Friday, June 13, 2008

Civil Liberties

Victims of the unaccountable state

Having slept on it, and listened to his interviews, I'm still shocked at David Davis's decision to resign over 42 days. Unsurprisingly for one who strongly backed DD For Leader, I reckoned he was going to make an excellent Home Secretary. And boy, do we need an excellent Home Secretary.

But now out of the blue, he's walked away. What a loss.

He clearly feels very strongly about the erosion of our civil liberties, but then, many of us do. We'd all been looking to him to do something about it once in power - indeed, just the previous day I'd cheered when I heard him pledge to reverse any 42 day legislation.

What can be going on? He's virtually certain to win his by-election, but it sounds like there won't be much opposition (Red Mist Party notwithstanding), so what will it prove?

By a strange coincidence, at the very moment DD was resigning, I was on my way to have lunch with a friend who has similarly strong views on the loss of our civil liberties. He's my main man on the mean streets of Primrose Hill - the Huggy Bear of what's goin' down in the LB of Camden.

Huggy's lived in London for most of his adult life, but he grew up in the South Africa of apartheid and the Bureau of State Security (BOSS). So he's seen up close what happens when governments take unchecked power over life and liberty in the name of state security.

Yesterday he again regaled me with his concerns - the police as agents of the state rather than servants of the local community, the thousands of CCTV cameras clocking our every move, ID cards, DNA database, arrest and detention without charge, and now the extension up to 42 days. Pass laws will be next. Not for the first time, he told me he despaired, and what with the taxes and the prospective return to fiscal bail-out inflation, he might well leave Britain altogether.

No, no, said I. The Tories will be back in two years - certainly not a miracle cure, but on those civil liberty issues, Davis has promised to repeal 42 days, and will be rolling back the state all over. Trust me.

Hah. So much for that.

Huggy also told me a tale that made me feel very angry indeed.

Some months ago, a local hairdresser, Zulfi Amade (pic above), had an altercation with a traffic warden (or parking attendant as they now style themselves). He had spotted a warden issuing a ticket on a car belonging to a struggling 24/7 waitress in the restaurant next-door, and he rushed out to plead for a stay while he fetched the waitress.

The warden agreed, but when the hairdresser nipped off to get the waitress, the warden issued the ticket anyway.

What followed is a matter of dispute, but we do know that the warden accused the hairdresser of hitting her and summoned a posse of large male colleagues. They pinned Mr Amade against a wall, and held him until the police arrived. The police then bundled him off to the nick in short order, and held him in a cell for five hours (see this blog by indefatigable parking campaigner Neil Herron for the published facts).

Now, there are a couple of points.

First, while the warden's employer NCP initially insisted the warden had been assaulted and "received a deep cut to her face and was in hospital until late evening", they later backed off completely. Faced with Mr Amade's own eye-witnesses, including a passing solicitor, they later reported that the police "on this occasion" decided to drop all charges. Mr Armade has instructed lawyers and the case is apparently ongoing. Good.

Second, why did the police bundle him off like that? According to the local grapevine, they effectively made him disappear for several hours, and made it very difficult for the family to discover where he'd been taken. Very frightening for all concerned.

But just suppose if instead of being lifted for assault, he'd been detained under the counter-terrorism laws. There's a long history of aggro between motorists and Camden's aggressive traffic wardens (see PS to this blog), so just suppose the police had decided they wanted to teach someone a lesson. They pick up an argumentative punter and tell him they're detaining him under the terrorism laws.

There's no formal charge. The punter has no recourse to a lawyer. He's threatened, banged up in a small cell and left to stew. Already he can be left there and interrogated for up to four weeks, and it will soon to be six. And when they let him go, he has no recourse to any appeal or compensation.

Couldn't happen?

Speaking as someone who's personally been subjected to three stop-and-searches under s44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, I ain't so sure (see previous blogs here, here, and here). True, I wasn't ever banged up, but I was interviewed inside a police station. Not sure I'd feel quite so comfortable next time.

So we share DD's concerns. We are sliding towards a world where any one of us is at risk of unchecked and arbitrary attack by agents of the state. And we need to push back.

But what a disaster that the man who was best equipped to do the pushing has now walked off into wilderness.

PS There is a long history of seriously bad blood between Camden's motoring citizens and its traffic wardens. Most of the wardens are Nigerian and they are widely seen as an alien force brought in to extract additional taxes from the populace. Also, wardens are incentivised to hit targets for issuance of "good" tickets, so clearly give it a lot of welly.

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