There are two striking images of modern Britain in this week’s news. The first is the story that crime in Britain is at a 32-year low, which confirms evidence in statistical trends that, like most western countries, we are becoming a more orderly and law-abiding society.
The second is provided by the police, which, while suffering a thoroughly deserved collapse in their own reputation, seeks to draw a picture of chaos and misrule that demands ever harsher and more invasive policing techniques. Five years after the financial crash, the police are making the case for deploying water cannon to deal with expected “austerity riots”, when it is blindingly obvious that Britain has passed through a very difficult period without widespread disorder (the riots that began in Tottenham two years ago were mostly a failure of policing, not a response to economic conditions) and, moreover, the economy and employment have both picked up.
But the far more worrying development is the unscrutinised rollout of the police automated numberplate recognition system (ANPR) for tracking vehicles, which, according to Nick Hopkins’ report, currently stores 17bn images in its archive and is set to increase its capacity by 2018 to read and store 50-75 million separate vehicle sightings a day.
This is a very powerful surveillance system and the important thing to remember is that the decision to cover Britain’s motorways and town centres with cameras that track the movements of innocent citizens is that it was never debated by parliament.
The system was cooked up between “twinned” committees from the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers, which, incidentally, was a private company and immune from FOI requests, then deployed with constabularies footing the maintenance bill. Not one minute of parliamentary debate preceded the installation of the system; politicians of all parties went along with the police assertion that this was a necessary and proportionate tool of modern policing.