Howarth speaks about civil liberties at conference

September 21, 2009 12:36 PM

Howarth and bannerLiberal Democrat Shadow Justice Secretary, David Howarth has spoken in favour of radical proposals to reverse the huge erosion of civil liberties that has taken place under the Labour Government.

"Civil liberties are central to the way we think about politics. Other parties might see themselves primarily as representatives of interest groups. We see ourselves as representatives of the powerful idea that the state should serve individuals, and not the other way round.

"Labour's failure on civil liberties is abject. They have given in time after time to the politics of fear and control. And it is no accident. The idea that political freedom is not a 'real' issue, that is a middle class obsession, and that concern for individual liberty is somehow connected with selfishness and Thatcherism lie deep in Labour's psyche.

"Labour belongs to the nothing to hide, nothing to fear school. We emphatically do not. Information about someone is power over that person. That is why database state apologists are wrong to say that handing personal information over to the state is like paying taxes. It isn't. Tax once paid doesn't hang over people forever. Information handed over does.

"But the Tories are not much better. They only support civil liberties for respectable people, and combine opposition to ID cards with opposition to the Human Rights Act. It is not enough to campaign about the popular issues: ID cards, the DNA database, the ContactPoint database of all children or even the unfair extradition treaty under which Gary Mackinnon is being extradited to the USA.

"Real Liberals also campaign for the rights of unpopular people such as the subjects of control orders and those arrested for terrorism offences. The idea of holding people for months without telling them what they are supposed to have done belongs in the novels of Franz Kafka, not in a liberal state. And the idea of holding people indefinitely in a form of house arrest smacks of Burma, not Britain.

"The Tories are even worse on the right to protest. Protesters are unpopular with many people, but their right to protest should be cherished even if it is noisy for Members of Parliament to have protests in Parliament Square or annoying for the police to have climate protesters blocking a street in the City of London. Democracy doesn't mean just voting once every five years. It means a vigorous public debate about politics that everyone can take part in.

"We will return to the subject of protest on Wednesday, but it is important to put down markers today, by opposing the possibility of prosecuting protesters for filming the police, by opposing criminal trespass laws that effectively turn the police into private security guards, and by saying that pre-charge bail conditions must never be available to make it a crime to take part in protests or even talk to fellow protesters.

"It is also important to say now, and to say again on Wednesday, that the Conservatives have been nowhere on protecting the right to protest. Their own record in government was appalling - criminal trespass, for example, came in under the Tories. The Conservative Party will never be an anti-establishment party. Questioning authority forms no part of the Conservatives' political DNA. They are fake civil libertarians, and David Cameron is as much a phony about this issue as about all the others.

"Only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted to defend civil liberties to the hilt because it is only for Liberals that political freedom is the biggest political issue of all, the most real issue of all.

"I urge you to pass the motion."

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