Civil liberties in a modern context

What does an innocent person have to fear?" That’s one of the most common arguments rolled out time and time again to justify chipping away at our freedoms. If you’re innocent why should you be worried if the government can do X, knows Y or stops Z?

The counter-arguments tend to be a mix of principle and pragmatism. Principled arguments around issues such as rights that we have as humans and the restrictions there should be on what governments can do. Pragmatic arguments such as the costs (e.g. spend money on ID cards or on police?), practicalities (e.g. what odds that the ID cards database will really work?) and side-effects (e.g. the increasing number of errors as the DNA database grows). Or in other words – put the resources into catching the guilty rather than hassling the innocent.

But further than that – and I think this is sometimes neglected by those arguing to protect our liberties – we all benefit from the liberties that any one of us has. Most obviously, if a journalist is free to investigate government wrong-doings – we all benefit from that. But this benefit comes in more subtle ways too, as the tragic death of Baby P in Haringey has exposed.

Whatever else one case say about Haringey, it hasn’t been short of whistleblowers with credible, relevant concerns about the way children were being looked after by Children’s Services and the health authorities. Yet they have repeatedly been injuncted and gagged, prevented from speaking out and pressured into silence. Even now, many people are not willing to go on the record to get their concerns into the light (one of the reasons why I believe we should have a public inquiry – so such people can be given the assurance that speaking out will result in being listened to).

We know, though, that inspectors were misled – fed information that suggested all was well, when it wasn’t; that the first Serious Case Review into Baby P’s death was carried out badly and wrongly airbrushed out the serious blunders that the authorities had made; and that concerns raised about the quality of services were repeatedly rebuffed with the answer that all was well and in hand.

This could only happen because of our culture of accepting tight restrictions on freedom of speech in employment situations. It’s the normal thing that if a member of staff is seriously unhappy with how a department is being run, their contract stops them speaking out. Often they will get paid off and required to sign a promise of secrecy. And if they wish to stand their ground and fight? There’s precious little protection for whistleblowers and a hugely lopsided legal system that benefits those with the big pockets (the state) against those without (the employee).

This is not though an issue only about the individual rights of those whistleblowers. It’s about how public services are kept on track and public servants held to account. Anyone who uses those services may be the victim of the service blunders that flow from a whistleblower being silenced.

The idea that if you work for an organisation you should keep quiet spreads far and wide through society – it’s even the normal state of affairs for members of sports teams, who face sanctions if they criticise in public the sport’s authorities. But imagine the outrage there would be if a rule were introduced that MPs are not allowed to criticise the Parliamentary authorities in public.

So when people talk about civil liberties – and cherish, rightly, the many freedoms we do have – let us not forget that freedom of speech is still a hotly contested area, where far too often corporate and bureaucratic self-preservation wins out.

This article first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2009