Sunday 19 September 2010

Reforming Data Protection, FOI and Human Rights – the Minister speaks his mind

Yes, I know the bureaucrats like to consult before presenting policy options and recommendations to Ministers, but I did get an insight into Ministry of Justice Minister Lord Tom McNally’s own thoughts recently. Tom McNally’s political career began in the Labour Party, then with the breakaway Social Democratic Party, and finally to the Liberal Democrats and the coalition with the Conservatives. Of course I have no idea if his officials will finally present him with a set of options that leads to a different conclusion, but it will be interesting to compare his current thoughts with those his Government will finally have once we, the masses, have also had our say.

On the challenges to data protection & data sharing, here are those precious words: “I sound like Fagin in "Oliver" when I say “we’re reviewing the situation” – but I believe people have a right to certain protection of information. One of the challenges of preserving liberties in the 21st century is that the speed and scale of technological change and the ability to gather, exchange and cross-reference information across organisations is now so intense that we have to have legislation in place to protect personal privacy.”

And on the biggest challenge to Freedom of Information? “How we stop the whole proesss from being completely swamped by a kind of cottage industry of people who overload the system. There has to be some balance between the casual “want to know” and the general “right to know”, and I’m not sure we’ve got that quite right. If we are going to expand the range of the Act we have got to make sure it’s efficient.”

Finally, on whether we are going to get a Bill of Rights? “First of all we are going to have a look at how the present legislation fits with national needs. I understand some of the frustrations about the Human Rights Act is often presented in the media, and there may be opportunities to give better explanation to the public about how it might be applied in the UK. But whether it’s the existing legislation or a Bill of Rights of our own, our commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights will be at the heart.”

Where did I get this stuff from – by reading the July/August edition of the MoJ’s staff magazine Insight. Essential reading for anyone wanting to follow their Minister’s thoughts.

So I’m planting his opinions here and look forward to returning to it later, when the settled views of the Government are known. If any gambling syndicates want to engage in a little spread betting, to wager huge sums of money on the extent to which Government policy is affected by anyone other than the Minister himself, feel free to start to place your bets now.

Saturday 18 September 2010

More CCTV surveillance? Not in my back yard, thanks

Alex Deane, Director of Big Brother Watch, recently told me that, unbelievably, there are more CCTV cameras in the Shetland Islands than there are in the city of San Francisco.

Well, after a few days walking around this wonderful city, I can attest that there must be many more CCTV cameras in Reading than there are, here, in Rome. According to Wikkipedia, Reading has 142,851 citizens, while Rome has (accordind to last year's official figures) 2,726,927.

Why might a city 20 times smaller than Rome need more CCTV cameras? It’s really hard to argue that there must be more to steal in Reading, or that there is a pressing need to prevent vandalism.

Could it be that we have just gone totally over the top on video surveillance?

Walking around Rome, it really did not occur to me that the absence of CCTV surveillance was goading its citizens to behave in ever more feral ways. Indeed, walking around the Fountains of Trevi, or the Spanish Steps, or along the banks of the Tiber, I felt no sense of danger nor unease. Neither from the barbarians, nor the Barberini. And I find it hard to understand how CCTV cameras back in Blighty bestow an additional sense of corporate or social responsibility into anyone. They create good images for the TV programmes that will gratefully rebroadcast the best bits, but I find it hard to understand how effective it’s actually been in preventing the unsociable behaviour from occurring in the first place.

We Brits may just be bred like this. The Italians (and the fellow tourists I encountered) just seem to be beter behaved. Their "cultoral norms", for whatever reason, don't appear to be our "cultural norms".

So, if the greatly anticipated “savage” cuts in public expenditure result in the decommissioning of many thousands of local authority CCTV surveillance initiatives, will I be manning the “Keep CCTV in my Borough” barriers? I think not. Well, not until I’ve been viciously mugged in the full glare of one, anyway.