Thursday, August 22, 2013


EFF Creative commons graphic
Maybe it's because I'm an unschooler, that I look upon the PRISM programme (and the treatment of David Miranda), rather differently from your average citizen.  I get the feeling that the archetypal "man on the Clapham omnibus" who stands in for ordinary people in court cases, has the feeling that the snooping on his emails is no big deal.  For many people, law-abiding and not involved in any activity of interest to the security services, will have thought "Good Luck!" when it was revealed that the US government and UK government may have been screening and reading their emails.

Most people who mainly use their email to keep in contact with friends and family, to share knitting patterns or swap hilarious jokes, will have shrugged and thought, "Who cares if they read those?"  They don't have any sense of danger in the idea of someone looking at their emails.  They aren't a freedom fighter in a country opposed to US intervention, or a terrorist.  What do they have to fear?

I care, and not just because I think it is dangerous when an agency working on behalf of a country takes upon itself powers which are covertly obtained and not sanctioned explicitly by the people, or their government, which may be used for the bad, against innocent people who have no connection with terrorism, or actions against the state.

I am a law-abiding person.  I try to be open, honest, truthful, and I try to act in ways which are consistent with my beliefs and values.  However, being an unschooler has opened my eyes to the ways in which the state may act if you do not conform to the behaviour which they consider acceptable.  For years after I withdrew my children from school, I was involved in a correspondence with the authorities over the education of my children.  The various Education Acts are completely clear that it is the parents' responsibility to educate their children, and it is absolutely their choice to decide what type of education to inflict on them too.

You probably have no interest in home education or unschooling:  it's a minority pursuit in the UK.  However, on the basis that although most people will not be home educators, they may be willing to stand up for my rights in law to do it, I presume that you may be interested to know that in the course of my home education I was lied to, misled, and generally came to have a very low opinion of the authorities who would, it seemed, stoop to anything in order to try to manipulate me into doing what they wanted.

They told me I was compelled to have an inspection visit because the then Hillingdon LEA was allowed to "vary the law" in this matter.  I wasn't, and they weren't, but by the time I established that, it was too late.   They told me I had to provide them with samples of work. (Again, no I wasn't.)  They told me that they could send in social services if they weren't satisfied.  (Well, they could, but not legally, if they had no concerns about the welfare of my children.  It was a stick to beat me with, however.)

I was lucky; I speak with an RP/BBC accent, I am articulate, I was living in my own home, and I am self-educated, I was (eventually, and with help from others) confident in my rights to do what I was doing, all things which worked in my favour when dealing with officials.  I have supported people who were none of those things, and although their home education of their children didn't look a whole lot different from mine, their level of difficulty in persuading the authorities that this was the case was very much harder.

In the course of my time as an unschooler, I ran a helpline for parents who wanted information about home education (which mostly received calls from parents with children were being very badly bullied at school); I co-ordinated a response to the government on the proposed changes to the law on home education, and I wrote a speech for my MP.  At times, I felt very exposed.  At times I grew very tired of the task of asserting my rights. I am profoundly grateful that my children are now above the age of compulsory education and I therefore do not have to engage with the authorities unless I wish to do so.   I think it is possible that some of my communications, especially those with other home educators about the changes to the law, might well have been of interest to local government, and the idea that they might not have been secure or private alarms me.

It isn't that I am an anarchist or ever suggested anything which should alarm the government.  I'm a Quaker, I believe in peaceful protest, I would never advocate anything which interferes with the security or safety of this country.  But being a Quaker, I think it should be possible to challenge anything which one believes to be wrong, or a social injustice, or an abuse of power.  That alone can make you a person of interest to authorities, even in a democracy like ours.  How much more likely is it that you might become interesting if you happen to have an ethnic origin from a country of interest too?

Government has laid down rules for the access of our private communications by police and authorities, and I would expect that they should have to get a court order in order to access my private communications.  That's what they are required to do by law.  If they have found some backdoor way of accessing my communications which is totally against the spirit of the law in this country, I do not expect them to say "Yippee!" and use it.  It is quite clear that parliament has not sanctioned the things which the security services have been doing, and quite clear that it should either be mandated by parliament, or should stop.  My view is that it should stop.

I do not think that stating that, or being involved in revealing the truth to the world, or being related to someone involved in that, should warrant detention and questioning by the authorities.  Did any of them seriously believe that David Miranda was a threat to us as a terrorist?  I don't think so.  Then the anti-terrorist laws were completely inappropriate to his case.

If you have never brushed the authorities up the wrong way, and confronted them, it's hard to believe how vulnerable an ordinary person can be made to feel by officials who exaggerate their powers.  Joined-up government has led to few improvements in services (for example the various departments of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, who have the strongest customer-led case for dealing with clients as one body, still expect you to know that their tax affairs and tax credits are entirely separate departments, dealing with you completely separately) but it has led to health and education departments "sharing" with social services departments, to the detriment of our privacy.

Despite their apparent inaction when circumstances seem to cry out for action, social services departments are remarkably active when it seems that someone on their patch has had the audacity to withdraw their children for home education, and their powers are great.  If they have the slightest concern for the welfare of a child, they are empowered to enter the home and take the child into protective care, and that's right and proper.  Unfortunately, they often seem to consider a home educator a threat when there isn't the least suspicion that they are, indeed, abusing their children, and yet seem very slow to act even when neighbours, teachers and relatives have expressed concerns.  Several cases where extreme concern was expressed about children who were falsely claimed to be home educated, where the authorities still did not protect the children concerned have come up over the last five years.

Conversely, a number of families in the UK have gone on the run from the authorities, who seem to have considered the very act of home education to be a threat to the state and the children concerned.  Without any evidence of abuse, the simple act of taking responsibility for their children's education has led to increasing intervention in the lives of several families, who have then decided that their only protection from unwarranted action is to flee their county, or the country.  And I understand why.

So when I hear that the government has used the US facility for screening all our communications, I don't simply shrug my shoulders and think that if they want to trawl through the piles of aunt Jessica's jam recipes, they're welcome.  I shudder and write to my MP.  When I hear that they have detained a journalist's partner using the terror laws as their tool to do so, I write to my MP.  I suggest we all should make our feelings clear to our representatives, and if they don't change it, change them. 

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