It is difficult to argue for civil liberties because of the risk of terrorist attacks - Syed Kamal MEP
A panel of experts spoke to a packed room about the appropriate line between civil liberties and protecting the vulnerable at the Conservative Party Conference yesterday.
Chair and lead singer of The Undertone’s Feargal Sharkey, who described his astonishment that audience members were old enough to remember that he was, introduced the fringe as a “cornucopia of knowledge, entertainment and philosophy”.
And that, to some extent, was what we got during the 60 minute meeting. It covered everything from sugar tax to terrorism on a quest to find the right balance between personal freedom and protecting the vulnerable.
One question which featured heavily was how much security and surveillance there should be to protect civilians from terrorist attacks.
“It is very difficult to argue for civil liberties because of the risk of terrorist attacks,” said MEP Syed Kamal.
Speaking about airport security, Mr Blackman said that as terrorists get smarter, the public gets more and inconvenienced.
This point was echoed and extended upon by MEP Nirj Deva, who said he was “always being made to take off clothes” at airports.
He added that we are all “vulnerable against terrorism”. The more vulnerable we are, he said, the less free and “since 9/11, slice by slice our personal freedom has been eroded.”
The terrorists are intelligent, he said, but “these microscopic attacks are not designed to bring society down, they are intended to terrorise and bring down our personal freedom.”
The MEP put some fault at the feet of the media, who, he said, make terrorists into heroes, by putting their pictures in the paper and analysing them. “Newspapers play their game”.
He urged Britain to “please stop and use some common sense; stop trying to feed the best that is trying to kill us.”
The topic of surveillance versus freedom was a core theme of the fringe, and as the Association of British Bookmakers’ chief executive Malcom George said “it really comes to the core of everything we do”.
Mr George explained that since the turn of the century, there had been a trend which had made society less willing to accept the impacts from commercial products such as obesity, gambling, drink addiction.
He said there was public concern that something is done and this has led to tax rises and regulation, such as the recently announced sugar tax.
This tax, and other regulation which had been borne from similar concerns, had targeted those who were vulnerable and not largely those who were healthy.
However, he said, the interventions were increasingly moving to impact on everyone, not just those who were vulnerable.
The answer to this? Work out who was vulnerable. However, he said, this would lead to personal information being used by institutions which people may feel uncomfortable with.
He said the technology was now available to link purchases, and it would be easy to get a picture of what a consumer was buying.
Mr George asked how the audience would feel if the Sainsbury’s checkout clerk commented to a shopper that their alcohol consumption was up 20% since their last visit.
“If society demands that the vulnerable are protected, all of us will be monitored.” The time had come that the public must ask whether this was the route it wanted to go down, he added, warning that if this route was chosen, society may face “a curtailing of civil liberties”. If the government worked with industries, however, “we may stand a chance”.
Mr Kamal asked if companies had a responsibility for the products they provided. He said that if they didn’t there would be pressure on the government to legislate which would in turn have bad consequences for companies. Thus, he argued, it was in industries’ interests to be seen to be protecting the vulnerable.
A libertarian utopia was never going to be achieved, he said, so a middle ground had to be found, getting away from the idea that one size fits all.
Harrow MP Bob Blackman echoed Mr George’s point, saying people imagined how much information Google had on them but did not consider this about supermarkets. People had to be aware of the “potential abuse of that information”, he added.
As long as an individual was on the right side of the law, why shouldn’t they drink, smoke and gamble, he asked, but pondered on what should happen when the consequence of that action led to people unable to feed their families.
He said in that sense the government did have a duty, he believed sugar tax made sense as it was essentially saying ‘you are costing the NHS money, you can pay that’.
However he urged the government not to legislate for legislation’s sake.
The IEA’s Chris Snowdon, however argued that sugar tax has “nothing to do with the vulnerable”. He said we might as well put a tax on all calories and added it was “highly dubious” that it was costing the NHS money.
He said the Government did not like people being fat and the tax was “paternalism with an excuse”.
Mr Sharkey gave a final warning to the audience; if surveillance and social monitoring continued to increase in a bid to ‘protect the vulnerable’, “the silent majority have a lot to lose.”
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