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Neighbourhood Watch 2.0: Your tensions are being monitored

Blears unveils multi-agency snoop squad blueprint

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Community cohesion? You know it makes sense. Once your local community starts to get the slightest bit incoherent you're on the slippery slopes - riots, meltdown of national institutions then global revolution are only a few short steps away.

Fortunately, here in the UK we have the Department of Communities & Local Government and its useful document, Guidance for local authorities on community cohesion contingency planning and tension monitoring (pdf), to save us from ourselves. The document, described by the estimable Spyblog as "poisonous", tells how local government bodies should plan their response to growing signs of non-cohesion, and urges them to set up 'multi-agency tension monitoring groups' to spot incoming incoherence.

Which is where it gets weird. The three national indicators for cohesion, we are told, are the percentage of people who believe people from different backgrounds get on well together in their local areas; the percentage of people who feel they belong to their neighbourhood; and the percentage of people who have meaningful interactions with people from different backgrounds.

So, if you regard your house as just somewhere you live rather part of a 'community', if you hardly ever speak to your neighbours and if you're doubtful if they get on with one another either, you're at least symptomatic of The Problem, and you might even be part of it. And there you were thinking that this kind of stand-offishness was the sort of thing that made you properly British.

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears has plans for people like you. The tension monitoring groups will not be directly recording the number of times a week you talk to your neighbours, but step out of line and they'll undoubtedly take an interest.

The groups should be made up of "key partners from the statutory sector (eg housing, community safety, education, fire service, health, probation/youth offending team, community workers, neighbourhood wardens and police community support officers, National Asylum Support Service), and relevant representatives from the voluntary, community and faith sectors," and should be keeping an eye on numerous pieces of data.

These would include police crime statistics and intelligence reports, intelligence from neighbourhood wardens and community workers, casework from local councillors and feedback from local community organisations. The bodies would consider "details of new arrivals, refugees and asylum seekers and Gypsy and Traveller communities in the local area", gang and turf conflicts, neighbour disputes, noise nuisance, political extremism and media reports (see page 18 of the document for the full list).

"Extremist" candidates (the document doesn't define them) standing at local elections, local demonstrations, "issues" potentially detrimental to community cohesion and "local political situations" are all grist to the tension monitoring group's mill.

And aside from the local inputs for these neighbourhood watch committees on acid, they should also be keeping tabs on "major incidents which threaten community cohesion" at home and abroad. Music too loud at number 99? Strange peroxide smells from 57? EUFA Cup final? Another assassination attempt on Hamid Karzai? It's all part of the tension monitoring group's remit, apparently.

Perplexingly, although the document coyly talks of "disorder" and mentions one smallish riot (approximately 150 participants), it seems not to consider the possibility that policing might on occasion be in some way responsible for increased community tensions. Not that this has ever happened in the past, and anyway it wasn't their fault.

The members of the monitoring group should be able to "share information efficiently on a routine basis, with information recorded on "a common template." This would give details of any cohesion-threatening incident, including "relevant details of the victim(s) and perpetrator(s)", "what is believed to have motivated the situation/incident" and "whether the incident has been picked up by the media and the angle of the reporting".

The document recommends that "As far as possible, the data provided under tension monitoring arrangements should not be 'personal data' i.e. it does not identify individuals and could not be used to identify individuals in conjunction with other information". This does however seem overly optimistic, considering the nature of the 'intelligence' the monitoring groups are intended to consider, and apparently leaves the groups vulnerable to Freedom of Information Act requests.

But "the FOIA defines particular circumstances in which public bodies are not necessarily obliged to disclose" and "You may wish to take into account the possible damage which disclosure would do by identifying areas at risk of disturbance. If the identity of an area became known sections of the media might publicise this. This could in turn create an expectation of disorder." The subtext here would seem to be 'refuse all FOIA requests and play the get out of jail card'.

And what about the members of the group themselves? What if they leak? There are, says the document, risks attached to the release of tension monitoring information. "If details of specific incidents found their way into the public domain they may lead to retaliatory activity and heightened fears and tensions."

So "aggregated tension reports" should only be passed down to the partners contributing the raw data "where an explicit agreement has been reached with them about how that information can be used." Then, the information should be shared only for the purposes of the partner organisation and not outside of it, and the partners should agree how they will use the information, and what they propose to do in relation to it. Here's your gagging order - sign here if you want to play Neighbourhood Watch 2.0. ®

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