The media has been awash with claims that the Coalition Government is intending to increase the surveillance powers of GCHQ – giving it the ability to monitor e-mails; telephone calls; text messages; internet usage; and even social network updates in real-time. It’s fully expected that the introduction of these extended powers will be included within the upcoming Queen’s Speech due in May.
The Home Office have repeatedly claimed that such moves are essential if the UK wishes to continue tackling crime and terrorism; even though in 2006 the then Labour administration proposed and eventually failed to introduce similar powers. Labour’s plans faced substantial opposition not only from the public and civil liberty groups but also the two political parties who currently make up the Coalition Government.
With the Coalition Government seemingly being led from the front by the Conservative Party, surely the UK should be experiencing an increase in individuals’ freedom from the state, not witnessing the ever increasing power of the state seeping into our daily lives? Now it’s unwise to claim that this particular un-conservative policy development is down to the Conservative Party’s coalition partners, as the Liberal Democrats grassroots membership and Members of Parliament appear just as opposed to the state eavesdropping on the private lives of millions of people as they did in 2006.
While we can take some solace in the fact that it appears GCHQ will be unable to access the content of the material they are monitoring without a warrant, there mere ability of it to trace who individuals are in contact with, chart the regularity of their contacts and therefore decipher for how long they are in contact is an incredibly worrying development in state-sponsored and accredited monitoring. The introduction of such legislation would place the UK in the same league as China and Iran – both who willfully and regularly monitor their own citizens just in case they are perceived to act in a manner considered unacceptable by the Government.
As conservatives, and the de facto leaders of the Coalition Government, the Conservative Party should be seeking to protect the individual from the ever encroaching state, not wilfully increasing its power and ability to monitor citizens on any given whim. In fact, the Coalition Agreement, the founding principles of the Coalition Government included commitments to “restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power” and promised to ensure that governance was conducted “in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness”. Such a proposed policy is clearly not in keeping with either of these commitments.
While there are minimal examples of where such powers do protect citizens and prevent criminal behaviour, to allow such a wide scale policy to be introduced would be yet another example of a Government punishing the majority because of the behaviour of a minority. The Conservative Party must reject these damaging proposals because while they themselves feel they can be trusted with such centralised power over the individual; they cannot speak for future Governments.
Jack Hart is a parliamentary researcher. He tweets at @MrJacHart