Technology may be changing, but should be moving further away from the basic principles of a democratic society as a result?
On the one hand, it’s argued this is an essential tool needed to protect national security. So surely the Government should have moved to ensure it is in place before the Olympics?
On the other hand, today it has been presented as a tweak to existing laws, updating them to reflect modern communications. Strange then that a technical legislative revision is being given prime billing in the Queen’s speech.
The Home Secretary and her ministers have been invisible, either incapable or unwilling to defend a policy that has caused concern and dismay from ordinary members of the public and civil liberties campaigners alike.
Many will be surprised that a Government supposedly committed to protecting civil liberties is discussing policies it branded as unacceptable when Labour were in power. Unfortunately, this is the latest such area of policy where the Home Office is presiding over such a U-Turn, following broken promises over the DNA Database and the powers officials have to enter our homes.
Indeed, we still do not know the full detail of the proposals, forced to rely on snippets leaked to newspapers or briefed out by concerned civil servants. While the Government believes if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear, it seems that does not apply to their own policies. What we do know is that not only does this involve more data being retained, but ‘black boxes’ run by the security services being installed onto networks. Given that Google last year refused 37% of the applications made to it for user data, how will any check or balance operate when we have allowed the spooks to build a back-door into our communications networks.
The plans also carry an economic cost. The cost to businesses of storing vast quantities of data is not insignificant, while start-up companies may regard the burden as simply too great to bear, taking their innovation and jobs elsewhere.
Equally, service providers will be hit with new costs at a time when they are also being asked to invest in new, high-speed fibre optic and under this scheme, the greater the volume of data they carry, the greater the cost to their business. Investment, innovation and growth will all suffer.
Finally, it is far from clear that the policy will actually improve public safety, with serious threats driven underground and technical evasion becoming common place. Given the importance of encryption and private networks to ensuring data protection, it is unclear how this policy with deal with legitimate and necessary – and legal – measures to protect the privacy of communications.
While it is important to keep pace with internet connections arguably the most pressing issue for our security is the continued availability of unregistered, pre-pay mobile phones. As recognised in the 7/7 Inquest, increased surveillance does not automatically yield better results, and the way these ‘operational’ phones were used was found to render enhanced surveillance of little use in preventing the attack.
There is also the potential of a ‘honey pot’ effect, with foreign governments and malicious individuals focusing their energy on gaining sight of the data collected. Privacy and security do indeed go hand in hand.
Britain is already one of the most spied on countries off-line and this is a shameful attempt to watch everything we do online in the same way. The vast quantities of data that would be collected would arguably make it harder for the security services to find threats before a crime is committed, and involve a wholesale invasion of all our privacy online that is hugely disproportionate and wholly unnecessary.
Freedom of speech and association requires the ability to communicate in private. Logging who you are talking to, when, for how long and where is the kind of monitoring that chills freedoms, not defends them.
In a democratic society, it is not for innocent civilians to justify why the Government should not spy on them.
First published on Conservative Home:
I’ve been working in the music industry for the best part of a decade and the animosity that remains towards our party is not dissimilar to the reaction I faced when I was our candidate in Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. I’d spent my whole life there and yet overnight some people I’d played football with as a teenager or worked with in local pubs simply stopped talking to me.
We assume at our peril this is a superficial problem, a relic of a bygone political age. Noel Gallagher’s interview in the Mail on Sunday has been lauded by some as ‘proof’ that Lady Thatcher’s detractors in the North are misguided. Yet it poses a far more complicated question that should remind us why we are a long way from being a viable electoral force in the North, in Scotland and in many urban areas across the country. When those who agree with us would still rather vote for a pirate than vote Conservative, what are we doing to change this?
I grew up in an environment where the main argument about money was that the state took too much. Yes, most Yorkshire folk will generally complain about the price of everything, but the price of Government was an unavoidable part of the political debate.
How could people provide for their families when the state took more and more of your wage? The impetus of low taxes was that if you put the effort in, you would be rewarded. The state wouldn’t get in the way, and you could get on. We won’t force you to work, but don’t complain that those who graft are rewarded more than you.
Work was a noble endeavour, to be respected irrespective of the reward. When the reward for work becomes disconnected from the effort required, you get riots and you get Fred Goodwin.
Then in 1997 the terms of debate changed. Rather than people complaining that they were taxed too much, the Labour party made the debate about people not receiving enough back in benefits. The middle classes came to rely on – and arguably expect – benefits in a way that Thatcher never allowed. It is this cultural shift that now means someone like Noel Gallagher feels the Labour party no longer represents him.That single change did more to keep Labour in power and created the payroll vote that was a very real political consequence of the gargantuan welfare state. No longer a safety net, but a fact of life for three out of every four families.
We as a party have still not challenged this notion. Universal benefits remain a concept that defy logic, but are still a part of the ‘too risky’ policy pile.
The Universal credit will do much to address the administration of benefits, reducing administrative cost, but the terms of debate remain as they were in 1997. We have argued that the welfare bill was too high, but when was the last time we made the argument that lower taxes were the way to encourage work?
More than that, when it comes to Europe, immigration, crime, school discipline and countless other policy areas, people with ‘working class’ backgrounds are absolutely more Conservative than some of the more liberal areas we regard as ‘safe.’ And still they do not vote for us.
In failing to recognise that this barrier to electoral success is more than simply about being seen as a ‘nice’ party and everything to do with how we are not trusted to both reward work and protect the interests of those who work, we do not offer a viable alternative to the thousands of Labour voters who turned out in 2010 and voted for Gordon Brown, but did so reluctantly.
If we accept that the terms of debate are about how much the state should distribute, and that it is easier – and involves fewer policy risks - to win three seats in the south east than ten in the North, then we will never break out of the thirty-something percent bracket. Relying on the unpopularity of our opponents is not a strategy for victory, but a tactic to mitigate the risk of defeat.
Nothing we have done has planted the flag in the North and represented a rallying cry for disillusioned Labour voters. Taking people out of the tax system altogether does not foster responsibility, it perpetuates the same ‘something for nothing’ culture that Labour voters are passionately rejecting. Contribution, however small, shares the burden of social ownership in a way that builds communities.
We have the opportunity to redefine the political landscape that not only offers people like Noel Gallagher a viable alternative, but a social imperative to vote Conservative. To do that requires bold policies and speaking to the values that working people hold true, not just those who voted Conservative in 2010. It absolutely means taking risks.
This cannot – and must not be allowed to – take three years and the selection of candidates. We are in Government, so let us lead the debate.
Slowly, we are waking up to the enormous risk to personal privacy posed by the misuse of personal information.
Big Brother Watch’s report into the data protection breaches in the NHS highlighted a number of harrowing individual cases. However, the wider cultural question is the one which should be of greatest concern.
In an age when ever more personal information is collected as a matter of routine by both the public and private sector, how that information is held and protected is of critical importance. When that information is of the kind of sensitive details found in medical records, lax attitudes towards confidentiality and privacy are unacceptable.
Despite the much publicised decision to scrap the last Government’s NHS IT boondoggle, one element was quietly retained – the Summary Care Record.
As highlighted by our report ‘Broken Records’, this system will allow more than 100,000 non-medical staff access to patient information, with no requirement or check that they have any need to see the contents of a record.
There are clear steps that can be taken. Proper audit trails of who accesses records – assigned to individuals, not terminals – will add accountability, and much more robust training about the importance of privacy.
This kind of measures will help develop a more rigorous and respectful culture around personal information. Equally important is the work being done by a range of groups to highlight the incidents that would otherwise go unreported and to keep up the pressure for more attention to be paid to the problem.
Furthermore, there are two fundamental changes that are of a more serious nature. Firstly, infringing the privacy of someone – be they a patient, customer or marketing database entry – should be treated far more seriously. Verbal warnings and counselling appear frequently in the research we conduct, and only in a small proportion is employment terminated.
Secondly, the penalties under the Data Protection Act are clearly inadequate. The corporate penalty is of insignificance to the large organisations that hold the most information, while individuals are likely to escape with a small fine.
There is also a broader question that should be asked much more frequently – how much information is needed to provide the service in the first place? Big Brother Watch will be talking much more in future about the tendency of organisations in both the public and private sector to harvest as much information as possible. Simply, the greater the volume of information held, the greater the risk to our privacy.
There is one final, legislative step that requires urgent attention. The Justice Select Committee was the latest body to call for prison sentences to be available to judges presiding over cases involving breaches of the Data Protection Act, a move Big Brother Watch had previously said is much needed along with the Information Commissioner.
This power has already been legislated; however it remains to be enacted.
If the Coalition is serious about civil liberties and protecting privacy, delaying further on giving courts the tools to protect our personal information is unforgivable.
Europe may be back, but why is it even on the radar? Because there’s a vacuum at the heart of Government, and at the heart of the Conservative Party.
A rebellion is far more likely when there’s nothing for your supporters to rally behind. So it is even more worrying that the leadership of the Conservative party has had no detail, no vision, to offer backbench MPs and party activists on an issue that was always going to come up.
The crisis in the Eurozone has been on the agenda for so long now it is amazing how surprised Downing Street seems to have been taken by the whole thing. I have yet to hear a single clear policy objective from the Government, the main narrative has been about membership of the EU and the danger of withdrawal.
If you offer a vision, a way forward, then you can make the case for rejecting a course of action that would undermine your objective. That is why detail matters on what a Conservative government would do, if the Lib Dems are the issue, or alternatively what the Coalition will do at a treaty change.
Simply, because nobody knows what the Coalition wants to see from Europe - or indeed what a Conservative government would want to do - the only course of action available is what has been put infront of the house today. The underlying reason will not be dealt with by political discipline, and indeed does nothing to address the clear public concern on the issue.
David Cameron should have come to the house today with a clear plan of what he would do in the coming months, and offered leadership.
In arguing against change - rather than in favour of his own vision - he only added fuel to the fire and drove his MPs to rebellion.
If there’s one thing that winds me up, it’s MPs who have a wonderful ability to forget the recent past and absolve themselves of any responsibility.
So when Yvette Cooper turns up blaming ‘cuts’ for the proposed closure to Pontefract Hospital’s A&E Department I was particularly incensed, given I spent months shouting about the issue - it was front page on the election leaflet I delivered to every home across Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford; I raised it at every public meeting I spoke at;and I spoke to the local media about it. It holds a special significance for me, because I was born in Pontefract Hospital.
I warned that the range of facilities at the new Pontefract Hospital meant it was all but inevitable full A&E services would not continue. This was dismissed as ’scaremongering’ by Yvette’s team. For her to now claim to be on the side of those of us who have seen this coming for years is not only disingenuous but downright offensive.
I repeatedly highlighted the warnings passed to me by staff that the new hospital was not going to have a range of facilities essential for running a full A&E. No acute care beds, no emergency ambulance bays, no morgue.I asked whether we had been misled over the new A&E, while Yvette didn’t even think the new hospital worthy of a mention on her election address. (Below)
And heaven forbid we ask who the Junior Health Minister was at the time the new hospital plans were being finalised? Yes, one Yvette Cooper.
Every decision made concerning Pontefract Hospital was taken under a Labour government. From the grossly expensive PFI deal that has seen parikng charges rocket to the lack of ambulance bays and facilities essential to running a full A&E, there is only one thing Yvette should be saying today and that is sorry.
The three wise men (or stooges, depending on your perspective) of Labour’s comeback have hailed their new policies over the past few days - seemingly without any sense of irony that they are not exactly on solid ground as far as credibility is concerned.
Ed Miliband: “We will cut tuition fees to £6,000.”
– Labour Manifesto, 1997: “We will not introduce tuition fees.”
– Tuition fees introduced in 1998.
– Labour Manifesto 2001: “We will not introduce top-up fees.”
– Top-up fees introduced in 2004, trebling the level of fees.
Ken Livingstone:”I will cut fares”
– Between 2005 and 2007, the single Oyster bus fare under Livingstone rose by 42 per cent (from 70p to £1)
–In 2007, there was a 25 per cent increase in the off-peak Oyster bus fare, greater than any rise Boris has imposed on it.
Ed Balls:”we will set out for our manifesto tough fiscal rules that the next Labour government will have to stick to”
– In 2006, Treasury figures showed that Chancellor Brown would have broken his ‘Golden Rule’ by £2.5bn. So he moved the dates of the economic cycle.
Today, David Cameron had this to say to Parliament on the role of technology in the recent riots:
“Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.
“So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality. I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.”
It is a sad indictment of how poorly technology is understood in Government that this even made it into the statement. Aside from the fact that Blackberry Messenger is not a social network, the Whitehall response of blaming social media and BBM for the riots is only made worse by their proposed solution - let us see everything, or shut it down.
It’s a further sign of how inadequate the police’s intelligence gathering remains when so much of the discussion between those involved in the disorder took place in public forums.
To shut down social networking would require both shutting down the internet and mobile phone comms. Whether that is even possible, and ignoring the enormous economic impact it would have, the fact it is being considered should send a chill wind through the whole country.
Civil unrest - and indeed wars between nations - began, and were organised, long before modern technology. Technology facilitates faster action, but the underlying issues remain the same.
William Hague’s interview with Andrew Marr during the uprisings in Egypt offer an alternative viewpoint, which was clearly illustrated in a subsequent statement.
“The abuse of internet and mobile networks and, in particular, today’s increased intimidation and harassment of journalists, are unacceptable and disturbing.”
The disclosure that the Government is actively discussing web-blocking will come as no surprise to many following the debate – but the fact that the confirmation had to be secured through an FOI request should be of real concern.
The inclusion of the Digital Economy Act in the wash up dramatically curtailed public debate around the significant powers contained within it. Whatever your views on the copyright and civil liberties issues involved, it was an affront to the democratic process for such a piece of legislation to be rushed through far from the glare of public scrutiny. Furthermore, the resulting legislation suffered massively from a lack of input and debate, in an area of policy that is absolutely central to Britain’s future as a digital knowledge economy.
It should be deeply troubling that the web blocking – and associated issues of net neutrality – are being pursued in a similar fashion. It appears that the rights holders group (which includes the BPI, UK Music, the Publishers’ Association and the Premier League; plus Google, Yahoo! BT, Virgin and TalkTalk) is already setting the narrative for the debate, with minimal input from outside groups.
There are a myriad of technical issues, civil liberties questions and economic development concerns associated with web blocking and the state taking on a role of internet censorship, many of which will be discussed on this blog in future.
However, the pressing challenge is simply to open up the debate on web blocking before it is too late and vested interests once again prevail.
Earlier this week, Ed Miliband took to twitter for a Q&A session under the hashtag #askEdM.
So did a number of activists who were certainly not EdMili supporters. The Mail in particular highlighted this claiming Ed’s session had ‘backfired’. They were part of the camp that thought somehow the questions put to Ed would damage him. They included whether he felt “bad about stabbing your brother in the back?” “Why don’t you buy some Vicks?” “Was Brutus an Honourable Man? Discuss.”
The result? Lots of folk proclaiming success (on both sides) and lots of Westminster bubble noise about how brilliant the idea was. It’s seemed to me that the anti-Ed brigade has managed to drum up more media coverage and (in a rather self-congratulatory way) mocked the people who had the idea in the first place.
My view? I’ve better things to do with my time than send inane questions to the leader of the opposition on Twitter. (This to me definitely falls into the ‘twatter’ category) More to the point, it’s entirely laudable and as US politics (and more recently Mumsnet politics) has shown, reaching out online (if done like a normal, coherent human and not Gordon Brown) can actually improve political dialogue and win new support.
Not one of the ‘funny’ questions will win the tories a single vote. Moreso, if Labour’s comms team wasn’t totally incompetent, they’d have been hailing Ed’s resolve in sticking with it in spite of the ‘nasty’ and ‘juvenile’ efforts of others to disrupt a genuinely open minded coversation that Ed was reaching out with. (as evidenced, however weakly, by Ed responding to some of the negative questions.)
Social media is an opportunity to re-engage people who have been forgotten or neglected by recent political events. It’s also an opportunity to behave like petty schoolchildren infront of a worldwide audience. On one side of that line you can shape the future, while on the other you can complain you don’t like what’s happening.
This is a classic case of the Westminster bubble being very excitable about not very much, and the rest of the country watching on asking what on earth everyone is babbling on about and when they’ll start talking about things that really matter.