need to give the disadvantaged is the personal space and ability to control their own lives and freedom from the dictates of a nannying state that add up to what we call “civil liberties.” This is counter-intuitive for those who believe that civil liberties are an effete middle-class obsession (see any of David Blunkett’s tabloid columns). In fact the most likely victims of the surveillance state are the respectable poor, who will have been spied on throughout their daily lives, and who are not held fit to bring up their own children.
That there needs to be an alternative to Labour’s top-down approach in order to help the most disadvantaged in our society is clear. After years of more and more centralised control, ever more intrusive policing and increased public spending, the result is an underclass dependent on the state yet distanced from their communities. The policy that has been practised in recent years is failing, resulting in today’s Broken Society. One reason for this is that the so-called tough and intrusive measures that the last Government introduced often disproportionably affected lower socio-economic groups.
We have been failing the poor even in the terms preferred by the authoritarians: those who argue that the only freedom that matters is a safer street and neighbourhood. We have not made the poorer neighbourhoods safer, however much we have intruded in the lives of their inhabitants. 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. Civil liberties are essential for the most disadvantaged on the proposition that they should not be treated differently from the comfortable and affluent.
David Cameron has said that “where Labour think that an individual’s identity consists in being recognised, registered and assisted by the state, Conservatives think that identity is derived though membership in society. Labour thinks that social justice means equality, achieved and guaranteed by government. We think it means community, built and maintained by people themselves.”
The ultimate aim is to enable individuals to take as much control over their own lives as possible. One the biggest threats to this is an all-encompassing state; a controlling state. Ostensibly good intentions from the state to provide more security, better public services and secure personal identity are significant attacks on our privacy, liberty and choice. Instead, we need to have the courage to set people free.
This is what I mean by British freedoms being at the heart of Conservatism.
With thanks to Damian Green for permission to reproduce the speech here. We have a footnoted version of this speech to anyone who would like it via e-mail.
Big Brother Watch thanks The Freedom Association for hosting us for this and our other events at conference.