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Monday, February 23, 2009

Gamekeeper turns poacher

I never ceased to be amazed at the capacity of former Ministers to perform a full circle on policies and principles they held as sacrosanct when in office but now consider as inappropriate and dangerous.

I suppose that if you do not have the constant attention of civil servants and the media as you did when you held office then you have to be a bit creative so as to stay in the spotlight. In David Blunkett's case that involves embracing his former opponents on the civil liberties front so as to appear radical and left wing.

According to this morning's Independent, Mr. Blunkett, who introduced the idea of identity cards when Home Secretary, will issue a stark warning to the Government that it is in danger of abusing its power by taking Britain towards a “Big Brother” state. He will urge ministers to rethink policy and counter criticism from civil liberties campaigners that Labour is creating a “surveillance society.”

He is even quoted as saying: “The strength of our democracy is that we are able to challenge when the well-meaning, but sometimes misguided, take their own knowledge of the threats we face to be justification for protecting our mutual interest at the expense of our individual freedom. If we tolerate the intolerable, the intolerable gradually becomes the norm.”

A closer analysis of what Mr. Blunkett is actually saying however, presents a slightly different picture. He is now against a national ID card scheme though he agrees that they should be compulsory for foreign nationals and wants all UK citizens to be forced to own a passport. I would suggest that is largely the same scheme in another format.

He is in favour of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 but thinks that local Councils, not the UK Government note, have abused its provisions. He wants the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, to water down provisions in the Coroners and Justice Bill on data sharing between public bodies not because they are fundamentally wrong, but because they are likely to be misused. And he “remains to be convinced” about plans of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, for a giant central database to store records of phone calls, text messages and the websites people access.

His argument is that people’s rights are already being breached – not by the Government but by “private enterprise surveillance and intrusion, coupled with data theft, fraud and information and data insecurity”.

Essentially, Mr. Blunkett's argument is that the Government has done no wrong. It has all the right intentions but others have taken its laws and misused or misinterpreted them. These are the views of a pragmatist and a consummate politician who is seeking to reposition himself within the Labour Party not a civil libertarian.

Welcome as it is that Mr. Blunkett has joined those warning against the surveillance state, it is difficult to ignore his own record when in government and hard to see how he would do anything differently if he were to be given his old job back tomorrow.


He is in favour of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 but thinks that local Councils, not the UK Government note, have abused its provisions.
A former local government solicitor of my acquaintance has pointed out that councils were already able to carry out the surveillance objected to, under pre-existing legislation.
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