Last night I spoke at the Institute of Economic Affairs in one the Voices of Freedom debates that are running from now until the end of the month (see the banner at the top of this blog).
The subject was 'which law should be repealed or amended'? I picked the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act. It really is a bloody awful piece of legislation. I almost felt like I was cheating by picking a law that no reasonable person could defend. Talk about low hanging fruit. Anyway, this is what I said...
I’m here to advocate the abolition of the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act, also known as RIPA, also known as the snoopers’ charter. You may know it as the law that allowed Dorset county council to spy on a family who wanted to send their child to their local school or as the law that allowed Cambridgeshire county council to carry out covert surveillance on paperboys suspected of working without a license. There are thousands of other such cases.
RIPA is often described as an anti-terrorism law, but that isn’t how it was sold to us when it was passed in the year 2000. This being before 9/11, the government’s excuse for this huge expansion of surveillance powers was the need to monitor those two reliable old favourites: paedophiles and drug-dealers.
In practice, that meant bugging, phone tapping, intercepting communications, directed surveillance, covert surveillance, intrusive surveillance and monitoring which websites people visit and who they e-mail. All this was to be done, said the Act, “in the interests of national security” and “for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime.”
RIPA was subject to almost universal media criticism in 2000, mainly because it gave the government access to e-mail, internet and telephone records. This, in itself, is probably reason enough to scrap it. What was not anticipated was the extent to which local government would exploit the legislation in the years that followed.
Post 9/11, RIPA powers were extended to virtually every branch of government, despite the fact that MI5, MI6, the police and anybody else legitimately involved in counter-terrorism already had these powers. In the name of fighting Al Qaeda, RIPA was extended to the likes of the Charity Commission, the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency, Ofcom, DEFRA and, as it turned out, most significantly, to every local council.
This has never really been about terrorism. What the government was saying with RIPA was that it had absolute faith that the authorities wouldn’t abuse their power, and absolutely no faith that the public would behave themselves. This unwavering confidence in the infallibility of the state combined with total mistrust of the public is the last Labour government in a microcosm. To say that RIPA has been abused is perhaps misleading. It has just been used. It is quite conceivable that Charles Clarke always intended these powers to be employed against people walking their dogs, trimming their hedges or smoking cigarettes. Whatever the original intention, that is certainly what has happened.
Last week, Big Brother Watch revealed that local authorities have used the RIPA laws 8,500 times in the last two years, including to spy on their own employees to make sure they turn up on time and are parking correctly.
Only 5% of these investigations ever resulted in a prosecution, let alone a conviction. That is an extraordinary statistic. Even with power to secretly film and follow people, they were unable to gather enough evidence to prosecute. We must presume, then, that the vast majority of the people being investigated were innocent. The whole premise of the government’s approach was wrong. By and large, the public have been behaving and by and large, the authorities have been misbehaving.
It’s time for this to stop. RIPA was an experiment in handing over the apparatus of the police state to bureaucrats, quangos and petty officials. And sure enough, it resulted in law-abiding people being put under surveillance on the whim of minor functionaries on the basis of anonymous tip offs and personal vendettas. It hasn’t worked, it was never going to work and the only thing to do now is rip up the RIPA laws and start again.Investigating trivial criminal offences should go back to being the work of the police. Covert surveillance operations should go back to being the preserve of MI6, and any organisation that wishes to spy on people should be made to go to the same lengths as they would if they wanted to get a search warrant.
Preferably that would mean waking the home secretary up with a phone call in the middle of the night, at which point they would be told in no uncertain terms whether what they’re doing is really in the interests of national security.
This is not to argue that there is no place for video cameras in law enforcement, nor that any use of surveillance represents an Orwellian nightmare. On the other hand, just because we have the technology does not mean we should use it indiscriminately. The question is where we draw the line and I say we draw the line at RIPA, a law which could confound only the most stupid terrorist and which has instead been turned on the general population gleefully and arbitrarily by people who should never have been entrusted with such power in the first place.
The full line-up at this well-attended event was:
Professor Philip Booth (IEA) on the Financial Services and Markets Act
Guy Herbert (general secretary, NO2ID) on the Identity Documents Bill
Chris Snowdon (author, Velvet Glove Iron Fist and The Spirit Level Delusion) on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000)
Rob Lyons (assistant editor, Spiked) on the Sex Offenders Register
Simon Clark (director, Forest) on the Health Act 2006
Tim Cox (Liberal Vision) on the International Development Assistance Target Bill
A great night was had by all. I can't make the next one (I'm off to a wedding) but hope to see some of you at some of the other events.