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David Cameron: Giving power back to the people

I want to thank Imperial College London for inviting me to speak today.

This university has a remarkable history.  In just a little over a century, you already have the discovery of penicillin, the development of fibre-optics and the foundations of the internet and fourteen Nobel Laureates to your name.

These innovations have put real power into people's hands and changed the world. That's what I want to talk about today - people power and the change we need.

After the political crisis this year, the consensus for change is overwhelming. But the reality has so far been distinctly underwhelming.

Blacked-out expense claims.

The announcement of a behind-closed-doors Iraq enquiry.

And a Prime Minister who talks about restoring the authority of Parliament but is still going around making policy announcements on the radio.

If you're serious about change, you need consistency of argument and clarity of purpose. That's what the Conservatives are offering.

We have a coherent programme to fix our broken politics and drag our democracy into the post-bureaucratic age. It involves a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power - from the political elite to the man and woman in the street. But before we deal with long-term plans, we have to deal with the expenses issue.

I set up a Scrutiny Panel to examine the claims of MPs and to examine whether these were reasonable, and whether, in retrospect, some money ought to be paid back. Conservative MPs have overwhelmingly responded in a positive way and shown a real desire to take the lead on this damaging issue. It is an effort - both collectively as a party and individually as Conservative MPs - to address the public's anger about what has happened.

Today, we are publishing a very full update.

Already Conservative MPs have paid back £125,000 - this adds another £125,000. This is not about MPs that broke the rules - we all know the rules weren't good enough.  It's about understanding the level of public anger, about a system that was broken, and the part we played in it. It's not good enough just to sort out the rules for the future, we need to recognise the mistakes of the past. And these payments are an important part of that. This is just one step - of many - that needs to be taken to restore both some trust and some faith in the political system.

A month ago at the Open University I set out our plans to decentralise power. Today I want to take the next step and show how we will control the power of the state and make it more accountable to people.


The British state has developed over centuries into a powerful entity charged with delivering important goals.

To protect its citizens from internal and external threat.

To redistribute wealth from the richest to the poorest.

To ensure public services - education, healthcare, welfare - are there for all who need them.

These things have helped make our country a place which is safer, fairer, and where opportunity is more equal. But the more the state does, the greater the risk that it gradually becomes master over the citizens it's meant to serve. That's why we have traditionally created checks to keep the right balance of power.

Checks to stop the state exerting too much power over us, in other words, protecting personal freedom. And checks to help us exert power over the state, in other words, ensuring political accountability.  But the last twelve years of Labour Government have diminished personal freedom and diluted political accountability. Today, I want to talk about both.


Today we are in danger of living in a control state.

Almost a million innocent citizens are caught in the web of the biggest DNA database in the world - larger than that of any dictatorship.  Hundreds of shadowy powers allow officials to force their way past your front door.  And soon we will be forced to surrender our fingerprints, eye scans and personal information to intrusive compulsory ID cards.

Every month over a thousand surveillance operations are carried out, not just by law enforcement agencies but by other public bodies like councils and quangos.   And the tentacles of the state can even rifle through your bins for juicy information.


How have we got ourselves into the position where there is such a marked imbalance of power between the citizen and the state?

We have to acknowledge that New Labour began with the right intentions.

In the Freedom of Information Act, data protection laws, Scottish and Welsh devolution, and even the attempt to invest citizens with fundamental human rights we can see concrete evidence of good intent. But this liberal strand in Labour has been crushed by the overwhelming dominance of the political authoritarians.

This authoritarian strand of the party was guided by two things: a political philosophy and a style of government.  Their philosophy has at its heart a belief that the state is the answer to most problems.  So Labour reached for more control over many areas of our lives - with endless laws, targets, and bureaucracy herding everyone into the net of the control state.

Their governing style, on the other hand, is all about presenting the government in the best possible light. They see it as vital to demonstrate that ministerial action leads directly to some beneficial result.  And not just any result - but a fast and visible one.

The authoritarians are not interested in real and sustainable change in our country unless that change could be linked, directly, to their own actions.

So when crime rises, better to create another criminal offence and we've had over 3000 new ones since 1997, than it is to take the long-term action that would strengthen families. It's government of the short-term, by the short-term and for the short-term. A top-down philosophy together with a short-term governing style, this was an ideological and political recipe for creating a disastrous imbalance of power between the citizen and the state.

Labour's belief in the state led them to increase state power and thereby diminish personal freedom.  And their reliance on spin made them hostile to scrutiny - which is why Labour ended up diluting political accountability.


It's because people have seen Labour's liberal intentions get crushed, twisted and lost that they legitimately ask of us: how will you be different?

Conservatives start with an instinctive desire to give people more power and control over their lives.
But we're not naïve. We know the state cannot let go completely.

The right power balance is something that must be constantly negotiated and adjusted, through ongoing judgements. But we will always be aware that those judgements - however small or insignificant they may seem in isolation - can together change the character of our country.

So a Conservative government would constantly ask two essential questions:
Does this action enhance personal freedom?
And does it advance political accountability?

And at the heart of our programme for government will be our intention to change fundamentally the balance of power between the citizen and the state so that ultimately it's people in control of their government, not the other way round.


We'll start by putting back in place the protections of personal freedom that Labour have taken away.

Today in Britain - not in some foreign dictatorship, not in a bygone age, you can wake up in the morning, in your own bed, in your own home to hear a knock on the door from an official with one of over a thousand powers that now allow the state to enter your home.

You don't have to be a terrorist or a criminal fugitive. The authorities have the right to come into your home to inspect potted plants for pests or to check the regulation of hedgerows.  More than half of these new powers have been introduced in the past twelve years. But Labour's control state can not only enter your home. They can snoop on you as you walk down the street.

Not just the sort of spies you see in primetime dramas but Labour's new spooks: council officials and quango workers, using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA. This was supposedly introduced to help fight terrorism. But Poole council used it to spy for nearly three weeks on a young family who had applied to a local primary school to see if they lived in the right catchment area.  And councils in Derby and Gateshead used RIPA to snoop on dog foulers.

Then there is the misuse of the Terrorist legislation.  Section 44 of the Terrorism Act gives the police power to stop and search any person on the street.  Last year, it was used over 120,000 times - a three-fold increase on the year before.  That's one person stopped every four minutes. Yet only one percent of these searches led to arrest, let alone charges or convictions.

Instead, we see a woman in her thirties held for walking on a cycle path. And parents, and their twelve year old disabled son, detained for two hours and by ten officers on suspicion of people-trafficking.

But let's say you were charged.  There are now serious questions about the quality of justice in Britain. Since 2003, Labour has repeatedly tried to remove the role of juries in fraud trials, coroners' inquests and other criminal trials. And they haven't just eroded justice at home - they've surrendered to a further attack from abroad.  Britain now allows extradition to a range of countries without that country having to produce proper evidence that the person in question has committed a crime.

In all these ways, our personal freedom has been diminished. The balance of power in our country has shifted away from the individual - just trying to live their life and towards the state and its agencies - constantly probing, prying and picking on people.

So we will make some important changes.  The next Conservative government will revoke the unjustified and unreasonable powers that let people enter your home without your permission.

We will change the law that allows councils to snoop on people for trivial matters.

We will review the use of the Terrorism Act's Section 44, and the stop and search powers contained within it.

We will change the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to strengthen the right to trial by jury.

And we will review the operation of the Extradition Act - and the US/UK extradition treaty - to make sure it is even-handed and works both ways.


But stopping the state from exerting too much power over us demands another big change.  This Government is running not just a control state, but a surveillance state. In 2007, Privacy International ranked Britain's privacy protections joint 43rd out of 47 countries surveyed - with the worst record in Europe, and only marginally better than Russia and China.

Faced with any problem, any crisis - given any excuse - Labour grasp for more information, pulling more and more people into the clutches of state data capture.

Contact Point is a vast database that holds the details of everyone under the age of eighteen in England, their name, address, gender, date of birth, school and health provider.  And the Government doesn't want to stop with the basic information.  They want the most complex, important, personal information there is. 

Nearly five million people are on Labour's DNA database. The Government says it's to help fight crime.  But almost a million of the people on it are completely innocent. And tens of thousands of those innocent people are children. It's a situation that would cause concern under the most oppressive regimes in the world, but it's happening right here, right now in Britain.

This in itself bad enough - our most personal information stored in labs and state data vaults.  But Labour want to go even further. They want every single person in this country to walk around with an ID card. With that card over fifty pieces of personal information will have been transferred from your private control to state control. Not just your name and address and place of birth but your image, signature, fingerprints - maybe even iris scans and a facial measurement template.

For those who don't get a card there is talk of fines, enforced registration and penalties in public service provision.  Scare tactics to herd more disempowered citizens into the clutches of officialdom, as people surrender more and more information about their lives, giving the state more and more power over their lives. 

If we want to stop the state controlling us, we must confront this surveillance state.

So the next Conservative Government will scrap the Contact Point database of children's details.

We will scrap the ID Card scheme.

And we will remove innocent people's records from the DNA database.


The action we take to rein in Labour's control state and confront Labour's surveillance state will help rebalance power in one direction by enhancing personal freedom and limiting the state's power over us.

But a radical redistribution of power also means increasing our power over the state, which means advancing political accountability.  And just as information plays a massive part in the argument about personal freedom, as what I've said about Labour's surveillance state databases demonstrates, so too is information central to the argument about political accountability.

Information is power - because information allows people to hold the powerful to account.  This has never been more true than today, in the information age. The internet is an amazing pollinator, spreading ideas and information all over the globe in minutes. It turns lonely fights into mass campaigns; transforms moans into movements; excites the attention of hundreds, thousands, millions of people and stirs them to action.  And constantly accelerating technology makes information infinitely more powerful.

We see the power of this information in Iran. Every time the Iranian state has tried to choke the flow of information to dampen down the protests, people have turned to technology to share and access information.  When the state cut off text messages to stop people coordinating their protests, the protesters switched to social media like Twitter and Facebook.  When foreign journalists had their visas taken off them, people on the streets started uploading video clips onto YouTube.  And when the government tried to monitor internet traffic and ban popular websites, people outside Iran set up proxy internet servers so Iranians could continue to access information anonymously.

Information is critical in the balance of power today. That's why the US administration asked Twitter to postpone its website maintenance work so Iranians could continue to use the site. That's foreign policy in the post-bureaucratic age - enabling the free flow of information to give people power so they can use that power to demand change. And we've seen the dramatic power of information to shape events at home, too.

Last month, the Daily Telegraph published receipts and expense claims that had previously been kept secret, information that the authorities, to their shame, have even now only released in a half-hearted way, thick with black ink.  But what the Daily Telegraph did - the simple act of providing information to the public - has triggered the biggest shake-up in our political system for years. Information alone has been more powerful than years of traditional politics. Of course it has been a painful time for politics and for individual politicians - but let us be clear, it is without question a positive development for the country.

It is information - not a new law, not some regulation - just the provision of information that has enabled people to take on the political class, question them, demand answers, and get those answers.

That's exactly as it should be.  That is real accountability. That is people power, and we need more of it not less.

Whether it's for freedom abroad, or fighting corruption at home, we have seen how information can put power in people's hands and make the political elite answer to them.


We have already announced some of the ways in which we will put information - and thereby power - in people's hands.

We will publish every item of government spending over £25,000.

It will all be there for an army of armchair auditors to go through, line by line, pound by pound, to hold wasteful government to account.

We will require the publication of crime data online in an open way so that communities can build their own crime maps, see what crimes are being committed, where and at what time and hold their local police to account if they're not doing something about it. And we will require all local councils to publish information like meeting minutes and local service data in a standardised format.

This will give people the power to hold local government to account, and to develop new public services like a local version of TheyWorkForYou, or Bebo applications that tell teenagers when the local sports centre is open as well as the power to see which councils are providing the best value for money, so residents can demand the same from their own. But today we're announcing further steps towards true freedom of information.


In Britain today, there are over 100,000 public bodies producing a huge amount of information.

This ranges from school league tables to train timetables; from health outcomes to public sector job vacancies.  Most of this information is kept locked up by the state. And what is published is mostly released in formats that mean the information can't be searched or used with other applications, like online maps. his stands in the way of accountability.

Let me give you just two examples.

Today, many central government and quango job adverts are placed in a select few newspapers.

Some national, some regional. Some daily, some weekly.

But all of them in a variety of different publications - meaning it's almost impossible to find out how many vacancies there are across the public sector, what kind of salaries are being offered, how these vary from public sector body to public sector body and whether functions are being duplicated.

Remember this is your money being put forward to give someone a job - and you have little way of finding out why, what for and for how much.

Now imagine if they were all published online and in a standardised way. Not only could you find out about vacancies for yourself, you could cross-reference what jobs are on offer and make sure your money is being put to proper use. Or what about patient outcomes in the NHS?

Some of the most important information you'll ever need to know, how long your Dad will survive if he gets cancer, your chances of a good life if you have a stroke, all this is out of your hands.
Now, again, imagine if this information was in your hands.  You'd be able to compare your local hospital with others, and do something about it if it wasn't good enough.

Choose another hospital. Voice your complaint to a patient group. Make change happen.

All this data which would help people in this country hold the powerful to account - it's all locked away in some vault. And it's only getting worse.

Next week Ed Balls will publish proposals for a new report card, replacing league tables. That will reduce the amount of information being published, and reduce parent power to hold their school to account.

We're going to set this data free.  In the first year of the next Conservative Government, we will find the most useful information in twenty different areas ranging from information about the NHS to information about schools and road traffic and publish it so people can use it.

This information will be published proactively and regularly - and in a standardised format so that it can be 'mashed up' and interacted with.

What's more, because there is no complete list that can tell us exactly what data the government collects, we will create a new 'right to data' so that further datasets can be requested by the public.

By harnessing the wisdom of the crowd, we can find out what information individuals think will be important in holding the state to account.

And to avoid bureaucrats blocking these requests, we will introduce a rule that any request will be successful unless it can be proved that it would lead to overwhelming costs or demonstrable personal privacy or national security concerns.

If we are serious about helping people exert more power over the state, we need to give them the information to do it. And as part of that process, we will review the role of the Information Commissioner to make sure that it is designed to maximise political accountability in our country.


But as I said in my speech to the Open University, to get real accountability we need to draw upon traditional means as well as modern.

That means strengthening Parliament so it holds the executive to account.  That's why we will give the House of Commons more control over its own timetable limit the use of the Royal Prerogative and reduce the power of the party Whips.

It means reining in and reversing the regulation of our lives by unaccountable judges who are changing Britain's legal landscape with their judgments in the courtroom.

That's why we will introduce a British Bill of Rights - not only to strengthen our liberties, but to ensure greater democratic accountability over the creation of any new rights. And it means strengthening the line of accountability that runs through our local politics.

That's why we will have more directly-elected Mayors, and will legislate to create Citizens' Initiatives giving people a new power to get local referendums on issues they feel strongly about.


So here is the next stage in our radical redistribution of power.

Stopping the state from exerting too much power over us by enhancing personal freedom.
So you will not be followed or have you home entered for no good reason.

You will be tried by your peers, protected from unjust prosecution abroad. And your identity will be freed from the chains of state databases.

We will also help people exert more power over the state by advancing political accountability.

So we will open up information that will help people hold the powerful to account. And we will strengthen the chain of accountability throughout our politics.

This is progressive Conservatism in action, a traditional suspicion of state power combined with a clear grasp of the modern world producing the right approach, and the right plan of action to increase personal freedom and political accountability, restore trust, and help bring about the new politics we need so badly.

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