Has anyone else noted the proliferation of frankly creepy posters emanating from government agencies of late?
You know the one’s I mean, where the subtext of the poster is ‘beware, we’re watching you!”
From memory, it all seemed to start with the TV Licencing Authority and their posters which proudly announced that, thanks to their new computer system, they now knew every address in the UK that didn’t have a TV licence. As I recall, this threw up several reports of people being harassed and hassled about getting a TV licence even after writing several times to point out that the reason they didn’t have a licence was because they didn’t own a television, a concept the TV Licencing Authority seem rather reluctant to accept.
Next, I suppose, came the one’s from the DVLA which informed us, the general public, that they now had records of everyone who had an hadn’t paid their road tax – so anyone failing to inform them that their car was off the road would automatically be fined if their tax disc expired and wasn’t renewed immediately. Again there’s that ‘we’re watching you’ thing going on.
Now, outside the shop down the road, a new poster’s appeared – this time from the Department of Work and Pensions – you can actually see it for yourself below…
I first noted this whole business of the DWP appearing to be able to dip into all manner of information that most people would consider completely private back in June – I actually called the post ‘Did I miss something?‘ as I couldn’t for the life of me recall quite when or where the government had legally assigned itself the power to dip into people’s private financial [and other] records; records that most people would assume were outside the scope of government investigators without, at least, obtaining a proper warrant.
Well it seems I did miss something, a pretty big something in fact, namely a whole Act of Parliament; the Social Security Fraud Act 2001. Oddly enough, I’m guessing most people missed this one as well as the bill passed through its third reading in what must have been at most 10 minutes and without challenge from either opposition party and, therefore, without a division [vote] on the bill (Hansard: 1st May 2001, column 811-814).
The list of information sources that the DWP can access without a warrant and without the knowledge of individual under suspicion is, to say the least, extensive to the point of being staggering, and includes records held by:
(a) any bank;
(b) any person carrying on a business the whole or a significant part of which consists in the provision of credit (whether secured or unsecured) to members of the public;
(c) any insurance company (within the meaning of the Insurance Companies Act 1982 (c. 50));
(d) any credit reference agency (within the meaning given by section 145(8) of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 (c. 39));
(e) any body the principal activity of which is to facilitate the exchange of information for the purpose of preventing or detecting fraud;
(f) any person carrying on a business the whole or a significant part of which consists in the provision to members of the public of a service for transferring money from place to place;
(g) any water undertaker or sewerage undertaker, any water and sewerage authority constituted under section 62 of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 (c. 39) or any authority which is a collecting authority for the purposes of section 79 of that Act;
(h) any person who (within the meaning the Gas Act 1986 (c. 44)) supplies gas conveyed through pipes;
(i) any person who (within the meaning of the Electricity Act 1989 (c. 29)) supplies electricity conveyed by distribution systems;
(j) any person who provides a telecommunications service;
(k) any person conducting any educational establishment or institution;
(l) any body the principal activity of which is to provide services in connection with admissions to educational establishments or institutions;
(m) the Student Loans Company;
In fact, looking at that list, pretty much the only thing a DWP investigator doesn’t have access to is the loose change in your pocket.
And when can an investigator exercise these powers?
Well according to the Act when there a ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe that an individual “has committed, is committing or intends to commit a benefit offence” – its also worth noting that this power to obtain information from any or all of these sources of information extends not just to the individual under investigation but also to their ‘family’ – which under the official meaning of the term includes their partner (married or unmarried) and any dependents.
Okay. So you may well be thinking ‘well, what’s the problem here if this is all about preventing and detecting benefit fraud?’.
Well call me picky, if you must, but where in all this is the oversight and the accountability? Where are the checks and balances to prevent these powers being abused, to prevent the DWP intruding on matters which the vast majority of honest people would consider deeply personal and private?
Nowhere that I can see.
If you have been investigated then you may well find out, eventually, that the DWP have been rooting around in all manner of personal financial records – but only if their investigation turns up something and you end being taken to court and prosecuted.
How many people get their financial records ‘pulled’ each year without ever knowing its happened to them because the investigators find nothing to investigate? Do the DWP even record such things? Do they compile statistics for investigations which lead nowhere?
Who knows? [There’s at least a couple of good written Parliamentary questions in this, if there are any takers]
As far as I can see there simply is no external oversight in this system. No one to check whether these powers are being used correctly and only where there are genuinely reasonable grounds to use them; well, no one independent of the DWP anyway.
Maybe I’ve spent too much time watching US ‘Police Procedural’ series like the excellent ‘Law and Order’ but I genuinely have this rather strange idea [to the present government and, in this case, to parliament as well] that in order to exercise powers which allow them to snoop into all manner of things I’d consider private, an investigator – whether its the Police or a civilian such as a DWP fraud investigator – should have their ‘belief’ that there are reasonable grounds to intrude into someome’s private affairs and the evidence to support that belief put to the test and considered by an independent arbiter; i.e. a judge, and that such investigations should only be carried out under a legal warrant.
This is what, in the US, is termed ‘probable cause’ and was thought so important that a whole amendment to the US constitution [the fourth] was put in place specifically to ensure that the state could not carry out searches which intrude on the citizen’s right to privacy without demonstrating that it had a good cause to do so. It’s something we don’t have in this country, not in the manner in which it exists in the US and it largely because of its absence that the government has, over the last eight years, been able to pass whole reams of legislation which allow it to intrude into the private lives of its citizens without only itself as arbiter of when such intrusions are justified and only itself, again, to check to see whether its applying its own rules correctly.
Constitutionally speaking, the one, in fact the only, solid bulwark we have against the creation of a police state in Britain is the oversight provided by our independent judiciary. Unlike the US we lack the clear separation between the executive and legislature recommended by the Baron de Montesque’s model of the ideal state; within our system of government the only counterbalance we have to keep the government in check is our legal system and, in particular, the independence of the judiciary – that is a fact.
So when, as has been the case for the last eight years, we have a government who takes every possible opportunity to minimise the role of the judiciary in scrutinising its actions; which through countless proposals, Bills and Acts of Parliament, has sought throughout to bypass the courts at every possible opportunity, should we not be more than a little concerned at the direction this country is heading?
In 1988, in his foreword to his seminal graphic novel ‘V for Vendetta’, Alan Moore wrote:
“It’s 1988 now. Margaret Thatcher is entering her third term of office and talking confidently of an unbroken Conservative leadership well into the next century. My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for people with AIDS. The new riot police wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. Its cold and its meanspirited and I don’t like it here anymore.
Goodnight England. Goodnight Home Service and V for Victory.
Hello the Voice of Fate and V for Vendetta”
Wind forward seventeen years and…
It’s 2005 now. Tony Blair is entering his third term of office and talking confidently of an unbroken New Labour leadership well into the next decade and beyond. My youngest daughter is five and we now have people living in this country under indefinite house arrest but only since indefinite imprisonment without charge has been ruled unlawful. The riot police still wear black visors, as do their horses. Video cameras are everywhere, on our roads and in our High Streets, in our shops and our workplaces. Parliament Square is closed to peaceful protest and dissent. The government is trying to make our very identity the property of the State and wants to charge us for the privilege. I’d like to take my family and get out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years, but where can I go? Where is there left to escape to? The world has become cold and meanspirited, driven only by the desire for profit and I really don’t like it here anymore.
Goodnight England. Goodnight Home Service and V for Victory.
Hello the Voice of Fate and V for Vendetta.
All we can do is fight back.
Update: Two interesting links to articles at Spyblog who, as ever, are on the case and watching developments closely (pulled from the comments)