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6 February 2006

An MP writes: go ahead, bug me

Most backbenchers don't have anything as exciting as a secret

By Austin Mitchell

It was a nasty shock to Labour’s awkward squad to hear that Tony is contemplating allowing the bugging of MPs’ telephones. Most of us thought we were bugged already and viewed it as a badge of honour. How sad to discover that we haven’t been threatening or dangerous enough to be bugged.

The docile majority will have different feelings. Once they get over the annoyance that greets every government proposal on civil liberties, they’ll realise how good it is that MPs are being listened to.

At last someone will look at all the web and blog sites that we have so expensively established but that no one ever hits. Someone, too, will finally go through our parliamentary-issue internet facilities, which are choking up with unread e-mails. One can only hope that the buggers will take over the business of dealing with the many calls and faxes about double glazing, government property sales and timeshare bargains. After all, they do come from abroad.

A Labour government will be doing something socialist by nationalising tittle-tattle, because private enterprise has done it all up to now. Every phone call we make to Man-talk, Cottagers Reunited or Paedo-pals is already known to the Murdoch press. Richard Desmond of the Express owns several of the sex channels on Sky so he knows who’s watching, and the Screws of the World offers big money to rent boys, girl prostitutes, one-night standers and three-in-a-bed rompers to turn in their clients for fun and profit. Sir Charles Dilke wouldn’t have lasted a week in today’s politics.

When these people know so much, why shouldn’t the public sector know it all, too? Tony and MI5 will find it far more interesting than the only secret information that comes the way of backbenchers, such as housing transfers in Grimsby, the scale of the local hospital’s debt, or the likely level of council tax – though now I come to think of it, I don’t have any secrets at all and my views on anything are available at the drop of a cheque. So why bother bugging me?

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Harold Wilson stopped the bugging of MPs’ phones at the height of the cold war. So why resume it now? The truth is that Harold was old Labour and doctrinaire about outdated concepts such as civil liberties. Today’s is a different world of polycentric threats and an enemy who could be anywhere or anyone – the applicant for a council house transfer, a Buckingham Palace garden party ticket-holder, a critic of academy schools or of the Religious Hatred Bill, or a “suicide” photographer keen to take a picture of his five-year-old outside No 10.

The only way to counter all this is total information about everyone: their views on education reform, rendition flights, railway timetables, Brussels budgets, PFIs, nuclear power and Peter Mandelson’s Chinese brassieres. We’re all suspects now. Nothing is trivial. It’s all evidence, part of the total picture our leaders need. Add in the early day motions we sign, and the bar bills, then map our travels from our expenses, and you’ve got the total picture that government needs. Then the potential weak links can be picked out. They can’t all be Liberal Democrats.

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