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Big Brother row as 400,000 civil servants win right to snoop

UK Daily Mail | September 14 2006

A vast database containing a file on every man, woman and child is being planned by the Government in a 'sinister' expansion of the 'Big Brother' state.

Personal information containing details of every aspect of an individual's life will be available to 400,000 Whitehall civil servants and council workers.

Lord Falconer has ordered privacy laws to be watered down to allow the plans to be forced through.

The plans would allow anyone working for a public body to monitor everything from an individual's driving licence record to whether they had paid their council tax on time.

Critics warned that allowing sensitive financial information to be viewed by all public bodies would leave it wide open to identity fraud. And pensioners who take stands against soaring council tax bills by refusing to pay could have their rights to pension credit withdrawn.

Data-sharing powers would also allow the electoral roll to be used to police the ID card database - allowing residents to be fined up to £2,500 for not registering their name or address.

Data protection laws - which are supposed to safeguard individuals' rights to information held about them - will be changed to force the moves through.

Ministers want the changes in place by April next year. The plans would see a massive sharing of all state databases including the electoral roll, benefits records and information collected by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency - but taxpayer, medical and criminal records would be exempt.

MPs and civil liberties campaigners condemned the moves as a further erosion of individual's privacy by the Big Brother state. The plans were published yesterday in a blandly-worded 'vision statement' by Lord Falconer's Department for Constitutional Affairs.

The document says civil servants and council workers must 'fully understand that the Data Protection Act is not a barrier to appropriate information sharing'.

The Government insisted the database would help people moving house avoid contacting local authority, driving licence and the Inland Revenue separately because records would be updated automatically.

Information should be routinely shared 'to expand opportunities for the most disadvantaged, fight crime and provide better services' and in other instances 'where it is in the public interest'.

Constitutional Affairs Minister Baroness Ashton said the Government was 'committed to more information sharing between public sector organisations and service providers'.

But Ministers have already made inroads into individual freedoms, including the creation of a £200 million Children's Index which will create a file containing information on the health and education of every child in England and Wales.

A report last month warned that a database holding the personal details on ten million children will hand a 'dangerous weapon' to paedophiles.

The Valuation Office Agency is building a detailed property database of every home - including information on conservatories, scenic views and gardens - in preparation for the shake-up of council tax.

Microchips are being fitted in household dustbins by councils to pave the way for a new rubbish tax, imposed on householders who do not meet recycling targets.

And the DVLA was criticised this year after it emerged it had sold the driving licence details of more than 100,000 motorists to private firms. But Simon Davies of Privacy International said the plans were 'alarming', adding: 'Who will decide what is in the public interest?'

Gareth Crossman, policy director of Liberty, said: 'The Government seems set on moving from a situation where information is not shared unless there is a reason to do so, towards one where information will be shared unless there is a reason not to. 'This is an information free-for-all which is very worrying.' Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary Oliver Heald said: 'Step by step, the Government is logging details of every man, woman and child - and their home - in "Big Brother" computers. For all of Labour's talk of human rights, it's clear their state inspectors have little respect for people's privacy.

'There is a case for Government agencies to share data to tackle crime and prevent fraud. But I fear the wholesale weakening of Data Protection laws will merely be used as a sinister excuse for bureaucrats to snoop in people's homes and Gordon Brown to increase taxes by stealth.'

Phil Booth, of the NO2ID campaign, said: 'From now on, you can assume that anything you tell to an official or public servant will not only go on your record, but be passed on to anyone at all in "the public interest" - which has already been neatly redefined to mean 'official convenience'.

'How many thousands of officials will now have free rein to snoop on your personal, business and children's lives?'

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