Blunkett warns over ‘Big Brother’ Britain

Andrew Grice
Monday 23 February 2009 01:00

David Blunkett, who introduced the idea of identity cards when Home Secretary, will issue a stark warning to the Government tomorrow that it is in danger of abusing its power by taking Britain towards a “Big Brother” state.

At the 21st annual law lecture in Essex University’s Colchester campus, Mr Blunkett will urge ministers to rethink policy and counter criticism from civil liberties campaigners that Labour is creating a “surveillance society.”

He will come out against the Government’s controversial plan to set up a database holding details of telephone calls and emails and its proposal to allow public bodies to share personal data with each other.

His surprise intervention will be welcomed by campaign groups, who regard him as a hardliner because of his strong backing for a national ID card scheme and tough anti-terror laws. The former home secretary will propose a U-turn on ID cards for British citizens, although he agrees with plans to make them compulsory for foreign nationals.

Instead, holding a passport would become compulsory for all British people, who could choose to “opt in” to the ID card scheme if they wished.

Mr Blunkett will insist Labour has got the balance between liberty and security broadly right. But he will argue that it has unwittingly given ammunition to its critics by allowing legislation to be used for wider purposes than originally intended.

For example, the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, intended to bring in proper rules and oversight, resulted in the “absurdity” of council officials using it to tackle dog fouling and monitor household waste.

Mr Blunkett will urge the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, to water down provisions in the Coroners and Justice Bill on data sharing between public bodies. He will warn: “It is not simply whether the intentions are benign, undoubtedly they are, but whether they are likely to be misused and above all what value their use may have.”

He “remains to be convinced” about plans of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, for a giant central database to store records of phone calls, text messages and the websites people access.

Mr Blunkett will argue that people’s rights are already being breached – not by the Government but by “private enterprise surveillance and intrusion, coupled with data theft, fraud and information and data insecurity”. He will call for the Information Commissioner to be given greater powers in these areas.

He insists that Britain is not yet a surveillance state but will warn ministers: “The strength of our democracy is that we are able to challenge when the well-meaning, but sometimes misguided, take their own knowledge of the threats we face to be justification for protecting our mutual interest at the expense of our individual freedom. If we tolerate the intolerable, the intolerable gradually becomes the norm.”

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