Transcript: Cambridge Debate

David Howorth: This is a very important day because it is the start – I think – of a fightback of what we as a people believe to be important. Because it seems to me that the gravest threat of all to civil liberties comes not from the Government but from ourselves. If we forget how important liberty is: if we forget how important democracy is – then political leaders with other agendas will follow those other agendas. The one thing you can say about Britain is that it is at least to some degree a democracy. And if people like Bill Rammell think that we as a people don’t care about democracy, then he won’t care either.

So what are the threats to our freedom? Well the whole day has been about that and I don’t want to repeat everything that has been said both here and in London. The central threat I think is still the threat to privacy: the threat to the idea that as individual people, we have a sphere of personal exclusion around ourselves which is no affair of the state. So the discussions on the database state, on the surveillance state, on the ID cards, on the national identity register and on the massive expansion of the DNA database to include many many innocent people, the contact point database which will track every single child who is born in this country – all that is at the heart of a project which I think profoundly undermines personal liberty.

And what comes next in this is the idea of data sharing – we are discussing a proposal for information sharing orders to be made easy for the Government to make, even now in Parliament – we spent most of Thursday on that. And on the techniques of data mining, with which we shall be able to bring together all the little bits of information together that Government has on people and to draw conclusions about those people that can be used for the purposes of control.

I just want to spend a second on a very important paper that David Omand, the former Head of Intelligence and Security at Number 10 under Tony Blair ahs just written for the IPPR. What that paper illustrates is the incredible breadth of the state’s ambition to know everything there is about us. The vision is for an intelligence–gathering system unparalleled anywhere in the western world – in fact, in terms of technology unparalleled by anything that happened in the former Soviet bloc. David Omand says this is all fine, as long as there is some authority for it, and as long as there is some oversight of what happens. I’m afraid that just isn’t enough. We need individual rights.

Just to give you an illustration of this, many of you will have come across the case of Binyamin Mohamed who was tortured not directly by our own agents but certainly by the agents of several other states. What happened in his case is that there were a number of documents – the 42 documents – which revealed a great deal about his torture and who knew what, and these documents were never revealed to the oversight bodies that we in this country have set up. For example, they were never revealed to the Intelligence and Security Committee which is drawn from the House of Commons although it isn’t technically a House of Commons Committee. The existence of those documents only came to light after an individual court case based on his individual rights. And now – shockingly – these documents are nw known to exist and now, they will be sent to the Intelligence and Security Committee. What this illustrates is that these oversight arrangements that sounds very good on paper don’t work because they themselves are subject to the executive branch of Government. You can’t trust the Government to control itself. There has got to be external control and that is what individual rights are about.

But there are other things – grave dangers to individual freedom: restrictions on the right to protest. I could go on all day about these individual cases – the fact that it is now illegal for two or more people to gather when the police don’t want them to gather, under the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act; the fact that under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act , there can be stop and search by the police without any reason at all. I have spent a lot of time working on environmental protest at the King’s North Climate Camp. What has happened there strikes me as frightening: that the police routinely see their role as disrupting protest – not disrupting criminality that might accompany protest, but disrupting protest itself. And you may have noticed – any of you who may have been on demonstrations recently – that the police will spend all their time photographing you. I have been on two demonstrations recently – both to do with Bill’s present and former ministerial duties, so perhaps he might explain why this is – I was on a demonstration against student fees. I was on this very quiet demonstration walking down Silver Street and noticed that the police were photographing me. Obviously it is a very subversive thing to do: to protest against the Government’s fees policy! And then, a couple of weeks later I was on a demonstration outside the Guild Hall about Gaza. There were the same police photographing again. There are signs that the police now routinely treat anybody who disagrees with the Government as a potential political extremist. That strikes me as a grave threat to civil liberties, as well. And of course to accompany this, under the Counter-Terrorism Act it is now illegal for us to photograph the police! I will come back to that point later.

We have also had erosions of the criminal justice system itself, erosions that make miscarriages of justice and abuse of power more likely: 28 days without charge, changes to the hearsay evidence rules, changes to the bad character evidence rules, undermining the jury system – and of course the latest attempt to undermine the jury system is to allow the Government to remove juries from inquests simply because the Government issues a certificate. You might not think that is important but it is vitally important. Deaths at the hands of the state are the most important violation of human rights possible. And to remove a jury in those circumstances strikes me as not just grave but very dangerous indeed.

And there have been attacks on the accountability structures not just on the jury, but the ministerial veto on freedom of information, and simply the fact that Parliament is controlled by the Executive is I suppose the biggest one of these. All these Henry VIIIth clauses in legislation, clauses allowing ministers to change the law by themselves.

It seems that what we have to do now, is to look at the cumulative effect of all these things. The Government says that for each individual measure – that the terrorist threat for example is “so big” that we have to give way on this particular point. But that is not the way we should look at it now. We should look at the whole range, every single one of these instances together, and ask ourselves, is that proportionate to the threat? Although the threat is real and Bill will tell you that it is real, it is not the individual measure that we need to look at, but it is the whole lot – and the direction that we are going in.

Why is it dangerous? Normally on these occasions, people say, “It’s dangerous because although people like Bill Rammell are fine, upstanding, decent chaps, think about what would happen if the BNP were in power with these powers!” That is a very good argument. But I’m starting to get worried about these guys as well. And I’m starting to get worried because I think there is a dissolution of the sense of moral limits on Government that has been going on since 1997, which I don’t think the Government itself notices because it is like the boiling frog problem. Because it’s so slow, I don’t think they realise that the temperature is well over the boiling point and that they are being boiled. Mention torture, Binyamin Mohamed and extraordinary rendition episodes; mention David Omand who says in his paper that and the idea that “everyday morality cannot be upheld in the sort of operations that are going to go on.” But there is also the habits of Government – of basically making up threats, and operating on the basis of people’s fears of a made-up threat: the weapons of mass destruction is the most obvious example!

But what about in the Binyamin Mohamed case the fact that the alleged threat from the US as far as we can tell, was asked for from the British Government – that they produced the very thing that they then tell us to be afraid of. I have to say that I suspect that exactly the same thing happened in the infamous BAE systems test. I can’t believe that our strong ally, Saudi Arabia, would just turn up one day in Whitehall and start threatening us with terrorist attacks. I just do not believe that happened. I believe that that also was asked for by the British Government.

But above all, this comes back to the point about photography: you know, they photograph us but we are not allowed to photograph them. It is the entire loss of the idea of reciprocity between government and governed. It is the idea that they are more important than we are, and that they can tell themselves to do things on the basis of standards that they do not apply to themselves. That I think is the most fundamental aspect of this moral collapse. The Government says, on the issue of the surveillance state, that if you have nothing to fear then you have nothing to hide. The very same Government then vetoes the information request on cabinet minutes on Iraq. That is what we are talking about; they don’t apply to us the standards they apply to themselves. And that is why, fundamentally, there is a grave threat to all our liberties today.

Bill Rammell: It’s a pleasure to be here and a real pleasure to take part in this debate. Let me start with an admission: do I worry about getting the balance right between individual freedom and collective security? Yes, I do. Do I, however believe that our civil liberties are under threat and that we are on the road to a police state – that was the thrust of David’s argument? No emphatically, I do not. But we do need, I believe, to think long and hard about how we do get that balance right.

Let me lay out some of my own credentials. I am not by nature an instinctive ‘banner’ or a ‘prohibitor’. Before I was Minister of State for the Foreign Office, I was Minister of State for Higher Education for three and a half years. One of the things I was responsible for was guidance to universities on tackling violent extremism. Yes that covered issues such as safety. It highlighted how violent extremist groups seek to recruit and groom students. But the centrepiece – the most recent guidance – was the argument that I out forward very strongly that in academic freedom – free and open and challenging debate – we have at our disposal one of the effective rebuttals to violent extremism in existence. That is one of the reasons why I have consistently argued, for example, against ‘no platform’ policies. Because I think instinctively that you don’t rebut the arguments of extremism by banning people, by pushing them into corners. You actually need to beat them by the persuasion of argument.

I recount that to demonstrate – one – that I hold that view strongly, and also I hope to give a sense that those kind of actions don’t accord with the caricature of a government minister wanting ipso facto to suppress freedom. But I am also confronted by the reality informed particularly by my experience as a Foreign Office minister, that the threat of the world that we live in today is in many senses much more dangerous than the world that I grew up in. Yes, I grew up in a world where we lived on a weekly basis with the danger of IRA terrorism, but both qualitatively and quantitatively that is not the same scale of threat as that I think we face today, particularly from Al-Quaeda and associated groups who were prepared to fly planes into the twin towers and to kill hundreds of people, not the same as Al Quaeda in Iraq using mentally impaired teenage girls as suicide bombers, and not the same as Al-Quaeda activists accusing Muslim victims in the December bombings in Algeria, many of whom were children, of crimes of apostasy.

I didn’t grow up with the very real risk of proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons putting such deadly and devastating capabilities into the hands of terrorists. Now I know that some people – and probably some of them are in the room today – will dismiss all of this and say that if only we understood what motivates such extremism better! – It’s all the fault of the United States and Britain

Invading Iraq and Afghanistan! – yet I think we need to remember that the planning for the twin towers actually took place while Bill Clinton was still in the White House and we were closer to a resolution of the Middle East conflict than we had been in generations.

The rejectionists of the threat that we face – particularly from al-Quaeda – forget one very important point: that the values that they and Al-Quaeda-related groups despise most and that they want to destroy through a global jihad – the values of liberty, democracy, sexual equality, art and culture as a means of personal self-fulfilment, are actually the values of a tolerant, liberal left. We are all targets to those groups in a way that I don’t think we were in the past.

I also think when we debate civil liberties, that the biggest affront on civil liberties is someone actually taking your life in their supposed cause. So the scale of the threat that I think we face is different. We do therefore have to consider the balance between individual freedom and collective security. I also very strongly believe that we need to understand that the world in which we live today and particularly the means by which we communicate has gone bluntly through a revolution in the last ten to fifteen years the like of which we have never seen before. When I grew up, if you had told me you could go on Google Earth and look at anyone’s house anywhere in the world, or that with the flick of a switch you could download a manual that could teach you chemical bomb making, or that you could transfer money thousands of miles across the world at the flick of a switch regardless of the purpose of those resources, I would have thought that you had gone stark, staring mad. But that is the reality of the world, but that it’s the reality of the world in which we live. And as that technological capability has developed and bluntly has enabled very bad people to do very bad things – I think it has been both inevitable but also desirable that the state has looked to use that technology to counteract such efforts. That use of technology and that refinement of the law has I think brought real benefits to our collective and individual security.

To take just one example, often debated within these discussions, closed circuit television cameras. When those were brought in in my constituency in the town centre of Harlow, there was a 50% reduction in crime levels. It was footage of CCTV cameras that was crucial in prosecution of the men who planned the suicide bombings on public transport in London on July 21st, 2005. And it is CCTV that is regularly used in anti-social behaviour cases where people’s lives have been made an abject misery by irresponsible and inconsiderate people who don’t take account of their civil liberties. I don’t apologise for those measures because I think they have improved fundamentally people’s lives.

I also reject the view, and this is very much the thrust of David’s argument, that this government is intent on suppressing civil liberties without regard for the consequences. As a Government Minister who sat for over two years on the Crime and Terrorism Cabinet Sub-committee, where for example, we debated virtually on weekly basis the merits of 28 and 42 days’ detention – you can believe me or believe me not – but I genuinely know how much agonising consideration was given to the pros and cons of such measures. I also, and again I think this is part of David’s argument, reject the dewy-eyed notion that there were in the past some kind of halcyon days for civil liberties that have since been eroded. Jack Straw’s argument in the Guardian newspaper yesterday was I think very powerful, when he said, if you go back to the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s – those were, he said, “decades, for example, of informal judges rules, of the absence of statutory protection of suspects where ‘fitting up’ of suspects seemed to take place on a regular basis, we had massive miscarriages of justice such as the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four and we had phone-tapping without any basis in statute law.”

They are just a few of the miscarriages of justice that took place. And it was this government which ended the situation where there was no overriding and systematic protection for people’s rights and liberties with the Human Rights Act in 1999. We followed on by opening up the system with a Freedom of Information Act. Whatever you think about this government, whatever you think about what we are doing. Governments that are unconcerned about the balance between individual liberty and collective security do not deliver legislative measures such as these two Acts.

But we do , I believe, need to maintain our vigilance, to be sceptical – genuinely – about new legislation, to expect governments to have to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt the need for new measures, and we need to maintain a free media and a healthy debate such as the one that is taking place here today and across the country to ensure that we get that balance right. Now all of that I genuinely welcome. What I don’t welcome is caricature, distortion and exaggeration of what is taking place and what the government is doing – not because it irritates me, although I would be less than honest if I didn’t say it does irritate me sometimes, but much more importantly because it actually undermines the real cause of real and genuine concerns about proposals that may be put forward.

And when some, as has happened in recent weeks, compare this country to Burma, or east Germany under Communist control – I say, bluntly, “Get real!” Go to those countries where the internet is jammed, where people are executed for converting their religion, where people are locked up in forced labour camps without trial – you will see the real difference between there and here. Scepticism, vigilance, free debate and challenge to ensure that we get the balance right – emphatically yes. But please don’t exaggerate, distort or mislead. Those arguments are not listened to. This is an important debate: it is genuinely important that we get it right. There are differences of views. We have got to air those: we have got to expose them. We live in a very, very different and a more dangerous world than the one that we lived in in the past and that means that we will have to compromise something that previously we took forgranted. The best way to discuss those is to open up a rational debate. That is an important thing to do. The kind of exaggeration I hear in that debate sometimes serves that debate not one iota. Thank you for being here today. Thank you for taking part. I urge you to reject the resolution before you.

David Haworth: Thanks. I suppose it is fair to say that there are matters of judgment and balance here and that it isn’t all absolute. There are different views on the Wilders case, which all depended on whether you thought that that man’s intention was to commit crimes and incite violence when he came to this country. If that is what you thought then you took one view: and if you didn’t, you took the other view. As someone who has seen the film, Fitna, I couldn’t really say what I thought on this, though I suspect I may have taken a different view from my colleague.

But on other issues I think there is more clarity. It is obvious, I think, from the debate, that part of the problem is that the Government – and perhaps most governments – don’t understand, that when you pass general legislation to give someone a power for one purpose, it is inevitable that the state will use those powers for other purposes. And if you don’t understand that you don’t understand politics, you don’t understand government, you don’t understand human nature.

Let me just now cover some of the other points that Bill Rammell made. On the Benjamin Mohamed case, the fact remains, not only that this Government was using the results of torture and to some degree at some very high level in government – which is what the case says – that a decision had been endorsed, even at ministerial level. But also that the oversight system they had put in place failed. And it failed precisely because the Government didn’t let the 42 documents go to the Intelligence Security Committee in the first place. And that’s how these systems always fail, because if you don’t have individual rights and independent courts, then the Executive always gets its way.

On the Cabinet minutes: well, this was a very exceptional case. This was the legality of the Iraq war and if Bill was right in his remarks about how that war came about, he would be the first person to say those minutes should be released. It’s very interesting that he’s not saying that. What really annoyed me about what happened then, is that the Government could have appealed to the High Court to have an objective decision on whether its case for keeping those minutes private was a good thing or not. But it didn’t of course. It chose to stop the whole thing dead by its own fiat, by the exercise of a unilateral power, because that is the way that people start to think when they have those powers. If have got them: use them.

As to whether the intelligence-gathering capacity of this country is unparalleled, well, I don’t want to give away national secrets, but if you look at the Accuse Treaty and you combine our capability with that of the United States which is what you have to do because of that relationship – then at least in terms of SIGINT and ELINT and IMINT and MASINT – to go through four of the sources, our capacity is immensely greater than that of North Korea! They just don’t have the technology.

The question is – what are we going to do with the technology? What do you do with the powers you have? You use them. What do you do with the intelligence you have? You use it. And that’s the basic problem. As for ID cards, well in this audience I don’t have to say anything more than, “ It’s the database! It’s not the cards! It’s the database!”

I don’t have time to go through all the very good contributions. But I just want to mention a couple of things, especially Tariq Sadiq’s central point – “ The imperative for all governments is to uphold security. Governments can’t act with hands tied behind their back. Governments should use all means – (yes, all means) – to protect security.” That is what he said. That is where we have got and that is what we have to move away from. We have got to stop that way of thinking – and I should say that that phrase, “One hand tied behind its back” comes from an extraordinary judgment of the Israeli Supreme Court in something called the ‘ticking bomb case’, where the Israeli Supreme Court did say in a torture case that “ a democracy has to act as if it has got one hand tied behind its back, because otherwise it wouldn’t be a democracy!”

But to come back to this central question – how did we get to this state where politicians say, “Let’s use all the powers we have, all the technical means , regardless of the consequences” – so that we drift into the removal of individual freedom? And the answer lies precisely in what Andrew Gamble was saying. There has been, if you read the 2008 White Paper on National Security, a fundamental shift in the definition of national security that does explain why we are where we are. It used to be that national security was something about defending the state against external attack or internal subversion. All the trouble in the years of the previous Conservative Government – and I must say the years of the previous Labour Government – because I’m quite old – the ABC trial, the ex-party leveller, Colonel B – you know when I first came into politics the reason why I didn’t join the Labour party was precisely because they were the people taking away civil liberties at that point. It goes back, but at that point it was all about the abuses of internal subversion. And we still have that going on now. I must admit to having lost my place about what counts as internal subversion today. I suppose I must be an internal subversive because I go on about climate change and go on demonstrations against Gaza.

But it has gone beyond that. The definition of national security now, in the 2008 White Paper, is one that has to do with protecting everybody – all families., all individuals, all businesses – from all risks. And if you listened to Blair, Tony Blair was always saying – “I don’t want to be responsible for the loss of one life if there is something more that I could have done.” So you think, oh yes, “ If there was some other freedom that I could have taken away to prevent that loss.” Of course, tat fails what I call the 1940 test, because if you had taken that view in 1940, we would have given in because we were risking lives then to keep our freedom.

What we have now is a definition of national security is impossible to fulfil, and maintain any individual liberty – because it means the sacrifice of all liberties to a level beyond anything that has ever been achieved in a free society. Worse than that, it won’t even be security. Because handing over all these powers to the state in the end makes you less secure, not more secure. The citizens of the Soviet Union were not exactly the most secure in the world, even though their state was very powerful.

There is one personal comment that I want to make to Tariq. He used an argument which you never hear any more in the House of Commons and it is a shameful argument. You never hear it any more because of what happened when Jacqui Smith used it last time. This is the argument that the friends of liberty are really the friends of terrorism. That is what he is saying. That is shameful and is not worthy of democratic debate. And when Jacqui Smith used that argument in the final round of the 42-day fiasco, she was howled at on all sides including her own. And that’s why that argument will never be used I hope ever again at the centre of our democracy .

But I suppose the final point is this. We need to ask ourselves why now. Why do we have to think about these issues at this point in time. We are not yet a police state. But there is a danger that if we do nothing, we might well become one. And as Churchill said – and Henry Porter is very fond of quoting this – ”If you don’t fight at the point when victory is certain and the costs of victory are low, then you may find yourself fighting at a time when the costs are very high and the odds are against you. Or even worse than that, fighting at a time when defeat is certain, but dying in defeat is better than a life in slavery.” I beg you to support the motion.

Bill Rammell: Let me try briefly to respond to some of the issues in debate. Firstly, David, the only reason why some if the information about Binyamin Mohamed is in the public domain is because this government, rightly, did everything within its power, rightly to ensure that that information was given to his defence lawyers. Before this ever became a public issue, we went out of our way to ensure that he had that information and he was able properly to instruct his defence. Secondly, you made a big issue about the freedom of information case with regard to Cabinet minutes. I believe in freedom of information, but I also believe that there has to be space for private political discussions. David, you used to be, I think, a Liberal councillor: did you publish your Liberal Group discussion minutes of your private meetings? No you didn’t. And political groupings do not do that. And the idea that we would enhance our democracy by having the detailed discussions in Cabinet being published, I don’t think is the case. You would actually then force private discussions to take place elsewhere and I don’t think that serves democracy. Thirdly, you actually said, David, that the intelligence gathering system that we have in Britain is “unparalleled anywhere in the world”. Members of Parliament can travel, David: go to North Korea; go to Libya: go to Zimbabwe; go to Iran; go to Burma and please come back and tell me that you really think that the intelligence system that we have in this country is unparalleled anywhere in the world. Yes, there are legitimate criticisms you can make, but that kind of distortion, that kind of exaggeration undermines the arguments that are being made.

I thought Andrew Gamble’s arguments were much more balanced and much more persuasive. One of the most telling points that he made – and I think this is one of the political dilemmas that we are dealing with – is that there is a collective aversion to risk within society and therefore there is a public expectation and there is a media expectation that the government has to and should protect people from all sorts of ills where sometimes that is not necessarily the case. That is the kind of grounds on which we should be having a rational debate.

The point has been made that at the height of the Cold War we didn’t ban the Communist Party of Great Britain! No, and you know – take one example – Hizb ut-Tahrir – we are not banning at the moment. But this government, rightly or wrongly is criticised by all sorts of people and all sorts of newspapers for allowing so-called “preachers of hatred” to put their arguments forward. Now as long as you stay within the law and you are not threatening people with violent terrorism – I think that is the right thing to do. I also agree with you on the issue of the BNP. I was the Minister of State for Higher Education when – I can’t remember if it was this union or the Oxford Student Union – invited the BNP to speak at their union. And as long as the BNP remains within the law, my view then and my view now, was that they shouldn’t banned from that platform. Because actually the most effective way to rebut their arguments is to expose them and to take them on.

The arguments about explaining and justifying what we are trying to do interns of ID cards. Maybe I have got it wrong – I don’t think I have – but I have to say that I do find some of the arguments about ID cards frankly amazing. ID cards in one form or another have existed on the mainland for Europe for most of the last fifty years. In my experience, as an active constituency MP who does regular meetings , and this issue will come up from time to time and I ask people what their views are. Maybe Harlow is unique but overwhelmingly people actually back the principle of ID cards. With the greatest respect this is something of a self-selecting audience here today. If you go out and debate these issues with people, you will find that at the very, very least, there is a much more balanced view about ID cards than the one that has been put forward here this evening. [Speaker: Order,order] Yes – freedom of speech, civil liberties! People have rightly had an opportunity to comment. Let’s respond to that.

Several people have picked up on what I said about the situation being more dangerous. I said very carefully that qualitatively, I do think it is different. People who lived in the threat of IRA terrorism didn’t live with the threat of some of our fellow-citizens being prepared to act as suicide bombers and take their own lives in taking ours. I think that is a different scale of threat. And when you listen to the Director General of Security Services who said recently that it was his estimate – you can believe him or believe him not – but his honest estimate was that there were some two hundred groups , with some two thousand individuals engaged in terrorist activity within this country – I think that is cause for concern.

The gentleman who took up the issue of weapons of mass destruction: let me be very clear – yes the intelligence was flawed. It wasn’t just our intelligence agencies… even those countries who took a different view about the need to go to war with Iraq – the French, the Germans, the Chinese and the Russians – all their intelligence agencies were telling them exactly the same thing – that they believed based on the evidence that Saddam Hussein had those weapons. I was a Junior Foreign Office Minister at the time of the run-up to the war with Iraq, and my biggest fear as we went into that conflict was that chemical weapons would be used against our troops. I would not have held that view if I hadn’t genuinely believed the evidence before me. So, disagree with the decision that we took, but let’s not have this ongoing debate about us misleading people. If we misled people then even countries who opposed the war misled people.

Two final points. On the argument about the Dutch MP, there was a lot of consensus politically. It wasn’t just the Government who took that view and I think there are arguments both ways on a difficult issue. The Liberal Democrats also took that view that Geert Wilders should be banned. David said that it was one Liberal Democrat who took that view. But it was the Shadow Home Affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, so I don’t know if you no longer speak for your party!

The final point that I would make is that I started by saying that there is a genuine balance to be found between upholding individual freedoms and collective security. But I honestly believe that some of the exaggerations, some of the distortion serves no purpose and actually undermines the case for that serious debate. And it is on that basis that I would ask you to reject the resolution.

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