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Freedom in Blair's Britain

Speaker: Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty
Chair: Professor Conor Gearty, Centre for the Study of Human Rights
February 2004

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Abstract

The New Labour Government has now been in office for nearly seven years, a period seemingly marked by a series of assaults on freedom and liberty. Legislation on terrorism, on asylum and on criminal procedure has flowed thick and fast, with lawyers and the whole criminal justice system appearing at times to have been put on trial for incompetence and corruption. The Home Secretary's latest plan is to force identity cards on a people whose identity has in part been defined by the absence of such bureaucratic controls. Yet this is the same Labour Party that enacted the Human Rights Act. Its leadership is steeped in the traditions of political dissent; many Cabinet members have been active members of Britain's leading civil liberties NGO, Liberty (formerly the NCCL). Are claims about the threat to freedom posed by the current government justified or grossly exaggerated? Is recent legislation genuinely unprecedented or just the sort of thing that governments in Britain have done for generations? In this keynote lecture the new Director of that organisation Shami Chakrabarti considers the state of freedom in Britain, and critically assesses the role of Liberty in protecting that freedom, seventy years after the organisation was first formed to protect (among others) Communist and Labour Party activists from police attack.

Shami Chakrabarti became Director of Liberty in September 2003. Having originally joined Liberty in 2001 as In-house Counsel, Shami has worked on a number of Liberty's high profile cases and has become a recognised expert on the UK's anti-terrorism laws. Shami also assisted with Liberty's campaigning work by contributing to the development of policy and strategy and regularly appearing as Liberty spokesperson on a wide range of issues.

Shami trained at the Public and Common Law Bar before joining the Home Office Legal Adviser's Branch in 1996. During five and a half years in Government, Shami advised Ministers in Labour and Conservative Governments on a range of sensitive policy issues, worked on the passage of 12 Parliamentary Bills and was one of the Home Office officials responsible for the implementation of the Human Rights Act. She also acted in a number of high profile cases in both the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

More broadly, Shami is an active member of Britain's human rights and public law community. She is an Executive Governor of the British Institute of Human Rights, an Executive Committee Member of the Administrative Law Bar Association and Editorial Board Member of the European Human Rights Law Review. She has published numerous pieces on civil liberties issues for a number of practitioner and other journals.

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