A new ICM poll shows that the British are much more concerned about the state holding information on them than they were four years ago, when the last state of the nation poll was commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.
And concern expressed by a very large majority of British about rights is far sharper than in polls of the last few years. Drill down deep, as this survey of 2,288 people interviewed face-to-face did, and you find strength of opinion about issues that the parties would be foolish to ignore in the coming election. The penny on state power and surveillance has dropped with ringing clarity.
The most fascinating results came when people were asked what rights should be included in a bill of rights. In the week where a defendant escaped from the first criminal trial without a jury and an official report condemned the incarceration of thechildren of asylum seekers who have done nothing wrong, 88% of people said the fair trial before a jury was the most important right, which was one percentage point ahead of the right to be treated on the NHS within reasonable time. I’d have bet £100 on it being the other way with a much greater gap between the two.
As surprising are the next five rights people favour in descending order: the right to know what information government departments hold on you – 81%; the right to privacy in your phone, mail and email communications – 79%; the right to join a legal strike without losing your job – 76%; the right to obtain information from government bodies about their activities – 75%; and the right to free and peaceful assembly – 72%.
You couldn’t get a clearer, more encouraging picture of a nation that is still fundamentally committed to a free society. Released by Power 2010, which is currently asking the public to choose its top five priorities for political reform, the poll revealed that 80% agreed with the need for a bill of rights, 52% strongly.
The last state of the nation poll revealed that only 33% of people opposed ID cards. Now 53% declare them to be a bad, or very bad, idea, while 63% – up from 53% – worry about the government holding information on them.
It’s important for the Home Office and senior figures in all parties to understand the British public is rejecting the idea of massive centralised power over which they have no control. Some 56% thought government power was too centralised, with 88% saying that local communities should have more say over decisions that affect them.
Clearly this has showed up in private polling by the main parties, which explains the enthusiasm for “empowering” local communities. Pam Giddy, the director of Power 2010, said that the poll backed up the results of nearly 100,000 votes cast in the reform campaign: “People are worried about the power of the state. They want more say in decisions that affect them, their families and communities. And they want a stronger parliament that can hold government to account.”
Incidentally, this clear demand should be on the minds of MPs when they begin to debate Dr Tony Wright MP’s reforms on Monday, in particular the proposal that a new Commons business committee should set the chamber’s timetable instead of the government. If there is one thing MPs can do to express the will of the public before the election a vote in favour of this vital reform is it.
The point about the state of the nation poll, for which the Rowntree Reform Trust again deserves our gratitude, is that it is tracks opinion that is plainly developing against centralised state power, as the reverse in attitudes on ID cards show. So the government should consider where these attitudes will be in another four years and make sure that it responds to the public opinion instead of following the rather arrogant and intrusive agenda of the last 13 years.
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