An open letter to my MP: Stop Government abuse of personal information (with triumphant update 8 March 09)
An open letter to my MP, Sadiq Khan, MP [but now see update appended below]:
Here is an appeal with which you, as a former civil rights lawyer of great distinction, will surely sympathise. As a minister in the government, you won’t be able to speak or vote openly to kill off the provision in a Bill now going through parliament which represents yet another assault on our privacy and fundamental freedoms. But, being a member of the government, you may well have more ability than any back-bencher to talk privately behind the scenes to your colleagues and to press them quietly to delete the clause in question, and not to try to fudge it with ambiguous and still unsatisfactory re-wording as the responsible — or irresponsible — minister, Jack Straw, seems to be planning to do (surprise, surprise).
As you know better than most, Government already collects far too much personal information about us all and stores it in scores of databases. Hundreds of central government departments and agencies and even local authorities have access to some of it, and sometimes abuse that access for purposes differing from those for which it was originally collected. Now your fellow-ministers have slipped an obnoxious clause into a Bill about coroners — truly! — which, if parliament indolently approves it, will make abuse of all that information even more widespread and more harmful. Phil Booth, a leading light in the admirable campaign against ID cards, sums it up concisely in the Modern Liberty section of the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog:
This morning at the Convention on Modern Liberty, I launched NO2ID’s request that everyone at the convention – and around the UK – tells their MP *right now* that they refuse their consent to having their information shared under any “information sharing order”, a power currently being slipped onto the statute books in clause 152 of the coroners and justice bill.
Please tell yours too. It’s important, and urgent – and something that only YOU can do. If you never have before, now’s the time to write to your MP – in a letter, or via www.WriteToThem.com.
Jack Straw has been making noises that could signal a U-turn, but the only acceptable action is to remove clause 152 entirely from the bill. It is not linked to any other clause, despite being sandwiched between other powers and so-called safeguards offered to the information commissioner. It cannot be improved, and Straw can’t be allowed to merely “dilute” it. Clause 152 just has to go.
It’s imperative that in coming days every MP hears from his or her constituents. Please tell them you refuse consent to having your information, taken for one purpose, arbitrarily used for any other purpose. And ask them to vote clause 152 off the bill.
• Phil Booth is the national coordinator of NO2ID. See more on the convention and civil liberties at liberty central.
I think that privately you know he’s right. So please note that as a life-long Labour Party supporter I formally refuse my consent to having information about me which has been taken for one purpose arbitrarily or otherwise used for any other purpose. Please make sure that the infamous clause 152 is removed completely from the Bill.
I am putting a copy of this message on my blog, which I know (with appreciation) that you sometimes read. I hope that by putting it there I might encourage lots of others, from Tooting (your constituency) and elsewhere, to write as soon as possible to their MPs of whatever party to state formally that they too refuse their consent to what this clause proposes, even if it is cosmetically amended to fob off the storm of protest that it has aroused. If the clause is allowed to survive, whether or not amended with fudge, we shall all be looking closely at the division lists to see which MPs shrugged their shoulders and voted for it. You won’t be able to vote against it: but perhaps you could arrange an important engagement (such as coming to dinner with my wife and myself) at the time when the vote is taken?
With my best wishes
PS: If you should decide to reply to this message, I of course promise to add your reply to my blog, with any further comments of my own as necessary.
Update (Sunday, 8 March 2009): According to this report in today’s Observer, Jack Straw appears to have climbed down:
Straw bows to pressure over data sharing
Jack Straw last night scrapped controversial government proposals that could have allowed patients’ medical and DNA records to be shared with police, foreign governments and other bodies.
In a victory for civil liberties campaigners, the justice secretary bowed to public pressure over the data-sharing provisions in the forthcoming coroners’ bill, which would have allowed public bodies to exchange data without the knowledge or consent of individuals involved. Doctors and the Bar Council had joined privacy campaigners in warning of the potential risks to public trust.
The move will be seen as an olive branch to Labour MPs concerned about what they see as the erosion of civil liberties, and will raise eyebrows at Westminster where Straw is viewed as a potential future leadership contender.
Your ministerial position will forbid you you admit it, but I would like to think that I see your hand in this welcome about-turn, Sadiq. Thanks! Now have a go at those wretched monstrosities Control Orders, and IPPs, and the huge new prisons planned, and mandatory life sentences for murder, and all those surveillance cameras, and ID cards with their supporting giant database, and….