Back in March, the deliberately misleadingly entitled "Protection of Freedoms Bill" was published, the NuLubour style plan to introduce another couple of toothless "Commissioners" (for National Security Biometrics and for some, but not all, CCTV Cameras) was correctly criticised by our friends at ARCH, Privacy International , Genewatch UK and NO2ID:
They called for a single, powerful, well funded Privacy Commissioner, independent of Government Departments or Ministers, with legally enforceable powers of investigation backed up with criminal law sanctions, with proper in house technical expertise and investigation teams, like those which exist in Canada or Germany etc.
The House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs also agreed with them, when reporting on the News of the World mobile phone phone voice mailbox hacking scandal.
However, the Home Office's Byzantine "divide and rule" response, can be summed up a la Mel Brookes' Blazing Saddles as:
"Privacy Commissioner ? We don't need no stinking Privacy Commissioner!" (in a faux Mexican bandit accent)
Their official response to the Home Affairs Committee report contains this smugly complacent response:
UNAUTHORISED TAPPING INTO OR HACKING OF MOBILE COMMUNICATIONS
2.14 We are concerned about the number of Commissioners, each responsible for different aspects of privacy. We recommend that the government consider seriously appointing one overall Commissioner, with specialists leading on each separate area. (Paragraph 42)
2.15 The Government believes the current spread of independent Commissioners ensures proper regulation of different aspects of privacy. The range of statutory functions carried out by each Commissioner varies significantly. It includes the provision of guidance, investigation of public complaints, serving and enforcing monetary penalty notices, making decisions over the deployment of technical devices, authorisation of some forms of surveillance and property interference, and oversight and inspection across different specialisms and under different legislation. Each Commissioner and his staff work in specialist, technical areas that require extensive knowledge of relevant legislation, equipment and procedures. Although the work they do can be related, it is also quite distinct.
2.16 The Government believes that the benefits the Committee is seeking can be delivered through existing arrangements and those proposed in the Protection of Freedoms Bill. The existing Commissioners already co-ordinate their work to ensure the right expertise is utilised in the right context and that wherever possible there is consistency between them. However, while respecting their independence, the Government will take note of the Committee's concerns in the way we develop and co-ordinate the roles and functions of the Commissioners.
There has been no Government "development" or "co-ordination" of the roles and functions of the Commissioners, except to keep them as secretive and powerless as possible.
Remember that neither the existing RIPA Commissioners (Interception of Communications, Surveillance or Intelligence Services) nor the Information Commissioner nor the two new proposed Commissioners (national security only Biometrics and some CCTV) actually have the word "Privacy" in the legislation which defines their roles and which they are narrowly constrained to follow.
The Home Office officials are deluding themselves and deceiving the public if they think that there is any evidence of "joined up" working between the existing Commissioners - they do not even meet each other face to face regularly, or at all. Apart from the Information Commissioner, they try their best not to talk to, or correspond, with members of the public. All of the Commissioners have far more legal expertise than detailed technological expertise. Only the Information Commissioner and the Chief Surveillance Commissioner bother to publish a public website and only the Information Commissioner's Office has a Twitter feed.
The Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition government needs to deliver on its pre-election promises, right now, before Christmas, in regards to our freedoms and civil liberties. At the moment they are looking indistinguishable from the previous, increasingly hated, authoritarian yet incompetent, Labour government.
The Report Stage of the inadequate Protection of Freedoms Bill is set for Monday the 10th October 2011 i.e. in less than two weeks time
Please lobby your MPs e.g. via WriteToThem.com about our lost freedoms and suggest amendments to this half hearted Bill before then.