Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Nothing to hide, so no problem.

The issue of the excessive use of their powers under terrorist legislation by local authorities is justifiably in the news again.  The use of undercover local authority officials, surveillance of individuals suspected of breaking the rules and checking of people's rubbish now seems to be an acceptable norm.  One local authority executive used the argument that as his service is consumer-driven and that's what consumers want, then it's a perfectly justifiable use of legislation that was intended to watch for potential terrorists.  More worrying is the response of the public whose response seems to fall into either 'well there's nothing we can do about it' or' well I've nothing to hide so it's not a problem for me'.  This 'well it doesn't affect me' attitude is breathtakingly naive because it provides the perfect justification for the state, whether local or national, acquiring yet more draconian powers. 

It seems increasingly to me that we can't have a grown up debate about rights and freedoms.  Not surprising as officialdom is becoming more and more conscious of its powers and appears to be applying them with every increasing intensity and in ways that are offensive and unyielding.  Your rubbish bin is slightly open, we won't take your rubbish.  You've put some paper in the wrong bin, again you get a red card.  Legislation it appears has ceased to enable people, it simply oppresses them.  But then, I've got nothing to hide, so that's not a problem!  Justifying action simply because that's what the public wants or opinion polls indicate that's what they want, does not make that action right.  Yes, in the post 9/11 situation, we need to take action against the threat from terrorism but should the same legislation be applied to people who don't clear up after their dog has fouled a public place or allowing local authorities to check my telephone bill?  That was never the intention of Parliament when the legislation was framed.  Those who now fail to conform to what is politically correct can find themselves fined and obtaining a criminal record for offences that are trivial and as a result the legislation, local authorities and central government are brought into disrepute.  But then, nothing to hide, so no problem! 

The Human Rights legislation should protect individuals from government harassment but then I suspect the government wishes it had never passed the legislation given that it tries to subvert it at every available turn.  What we now need is a Bill of Rights in which individual rights and freedoms are entrenched in the constitution and where the relationship between the state, local and national, and the individual is defined.  We already have a surveillance state with the proliferation of CCTV cameras...19 million at last count and increasing.  Do we want a situation where the state defines with detailed precision what we can and cannot do and where the law of the official is enforced with unfeeling intensity?  The balance of power has long shifted from the individual to the state and the Millsian notion of freedom in terms of 'the right to do what you chose as long as it's not illegal and causes no harm to others' has long gone.  Restoring a proper balance between the necessary rights of the state and the freedoms of the individual is now necessary more than at any time in the past.  But then, I've got nothing to hide, so no problem!

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