Oxford tramples on privacy with CCTV in taxis

January 1, 2012

Given that privacy is one of my professional subjects, it is interesting that my home city, Oxford, should be blazing a trail in trampling on privacy rights, with a compulsory scheme requiring taxis to make video and sound recordings of their passengers – the BBC story is here.

One of the expressed reasons for this is the protection of taxi drivers themselves, despite the fact that most of the taxi drivers are opposed to the scheme – not least, one supposes, because the cost of installing the equipment amounts to yet another tax on living imposed on businesses by pen-pushers who are themselves immune from commercial pressures. There are exceptions, of course, but English local authorities are generally staffed with low-grade troglodytes whose ability to comprehend anything falls far short of complex concepts like privacy, and who have gathered power in recent years far outstripping their abilities or intellectual capacities. Again, there are exceptions, even in Oxford, but the councillors who notionally lead such authorities tend to be very small people with delusions of their own importance.

Oxford is a breeding-ground for political and bureaucratic meddling as well as the home of the Clarendon Building, the Bodleian, the Emperors and the Sheldonian (Photo by Chris Dale)

The word “Regulation” in the title of Labour’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 somehow implies greater control over those who exercise powers of investigation. In fact, the act authorised even little drones from local authorities to make use of covert surveillance, and many of them set to with a will for what were often, according to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, “petty and vindictive” cases. Even Labour became concerned at the extent to which the paper-shufflers abused their powers, and new rules imposed some restrictions and authorisation procedures.

The compulsory use of CCTV in taxis represents a slightly different strand – Big Brother’s Little Helper may now have to ask his line manager before going through your dustbins, but remains free to impose his care and concern for your welfare, whether you like it or not. This is part of the stifling interference in every aspect of life which was so characteristic of the Labour years and which the coalition government has failed to cut back despite its promises – a drawback, perhaps, of having to appease the Liberal Democrats, whose solicitous care about us over-rides our expectations from both parts of their name – there is little which is either liberal or democratic about them, but I guess that “Redistributive, Anti-Business, Pro-European Control-Freaks” would not make a good campaigning label. Read the rest of this entry »

UK Government abandons Henry VIII powers to by-pass Parliament

March 2, 2011

The UK government is abandoning its attempt to give itself new powers to act without parliamentary scrutiny. That is interesting in itself, but also encourages observations on the rise of informed blogging on legal matters in opinion-forming.

My January article Judges defend our long-term liberties from short term politicians included a section on the so-called Henry VIII powers by which the government can bypass Parliament, pointing back to the Statute of Proclamations of 1539 which is the source of the pejorative nickname given to the proposed powers. Given New Labour’s contempt for Parliament, it was unsurprising that they should have had a go at introducing such powers. It was disappointing to find that the coalition government was holding out for them in the Public Bodies Bill.

An article by barrister Adam Wagner called Henry VIII powers to be dropped on the UK Human Rights Blog reports that the government has given way on this. Two points arise, in addition to the obviously welcome news that we are not going back to 16th century despotism even as we condemn other nations for their lack of democracy. Read the rest of this entry »

A week of law, justice and public opinion

November 16, 2010

Last week saw the mobilisation of a large body of opinion via Twitter in support of the airport “joker” Paul Chambers. If we cannot exactly claim success, we have at least seen how quickly a mass protest can pick up. By contrast, the same week saw a violent student protest which was entirely counter-productive. If the law was an ass in one court, it was guardian of our rights in two others where the courts acted as counter-balance to politicians.

Legal commentator CharonQC (http://charonqc.wordpress.com and http://twitter.com/Charonqc hides a deep concern for freedom and the law behind a façade of banter and quizzical amusement. He was quick to spot the irony of the conjunction between the trial and conviction of airport “terror” tweeter Paul Chambers and the launch last week of Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary celebrations. Those who do not know about Chambers’ twitter “joke” (it was not that funny, really, but equally was patently not serious) can catch the details of the original conviction here and of the appeal here; those who do not know about Magna Carta include the humourless little man in a regional CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) office who authorised Chambers’ prosecution. Quite what to make of the judge, I do not know, and had better not say.

Neither the airport staff nor the police took Chambers’ tweet very seriously. I do not know what it takes to become a prosecutor in a regional office of the CPS – I have always assumed that it is what you do if you aren’t good enough to get a place in a barristers’ chambers or a firm of solicitors. Meanwhile, Twitter is full of people repeating the original tweet with the hashtag #iamspartacus; lawyers are announcing their shame at their profession; greatest living Englishman Stephen Fry has effected a remarkable comeback from his recent vilification; and the little drone at the CPS continues to assert that the prosecution was justified. Read the rest of this entry »

European Commission takes action against UK for data protection failings

November 4, 2009

An article in Document Management News reports on the legal action being taken by the European Commission against the UK for gaps in the legislation required to comply with EU data protection laws. The investigation leading to the action was initiated because of failure to control a specific activity – BT’s trial of PHORM, which tracks web user habits and sends targeted advertising based on what the user is apparently interested in.

The UK usually complies slavishly with EU regulations, with civil servants accused of “gold-plating” the Commission’s requirements, adding refinements and extra burdens mainly as cynical job-creation exercises to keep them and their cohorts (and their cohorts’ descendants) in work. Take the dull little men at DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, historically a kind of dustbin for those not employable in any other government department) and give them a short EU regulation on, say, horse exports or slaughterhouses and they will (after much generously-rewarded labour), produce a law ten times as long and detailed, guaranteed to increase costs, close down businesses and put people out of work. Their own salaries and pensions, of course, are safe (if you search for “gold-plated” in Google, the results are divided between articles about British civil servants amplifying EU directives and articles about the pensions of those same civil servants). Read the rest of this entry »

British liberties viewed from the Land of the Free

October 25, 2009

The subject of liberty came at me in three different ways on a single Sunday morning in Washington a few days ago. The top article in the Washington Post was headed “In today’s viral world, who keeps a civil tongue” and concerns what it referred to as “the rules of civil discourse”, specifically in relation to the freedom to say what you please. I went to the Arlington National Cemetery, and gazed on the thousands who lie buried there who fought for our freedom. My way back was blocked by a march demanding gay equality, and specifically the freedom of people of the same sex to marry. Read the rest of this entry »

Technology and constitutional protection at the Supreme Court

October 6, 2009

Readers will know that the defence of our democratic rights vies for my attention with efficient case management and the use of technology in litigation. The new Supreme Court combines both of these interests.

There is a story of a former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, who wished to speak to an MP called Neil whom he had espied in the public corridors of the House of Lords, and ran after him calling his name. Hailsham was, so the story goes, in full fig of robes and garters then worn by the Lord Chancellor. What would you do, as a tourist in that august and severe building, if an authoritative-looking man so dressed ran by shouting “Neil” in a commanding voice? They did as they were told.

Hailsham left office in 1974, so the story is not that old. Much has changed since then in the House of Lords – the hereditary peers have nearly all been expelled; the Lord Chancellor (a member of the government) surrendered the right to sit as a judge;  he is now not a Lord at all but a dull little man in a suit from the House of Commons, following a botched attempt to abolish the post in 2003; and now the separation of executive and judicial powers is complete with the removal of the national court of last resort to a Supreme Court on the other side of Parliament Square. Read the rest of this entry »


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