Transcript: The Conservatives and Civil Liberties Q&A

(in media res) …Cameras inside pubs are taking away one of the few places that a lot of people still feel should be private space. But I think there was a larger issue raised by one of the questioners in the main session which is what are the Conservatives going to do about it if they are elected. Dominic gave a very forceful statement about repealing ID cards: I still don’t get the impression that the Conservatives are leading the Charge as they should be and it may be, as Tim said, that they’re very conflicted. But I think that if we are going to have a powerful state who will support us? There has to be more open expression.


A: Well, it’s an interesting point isn’t it – particularly on the CCTV Edward. You have Hazel Blears telling us constantly that her constituents want nothing more than thousands more CCTV cameras. And yet, David Davies on the other hand says that the ones we have got don’t work so what’s the point of them anyway? What are the Conservatives going to do on that particular issue?


Panel: The criticism that you make of us is a fair one and politics is a rough and tedious old game of tedious compromise. However, in relation to CCTV I have a constituent political input but also as a lawyer, I see it as a crown court reporter, as a criminal judge and I have rarely found a case in which CCTV evidence is deployed where it’s done any good because normally the condition of the film – the quality of the image is so poor that it doesn’t provide you with the answer – the clear Yes or No. So it does have practical difficulties and that is the David Davis line. But you’re right, in my own constituency I get people coming to me every week saying ‘If only we had CCTV down my street then my car would not have been broken in to’. Well, it’s a nice thought but its very expensive and its not something that’s probably going to happen. I think the way I look at it is, if a local community want it, they should have it, but I don’t think we should have it as a national system. If you walk as I sometimes do from Victoria station to Portcullis house, there are 800 cameras: that’s a mile and a bit. From Victoria station, all the way down Victoria Street – now some of it may be traffic control, some may be for crime control, some may be ornamental – but the point is, there are lots of them about and we, the public, need to know what’s going on in our country. I don’t want to be part of a Government that is separate from the people who elected us. I don’t want to be part of a great big machine that is totally disconnected – that does things for its benefit rather than for the benefit of the people who elected it. Easy to say. When I’m in Government – If I get into Government – I can assure you that I will go through the most appalling crises and debates in Parliament. As Dominic Grieve said – you have to be very brave minister – well, every now and then a minister has to be brave. Now, last summer, David Davies was brave. Now, you might say, its easy to be brave in opposition and to fight a by-election which you’re reasonably certain you’ll win. The test will come for me after the next election.


Iain Dale (Chair): That’s an interesting point Edward raises about the machine of Government. Isn’t the fact that bureaucrats exist to create laws, to have initiatives and to constantly encourage ministers to have initiatives – How does the Conservative Party get a grip of that machinery and maybe stop it doing the bad things that maybe it already has done.


Panel: Well that’s a massive question for the party across the board on legislation and getting things done. I don’t know the answer to that – there is an implementation unit that Francis Maud is coordinating and I understand that the Civil liberties agenda is part of the mandate that he has to prepare. Can I just respond and agree with what Edward was saying: firstly, I think that localism is in significant part the answer to a lot of these issues and I wouldn’t want CCTV in a pub but I’d quite like it on a tube train, late at night, when there’s no one else potentially around, and I think people will have that different view depending on the circumstances and I think we should allow people that choice to decide how they actually want their their freedom or their liberties to be protected and they themselves can help to choose the balance there. I also agree with what Edward said about David Davis’ brave stance: where I think the jury are certainly out on did he actually shift public opinion – I think there are conflicting polls on this, but the only like for like poll that asked exactly the same question before he resigned his seat and after he resigned his seat showed absolutely no change at all on the issues and these polls are being conducted in a time when the security threat seems to be huge and so I’m not sure I actually agree with you that there has been a public mood shift – I think there is certainly a group of people (this convention represents it) who think avidly about the subject. I think it’s certainly true that the ideas class represented chiefly by the media care deeply about this subject but I think Hazel is actually probably right about the public mood.


(Interruption) She always is


Iain Dale (Chair): A brief word from Laura:


Laura: I think people have to ask what our philosophy will be about managing government: it’s not just the implementation that Frances Maud is putting together, its about what our attitude to Government actually is and I would like to see much less activist political machinery: we need less legislation, much more considered legislation and we need to understand the unforeseen consequences of what we do, and at the moment we are just moving like a train. In Macmillan’s day, if you’d gone to him with ten pieces of legislation, he would sack you because you obviously are not running your department very well if you can’t manage it within the perameters today. And if we can find a philosophy which says “Do less, better” we have got a structure there by which we can actually ensure that what we do has a positive impact and by being less activist, it will have less impact on our civil liberties.


(Interruption): That’s a very good election slogan – “do less better” – I like that.


Dominic Raab: Since I’m Dominic Grieve’s Chief of Staff I’m going to agree with him whole-heartedly. But the Conservative Party has, since 2006, made very clear that we want a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act, but also to consider and look at (and David Cameron made this clear in 2006) the issue of stronger protection for the core freedoms so in terms of the over-arching parameters – in terms of constitutional reform – bear that in mind as well.


Panel: Yes, I would totally support that, both the repeal and the restoration: I think that to speak to an earlier agenda – I think it’s important to remember where this desire for security actually comes from –where this desire for CCTV, the bigger role of the Government comes from and it comes from the collapse of our trust in each other. The very fact that we now have a politics of fear is because we have stopped being an associative society. If you track trust from the 1950s to now, I think it’s gone down by about 60 % – people no longer trust their fellow neighbours, they no longer associate with their neighbours. Danny Dawling did a study of community, and he concluded that the weakest communities in the 1970’s – they are the communities where people were disassociated with one another – are stronger than our strongest communities today. So we’ve seen an unprecedented loss of the associative or the civic – and its exactly that: when we become frightened individuals who are afraid of our neighbours’ children, that’s when we demand massive state control and massive state power: and that’s why I think the Conservatives’ civil agenda is so important because if we can manage to restore and facilitate and enable people to start trusting each oter again and learning about each other then we can minimise the politics of fear and start driving down the desire for an authoritarian state and I think that’s the true radical path of modern conservatism.


Iain Dale (Chair): Tim, is there anything the Government’s done in this area that you wouldn’t want included in such a bill?


Tim Montgomery: I wouldn’t repeal 28 days: but I certainly completely support the repeal of all aspects of Labours ID card scheme and I want to look at all the items on a one by one basis and bringing in what you started with about the Liberal Democrats, I had a story on Conservative Home earlier this week that one of the things the conservatives want to do if it wins this election and particularly if it wins handsomely, if it wins well, is to improve outreach to the lib dems on a couple of issues where a common cause might be pursued and one of those issues is civil liberties – the other I think is green issues. I think potentially you would see the conservatives, in a few areas of civil liberties, trying to make this cross party. And on ID cards and other issues I certainly support that.


Laura: yes I certainly agree. I think very much picking up on what Philip has said, the trust issue has driven – and in many ways weak politicians – have allowed fear to drive the agenda and I think it was a Conservative piece of legislation which in my mind started a little bit of this legislative activism was the Dangerous dogs act and suddenly everyone was looking at the front page and thinking, ‘Right, well that’s our agenda for the day’ and we’ve lost that sense of, in some ways, politicians taking difficult decisions, not taking decisions is sometimes the best of all things and I would agree with the repeal and restore: we could call it the Restoration government.


Iain Dale (Chair): So you’ll do nothing conservative Laura?


Laura: To answer your question directly, Dominic Raab is Dominic Grieve’s chief of staff and Dominic Raab, in that capacity said ‘Get me on my desk by the end of next week a list of the acts that we wish to repeal’…. There is actually a delicious irony at the moment. I find the imbalance between state power and individual civil liberty unattractive and yet at the moment in some quarters the state is being seen as a benign instrument: we are in the recession and we are all looking at the state – whether we are Americans or Europeans – to settle government and bail us out of our home. And there is no better symbolic example of the Individual will at play than the city perhaps. These individuals: people like Fred the Shred are now the scapegoat: they are the bad thing. Now there are all sorts of presentational reasons why the government is pushing this to seem to be the case but I do think we need to be careful at a time when people are worried about their homes, their jobs, their incomes, their expenses, that we don’t lose the plot and remember that by and large the state tends to be unhelpful, rather than helpful. In relation to Tim’s point about outreach to the Liberal Democrats, it just happens to be the case that on the Coroners and Justice Bill we have been in locked steps with the Lib Dems, we have been defeated by one vote – the Government had a majority of one vote on the committee. …


Tim Montgomery: Well I’ll try to prove my credentials in a second but on asylum seekers I’ve always hoped and believed that the Conservative party should have a very generous approach to asylum seekers: Michael Howard not least was a beneficiary of Britains generous asylum policy in the past and I think that the debates are always incredibly muddled and immigration and asylum are always lumped together – particularly in a recession – in an incredibly unhelpful way, and I thought one of the policies we’ve had in recent times that I was more ashamed of than any was the idea that we would put a cap on asylum numbers and I don’t think you could ever put a cap on asylum numbers if there is going to be a humanitarian crisis somewhere around the world. And in the same way, on immigration I favour a very strict policy particularly during a recession because I don’t think we need huge numbers of workers coming here at the moment when we have potential huge unemployment problems when on asylum I think we need a very generous policy. Trying to answer your wider question, I think human rights do need to be defined in a way that is more universally viable – I think the human rights abuses that are taking place in Zimbabwe at the moment, that are taking place in lots of countries really are extraordinary human rights abuses. Some of the things we see happen in Britain that are compared to those countries are in a completely different league and rights to be free from torture, rights to be able to change your government are on a different level from rights to have pornography in prison and I think that distinction does need to be made incredibly powerfully and unfortunately, when you mention human rights to a lot of people in Britain now they think of the right to have pornography in prison and that’s bringing a wider discussion of Human Rights into disrepute and I don’t know how we solve that problem but I think it is a problem.\


Iain Dale (Chair): Does anyone take issue with anything Tim’s said?


A: I think there is discrepancy here: I talk about British liberty in my book and elsewhere – what I have in mind is the British idea of liberty which is liberty based which is in contrast with the EU continental model which some people in this country do advocate: that distinction I would advocate wholeheartedly and I think its based on the kind of distinctions Tim’s drawing, but the ideas that you could have British citizens and British residents treated on a totally different basis – well that would be some kind of apartheid – clearly undesirable and clearly impossible.


Iain Dale (Chair): Is there anyone here who’s a complete sceptic in terms of the Conservatives’ commitment to civil liberties?


- Yes! - 


Iain Dale (Chair): I thought Evan Harris might be


Dominic: On the Human Rights Act the fundamental problem I have with it is two-fold: one, it hasn’t done much to protect us over the last 12 years and secondly, which is the different question that you raised: I support the convention but I’m much more sceptical of the case law: you said we couldn’t be members of the convention without signing up to the case law but there’s nothing in the convention which requires that and in fact many other countries aren’t duty bound – their constitutional courts do not require them to incorporate all the case law. Under the human rights act what it actually says is you’re supposed to take it into account: if you look at how it’s been interpreted – the jurisprudence from Lord Bingham here – actually what they do is they match it. That’s not necessary. And I think we could avail ourselves of the margin of appreciation in that regard protect our core freedoms – which is what this convention is about- it’s about liberty – and get a bit more flexibility to tailor, and be a bit more clear, about these extra positive obligations that are being stacked on, time and time again, to the state.


Panel: Laura, Evan has got a point hasn’t he when he says about the Tory attitude to the so-called equality agenda: there are still many Conservative MPs who just won’t sign up to it aren’t there?

Laura: Well, I mean, you would know better about exactly who they were but I personally believe that the freedom of equality in the sense of our ability to be different, to have different views is at the core of being Conservative on one hand. The issue about the Human Rights Act is that we do need a debate about what are the essential Human Rights – we do need to build greater credibility into Human Rights and by ensuring that some of the things which are seen to be somewhat superficial or constantly questioned through the courts that the mainstream people don’t believe is a fundamental Human right. And if we can concentrate on those elements of human rights that are absolutely core to us all, and maybe look at the human rights act – at its peripheral areas – it wouldn’t have such a damaged name when you’re talking in the bar.


A: Who are these ‘mainstream people’? What on earth are ‘mainstream people’?


Laura: No I’m talking about how you get aspects of the Human Rights Act that get spun into the front pages of the newspapers that don’t seem to reflect what other peoples’ views are on what human rights are. But I do defer to my panel.


A: Two areas where I think the Tories have not been consistent: one was in the Lords – they threw in the towel before the last vote on ID cards. Only Norman Tebbit went through the . . . and in the repeal issue the Tories have been equivocal at best over rendition and Guantanamo and Torture rights and I’d like to ask Dominic Raab, what exactly is the difference between British Liberty and European Liberty and how I don’t understand the concept that you can be a brilliant part of the Convention and yet not . . .


Dominic Raab: It was indeed and of course and when we signed up to the court in 1966 it was a British Judge who was formerly Foreign Office Legal Advisor who uttered an absolutely searing descent when the Court started legislating judiciously, so the two are not necessarily incompatible. The short answer is there is absolutely nothing in the convention that requires you to import all of the case law wholesale into British law. It is strictly not true. I was a Foreign Office Legal Advisor for six year – as a matter of international law, that is not required. You can make the case that it’s desirable, but we don’t need to do it. So I think that brings us on to the second question which is actually ‘Do we want a continental model of human rights, or a liberty based one?’ I think what you’ll tend to find is that in the EU and on the Continent, they are much more inclined to promote economic and social rights and bridge the gap between the two. And it reflects the Marxist critique of liberty…


Interruption from audience: That’s not in the Convention


Dominic: No, it isn’t, exactly. And that’s why I think, if you want to have that debate about a liberty-based or a Continental approach to rights, it shouldn’t be done by judicial legislation – it should be done ultimately at the ballot box, but through debate.


Interruption: I agree with you on economic and social rights, but that’s not the point.


Edward: I think what this discussion has exposed is the different legal positions between Continental Europe and the United Kingdom. Both are aiming at the same point. By and large it seems to me that under European law we are looking at a rights-based system whereas under English law we are looking at a remedy-based system. And we are heading into a coming together of these two traditions since the Human Rights Act which allowed Convention Acts to be directly justiciable in our English courts: there is a growing merger between the remedy-based system and the rights based system and this creates tension. It creates tension across the legal establishment but it also creates tension politically and the Conservative party is no less immune to these tensions than anyone else. The Conservative party is a coalition, just as the Labour party are, just like the Lib Dems – a coalition of all sorts of different strands but we come together to coalesce rather particular, broad themes. What I’m looking for at a meeting like this is a centralised discussion about how we can achieve something better for our country, but secondly so we can understand that there will be differences of opinion over quite fundamental questions between parties but also within parties and Norman Tebbit has his own eccentric and delightful style and he may well think that some things that I say are terrible are well to the left of…

But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we come together as a group of successful individuals to create a common policy that will achieve that essential thing that is the recovery of the right of the individual to withstand the oppression of the state.


Question: My name’s Sian Oran, I’d like to make a probably very unfashionable plea for social and economic rights. I think that they may be messy and I think you’re getting into difficulties when you take a very pragmatic approach to what you can achieve and I think if you don’t have your economic and social rights then your civic and political rights become a lot harder to access, and you may be able to get them on the good will of the people helping you but you’re not really empowered in any legal way.


Chair: Who wants to answer that? Philip


Philip: I think the situation is this: if you look at any British appeals to liberty they are always historical. They are always talking about the rights we have lost, the times when freedoms have been taken away from us. So I think you have to have a traditional account of what is being removed: so many of the debates are about “we had these rights – an absolute power has formed and has taken them from us, and those rights in English history have almost always been social and economic: they’re about use of the land, the rights we have on common land, your rights of tenure etc etc. And looking at social and economic history, what actually happened in Britain is gradually, all of these rights were taken away from people and derived to a centralised State. So a centralised state was essentially engaged in several acts of dispossession. The rights that were removed were rights that were concomitant with social and political responsibilities so what I would say is that the notion of remedy already includes the notions of the social and economic and that includes what is due to an Englishman and that has to be in some sense the notion of self-sufficiency, property, the ability to exercise and be free, but we don’t need the Continental tradition to do that, because all rights are based on concepts of personhood and especially in England, all notions of personhood are associated with property. And then the Conservative politics are all about, for instance, creating a property-owning democracy, a society where people are self-sufficient and have the conditions to be so. So what I would argue is actually a proper historical understanding of English laws and English rights which runs alongside the social and we don’t need to import them from the Continent. The trouble is you can’t have Universality without particularity because the trouble with Continental models of the Enlightenment is they say, if you’re not like me you’re a savage; if you’re not like me you’re not reasonable. And that sort of French revolutionary Universalism, delegated to itself the ability to legislate to all peoples: you have to be like us if you are going to be free. But actually since I am a Conservative and I believe in History and freedom, I think there are different formal models of what constitutes personhood in different traditions, and the key for Conservatives is to have a plural society, and that may mean plural in terms of different cultures debating with each other what good is. English liberty has far more to it than Continental versions.


Question: I’m here on behalf of Independence Defence Lawyers, a group of 50 firms of criminal solicitors. We’ve been responding to a series of papers, about the DCA, ministry of Justice and the Home Office …

My question fundamentally is, why do we have to address these issues under the terms of rights, when fundamentally they’re issues of just, good government. Ministers should be controlling officials not the other way around.


Chair: As a possible future minister, Edward, would you like to take that one on?


Edward: Just having listened to this I am going to put on the front page of my manifesto, ‘Vote for me and celebrate your personhood’ and I thought that would get me through… I rather agree with you to some extent but unfortunately its not the language nowadays which is in use. Can I say that you have a right to go to hospital to be treated for a particular complaint? You might say, you may or may not have a right to that but if you ran the hospital properly you would get that remedy which is the cure. What we need is ministers who are powerful enough and brave enough to resist wrong advice but also politically open enough to accept ideas from traditions that may not be their own.


Question: John Morrison: I’m still confused about Conservative policies and if I was in charge of the Liberal Democrats then I’d be very sceptical about going into conference with you. I’m a liberal of the old fashioned sort, I support the Human Rights’ Act: I still don’t know what the Conservative Party’s attitude is to the Human Rights’ Act. I’ve heard an awful lot of contradictory things said in the last hour that made me extremely sceptical. Lets take the CCTV issue, just for one, if your associative model is used, CCTV cameras put up by communities will be able to do all sorts of things – they’ll have the technology to be able to recognise people, individuals, by facial recognition of what people are doing. You will have communities banning people from wearing veils, hoods or even hats. This will be fine according to your associative model. I would like the state and parliament to set down very clear rules to stop that kind of thing happening.


Answer: I think the reverse is true: what would actually happen is only those communities that are under dire threat of criminal behaviour would actually vote for CCTV cameras and even then on a temporary basis and I think that what would actually occur is the gradual stripping away or removal of surveillance from those communities that felt secure. For most of my associates sadly that could be the only solution for the general sense of fear and atomisation. So I’m actually addressing the key issue to which CCT cameras are a false computative response which is to get people to buy into one another and to remove this sense of fear and suspicion.


Dominic: Well there’s an interesting paradox isn’t there because you want the state to intervene as a liberal and yet these guys want local communities to intervene.


Audience (Morrisson): You’re not acknowledging the role of the state for the legislation in protecting our rights. It’s the same with social and economic rights – if you don’t have them then any employer… 36.50


Chair: Dominic do you want to come in on this?


You’ve been in opposition for 12 years and you have not thought these things through – it’s patently obvious.


Dominic: What’s the question here? In terms of CCTV I think what we’re talking about here is actually common sense: eighty percent of the cameras don’t work properly and one of the things in terms of public opinion which came out in the Home Office’s own reports – it’s fascinating how minsters don’t read them – is, often, after deployment, public approval goes down.


You aren’t agreeing with each other…


Dominic: Tim’s a commentator, I’m an author, we don’t pretend to agree on everything: but just in terms of CCTV I think there will come a point and during the recession that half the billion spent on CCTV during the recession – there’ll be a real question about local communities actually getting real value for money. In terms of the human rights act the Conservative position’s been very clear: we would abolish it but replace it with a Bill of Rights and stay within the Convention.


Right, final question

Question: At a time when millions are not voting at the General Elections all politicians seem to be talking to the electorate but not listening. MP’s may well have a website but they are often not seeking a response. Now Barack Obama spoke daily to every supporter, encouraged local meetings: Conservative MPs and liberal MPs are in the House of Commons but they are often not in the chamber even for very important debates and now that the public is waking up to how our liberties and freedoms are being eroded, the conservatives have an enormous opportunity to be elected by a huge majority. But Conservative MPs must work harder and above all listen – do they agree?


Answer: Amen, I say to that: the decline of Parliament as an institution is something which didn’t begin under Labour but which has accelerated enormously. I remember Gordon Brown making big promises to only make announcements in Parliament and yet more seem to be made on the Today Programme. Its great to hear Edward Garnier talking about the scrutiny that he is making of legislation but I think there isn’t enough of that sort of detailed scrutiny of legislation simply because of the sheer volume. And that comes back to the gentleman’s earlier point that the activism of Government is enormous. I think, only when we reduce the activism, by doing less but doing it better, by having the sort of sunset clauses to legislation so that they expire – that’s the sort of Dangerous dogs act thing that passed in a frenzy – later built into the bill, maybe two or three years later, it should have expired and only people who really wanted it renewed should show it should still exist.  I think my main thing is just to do less.


Panel: If the state does less, communities can do more. One of the reasons we’re so passive is because we’ve been taught passivity from the day we were born. British citizens no longer exercise power in almost any realm they come up with as they go through life. But if people can gradually have power devolved to them and they learn to practice it and use it, then they realise they’re active. And then in being active, the state doesn’t need to be so active. And the state can take a different role instead of being the only actor within our politics, which is what we have now in our society, where only the state really has power. We ourselves have to become actors or authors of our own natures and communities.


Chair: Well, its one o’clock and I’d like to finish on time and thank all of our panellists. We hope you’ve enjoyed the session.



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