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21 January 1997

Taking Liberties

The Government's Police Bill gives extraordinary powers of surveillance to the police. Tragically, the main opposition party seems determined to go even further in attacking our rights, argues Daniel Lloyd from Freedom and Law

The government's Police Bill, introduced to legislate police surveillance activities, was amended twice during its second reading in the House of Lords last night. Despite one of the government's biggest defeats since they came into power in 1979, the Police Bill will, in substance, remain unaltered. For this sorry state of affairs we have John Wadham of the civil rights group Liberty and shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw to thank.

Once enacted the Police Bill will represent a severe incursion upon what few civil liberties have been left untouched in recent years. The Bill will allow the police to place bugging devices inside people's homes in order to combat 'serious crime' and 'international terrorism'. The original proposals would have allowed police to break into the homes of suspects and place surveillance equipment with only the permission of a chief constable, which is to say as they see fit. Now the police will have to seek leave from either circuit court judges or special commissioners who are appointed by the judiciary to oversee the security forces.

The Bill has not caused the concern one would have imagined from civil liberties groups. While some have decried the loss of freedom the legislation will represent many have accepted the main premise that, to combat crime, draconian legislation is required. What criticism there has been of the bill has not come from the left. Lord Alexander, one-time Chairman of the Bar Council, described the bill as a step on the slippery slope towards a police state. Even conservative-leaning newspapers such as the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Times and the Economist and former conservative home secretaries have voiced opposition to the part of the bill which allows the police to launch covert bugging operations.

The formal opposition to the bill from Liberty and the Labour Party has been crippled by their own endorsement of the main case for the bill. Endorsing the hysterical fears of international terrorism and crime, these unworthy opponents have failed to seriously dent the Home Secretary's proposals. In particular, Jack Straw's own record of stirring up fears over crime makes him ill-placed to face down the home secretary Michael Howard.

That is why the liberally-minded press were so relieved when Straw finally announced his token opposition to the bill. The Guardian was glad to report on Friday 17 January that 'most crucially, the shadow home secretary has finally conceded on the most important issue of all: prior judicial authorisation of covert bugging or surveillance operations.' On this account, the most crucial thing is that everything is done with sufficient display of ermine and wigs - not that people's liberties are being crushed.

On Newsnight, John Wadham, head of the tenuously-named campaign 'Liberty', declared that the judicial authorisation for bugging operations was essential if civil liberties were to be safeguarded. Earlier, Wadham praised Jack Straw and his team for getting it 'just about right' in moving to adopt this position (Guardian 17 January 1997). In the same article John Wadham even proudly boasted of Liberty's involvement in drafting some of the amendments to be tabled by Jack Straw's team.

With all due disrespect to the Guardian and John Wadham, the most important issue is whether or not the police should have the right to launch covert surveillance operations at all, not how that right should be enacted and supervised. Straw's so-called U-turn reveals how desperate he, and the Labour Party, is to demonstrate they will be even more 'tough on crime' than the Conservatives.

The best way to safeguard people's liberties is not to ensure that covert bugging is only allowed when a judge authorises it. Since when have judges been the guardians of our civil liberties? There have been numerous occasions in the past when they have instrumental in removing them. And worse will follow with judicial authorisation. It is likely that the police will have the confidence and public backing to bug far more homes than they initially envisaged.

By accepting at face value the fears invoked to justify the bill - international terrorism and serious crime - Jack and John have at once conceded the main principle embodied in the Police Bill: that the police have a right to carry out covert surveillance at the expense of people's civil liberties. It does not really matter who authorises it, once the principle is accepted. Arguing about whether or not such operations should be authorised by the police or by the judges is Hobson's choice. To then dress up 'prior judicial authorisation' as a safeguard for civil liberties using the language of human rights is adding insult to injury.

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