Tags: EU | Britain | Civil | Liberties

UK's Clegg Plans Civil Liberties Drive

Wednesday, 19 May 2010 12:13 PM

Britain's new deputy prime minister pledged on Wednesday to curb the country's extensive system of official surveillance and data collection by scrapping an unpopular national identity card program, limiting the retention of DNA samples and regulating the spread of closed-circuit television cameras.

Nick Clegg said the coalition government was rolling back government monitoring after years of complaints from rights groups that personal freedoms have been sacrificed in the name of national security.

"This government will end the culture of spying on its citizens," Clegg said during a speech in north London. "It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide. It has to stop."

He also promised to allow the public a say on which of the ousted Labour government's unpopular laws should be overturned, and to institute changes to the country's political system — including the right to recall errant lawmakers.

"It is time for a wholesale, big bang approach to political reform," Clegg said. "And that's what this government will deliver."

The 43-year-old deputy chief, and leader of the Liberal Democrat party, is regarded as having driven a hard bargain on civil liberties in a coalition deal with Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives. An agreement between the new partners — following Britain's inconclusive election which denied any party a majority — includes almost all of Clegg's party's election pledges on personal freedoms.

Under Clegg's plans, a 5.1 billion pound (US$7.3 billion) plan for national identity cards and a linked database will be halted. The credit-card sized documents were planned to include biographical data and biometric details like fingerprints and a facial image, and intended to help prevent terrorism and identity fraud.

Plans to issue sophisticated new passport which also store biometric data will also be scrapped, Clegg said.

He pledged to impose new regulation aimed at restricting the increasing use of CCTV cameras by local authorities and private businesses. Clegg's office said no specifics have yet been drawn up on how new regulation will work, but insisted the plans will be halt the unwanted creep of cameras into offices, malls and on transit networks.

No figure on the total number of CCTV cameras in Britain is known, though applications under Freedom of Information laws in 2009 disclosed that town halls operate about 60,000 — up from 21,000 in 1999.

Dylan Sharpe, of Big Brother Watch, a campaign group which carried out the 2009 research, said many plans in Clegg's speech appeared sketchy.

"It's brilliant on big ideas, all of which we are in agreement with — but it's not so strong on the detail," Sharpe said.

Clegg vowed to ditch a database which stores biographical, health and educational details of British children, and to ban schools from taking a child's fingerprints without their parent's authorization.

He also promised new restrictions — though didn't offer details — on the retention of DNA profiles of innocent people.

Britain has one of the largest DNA databases in the world, with profiles of over 5 million people. Police currently have the power to take DNA or fingerprints from anyone at the point of arrest, and can hold the information of those found innocent for six years.

The coalition government has already announced it will remove limits imposed on peaceful protest, and to reform the country's notoriously tough libel laws.

Clegg promised to review anti-terrorism legislation, though the new government faces difficult decisions on how to deal with some terror suspects who can't be put before a court because evidence is too sensitive, or deported because of the risk they may face torture overseas.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of campaign group Liberty, said many of Clegg's plans were "music to the ears of human rights campaigners."

"ID cards were always a dangerous white elephant and we look forward to unchecked surveillance and police powers being brought under control," she said.

On political reforms, Clegg said the House of Lords will become an elected and use a proportional voting system.

Clegg extracted surprise concessions from Cameron over voting reform to seal their pact last week, winning a public referendum on a move toward a more proportional electoral system for the House of Commons.

That public vote will pit the coalition's twin chiefs against each other: Cameron says his party will campaign against reform, while Clegg will lobby for changes he believes will deliver his party more House of Commons seats.

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Britain's new deputy prime minister pledged on Wednesday to curb the country's extensive system of official surveillance and data collection by scrapping an unpopular national identity card program, limiting the retention of DNA samples and regulating the spread of...
Wednesday, 19 May 2010 12:13 PM
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