England & Wales

Snoopers charter?


Lots in the news today about councils use of Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), to police minor infringements such as dog fouling and littering.

The government has promised further guidance and stressed that Ripa should only be used to deal with serious offences.

Most of this discussion has focused on civil liberties, but I think (and this is a personal view of course) that there’s a practical dimension to this which has been neglected and which the government should reflect in its further guidance.

The key to this is the message sent out by use of Ripa and the impact it has on our self confidence as a society. Broadly this message is the following, “society is overrun by cheating, fraud and antisocial behaviour which can only just be controlled by the extensive use of stringent surveillance powers”

As the American social psychologist Robert Cialdini has shown, over emphasising the prevalence of social problems can have the unintended consequence of normalising what should seem aberrant “If everyone else is letting their dog foul the pavement or cheating the benefits system,” we think, “then I might as well too.” At best, focusing on these negatives encourages a sense of social fragmentation and vulnerability.

This is exactly the wrong thing to be doing right now. When times are tough, communities need to pull together and have faith in their capacity for collective action. I’m not suggesting that we turn a blind eye to the challenges we face, but we need to make sure that our responses to these challenges don’t undermine our ability to cope with them.

It’s difficult to measure of course, but given that councils use of RIPA has only led to successful prosecutions in 9% of cases, they have surely done more harm than good.