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5 November 2007

We are sleepwalking as our freedoms are eroded

We have become a nation of sleepwalkers and our rulers are the soundest sleepers of all.

The latest and greatest danger to the freedoms for which the English fought - from Magna Carta in 1215, through the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the libertarian reforms of the 1960s that permitted people their sexual privacy - is the DNA database that, every hour, adds to a police computer file around 150 genetic fingerprints of the guilty, the suspected and mostly the innocent.

No other country in the world has such a large DNA database on its people and among the 4.5million already recorded are 150,000 under-16s.

The question is, do we care? During ten years of Labour government our liberties have been stamped on repeatedly, and yet there is little public outcry.

Campaigners who fight a despairing battle to interest British citizens in how their freedom and privacy are being curtailed estimate that in one decade New Labour has chipped away at individual liberty with the creation of around 3,000 new offences and 20 new acts of devastating power and potential that are frequently slipped through Parliament on the sly.

Yet you can hear the snores of most of us during the impassioned arguments of those lone voices seeking to protect the essential values of our society.

We have voted into power three times a government that so despises civil liberties that we have become probably the least free country in the West.

Under the well-meaning meddlers of New Labour, we have more CCTV cameras per capita than any Western nation and are the most heavily spied-on society in Europe.

Remember: They fought for our freedom

Just a month ago, the Government slyly brought into operation the seemingly innocuous part three of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which may allow up to 800 state bodies and agencies of central, local and quango-controlled organisations access to our telephone records without having to ask the permission of a judge. The Stasi in East Germany would have salivated at such a prospect.

Our ministers are not bad people. Their intentions are honourable. They wish to make us safer. But their instincts are those of the authoritarian Left. They have no sense of our history and are also incompetent.

In their complete inability to grasp the law of unintended consequences, and in their technological and administrative ignorance and hopelessness, we have ended up with the worst of all possible worlds.

New Labour, in its idiotic submission to the human rights industry and political correctness, has hamstrung the police and the security services and made the judiciary over-mighty.

Terrified by the consequent rise in crime and the menace of murderous Islamist terrorism, they proceeded to overreact by treating every man, woman and child in this country as a potential danger to society.

Is there any sane person who, if forced to think about it, would believe it right that children accused of playground misbehaviour should have their DNA samples placed permanently on a police computer along with rapists and murderers?

To those of you who indignantly reply that you are sane and see no problem with recording the entire population on a database; and, what's more, you're in favour of ID cards, since the innocent have nothing to fear; and that in these days of globalised threats we must mobilise technology to protect ourselves, I say two things.

First, that you are almost certainly and sadly a product of the debased educational system that taught you nothing about this country's magnificent history and the traditional liberties for which your forefathers fought.

And second, that even if you were right in principle, you would be wrong in practice.

This government has a long and discreditable history of botching major computer projects. Not only do they not work properly, they are susceptible to hackers and frauds and the national DNA database is proving no exception.

Already, the Home Office has admitted that almost 6,000 of the 4.5million names on the database are false, misspelled or incorrect. Computer experts always point out that the bigger the database, the less reliable the system and the more vulnerable it is to abuse.

A few months ago, a House of Lords select committee issued a stern warning about a government project called Contact-Point - another folly that so far has cost £225million and will register public and private information about all children under 18.

The committee said the "enormous size of the database and the huge number of probable users" would inevitably "increase the risks of accidental or inadvertent breaches of security, and of deliberate misuse of the data (e.g. disclosure of an address with malign intent) which would be likely to bring the whole scheme into disrepute".

The Government's own lack of faith in the security of the system was evident in its unbelievably offensive decision to allow children of some politicians and celebrities to stay off the register because, we were told, "they are at increased risk of harm". In other words, they don't even believe in the scheme themselves.

Yet in July the Government rushed the relevant legislation through Parliament.

And now we are told they are still hell-bent on introducing an equally dodgy ID card system, which may cost £20billion.

When in the 1960s I fled here from authoritarian Ireland, I saw England as a bastion of free speech and individualism.

I had learned from history, literature, the theatre and the cinema that "an Englishman's home is his castle", and that he would lead his life by the tenets of common decency and brook no impertinent interference from the State in the way he conducted his life.

I hero-worshipped those who had defeated fascism and rejected communism because they were inherently suspicious of ideology and fanaticism.

What perhaps I hadn't spotted was the British Achilles heel. In wartime and at times of deprivation, the "mustn't grumble" mentality is to be prized, but in peacetime and prosperity, it can be corrupted into passive acceptance of whatever authority imposes.

These days, the man or woman in the British street seems to care little about the erosion of those freedoms for which their ancestors fought.

There are occasional complaints about speed cameras, but on the whole most seem to accept that we live in a surveillance society and there's nothing to be done about it.

The nation that produced George Orwell, the genius who almost 60 years ago warned in his novel 1984 of a totalitarian society that ruled through surveillance, thinks Big Brother is just another reality TV show.

It is almost, but not quite, too late to stop the Government wasting billions more of our money on enriching the IT industry and offering a playground to computer-literate frauds and terrorists. Oh yes, and stripping us further of our privacy and our dignity.

On Remembrance Sunday, as he stands by the Cenotaph in his black overcoat with the poppy on its lapel, is there any hope that our well-intentioned Prime Minister - who, unlike most of his colleagues, is well-read and proudly British - will consider for a moment whether those he is honouring would agree with what is being done to our freedom?

He could do worse than dwell on a plea from Oliver Cromwell, one of his heroes: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

Or will he and his government continue to sleepwalk?

Ruth Dudley Edwards


© Ruth Dudley Edwards