Thursday, 22 November 2007

Is it Game Over for Gordon ?

On websites such as, the phrase "tipping point" is used frequently to determine that time in which confidence/trust/respect/faith (delete as appropriate) in a Prime Minister and Government is irretrievably shattered and a change of Government at the next General Election becomes inevitable. For John Major, the events of September 1992 were his "tipping point" when the Conservative record of economic competence was destroyed - the irony being, of course, that the actual economics turned out to be far more benign than anyone could see at the time.

The question is whether this week's "loss" of two CDs containing the entire Child Benefit database of children and parents along with addresses, bank/building society account details will be a similar point for future reference.

Public reaction, though always to be viewed as an excuse for angry Tories to have a whinge, has been overwhelmingly hostile and rightly so. I have worked in data management for twenty years and can scarcely believe this has happened. In those parts of the public sector where I have worked (County and District Councils), data controls are tighter and let's not forget these authorities often hold extraordinarily sensitive data relating to child and adult protection issues.

However, what the past thirty-six hours or so has reinforced is the climate of fear under which we all live. It existed before September 2001 but since then the doom-sayers have had a field day. From terrorism to climate change, the era of the worst-case scenario has arrived. Whether it is cities destroyed by home-nade chemical or nuclear weapons or being flooded by storms we are bombarded by apocalyptic visions of the future which increase a sense of insecurity and fear.

From the balmy climes of southern California, the Northern Rock business looked fairly innocuous but as soon as "experts" got involved, we saw queues forming at branches. The slightest hint of problems with fuel supplies see motorists rushing to fill up. The more Governments of all stripes tell us to be calm, the more panicked we become. One can argue that in 1940, for example, we had good reason to panic - the enemy was real and close. Let's not get idealistic about this - had the Germans landed in strength in southern England in the summer of 1940, most British people would have quietly capitulated and doubtless some would have collaborated too.

This week, the "lost" discs have been a field day for the fear merchants - the assumption (no evidence whatsoever to support it) is that these discs will now be in the hands of organised criminals or paedophile gangs etc, etc and that our identities/personal data are compromised.

The truth, of course, is that modern society cannot function without information systems and the data they hold. We routinely hand over personal information to other organisations and, regrettably, some people have been hoodwinked into handing over their data to less than reputable individuals/groups and cases of identity fraud are on the rise. Of course, the HMRC failed and failed disastrously and senior heads must roll but there is a salutary lesson for all of us in the management of personal information.

To say "I don't trust Labour with my data" is fair enough but that doesn't mean the Conservatives (or Liberal Democrats) are any more reliable. The corollary of this - proponents of measures like ID cards argue - is that the less the State knows, the greater the risk of terrorist attack. Now, even proponents of ID cards accept that the July 2005 bombers wouldn't have been stopped by ID cards so the question comes back to a simple one - how much do we want the State to know about us ? The use of information to track down benefit cheats is an area most people would support and long-term resource planning needs a regualr input of demographic information (the 10-year Census for example) but the line at which the use of information becomes a mechanism of control is a fine one which no Government ought ever to cross.

Last night's events at Wembley (as well as those at Hampden on Saturday) will not have improved the national mood at all in the run-up to Christmas. The absence of England at the Euro 2008 championships will doubtless be welcomed by the Swiss and Austrian Police while estimates of a "cost" to the economy of £1.5 billion seem more to be wishful thinking on the part of the brewers than on any hard facts. Cricket and tennis as well as horse racing will benefit from the absence of a counter-attraction and it may be no bads thing for football to be on the bench (so to speak) for a while.

I've said on here before that while I am sanguine about a Conservative Government led by David Cameron, I have no particular faith in its abilities. The Conservative frontbench, with a couple of exceptions, looks fragile and simply not up to the job. I fear within a couple of years, we will be lurching from crisis to crisis as we are at the moment. For Brown, the turnround in his fortunes has been swift and brutal - he badly needs some luck and a mild winter and a couple of interest rate cuts in the New Year.

The problem is, as John Major found, that once the fundamental bond of trust/respect/faith in a Government has been broken, it is almost impossible to restore it. It may be that in future years, we will look back at Tuesday November 20th 2007 as the day the bond was broken. Brown can limp on for another two and a half years and may well do so but the end result will be the same.

The irony, as with 1992, is that if this event leads to Governments AND individuals being far more aware of the vulnerability of personal data and far more aware of the need to safeguard that data, none of this will have been in vain. If a new "information culture" emerges in which the security of information becomes paramount, we may also look back at this week's events with a less than wholly malign aspect.

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