The Modern Panopticon; or, The Snitch's Charter
[ politics - august 06 ]
VERY soon now, crime and disorder will be mapped out on a house-to-house level and displayed on the internet. The maps will be searchable by anyone, including insurance companies, and will also incorporate aerial photography. Backstage, vast amounts of highly sensitive data - including your medical notes - will be sloshed around on local government and emergency services intranet - and across the internet too. Members of the public will be encouraged to submit complaints of anti-social behaviour via email. The resulting crime maps will be used to provide information for, among other things, decisions about architecture in afflicted areas.
And the best thing about the new Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRPs) is that no one knows about them.
The CDRPs are hybrids composed of elements from (and data-sharing between) local councils, police forces, ambulance trusts, social services, trading standards, fire brigades, youth teams... you name it. These bodies have swapped notes (occasionally and informally) for years but what is happening now is something totally new in the British experience. What was previously a grapevine between the different bodies is becoming a hotline instead, as a new system is bolted laboriously into place.
How did this happen? And why haven't you noticed before now? Let's take the two questions in order.
The first is very simple: The "Labour" party's Crime and Disorder Act 1998 placed "a duty on local authorities to consider the crime and disorder implications of all their policies and practices." Which was all very well as far as it went, since Britain's local councils were constitutionally committed to just that anyway and always had been. But the "Labour" party's Police Reform Act 2002 then extended the same duty to police forces .. and fire authorities... and NHS Primary Care Trusts.
And it didn't place anyone in charge.
The result has been the gradual solidification of 373 CDRPs in the UK.  According to the Home Office: "There are clearly benefits for some partnerships, particularly in two tier [local authority] areas, to work together in this way. "For example, the pooling of expertise, knowledge, skills and resources to more effectively tackle crime and disorder and the misuse of drugs at local level." That seems unarguable. Moreover, the CDRPs will slowly be encouraged to merge with each other. "The (1998) Act enables the Home Secretary to make an order to join together two or more CDRP areas to work as a combined partnership provided he first consults all the responsible authorities in the areas concerned, and considers merger to be in the interests of reducing crime and disorder or combating misuse of drugs in the areas concerned ."
'Encouraged' in the "Labour" party sense of threatened, cajoled and bullied into it, then.
One does not have to be gifted with clairvoyance to foresee that the CDRPs - once they have amalgamated into unitary county-wide partnerships - would eventually clump together in accordance with the "Labour" party's proposed devolved English Regions: the crimereduction.gov website makes this abundantly clear. (Did I dream it, for example, or were "Labour" also trying to merge police forces a while back? My, how quickly we forget).
My county is Bedfordshire, a nondescript place (neither Midlands, Home Counties nor Anglian, although it would be East of England under the Government's regional plans), best summed up by its catchphrase: "Central to the Oxford-Cambridge Arc". I'd never heard of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc and I rather doubt Oxford and Cambridge have. And one has the sneaking suspicion that the 'arc' would be a straight line were it not for an arbitrary third point along its route. I'd never heard of the CDRPs either, until earlier this year when I attended a meeting of Bedfordshire County Council's eerily-named Community Well-Being Select Committee, which deals with mundane public health and order issues. CDRP was on the agenda, but I assumed it was just another of these fancily-named 'interface' meetings, familiar to any poor sod who takes more than a passing interest in local government. After all, surely something this big should be well-known?
As the snippets of dialogue reproduced below will explain, I was already feeling somewhat queasy by the time a PowerPoint presentation unfolded. Surely, I thought, in the name of all that is most sensible those cannot really be emergency service logs? Later that day, Bedfordshire County Council's press office kindly supplied me with a CD-ROM of the presentation. Yes, the spreadsheets glimpsed in the presentation really were pages from emergency service logs.
The level of detail included:
* X and Y co-ordinates allowing pinpointing of crimes and accidents on Ordnance Survey maps * Details of crime victims including address, age and sex
* Ambulance data including patient problems.
In this last category, the medically confidential information had been shaded over for presentation to the council. However, on examination it was easily readable, allowing me to zero in on the locations of the following incidents, all from October 1, 2005
* 12 cases of 'assault/rape'
* One case each of 'overdose/poisoning' and 'stab/gunshot wound'
* 16 cases of 'specific traumatic injuries' Information from the fire and rescue service also give OS grid references, street addresses and notes on whether fires are considered accidental or deliberate. [nthposition has redacted the personally identifiable data.]
Information from the council's environmental services includes unprocessed reports pinpointing complainants' addresses.
From information on council trading standards 'enforcement visits' it could be seen that four specific shops in nearby towns had provided drink and/or tobacco to underage children. In the council's words: "Data on crime and anti-social behaviour incidents is extracted from the partner systems and replicated into a central data store and a common application has been created to provide user access."
Such is the CDR partners' belief in data protection that they lifted pages of this data store for a slide show, and then simply handed it out to the public on request. And this is the sort of information that is going to be pinged back and forth. Bedfordshire's CDRPs also plan to show reported incidents of anti-social behaviour on website maps giving house-to-house detail. These maps will be available online to the public.
We've included some purloined sample images from the CDRP presentation here, so you can see what to expect (and the sort of data that will be shared about you, should you ever call an ambulance or ring the police, or perhaps even complain to your landlord: see below).
Using a special page on the CDRP sites, members of the public will be able report instances of alleged anti-social behaviour. At present, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) can be made by local courts. They are yet another of "Labour"'s quick fixes: where prosecution might otherwise fail, or even where no specific crime has been committed, Asbos can be slapped on instead. The bald truth about Asbos is unpalatable enough: they can be (and in fact, are designed specifically to be) applied to anyone magistrates consider to have behaved legally, but badly enough to warrant legal restraint. Now, in a sort of post-modern nightmare, Orwell's Big Brother has been ousted by Bazalgette's Big Brother.
The public will be the ones doing the state's spying, and 'voting off' fellow citizens. You shouldn't worry unduly about this, because (as one CDRP officer put it): "These reports will be sanity-checked." What might 'sanity-checking' entail? On the face of it, emailed reports of pink elephants leaping over office blocks might not make it on to the map. Then again, you may remember the case of Caroline Shepherd, a woman from East Kilbride served with an Asbo in 2005 for answering her own front door while wearing a nightdress. Or perhaps the luckless would-be suicide who repeatedly jumped in to the River Avon and was hit with an Asbo preventing her from going near any body of water in the vicinity (her name is public knowledge, but I can't see any benefit in repeating it). (Then there are the cases of Michael Donockley, David Gaylor and David Boag... but I fear that no one will believe those actually happened. Stick their names plus 'asbo' into a search engine and find out for yourself).
Doubtless, of course, many Asbos are properly applied and save much misery for innocent people. This doesn't prevent the actual principle - inventing tailor-made offences for legally-innocent individuals and then punishing them for refusing to comply - being a deeply worrying one.
And if you have any questions about the accuracy of the data accepted by the CDRPs, their house-to-house databases will use information from the 2001 Census, which the Bedfordshire meeting was told was 'very very accurate'. How accurate may be gauged from the fact that no fewer than 25 local councils challenged the 2001 Census over unreliable data. And they weren't wrong, either. In 2002, it was also revealed that civil servants had made up personal details for 1m people apparently missed by census-takers .
Officials invented social profiles and addresses, adding more women aged 85 and over, more twentysomething men and more non-English speakers (among other groupings). (Did anyone think immediately of the potential for assuming a census invented identity and using it to commit fraud? You're probably not alone).
The new CDRPs, therefore, may find themselves in the exquisite situation of trying to enforce maliciously-inspired Asbos on non-existent people. Duncan Ross, to my knowledge, both exists and has never been on the receiving end of an Asbo. He is a Labour county councillor for Bedfordshire's Northfields division, present for Bedfordshire's CDRP presentation. (I'll forego the scare quotes on "Labour", since he does actually seem to be Labour as it used to be. What he's doing still in the party is anyone's guess). To his credit, though, he is particularly suspicious of his Government's plans. At the meeting, Cllr Ross said: "My concern is for anyone living in an area identified as a crime hotspot. "For example, will insurance companies make policy decisions based on this map?"
His question was met with straightforward silence from officers, maintained until someone else spoke. When he reiterated his questions, he was simply fobbed off with generalities. Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Ross told me: "There are Big Brother aspects of this project and it is wide open to abuse. "Someone with a grudge could make someone else's life a misery. "If this isn't properly regulated it could be a snitch's charter. "And as for the medical data, shouldn't this be staying within the ambulance services?" "It's just an overambitious IT project, which could adversely affect people's lives but certainly won't protect them."
If some of the people who are meant to be overseeing this chimerical scheme can see it, why can no one else? Probably because the CDRPs are off the media agenda and so no-one else is even talking about them. The Bedfordshire 'crime map' alone has received Home Office funding worth some £255,000 to get it set up and online.
And this brings us to the second question: how has all this crept off the pages of some dog-eared Whitehall jotter and into the realm of the real world, without anyone so much as blinking? A string of failures in what we have come to know as joined-up Government has meant that the CDRP 'solution' has attracted virtually no attention whatsoever. After all, if CDRPs can prevent another Victoria Climbie case, who can possibly complain? The meeting was told that CDRP inforrmation will be fed back into local government, including decisions about the design of planning applications in 'problem' areas. At Bedfordshire County Council's CDRP progress report, one councillor put it this way. Read between his lines: "Badly designed communities from the 1960s and 1970s are breeding the slums of the future, crime hotspots. "What influence do you think the police and fire brigade should have in designing new communities?"
A council officer enthusiastically replied: "This information is vital to do that. We didn't have this level of data in the past. This is a valuable tool."
Pause and consider: What sort of civic architecture do you think might satisfy the police force in the execution of their duties?
However, the Government that is slowly slotting the CDRPs together is the same Government that has previously floated the idea of forcing 'neighbours from Hell' to live in steel shipping containers under motorway flyovers.  A Dutch scheme along these lines has already been deemed a success and may yet be extended nationwide. Former welfare minister Frank Field said he would volunteer certain constituents of his in Birkenhead, Merseyside, for a UK pilot scheme. Mr Field said: "They can put them up underneath the motorway flyover. The Labour Party in Holland has stopped messing about on this issue and has got serious. "We need to be doubly serious about this issue because we are further down the road to anarchy."
You might like to read that last line again: there goes Tiddles, screeching from the bag. Having created an economic system in which somewhere around a quarter of the UK's population now lives below the poverty line, we find that crime and disorder have gone through the roof. Yet the solution to this cancerous inequality is apparently not the redistribution of wealth, but suppression.
Field's is not a lone voice. Economist Milton Friedman has already suggested that Britain's sink estates should become 'gated communities' - with the locks on the outside. This sort of aggressive celebration of British poverty is becoming the norm. The fact that one of the partners in the Bedfordshire CDRP is Aragon, a local housing association - a non-governmental and charitable organisation which generally looks after the poor - should be a glaring clue to the nature of the partnership.
The police representative at the Bedfordshire meeting told a little anecdote that bears repetition. Again, it's the unstated assumptions behind his tale that are most revealing.
He told members that in a previous force, he had once got members of the local ambulance services and social services together over coffee. He then asked them to write down the names of the five families on a nearby estate to whom they were most often called out. He told the rapt councillors of Bedfordshire: "Four out of the five names were the same on everyone's list. "And it's that sort of information pooling that will allow us to target crime and disorder more efficiently."
It's also 'that sort of information pooling' that gives me the creeps, quite frankly.
At this point in an article, even one as personal as this, I would normally (in the interests of journalistic fairness) approach the Home Office and ask for their comments on the entire CDRP project, perhaps even asking about specific concerns so that the appropriate reassuring noises could be made in public.
But I think this one speaks for itself.
1 You can find out about yours at: crimereduction.gov.uk/regions_map.htm [Back]
2 crimereduction.gov.uk/partnerships66.htm [Back]
3 guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,797185,00.html [Back]
4 tinyurl.com/geap2 [Back]