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UK Ministry of Justice sounding old, tired and defeated

May 13, 2009

I was at a meeting organised by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) today (Wednesday) in London where both Jack Straw and Michael Wills from the Ministry of Justice spoke. In the wake of the expenses revelations it was not surprising that both sounded somewhat conciliatory, but the degree of both overt and tacit admission of mistakes and changes needed was quite surprising. I had a bit of a set-to with Michael Wills on the apparent lack of knowledge amongst government ministers of the results of their own research on the (in)effectiveness of CCTV, to which he responded with the Melanie Phillips defence – i.e.: come and talk to ordinary people and they will tell you they want CCTV. This is a diversion for many reasons, not least of which is that unlike both the Daily Mail’s moral minority and the minister, I actually live in places where they only visit on official business and I also understand that what people mean when they demand CCTV is not the technology itself but a solution to the real and perceived problems of crime and anti-social behaviour that they face. They only demand CCTV because they see the programs on TV and are convinced that CCTV ‘works’ – however if you talk to senior police officers or anyone who has done research on this, they will tell you, yes, targeted mobile CCTV surveillance to deal with specific problems can be very effective (in terms of both cost and results) but mass camera surveillance is not the same thing. It is rather disappointing that a Justice Minister did not appear to understand the difference.

Jack Staw gave a weird speech. It was both full of matey bonhomie and characterised by stuttering hesitancy and vagueness. He made a number of historical errors, for example in claiming that the culture of secrecy was a product of the Cold War, when the first Official Secrets Act was a product of WW1. He also claimed that CCTV was all about ‘low-level disorder’ and ‘reassurance’, which will be news to all those (like his ministerial colleague) who still think it prevents crime. But he did rightly take some credit for Freedom of Information, including allowing parliamentary expenses to be included, even as it turned out, to his latter-day embarrassment.

Where it got very interesting was in his comments on the government’s consultation on the future of the DNA database following the damning verdict of the European Court. Contrary to Jacqui Smith, Straw indicated that he would be quite happy with the proposed 12 year retention period being reduced to 9 or even 6 years. He also claimed that there was a behind-the-scenes review of The Terrorism Act and other post-9/11 measures going on, which I don’t think many people in the room even appreciated. He admitted that the Labour government got many things wrong after 9/11 and that the environment had now also changed.

It was all very interesting, but you really got the feeling that this was a government on the way out anyway. The Tories will no doubt scrap the ID cards and register, but listening to the Shadow Justice Minister, Dominic Grieve, I got the impression that they don’t have much to offer apart from caution. That might be welcome for a while, but as a speaker from Google remarked, the debate is so far behind the reality of technological change that none of this will really matter very much unless there is a real culture shift. The ICO under the massively influential Richard Thomas, for whom this was very much a valedictory event before he steps down, has made great strides in this direction, but the government and opposition parties are still a long way away from understanding the need to establish a new basis for informational relationships between people, state and private companies that we desperately need.

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