Thursday 20 October 2011

The carelessness of government

I have broadly supported this coalition through all its vicissitudes so far. As a Liberal Democrat I have had to swallow hard over some issues – student fees, the NHS, the enthusiasm for cuts, particularly to services for the vulnerable, the continued velvet glove treatment of those responsible for the economic crash. But I have regarded all of these as a necessary price for providing the stability of government that the country desperately needed to get out of the hole that the bankers and Labour between them put us in. Particularly on cuts to benefits, I do not like them, I do not regard them as necessary, but I recognise that there is a limit to what we, as the minority party in government, are capable of enforcing.

But there is one issue that has given me cause to hesitate, and finally to decide that LibDems in government have not served well themselves, their party, their country, or one particular individual. That is the case of Gary McKinnon.

Let us be as clear as we can about the facts. Gary McKinnon has Asperger's Syndrome. This was only diagnosed in 2008. He is an expert in computing. He also believes that the US government is holding data on UFOs that he thought should be made public. In 2002 he began tracking down computers in the US military system, and discovered that many had very poor password and firewall protection. So he found his way in (it's hard to call it hacking when it involves getting into a Windows computer with inadequate protection). He found his way into dozens of computers and networks. He was eventually identified and arrested by the British authorities. That, I remind you, was in 2002, nearly ten years ago. The US authorities soon demanded his extradition to face trial there, despite the fact that he carried out all his activities on British soil, using British equipment and British connections. He faces a penalty of up to 60 years in prison in the USA. The USA may count as one of our more civilised allies, but when it is prepared to do what it has done to Bradley Manning, one can only be cynical about the prison conditions that Gary McKinnon might face. In addition, as a sufferer from Aspergers, Gary would be so disturbed by life in prison that suicide would be a real possibility. (Simon Baron-Cohen’s Report.)

There is a lopsided extradition agreement between the UK and the US. The tests are for the US authorities they only have to say what the alleged crime was, what the punishment can be, and who they suspect. They have to provide no evidence. But for the British authorities to extradite an American citizen from the US they have to demonstrate that they have good reason to believe that the suspect is the guilty party. They have to show evidence. The Baker report released this week states that there is no unfairness in the actual implementation of the agreement between us and the USA. There's something very unjoined up going on in our public processes at the moment if Baker felt it was necessary to consult the Americans over what to put in his report. And he may be historically accurate in so far as British citizens have not so far been unjustly treated, but the tests remain lopsided, and it is possible that British citizens may be unjustly treated in the future.

Perhaps this government was delaying on its response to the McKinnon case in the hope that Baker would get it off the hook. But Baker is actually irrelevant to the treatment of Gary McKinnon. The political noise coming from the other side of the Atlantic is that, in his case, our decision will be respected, and will not cause a problem between our governments. (I leave aside the issue that if I were the US government I would, far from wishing to prosecute McKinnon, be very grateful that he had shown up how pathetically inept US military security was, and enabled me to knock heads together to get it improved.)

The various legal issues about the treatment of vulnerable people are outlined very well here, and I need not go into further detail. The tools are in the hands of our government to take the decision and draw to an end the ten year – I repeat that, the ten year – limbo of a sick man. And yet we still delay.

So far, McKinnon has been treated as an object of a bureaucratic machine. Bureaucracies do not care for individuals. Bureaucracies are not designed to respond to the desperate needs of a lone person. Instead bureaucracies slowly and efficiently over long periods of time squeeze that individual round peg into a square hole. They have no humanity. That is not a criticism of bureaucracies. They do what they are designed to do - administer efficiently. But it is a criticism of governments, which represent the people, if they do not rescue individuals from the slow torture of bureaucracy.

It is over issues like this that governments lose their soul. It is not in the big policy decisions and announcements, crafted for party conferences, or news conferences, that the temper of a government is truly discovered. It is not in the well practised, monotonous cut and thrust of Commons debate, or the pas de deux of Newsnight or Sky TV interviews. Still less, Heaven forfend, in the cloyingly ritualised tangos of Question Time. It is in the effect that governments have on the treatment of individuals by an administration that is not built to care for individuals. At the moment the temper of this government is wanting.

Both Nick Clegg and David Cameron spoke about McKinnon's case when they were in opposition. They are quoted here.

David Cameron - “It should still mean something to be a British citizen – with the full protection of the British Parliament, rather than a British Government trying to send you off to a foreign court”….(July 2009)

Nick Clegg - “If he boards the plane to the U.S., it is almost certain he will never set foot on British soil again, doomed to pass out the rest of his days in shackles on a foreign shore. This is nothing short of a disgrace” ….(August 2009)

And yet they still do nothing.

Nick Clegg in August this year, now in government, compared Britain to Libya. Libya has in fact shown us the way. The Transitional National Council has made it clear that al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, will stay in Libya. There is no question of him being returned to the UK. They do this because he is a Libyan citizen, and they stand for all Libyan citizens. Yet we still do nothing for McKinnon.

In the same article Nick Clegg says: “those who need to make use of human rights laws to challenge the decisions of the authorities are nearly always people who are in the care of the state: children's homes, mental hospitals, immigration detention, residential care. They are often vulnerable, powerless, or outsiders, and are sometimes people for whom the public feels little sympathy. But they are human beings, and our common humanity dictates that we treat them as such.” Gary McKinnon has not been in the care of the state, but he has been under its thumb for nearly ten years. He is vulnerable and powerless. With every day that passes without Gary McKinnon being told he will stay in the UK, the government that Nick Clegg represents loses another piece of its soul.

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