Category Archives: secret

We must separate church and state

In England, our constitution is blighted by an ancient theocratic hangover. Time to sweep it away and bring England into the 21st century!

We’re not Iran, but our constitution does have a theocratic structure. I think this holds us back, impedes us, like an old invisible injury. Like a subtle poison in the blood, it quietly harms us. Most people seem unaware of it. Even Hazel Blears, who recently said that we are a secular democracy.

Yesterday a seminar was held at the UCL Constitution Unit to mark the launch of a book on the issue by Bob Morris. Church and State in 21st Century Britain is a meticulous analysis of the situation. No such study can be entirely neutral, but Morris seems to have no religious agenda; his aim is to point out that establishment is at odds with the principle of religious equality, making it “anomalous to the point of unsustainability”. He is wary of the term “disestablishment” but he does advocate the big reform – ending the monarch’s need to be Anglican.

In his presentation yesterday he said that reform would ideally come from the church itself. Otherwise it is likely to have reform thrust upon it, in a way it cannot control. So it is in its interest to lead the process. He acknowledged that here is little sign of this willingness as yet, but seemed hopeful that a fresh look at the issue might change that.

In the discussion that followed three Anglican representatives spoke. Each offered a slightly different flavour of the old conservative line: that it would be perilous to mess with our ancient constitution, that it might unleash an aggressive secularism. None admitted that there was a problem here that had to be faced.

These speakers confirmed my view that the Church of England looks very nice and liberal from a slight distance but at heart its philosophy is high Tory: tradition is sacred, those who want to tamper with it are dangerously shallow. I know of almost no Anglican who has said anything different, who admits Morris’ basic point that reform is necessary, so that we can have a constitution we can really affirm, and participate in, rather than an alienating relic from the imperial past. One exception is the Oxford theologian George Pattison, who has recently called for a more honest debate within the church (in an article in The Church Times). It is worth noting that Rowan Williams has failed to start the debate; he has allowed the reactionary position to become stronger – a piece of major political cowardice.

Might reform come from elsewhere? Of course the secularist lobbies advocate it, but in a sense this is unhelpful: it makes it seem an atheist cause, and so strenghtens the hand of the Anglicans, who scarify with the prospect of a Dawkinsish tyranny. Ideally it would come from a political movement that was also Christian, led by a new Cromwell figure.

Why is disestablishment not a mainstream liberal cause? It baffles me frankly. Why is it hardly ever mentioned by the columnists of this paper, except as a quick aside? To my mind it is the very essence of liberalism, that church and state should be separate. This is the English revolution that we have never quite had. It is the way to a new sort of political participation, a new sense that we are citizens of a modern state. Other aspects of constitutional change, and other liberal causes such as CCTV, DNA database and ID Cards are pathetically small-fry compared to this.

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Terror law used to stop thousands ‘just to balance racial statistics’

Thousands of people are being stopped and searched by the police under counter-terrorism powers simply to provide a racial balance in official statistics, the government’s official anti-terror law watchdog has revealed.

Lord Carlile said in his annual report that he has got “ample anecdotal evidence”, adding that it was “totally wrong” and an invasion of civil liberties to stop and search people simply to racially balance the statistics.

“I can well understand the concerns of the police that they should be free from allegations of prejudice,” he said. “But it is not a good use of precious resources if they waste them on self-evidently unmerited searches.”

The official reviewer of counter-terrorist legislation said there was little or no evidence that the use of section 44 stop-and-search powers by the police can prevent an act of terrorism.

“Whilst arrests for other crime have followed searches under the section, none of the many thousands of searches has ever resulted in a conviction for a terrorism offence. Its utility has been questioned publicly and privately by senior Metropolitan police staff with wide experience of terrorism policing,” said Carlile.

He added that such searches were stopping between 8,000-10,000 people a month.

Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the “section 44 stops” allow the police to search anyone in a designated area without suspicion that an offence has occurred. But Carlile is critical of the use of the powers used by the Met police, saying he felt “a sense of frustration” that the force did not limit its section 44 authorisations to some boroughs or parts of boroughs but used them across its entire area.

“I cannot see a justification for the whole of the Greater London area being covered permanently. The intention of the section was not to place London under permanent special search powers.”

None of the many thousands of searches had ever led to a conviction for a terrorist offence, he said. He noted, too, that the damage done to community relations was “undoubtedly considerable”.

Examples of poor, or unnecessary use, of section 44 abounded. “I have evidence of cases where the person stopped is so obviously far from any known terrorism profile that, realistically, there is not the slightest possibility of him/her being a terrorist, and no other feature to justify the stop.”

The Met has announced a review of how it uses section 44 powers. And the home secretary, Alan Johnson, is to issue fresh guidance to the police, warning that counter-terrorism must not be used to stop people taking photographs of on-duty officers.

Carlile uses his annual report to endorse complaints from professional and amateur photographers that counter-terror powers are being used to threaten prosecution if pictures are taken of officers on duty.

He said the power was only intended to cover images likely to be of use to a terrorist: “It is inexcusable for police officers ever to use this provision to interfere with the rights of individuals to take photographs.” The police had to come to terms with the increased scrutiny of their activities by the public, afforded by equipment such as video-enabled mobile phones. “Police officers who use force or threaten force in this context run the real risk of being prosecuted themselves for one or more of several possible criminal and disciplinary offences,” he warned.

He mentioned an incident in which two Austrian tourists were rebuked by officers for photographing Walthamstow bus station, in east London.


David Miliband wants MI5 interrogation kept secret

The foreign secretary, David Miliband, told MPs today that he will not allow the public to see the secret interrogation policy that is at the heart of allegations that MI5 has been colluding in the torture of British citizens.

Gordon Brown has ordered that the policy be rewritten after a series of people complained that they had been questioned by British intelligence officers after being asked the same questions under torture by Pakistani and Bangladeshi intelligence officers. Brown has also pledged that the policy would be made public.

However, Miliband told MPs on the Commons foreign affairs select committee today that he has no intention of making public the policy as it currently stands, because of the risk of prejudicing a number of on-going court cases. Pressed further, he said that the currently policy would not be published even once those court cases have concluded, as to do so would “lend succour to our enemies”.

He added that the policy had been reviewed by the Intelligence and Security Committee, the group of MPs and peers who are supposed to oversee the activities of Britain’s intelligence agencies, and that the ISC was able to “square the circle between secrecy and accountability”.

The ISC sits in secret, its members and its reports to the prime minister are published after being censored in consultation with the agencies themselves.

Asked about the morality of receiving intelligence that has been extracted through torture, Miliband told the committee: “We would never procure intelligence, or procure evidence through torture. We would never say to another intelligence agency ‘Please get us information about X’ and, you know, abandon our legal and ethical commitments in respect of how you find that.”

Evidence heard in court has contradicted that, however. Last September Manchester Crown Court heard how MI5 and Greater Manchester Police drew up a list of questions for use by a notorious Pakistani intelligence agency which was unlawfully detaining Rangzieb Ahmed, a man from Rochdale. By the time Ahmed was deported to Britain 13 months later three of his fingernails were missing. Furthermore, civil proceedings brought on behalf of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who was freed from Guantánamo earlier this year, has resulted in the disclosure of the questions that MI5 asked be put to him, despite knowing that he had been tortured in Pakistan and having reason to believe he was being tortured after being rendered elsewhere.

Miliband admitted that the the co-operation between MI5 and MI6 with foreign security and intelligence agencies during counter terrorism operations could risk detainees being mistreated.

“It is not possible to eradicate the risk of mistreatment. A judgment needs to be made”, he said in a letter to the committee. “We cannot act in isolation in order to protect British citizens.” He acknowledged that some countries had “different legal obligations and different standards to our own in the way they detain people and treat those they have detained”. He added that this “cannot stop us from working with them”.

As well as allegations of collusion in torture in Pakistan, where British intelligence officers have questioned people being held by agencies whose use of torture is widely documented, there have been allegations of complicity in the torture of British citizens detained in Bangladesh, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Miliband refused to answer questions from the committee yesterday about allegations that MI5 officers had put the same questions to detainees that had earlier been put, under torture, by foreign intelligence officers, claiming that to do so may prejudice ongoing court cases.

The only cases currently before the courts are those in which the British government and its intelligence agencies are being sued for damages by the alleged victims of torture.

Referring to the secret interrogation policy, Miliband did tell the committee: “Before 2004 the guidance was informal, after 2004 it was more formal. It is now comprehensive, including comprehensive legal advice to all officers.”

He also said the interrogation policy would be made available to defence lawyers representing terrorist trial defendants who allege that they were tortured by foreign agents, and then questioned by British intelligence officers, before being deported to the UK and prosecuted. “Surely, it is founding principle of our legal system: defending counsel can call for whatever papers they want,” he said. “Defence counsel having these papers isn’t the same as putting them on the internet.”

Ed Davey, the Lib Dem shadow spokesman of foreign affairs, said that British intelligence officers had been given “inadequate” guidance on their obligations while interrogating detainees held overseas.