Before becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May served as Home Secretary. She held the role for longer than any other politician in modern times and during her six years in the office, the British state became considerably more intrusive than it had previously been.
According to many, it was her determination to try and crack down on illegal immigration, which led to many of the policies which turned the UK into one of the worst surveillance states in the western world.
Today, many immigrants in the UK are nervous about engaging with any state body for fear that their data will be passed on to the Home Office and they might be removed from the country. As a result, they don’t report crime, they don’t use healthcare, and some don’t even use education. Their fears are well founded.
Data sharing amongst government bodies
Information uncovered in a Freedom of Information request revealed that the Metropolitan Police has consistently handed over information from victims and witnesses of crimes to the Home Office immigration teams. There is no reason to think that other police forces around the country don’t follow the same practice.
Reports from other Government departments and public sector bodies to the Home Office have also gone up substantially during Theresa May’s time as Home Secretary. The Department for Work and Pensions made 171 reports to the Home Office in 2014. The following year, the number was 1,377. According to the Home Office, they can and do also receive reports from schools, universities, prisons, and local councils.
Members of Parliament are supposed to be a resource to support people living in their constituency when they encounter problems with the state. But they too have a hotline and a dedicated website to allow them to report individuals they suspect of being in the country illegally to the Home office.
Even bodies that you might think are far enough removed from Government not to have such links have been at it. The Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency (DVLA) is frequently criticised for its disregard for privacy in selling data into the private sector.
But this data is also made available to the Home Office to be cross-checked with their own information. Politics.co.uk reports that these checks were carried out 54,847 times in the six months from August 2016 to January 2017.
The risks of finding somewhere to live
Trying to find somewhere to live is equally fraught with hazards. The Government’s ‘Right to Rent’ scheme requires landlords to confirm their tenants have the legal right to be in the UK. And even homeless charities have been in on the act, with many passing on data collected from those sleeping on the streets to the authorities.
Of course, we do not for one moment condone illegal immigration, but the all-pervasive nature of this surveillance system sits pretty uncomfortably. There are many different reasons why people enter the UK illegally. It is right that some of these people are tracked down and removed, but many are vulnerable and on closer inspection might have a right to claim asylum or other rights to remain.
Theresa May’s surveillance state treats all illegal suspects the same though. They are all statistics and all fair game for the Government to track down and remove.
A surveillance state that goes beyond immigration
And of course, such a surveillance system can never work 100% and means some innocent people will get caught in the net. But it also sows the seeds of a much broader surveillance state that affects everyone. It makes all of us part of the immigration enforcement system and means that we are all spying on each other.
This is the surveillance state. The Big Brother nation that Orwell cautioned against seventy years ago in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Thanks to the Investigatory Powers Act, which was also the brainchild of Theresa May, the Government already has the power to monitor everything we are doing online. But as we can see, there is a growing body of information which shows that such a system is in place in the real world too.
Personal privacy should be a fundamental right. Online, we can take steps to protect ourselves by using a VPN. But this is much harder in the real world, especially if you are a vulnerable immigrant. But this is the world that Theresa May has created in the UK; a society much closer to the authoritarian Communist regime in China than we might care to think.