Mark Thomas. (Columns)

New Statesman (1996), June 24, 2002 | Go to article overview

Mark Thomas. (Columns)


Blunkett revels in playing the hard man: he's the Millwall FC of Labour. For him to say he got it wrong is to enter new emotional territory, like admitting a need to read Iron John

David Blunkett's decision to delay the introduction of new Labour's updated "snoopers' charter", officially known as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, is to be cheered, but with caution. Blunkett normally likes to portray human rights as an issue for the chattering classes. Had he been around in Soviet Russia, he would no doubt have labelled Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a "middle-class Leningrad liberal" who never got his hands dirty and was too clever for his own good. Blunkett revels in playing the hard man.

He is the Millwall FC of Labour, the type who'd probably lead chants of "I am Blunkett,/David Blunkett./No one likes me;/I don't care". So for him actually to admit that "we got it wrong" is new emotional territory It is the political equivalent of Blunkett admitting a need to read Iron John, smear rabbit's blood on his body and drum naked in the woods with a men's group.

That admission and the indefinite delay of the RIP act proves not only the strength of public hostility towards the bill, but also the patent absurdity of it.

If passed, the RIP act would have allowed 24 categories of public body automatic access to the phone, internet and e-mail records of virtually every person in the country. It would have given seven Whitehall departments, various government agencies and all local councils, among other institutions, unparalleled access to our private lives. They would have found out who we talk to, who we e-mail, and what websites we visit. They would have been be able to demand information about a persons sexual orientation or political beliefs, direct from BT or its rivals, which would simply have had to comply.

It is baffling enough why, for instance, the Food Standards Agency, or the Department for Work and Pensions, should have instant access to our e-mail, phone and internet records. However, in among the list of bodies covered by the RIP act was "any local authority (within the meaning of section 1 of the Local Government Act 1999)". Which covers not just local councils, but also parish councils - or, in the absence of a standing council, a parish meeting.

This means that, had the bill been passed, the local priest, church warden and fete organiser of 2002 would have had more legal power and more access to our private lives than the British police had in 1998.

The Home Office junior minister in charge of the RIP act is Bob Ainsworth, who appeared on BBC2's Newsnight recently to defend the bill. …

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