Four times in the past three years, powers designed to catch terrorists have been deployed against potential cockle rustlers on the sands outside Poole Harbour in Dorset. I kid you not. The Independent newspaper yesterday reported that Poole Borough Council had used the sweeping surveillance of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), otherwise known as RIPA, to police the cockle fishermen of Dorset.
RIPA was intended (the government told us in 2000) merely to update for the internet age the old Interception of Communications Act (1985) that for the first time had regulated the intrusive surveillance carried out by spooks and police. In fact, the Grim RIPA massively expanded state intrusion into our personal lives, so that nine government organizations, including the security services and police, and 792 public authorities (of which 474 are local councils) now have the powers to snoop on our private communications, and then some.
In fact, documents disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act suggest that Poole Borough Council may have the dubious distinction of being the nosiest in the UK, using RIPA not only to police its waters, but also to check on the residential status of locals, damage caused to traffic barriers or other minor infractions. Hardly the stuff of James Bond.
Inadvertently, Poole Council has provided a classic case of reductio ad absurdum, but this can be useful in highlighting more serious flaws.
In the last decade we have seen a slew of laws passed by our elected representatives in parliament that are potentially dangerous to our democracy and way of life. All these laws have been whipped through parliament, and the media has tended not to give them much consideration.
One such law that springs to mind is the Civil Contingencies Act (2004). This was passed with barely a murmur and, in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis, was deemed to be A Good Thing. However, the devil is always in the detail. This law allows any senior government minister, at the stroke of a pen, to declare a 30 day state of emergency. Under these terms, the authorities can prevent our free association at political meetings or demonstrations, they can quarantine us, or prevent us moving freely around our country. They can even seize our homes, demolish them, and not have to pay a penny in compensation, as this will have been done to protect “national security”.
But the real stinker was the draft of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act (2006). If Blair had succeeded in passing this law, it would have spelled the end of 700 years of parliamentary democracy in Britain. Had the original draft been approved, any senior government minister could have abolished any law previously passed by our Houses of Parliament.
Not for nothing was this nicknamed the “Abolition of Parliament Bill” (well, that and the fact that its formal title is a tongue-twister – try saying it out loud!). Following a citizens’ campaign, the Bill was watered down as it passed through the Houses of Parliament. However, even though limited safeguards have been introduced, ministers are still in a position to tinker with any British laws except the Human Rights Act. So, the tendency for authoritarian government may have been reined in this time, but we need to remain vigilant.
Many people are aware and are also apprehensive of how these laws could be misused against the citizens of the UK if a more ruthless and draconian government were in power. Many commentators say we are sleep-walking towards a police state. The tragedy is that we are pretty much there – most of the necessary laws are in place. It is time for us all to re-engage in the democratic process and halt this rush towards a completely unaccountable government.