[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair] — A Surveillance Society?

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:55 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South 2:55 pm, 19th March 2009

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's shopping aspirations are higher than Tesco, but the point is made. Anyone going into Tesco—I do not do so on a daily basis, I must add—is subject to surveillance, because the company has a duty of care to its customers as well as a legal liability: if somebody goes in armed with a machine gun and 50 shoppers are killed, it will have a devastating effect on sales.

The point is that going about one's normal business cannot proceed in a society under a degree of threat without some intrusion into what can be seen as the pure freedom to choose exactly what to do. There is conflict and we must recognise that. It does not take a genius to work it out that there is an enormous threat to our national security from those who wish to do us harm. Terrorists now have access to weapons that are far more devastating than those their fathers or grandfathers might have had 20 or 30 years ago. Whole shops, areas and towns could be obliterated.

We are also aware of the growth of crime whereby what might otherwise be perfectly legitimate models of behaviour and legitimate non-intrusive equipment can be turned against society as a whole. Money can disappear. Terrorists can pass information among themselves. People find it difficult to go out now or to fly because of perceived threats, whether real or imagined. Given all that, although we are not in a Hobbesian state of nature, few people can argue that we should have licence to do what we wish.

The report states clearly—this deserves to be repeated—that we are not living in a surveillance society by its use of a question mark after the words "surveillance society" in the title. I agree that we must be certain that the Government do not go too far in reducing liberties, but we must also be certain that they go far enough in protecting us, even if that involves further intrusion into our lives authorised by Ministers, judges and those who are there to impose limitations on the action of the Government or the intelligence services.

No Government will feel happy at being shown to have erred too far in the direction of liberty and too little in the direction of security and the defence of our human right to exist. Globalisation has made our position much more difficult. It requires the skills of the intelligence services, the Government, the police, the private sector and all those engaged in security and protection to ensure that they can do their job. However, the balance that must be struck is almost impossible to determine. It is constantly shifting.

Anyone with a sense of history can see how Governments have used the technology at their disposal, which has not been much, to intrude on people's lives for right or wrong. A totalitarian Government would not have been possible 75 years ago, because the technology did not exist to permit total control over a population, although Stalin perhaps went the farthest in the mid-1930s. Now, however, the technology exists for total control and there are Governments who not only wish to have total control over their own societies, but might be sufficiently expansionist to wish for total control over countries that have not the slightest desire to fall under their influence.

Finding the median position is difficult, and we rely on the Government to find it. Is it halfway between totalitarianism and licence? I have no idea, but hon. Members know the area in which I am trespassing. The Government have shown their weaknesses in protecting our information and theirs, and there have been some spectacular lapses. I hope that the lessons are being learned from such information loss, which resulted from incompetence and lack of training—not just among those in the public service, but among those hired by it.

I want to focus not only on the role of the state in protecting society, but on the role of the private sector. I will not make a speech on the private security industry, although I could. The Minister is well versed in those issues, as he has been exposed to them endlessly over the past few years. I am sure that any hope he might have to move himself away from the Home Office has to do with that perpetual set of missives. However, he knows clearly that although co-operation between the public and private sectors would have been anathema 10 years ago, when the private sector was totally unregulated and often incompetent and untrustworthy, with the passage of legislation—imperfect though it is, and in need of strengthening and enlargement—it is as certain as is possible that those parts of the private sector subject to regulation are functioning effectively and can be relied on, if required, to work with the Government to assist in national disasters, to hunt criminals, to protect cash in transit vehicles and so on. That has come about. Private sector companies have a role to play, and it is important for the Minister and all the Government.

I should have said, by way of minor criticism of the Home Affairs Committee report, that its terms of reference confined it largely to the work of the Home Office. The Home Office has no monopoly on protecting society, so I hope that my right hon. Friend can persuade other departmental Committees to do a little inquiry, or a big inquiry, on what is happening within their remit, because the full picture can be important.

The security industry has potential for mischief, which is why properly administered regulation is important. It is no longer Fred the night watchman who is involved; the people who work in the industry are professionals. They are not just ex-policemen; they are people who have grown up in security and have expertise of the highest order. There is scarcely a function undertaken by the police that could not be or is not undertaken, pretty effectively, by the private sector somewhere in the world.

It is important that legislation be strengthened, but in several areas where it operates I am reasonably happy. For public space surveillance, or CCTV, a licence is required. There are two types of licence, and at £245 for three years they are good value for money. There are front-line and non-front-line licences. The issue is important.

However, the failures of the system—even the current one—are obvious. CCTV is meant to be almost the interface between the state and society, although I am not sure that I have 300 cameras following me around my constituency. Some of our colleagues would require only one, which could be turned off for much of the time, so my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East must be very busy trawling the streets of Leicester and London if he is being picked up by 300 cameras—I hope that all the footage is not being viewed. However, he has made a valid point.

Most people are quite happy to be monitored. I am not particularly photogenic, but I do not mind walking through a barrage of 300 cameras, because I know that I am safer as a result of that mass coverage.


Catherine Mills
Posted on 25 Mar 2009 4:24 pm (Report this annotation)

Well, there are incidences where innocent citizens shopping in Asda were falsely arrested in the vegetable aisle.

They had not left the store, but were accused in the wrong, as they had not stolen anything nor put anything in their pockets or bags.

Yes, DNA was taken and 22 hours in a smelly freezing cell, terrified out of their minds.

Security offcer said it was on CCTV- but that was a lie.

Anyway- just reporting from ground level.