I’ve written here from time to time on the evolution of Britain as a surveillance society, and the trends embedded in it. Now the journalist Henry Porter, in a submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has produced a list of the ways in which surveillance has been increased in the UK since the 1997 election.

The JCHR is a parliamentary body which is charged with monitoring human rights issues in the UK, and one of its current projects is looking at the case for a Bill of Rights (it’s not clear, but it appears that this is what Porter was giving evidence about).

Porter’s list is – at least to me – shocking in its range and scope, yet, as he notes, this range of measures has been introduced with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, or dissent. He makes an interesting point that the introduction of this swathe of surveillance legislation has gone hand in hand with the accession into English law of the European Convention of Human Rights – which seems, therefore, to impose few limits on the accretion of state power:

This campaign against Britain’s historic rights and freedoms began at almost the precise moment the European Human Rights Convention was incorporated into British law as the Human Rights Act in 1998. In other words, the HRA – a Bill of Rights by any other name – has allowed the executive and civil service to roll back individual choice, liberty and privacy and has done almost nothing to defend the British public from the accumulation of centralised power.

He also points out that the the so-called “transformation agenda” – designed, on one reading, to create a single view of the citizen (or perhaps “customer”) and thereby to deliver improved services, also involves, on another reading, the creation of the “database state”:

Under Labour’s plans for “transformational government” an almighty surveillance structure is envisaged, through which, by the admission of the man in charge, Sir David Varney, the state will know “a deep truth about the citizen based on their behaviour, experience, beliefs, needs or desires”.

The whole argument is worth reading, even if you disagree with it. From a futures perspective, it seems to involve a conjunction of technological change, service expectations, and pressures on public expenditure, but also a view of the role of the state which represents a historical shift.

The argument here would be that while protesting the limits of state power in an age of globalisation, state power is extended where its reach can confidently stretch to. To the extent that British governments had made this claim more strongly than others it may explain why the British state is more authoritarian than others; it is also possible that it is a mark of the success of Thatcher’s project to destroy the power of other civil society actors, such as trades unions. I’ve also posted previously on Saskia Sassen’s argument that globalisation strengthens sone government functions – predominantly the executive – and that the executive is more aligned with global agendas than domestic ones.

Porter’s full list is posted below – with thanks to Our Kingdom for the prompt. One of the comments on the Our Kingdom post also noted that the erosion of union and workplace rights was relevant – although most of this happened before 1997.


“APPENDIX: A brief guide to the loss of liberty and rights since 1997

Protest and assembly

– Protests are banned within one kilometre of Parliament Square without police permission (penalty: 51 weeks in jail and/or a £2,500 fine).

– Groups may be dispersed under antisocial-behaviour laws.

– Groups may be dispersed within designated areas under the terror laws.

– The new offence under SOCPA of trespass within a designated site (no justification for designation is required).


– Under the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act, government agencies may intercept email, internet connections and standard mail without seeking a court’s permission (the latest figure is 500,000 secret interceptions a year).

– Since summer 2007, the government and some 700 agencies have had access to all landline and mobile-phone records. There was no primary legislation and no debate in parliament.


– Without primary legislation, police introduced a national network of all ANPR cameras. The travel data may be stored for two years.

– The National Identity Register will store details of every verification made by an ID-card holder and give access to government agencies without the knowledge or consent of the private citizen.

– ID-card enrolment requires every citizen to offer up 49 pieces of personal information to the national database, with heavy and repeated fines for non-compliance.

– All children’s details are to be stored on a central database, with access granted to a wide range of public bodies.

– The Children’s Common Assessment Framework database stores all details of children with problems, indefinitely.

– The Home Office has announced that it wishes to take 19 pieces of information, including mobile-phone and credit-card numbers, from everyone travelling abroad.

Free Expression

– Public-order laws have been used to curtail free expression. A man wearing the slogan “Bollocks to Blair” on his T-shirt was told to remove it by police.

– The Race and Religious Hatred Act (2006) bans incitement of hatred on religious grounds.

– Justice Minister Jack Straw proposes new laws which would ban the incitement of hatred towards the disabled and on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation

– Terror laws are used to ban freedom of expression in designated areas. Walter Wolfgang was removed from the Labour party conference for heckling Jack Straw. People have been searched simply for wearing slogans on their T-shirts or for carrying banners. A man was detained while collecting signatures against the ID card

– The Protection from Harassment Act (1997) bans the repetition of an act. People prosecuted for repeated protest by email.

– Terror laws ban the glorification of terrorism, which has resulted in the prosecution of a young woman for writing poetry.

The Courts

– ASBO legislation introduces hearsay evidence, which may result in a person being sent to jail.

– The Criminal Justice Act (2003) allows the prosecution to make an application to be heard without a jury where there is a danger of jury tampering. This will include fraud trials.

– The admissibility of evidence concerning a person’s bad character, previous convictions and acquittals.

– The Proceeds of Crime Act (2002) gives the state powers to confiscate assets in circumstances where it does not have enough evidence for prosecution.

–Special Immigration Appeals Court hearings are held in secret. Those terror suspects whose cases come before the court are not allowed to know the evidence against them or to be represented by a lawyer of their own choice.

– The Courts and Tribunals Enforcement Act abandons the tradition of an Englishman’s home being his castle, which since 1604 has made breaking into a home by bailiffs illegal.

Terror Laws

– Terror laws have been used to stop and search ordinary citizens. The current rate is 50,000 per annum.

– A maximum of 28 days without charge is allowed under terror legislation. The government has announced plans to increase this to 42 days.

– Control orders, effectively indefinite house arrest, were introduced after the Belmarsh decision.”