David Blunkett audio interview transcript

Britain Phone Hacking Alleged Victims

Interview with the Rt Hon David Blunkett MP

With Simon Davies

Recorded at Parliament House London, 29th April 2013

Please check transcript against audio

 

Simon – My guest in conversation today is the Rt. Hon. David Blunkett, one of Britain’s most experienced, and dare I say it, most controversial members of parliament. In his varied career he’s been secretary of state for education and employment, for work and pensions, and more germane to this interview, was Home Secretary at crucial periods of Britain’s own security. He’s now MP for Sheffield. David, thank you very much first of all.

Blunkett – You’re very welcome.

But you live and learn and the trouble with life is, you’ve just about learned when noboby wants you to apply the learning. 

Simon – I want to just explore some changes in the world and some changes to your own thinking in the past few years. You have, rather famously called civil libertarians “airy-fairy”. Do you think you’ve become a little more airy-fairy since then?

Blunkett – Well I’ve probably become a bit more measured. The airy-fairyness was not so much to do with civil liberties, as to do with those who were part of the chatterati – people who seemed to err on the side of a kind of, libertarian view of the world, where anything went and I probably rolled in people who didn’t take that hedonistic view or that naivety – and I probably shouldn’t have done. But you live and learn and the trouble with life is, you’ve just about learned when noboby wants you to apply the learning.

Simon – Yeah, there’s historical evidence for all that. There have of course been, notable turning points in your own thinking on privacy and on individual freedom of space and freedom of communication. Do you want to talk about that turning point that happened with you?

Blunkett – Well two, really. In 2002, when I inherited the regulatory investigatory powers act, it hadn’t really been implemented, and we had to lay orders and the first thing I learnt, is that you’ve got to be extraordinarily careful not to do something just because it’s already been debated and debated and it’s placed in front of you. So a junior minister, who shall remain nameless, actually published an order under RIPA which immediately created enormous controversy, and one of my sons who happens to be in the computer analyst business – quite junior at the time, but not any longer – but said to me, “Dad I think you’ve made a terrible error here, all hell’s letting loose” and I said “Well what do you think?”. He said “Well I think you’ve gone too far. The boundaries are not there. This act was supposed to be to regulate, not to have a free-for-all”.

the first thing I learnt, is that you’ve got to be extraordinarily careful not to do something just because it’s already been debated and debated and it’s placed in front of you.

Simon – This of course, is where there were hundreds of government agencies…

Blunkett – Absolutely. I had the confidence, let’s put it that way, to pull it back in and re-issue it. And that was one turning point, which taught me a lesson. Don’t just believe because people of good will are doing what they thought they’d been given their head to do, you should allow them to do it. The second was really, coming up to 2008/2009 and this is where we got into the controversy that’s still running today over communications data and the issue of how it should be collected, how it should be held and how it should be used and shared. We got into a situation where, the government then – my government, but I wasn’t part of the cabinet – had decided that we’d have a central database and I had learnt from the earlier experience and also from the debates that I had attended, including with you Simon, by the way, on a number of occasions, which did influence me. I thought that some of the discussions we had, the debates we took part in, the people I’d subsequently met, had actually had an influence on me, and that’s how it should be. Because that’s about democracy and opening your mind and actually being a living, breathing human being, rather than someone who’s died the moment they came out of cabinet. And I came to the conclusion, when I was preparing for the annual law lecture at Essex University, that actually, we were on the trajectory, and thank goodness before the general election, we had actually pulled back – not enough for you – but we’d pulled back to saying we couldn’t have a central database, there had to be a pluralistic approach. We’re still arguing now of course, about whether the act is required and how far we should go, and I’m trying to take part in that debate behind the scenes quietly, to say of course you must update what you do in terms of the way technology moves, otherwise you’re dead in the water and we’d still be running horses and carts, but you’ve got to do so in a way that reassures people that firstly, it’s a for a purpose, secondly, that people know what they’re doing, thirdly, if you do collect data it’s in a format and held in a way that doesn’t threaten the very people you’re meant to be protecting and above all, can you use it? There’s no point in going through a new act and terrific controversy, just to find that at the end of the day, there’s no way that all of this can be handled.

Because that’s about democracy and opening your mind and actually being a living, breathing human being, rather than someone who’s died the moment they came out of cabinet.

Simon – Of course this relates to, the current communications – well some might say ex-communications data bill – which seems to have been summarily dumped by the deputy prime minister. I mean, this allows – for listeners who aren’t aware of this –  this is a bill which gives the government unprecedented access to traffic data, relating to a spectrum of communications including social networking –twitter, and so on. Are you glad to see it dead, if it is dead?

Blunkett – Not completely dead. I’m happy to see, firstly that the debate has been rigorous, because I think the great strength of our democracy is that we do get there in the end. I mean, post-2001, when I was dealing with the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, we did come out with better measures because of debate.  I mean sometimes, I didn’t think so at the time, but they were. And so it works. Our democracy, with all of its weaknesses, actually does come up with the goods on most occasions. I think that there’s no point pretending that we’re just using telephones any more, so that’s why I don’t think that it’s a dead issue, but I think that the bill as originally conceived is dead, and let that rest in peace, and let’s try and put something together that is both workable and acceptable

Simon – Does it not concern you though, that the idea of a central database is now rather dated, and it’s an idea whose time came and went, and now with the way that you have ambient computing and ubiquitous computing, you have the same, in fact more-efficient, real-time matching between a distributed system of computers?

Blunkett –Yes, you do and without blowing the minds of those listening, cause I only know a bit about this, because of having been there, and because of my son’s continuing work in the computer industry – we can develop that in entirely new ways, but you’ve got to have it held, and you’ve got to have access to it if you need it and where it’s feasible to use it. And I come back to this, Simon, because, one of the things I learnt – even in a very old-fashioned, simple technology like fingerprinting – I remember the Attorney General of the Unites States telling me that they were going to have everybody coming into the country fingerprinted and I said “How much have you ot so far” and he said about “40 percent” and I said “But you haven’t got any system for people leaving the country, so what the hell’s the point?” There’s no point taking fingerprints of some but not all, of the people coming in, if you can’t use it and you can’t access it and we’ve got into that a bit in terms of airline travel where we do things to make us to make us feel that we’re reassured and that we’ve got security rather than what actually does the business.

Well I made a big mistake, and I don’t mind reiterating this – what I should have done is to see what’s already there – I used this in argument but I didn’t follow the logic of my own argument to the actual process of achieving the goal

Simon – Indeed. Just keeping on the communications data avenue for the moment – You have turned a sea change, and it’s not just at an intellectual level, it’s at a personal level. I mean your own life was put under what must be horrific scrutiny, for that period. You were in a theatre. Did that have an effect on the way you felt about your own personal communications?

Blunkett – it made me understand how people felt, who’d had their privacy breached in a quite unacceptable way, an understanding that this was private, rather than public sector intrusion, if you like – but I’ve always argued actually, even when I was in the home office, that we needed to balance the private with the public, this was private intrusion and it did make a difference. Partly, because it affected my family. I mean, I was in public life – you have to take the hits in public life – you know you’re going to be scrutinised, but that doesn’t mean that the people around you should have their lives undermined and their privacy intruded on, and above all, their relationships with other people and their getting on with their lives, interfered with. That did strike me, and it made me think, not so much about the wherewithal or the practicalities of government data holding and data sharing, but just the why? Why would anyone want to do that? And that’s why I’ve stressed in our interview now, that if it’s not for a proper purpose and it can’t be used for that purpose, then we shouldn’t be doing it.

Simon – Yes. Did you feel, or I’m guessing you’re feeling rather vindicated by the Leveson inquiry, if not slightly gleeful – are you disappointed, as many others are, that the Leveson findings haven’t really appeared to change the press?

Blunkett – Well I’m disappointed that they didn’t immediately embrace and come forward with sensible suggestions. They’ve come kicking and screening with their own charter, seven months too late. I mean I actually thought, the final outcome agreed by all but 13 member of parliament voting, was actually quite a clever way of squaring the circle, protecting us from political interference and allowing a free press to operate, with the press running an independent regulator, but with proper oversight of how that was going to be established and I was astonished at the reaction of the press who seemed to think that this was a complete breach of their freedom to act, and of our democracy. Now I actually believe in a free press, despite what they did to me, I actually was one who was counselling my own party, not to go too far, not to believe that just going gung-ho – cause this was, in my view, something that needs to last for the future, not just for the next 5 years, but for the foreseeable future – and I thought we’d got to that, and I thought the fact that the press didn’t like Hacked Off being there, in the early hours of Monday morning, when actually, the deal had been done by about 6:30 on Sunday, I happen to know that – the fact that they took the battle because they didn’t like Hacked Off being involved is childish, basically. So I’m hoping that common sense will prevail. I mean, what they’ve put up with 1 or 2 exceptions is not that far apart from what’s been agreed by parliament already so it’s got a little bit silly.

Well we set up a leviathan. You get carried away. It is a tendency of all public authorities, to create a system around a simple concept and once it starts getting under way, the companies come in, and they’re going to develop something that’s all-singing, all-dancing and sophisticated

Simon – Yes, and the involvement of the Press Complaints Commission which I think many of us thought was dead in the water at the height of the scandal, seems to me – well it seems to me a bit onerous that they’re still there.

Blunkett – Well, frankly, they were useless. I mean I did try to use them, but in the end I had to resort to the law. And I was fortunate, I mean first of all, I could afford to in the early part, secondly, I had the support of my family in doing so, cause you can put an enormous amount at risk going to law, you don’t know what you’re going to lose as opposed to whether or not you’re going to win. I was unfortunate to do that, most people can’t. That’s why a proper, independent, yes, but proper regulatory system that gives proper right of redress and most of all, access to it, and that’s what they’re really arguing about atm. And I’d like a different system that is light touch for the regional, local press. You could do it on turnover, you could do it in terms of the volume, so that it’s lighter touch for those who have not actually been responsible for what we’re dealing with through Leveson and get on with it rather than people just protecting their own interests.

Simon – So much of many of these privacy issues, as you know, is to do with process and it’s to do with trust, and I wanted to turn to a radically different issue, and that is identity cards. Looking back – and I know you still support them, in principle – do you think the process was wrong? Do you think the general principle of the identity cards was wrong?

Blunkett – Well I made a big mistake, and I don’t mind reiterating this – what I should have done is to see what’s already there – I used this in argument but I didn’t follow the logic of my own argument to the actual process of achieving the goal – what is already there? What is the goal? How can we put the 2 together? So, we have massive penetration in this country, above any other country in the world, of people holding passports. It’s about 82 percent so, we’re pretty well there. Driving licenses, we had an argument with the department for transport who didn’t want to know about it, but then they did update their own method of dealing with it. Why not just put the 2 together? Say when you renew your passport, when you renew your driving license – we simply update the database, and we issue you with something that is usable in terms of travel across Europe whatever, and hold that and say that’s the clean, verifiable database on which other things can be judged. Because that’s what I wanted to do. We don’t know who’s legitimately in this country, we don’t know who’s legitimately entitled to free services, all the rest of it. I just wanted to achieve that and for people to have an entitlement, without all of the palaver that they go through. I mean young people at 16 come to me now, and say we want to go on a course, it’s for childcare, and we’re expected to go through CRB – we’re put in a terrible position about having to prove who we are and what we are, and we haven’t got a passport, and I’d like to say at 16, that we’ll just issue you one for the first time and then it’s up to you to renew it.

Simon – And did you see, well many of the arguments from civil libertarians – even the airy-fairy ones – was that there was too much room for failure, for what we used to call function creep – in other words we didn’t know where this was going to go.

Blunkett – Well we set up a leviathan. You get carried away. It is a tendency of all public authorities, to create a system around a simple concept and once it starts getting under way, the companies come in, and they’re going to develop something that’s all-singing, all-dancing and sophisticated and the more sophisticated and all-dancing it is, the more it gets away from the original objective, and then people get understandably fearful – What ‘s it going to be used for? What else do you want to know? Who you gonna share it with? – I mean they’re all good questions and if I had my time again, I’d go back 11 years and start from base one, which is that we’re halfway there anyway, why don’t we build on it?

What ‘s it going to be used for? What else do you want to know? Who you gonna share it with? – I mean they’re all good questions and if I had my time again, I’d go back 11 years and start from base one, which is that we’re halfway there anyway, why don’t we build on it?

Simon – That might have worked actually, as soon as you…

Blunkett –  It would’ve carried people with us. I mean just issuing everyone who didn’t have a passport we’d have just said, right, for the first time, we’re issuing you with one and we’re doing the timeline and we’re doing the verification of who you are for that purpose, and that’s it.

Simon – I want to switch very quickly to another issue, which we have discussed before and that’s ministerial warrants. Interception warrants for example. And I don’t recall where we ended up in that conversation but the current system in Britain, is that the Secretary of State personally signs off on that warrant – where do you stand at the moment on that or do you believe still that there is the potential for specialist courts that should take that responsibility?

Blunkett – Well I think that the system we have, in terms of the commissioner and taking a sample and looking at what decisions have been made and how, is a good one and is probably in that respect, at the end game of checking what’s been done, is probably the best in the world. The big worry I have is not the ones that come through the home or foreign secretary, it’s the ones that are dealt with at a lower level, that are just signed off by the police themselves and I would have a tighter system on those in terms of judicial oversight at that level, but the numbers would be too great for any one or two ministers to be able to deal with that. I mean I was dealing with, when I left, about 2 and a half to 3,000 a year, some of which were renewals, because every 3 months, those that hadn’t lapsed, had to come back for renewal – quite rightly, but it was an onerous task. I mean you used to have to set time aside to go through them and when you rejected them, all hell let loose because people then wanted to come and argue with you. Well, that’s fine. But my history clicked in here actually, from being left of centre in politics, because I did remember the past and the allegations of intrusion into the trade union movement and things of that sort, and early CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] – so I was probably very wary from that point of view. I came to respect most of what MI5 were up to, this is different to MI6 to ought to stress, I didn’t have responsibility for what happened in terms of intelligence around Iraq, but I did still have that deep underpinning suspicion from my background. And I think that’s a good thing. So even when it was a right wing organisation, I would double-think before agreeing to that kind of intercept or surveillance.

Simon – David Blunkett – thank you very much.