Sweeping new powers allowing personal information about every citizen to be handed over to government agencies faced condemnation yesterday amid warnings that Britain is experiencing the greatest threats to civil rights for decades.
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the pressure group Liberty, warned that the laws, published yesterday, were among a string of measures that amounted to a "terrifying" assault on traditional freedoms.
Proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill include measures to authorise ministers to move huge amounts of data between government departments and other agencies and public bodies. Bodies that hold personal information include local councils, the DVLA, benefits offices and HM Revenue and Customs.
The Bill will allow ministers to use data-sharing orders to overturn strict rules that require information to be used only for the purpose it was taken. But it places no limit on the information that could eventually be shared between public bodies, potentially allowing vast amounts of personal data to be shared by officials across Whitehall, agencies or other public bodies.
Safeguards in the Bill will ensure that the proposed orders are considered by the Information Commissioner and require them to be formally approved by Parliament.
Ministers insisted there would be a series of safeguards to ensure that data was secure and not misused. But in an interview with The Independent Ms Chakrabarti warned the measure was one of a string of threats to civil liberties that range from attacks on the Human Rights Act, the advent of ID cards, and proposals to retain data on internet and email use. She declared: "The combination amounts to the most authoritarian time in my lifetime. In Britain, we are seeing happening things I would never have dreamt of seeing."
Ms Chakrabarti also condemned plans in the Bill to restrict the use of juries in inquests and hold hearings in secret. She added: "It's the second week of January and we have already seen plans for new gang Asbos and secret coroners as well as very broad data- sharing measures. What will next week bring?"
David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat justice spokesman, condemned the Government for "burying more building blocks of its surveillance state in a bill to reform the coroner service."
Nick Herbert, the shadow Justice Secretary, added: "This government has shown a cavalier attitude to the security of personal data. There must be proper safeguards for any measures which will enable ministers, with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, to allow sensitive information to be exchanged without barriers when it may have been collected for an unrelated purpose."
Speaking as she prepared to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the National Council for Civil Liberties this year, Ms Chakrabarti vowed to resist a series of proposals she said would seriously damage personal privacy in Britain. But she predicted that the "worm was turning" with more people concerned about the importance of civil liberties.
Ms Chakrabarti warned about the "intrusion on privacy" created by the growth of the national DNA database, and attacked plans for national ID cards, due to be rolled out to the first British citizens this year, arguing that the developments had the potential to create a huge all-purpose database holding personal details of ever aspect of people's lives.
She said: "If the tide is not turned on communications data, data-sharing, ID cards and the DNA database, if that tide does not turn and if worse still it accelerates we are looking at a very different Britain in a very short time. We are looking at a Britain where there is no such thing as personal privacy at all."
She warned: "There is a creeping contempt for individual liberty and dignity. There is no sense of history."
Yesterday Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, insisted ministers would have to pass a series of hurdles before data-sharing was authorised, including public consultation, a report by the independent Information Commissioner, and the approval of an order in Parliament.
He said: "I think all members of the public, as I am, are in two places on this. Data relating to you and your family should be protected and that is an absolute imperative. But you don't want personally to give the same information again and again if it can be safely held and safely transferred."
Erosion of civil liberties: A call to arms
Senior figures in British public life are launching a "call to arms" to highlight the erosion of historic civil liberties.
These campaigners, who include the former director of public prosecutions Sir Ken MacDonald, the former attorney general Lord Goldsmith, as well as the musician Brian Eno and the author Philip Pullman, are backing a series of events to coincide with a major civil rights convention in London next month, at which they will speak. Organisers expect 1,000 people to attend the Convention on Modern Liberty, at which other speakers will include Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, Dominic Grieve, the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, the campaigning Tory MP, and Lord Bingham, the former law lord.
Organisers of the event, at the Institute of Education, including the TUC and the rights group Liberty, said Britain could become "a new kind of police state". And yesterday, the journalist Henry Porter, one of the organisers, said: "This is a call to arms," and he warned of "the constant moves to a database state and threats to an individual". He added: "This is thoroughly dangerous." Baroness Helena Kennedy, the human rights lawyer, said: "We are seeing ways in which our system of law and the protections we have as citizens are slowly but surely being undermined. Liberty is being eroded for all of us."