21 January 2006

Whose civil liberties are we talking about?

Curtailment of liberties can sometimes be a good thing. For example curtailing the liberty of drivers to drive as fast as they like, is of benefit to everyone. The liberties of pedestrians, cyclists and even other road users to enhanced safety and less environmental degradation outweighs the liberty of drivers to do as they please. Therefore some liberties are not automatically a good thing. There is always a balance to be had.

This issue about balance is the first point to be made. When someone claims a liberty to be a civil liberty, they have to justify this claim, it cannot be assumed that all liberties are good.

The second point to be made is that even the principles of civil liberties have practical restraints, for example it is not practical for the state to prove every driving offence, therefore there is some presumption of guilt if a person does not challenge the penalty ascribed.

As a lot of you know, I have faced a lot of criticism for my support of Tony Blair's respect agenda and also for supporting the idea of an ID card (something I still think is needed, however I did eventually concede that the government's current proposals on ID fail in terms of the reliability of biometrics and the lack of security of the National Identity Register).

For supporting these two issues I have been accused of being authoritarian on the grounds that these schemes threaten our civil liberties by eroding the principles of 'innocent to proven guilty' and the principle of 'the best government governs least'.

As I have suggested above, there is no black and white on these issues, it is always a matter of balancing differing liberties between peoples and of practicalities in enforcing civil liberty principles.

The government's respect programme can be viewed in detail here. It is not all about extending fines and low level punishments to include anti-social breaches of law. Most of it is about positive encouragements to reduce crime where it is concentrated.

As I have acknowledged in other posts, I accept that this summary justice 'may' mean more innocent people being affected. This is of course regrettable but no system is entirely accurate, as we all know even the present criminal justice system involves innocent people being wrongly punished (this is one of the main reasons why we should never have the death penalty).

I believe that the benefits of the government's respect proposals in reducing anti-social behavior mean that the benefits to us all are worth the extra risk of the low level punishments being dished out unfairly. There will still be a recourse to court for anyone who wishes to object.

In the vast majority of cases, especially of those where guilt is admitted, the fast, effective (and considerably cheaper) justice will be of benefit to us all, even those who commit the anti-social crimes.

As I have stated before of course these measures need to be accompanied by more positive measures such as helping parenting skills and reducing poverty. These are areas where this government has made huge progress and these measures also make up the majority of the respect agenda. Saying all that summary powers are an essential part of bringing our criminal justice system up to scratch and for those reasons I satnd firmly behind them.


  1. A liberty doesn't cease to be a good thing because it might, in practice, conflict with another. Providing a driver is aware of the risks from driving at very high speed, they ought to be allowed to do so as long as this doesn't threaten the public (the environmental consequences I take to be an economic decision). In that sense I accept the need for 'balance', but not the idea that, because that liberty can be curtailed, that the curtailing of liberties in general is something we should accept.

    I think, by "the principles of civil liberties have practical restraints", you mean: "there could be practical limits on the ability to pursue a liberty", but again that shouldn't accustom us to the idea that our liberties can be impinged, especially when someone else (say, the government) is taking advantage.

    When people are caught on speed cameras there is at least photographic evidence (which has to be trustworthy and reliable) that an offence was committed, whereas in your earlier example about the suitcase containing £10,000, there isn't any evidence at all. As possession of a suitcase isn't a crime, we can assume the police had other reasons to suspect, and all this taken together might make arrest a possibility, but it certainly doesn't justify summary justice, however

    Many cases where innocent people have been imprisoned are a result of past incompetence and corruption by the very bodies who will be carrying out this summary justice, or of political interference. Either way, it's not something we can turn a blind eye to. We ought to be making it as difficult as possible for the innocent to be punished, and if this requires new powers, or resources for the police to be able to monitor suspects against whom there is already evidence, that must surely be preferable to incriminating those against whom there is only circumstantial evidence, and then hoping they'll just accept it.

  2. B4L, for custodial sentences I entirely agree that 'we should make it as difficult as possible for the innocent to be punished'.

    However in the real world of low level crime, this principle is being taken advantage of. Dealing with a high volume of low level offences, it is just not practical to give the same level of consideration that we do to more serious offences.

    I believe that catching criminals at the lesser level with low level punishment is better than letting than progress to more serious crimes (because their respect for the effectiveness of the law has become so eroded).

    It is not just better for the law abiding majority, it is better for the criminal as well, who is less likely to become a career criminal and spend significant parts of his life in jail.

    No system is perfect. We accept that our present criminal justice system will convict innocent people. It is right that we try to minimise this as much as possible but we all know there are miscarriages of justice. If we really wanted to assume 'innocent to proven guilty' we wouldn't arrest anyone. We would just let crime run its course with no punishments for anyone. Nobody would agree with that, so therefore it is always going to be about the degree to which we apply the 'innocent to proven guilty' principle. For anti-social behaviour, it is time we moved the balance towards catching more guilty people.

  3. The 10,000 cash example is a good one.

    Of course it is not wrong to have this much cash in the middle of the night (It is though probably foolhardy).

    But we have to ask how likely it is that somebody would be doing this and not be able to provide a reasonable excuse for doing so.

    The likelyhood is that someone who couldn't provide a reason, is up to something criminal. In this case it seems reasonable to confiscate their cash and impose a fine. Note: no-one is saying they should go to prison for this.

    In all the discussions I had on here about this subject, nobody could provide me with a reasonable explanation why somebody would not be able to explain themselves.

    The best I got was an MP who was off to see a high class prostitute. Apart from the unlikelyhood of the MP needing that amount of cash, he would be able to provide proof the money was his, so would be able to proceed. You only have to provide evidence of how you obtained the money, not what you are using it for.

  4. The Blue Foxxx23/1/06 9:03 pm

    "But we have to ask how likely it is that somebody would be doing this and not be able to provide a reasonable excuse for doing so."

    We have to ask why you persist with this insane hypothetical. You have been given good reasons.

    Just to clarify, what is the cut-off point for the ammount of cash you are allowed to carry without harrasment from the police?

  5. Well it would have to be a unfathomable amount of cash for someone to be carrying without any reason, many thousands.

  6. The Blue Foxxx27/1/06 10:50 pm

    "Well it would have to be a unfathomable amount of cash for someone to be carrying without any reason, many thousands."

    So the police would have to stop and search you - essentially for carrying a hold-all or similar. They would then have to decide that you were carrying more cash than was 'reasonable'.

    Can you not see the problems with this? At the very least, stop and search on suspicion of carrying wads of cash...

  7. The Blue Foxxx27/1/06 11:32 pm

    Also, if it's only those carrying many thousands, how does this help tackle low level crime?

    Please give up this idiotic hypothetical.

  8. Where you draw the line on something like this is always going to be arbitrary, its like having speed limits. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't draw the line somewhere. Why is 31 mph illegal but 30mph legal on the same road? But nobody would argue this as a reason not to have speed limits.

    It is up to you to prove why it is unreasonable to ask someone carrying thousands in cash in an unlikely location at an unlikely time, where they got it from and provide evidence it's theirs, otherwise it seems reasonable to assume they are up to no good and confiscate the cash. All I ask is for one reasonable example why someone cannot provide this information? So far nobody has managed to provide me this one example.