Dangers at home
(Filed: 06/01/2003)

The Prime Minister has warned that Britain faces unprecedented danger this year from external terrorist threats. We would like to think he is being unnecessarily gloomy. It is sensible to be alert, but terrorists win when a nation is cowed, and life must go on.

We also believe there is a far greater immediate danger to our historic freedoms. These are the areas in which individual liberties will be curtailed in 2003; all of these proposed measures would make us less free, and no more secure.

• The Criminal Justice Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, probably poses the greatest single threat to liberty. Abolishing the ancient bar on double jeopardy may help convict in a handful of high-profile cases, but will render acquittals conditional, and discourage police from absolute rigour in their initial investigations. The admission of previous convictions and hearsay evidence may also increase the level of convictions somewhat but it will certainly allow miscarriages of justice. Limiting trial by jury betrays an official attitude of contempt for our judicial traditions.

• The Extradition Bill will bring into UK law one of the EU Commission's most cherished symbols of political and legal integration, the EU Arrest Warrant. The Government appears unmoved by opposition to this measure, which has united pressure groups like Liberty with the Conservative front bench. The Bill will allow British citizens to be extradited for a wide range of offences, many of them relatively minor and ill-defined, which are not crimes in the UK. British defendants will be tried under judicial systems where there is a presumption of guilt.

• Freedom of speech is under assault from a new initiative of the EU social affairs directorate, the Racism and Xenophobia directive, which is soon to be enshrined into British law. Under this law, racism itself - as opposed to inciting racial hatred - becomes an offence. Under the astonishingly broad definition, the "public condoning of war crimes" and the public dissemination, including via the internet, of "tracts, pictures, or other material containing expressions of racism or xenophobia" becomes an offence. So does the "trivialisation" of Nazi atrocities. This might make it impossible, for instance, to defend Slobodan Milosevic in public, or suggest that Stalin was worse than Hitler.

• The slow march to the compulsory identity card, which is currently packaged in cuddly New Labour language as a universal entitlement card, continues as we near the end of the Home Office's unadvertised consultation period. Already the Home Office website is claiming "growing public support" for a measure that has hardly been debated. The card will cost hundreds of millions of pounds.

• It is difficult to predict how the Government will resolve the hunting impasse. An outright ban would obviously be a grotesque violation of the freedom of thousands of people who hunt; even if a compromise is reached involving licensing of hunts, this would be an entirely unnecessary intrusion into a sport which has traditionally run itself as free local associations with minimal centralised controls.

• Police forces will continue their undeclared assault on the rights of private gun owners, undeterred by the fact that the post-Dunblane handgun ban led to a 40 per cent increase in handgun crime. Following the Birmingham shootings, ministers are proposing further bans, including the outlawing of replica weapons and some airguns. None of the lessons of the failed Firearms Act has been learnt: we need proper enforcement, not more laws.

• CCTV camera systems will continue their inexorable and unregulated march across our towns and cities, with the Government blithely unconcerned by evidence in its own survey in August that better street lighting is more effective in reducing crime.

London leads the way next month in its "congestion charge", a tax on car drivers in the capital. Not only is the #5 a day tax irksome and unnecessary, the ring of computer-linked cameras will also amass huge amounts of data on our movements: the age of blameless and anonymous private travel are over.