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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity