Thursday, 12 June 2008

Davis, liberties and the EU

The shadow home secretary David Davis today announced his resignation as an MP, in order to force a by-election in his Yorkshire seat of Haltemprice and Howden and spark a major national debate over the government's "relentless erosion" of civil liberties.

His move has reportedly been provoked by yesterday's narrow victory in the Commons for government plans to permit the detention of suspects for up to six weeks without charge, and his expectation that the government will use the Parliament Act to force the change through the House of Lords.

Mr Davis has said that he will fight for re-election on the issue of civil liberties alone, and on those grounds the Liberal Democrats have said they will not put up a candidate against him.

Labour have yet to declare whether they will field a candidate, but given the government's actions over the extension of detention without charge it would appear extremely cowardly not to stand against Mr Davis and join the debate.

The Lib Dems came second in the seat in the 2005 general election, only 5,116 votes behind Mr Davis. Labour came a distant third.

"Relentless erosion"

Speaking outside parliament, Davis said he wanted to take a stand against Gordon Brown's "relentless erosion" of long-held rights.

He cited the gradual erosion of the "right not to be imprisoned by the state without charge or reason", the proposed "intrusive identity card system", the proliferation of CCTV cameras and the creation of "a database State, opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers and exposing our personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers".

"I will argue in this by-election against the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this government," he told reporters outside Parliament.

EU's 'Big Brother' database

One clear example of the problem, which should therefore form a major part of Mr Davis's campaign in addition to the issue of detention without charge, is the looming Communications Data Bill, announced in Gordon Brown's recent preview of November's Queen's Speech.

The Bill is designed to create what The Times back in May called a "'Big Brother' database for phones and e-mails", by permitting the collection and retention of records relating to every phone call made and e-mail sent.

However the fundamental purpose of the Bill is to "Transpose EU Directive 2006/24/EC on the retention of communications data into UK law", confirming that it is the European Union rather than our own government that is the chief architect of the plan.

EU role in erosion of liberties

The EU's hand in this proposed major new pillar of that "database State" should come as no surprise, as Brussels institutions have long been active behind the scenes in many of the erosions of civil liberties to which Mr Davis refers in his resignation statement.

As far back as 2002, the late Hugo Young writing in The Guardian was lamenting the erosion of Habeas Corpus as a result of the EU Arrest Warrant (EAW), which he described as a "sinister overreach".

Not just a means to combat terrorism, as it was spun on its rapid revival after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in America, the EAW in fact applies to to every crime carrying a sentence of 12 months or more.

It can be used to extradite British citizens to other EU member countries even for acts which are not considered crimes in this country, such as "xenophobia", and such vague charges as "swindling".

Yet standards of justice in many other EU member countries, as Hugo Young detailed in his article, are far from reliable.

On ID cards, my colleague Marc Glendening was as far back as 2003 and into 2004 pointing out the EU's role in encouraging and significantly funding the development of common identity cards.

This was advanced as part of the EU's drive to create what the European Commission in its 1997 criminal justice blueprint referred to as a "unified legal space", and subsequently gathered pace as a function of the EU's steady creation of a common borders and asylum policy.

In recent years the EU's activity in the field of criminal justice has grown significantly, and its interest in governing identity documents has since become more overt, by virtue of amendments included in the re-named version of the EU Constitution - now known as the Lisbon Treaty.

A proper debate

Commenting on the Communications Data Bill, David Davis was quoted in the Times article as saying: "Given [ministers’] appalling record at maintaining the integrity of databases holding people’s sensitive data, this could well be more of a threat to our security, than a support”.

Of course, it is just one example. But it is a major and approaching one that, by making it one of the high profile aspects of his campaign, his successful re-election could aim to see squashed.

While it's clear that our own government must carry much of the responsibility for the problems Mr Davis is concerned about, a proper debate about threats to civil liberties is simply not possible without acknowledging that the EU is also a big part of the problem.

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