Surveillance, broadband, zero hours: Tech policy in a UK hung Parliament

Mixing and matching the party manifesto promises


Election 2015 Five years after its first coalition government for decades, Britain again looks likely to refuse to elect a single party to government.

The Liberal Democrats, which joined the 2010 government as the Conservative’s junior partners, look set to lose a significant number of seats, meaning the party may not have the numbers to form a coalition government with the largest party.

The Scottish National Party, which looks set to win numerous of seats in Scotland – despite losing last autumn’s referendum on independence – has refused to prop up the Conservatives but has offered to support Labour in government, although Labour is not keen.

The anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP), Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru and various Northern Irish parties could also be pressed into service – for a price of course.

With all parties having published their manifestos, how could they combine to impact on tech?

Surveillance

The formation of the 2010 coalition was eased by both Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties being keener on civil liberties than the outgoing Labour government, known for its attempt to introduce ID cards among other delights.

But the Lib Dems were always keenest, and this is obvious from the party’s 2015 manifesto. It features a digital bill of rights including net neutrality, further regulations on CCTV and retention of facial images, prison sentences for “egregious breaches” of the Data Protection Act and the blocking of the "snooper’s charter", the plans previously proposed by the Conservatives which would increase retention of communications data.

Of all the parties, the Lib Dems look closest to the policy wish-list of campaign group Big Brother Watch, although as a non-partisan group it doesn’t endorse any party.

The Conservative manifesto promises to strengthen counter-terrorism powers and mentions the need to “keep up to date” the ability of police and spies to access communications data through new legislation. But it is couched with caveats such as the need to “strengthen oversight of the use of these powers”. Based on the last five years, a new Tory-Lib Dem coalition would be likely to increase surveillance powers fairly sparingly.

Despite its previous record, the same may be true of a Labour-led government. Under Ed Miliband, the party has taken a less strident tone on security and Labour’s manifesto covers surveillance briefly, referring to the need to strengthen both powers but also safeguards and oversight of intelligence agencies – and not a mention of ID cards.

However, a further brake on the surveillance state could well be provided by Labour’s likely partners in government: the Lib Dems or the SNP. The latter revealed in its manifesto launch earlier this week that it would not support the snooper’s charter. The SNP’s opposition to increases in UK-wide surveillance makes sense, as it only answers to its constituents in Scotland and isn’t subject to the same pressures as Westminster parties.

But the SNP doesn’t get away Scot-free on the subject of Big Brother. The SNP-controlled Scottish government has voted to let NHS Scotland’s Community Health Index be used as a multi-purpose centralised identity register – something Westminster deliberately avoided in its Verify identity system, where a citizen’s details are held by one of a number of suppliers. This has landed the SNP government in hot water with Britain’s Information Commissioner.

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