Charles Clarke: 'Ordinary people have the right to be protected'

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The Independent Online

This is an edited version of a 14-page rebuttal by the Home Secretary of a piece by 'Independent' writer Simon Carr on 15 April

Simon Carr made a series of incorrect, tendentious and over-simplified assertions last week about this Government's record on civil liberties.

Such assertions are particularly insulting to those of us who serve in a government whose record since 1997 has been to extend human rights in many different ways, and which has worked across the world to promote democracy and development. Those, like Carr, who suggest that Labour is steadily turning British democracy into a dictatorial power are guilty of a particularly pernicious untruth.

I have checked carefully and of the 34 points Carr raised, 10 are more or less correct, 12 are plain wrong or severely misleading and another 12 are right in parts or wrong in parts. My detailed reply to each point can be found on the Home Office website. Let me give some examples.

Carr asserts, for instance, that, "damaging GM crops is defined as a terrorist act". Where did he get this idea from? Nowhere in terrorism legislation is damaging GM crop fields defined as a terrorist act. Damaging crops is a criminal act and would be treated as such by the police.

Or what about this statement: "People wearing satirical T-shirts in a 'designated area' may be arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The City of London is a permanently 'designated area'." Wrong again, Mr Carr. There is no such provision in any Prevention of Terrorism Act. Nor is there any law against bad taste in T-shirts provided they do not, for example, incite murder.

I particularly like this one: "The National Identity Register may be used to record every sort of personal information - such as withdrawing more than £200 from the bank, getting prescription drugs, voting, applying for a mortgage, taking out an insurance policy, applying for a fishing licence". Wholly untrue, I am glad to report.

The National Identity Scheme is being introduced to safeguard people's identities, not to track their lifestyles or activities. The information that can be held on the register covers only basic personal information roughly the same as that needed for a passport. It will not include details of withdrawals of cash, medical records or whether someone has obtained a fishing licence.

In some instances, however, Simon Carr is broadly right. For example, as he says, "People can protest in Parliament Square only with the written permission of the police. Where 'reasonably practical', six days' notice must be given."In some cases 24 hours notice is sufficient.

He also doesn't bother to say that since the legislation came into effect last August, 157 demonstrations have taken place in Parliament Square, on issues ranging from human rights in Burma to a protest about the right to protest itself. Organisers of demonstrations must give prior notice to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who is then obliged to authorise the demonstration although he may attach conditions where it is necessary. This is more or less the same as the situation that prevailed in the 1970s when I organised demonstrations in Parliament Square. Maybe Simon Carr attended some of them...

Carr is also right that, "three million DNA samples are held on file (rising to four million in two years)". And thank goodness for that. In 2004-05 the detection rate rose from 26 per cent to 40 per cent in cases where DNA was successfully recovered from a crime scene. The DNA database now holds the majority of the known active-offender population and is a powerful tool.

Then there are points where Carr seems wilfully to mislead. "The existence of an interception warrant (to monitor internet activity) is a state secret, and the penalty for revealing its existence to the person concerned is five years imprisonment," he writes.

Well, this is more or less correct and for obvious reasons. Interception of communications is an essential tool in investigating serious crime, terrorism, espionage and other threats to our national security. Disclosure of the fact of an interception warrant to anyone being intercepted would fundamentally undermine its effectiveness. Would Simon Carr prefer to have the information handed over to the people traffickers, drug dealers, terrorists or spies? Interception warrants are overseen by the independent Interception of Communications Commissioner.

Mr Carr's most ridiculous statement is: "The presumption of innocence is no longer a fixed legal principle." This is nonsense. In this country, you are innocent of an offence until proven guilty.

Don't let us confuse the presumption of innocence with the urgent need to prevent acts ranging from antisocial behaviour to terrorism. Ordinary people also have the right to be protected.

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