Tag Archives: law

DWP retrospective law change following court defeat

From JonnyVoid’s Blog:

In a shocking abuse of state power – which could have a chilling impact on the independence of the courts – Iain Duncan Smith is attempting to reverse the impact of a recent Appeal Court judgement by re-writing history.

In the recent workfare case brought by Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson, the DWP were found to have unlawfully sanctioned thousands of benefit claims[1].  The court ruled that the legislation upon which forced unpaid work was based was not legal and the information given to claimants did not fully inform them of what would happen it they failed to attend workfare.  Which was that benefits could be stopped, for up to six months.

In other words, the DWP’s bodged information meant many claimants lost significant sums of money through no fault of their own.  The Court of Appeal  ruling meant that unemployed people who had benefit claims stopped or reduced illegally by the DWP could claim that money back.

Or at least it did mean that.  Now the DWP is basically saying tough shit, we’re keeping your money.

In its arguments to justify withholding social security people are due – an average of about £500 per person, £130 million pounds in total – the DWP has stated that:

“If the Department cannot make these retrospective changes, then further reductions in benefits might be required in order to find the money to repay the sanctions”

In short, if the government is made to obey the high court’s ruling, it will inflict collective punishment on those who can least afford it by finding £130 million pounds more in new cuts from the welfare budget.

In response, this is my latest email to my MP:

I am disturbed to hear that the Secretary of State DWP is proposing legislation in response to the Work Programme court ruling that is retrospective in its attempt to avoid breaking the law for which it may have to compensate those sanctioned unlawfully.

It appears that the DWP have decided they are no longer accountable to the laws of the land. What will be the point of taking the Government to court if they can simply change the law on a whim to avoid facing any legal consequences retrospectively? It makes a mockery of our judicial system and democratic accountability.

I am further dismayed by reports the Liam Byrne seems to be backing this retrograde and cynical move. According to the Guardian[2], Labour are looking set support the government in legislating to avoid paying back money ruled legally due to claimants who have had benefits sanctioned.

I find this possibility of this offensive with the disregard to the judicial system that the Government feel they are above law and I do not want you to vote for this undemocratic precedent.

[1] http://www.publicinterestlawyers.co.uk/news_details.php?id=298

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/15/dwp-law-change-jobseekers-poundland

Scientists call for pardoning of Alan Turing on his anniversary

Some of Britain’s leading scientists have called on the government to grant a posthumous pardon to the fantastic mathematician Alan Turing. Turning is best known for his code breaking work during the war at Bletchly Park, although his mathematical genius reached far wider than just that.

In 1952, Turing was convicted of gross indecency after acknowledging a sexual relationship with a man. He was submitted to treatment with female hormones, and three years later took his own life. Homosexual acts between two men were illegal at this time, and were decriminalised in 1967.

Professor Stephen Hawking, Astronomer Royal Lord Rees and the Royal Society’s Sir Paul Nurse are among 11 signatories to a letter in the Daily Telegraph calling for Turning to be pardoned. This has caused quite an uproar of debate and opinion.

Personally, I feel that if the law was deemed wrong enough to be scrapped, then those caught by that law should be pardoned. Quite simple really. The excuse of saying that it was the law at the time just doesn’t hold much truck with me I’m afraid.

In my mind, if you repeal a law because you think it was wrong, you say that you were sorry for anyone caught under it, had the law not being there they would have no record of doing wrong. I know it’s almost a circular argument, but I feel it’s a matter of principle, and not just about this law. I think that any thing that was wrong to punish makes the punishment wrong regardless of whether it was the law at the time of punishment.

I think that it’s much broader than this case; it is a philosophical debate of what law, crime and punishment really mean.

42 days: the meaning of life…

United Kingdom MPs are about to vote on the law to extend the time police can hold terror suspects without charge. 

And there in is the real issue for those who appose this measure, the words ‘without charge’. This point seems to have been missed by the 75% or so of the populous who have been polled and found to be broadly in favor if extending detention from 28 to 42 days. The Government says that is in the best interests of protecting the safety and security of the United Kingdom, but so far no one has explained just how extending detention without charge will do just that.

Detention Before Charge?

For centuries we have relied on the legal principle of ‘Habeas Corpus’ (Latin for ‘We command that you have the body’.) This is the name of a legal action, or writ, through which a person can seek relief from unlawful detention of themselves or another person. The writ of habeas corpus has historically been an important instrument for the safeguarding of individual freedom against arbitrary state action and right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus has long been celebrated as the most efficient safeguard of the liberty of the subject.

Detention without charge was first enacted in the 1970s as a response to republican terrorism under anti-terrorist legislation from the original enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974 (repealed). The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (repealed) contained a provision permitting the detention by the police of a person arrested on suspicion of involvement in acts of terrorism for a period of up to 48 hours following his arrest by a police constable, and for a further period of up to five days if the Secretary of State approved such an extension. This power was available to police officers anywhere in the UK. These powers have since been extended to 28 days of detention and now the proposal of 42 days.

Many people have said it is a good idea, we should ‘stop the terrorists’ and so on. All of this sounds wonderful, but remember this is without charge while the evidence is being found. What if by some mistake, or even by deliberate intention, YOU are held as a suspected terrorist.

But, you say, that can’t happen! Can it? Could it? The introduction of the Terrorism Act 2006 states that is ‘An Act to make provision for and about offences relating to conduct carried out, or capable of being carried out, for purposes connected with terrorism’, but doesn’t define terrorism. In recent years Police enforcement of the anti-terror laws has created some unintended consequences, including the shooting of the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes as he ran to catch a train. Others are just nutty, and the government’s proposals to deal with terrorism seem more designed to combat civil liberties than terror.

  • A 34-year-old woman arrested for walking to work on a bike path, instead of cycling, in an area secretly designated a “designated area” and held under the “anti-terrorism act.”
  • An 82-year-old man (and a younger man who jumped in to assist him) tossed out of the Labour conference for heckling Jack Straw.
  • A French journalist held for hours after wearing a bulky jacket and neglecting to make eye contact.
  • My own experience on the DLR, where a tourist was surrounded by police officers after taking videos.
  • The government’s proposal to increase the length of time a suspected terrorist can be held without charges, from 14 days to three months.
  • The establishment of a “no protest” zone which includes a vast swath around Westminster.

(And these are just the incidents I remember; no doubt there are more.)

Why should we worry? The terrorists are out to get us; what’s the loss of a few civil liberties? We’re all willing to pay a price, aren’t we, for security?

When police are allowed to arrest anyone, anytime, and conveniently mark it up to the anti-terrorism laws, we’re all in danger, even if we didn’t do the heckling or walk down a path intended for bicyclists. Unfortunately, draconian laws don’t make us safer: When a young man is arrested for “walking while Muslim” and sent to jail for three months without charges being filed, and his family is visited by Muslim extremists trying to convince them the real enemy is the British government, and his little brother listens to their arguments, and he joins a terrorist cell to “get even”…then we’re not safer.

Making bad law from good intentions?

Hard cases make bad law, especially online, argues Bill Thompson

It has always been difficult to stay completely on the right side of the law, however law-abiding one tries to be.

I try to check the copyright status of every picture I use in my presentations, but may sometimes slip up.

Copying CDs I own to my iPod may – or may not be – illegal, and copying DVDs I own certainly is.

And like all drivers I sometimes see the speedometer creep up above the speed limit when I’m not paying attention to it on a quiet motorway.

But now it seems I could face prosecution for the wide range of user accounts I’ve created on MySpace, Facebook, Googlemail, Flickr and Bebo to support the various projects I’m involved with.

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Tyneside 100 and Wysing Arts Centre identities I have lovingly crafted may well fall foul of a US decision that breaking the terms and conditions of a social network site can count as unauthorised access, turning what would seem to be at most a civil offence into a criminal act under computer misuse laws.

The concern arises because prosecutors in California have just charged 47-year-old Lori Drew under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for creating a fictitious MySpace account, something which many of us have done in the past and which I do all the time when projects I’m working on require a MySpace profile.


Bill Thompson
 The prosecution raises wider issues that should concern any computer user 
Bill Thompson

Drew allegedly used the account to pretend to be a 16-year-old boy, befriending and then rejecting 13- year-old Megan Meier, a friend of her daughter’s, and – it is claimed – provoking Meier to commit suicide.

However state officials could find no basis on which to prosecute her in the 18 months since Meier’s death, until the imaginative use of the computer crime law lead to charges last week.

Now she has been charged with “accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress”, because she broke MySpace’s terms of use, which forbid “impersonating or attempting to impersonate another Member, person or entity” and “using any information obtained from the MySpace Services in order to harass, abuse, or harm another person or entity, or attempting to do the same”.

If the case against Drew is proved then she deserves our complete condemnation for bullying a young and vulnerable girl, and I can’t imagine anyone would defend this behaviour or argue that a right to anonymity or pseudonymity extends to adults who abuse young people in this way.

Wider issues

But the prosecution raises wider issues that should concern any computer user, especially those who neither read nor take much notice of the terms and conditions of the sites and services they visit, since it opens up the possibility that acts which we thought were insignificant could be used against us in unexpected ways.

As always, we need to be careful about jumping to the conclusion that this is the death of the web as we know it, that every social network site will start prosecuting its users or that we are all under risk of investigation.

All we have is an indictment, which may be thrown out by the court, claiming that an offence has been committed.

The Computer Fraud and Misuse Act is being used because the false identity was used to do something much more serious, and the legal argument is that it can form the basis of a prosecution because it constitutes a “tortious act”, but this has yet to be accepted by a judge.

Even if it went all the way through to successful prosecution it doesn’t mean that MySpace could throw recalcitrant users in gaol for signing up with false names. And in most cases, like that of Lori Drew, there would be another law under which to prosecute anyone who used their online identity for something dodgy.

And yet it is a worrying development, because it creates a degree of uncertainty and may, because of that, have a chilling effect on what we do online.

Wild abandon

I’ve created new profiles and identities with wild abandon, secure in the knowledge that if Facebook or Bebo or whoever didn’t like what I was doing the most they could do was close my account and perhaps try to stop me opening a new one.

But just as new laws on anti-social behaviour in the UK have created uncertainty about what is acceptable, with tales of people being fined for dropping two crisps that would be eaten by a bird within minutes promoting an atmosphere of careful restraint, any sense that online activity could get someone into serious trouble may limit playfulness and creativity.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith is afraid of the telescreen not because he is being watched constantly but because he might be being watched at any particular moment.

As a result he controls himself far more carefully than the Party could ever manage.

We need to be careful that the US legal system, desperate to prosecute someone over the tragic death of a young girl, does not end up establishing a precedent that leads us all to censor ourselves online, just in case. 

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.