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Privacy concerns over government voter ID plan



Plans to force people to show a photo ID to take part in elections will undoubtedly prove massively detrimental to huge numbers of people, despite the total lack of evidence that there is even a problem to solve in the first place.

As has already been widely observed, forcing people to provide IDs will disproportionately disenfranchise young people, the disabled, members of BAME the community, the poor and the elderly, potentially resulting in millions of people being unable to vote.

It could also pave the way for privacy invasions and added government surveillance.

The decision to erect barriers to democracy for large swathes of the voting population couldn’t come at a worse time. People in Britain are already highly disillusioned with the electoral system, and voter turnout for last week’s local elections was pitifully low.

The ability to vote without hindrance is fundamental to a functioning democracy, and this move looks suspiciously like a veiled attempt at voter suppression. Are the government purposefully implementing changes it believes could help skew future elections in its favour?

Whatever they hope to achieve, the fact that this is going to occur at a cost to the taxpayer only adds insult to injury.

Naturally, the government claims that any questions surrounding the cost of implementing voter ID are unnecessary alarmism, because it won’t cost the taxpayer a thing.

This, of course, is almost certainly untrue.

The government has promised to provide people without a valid photo ID with a free electoral ID locally. What the government has failed to mention is that the added bureaucracy involved in providing these free IDs, educating the public about the changes in the voting system, and training polling station volunteers, is going to incur costs for local authorities, that somewhere down the line will need to be recouped.

In the US, implementing similar voter ID systems resulted in huge costs; it is fanciful to think that it won’t cost a penny here.

When considered within the economic context of the pandemic, the current state of borrowing, and a clear need to allocate the budget wisely, it’s a strange choice to set about fixing a problem that doesn’t exist in the first place, at enormous cost. There is after all no evidence that there is a voter fraud problem in the UK.

We do of course have genuine electoral problems – namely, the nine million people currently missing from the electoral register who ought to be brought in. It’s interesting though that this isn’t the government’s priority.

They claim they are only trying to ensure electoral integrity. This from the same government which also swears blindly that the integrity of the Brexit referendum was perfectly intact, that the possibility of Russian interference is a myth, and everybody had a fair say.

The reality, of course, is that the decision likely has much more to do with forcing photo IDs onto people who don’t currently have one, than it does with preventing voting fraud.

Forcing people to uptake a free photo ID puts the country back on the slippery slope to a universal ID scheme – something that the public and advocacy groups have protested against and successfully blocked for years.

The offer of providing free electoral IDs will almost certainly result in privacy implications that allow for tracking of citizens not currently in possession of a passport or driver’s license.

This is something that is more concerning in the UK than elsewhere in Europe, because Britain lacks the appropriate constitutional protections that limit how that data can be exploited by government agencies for the vague purpose of national security.

In the long run, it will likely edge the UK towards a national ID system that can be used to track the public at all times, including on the internet.

Unfortunately, these added surveillance capabilities, in addition to the potential ability to skew elections in its favour, is a political opportunity that the current government are happy spend big on, as long as it’s coming out of taxpayer’s pockets.


Why we support university ‘free speech’ bill




There’s a lot of “misinformation” floating around about the higher education (freedom of speech) bill, which aims to bolster free speech protections in English universities. 

One common misconception is that it imposes a legal duty on higher education providers (HEPs) to protect free speech on their campuses for the first time and, as such, is a wicked interference in the liberty and autonomy of these institutions. 

In fact, that duty was created by the Education (No 2) Act 1986 and consolidated by the Human Rights Act 2000, which incorporated the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, including Article 10 (freedom of expression). 

The new bill replaces section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act, which imposes an obligation on HEPs to take “reasonably practicable” steps to uphold free speech on campus, with a slightly broader duty and extends it so it applies to students’ unions (SUs) as well. But that isn’t what makes it novel. 

No, the reason this bill will make a difference is because it creates some enforcement mechanisms so students and academics and visiting speakers whose speech rights have been violated can hold HEPs and SUs to account. 

The bill will create a new position in the Office for Students, the English higher education regulator, called the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, dubbed the “free speech champion” by the media. If your speech rights are breached by a university, you can lodge a complaint with this director and he or she will have the power to investigate it and, if it’s upheld, fine the institution in question and compensate the victim. 

In addition – and this is likely to be the real game changer – the new legislation will allow students, academics and visiting speakers to bring civil claims against HEPs and SUs that breach the duty to protect free speech. By creating a ‘right to sue’ for compensation for any losses resulting from a breach of this duty, the new law will attach considerably higher risk to any decision to sanction or cancel non-conformist speech. This is the provision most likely to make universities prioritise free speech.

Another misconception about the bill is that it’s solely designed to outlaw ‘no-platforming’. This straw man has enabled the bill’s opponents to point to research by the Office for Students which found that of the 62,000 requests by students for external speaker approval in England in 2017-18, only 53 were rejected, as well as a WONKHE survey showing that of almost 10,000 events involving an external speaker at an English university in 2019-20, just six were cancelled. 

Based on this research, some have argued that the bill is a sledgehammer to crack a nut – that no-platforming isn’t a big enough problem to justify new legislation that will impose onerous compliance obligations on HEPs and SUs.

There are two things to be said about this. The first is that even though no-platformings are quite rare, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a serious problem. They have a chilling effect by discouraging other university departments or student societies from inviting similar speakers and give the official seal of approval to the notion that merely inviting such speakers on to campus ‘harms’ those who find their views disagreeable.

But the second and more important point is that speaker cancellation is only the tip of the iceberg. Media interest in no-platforming episodes, such as the cancellation of Amber Rudd’s appearance at Oxford, makes it easy for free speech sceptics to present it as the totality of the problem. 

In fact, it is a far deeper and broader malaise. Students and staff are routinely being placed under investigation for expressing non-conformist views. As many of the Free Speech Union’s members can testify, the process is the punishment. And the experience of being investigated for holding unfashionable opinions is not limited to conservatives. It is experienced by those with a wide range of views, including gender critical feminists and pro-life Christians.

But these overt attacks on free speech at universities aren’t the real story. The real problem is self-censorship. 

A 2017 report into academic freedom in the UK commissioned by the University and College Union (UCU), Britain’s largest academic trade union, found that the constitutional and legal protections for academic free speech were weaker in the UK than in all but one other EU member state. 

The researchers conducted a Europe-wide survey and 23.1 per cent of the UK respondents reported being bullied on account of their academic views, compared to an EU average of 14.1 per cent. Even more alarmingly, 35.5 percent admitted to self-censorship for fear of loss of privileges, demotion or physical harm (the EU average was 19.1 per cent).

A 2020 Survation poll conducted on behalf of ADF International found that 27 per cent of students at British universities had “hidden” their opinions when they were at odds with those of their peers and tutors, with more than half of those self-censoring because of their non-conformist political views. A further 40 per cent withheld their opinions on ethical or religious subjects for fear of being judged negatively by their peers.

Some of the Bill’s critics acknowledge that self-censorship is an issue in universities, but they argue that no change to the law can possibly hope to make an impact on this problem. To do that, you need to change the culture.

But the bill is only intended to be a first step. it is wrong to criticise it because it isn’t going to persuade academics with opposing views to sit next to each other over lunch; it is intended, in part, to stop students and staff being dragged through onerous disciplinary processes because they’ve expressed a view that others disagree with. The effect of this – I hope – will be to ‘nudge’ universities in the direction of more intellectual tolerance.

As the FSU’s chief legal counsel, Bryn Harris, has argued, all the bill can and should aim to do is to create an opportunity for a culture of free speech to grow. The law can open up a space for free exchange, by restraining those who try to close it down, but it is for academics and students to make that exchange happen, and to use and value their right to free speech.

The new law should enable members of HEPs and SUs – and visitors – to express themselves freely without fearing formal repercussions that can have a negative impact on their careers. 

In the absence of such protections, open arguments cannot always take place, making more robust protections for free speech on campus a prerequisite for the more wide-ranging cultural change the Bill’s critics desire. As the FSU’s Advisory Council member Professor Eric Kaufmann wrote: “It is unjust to tolerate mob rule until such time (50 years hence?) as the intolerant can be convinced.”

Toby Young is the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union. You can find a longer version of this piece, and an appendix listing some of the cases the FSU has been involved in on campus, here.

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Cartoon: Sausage row




Relations between Boris Johnson and French president Emmanuel Macron were tested at the G7 summit in a row over sausages.

The prime minister vented frustration at Brexit deal rules that will ban movement of sausages and other chilled meats from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland at the end of the month, by comparing it to Toulouse sausages not being allowed to be sold in Paris.

But the French president reportedly said the comparison was not valid because Britain and Northern Ireland were not the same country.

This drew a furious response from Downing Street, with foreign secretary Dominic Raab taking to the airwaves to describe Macron’s remarks as “offensive”.

Johnson himself declared to “do whatever it takes to protect the territorial integrity of the UK.”

Macron responded by saying that France had “never for a single moment disputed UK sovereignty or its territorial integrity”.

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Trio win £1.6bn Defence Estate hard FM deal




A joint venture between Engie and Serco, known as Vivo, bagged the bulk of the work, picking up both the central region including Wales worth £558m; and south west region worth £336m over seven years.

Vinci’s FM operation secured the £423m south east regional deal and Mitie a £160m deal for facilities across Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The core services include planned and reactive maintenance, as well as mandatory safety checks.

The potential additional project work will range from small scale asset replacement and property refurbishments to large construction projects.

Following a six-month mobilisation phase, the core work is scheduled to start in February 2022, with additional project work to ramp up during the course of 2022.

Forming part of the first phase of the Future Defence Infrastructure Services programme, the contracts cover 31,000 units and will support facilities at more than 400 defence sites across the UK, including RAF Lossiemouth, Catterick, Andover, and Britannia Royal Naval College.

As part of FDIS, these are the first of 10 contacts that will be awarded between now and 2022.

The later phases of the FDIS programme will see further contracts awarded for Accommodation Services and the management and maintenance of the UK Defence Training Estate.

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