openDemocracyUK

Why vote Conservative - Civil liberties

Shane Greer
6 April 2010
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The United Kingdom has a proud history concerning civil liberties; indeed the very concept can be traced back to Magna Carta of1215. But that proud history is being tarnished by the rise of the surveillance state under Labour. As the former Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned in 2006: 'Today I fear we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society . . . As ever more information is collected, shared and used, it intrudes into our private space and leads to decisions which directly influence people’s lives. Mistakes can also easily be made with serious consequences– false matches and other cases of mistaken identity, inaccurate factsor inferences, suspicions taken as reality, and breaches of security.'

And, in 2007, as if to demonstrate the veracity of Thomas’s fears, Privacy International, an NGO which monitors international privacy issues, ranked Britain forty-third out of forty-seven countries surveyed in terms of privacy protections. As the Conservative Party pointed out in its policy paper Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State, this result was only slightly better than that achieved by Russia and China.

In 2009 David Cameron ably summarised the scale and ferocity of the attack which Labour have led on our civil liberties:

The last twelve years of Labour government have diminished personal freedom and diluted political accountability . . . Today we are in danger of living in a control state. Almost a million innocent citizens are caught in the web of the biggest DNA database in the world – larger than that of any dictatorship. Hundreds of shadowy powers allow officials to force their way past your front door . . . Every month over1,000 surveillance operations are carried out, not just by law enforcement agencies but by other public bodies like councils and quangos. And the tentacles of the state can even rifle through your bins for juicy information.

For those who cherish our hard-won civil liberties and who understand the importance of ensuring that the state acts as servant and not as master, the case for reversing this rise is all too clear. And for those individuals, as will be seen below, the Conservative Party is the only party which guarantees that such an objective will be pursued as a matter of priority in government. But there are others who wonder what all the fuss is about, who maintain that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear. Yet, as Labour have demonstrated time and time again, there is plenty to fear. A few examples will serve to make this point. In 2006 we learned that some 2,700 individuals had falsely been labelled criminals as a result of checks run though the CriminalRecords Bureau. In 2007, the addresses, telephone numbers, religion and sexual orientation of hundreds of junior doctors were made openly available online after an error on an NHS website. Then, later in the year, we learned that HMRC had lost the records of twenty-five million people – which included everything from names to dates of birth to bank account details. Then, a month later, the DVLA admitted losing a hard drive containing the personal details of more than three million learner drivers. And one month after that, in January 2008, the MoD admitted losing a laptop which contained the personal details of 600,000 service personnel and individuals who had expressed interest in joining the armed forces.

As the Conservatives point out in Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State, Gordon Brown’s response to failures such as these was astonishing: ‘We can’t promise that every single item of informationwill always be safe.’ So, whether you take a principled stand in defence of civil liberties or a practical stand in defence of your own personal information,it is clear that the surveillance state needs to be rolled back. Under a Conservative government, action to dismantle the surveillance state would be swift. First and foremost, the Conservative Party has committed to reducing the number of large centralised databases and reducing the amount of personal details which are recorded by government (and to ensuring that where details are recorded, they are held only by specific authorities on a need-to-know basis).

The Conservatives have, for example, committed to scrapping the National Identity Register and the associated identity cards that Labour are so keen on. When it comes to ID cards (which, incidentally, would contain fifty pieces of personal information on the holder), the advantages of the system have yet to be established. As the Conservatives explain in the aforementioned policy paper, ‘one by one, each grandiose claim for ID cards has crumbled’. Indeed, even the former Minister of State for Security, Counter-terrorism, Crime and Policing, Tony McNulty MP, eventually admitted that ID cards weren’t the silver bullet Labour presented them to be: ‘Perhaps inthe past the government, in its enthusiasm, oversold the advantagesof identity cards.’

And as for the National Identity Register, its utility, if such can be said to exist, does not outweigh the inherent risk of storing such large volumes of personal information in one place. And as for information being held on a strictly need-to-know basis, the National DNA Database is a case in point for how far things have gone in the wrong direction. At this very moment the DNA of one million completely innocent people is being held indefinitely and without justification on the database. This is nothing short of a national disgrace. A Conservative government would end this practice. In Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State the party explains: ‘DNA should be retained only whilst a person remains subject to investigation or until criminal proceedings have concluded.’ Naturally, there would be a limited exception ‘for those charged with certain crimes of violence and serious sexual offences’. But even then, the DNA would be retained for no longer than five years. Secondly, the Conservatives would ‘restrict and restrain council access to personal communications data’. Time and time again we hear about local councils using surveillance powers, intended to assist in the fight against terrorism, inappropriately. From the family in Dorset who were followed for a number of weeks to see if they lived in their children’s school catchment area, to Broadland District Council’s use of a plane equipped with a thermal imaging camera to identify residents wasting too much energy, the need to rein councils in is all too clear.

A Conservative government would reform the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act 2000, which extended surveillance power to councils, restricting them to accessing communicationsdata only ‘for the purposes of assisting investigationinto serious crime’. And to ensure democratic accountability, only the council leader would be able to authorise such action.Thirdly, a Conservative government would strengthen the power of the Information Commissioner to hold the government to account. For example, the commissioner would be granted the power to carry out ad hoc inspections of government departments on their management of data. Crucially, where departments fell short of the mark the commissioner would be able to impose fines. Fourthly, the Conservative Party has committed to ensuring that in the future when the government wants to create new data-sharing powers – for example between government departments, quangos etc – it will have to do so by creating new primary legislation, rather than simply by order of the secretary of state (as Labour have previously attempted to do).

The temptation on the part of governments to grab new power has to be restricted; the Conservative Party would ensure that it is.Finally, the Conservatives would make one minister and one senior civil servant within each government department responsible for data security, although, naturally, the ultimate responsibility would rest with the minister. Without this kind of individual responsibility the incentive will always exist for politicians to pass the buck – as we saw when Labour blamed a junior civil servant for the HMRC data loss outlined above.

Civil liberties form the very foundation of our society. If we don’t vigorously protect them we will lose more than just our personal information, we’ll lose our way of life. A Conservative government would be as unrelenting in attacking the surveillance state and all the dangers that come with it as Labour are in placing the perceived interests of the state above the very real interests of individuals.

This is an extract from Why vote Conservative by Shane Greer (2010) published by BiteBack as one of six manifestoes. OurKingdom is running the sections from all of them on civil liberties. That makes three, as explained here

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