Sunday, October 08, 2006

British police to choose what law they enforce?

London's police chief on Thursday launched an urgent review of a decision not to post a Muslim officer at the Israeli embassy after a newspaper reported that he had been excused on moral grounds. "Having learnt of this issue I have asked for an urgent review of the situation and a full report into the circumstances," Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said in a statement. The Sun newspaper reported that Constable Alexander Omar Basha told his bosses he was unable to help guard the embassy in west London because he morally objected to Israel's 34-day war against Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Police chiefs excused Basha last week but critics said they feared it would open the floodgates for officers of any religion or belief to refuse to carry out certain duties. John O'Connor, a former Metropolitan Police flying squad commander, told the Sun: "This is the beginning of the end for British policing. "If they can allow this, surely they'll have to accept a Jewish officer not wanting to work at an Islamic national embassy? Will Catholic cops be let off working at Protestant churches? Where will it end? This decision is going to allow officers to work in a discriminating and racist way."

The police said in a separate statement that officers occasionally asked to be moved from a specific duty. "Every case is considered separately, balancing the needs of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) against those of the individual and the role which he or she is asked to perform," it said.. "Cases are kept under review. However, the needs of the MPS take precedence and the organisation reserves the right to post an officer anywhere in the MPS." Basha is attached to the force's diplomatic protection group, the Sun said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has been trying to improve integration among Britain's ethnic and religious communities. It launched the campaign after suicide bomb attacks by four Islamists on London's transport network in July last year killed 52 commuters.


The end of privacy as we know it

What will Tony Blair be remembered for? The post-war debacle in Iraq? Billions largely wasted on unreformed public services? Half-baked constitutional reforms that have threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom?

How about the erosion of privacy and the transformation of Britain into the most snooped-on country in the world this side of Pyongyang? We have more CCTV cameras than the rest of Europe put together. We have thousands of speed cameras linked to numberplate recognition databases. We await with trepidation the arrival of the national identity database from 2008, entry on to which will make it an offence, for the first time, not to inform the "authorities" when we move home.

Again, for the first time, our medical records, perhaps our most intimate personal information, will be available on a national data "spine", rather than kept within the confines of our GP's files. Details of children will be placed on another database, with no obvious limit to how long this information will be kept. Will a classroom transgression pop out of the system 20 years hence to scupper some job application, with the victim unaware why?

Last week, in a significant announcement issued under the guise of an innocuous-sounding "information-sharing vision statement", the Government proposed to reverse the presumptions of confidentiality under which Whitehall has, until now, conducted its relationships with businesses and individuals. Departments will be able to share personal information obtained for one purpose with other departments that might want it for an entirely different reason. In effect, they will be able to gather all this data in one place, something we were always assured would not happen.

And there is more. The Government is about to enact the controversial part of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) that it has held back for almost six years, after obtaining support for the legislation in Parliament on the grounds that it was crucial to the fight against terrorism and crime. If it was so important, why the delay? It makes it an offence not to give the police the key to an encrypted computer entry, should they request it. Failure to do so will mean a long prison sentence.

Now, I hear you say, so what? Surely all of these developments (and most have happened since Mr Blair came to power) are for our own good: to stop bad driving, track down criminals, save children from abuse, ensure prompt medical treatment, identify illegal immigrants and deter terrorists. The fact that there has been very little comment about Ripa, after such a huge fuss was made six years ago, suggests we have all become inured to such intrusions and hardly notice them - unlike visitors, who do. Relatives in London from America last week were shocked by the number of cameras everywhere and found them deeply sinister.

Have we have been bludgeoned into accepting the end of privacy? We now take it for granted that if someone refuses to hand over their data encryption key to the police, they must have something to hide. Perhaps they have, but it doesn't make it the business of the state unless it is illegal. There are plenty of people who want to keep things secret simply because they do not want others to see them.

Samuel Pepys wrote his diaries in shorthand (though the first transcribers thought they were encoded). If he were writing today on a computer, he would almost certainly have encrypted his entries, not because he was doing anything unlawful, but because he did not want his wife to find out what he had been up to with other women, nor certain notables to discover what he thought of them. They were private.

Now, on the assumption that we are all potential criminals, a new law will render such attempts at secrecy illegal. We may think we live in such a godforsaken world that, for the benefit of the majority, any concept of personal freedom as we used to understand it should no longer apply.

This is certainly the view of the Government. The Home Secretary, John Reid, said recently: "Sometimes we may have to modify some of our own freedoms in the short term in order to prevent their misuse by those who oppose our fundamental values and would destroy all of our freedoms." The Government believes it has struck the right balance and is supported by those who subscribe to the "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" school of thought.

But the true criminal/terrorist/paedophile will find ways around this legislation, because that is what these people do; and those caught by it will often be unsuspecting innocents who have received an unsolicited encrypted message or have used a code in the past and forgotten the key.

I am by no means an "ultra" in these matters. There are clearly times when heightened surveillance is needed and, given the substantial threat of terrorism, this is one of them. It is also undoubtedly the case that paedophiles will try to hide their revolting photographic trade from prying eyes. But this Act is very widely drawn and can be invoked on the grounds of national security, for the purpose of preventing crime and "in the interests of the economic well-being of the UK". The scope here for misuse is clear.

There is also the concept of proportionality to be considered. Are we so embattled that we need, in Mr Reid's words, "to modify some of our own freedoms" to the point where they are almost unrecognisable from the liberties that our forefathers fought and died to preserve?

Once you accept that the government has the right to know where you are at all times, to demand that you tell its agents when you move home or to render up your private musings at its behest, then you have changed the nature of the individual's relationship to the state in a way that is totally alien to this country's historic, though ill-defined, covenant between the rulers and the ruled. If enough people say "so what?" to that, as well, then Mr Blair really has left a legacy, and it is a pernicious one.


Australia: Government social workers 'left children at serious risk'

Children and babies have potentially been placed at serious risk by Victorian child protection workers, who have been criticised for inadequately caring for up to 47 vulnerable children in just one country region. The damning findings by state Ombudsman George Brouwer follow a Department of Human Services investigation that did not identify any major case practice weaknesses by workers in the region. Mr Brouwer investigated the child protection program, believed to be in the Loddon-Mallee region, after whistleblowers told his office that many children were at increased risk because they did not have a case worker.

Regional managers were accused of failing to thoroughly investigate and intervene in cases where children were at risk, manipulating statistics to meet performance targets and failing to follow established procedures. Experienced child protection staff told Mr Brouwer they lacked confidence in the ability of managers to address their concerns about quality of service to the region.

Mr Brouwer's investigators reviewed 34 cases involving 57 children that had been reported to the department. "In 26 cases involving 47 children, the region may not have responded appropriately to children at risk," Mr Brouwer said. "I noted high numbers of unallocated cases, including high-risk infants. "A significant number of these cases were not receiving adequate intervention by child protection staff and I believe this may have left a number of children, including infants, in situations of serious risk." Mr Brouwer said the department responded quickly to the concerns identified by his investigation. He said the Government has taken "significant action" in several cases.

The department assured the Ombudsman that a "comprehensive strategy" was being implemented to strengthen the child protection program in the region. Mr Brouwer's findings were made in his annual report, which also slammed Victorian authorities for failing to remove a five-month-old baby from his abusive foster parents even though he was admitted to hospital three times with increasingly serious injuries. The boy's sister is believed to have told police she saw the foster mother try to remove the baby's teeth with a knife. The Weekend Australian believes child protection authorities were told about the abuse by health professionals and police but did not act until after his third visit to hospital.

Chris Goddard, the director of the National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse, said Mr Brouwer's findings were further evidence that state child protection services needed to be subject to independent scrutiny.


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