Sense about Science

***An email I received yesterday***

Dear Friends

A message from Simon Singh:

“It has been 18 months since I was sued for libel after publishing my article on chiropractic. I am continuing to fight my case and am prepared to defend my article for another 18 months or more if necessary. The ongoing libel case has been distracting, draining and frustrating, but it has always been heartening to receive so much support, particularly from people who realise that English libel laws need to be reformed in order to allow robust discussion of matters of public interest. Over twenty thousand people signed the statement to Keep Libel Laws out of Science, but now we need you to sign up again and add your name to the new statement.

The new statement is necessary because the campaign for libel reform is stepping up a gear and will be working on much broader base. Sense About Science has joined forces with Index on Censorship and English PEN and their goal is to reach 100,000 or more signatories in order to help politicians appreciate the level of public support for libel reform. We have already met several leading figures from all three main parties and they have all showed signs of interest. Now, however, we need a final push in order to persuade them to commit to libel reform.

Finally, I would like to make three points. First, I will stress again – please take the time to reinforce your support for libel reform by signing up at http://www.libelreform.org. Second, please spread the word by blogging, twittering, Facebooking and emailing in order to encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Third, for those supporters who live overseas, please also add your name to the petition and encourage others to do the same; unfortunately and embarrassingly, English libel laws impact writers in the rest of the world, but now you can help change those laws by showing your support for libel reform. While I fight in my own libel battle, I hope that you will fight the bigger battle of libel reform.”

And from me, Síle:

The campaign for libel reform was launched by Sense About Science, Index on Censorship and English PEN on Wednesday 9th December. You can read about it in the following articles:

BBC NEWS Comic Dara O Briain says libel laws ‘quash dissent’

The Times Scientists urge reform of ‘lethal’ libel law

The Independent Comic Dara O Briain lambasts ‘bully’ libel law

The Mirror Dara O Briain wants libel reform

THE UCL provost: libel law is stifling academic freedoms

New Scientist blog Campaign to reform English libel law launched

Press Gazette ‘Libel can kill – reform it now’

The Press Association Dara O Briain wants libel reform

To read the background of this campaign see www.senseaboutscience.org/freedebate. We still need your support. Add your voice at www.libelreform.org and help us reach our fundraising target at www.justgiving.com/bookfund.

Best

Síle
Síle Lane
Public Liaison
Sense About Science
25 Shaftesbury Avenue
London
W1D 7EG

Reg. Charity No. 1101114

Tel: +44 (0)20 7478 4380

www.senseaboutscience.org

Sense About Science is a small charity that equips people to make sense of science and evidence. We depend on donations, large and small, from people who support our work. You can donate, or find out more, at www.senseaboutscience.org/donate

No compromise on Clause 152

The BMA and seven other healthcare organisations wrote last week to the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, urging him to exempt personal medical and health data from the government’s mega-database of personal information.

Jack Straw announced last week that he was reconsidering the wording of the clause in the light of protests and complaints from authoritative figures including the Information Commissioner. He’s even sending one of his ministers to meet the BMA to discuss their concerns.

Make no mistake, excluding medical data and health records won’t reduce the authoritarian potency of this legislative ratchet. If you are interested in protecting your privacy, you must accept no compromise and continue the campaign to have the whole of this clause struck from the bill before it passes into law.

Government seek to rush Clause 152 through report stage

Alan Reid MP, replying to my letter to him regarding Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, has indicated that the government might seek to limit debate on the clause and force it through the report stage.

Indicating his opposition to the data-sharing clause, Alan Reid also stated:

I will also vote against any Government attempt to prevent it being properly scrutinised at Report Stage in the Commons. Report Stage will probably be in March or April

If you care about preventing this authoritarian tosh getting into law, write to your MP and raise with her the risk that procedural shenanigans should also be opposed at every opportunity.

Would you trust Jack Straw and Harriet Harman with your personal data? I don’t.

The need for a written constitution

I wrote about this topic earlier.

Marcel Berlins wrote on the Convention on Modern Liberty in Monday’s Guardian. In that piece, he rightly identified that there was no common consensus as to the way forward from the Convention. Yes, there were many who were there simply to protest at the iniquities of the State, Europe, the Police, CCTV cameras and the like, but the clear common thread of purpose running through the day was that the State encroacheth too far and its ambitions are contrary to human rights, dignity and liberty.

Berlins went on to concentrate on the case for a written constitution in the context of the British experience. He said:

I do not believe that Britain needs a new formal instrument. The US constitution, so admired, rubber-stamped unlimited detention without trial, and torture. There is no such thing as watertight bill of rights. A government intent on breaching civil liberties, with sufficient sheep voting in parliament, and a hesitant judiciary, will get its way, in any country. We have enough legislative tools: the European convention on human rights and various international treaties and conventions. More words on a piece of paper won’t make much difference. The aftermath to the weekend’s excellent convention should concentrate on getting rid of the supine politicians and the power-mad ministers.

The problem with having no definitive set of principles by which the organs of the state operate is that one can vote out one set of supine politicians and power-mad ministers only to find that the next bunch are as bad, if not worse. The democratic activity might secure no progress.

In Friday’s Comment is Free column in the Guardian, Jack Straw wrote:

I believe there are times when it is necessary to impose restrictions on some aspects of individual liberty in the interests of wider security. That is one of the central tasks of government.

In understanding this comment from Jack Straw, we need to concentrate on two points.

Firstly, what is the purpose of government? Individual human beings cannot produce or deliver all that is necessary for life health and wellbeing. We can produc private goods, but neither you nor I are going to build a high-speed railway between London and Glasgow or develop, resource and deliver a modern health service. All of those things are tangible public goods and the purpose of government. Neither you nor I can secure their liberties against those who would seek to take them away, nor can you or I secure equitable justice between us. Those are still public goods. My argument is that the greatest public good that the state can deliver on the part of its people is liberty.

Secondly, is security truly a good reason for restricting liberty? What we are now seeing is simple shroud-waving on the part of ministers to make us feel unsafe and in need or protection – in need of Rescuing and therefore likely to submit to these small parings from our freedoms and liberties.

It is my contention that the first duty of government must be the liberty of its people and all who fall under its protection. When liberty is subservient to spectres such as terrorism, we progress inevitably to extended detention without charge, internment, illegal rendition, torture and the death of freedom.

It is for this reason that I contend that Berlins is only partly right. Yes, the case is urgent and we need to exercise checks on the ambitions of the state right now given that it will take years to establish (a) the case for and (b) the instrument itself of a new constitution. However, it is also clear that such an instrument is essential to inhibit authoritarian governments from seeking once more to roll back the liberties of the people in the name of the faceless horror.

Some videos from the Convention on Modern Liberty

(Re-posted from the Convention on Modern Liberty’s Videos page.)

At last, a chance to watch again some of the sessions from Saturday. Hopefully more videos will be published, including some of the sessions from around the country.

LONDON

Thanks to Jake Dowie and Global Mix, we were able to stream video of some of the events in the Logan Hall in London to viewers across the country. We hope to have this video up in more accessible format later, but for now here are links to some sections of it:

First plenary session ( normal quality link / high quality link )

‘Can liberty survive the slump?’ ( normal quality link / high quality link )

Lord Bingham at the ‘Judges and politicians’ session ( normal quality link / high quality link )

The higher quality links will be slower to load. Some basic help in viewing these videos can be found below.

Windows

Windows users should have the latest version of Windows Media Player installed.

Mac

Mac users who cannot play the video should first try opening the link at the top of this page in Safari, and if this does not work they should install Windows Media Components for QuickTime, which can be downloaded from http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/player/wmcomponents.mspx

Linux

Linux users should be able to play these videos if they can find a version of ‘Totem’ or ‘MPlayer’ for their distrubution – they should consult the documentation which comes with these applications for help.

Ubuntu users may need to install extra codecs, for which they should look at https://help.ubuntu.com/community/RestrictedFormats for instructions.

Clause 152, Coroners and Justice Bill

Clause 152 of this Bill, currently waiting to go before a Public Bill Committee for line-by-line scrutiny, contains powers for the Government to pass personal data about all of us from one part of government to another. This is in fundamental breach of the Data Protection Principles under which personal data is collected and handled by public bodies. Okay, what Parliament giveth, Parliament can take away, but cursed be the name of Parliament for we lack a written constitution.

What this clause will do, should it be enacted, is permit data collected for one purpose to be used for any other government power or function by means of an Order. Now, that sounds complicated and difficult but it isn’t. Orders in Council are made by the dozen every week and are subject to no legislative scrutiny. They are extra-parliamentary executive powers. Although useful, such powers are, of course, entirely at the whim of the executive and can be used for less and well as more worthy reasons, and by less as well as more worthy ministers and governments – and they need give no reason.

Phil Booth, of the No2ID campaign, spoke at yesterday’s Convention on Modern Liberty about the need to act, and to act swiftly, to protect all of our personal data. The following quote from Phil Booth has been posted on Samizdata.net by Guy Herbert:

At the Convention on Modern Liberty, I launched NO2ID’s request that everyone at the convention – and around the UK – tells their MP right now that they refuse their consent to having their information shared under any “information sharing order”, a power currently being slipped onto the statute books in clause 152 of the coroners and justice bill .

Please tell yours too. It’s important, and urgent – and something that only YOU can do. If you never have before, now’s the time to write to your MP – in a letter, or via www.WriteToThem.com.

Jack Straw has been making noises that could signal a ‘compromise’, but the only acceptable action is to remove clause 152 entirely from the bill. It is not linked to any other clause, despite being sandwiched between other powers and so-called safeguards offered to the information commissioner. It cannot be improved, and Straw can’t be allowed to merely “dilute” it. Clause 152 just has to go.

It’s imperative that in coming days every MP hears from his or her constituents. Please tell them you refuse consent to having your information, taken for one purpose, arbitrarily used for any other purpose. And ask them to vote clause 152 off the bill.

Well, I’ve done just that, and urge you to do the same. If you happen to be reading this from Argyll & Bute, Alan Reid is your MP. The following is the text of my letter:

Dear Alan Reid,

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Glasgow satellite meeting of the Convention on Modern Liberty. At that meeting I heard from Phil Booth of the No2ID campaign about Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill which is about to go into Public Bill Committee.

This Clause, if enacted, would give governments and ministers of any political shade executive powers to take personal data given in trust by the public for one purpose and to use it without the owner’s consent for any other purpose the Executive sees fit.

The powers would be exercisable by Order, but you and I know that Orders are easily made and subject to no democratic or legislative scrutiny.

Such powers are entirely unacceptable in any free or democratic society, whatever smokescreen of efficiency or security the government may throw up. It was precisely the potential that national access to personal data had to facilitate totalitarianism that ensured that those who wisely and carefully drafted the constitution for the Federal Republic of Germany after the last war ensured that this could never happen in that state. That constitutional arrangement has held fast as a bulwark against totalitarianism in the west of Germany and those citizens of the east have been delighted to move from the caring concern of their former governments to the liberty of the western dispensation.

Please be clear that I irrevocably refuse my consent to any of my personal data, given freely and in trust for a particular purpose, being transferred at the whim of the executive to any other arm of government or used for any other purpose.

I urge you to vote against this measure at any and every opportunity. I know that measures such as these run entirely contrary to the principles and ethics of the Liberal Democrat party. I, for one, refuse to be enslaved by conformity.
I look forward to hearing your own views on this matter. I am publishing this letter on my own blog (http:// patthechooks.wordpress.com) and will publish your reply, subject to your consent of course, in the same way.

Yours sincerely …

Time for a written constitution

I wrote here about my attendance at the Convention on Modern Liberty’s satellite in Glasgow.

The consensus that emerged from the day was that there needed to be a permanent, fundamental contract between the State and those to whom it owes a duty of care. I’ll explain that last bit in a moment. The problem with the current constitutional settlement in the UK is that it is mutable and subject to fundamental alteration at the whim of an executive which is not sufficiently restrained by the legislature, simply because it is the largest party in the legislature which becomes the executive and therefore can have its own way, even with the most fundamental interests and freedoms of society. There is only one way to address this gaping flaw in the UK’s constitutional arrangements, and that is for there to be a written constitution and a separation of powers between the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. Some small steps have been made on the latter path, with the separation of the legislature and the judiciary in the formation of a Supreme Court separate from the House of Lords sitting as the court of last instance, but this is a development which has not come from within, but from external pressure. In consequence we now have a Ministry of Justice, which always sounds to me like something of which every banana republic should be proud. It is clear that the British state cannot of itself and for itself derive a new constitutional arrangement; we, the people, must do that task ourselves.

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Home Affairs, said at the second London plenary session, “we must have a Parliament that is independent of the executive and is able to hold it to account”.

In the discussions at the London convention, it was clear that this was the broad consensus of the meeting, and one, to my mind, which was supported at the Glasgow satellite. There was a mood at the Convention that this should be an annual event until such time as this objective was secured and that the Convention should seek to establish the mechanisms by which a new constitution for these islands could be determined.

To come back to my point about “those to whom the state owes a duty of care”. There was strong agreement amongst all who spoke that human rights are indivisible. They are not “British rights” or “citizens’ rights”, because it is all too easy to redefine who is or is not “British” or a “citizen” and therefore protected or otherwise by right. For that reason, repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a British Rights Act or something equally ghastly immediately gives the state the power to derive people of rights – those of the wrong political inclinations (“sorry, old boy, not quite British enough“), of the wrong immigration status (“sorry, old chap, you’re not a citizen, you know“), of being on the wrong end of a British gun (“sorry, old bean, you’re just an enemy combatant“).

I propose that the test of those to whom we should extend rights is quite simply the one of the duty of care. And to answer this question, we have a snail in a bottle of ginger beer to thank. In the 1932 case of Donoghue v. Stevenson [1932] HC 562, the learned judge Lord Atkin said:

“The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbour: and the lawyers question, Who is my neighbour? receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour.  Who then is my neighbour?  The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the act or omissions which are called in question.”

It is clear here that we can regard any constitutional arrangement that adheres to these principles as being sound, robust and founded in indivisible human rights. It would make it absolutely clear that there were no territorial limits to the oversight of the legislature or judiciary in terms of the actions of the executive. We can contrast here the legal lacuna which permitted George W Bush to establish on his personal authority a global regime of internment, illegal rendition and torture in which the British government were able – and pleased – to collude. Such a principle enshrined in a British constitution would protect anyone, anywhere in the world, whatever their status, from the actions of a British Executive and improve on the, admittedly, laudable American model.