A U-turn on reversing the surveillance state

By resurrecting the Intercept Modernisation Programme, the government breaks a clear and fundamental

In all the fuss over the Spending Review, you will almost certainly not have seen that the appalling "Intercept Modernisation Programme" is to continue.

Let me explain. Buried in the recently released Strategic Defence and Security Review are government plans to introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications.

This, in no disguise at all, is the Intercept Modernisation Programme – which will allow the security services and the police to spy on the activities of everyone using a phone or the internet.

Every communications provider will be obliged to store details of your communications for at least a year and obliged in due course to surrender these to the authorities. The state will therefore be able to track every phone call, email, text message and website visit made by the public, on the absurd pretext that it will help to tackle crime or terrorism (and by the way, the significant costs of the programme will of course be passed on to . . . you).

This comes despite the Conservative Party's recent pledge to reverse the rise of the surveillance state.

I appreciate that this invitation may not be a welcome one for Staggers readers, but if you can bear it, do please have a look at that last link. It's remarkable that they've left the paper on the party's website; perhaps the thinking (and I say this as a Tory) is that everyone's so concerned with the Spending Review that nobody will notice the rank hypocrisy?

Whatever the explanation, leaving it up breaks with the long-standing tradition of repainting the commandments on the side of the barn whenever Napoleon changes his mind.

This U-turn can't be blamed on the formation of the coalition. The Liberal Democrats are (or hitherto have been) admirably sound on the issue and the coalition agreement promised to "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason".

Couple this with the disgusting U-turn on the Summary Care Record, in which all of our medical records are to be lumped together in one convenient-to-leak, convenient-to-snoop, convenient-to-break database (despite similarly clear and concrete pre-election promises from both governing parties to the contrary), and a troubling picture emerges.

It is fascinating and dreadful to see the speed of bureaucratic capture, the reversion to bureaucratic authoritarianism on show. Intrusions are piling up so fast that my extended essay published last week is already out of date.

Just see how the surveillance state is being reversed, eh!?

Alex Deane is director of Big Brother Watch, a barrister and a former chief of staff to David Cameron.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.