An open letter to my MP: Stop Government abuse of personal information (with triumphant update 8 March 09)

An open letter to my MP, Sadiq Khan, MP [but now see update appended below]:

Dear Sadiq,

Here is an appeal with which you, as a former civil rights lawyer of great distinction, will surely sympathise.  As a minister in the government, you won’t be able to speak or vote openly to kill off the provision in a Bill now going through parliament which represents yet another assault on our privacy and fundamental freedoms.  But, being a member of the government, you may well have more ability than any back-bencher to talk privately behind the scenes to your colleagues and to press them quietly to delete the clause in question, and not to try to fudge it with ambiguous and still unsatisfactory re-wording as the responsible — or irresponsible — minister, Jack Straw, seems to be planning to do (surprise, surprise).

As you know better than most, Government already collects far too much personal information about us all and stores it in scores of databases.  Hundreds of central government departments and agencies and even local authorities have access to some of it, and sometimes abuse that access for purposes differing from those for which it was originally collected.  Now your fellow-ministers have slipped an obnoxious clause into a Bill about coroners — truly! — which, if parliament indolently approves it, will make abuse of all that information even more widespread and more harmful.  Phil Booth, a leading light in the admirable campaign against ID cards, sums it up concisely in the Modern Liberty section of the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog:

This morning at the Convention on Modern Liberty, I launched NO2ID’s request that everyone at the convention – and around the UK – tells their MP *right now* that they refuse their consent to having their information shared under any “information sharing order”, a power currently being slipped onto the statute books in clause 152 of the coroners and justice bill.

Please tell yours too. It’s important, and urgent – and something that only YOU can do. If you never have before, now’s the time to write to your MP – in a letter, or via

Jack Straw has been making noises that could signal a U-turn, but the only acceptable action is to remove clause 152 entirely from the bill. It is not linked to any other clause, despite being sandwiched between other powers and so-called safeguards offered to the information commissioner. It cannot be improved, and Straw can’t be allowed to merely “dilute” it. Clause 152 just has to go.

It’s imperative that in coming days every MP hears from his or her constituents. Please tell them you refuse consent to having your information, taken for one purpose, arbitrarily used for any other purpose. And ask them to vote clause 152 off the bill.

• Phil Booth is the national coordinator of NO2ID. See more on the convention and civil liberties at liberty central.

I think that privately you know he’s right.  So please note that as a life-long Labour Party supporter I formally refuse my consent to having information about me which has been taken for one purpose arbitrarily or otherwise used for any other purpose.  Please make sure that the infamous clause 152 is removed completely from the Bill.   

I am putting a copy of this message on my blog, which I know (with appreciation) that you sometimes read.  I hope that by putting it there I might encourage lots of others, from Tooting (your constituency) and elsewhere, to write as soon as possible to their MPs of whatever party to state formally that they too refuse their consent to what this clause proposes, even if it is cosmetically amended to fob off the storm of protest that it has aroused.  If the clause is allowed to survive, whether or not amended with fudge, we shall all be looking closely at the division lists to see which MPs shrugged their shoulders and voted for it.  You won’t be able to vote against it:  but perhaps you could arrange an important engagement (such as coming to dinner with my wife and myself) at the time when the vote is taken?

With my best wishes


PS: If you should decide to reply to this message, I of course promise to add your reply to my blog, with any further comments of my own as necessary.

Update (Sunday, 8 March 2009): According to this report in today’s Observer, Jack Straw appears to have climbed down:

Straw bows to pressure over data sharing

Jack Straw last night scrapped controversial government proposals that could have allowed patients’ medical and DNA records to be shared with police, foreign governments and other bodies.

In a victory for civil liberties campaigners, the justice secretary bowed to public pressure over the data-sharing provisions in the forthcoming coroners’ bill, which would have allowed public bodies to exchange data without the knowledge or consent of individuals involved. Doctors and the Bar Council had joined privacy campaigners in warning of the potential risks to public trust.

The move will be seen as an olive branch to Labour MPs concerned about what they see as the erosion of civil liberties, and will raise eyebrows at Westminster where Straw is viewed as a potential future leadership contender.

Your ministerial position will forbid you you admit it, but I would like to think that I see your hand in this welcome about-turn, Sadiq.  Thanks!  Now have a go at those wretched monstrosities Control Orders, and IPPs, and the huge new prisons planned, and mandatory life sentences for murder, and all those surveillance cameras, and ID cards with their supporting giant database, and….

4 Responses

  1. Brian  I find your faith in the Labour party’s desire to defend civil liberties quite touching, but it flies in the face of the experience of the last ten years.  You should have been at the Convention yesterday to hear Helena Kennedy, though in general it wasn’t a day that would have left a Labour party supporter with much to feel cheerful about.  There was an excellent speech from Chris Huhne however, so there is a party you can vote for if you are really concerned about these issues. Best regards, John

    Brian writes: I have no faith whatever in New Labour’s record on or attachment to civil liberties, and nothing in my open letter to my MP (who was, as I mentioned in my message to him, formerly a prominent civil rights lawyer) suggests otherwise. Actually my MP has been repeatedly, and boringly, made aware of my disgust at the Blair and Brown governments’ dismal records on civil liberties. I did listen to and watch many of the speeches yesterday at the Modern Liberties Convention (live, by streaming video on my computer monitor) including Helena Kennedy’s, and have read the transcripts of several others. Lord Bingham was, as always, outstanding. I agreed wholeheartedly with virtually everything that was said. Incidentally, I recall that Baroness Kennedy, whom you single out for special praise, is a Labour peer. I am not, I fear, an admirer of Chris Huhne nor, in general, of his party. If I were to vote LibDem in my constituency its effect would be to improve the chances of the Tory winning the seat from Labour, which would be a frying-pan/fire event so far as I’m concerned.

  2. Tony Hatfield says:

    Blind faith in Sadiq Khan M.P may be misplaced.
    Have a look at his voting record here
    Not exactly Helena Kennedy?

    Brian writes: Not a fair comparison, Tony! Sadiq is a minister and was previously a government whip. He has no choice about how he votes, unless he resigns from the government and gives up all hope of ministerial or shadow ministerial office. Anyway, why do you call my ‘faith’ in him ‘blind’? I wouldn’t use either word. He’s a very good MP with the right liberal instincts. And he has reasonable expectations of a quite different career path from that of Baroness Kennedy.

  3. Tony Hatfield says:


    I’m sure you’re right, in which case I suspect your letter may remain in his in-tray-or what ever ministers use- for some time. 
    As you may know, I resigned for the Labour Party over the Iraq war. And that was after tramping the streets for, perhaps, far too many years. I’m not voting for this shower next time even if you give me a fragrant peg to use.

    Brian writes: I don’t mind what my MP does with my letter so long as he reads it (which I’m sure he will have done) and hoists in the strong feelings on the issue of at least one of his constituents, who habitually gives him a hard time. And if it influences however marginally the way he discusses the matter with other ministers, it won’t have been a total waste of time. As for my voting intentions, I am probably no less disillusioned with the Labour Party than yourself, over Iraq first and foremost but also over innumerable other failures, great and small, but I shall continue to observe my golden rule when it comes to voting: vote in the way that seems likely to do least harm. And since in the particular circumstances of my constituency a vote for anyone other than the Labour candidate can only promote the chances of the Tory candidate winning the seat from Labour, I shall once again vote Labour (unless by then the leader of the party is Jack Straw or David Blunkett or Hazel Blears, in which terrible event I suppose I shall either not vote, or vote LibDem). But either way with a heavy heart!

  4. Tim Weakley says:

    Dear Brian,
    One of the things that worries me is how sincere and committed the members of the Opposition parties are, who have recently denounced the current erosion of civil liberties. What line would they take when in power? I can very clearly imagine how a post-election government, whatever its political colour, would cringe at the very thought of being pilloried by the gutter press as soft on crime and soft on terrorism; how it would flinch at being told by senior civil servants that its intention to abandon the very idea of identity cards was ‘a very brave decision, Minister’; and how it would certainly be subjected to alarming briefings by the various security and intelligence services on the subject of terrorist plots and plans, to foil which would allegedly require the public to give up more liberties for its own good.  What do you think?

    Brian writes: Tim, it’s a good question but my crystal ball is no more reliable than anyone else’s. David Davis seems strikingly sound on civil liberties issues (despite being hard-line right-wing on other social issues, such as capital punishment) so his removal from the shadow home secretary slot, and the way it was made very clear when he resigned to fight that by-election that he wouldn’t be re-appointed to it afterwards, look very ominous to me. (I assume that he made that gesture of resigning and getting re-elected when he knew that he was about to be demoted from the shadow home secretary post by Cameron as being too libertarian for the blue-haired ladies in the shires or for the foaming tabloid editors.) Dominic Grieve strikes me as sound — more so than many New Labour front bench figures past and present — but I don’t know how much weight he would carry in a Tory cabinet. He was formerly shadow home secretary (succeeding Davis) but is now shadow justice secretary, the home secretary post having gone to Chris Grayling, seemingly more authoritarian than Davis or Grieve, although I don’t know of much evidence. The Tory pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act, which sounds insane, is deeply disturbing, as is their proposal to replace it with a new law focusing on duties as well as (i.e. instead of) rights, a deeply retrograde move if they go through with it: sufficient reason in itself for not even thinking about voting Tory (there are of course plenty of others). Tory instincts will surely be to put security before liberty, as you say, but then NuLabour’s instincts and actions have been the same. Frying-pan into fire, I fear.