Tories pledge to end the database state

The Conservatives have promised to reverse the 'rise of the surveillance state' in a policy paper describing plans for fewer giant government databases and stronger powers to protect personal privacy
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

The Conservative Party has promised to reduce government databases and introduce stronger measures to protect people's privacy, if it wins the next general election.

The shadow justice secretary, Dominic Grieve, on Wednesday introduced a policy paper, Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State, that outlines 11 measures to achieve these goals.

Overall, the Conservatives are calling for fewer massive central government databases, stronger data-protection rules and fewer access rights — for both central and local government — to the information that is already been stored.

The party also pledged to introduce a greater focus on privacy, in both the public and private sectors.

"Government should be guided by the principle of proportionality, which means that fewer personal details are accurately recorded and held by specific authorities on a need-to-know basis only, and for limited periods of time justified on the basis of operational necessity," the Conservatives said in the policy paper.

At the policy launch, Grieve described the current government's use of databases and surveillance powers as the worst of all worlds — intrusive, ineffective and enormously expensive. He said they did not make the public any safer, and by appearing to control risks through automation, they actually removed the possibility of human judgement.

"We cannot run government robotically. We cannot protect the public through automated systems. And we cannot eliminate the need for human judgement calls on risk, whether to children, or from criminal and terrorist threats," Grieve said.

The 11-point plan includes the following commitments:

  • Completely scrap the National Identity Register, which is the basis of the ID card scheme, and the ContactPoint database of information on children.
  • Tighten rules around the use of the National DNA Database. This includes no longer keeping the DNA of people who have been found innocent of a crime, except for those charged with certain crimes of violence and serious sexual offences. In these cases, DNA would be kept for three years, and up to five years if a judge approves.
  • Consider privacy implications in any future legislation that requires data collection or sharing.
  • Amend the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act (Ripa) to make sure councils access communication data only when looking at a serious crime.
  • Introduce a British Bill of Rights to ensure a right to privacy.
  • Make sure new data-sharing powers are introduced through primary legislation, rather than by ministerial order, increasing parliamentary oversight.
  • Appoint a minister and senior civil servant in each government ministry with responsibility for operational data security, such as preventing data losses.
  • Launch a consultation with the private sector to come up with a kitemark for data security. Grieve suggested the kitemark will be a way of ensuring the public and private sector meet the same high standards.
  • Submit current Home Office plans for communications-data sharing and storage for scrutiny by the information commissioner
  • Boost the role of the information commissioner, with increased audit powers and more independence

"The role of the information commissioner will be absolutely key," Grieve said. The shadow minister promised that while the Conservatives' plans for the commissioner may require more technological resources, the party does not see the plans as a route to building a new super department.

Certain areas where data is being recorded will not see much change, especially in border protection. "We've never been against biometrics on passports and visas," Grieve said, who pointed out that these programmes do not require the level of information needed by the planned ID database. "We want to improve border security without being intrusive."

There have been previous calls for rolling back massive databases from others, such as the Liberal Democrat shadow chancellor Vince Cable. Such databases have also come under criticism from experts such as Lord Errol, who has argued that they are vulnerable to abuse by staff.

A report earlier this year also concluded that some government databases are probably illegal.

Grieve said the impetus behind the policy was not to find a way cut costs if elected to office.

"This isn't financially driven — though it will be a difficult time financially for any government," he said. "We've been arguing for this very strongly since before the start of the recession — to roll back the subtle change in the relationship between the state and the citizen".

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