I SEEM to have caused something of a broohaha with my previous post about George Orwell.
Although I disagree with those who say we’re slipping towards a police state (just about everyone who commented on that post), I’m at least aware of the concerns that lead people to have such fears.
So you might be interested in the response I received to a letter I sent to the Home Office in August. It’s from Tony McNulty, and is dated 10 September. I’ll record it in full:
Thank you for your letter of 14 August to the Home Secretary in which you ask whether a particular press article you attached about the Government’s public consultation paper on the implementation of the European Data Retention Directive (Directive 2006/24/EC) is accurate. I am replying as Minister responsible for this area.
The Directive is about the retention of communications data by communications service providers (CSPs). Communications data is essentially the who, when and where of communication, such as a telephone call. It does not include the content of a communication. For some years, CSPs have retained communications data on a voluntary basis for 12 months either for their own business purposes or for use by a range of public authorities. The Directive makes the retention of communications data for 12 months mandatory rather, but it will have very little impact on the CSPs because for the most part they retain the data already. The first stage of the transposition of the Directive into UK law, which dealt with fixed line and mobile telephone communications, was agreed by parliament in July 2007 and came into effect on 1 October 2007. The second and final stage is how we deal with Internet communications.
The press article makes a number of incorrect assumptions. These include that the Directive would give local councils the power to access communications data to investigate crime (under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (‘RIPA’) they can do this already in certain circumstances) and that access to this information was originally intended to combat terrorism and serious crime. In fact, what Parliament did when it passed RIPA was to require that public authorities needing to use a variety of covert investigatory techniques only did so when it was necessary and proportionate and that human rights considerations were at the heart of their authorisation. Under RIPA local authorities may use some types of communications data (although not the type of data which identifies the location of a caller) in order to prevent or detect crime or disorder. This is usually used to investigate such areas as housing benefit fraud and in the field of consumer protection. This contrasts with the intelligence and some law enforcement agencies which are able under RIPA to access a wider range of communications data for national security and and serious crime purposes. The Directive will not extend any public authority’s access to communications data, but rather ensure that the communications data continues to be retained in order to be accessed when RIPA permits.
The use of communications data is central to a range of work carried out by public authorities. The consultation paper on the Directive provides a number of examples of how communications data has been used. For example, it was used by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre to identify child sex offenders leading to the arrest of 96 suspects in March to June 2008 and by Greater Manchester Police to locate and prevent a woman from taking her own life. As another example, the Ambulance Service uses communications data to locate individuals who have called 999 but are unable to say where they are, or to identify hoax callers. These are important, indeed life-saving, functions. Of course, communications data is very useful in combating terrorism and protecting national security, but it is also used, quite properly, for a wide range of other purposes.
You may like to see the consultation paper itself. It gives a full explanation of the Directive and the draft Regulations which we propose to use to implement it. It also provides an analysis of the costs associated with the implementation of the Directive. The consultation paper is at:
Now, I don’t expect that libertarians will look at this letter, or any argument in favour of RIPA, and change their minds. But there has clearly been some exaggeration of what RIPA does. Surely no-one can have any objection to the use of these powers to gather evidence against paedophiles?
The gist of most of the comments on the original post is that the primary reason for Labour’s current unpopularity is the civil liberties agenda and the perception that our rights are being diminished. But if that were the case, then that anger has only emerged in the last 14 months; after all, Labour were 10 points ahead in September last year. If my correspondents are as tuned into public opinion as they claim, then not only will Labour lose the next election, but we will end up with fewer MPs than the Liberals. No poll suggests this will happen, just as no poll has corroborated the claim that this issue is to the fore of most voters’ concerns, ahead of, say, the economy or crime.
And how significant is it, I wonder, that some of the comments posted here had a distinct bullying, even threatening tone and intent? I’m guessing that the arithmetic fact regarding the number of MPs versus the number of British citizens is a popular refrain/T-shirt logo among libertarians.
Also there is the allegation that the “War on Terror” is some kind of cynical manoeuvre by the government which is trying to use it as cover to remove civil liberties. Allow me to offer my perspective.
I do understand people’s cynicism about anti-terrorist legislation. But I don’t accept that that cynicism is as widespread as my critics suggest. Indeed, I have no doubt that a significant majority of ordinary voters would be entirely comfortable with significantly more “draconian” measures (not exactly how I would describe them) than what has already been proposed and enacted. That does not necessarily mean those members of the public are right, of course, but it’s worth re-stating that fact.
I wonder if those who oppose the government’s anti-terrorist agenda would care to put themselves in my shoes? I genuinely believe – rightly or wrongly – that Islamism (as opposed to Islam) represents the greatest and deadliest threat to our society. I believe that the aim of the terrorists is not to bring about a reduction in our civil liberties, but rather to kill as many people as possible – the more the better.
As a Member of Parliament, I feel I should place the safety and security of my constituents and fellow citizens above every other consideration. You may disagree that the threat exists, in which case you will naturally disagree with the measures I have supported. But if you accept that I believe the threat exists, then you must surely understand that I can do no other than to take steps to combat that threat as I perceive it.
I accept that there are a lot of people in our country who fear for our liberties, and who predict an Orwellian distopian future. I have no problem with individuals expressing and explaining those views on this blog (although, in answer to one person who commented earlier today: yes, I did moderate one comment to delete a swear word, and I deleted another because it contained an offensive term. No apologies. My rules). But you know something? You are in a tiny minority. The vast majority of your fellow citizens believe we live in a free country, where we are free to express our views, free to demonstrate against the government, free to read others’ opinions in a free press, protected by a robust framework of rights. And they’re right.
That’s the reality of life in Britain today.
One other point that was raised in the thread to which I feel I should respond: I have always, and always will, put my country and my constituents before my party. But I wouldn’t still be a member of the Labour Party if I didn’t believe that Labour’s programme and policies represented the best options and remedies for our nation.
But if libertarians, or anyone else, are going to send me free books, can I suggest that instead of sending me a book I’ve got two copies of already, you might consider a P.G. Wodehouse?
UPDATE at 7.40 pm: I’m in the process of drafting one final post on this subject, responding to more of the arguments made here today. It will be published at precisely 12 noon tomorrow (Sunday).