The government trumpets free speech while trampling on it

The government trumpets free speech while trampling on it

The art of government these days is to extend power without people noticing. Gordon Brown proclaims his solemn duty “to uphold freedom of speech, freedom of information and freedom of protest”, yet his ministers steal through the night to attack each one of these rights. We are moving with a sickening speed to a point where the reality of government intentions is the precise opposite of its presentational rhetoric.
Let”s just go through the list that Gordon Brown trumpeted at the Labour party conference two weeks ago. Yes, of course, we have free speech. Yet any fool understands that free speech is not simply limited to what you say, but must also include when you say it, where and to whom. In other words, the right of free speech is linked to personal privacy. If you feel constrained because a government agency may know your location, the time of call and your interlocutor, then your freedom of speech is being curtailed very substantially.

On Monday new regulations came into force, after a personal decree by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, that give nearly 800 public bodies the right to access your telephone records – mobile phone and landline – and make it compulsory for all phone companies to keep those records. So the data of your calls and text messages may be accessed by any damned busybody in any agency stretching from the Scottish Ambulance Service Board, the Food Standards Agency, the Environment Agency to every local council in the country. Naturally, the intelligence services and police are provided with the usual easy pass into your private life.
This was all slipped through our comatose Parliament during the summer when Smith knew people were thinking about their holidays and the electorate was enjoying some kind of post-coital swoon with its new Prime Minister. The Lib-Dem spokesman on Home Affairs, Nick Clegg, rightly asserted that the government had extended surveillance powers “with no meaningful public or parliamentary debate”. Yet the footpads from the Home Office media department rushed round saying that a full consultation had taken place under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

Yeah, right. When? With whom? The Welsh Ambulance Service? The Postal Services Commission? Wychavon district council? All of them can now acquire your phone records. There was absolutely no debate about this, and it is nothing but a straight lie to claim otherwise.

Before the election – which now looks a good distance away – it is crucial to understand that some kind of circle is being closed here by Labour. That circle includes the National ID card database and the mass surveillance of people”s movements by motorway ANPR cameras, the congestion charge cameras in London, Oyster cards used on London”s public transport, the new parking payments by text message and God knows what else. With Monday”s extension of RIPA powers, the government has created an apparatus of control only matched in sophistication by the system in China known as the Gold Shield Project. Wake up and smell the milk burning, Doris. Gold Shield is coming here, too.

As to the Prime Minister”s declared devotion to freedom of information, he has to be kidding. The very week of the Labour conference a man named Derek Pasquill, an official at the Foreign Office, was charged under the Official Secrets Act. The authorities have been playing the usual cat-and-mouse game with Pasquill, but finally they moved on 27 September.

His crime? It appears he is accused of leaking information that when published in The Observer, New Statesman and a Policy Exchange paper – all by journalist Martin Bright – won universal praise among government ministers and opposition politicians.

Bright exposed the Foreign Office for its policy of listening to radical Islam, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and excluding moderate voices from its considerations. “Instead of tackling the ideology that helps breed terrorism,” he wrote, “Whitehall had embraced a narrow, austere version of the religion.”

As a result of Bright”s work, this dangerous, almost lunatic, eccentricity by the Foreign Office was stamped on and government policy was altered to include consultation with more moderate voices. The Muslim Council of Great Britain has at last been shown the door.

What we have here is a leak that brought some sanity to government policy in relation to extreme Islam. This is all good, surely? The free flow of information working for an improved government service? Not to those at the Foreign Office, who now abuse state power to spare ministerial embarrassment.

It goes without saying that only Pasquill has been charged. The bully boys are not yet ready to take on the press with such a slender case.

Which brings me to the third panel in the triptych of Gordon Brown”s conference pieties – his love and support of the freedom to protest. Clearly this does not extend to the demonstration tomorrow, timed by its organisers, CND and Stop the War Coalition, to coincide with Brown”s statement on Iraq. It begins at 1pm with a rally in Trafalgar Square and is due to proceed, with the octogenarians Tony Benn and Walter Wolfgang at its head, to Parliament Square.

That is where it becomes a problem. Instead of using the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, the law preventing demonstration within a kilometre of Parliament Square without police permission, the authorities have disinterred a Sessional Order of the House of Commons of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839, passed at the time of the Chartists.

With archaic relish, they have banned the march because it may impede the progress of any MP or peer who wants to attend Parliament (it is surprising there is no mention of Mr Speaker”s coach and four). The organisers have guaranteed that access, but the ban stays in place, which is odd given that the Prime Minister is on record as saying he wants to repeal the section of SOCPA that requires police permission. As everyone now realises, the use of Sessional Orders may stop all demonstrations while Parliament is sitting. The repeal of the relevant sections of SOCPA, if it happens, will not make the slightest difference.

I am sure that tomorrow there will be many who want to see how all this works, and find themselves in Parliament Square looking for a cup of tea. I hope so because, as I have said many times, we need constantly to remind this government of our rights. If they are to be removed by the same law used to frustrate the Chartists, a profoundly significant moment has arrived, which may cause people to wonder what else lies behind Labour”s rhetoric.

A final thought. Now we have seen how the Foreign Office tries to defend its interests at the expense of good government, it is worth considering how all those other agencies that now have access to everyone”s phone records will use these powers to protect themselves from similar exposure. One day it may be your phone data. But you”ll never know.

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