Simon Carr: So who's really talking drivel, Mr Clarke?

Whatever the merits, it is a new legal principle quite opposite to the presumption of innocence
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The Independent Online

"Oh, Cuddles!" I thought, "That's not very nice!" The Home Secretary is feeling insulted and aggrieved by the pernicious untruth of my article the other week.

Out of 34 points, Charles Clarke said that 10 were correct, 12 partly right and partly wrong, and another 12 wholly wrong. He's a very hard marker, the Home Secretary, we need him back in the Department of Education.

It's true that some of the examples pushed the possibilities a bit, and an unsympathetic reader could add unintended emphasis to obscure the point I was making. And I had made one out-and-out error. To get that out of the way: Refusing to allow an inspector into your nursery school isn't a criminal act with a two-year prison sentence. It's a criminal act with a maximum fine of £2,500. Sending people to prison for two years for refusing entry to a government inspector - we're well away from that yet.

Let's deal with those rebuttals:

1) Mr Clarke says: "Nowhere in the legislation is damaging GM crops defined as a terrorist act." Yes, but. It's also true that the legislation defines a terrorist act as one that damages property for political purposes. Campaigners, protesters and crop-damagers have not yet been charged with terrorism. Maybe they never will. But it's early days. And the climate is changing as fast as the weather.

2) People wearing satirical T-shirts in a "designated area" may be arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. "Wrong again," he says, "there is no such provision in any Prevention of Terrorism Act." That's true to the extent that the Home Office hasn't specified dress codes for all occasions in their terror legislation. Nonetheless, the police have been given the power to arrest people (not least at Labour conferences) for wearing the wrong T-shirt.

3) I'd said 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 ..." etc. "Drivel!" Mr Clarke replies (I precis.) The legislation doesn't provide for this at the moment, but the Act could be amended at the flick of a bureaucratic pen if the Reg and Leg Bill passes unamended. There is already evidence of function creep with suggestions that health details be recorded (on a voluntary basis, of course, at first).

4) "Mr Carr's most ridiculous statement is: 'The presumption of innocence is no longer a fixed legal principle'." Oi! Rude! What's ridiculous about that? The minister can't celebrate on the one hand Control Orders that can be applied to people "to stop them doing something wrong", and then to say the presumption of innocence is a fixed legal principle.

And what about Dear Leader the other day? He wants to seize the assets of "suspected drug dealers". Whatever the merits of such a suggestion (and many think it a terrific idea) it is a new legal principle quite opposite to the presumption of innocence.

5) There were other points in his (14-page) letter. Anyone's internet history can be called up by public servants down to council level, I'd said. "Completely wrong", he said. What does the Act say? Section 28 of RIPA says: "the persons designated for the purposes of this section shall each have power to grant authorisations for the carrying out of directed surveillance", and then in Part I of Schedule I at the end of the Act (Relevant authorities for purposes of s 28), the listed authorities include the police, the armed forces, nine government departments (particularly the Inland Revenue), the Assembly for Wales and "any local authority".

6) "Profiles for 37 per cent of all black men are held by the police". Mr C says that is entirely speculative and based on two non-comparable data sets. Very well; I've often thought there was something a bit off on that one. But as they don't actually deny it, I'll declare it a draw. Any information gratefully received.

7) "It is an offence to recommend the violent overthrow of national dictators such as Saddam Hussein." That was described as "wholly misleading". Let me rephrase it: It is an offence to write an article in the British press encouraging the Burmese resistance (terrorists, freedom fighters, call them what you will) to blow up train tracks in order to overthrow their dictator. That is now a criminal offence in Britain.

8) "Officials can demand access to bank accounts, without a warrant for the purpose of detecting benefit fraud. This is "untrue". But then he goes on to say that is exactly what is done, and that it is right to do it. The law, he says, was passed in 1992. And it may very well have been. The state has given itself unprecedented powers to look into people's private affairs.

It's all for the best possible motives (discuss among yourselves), and this government are by no means unique in passing this sort of legislation. The tendency has been going on for years. But Labour have hopped themselves up on tales of international terror, the decay of manners, failing schools, and the inability of the police to arrest people even though they've got their names, addresses and mobile phone numbers ... and they've gone through an orgy of law making. The cumulative effect of it all must surely be very much greater than anything they intended in 1997.

But that which Michael Howard could only dream of, is here and with us now.