The debate over use of scanners in UK airports is rapidly turning into knock-about farce, as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) takes a firm stand on some people’s right to privacy – whilst government disrespects everyone’s rights and prepares to hand over loads more dosh when it eventually loses the argument at the European Court.
Following the botched "pants bombing" and Gordon Brown’s commitment to do something about the menace within, there has been increasingly heated debate between those who believe that scanners are the answer, and those who believe that the added protection they give is minimal – and certainly not worth the massive incursion into civil liberties that their use will bring about.
The Department of Transport has been beavering away at new guidelines supposedly designed to mitigate any sensitivities the travelling public might have. The Chairman of the EHRC, Trevor Phillips, has been writing to the Home Office raising objections to the breach of privacy he feels will inevitably follow.
The Home Office declined to make public Mr Phillips’ concerns, but as the broad outline of those concerns is available on the EHRC’s website, they may be being a little over-discrete.
The bottom line, however, is that the DfT do not intend to allow passengers the option of a pat down search instead of a scan. Transport minister Paul Clark told the Home Affairs Select Committee that passengers flying from Heathrow Airport will not be given the option of an alternative security check if they protest the use of full-body scanners.
This will not go down well over at the EHRC. Last week, John Wadham, their Group Director Legal wrote: "The government needs to ensure that measures... take into account the need to be proportionate in its counter-terrorism proposals and ensure that they are justified by evidence and effectiveness."
"The Commission is concerned that that the proposals to introduce body scanners are likely to have a negative impact on individual’s rights to privacy, especially members of particular groups including disabled people, older people, children, transgendered people, women and religious groups. Under the Human Rights Act, any infringement of the right to privacy must be justified, necessary and proportionate."
Sharp-eyed readers may notice a critical omission from that list: apparently scanners will impact adversely on the privacy of women and older people – but not men. We have asked the EHRC if they would care to explain this logic – but so far have received no reply.
Meanwhile, it seems likely that government will press ahead with these measures, despite the fact that various minority groups – including the disabled and transgendered are getting set to challenge the measures directly and in court.
Given the government’s past history on human rights, a reverse in the European Court of Human Rights some years from now seems not unlikely – with all the costs and embarrassment that is likely to bring. But by then, of course, it is most unlikely that Mr Clark will still be a Minister at the Department of Transport. ®