Freedom – but not for all

> By Frances Webber

17 June 2010, 5:00pm

The government’s much vaunted freedom agenda entrenches a two-tier system of rights, with migrants and other unpopular minorities largely excluded.

On 25 May 2010, the Queen’s speech promised: ‘Legislation will be brought forward to restore freedoms and civil liberties, through the abolition of Identity Cards and repeal of unnecessary laws.’ The following day, 26 May 2010, the Identity Documents Bill was introduced into parliament. Its provisions cancel the UK national identity card and the identification card for EEA nationals, and abolish the National Identity Register (NIR). Nick Clegg, introducing the Bill, described the ID card scheme as ‘wasteful, bureaucratic and intrusive’ and claimed the Bill was a major step towards dismantling the ‘surveillance state’.

But non-EU citizens, who are required to hold biometric identity cards, are untouched by these proposals: the Bill does not include them, and the National Biometric Identity Service (NBIS), a scheme set up in 2009 under a £265 million contract with IBM, appears to be going ahead, according to the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA). Because the NBIS is non-statutory, it contains none of the safeguards of the NIR – and UK Border Agency has and uses vast powers of information-gathering on foreign nationals. There is no indication from the new government that these powers will be abandoned or curtailed.

In opposition, the Lib Dems’ so-called Freedom Bill, published for the Convention on Modern Liberty in January 2009, contained a large number of proposals to restore and enhance civil liberties, including halving the period of detention without charge of terrorist suspects from twenty-eight to fourteen days, repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which imposes draconian control orders on suspected terrorists), restoring the freedom to demonstrate outside parliament and restricting the length of time criminal suspects’ fingerprints can be retained by police – and many other measures. But there was no proposal to abolish fingerprinting of asylum seekers and certain migrants, and other clauses restricting police powers contained exceptions for immigration.

By 20 May 2010, when the coalition agreement, with its commitment to restore civil liberties was published, even these proposals had been diluted, softened or simply disappeared. The Lib Dems’ proposals in relation to counter-terrorism had been replaced by a commitment to introduce ‘safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation’. The proposal to restrict police retention of fingerprints had gone, replaced by a commitment to ‘outlaw the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission’. And the coalition’s commitment to restore the right to peaceful protest did not refer to Parliament Square – and as Conor Gearty pointed out (London Review of Books 10 June 2010), was accompanied by the noise of police evicting non-violent protesters from the square. CCTV cameras are not to be dismantled but will instead be regulated.

These particular dilutions are significant. Among the resident population it is disproportionately black people whose fingerprints are taken (and retained) by police, while recently, many of those who engage in peaceful protest are Muslim, a hugely disproportionate number of those stopped and searched under terrorism laws are black, and all (or virtually all) of those arrested or subjected to control orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act are Muslim. And in May 2010 it was revealed that Muslim areas of Birmingham have comprehensive CCTV coverage, paid for by the Prevent programme (but sold to residents purely as an anti-crime initiative).

The Freedom or Great Repeal Bill has not yet been published. But when it is, black, Muslim and migrant communities will be watching to see whether they are included in deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s, promise, in his 19 May 2010 speech, of ‘sweeping legislation to restore the hard-won liberties that have been taken one by one from the British people’. So far, the signs are not good.

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