Posted Under: Civil Liberties,Democracy
Nick Clegg is right about one thing: After 13 years of New Labour authoritarianism laws to restore our liberties really ought to be on the agenda. Yet, despite the scrapping of ID, I do not believe that the Cleggeron government are capable of rising to such a challenge.
So I thought we the I would offer him a little help on what an agenda for liberty should look like:
1) It’s an old horse but I will flog it again: Amend the god damn smoking ban!
I opposed the smoking ban before I was a smoker, and before it came into force. I knew then that it wasn’t primarily about protecting non-smokers, but about making so uncomfortable to pursue a particular lifestyle habit that people stopped. This was made obvious when Patricia Hewitt – then health secretary – opened the parliamentary debate by boasting of how many people would be “helped” to quit.
The point is this: public houses are not public services. A given pub is not supposed to exist for everybody. It is a place of entertainment which people can choose to attend, or to shun. Preventing groups of people from congregating under their own terms, because somebody else might not like it, is an attack on civil society.
Before the smoking ban pubs WERE failing to provide choice for those sensitive to passive smoke. As the nations of continental Europe have shown, there are many alternative interventions that can offer choice to smokers and non-smokers.
2) Scrap the Vetting and Barring Scheme.
The vetting and barring scheme exists to “prevent unsuitable people from working with children and vulnerable adults”. Government spokespeople were at pains to present the new body as simply a means of bureacratic streamlining. In fact the emergence of the VBS represented a massive power transfer away from civil society. Traditionally, an employer might ask the criminal records bureau to check over somebody who was working with kids, or who was going to be. The role of the CRB was to provide information, based on which the employer would make a decision. Today that decision up to bureaucrats at the VBS – who can ban people for decades from working with young people regardless of whether they have been convicted of a criminal offence.
Indeed the Vetting and Barring Scheme’s own guidance makes clear that it can ruin people’s lives careers on the flimsiest of pretexts. Conduct which does not break any law or regulation can justify a long term ban. Equally such conduct does not need to be proven. What is at stake here is the ancient principle of residual freedom – the right to do what has not been explicitly forbidden. VBS bureaucrats can, in theory, decide, after the event, that any kind of conduct or behaviour is “relevant conduct” if it indicates a risk of future harm, and as such might justify an effective lifetime ban. Teachers and youth workers simply do not know what they can do and what they cannot do.
3) Support and strengthen trade unions. Smash the Tory anti-union laws that labour kept in place.
I support trade unions as a socialist and an egalitarian. Yet even a liberal, or a democrat, who is capable of joined up thinking should support them too. The point is that a man or a woman can have all the bog standard democratic rights that come to mind, yet many of their waking hours will be spent under the petty tyranny of their boss or line manager. If we are serious about dispersing power, and giving people a bit of control over their own existence, then the nature of the workplace – especially for those at the bottom of the social scale – must be addressed. And what better way to address it than through voluntary, democratic, civil society organisations through which those who work can exercise a bit of power – also known as unions.