Yesterday I used the Internet as follows:

  1. Sent and received 81 emails, of which 58 related to council and ward work, 10 related to my non-council work and 13 were to friends and family
  2. Visited pages at BBC News, Department of Communities and Local Government, London School of Economics, Local Government Information Unit, Angry People in Local Papers, Literature and Latte, The Guardian, Wikipedia, Liverpool Council and YouTube
  3. Downloading an application from the Mac App Store (Byword, it’s excellent.)
  4. Automatic back-up using an offsite service.
  5. Syncing my Dropbox folder (a great free service, sign up with this link and we both get a bit extra for free.)

I’m sure this information is as interesting to you as it is useful to the security of the nation.

Without knowing the content of those emails it’s both boring and useless. I might have emailed my wife about my secret plan to blow up the Thames riverside by igniting sewage gases.

Or I might have dropped her a line to let her know a delivery had arrived.

Of course, if the security services knew I needed monitoring they could apply for a warrant to see the content: but that’s exactly what they do now.

The proposals seem to amount to little more than a massive intrusion into privacy with the only benefit being to save the security services (and a lot more) a little administrative effort. And all the while using the excuse of national security; overlooking that nasty scary things like terrorism seem to have declined without a police state in any case.

The idea of the state having access to our emails and internet activity without independent oversight should shock everyone to the core. You might trust the current government with this information, you might not. But what about the next government, or the one after that? The principle of personal freedom and liberty is an absolute.

Even assuming our traditions of liberal democracy counter the potential of authoritarian government it is a worrying intrusion of our privacy and contrary to the notion that we are a free, liberal democracy. I am astounded that the proposal comes from a government that should be respecting and promoting the primacy of the individual over the state. I know there can be an authoritarian streak in the Conservatives, but thought one of the benefits of the coalition was the Liberal Democrats would check it.

What troubles me most of all, however, is the number of people who are so used to this sort of erosion of civil liberties that they not only trot out the ‘nothing to hide’ line, they even believe the surveillance of a populace is the price to be paid for security. As dangerous as the all-powerful state is, a submissive population that does not value its rights is worse.

Great news that the Home Secretary is limiting the use of stop and search under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

Of all the erosions of our civil liberties under thirteen years of Labour their insistence that the best way to counter terrorism was to restrict the freedom of the innocent was one of the most insidious. It’s amazing, once you start talking about it, how many people you know who have been stopped and the culture that it creates. I’ve been questioned for taking a photo and have lost count of the number of times I’ve had my bag examined on the way out of the Tube (although my understanding was always that suicide bombers don’t actually make it to the exit).

And the amazing thing is that it’s hard to point to any success stories from Section 44. There have been arrests, to be sure, but as far as I know none have been terrorism related. A point echoed by Shami Chakrabarti in the BBC article.

My one disappointment in the news is that it seems to have been driven more by the European Court of Human Rights than by the government – but whatever the reason it’s one to celebrate.

I’m definitely one of those Conservatives for whom the coalition has been a real eye-opener. I wasn’t keen when the talks were taking place, especially when it seemed that the Lib Dems were playing the two sides off against each other by holding talks with Labour. And the political animal in me just didn’t like the idea of power sharing. I hadn’t been tramping the streets for months on end to elect anything but a Conservative government.

But as time has passed I’ve become a real fan.

Part of it is because of my basic approach to politics. I’m not interested in power for power’s sake. It isn’t what motivates me, instead I’m there because I believe in some basic principles (low tax, freedom of the individual, a small state) and because I believe I can help by being part of the change towards that, but not because I have a particular desire for power.

It’s possibly principles that makes me such a coalition fan; it has to be based on principles, they are what bind the two partners together, as well as highlighting their differences so they maintain their individual characters. It is such a contrast from the Labour, for whom it seemed that gaining and retaining power was the emphasis of Blair and Brown.

And then we get things like Your Freedom. It will be years before we know how much government policy is being driven by the Conservatives and how much is being driven by the Liberal Democrats, but I can’t help but think that a lot of the civil liberty agenda is coming from the Lib Dems. And, if that’s true, thank God for them.

There is part of me that thinks it doesn’t go far enough. It’s all very well asking what legislation or regulations should be repealed, for example, I’ve never understood why we don’t make more use of sunset laws – so legislation has a defined life unless expressly extended (and, by implication, has a justification for that extension). However, it is a refreshing start and not just a civil liberty issue, but also an example of the big society, allowing people to play a part in the government.

I still can’t help but think it’s an incredibly exciting time for government and the country. There are huge challenges as a result of years of Labour mismanagement, but they will force us to focus on what’s really important for the nation and the area, but will also mean there are opportunities for people to directly be involved in the running of services.

I know that there will be groups who take responsibility for schools or services that I don’t like or agree with; that is an inevitable consequence of devolving powers to people. But even with that, it makes for a healthier and better society when people, not politicians, are the ones holding the power.

And extending that approach to government, perhaps it’s healthier when power has to be shared between two coalition partners than when it is held by a single party. I’m still a Conservative (and would probably still prefer a single party government) but I’m worrying I’m detecting distinct liberal tendencies in my advancing years.

It’s becoming increasingly fashionable to knock the use of CCTV as if it is inherently evil. Bizarrely – since I would consider myself to be a strong supporter of civil liberties – I’ve found myself defending its use again and again.

This is partly because they have concentrated on the number of cameras, rather than how they are used – I would contend that Wandsworth’s network of professionally operated and carefully regulated cameras are not a problem, problems occur with small, private installations in which there is no control or oversight of the operator.

The council highlighted some of the successes from the CCTV network over Christmas and New Year recently, when it helped stop a suicide, rescue a man who had fallen into the Thames, guided police to developing problems and helped track a suspect who was then arrested.

But even since then two court cases have illustrated the value of properly used CCTV. First, the case of Aubrey Appiah, who was tracked on the council’s CCTV network and the evidence used to secure a conviction for burglary. The second, and more tragic, was the murder of Paul Peters, in which CCTV evidence was used to disprove his grandson’s story that he was asleep at the time of the murder.

Regulated and controlled CCTV can, and does, continue to play a key role in making Wandsworth safer – whatever the sensationalist headline writers would like to think.

CCTVOnce again the issue of CCTV has raised it’s head. This time it is as a result of a ‘Big Brother Watch’ press release that, I believe, totally misses the real point.

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of sympathy for BBW (and don’t put that into Google at work). They are an offshoot of the Tax Payers’ Alliance, an organisation that, as everyone’s mother said, know the price of everything and the value of nothing. For an organisation that really cares about civil liberties I’d suggest you go to Liberty – a truly excellent organisation.

BBW put in Freedom of Information requests to 100 councils asking for the number of cameras and a copy of internal guidance. As far as I can see they don’t seem to have done anything with the guidance they received from Wandsworth or any other borough.

And that’s strange, since they acknowledge in their final report that “there is obviously a role to play for technology in general, and CCTV in particular, in law enforcement and we are not opposed to CCTV per se.”

Yet they put out a press release that condemns councils purely for the number of cameras they have and not how they use them.

It seems to me that one camera improperly used is far more dangerous than hundreds of thousands of well-regulated cameras. Which is why I’m disappointed they didn’t bother to mention that Wandsworth has a strict CCTV code of conduct which prevents use of the cameras on private areas, or that our operators are trained, hold the appropriate SIA qualifications and regularly checked by the Criminal Records Bureau.

I’m also disappointed that they didn’t bother to find out that around half the criminal cases brought in the borough use CCTV evidence, or that they didn’t ask to hear about any of the crimes our operators have prevented, or helped the police rapidly apprehend the suspects through use of the CCTV network.

And because they didn’t enquire, we weren’t able to tell them about the way the police use our CCTV to help them in targeted investigations either by working with our camera operators or putting police officers into our control room.

And it was silent on the fact that Wandsworth is inner London’s safest borough, partly due to intelligent, controlled and pro-active use of CCTV.

CCTV is not the issue, the use to which it is put is the issue. The last time this cropped up and I ended up discussing this with Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti it was clear that the issue is not councils or public authorities that are the problem – they are well regulated and use high quality equipment. The problem are the shops, pubs and clubs that use the equipment without proper regulation, or re-use tapes so often they become useless. But, of course, they aren’t covered by Freedom of Information and don’t make for an easy Daily Mail headline.

I’ve touched on police powers to stop and search a couple of times in the past. Once when I was subject to a stop – but not a search – around a year ago (although I posted about it some months later, prompted by section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act coming into force) and again last May when the number s44 searches undertaken featured on the BBC News website.

I’ve been sat on the last statistical release from the Home Office (opens a PDF) for a while, it was covered on the BBC News website nearly three weeks ago but was prompted to dig it out by a recent YouTube video of someone being stopped for filming in London. I’m not going into any of the claims made in the film or the webpage about her treatment (nor comment on the music choice) but like the majority of those stopped under s44 – she’s innocent.

Section 44 allows a police constable in uniform to carry out a stop and search without any suspicion. According to the Home Office figures during 2008/9 there were 256,026 stop and searches and 95% of these were by the Metropolitan or British Transport Police. Essentially London is by far the place you are most likely to be stopped.

The Home Office reports that 1,452 arrests were made after a s44 stop and search – this represents 0.6% of the total. What it remains totally silent on is how many of these arrests were for terrorism related offences. My guess would be that that vast majority, if not all, were for other offences (possession of drugs or a knife, for example) discovered during a search.

The figures for s43 are no better. Section 43 is different to s44 in that it requires suspicion. The act states in s43(1) “A constable may stop and search a person whom he reasonably suspects to be a terrorist to discover whether he has in his possession anything which may constitute evidence that he is a terrorist.”

As you might expect there were fewer stop and searches under s43, just 1,643 by the Metropolitan Police. But despite the requirement that reasonable suspicion is required just 1.5% of these resulted in an arrest. Again, it remains silent on how many, if any, of these were for terrorism related offences.

So these searches represent a huge intrusion into our civil liberties without it seems, without, it seems, producing much in the way of results. It also represents a huge amount of police time which I would contend could be much better used in other ways.

The Home Office’s release makes a lot of the fact that the number of searches are falling, by 37% between 2008/9 and the first quarter of 2009/10, but this still means there will be something like 160,000 people stopped and searched – and with no reason to think the success rate of these will be any better.

I don’t often get the Wandsworth Guardian, so missed their sensational story that the council has used ‘anti-terrorism’ powers 300 times in the past four years until someone pointed it out to me last night.

And quite a sensational story it is: the council abused powers introduced to fight terrorism to “snoop on residents”.

Except, it isn’t true.  The powers they refer to aren’t anti-terrorism powers at all, even the article recognises the legislation is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). Now, I’m not an investigative journalist, but I’ve a vague idea the act is about investigation and, um, its regulation. Terrorism legislation tends to be pretty bluntly named, hence the Terrorism Act 2006 or the Counter-terrorism Act 2008.

So we have an act that regulates investigations. And the council investigates things all the time.

The first time I was aware of RIPA was in 2001. The council had been made aware of someone selling a set of council flat keys on eBay. For around £800 you could get the keys to the council flat, which – according to the seller – had three bedrooms, an excellent location and was yours for as long as you paid the subsidised rent. The sitting tenant was seeking to profit by ‘selling’ their flat into the private sector.

So, the council had a choice:

  1. stand by, watch the auction go through, let the tenant pocket the money, have someone get a great deal on a flat and hope, somewhere down the line, they slip up and we discover them so we could use the flat for someone who really needs it, or
  2. use RIPA and authorise an officer to act as a ‘covert human intelligence source’, engage with the seller as a potential buyer and gather enough information to stop the sale and ensure the flat gets to someone who really needs it.

Seems a no-brainer to me. And I guess most residents too. And it’s exactly the same when it comes to identifying and stopping benefit fraud, misuse of blue badges, fly-tipping… any number of cases where honest residents are suffering because of the dishonest or irresponsible few.

This will be discussed at tomorrow’s council meeting apparently. The Labour Deputy Leader, Cllr Leonie Cooper promised this and told the paper: “I find it both surprising and outrageous that the council has misused a piece of legislation in this fashion. They should come clean and tell people what they have been doing and stop it immediately.”

I’m really looking forward to hearing how the council is abusing legislation regulating investigations by conducting regulated investigations and protecting public money.

But of course, that doesn’t make good headlines or knee-jerk quotes knocking the council.

The key here, as it is with CCTV, is not that we are conducting investigations – it would be criminal if we weren’t trying safeguard your money – but that when we do we carry them out properly.

My usual end of week wrap-up of bits and pieces I want to highlight or didn’t post about at the time.

Pre-summer council meeting
Wednesday saw the council had it’s last full meeting before the summer recess. Of course, the council doesn’t take a holiday in the same way that Parliament does, but there’s a break in meetings during August before starting again in September. And, like any large organisation, things get a little quieter because of holidays.

The July council meeting always seems to reflect a pre-summer lethargy. I’d always blamed the bad ventilation in the Council Chamber, which made it hot and stuffy in July. But following the collapse of the roof and our move to the Civic Suite I discovered that July is a flat meeting for other reasons.

The debates lacked spark (despite some excellent contributions on our side) and the meeting was other remarkably quickly for a full council.

Of course, there’s also a slight lull because everyone knows that a general election is coming and whatever there are going to be major spending cuts, but politics means that neither party can really address these. Hence the ridiculous language of “0% raises” from Gordon Brown and endless offers of cash that, mysteriously, end in 2010/11 (thus making the next guy seem like the scrooge).

This affects councils of every political complexion, not just Conservative, and while it might make for interesting politics, it’s not the way a country should be run.

I can’t not mention the debate, opened up by the BBC, on CCTV cameras. It is definitely an interesting one; but what I found fascinating (as well as a little reassuring given my feelings on civil liberties) was the common ground I had with Shami Chakrabarti on them when I did BBC Breakfast. It might be a strange alliance, but I think it was something of a victory for common sense. As is often the case, it’s not the sensationalist headline, but the detail behind it. It doesn’t really matter how many cameras any organisation has, it’s the controls behind them that counts.

Another bit from the last week I’m rather pleased with is the discussion started on this blog and continued here, here and elsewhere, about surgeries. Yes, it might seem a minor issue – over the course of the year it’s only 150 man-hours in Wandsworth – but it’s good to see that a blog can start a little debate which, I hope, might lead somewhere.

Meeting the police
This week also saw one of my more formal meetings with the police. While I seem to see them fairly often, one way or another, I do have a regular session with the Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Stewart Low so we can both catch up with what each side is doing.

Obviously a lot of the meeting is not for repeating here. However, one thing did come across clearly (and shows in the crime maps on this site) is that the recession is having an impact on crime. This is not just a Wandsworth phenomenon, it’s happening across London and the rest of the country.

Burglary is one of the crimes that really seems to be on the up. While the police are doing a great job there’s still a lot we can do to avoid becoming a victim of crime. The Met’s crime prevention pages and the Council’s Community Safety Division both suggest lots of ways you can make yourself safer.

CCTVAt the end of last week I found myself at the top of Putney High Street doing an interview for Newsnight about CCTV.

Following a series of freedom of information requests the BBC had discovered that Wandsworth had the highest absolute number of CCTV cameras of any local authority (although the Shetlands are the most surveilled per capita) so I was there defending the council against the inevitable charges of Big Brother.

Now you might assume I’m anti-CCTV. I’ve posted on civil liberty issues in the past and surely this follows through with CCTV… well, yes and no.

It might be there is some cognitive dissonance at play here, with me trying to reconcile a civil libertarian streak with a portfolio of hundreds of cameras. But while I think there can be serious issues with CCTV, I think that Wandsworth are getting it right.

Many of the arguments are around issues like privacy. I’d argue it’s hard to be private when you are walking along a busy high street. If you are in plain view, it doesn’t make much difference whether you can be seen by a man on the other side of the road, or by a man operating a camera on the other side of the road.

In fact, when you start examining the argument it is not the CCTV itself that is the problem, but to what use that CCTV is put.

And this is the real nub of the matter. It is, frankly, irrelevant how many cameras there are in Wandsworth. What is relevant is the way we use them, and also the way we don’t use them.

CCTV is a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. In some places it is appropriate to use it, in others it is not. So in Wandsworth we have CCTV installed in town centres, but have a policy not to install in residential areas, and have a very strict code of practice regulating how we use it where installed – you’ll never see a Wandsworth recording featured on Police, Camera, Action.

In return we have an incredibly valuable resource. Around half of all prosecutions brought by the police use CCTV footage as evidence. And it helps beyond crime. The council’s well trained CCTV operators have found lost children and prevented suicides.

My concern with CCTV is that far too many people see it as a panacea. So, for example, if there is a problem with anti-social behaviour residents assume installing CCTV will solve it. In fact, it’s only likely to move it, meaning that someone else will start facing exactly the same problems. Whereas there are probably all sorts of other things that would deal with it. The police might patrol and area, the council’s youth services could engage with youths, it might just be that a little mutual understanding and dialogue will make all the problems disappear overnight.

And at its worst it stops people taking responsibility for their own lives. For example, we’ve been asked to install CCTV in a residential area to prevent burglary, not because there was a particular problem, but as a preventative measure. Naturally, we offered the usual security advice (there is a lot you can do, very cheaply, to secure your home) but it is concerning that people’s first thought was not to fit window locks or a London bar to their door, but to request their area be covered by a CCTV scheme.

And that is my biggest fear for CCTV. Wandsworth has shown that with robust controls CCTV can be a valuable tool in the fight against crime and making Wandsworth the safest inner London borough. We need to make sure that the price we pay isn’t a loss of personal responsibility.

What do you think?  Do we have too much CCTV?  Or don’t we have enough?

With the blanket coverage of MPs’ expenses late last week I almost missed a BBC News story about stops under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000

The article contacts a few facts and figures about how effective section 44 has really been.

  • In London during 2008 there were more than 170,000 searches conducted
  • Of these just 65 (0.035%) led to arrests for terror offences
  • The Home Office, Department of Justice and Met are “unable to say” if anyone had been charged or convicted as a result of a search.

They are staggering figures, essentially around 2,600 searches need to be conducted to get one terror related arrest.  You can argue that those 2,600 searches act as a deterrent, but I think there’s a stronger argument that the police time taken to conduct 2,600 searches would be more effectively spent on intelligent policing.

Assuming five minutes and two officers per search my back of the envelope calculation is that, including holidays, it’s about three months of police time for each arrest – and it would seem that those arrests haven’t led to any charges.  You shouldn’t assess police effectiveness on arrests alone, but I can’t help but think it isn’t an effective use of police time.

And the real question, why has a supposed temporary power been in force for eight years when it’s so ineffective?