Cockle Rustlers under Surveillance

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.

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