22 October 2009

A liberty to discuss?

After a shocking enough (d)evolutionary step in passing anti-terrorism legislation that makes it permissible to be detained without charge for up to 42 (!) days (because 90 were not approved by parliament!), the country was just about saved from another dystopic bill to keep the DNA of even innocent people on the police database! The House of Lords overturned the Policing and Crime Bill. Interesting enough, a lot of people distrust the government to actually adhere to this ruling and to delete the nearly one million affected DNA profiles from the system - and who can blame them for the cynicism? God knows who NHS labs are sharing your information with! For those of you not following the UK news: the bill, initially proposing to keep the DNA details of innocents indefinitely, was amended to (just!) 12 years instead after (!) two innocent Britons brought their case before the European Court of Human Rights (!). At the last minute though, the UK amendment was dropped and a new proposal will be announced at the Queen's annual speech in November.

Although massive financial and bureaucratic investment seems to be worth the money for making Orson Welles's worst nightmare come true, the London tube is a never-ending construction site. Bets are being made whether or not all the patchy roofs and missing tiles and (most importantly!) signals will be in place before the 2012 Olympics. Ironic to find that TFL is in a race itself. One can only hope the next bill coming up in parliament won't be an inquest as to whether it is feasible to replace the oyster payment system with a finger print recognition system. - Let's say, the way things are developing in this country, I wouldn't be surprised.

But who are the people and committees that are determining the UK's future? Perhaps it is sth you have to dedicate three hours daily to in order to keep up with developments in parliament via its dedicated website. Perhaps it is because I am not tweeting yet. But somehow during my time here, I got this feeling that you only find out what parliament does, when it's all already been decided instead of reading about it in the daily news. One broadsheet page dedicated to update the clearly socially responsible reader on the highlights of the daily schedule of committees and inquests (and a digest of policy recommendations) would do as a national barometer for what's happening tomorrow so you can keep abreast with tides and trends of the country you're living in.

Is it because I am not British or is it really like that, that the participatory approach is limited to talking to your MP? I don't think that's a bad thing in itself. I actually believe it is a very good thing that it is made so easy to contact your local MP. In my own country, I would not even know who my MP is and what party their from, nor where to look for their voting record. But how on earth am I supposed to find out what's on my MP's diary? Or when it is really urgent to write a letter to them because for example, my civil liberties are at stake THIS WEEK or sth else I care to stand up for? I get the impression that politics here is very exclusionary. Parliament is buzzing with professional lobbyists and different influential key companies, NGOs, consultancy groups etc. who walk in and out of that building.

Spirit of Accountability
Of course, eventually, a decision or report will be made public. But publishing proceedings on a website after the fact alone cannot be sufficient. Although I sometimes get the impression that the UK is not a very civic society (if that's the right term), I think it is important for the government to actively SEEK the dialogue with the average population, be it through polls or other means. Also, it is necessary to instill a sense of political self-determination in young people and to tell them that it is in their interest to hold the government accountable, that politics is real and not centralised (perhaps it is but then who's going to change that?).

Ironically, parliament proposed the other day that all banks should sign a voluntary (!) agreement to not only obey tax laws by the letter but to also uphold them by the spirit, in an attempt to find a way to plug the loopholes that City banks used to live from. I mean, how toothless is that? Not surprisingly, not a single banked has signed that agreement. I think that sends a strong message. A very strong message, in fact, that even after the recession, banks are not willing to learn from the lessons of irresponsible trading - or to accept responsibility for it. Greedy, huh? That banks don't care about their average private customers is very visible when you walk into a bank and it's like a McDo DriveThru on peak time in there and you are greeted by trainees who couldn't bother to have their M&S suit trousers cut off, to leave their bling bling gold jewellery at home or to at least have the red gems removed from their braces! Instead of putting the emphasis on walk-in customers, the really competitive bankers go into investment banking and are rewarded by moving away from the customer into the adrenaline-pitching and more lucrative virtual world of online deals. Result: Young graduates frequently offend or misdirect customers resulting in the unnecessary kinds of inconveniences and misunderstandings we are all familiar with.

What the banking system needs is a 180 degree reform.

Banks, like other big corporations, have too much influence on government policy and the ideology of policy-making itself and are complicit in the violation of privacy by not lobbying for the protection of their customers' rights. A good illustration of this is the new law already in force whereby every time you pay by card, you have to key in a PIN (even for credit cards) or show proof of ID (there is an anecdote to that I am going to tell you once I have raised the issue with my MP). Therefore, we're moving towards a society where stop and seizure protection laws and human rights laws (who cares about the latter anyway?) are being bypassed and circumvented in this way. Whatever the CCTV cameras, the Oyster readers, the ATMs don't catch, is being checked by your FELLOW RESIDENTS!!! Authority and control is transferred to common people such as waiters, retail staff, supermarket staff etc., therefore leading the path to a society without trust or in the worst case, a society where everyone could be mobilised to spy on their customers, their neighbours or other pedestrians. China, Cambodia and Nazi Germany are but a few examples in history that show us the dark forms measures like the ones criticised above could lead to; a situation where the citizen's/resident's/individual's freedom of movement is restricted not only by physical means but by making everyone a possible suspect. Legitimising further curb-down of civil liberties by instilling a sense of threat in people's minds and making fear a doctrine of their reality is NOT my vision of a 21st century nation. One could say that Britain did not become stronger through all the events following the atrocities of 9/11. No, it succumbed to (or abused?) an impulsive reaction to a heightened sense of vulnerability. Nietzsche would have been disappointed.

Watch Tony Benn, MP (Labour) and David Davies, MP (Conservative) discussing civil liberties and make up your own mind. The sound's a bit bad but it improves towards the end.

Let people know what you think and join the debate!!!

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