Taking liberties

Freedom of information can be a dangerous thing, as many MPs have recently found after being hoist by the petard of their own legislation and the dogged determination of Telegraph journalists. Once the honourable Members’ catalogue of crimes against the public purse had been exposed in graphic detail by the scoop seekers – and it was not an easy extraction as MPs fought tooth and nail against disclosure – the taxpayers who keep that public purse replete with funds were expecting at the very least to see some humility, followed by resignations, deselections and criminal investigations. What the long suffering public still seems to be getting, however, is a cacophony of excuses, some feebler than others, from those who have been caught taking diabolical liberties to feather their own nests (although we note that the Speaker has finally fallen on his sword – or was he pushed?)

We have to wonder what sort of planet, or stately home, some of these MPs inhabit. Imagine forgetting that your mortgage had been paid off. Did these selective amnesiacs also forget to cancel their payments to the mortgage company? Then there was Shahid Malik asserting in a television interview, without batting a ministerial eyelid, that it costs at least £60k a year to run a (second) home in London. Try telling that to the burger flipping, minimum wage slaves in the seedier parts of town – or even just Peckham where Malik maintains his second home and from where he could easily hop on a bus up the Walworth Road to Westminster. His over inflated claims won’t have gone down a storm with Mr and Ms Ordinary and kids, who are struggling to eke out an existence on less than £20k a year, and it’s unlikely that the hearts of the capital’s homeless population will be bleeding for him from the cardboard city suburbs over which his government has presided for the past 12 years.

Many MPs have been seriously and visibly shaken by this sudden and unexpected encounter with transparency and accountability, which they never thought would apply to them once they were safely elected. It just isn’t cricket, after all, to have their privacy intruded upon and their private affairs raked through by data mining journalists and members of the public who want to know what their money is being spent on. On the other hand, they deem it perfectly acceptabe for the state to snoop on individuals, gather information about every aspect of their private lives and proceed to share (or lose) that data with impunity.

Take ContactPoint, for example – “con” being the operative word – which is about to go live in England. Known in cynics’ circles as the paedophiles’ address book, it will allow access to the details of vulnerable children by several hundred thousands of “authorised” users (no one can say how many) and promises to present only a minor accessibility challenge to hackers according to computer security experts. Spun by the government, and reported by the mainstream media, as a child protection measure recommended by Lord Laming in the wake of the Victoria Climbie murder, anyone who has researched the history of ContactPoint knows that the agenda behind the project predates Victoria’s tragic death by some years and is actually part of a European drive towards universal population surveillance. Information will be gathered without consent, and shared with or without consent, on every child and every member of the child’s household; in other words it will establish an English national identity register by the back door. There is no opt out clause, except for celebrities, aristocrats and MPs, which strongly suggests that their privacy is much more important than that of Mr and Ms Ordinary and family, whose details will be vulnerable to the inevitable system security breaches.

Thanks to a relatively new but effective ally, the Freedom of Information Act, home educators have demonstrated the same level of tenacity as Telegraph journalists in their efforts to sniff out the truth about aspects of the current elective home education review – most especially, details of how it came about, who is pulling the strings and who stands to gain from it. Using the legislation, they have asked the DCSF for a breakdown of costs for the review, copes of relevant correspondence between the DCSF and key “partners”, and have asked local authorities to provide copies of their individual responses in relation to the review. A significant number of requests have not been responded to by the DCSF within the statutory time limit, while some local authorities have insisted on conducting a “public interest” test in an effort to delay or withhold the information requested. What have they got to hide?

Take another bow, one particularly valiant hero, whose epic adventures have already been blogged over at Sometimes It’s Peaceful. Matt Hupfield asked his local council to release its response to the home education review and, in so doing, has helped demonstrate that freedom of information can also be a dangerous thing for local authorities. Having finally prised the information he had requested out of a reluctant Staffordshire Council, Matt has exposed a worrying level of institutional bias against home educators. Peter Traves, head of Children’s Services, betrays his contempt for parents when he states that he does not accept “the rather bizarre view that there is some kind of home education expertise that must be tested by the parent before access is granted to officers.” Matt and fellow home educators are naturally incredulous as to why any old teacher or EWO should believe that s/he is capable of “inspecting” home education provision (which is not in itself an intra vires activity) and why it should be considered “bizarre” for parents to expect such individuals to have some level of expertise in the area if they wish to be taken seriously by home educating families. Matt continues to ask questions about the public interest test which was held by the council in an apparent bid to withhold information from interested stakeholders.

Other councils have also been heel dragging over the production of their review responses and have offered a variety of excuses for failing to fulfil FOI requests, such as “not saving it” as it was submitted electronically to the DCSF. Not to worry, though, home educators can always obtain the councils’ individual responses directly from the DCSF – well they could, in principle, as long as the DCSF fulfils its own legal obligation to respond to FOI requests within the statutory time limit. So far, their record has been poor in this respect and home educators around the country are currently sharpening their stakes in anticipation of further “barriers” to freedom of information.

While national and local government invent more and more excuses and exceptions with which to deny us access to information we know they have and don’t want us to see, they seem equally determined to find new and creative ways to covertly surveille the entire population in the hope that they might catch a few folk committing potentially revenue raising crimes – inlcuding such heinous activities as putting rubbish in the wrong bin or sneaking prohibited items into the kids’ packed lunch boxes. The Daily Mail reports that we are now seeing town halls hire citizen snoopers, some of whom are as young as seven, to spy on neighbours and report suspicious activities and crimes against community cohesion. This blog post from Nanny Knows Best describes the move as “the Nazification of our young” and it is indeed chillingly reminiscent of the emergence of the Hitler Youth where children and young people were encouraged to inform on anyone who was suspected of being “off message”. The home educating von Trapps had to take a long hike over the Alps to escape this sort of stuff, remember?

So we are left with the old double standards double bind. On the one hand, they don’t want us to know about what they are saying, doing and claiming in our name, while on the other, they want to know everything about every aspect of our lives, from what we put in our bins to details of our children’s pet bereavements (which might, after all, indicate a propensity for serial killing) Most worryingly of all, they want to gather that information, share it, possibly lose or corrupt it (deliberately or otherwise) in order to identify those who are at risk of offending – “offending” being defined as anything that challenges any prevailing state diktat.

Home educators already fit that dangerous refusenik profile and can expect to be targeted by the thought police, but don’t forget that they are coming for your children, too – and maybe even your mother. Whatever you do, don’t mention the war! 


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