Sir Humphrey still calling the shots?

Her Majesty's Government appears to be at odds with the Coalition Agreement and pre-election Conservative policy. Perhaps Sir Humphrey can explain why

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Is Whitehall calling the shots on our liberties?
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Emma Carr
On 27 July 2012 11:49

Ever get a nagging feeling of Déjà vu?Perhaps there is a reason why?

Here is a basic A-Level Politics question: ‘Civil Servants, not ministers, are the main policy-makers within the core executive.’ Discuss.

Having studied the mark scheme it does not appear that you actually need to make any kind of argument. Nonetheless, here is my assessment of Civil Servants’ influence over policy and why this Government’s Ministers need to start influencing it.

In 2009 the Conservative Party published ‘Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State: 11 Measures to Protect Personal Privacy’ which aimed to highlight the attacks on civil liberties and privacy by the New Labour government and set out how a Conservative government would be a bastion for freedom and liberty.

It states: “New Labour has excessively relied on mammoth databases and wide powers of data sharing, on the pretext that it will make government more effective and the citizen more secure. Its track record demonstrates the opposite, with intrusive and expensive databases gathering masses of our personal information – but handled so recklessly that we are exposed to greater risk.”

The report laments New Labour’s “unwieldy” databases, the proposed identity cards, a proposed Communications Data Bill, to retain and share across Whitehall details of every private phone call made, email sent (or received) and access to the internet.

Fast forward three years and the New Labour government is long gone. However, if you read Home Office press releases and you’d struggle to tell the difference with the Communications Data Bill being a prime example.

In 2009 the Home Office held a consultation on the possibility or requiring internet service providers and telecommunications companies, who are any company the Home Secretary describes ‘Communications Service Providers’ under UK law. This proposal directly replicated the Coalition’s policy. Any assentation that the policy differs comes purely down to semantics.

What could have possibly caused such similarities between the Communications Data Bill and the last government’s plans? Perhaps it is because 60 percent of the 120 staff currently working in the Home Office on communications data previously worked on the Intercept Modernisation Programme under Labour.

This week The Telegraph wrote about the modules designed by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) which aim to guide children through the confusing world of Pay as You Earn and National Insurance contributions. This seems fair enough at a first glance; however search further and there is a more sinister side to some of the modules.

Pupils are taught about the importance of paying the right amount of tax and, in one lesson, children are invited to think of anyone “in their local area” who may have been paying too little. I wonder if any Treasury or Education Ministers, or even the Secretary of State themselves, had any clue that this was taking place. Only an HMRC was available for comment to defend the teaching methods.

Another part of the Coalition Agreement, the Protection of Freedoms Bill, was created with the intention of 'reversing the rise of the surveillance state'. However what we were given was an Act, where even the modest proposal to require public authority officials acting under one of the 1400 statutory powers of entry to seek a court warrant before they enter your home, has been casually shelved by way of a two year review.

From the watering down of proposals, to destroying innocent people’s DNA held by the police, to the devolution of police powers to civilians, including private security contractors, the impression given is that is it officials schooled by New Labour, not ministers, who are making decisions about which liberties are expendable.

From economics to civil liberties, the environment to Europe, policies being pursued by Her Majesty’s Government appear to be at odds with the Coalition Agreement and pre-election Conservative policy. Why the Government is losing its way on so many issues is of serious importance to us all.

Emma Carr is the Deputy Director of Big Brother Watch. Follow her on twitter @EmmaFrancesCarr

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