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Extract from Booker's Notebook
Police mergers will create Euro-regions by stealth

A month after the deadline for responses to the Home Office, not one of the 43 police forces in England Wales has given approval to the Government's plans for the most radical restructuring of our policing since 1829. Charles Clarke and Hazel Blears wish to merge the 43 forces into 12 regional "super forces" as part of John Prescott's grand design to divide up the United Kingdom into "Euro-regions", each under its own government.

No chief constable has been more forthright in opposition to this plan than Paul West, whose West Mercia force, serving Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, is officially rated as the best-performing force in the country. Last week Mr West was taken by a local MP, Owen Paterson, to put his case to Ms Blears at the Home Office. Dismissing his force's exceptional record, it soon became apparent that she attached no significance to his views. It was painfully clear that "consultation" is only a charade. The Government is bent on forcing through its regional agenda regardless.

Following the overwhelming rejection of an elected regional assembly by the voters of the North-East, it seems the Government is hoping to reach its goal the other way round. So many powers are now being passed upwards from local authorities to unelected regional bodies - from police and planning to fire and ambulance services - that eventually, it is hoped, people will demand that these are made democratically accountable through elected regional governments.

The greatest revolution in local government for 1,000 years will be complete - without the Government ever having had to admit openly what it was up to.


http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1692144,00.html
 
We don't live in a police state yet, but we're heading there

With barely a protest, Britain's liberties are being eroded in the name of a dubious campaign against terrorism and crime


Henry Porter
Sunday January 22, 2006
The Observer


The argument for social control goes like this: if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from a national data bank of identity/the terrorism act/the tapping of MPs' phones/the use of the public-order act to control protest and limit free expression/the new powers of arrest/the retention of DNA samples taken from innocent juveniles.

Over the past few months, I have listened to five people airily make this pitch. Not one of them was a complete fool; it's just that they haven't been paying attention to the Prime Minister's unflagging mission to increase the power of the state over the individual, to the shoal of anti-libertarian laws which have slipped through a mesmerised parliament.

If they have noticed anything, they tend, without much thought, to interpret it as a government doing its best to make us safer from terrorists and criminals. They conclude that if you are neither a terrorist nor a criminal, you have nothing to worry about. Wrong.

They have only to consider the 24,000 juveniles who have not been cautioned, charged or convicted with any crime, yet whose DNA has been retained by the police, to wonder if some extra-parliamentary commission should be set up to examine the state of liberty in Britain and the motives of this odious regime of sinister mediocrities.

On the evidence, an outsider might guess that Britain has suffered a calamitous national crisis, a convulsion of historic significance. But it has not, and neither has the rest of the Western alliance. In the four years since al-Qaeda launched its war in earnest, fewer than 5,000 people have lost their lives in attacks in, among other places, Washington DC and New York, Bali, Madrid, London and Sharm el Sheik. Large numbers were wounded - 1,460 in Madrid; 700 in London - but compare this to the Blitz, in which more than were lost and many more were wounded.

Osama bin Laden only managed a small war and, whatever the intention behind the tape released last week, it must now be sensible to look at the past four years for what they are. Shocking, yes. Baffling and sickening, yes. But a catastrophe in the widest sense, no. Western society has not been derailed. Economies continue to grow and there is much evidence of optimism and energetic evaluation of the world's real problems.

This is not complacency, but a realistic assessment of how things are. We should not belittle the people sacrificed to this lunatic's need for attention, but, equally, we should guard against the habits of fear and the opportunism of sinister forces in Number 10, the Home office and the endlessly indulged police force.

Last week, I visited a publishing house in central London. A security guard asked me to enter my name into a keyboard before I received a pass. I noticed a tiny camera on a stalk peering over the keyboard to take a snap of the visitor's face as he keys in his name. I refused and made my way to the lift without a pass, to the consternation of the security staff. Why this obsessive need to photograph, to record names and times of entry? Any serious terrorist would get round this pathetic device. Besides, the building probably rates no higher as a target than my cat. It's a pointless exercise, yet it emphasises the state we have got ourselves into over the actual threat of terrorism.

We do not yet live in a police state, but we are certainly building a society where free speech, the right to protest and conduct our lives without scrutiny by a central authority could be seriously threatened. There is no government in the Western alliance, not even America, which has taken such a bewildering lurch to the authoritarian right since 11 September and met with such little opposition, either in the media or in parliament.

It has been a stealth attack, similar to the approach the Chancellor has used to raise taxes without appearing to do so. While seeming to be friendly to the idea of personal liberty on such things as opening hours and gambling, the government has steadily pursued its campaign of social control.

If you put to one side Blair's addiction to summary justice and focus on the measures carried out in the name of security, you find two streams: those devoted to reduction of free speech and the right to protest, and those that concentrate on the surveillance and monitoring of innocent citizens.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (Socpa) falls in the first category. Apart from increasing the police's powers of arrest, it removed the right to demonstrate within one kilometre of parliament, a right people still possess in Serbia and Ukraine. Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, meanwhile, allows police to stop and search anyone in a designated area. This has been used to obstruct demonstrations against the Iraq war, global capitalism and arms fairs and even those who heckled speakers at last year's Labour party conference. Linked with issuing Asbos, it has proved highly effective in controlling demonstrations which offend the government.

To limit what can be said in public, the government also inserted a provision in Socpa that criminalises opinions that are held to stir up religious hatred. You may not make a joke about Islam, Judaism or Christianity without risking a criminal record. And section 5 of the Public Order Act allows police to prosecute if they believe a hate crime has been committed. Last week, they were investigating a leading Muslim, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, who made remarks on Radio 4s PM programme about homosexuality being morally and medically unacceptable. Sacranie's views are daft and tasteless, but why shouldn't he express them? Why should there be any legal restraint on the doubts I may voice about parts of his faith, its views on homosexuality, for example? That is the nature of free speech and we do not need a bunch of PC Plods patrolling our exchange.

If anything, the strand of Blair's campaign devoted to surveillance and bugging is much more worrying. He has already granted MI5 and the police powers to pry on people's email and text messages. According to the Independent on Sunday, he now plans to allow MPs' communications to be intercepted by MI5. It is astonishing that parliament did not erupt. If US senators and members of Congress were being bugged, there would be an outcry. The constitution would be flourished, as it is now by Greenpeace, the Council for American-Islamic Relations and a number of well-known writers such as Christopher Hitchens and James Bamford in a case claiming the Bush administration's use of wiretaps is a violation of privacy and free speech.

We need a constitution to guarantee similar rights, but failing that, I'd like to see a bit more of that truculence when it comes to Blair's pet proposal of a national database of identity that will include no less than 50 separate pieces of information on each of us, at cost of £350-£500 per head. What business has he got charging us for invading our privacy with his ID cards scheme when so many on his own side agree it will count for nothing in the fight against terrorism and fraud?

Does anyone care about the proposals to extend the automatic numberplate recognition system throughout Britain's motorway network so that the details of every journey by every innocent member of the public are retained? I spent an entire day last week being batted from the Home Office to the Department of Transport and the Highways Agency trying to determine what legislation enables this scheme. The answer is none. I spoke to the pleasant chief constable of Hertfordshire, Frank Whiteley, who advocates this system on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He made points about the detection of criminals and terrorists, but conceded there was indeed a cost to civil liberties.

Piece by piece, that system is being built because the CCTV cameras already in place can also read numberplates. Yet there has been no debate in parliament, no special powers enacted, no one questioning the cost or the privacy issues. Make no mistake - we are wiring up for the police state.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2088-2003856,00.html

Byte by byte, our identity is being stolen

Minette Marrin

Years ago sophisticated travellers in far-flung places used to smile indulgently at simple tribal people afraid of having their photograph taken. It seemed that in their ignorant way the tribal folk feared that their identity itself was being given for ever into the power of the photographer and his strange machine, to make whatever spells he liked. As it turns out, they were right and are having the last indulgent smile, if not exactly the last laugh, on us.

Our identity — or rather countless aspects of it — is being taken from us in countless new ways by information snapshots. It is complex and frightening. What is deceptive is that each individual loss seems quite trivial; it seems a small matter to hand over elaborate details to a bank, an insurance company, a mortgage company, a credit card company. But every time we make a trivial transaction, we make many of these details available to countless others, both legally and before long illegally.

It makes me feel faintly anxious when an unknown voice in a cinema booking office, on hearing my postcode, gives my exact address. What else does she know? What else could she know if she made the effort? Or if she were dishonest? It is alarming. The ether, or the virtual ether, is heaving with private details about all of us, like the accumulating rubbish in space. All that is as nothing, however, compared with the efforts of the state to steal our identities. What’s worse is that the rate of theft — for it really is a kind of theft — seems to be increasing fast.

On Friday it emerged that 24,000 young people aged between 10 and 18 have their DNA profiles stored on a nationwide database, even though they have never been cautioned, charged or convicted of an offence. Their genetic identities have been stored by the state for absolutely no reason.

This came out because a diligent MP took the trouble to find out for a constituent why a boy who was wrongly arrested in a case — please note — of mistaken identity, had his DNA profile taken and stored by the police. It seems that of the 3m DNA profiles now held by the national database, nearly 140,000 are from people who have never been charged or cautioned. Why? Worse still, this is perfectly legal. Why? Yesterday it was reported that records of all criminal convictions, and of all cautions, will remain on police files for 100 years, from April onwards. Chief constables have suddenly overturned the principle that offences can be “spent”. This puts paid to the chance of living down youthful indiscretions and turning over a new leaf.

Our medical records are to be made widely available on the new National Health Service computer system, under the Care Record Development Board, for all kinds of NHS employees to obtain, not to mention snoops and hackers. Last week the British Medical Association’s family doctors’ committee, to its great credit, decided that patients should be asked to consent, formally, to having their records entered on the new database.

Earlier the government was offering NHS patients the choice of opting out of this, but the GPs voted to require explicit consent, meaning explicit agreement to opt in. It seems extraordinary that there was ever any assumption that this extremely important matter need not necessarily be taken to parliament, and that we might just as well give way passively to the erratic powers of IT. But such is the temper of the times.

Our masters (and mistresses) seem determined to know more and more about us, right across the oceans and the ether. In this country we are still being threatened with ID cards, which might hold all sorts of information on those dark and shiny strips.

In the US the Department of Justice is even now trying to force Google, the internet search engine, to hand over records of what people have been looking for when they visit the site. Specifically they asked for a list of terms entered during a single week, and 1m randomly selected web addresses. Google is valiantly resisting this extreme invasion of privacy but Microsoft and Yahoo! have already complied. Good for Google one must say; but it is unlikely that even Google will be able to resist the Goliath of the US Justice Department.

Those who have nothing to hide, people always say, have nothing to fear from releasing all these personal details (voluntarily or otherwise). That is a terrible mistake. It is to misunderstand the importance of privacy in human affairs and it’s to ignore the constant threat of hackers.

It is also to underestimate the importance of error in human affairs, most particularly in computer use. One of the worst things about all these databases is the mistakes they make and then disseminate far and wide. Credit checking agencies, for instance, regularly make bad mistakes, as people with good credit who get wrongly listed as bad debtors will tell you. It is very hard to discover such mistakes or to reverse them.

IT is one of the most powerful tools and at the same time one of the most serious problems for public services today. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service, for instance, have had serious problems with IT interface and as for the NHS computer system, one can only call it an expensive disaster. The much vaunted electronic booking system is a year behind schedule and the entire £6.2 billion NHS computer system is in danger of collapsing, according to a recent leak from a civil servant. Would you seriously trust such a system with details about a mental illness or an abortion? It now emerges that there is a great deal of identity fraud surrounding the tax credit system; one would have to be daft to file tax returns online.

Perhaps I seem unduly cynical about police information systems, but there is always human error. In the trial of the Notting Hill rapist, for instance, it emerged that the rapist had originally been ignored as a suspect because a Home Office computer inaccurately reported that on the date of one of the offences he was still in jail. More recently we have the disgraceful confusion over lists of sex offenders.

I hardly know which is worse — a state that is good at getting and guarding our personal records, or one which is pretty bad. But either way, the time has come to think carefully and publicly about how we want to use technology to stop the recording eye of Big Brother stealing our identities.