David Blunkett's decision to delay the introduction of new Labour's updated "snoopers' charter", officially known as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, is to be cheered, but with caution. Blunkett normally likes to portray human rights as an issue for the chattering classes. Had he been around in Soviet Russia, he would no doubt have labelled Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a "middle-class Leningrad liberal" who never got his hands dirty and was too clever for his own good. Blunkett revels in playing the hard man.
He is the Millwall FC of Labour, the type who'd probably lead chants of "I am Blunkett,/David Blunkett./No one likes me;/I don't care". So for him actually to admit that "we got it wrong" is new emotional territory. It is the political equivalent of Blunkett admitting a need to read Iron John, smear rabbit's blood on his body and drum naked in the woods with a men's group.
That admission and the indefinite delay of the RIP act proves not only the strength of public hostility towards the bill, but also the patent absurdity of it.
If passed, the RIP act would have allowed 24 categories of public body automatic access to the phone, internet and e-mail records of virtually every person in the country. It would have given seven Whitehall departments, various government agencies and all local councils, among other institutions, unparalleled access to our private lives. They would have found out who we talk to, who we e-mail, and what websites we visit. They would have been be able to demand information about a person's sexual orientation or political beliefs, direct from BT or its rivals, which would simply have had to comply.
It is baffling enough why, for instance, the Food Standards Agency, or the Department for Work and Pensions, should have instant access to our e-mail, phone and internet records. However, in among the list of bodies covered by the RIP act was "any local authority (within the meaning of section 1 of the Local Government Act 1999)". Which covers not just local councils, but also parish councils - or, in the absence of a standing council, a parish meeting.
This means that, had the bill been passed, the local priest, church warden and fete organiser of 2002 would have had more legal power and more access to our private lives than the British police had in 1998.
The Home Office junior minister in charge of the RIP act is Bob Ainsworth, who appeared on BBC2's Newsnight recently to defend the bill. When politely quizzed why every arm of government from the Department for Transport to local councils would have such access to our private lives, Ainsworth stated that the bill was part of a series of measures in the war against terrorism.
Well, I'm sure that as soon as the Food Standards Agency enters the fray, that's al-Qaeda done for. And Mullah Omar is bound to surrender the instant he hears that the Postal Services Commission has joined the war against terror. Was Ainsworth trying to tell us that Lambeth Council is going to fight terrorism? It can't fix the holes in the road, let alone drive Osama Bin Laden from his cave.
The "war against terrorism" is a much-used excuse to introduce draconian laws, not just in Britain but all over the world. Should any government decide to force the unemployed to drink their own urine, crawl across glass and beg for their dole money, you can guarantee that any objectors would be branded apologists for Bin Laden.
In the same Newsnight interview, Ainsworth said that the RIP Act would help fight crime and fraud. The idea of Hackney Council leading the fight against fraud is as fantastical as Gary Glitter taking over Barnardo's. Surely, if someone is breaking the law or committing fraud, then that is a matter for the police, not the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the parish council. Ainsworth can't believe that the police, in the course of a major drug money-laundering investigation, would shake their heads and say: "This case is too big for us; we need to get the church verger involved."
Privacy is a fundamental human right legally protected in the European Convention on Human Rights. It is not good enough to place our civil liberties in the hands of the surveillance commissioners who will act as ombudsmen for this law, a kind of Ofsnoop. When did they ever feature in the works of the great political thinkers? I don't recall Thomas Paine ever writing The Rights of Ombudsmen.
New Labour has delayed the RIP act, but you can be sure that its next attempt will still try to strengthen the power of the state over the people. When it next tries to get instant access to our e-mail details, we should organise a very simple form of protest. Let's make sure that every e-mail we send is copied to every Whitehall department. A million or two e-mails a day should quell their ardour.
Mark Thomas is a trustee of Privacy International