Welcome to Big Brother Britain
The protection of Individual freedom conferred by English law is renowned the world over. When I came to this country from Australia in the late Eighties to research my thesis on English criminal law, I had a great admiration for the system that was the foundation of the Commonwealth justice system.
Since then, and especially under this Government, I have observed a steady whittling away of what I so valued.
It Is Ironic that New Labour which flaunts its dedication to human rights and civil liberties, should itself be in the process of implementing measures that fundamentally undermine freedom, the presumption of Innocence, and the rule of law.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the population was under constant surveillance, certain thoughts were criminalised and freedom was non-existent though people were, technically, ‘free’. Political correctness was enshrined in language and law and Big Brother was an omnipresent force.
Never did Orwell’s grim view of the future ring so true as in Britain in 2003.
This week’s announcement by the Home Office of an extension of police powers to retain DNA samples and fingerprints taken from the innocent is just one more nail in the coffin of Individual freedom.
At present, DNA samples and fingerprints from those who are arrested but subsequently not convicted of any offence must be destroyed.
The reason for this is that it has long been a principle of English law that a man is presumed Innocent until proven guilty. To treat him as a criminal when he has not been found guilty of any offence undermines this and other ancient protections against state Interference.
Yet ministers tell us that these greater powers are necessary to verify the identities of suspects in the fight against crime, and will be added to the Criminal Justice Bill expected to become law next year.
This Is only one among a number of assaults on civil liberties undertaken by this Government, many of them in the same Bill.
They Include the abolition of the double jeopardy rule, which bars a person being tried twice for the same offence. This will mean that every acquittal for a serious offence will effectively be temporary and conditional.
Another Government proposal allows for a jury to be told of a person’s prior convictions. Again, this erodes what Lord Sankey (Lord Chancellor between 1929 and 1935) described as the ‘golden thread’ underlying the criminal law, namely the presumption of Innocence.
We are not yet convicted for the ‘sort of person’ we are, but for the specific conduct with which we have been charged. If ministers have their way, this will change.
Thirdly the Criminal Justice Bill erodes the right to be tried by Jury, which affords a defendant the opportunity to have the facts of his case determined openly and fairly by his peers rather than by some ruling elite.
The Bill will also allow greater admissibility of hearsay evidence, force the disclosure of evidence and increase detention limits.
At present, It is necessary to make a case for holding a person In custody beyond the 24-hour limit. The aim is to extend this routinely to 36 hours - no small matter to an innocent person exhausted and frightened in detention.
In addition, the right to silence is now only a conditional one: adverse inferences may be drawn from it and used by the prosecution.
In another alarming development - and one which has gone largely unnoticed - the Government has set up a criminal confiscation agency which is empowered to confiscate a person’s assets without any criminal conviction whatsoever. Until recently, it was a requirement that a person has to be found guilty before any confiscation take place. Not any more. Now it requires a civil hearing only and no conviction in a criminal court.
But even this is not enough for New Labour. We have a new extradition warrant which means that a British citizen can be extradited to an EU country for something that is not an offence under British law.
Then there is the proposed new ‘snooper’s charter’, permitting many more government departments and quangos the right to eavesdrop on our conversations and read our e-mails.
Given this Government’s willingness to punish thought-crime (with racially and religiously aggravated offences), there is every reason to start worrying about what you think and say in private and how it could be used against you.
And when you venture out of your home or office, the surveillance will continue. My local High Street is in the process of erecting a monstrous 30ft CCTV camera in addition to all the other cameras monitoring our movements - one more Indication of how New Labour’s Big Brother solution to the problem of law and order tramples on respect for individuals, freedom and Innocence.
Ministers are floating ideas about a national identity card, too, some want cards to contain much more than basic identifying information: social security Information, taxation details and even medical records and a genetic profile.
All of this would be electronically encrypted and not read able or verifiable by the card carrier. What’s more, the individual would be required by law to carry it and produce It on demand or face some penalty. Our very organs are under threat from proposals that assume we wish to donate them upon death unless we tell the authorities otherwise.
The Government uses all manner of disguise for these Indefensible measures that so diminish our freedom. The fight against drugs and fraud, concern for victims and so on are all part of the rhetoric used to introduce means that encourage the unjust and irrational.
In truth, the fight against drugs and crime is failing at a much more fundamental level. The police are tied up with paperwork and are rarely seen on the beat. They have turned from a preventive to a reactive force.
At the same time, there is continuing attack on the very structures, such as religion and the family, that lead to a lawful and ordered society.
For so long — as far back as the Magna Carta - English law protected the Individual from unjust interference by the state. In just seven years, New Labour has destroyed that.
Our society — and our lives are poorer for it.
Jacqueline Laing is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Law, London Metropolitan University.
Daily Mail, Friday, March 28, 2003.