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Tory surveillance backlash: Worthy, but is it workable?

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Conservative proposals to roll back the surveillance state may score an A for effort – but maybe only a B for practicality.

Speaking today on the launch of Reversing the rise of the surveillance state, Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve MP condemned Labour's approach to databases and surveillance as "intrusive, ineffectual and enormously expensive".

The measures that they advocate - such as CCTV, ID cards and mass surveillance – are not just costly, at a time when austerity is the order of the day: they also have little to show in terms of personal security. Worse, in cases such as that of the Vetting and Barring Database, we are generating a false sense of security that will reduce the likelihood of citizens giving their time to the state – while doing little to achieve its supposed aim of protecting children.

Today’s launch set out five principles that the Conservative party intend to apply in government, as well as 11 specific proposals - or 12, if their response to the Vetting and Barring Database is now to be included.

The principles are:

- Fewer giant central government databases

- Fewer personal details held centrally, and those that are held only for specific purposes, for a limited period of time

- Individual control of when and how personal data is controlled

- Greater checks on data sharing between government departments, quangos and local councils

- Stronger duties on government to keep personal info safe

Proposals which the Conservative Party is now clearly signed up to include:

- Scrapping the National Identity Register and ContactPoint Database

- Restricting and restraining local council access to personal communications data

- Strengthening the audit powers and independence of the Information Commissioner

At a personal level, Dominic Grieve said: "These measures reflect the state of current finances, but they are not financially driven. I am personally concerned by the erosion of liberty and the changing relationship between citizen and state, the undermining of government by consent, and the destruction of individual involvement, which in the end is likely to involve placing a far greater burden on the state."

While the above will be music to the ears of many Reg readers, the devil, as always, is in the detail, and it is here that the Conservatives may fall down.

We asked whether the issue really was the propagation of an ID scheme, or whether this was just the inevitable result of legislation – such as the Licensing Act 2003 - that placed ever greater responsibilities on individual retailers, and making the demand for verifiable identity almost inevitable. Grieve recognised the issue, and observed that we could not turn the clock back.

There were greater needs for personal ID. However, what he was fighting was “the politician’s perception of pressure from the world to absolve them from blame”. In other words, schemes that were about back-covering, rather than practical solutions to real issues.

Another question related to the unholy influence of civil servants and Eurocrats. Many of the initiatives now up for review appeared to originate inside the Civil Service, rather than with government: would the Tories be any better at resisting such pressure? Grieve expressed the hope that they would.

The jury is out. There is not much that is new in today’s proposals, but they usefully bring together a number of things already stated by the Conservatives, and provides a single policy framework in which to situate them. Will they stick to their guns once in government? We may soon find out. ®

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