David Cameron's "Family Test" is a ridiculous idea. Photo: Getty
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Imagining the “family test” in action since the coalition came in

How David Cameron's "family test" would have worked if it had been brought in from 2010.

David Cameron – in a serious policy announcement the weight of which lies somewhere between forcing the Queen to regale her subjects with a discussion about plastic bags and the opposition’s “owls for everyone” coup – has told his eagerly-listening nation of hardworking people that, “every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family”.

He’s set up a formalised “family test” for government departments to follow as of October to assess every single piece of policy they are creating for its “family-friendly” credentials.

Aside from this being yet another bureaucratic hurdle for harder-pressed Whitehall officials, a vague and hollow measure brought in nine months before an election by a PM whose party needs to boost its support from women, and glaringly ironic considering the coalition’s attitude to families played out by the “bedroom tax”, child benefit cuts, immigration crackdowns and backdoor marketisation of higher education, the prospect of shoe-horning every policy into a “family test” is quite funny.

If Cameron had brought in this test when he became Prime Minister in 2010, here’s how some of the coalition’s most prominent plans would have fared:

 

2011: Defra announces Badger Cull

Family-friendly credentials:

  • Terror at badger carcasses littering the countryside may do much to bring Britain’s tragically disintegrating “problem” families closer together, united in horror.
     
  • Families will be so stricken with disgust they will stand stock-still in forests, fixated by the badgers, giving them a chance to enjoy the outdoors instead of staying in watching television.
     

Non-family-friendly credentials:

  • The idea of exterminating cuddly badgers could traumatise children, which means we may have to budget more for family counselling services.

 

Family test: FAIL

 

2012: Pasty Tax mooted in Budget (pre-U-turn)

Family-friendly credentials:

  • Children wouldn’t eat as many pasties, so they’d be thinner, meaning parents could fit more children into each bedroom, which would lead to more unused rooms in houses and us being able to raise more money from the Bedroom Tax  Spare-Room Subsidy.
     
  • Married couples might eschew Greggs for more sophisticated eateries on their date nights, therefore reducing the divorce rate.
     

Non-family-friendly credentials:

  • Arguments among family members about what constitutes hot takeaway food (if it is bought from the premises cool and later heated, does that count? What about if it is heated up there?) could lead to the collapse of the family unit.


Family test: PASS

 

2012: Cutting the top rate of tax

Family-friendly credentials:

  • Children seeing the top tax rate reduced from 50p to 45p may be willing to take a 5p cut in their 50p weekly pocket money, therefore teaching them thrift and meaning they have the ability to buy fewer penny sweets, which is a public health bonus.
     
  • The Labour party’s inevitable cries of “tax-cut for millionaires” will give rowing families a common enemy (Labour’s sloganeers, not the rich) to rally against, therefore introducing solidarity to the family unit.


Non-family-friendly credentials:

  • As George Osborne and his coalition colleagues will have to spend the next three years defending this move, they will have less time to say the phrase “hardworking families”, which could lead to families working less hard.
     
  • Millionaires throughout the country being better-off might mean they'll run rogue, buy secret shag-pads overseas and be unfaithful to their partners, leading to a break-down in the sanctity of marriage.
     

Family test: FAIL

 

2013: HS2 government report

Family-friendly credentials:

  • A new famous British train in our midst would eclipse the sexist cult of Thomas the Tank Engine, therefore teaching young girls and boys the importance of gender equality.
     
  • The Phase 1 route from London to Birmingham would mean families from the capital can reach Bourneville quicker for days out at Cadbury World. This would bring joy, laughter and non-sedentary activity to the family unit.
     

Non-family-friendly credentials:

  • More families consuming chocolate in Cadbury World would be a public health risk.


Family test: FAIL

 

2013: Royal charter on press regulation

Family-friendly credentials:

  • If the Leveson-recommended press regulator comes in, the only thing left to read in the papers would be the Funday Times, which would be fantastic for children’s cognitive skills and creative faculties.
     

Family test: PASS

 

2014: Bringing in a “Family Test” for all policy

Family-friendly credentials:

  • It will reassure families across Britain that, even though we’ve pretty much finished doing legislation this parliament, we have begun thinking about their best interests in time for the election campaign.
     

Non-family-friendly credentials:

  • It would lead to lists like this.


Family test: FAIL

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Mass surveillance doesn’t work – it’s time to go back to the drawing board

Lacking an answer to the problem of radicalisation, the government has confused tactics with strategy.

This week saw the release of not one but two parliamentary reports on the government’s proposed new spying law, the first from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the second from the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Both reports suggested the government hasn’t fully made the case for some elements of mass surveillance put forward in the Bill. But neither went so far as to ask the most important question in this debate – does mass surveillance actually work?

The proposed law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, looks set to enshrine almost all the government’s mass surveillance powers and capabilities in a single law for the first time. It has been touted by the Prime Minister as a vital weapon in the UK’s fight against Islamic State.

Most of the noise about mass surveillance since the Snowden revelations has predictably come from civil liberties groups. But the privacy and safeguards debate skips over the highly dubious assumption underpinning the Investigatory Powers Bill – that mass surveillance will stop terrorists.

In fact, mass surveillance is not only ineffective but downright counter-productive.

A 2009 report by the US government found that only 1.2 per cent of tips provided to the FBI by mass surveillance techniques made a significant contribution to counter-terrorism efforts. Another recent study by the New America Foundation found that National Security Agency mass data collection played a role in, at most, 1.8 per cent of terrorism cases examined. By contrast, traditional investigative methods initiated 60 per cent of investigations. Suddenly mass surveillance doesn’t seem so vital.

This is because the technology is far from perfect. As computer scientist Ray Corrigan has written, “Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1,000—and no security technology comes anywhere near this—every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people.”

Perversely, this lack of precision means mass surveillance can actually frustrate counter-terrorism efforts. Michael Adebolajo, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, was so well known to the security services prior to the attack they had even tried to recruit him as an informant. Yet insufficient monitoring later on let him slip through the net. The same thing happened with the Hebdo killers. Mass surveillance means intelligence analysts are forced to spend their time fruitlessly sifting through endless reams of data rather than carrying out the targeted monitoring and detection that’s really needed.

Counter-radicalisation experts have meanwhile argued that mass surveillance may alienate Muslim communities, making them distrustful of the police and possibly even contributing to radicalisation. In 2014, Jonathan Russell from the counter-extremism group Quilliam wrote that the “introduction of a sweeping [mass surveillance] law…will be exploited by extremists to show that the government wants to spy on its own citizens [and] that all Muslims are suspected of being terrorists.” This will set alarm bells ringing for those who know the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won only by preventing radicalisation in the first place.

And therein lies the real problem with this Bill. It’s tactics, not strategy. If we stop for a second and think about what the problem is – namely that thousands of young Britons are at risk of radicalisation – we’d never prescribe mass surveillance as the answer. It would be nonsensical to propose something that risks making alienation worse.

The trouble is we don’t have a convincing answer to the actual problem. The government’s counter-radicalisation strategy is mired in controversy. So instead a different question is being posed. Not how do we stop people from signing up to join Islamic State, but how do we gather as much communications data as possible? GCHQ have an answer for that. It’s a classic case of confusing a tactic – and a highly unreliable one at that – with a strategy actually designed to tackle the root of the problem.

Never mind our privacy for a moment. For the sake of our security, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of something better.

 

Andrew Noakes is Senior Advocacy Officer at the Remote Control Project. He writes about covert and unconventional methods of warfare, counter-terrorism, and human rights.