One of Britain’s greatest gifts to the world is our part in developing the philosophy of liberty and freedom under the law. From both good causes (the British colonists’ exportation of education, debate and free thinking to the colonies) and ill (the spur to freedom given by overweening, unrepresentative government), that development played a great part in the thinking and philosophy of the founding fathers of the United States. A direct line can be drawn from Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Sensible Britons are proud of that and of America’s development of and championing of those freedoms.
One of the specific protections carried to the United States was the restraint of the executive from entering private property granted by the English common law. This was enshrined in Article Four of the Constitution, thanks to which searches and seizures generally require warrants; as a result, American homes can’t be entered without permission or a search warrant. Alas, although America has preserved this fundamental restraint on the state, that protection effectively no longer exists in the United Kingdom.
In July 2008, the UK Home Office published a list of 1,043 laws permitting state inspectors to enter people’s homes and premises private property without the consent of the owner or occupier and without a police escort. This was the first time that the full extent of the spread and proliferation of power of entry legislation had been exposed.
At Big Brother Watch, we conducted the first nationwide survey of the number of officers in each Local Authority holding the power to enter a private home or business without requiring a warrant or police escort
We found almost 15,000 such inspectors. About a quarter of councils didn’t respond at all or didn’t respond fully, so it’s reasonable to suppose that the true figure is somewhere near 20,000.
Some of the laws that permit power of entry to private property without a warrant pertain to the welfare of the public, and their use can sometimes justified given the situation and the need for immediate entry. But on the other hand, some of the reasons that permit entry to homes in the UK include:
* To see if pot plants have plant pests or do not have a ‘plant passport’ (Plant Health Order 2005).
* To check the energy ratings on refrigerators (Energy Information Household Refrigerators and Freezers Regulations 2004).
* Surveying the home and garden to see if hedges are too high (Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003).
* Inspecting a property to ensure illegal or unregulated hypnotism is not taking place (Hypnotism Act 1952).
As these reasons to barge in multiply ever further (they are set out in full in our report), a web develops in which the state can almost always justify coming into your property for something.
This explosion in the abilities of bureaucrats to enter private property is really a reflection of the extent to which traditional boundaries between the individual and the state in the UK are being eroded, and the loss of all sense of proportion in the pursuit of perceived affronts to state power. In November, Croydon Council employed the authority’s full covert surveillance capabilities to catch the person responsible for pruning a tree.
But this development is particularly worrying because entering private property is a difficult, sensitive and sometimes dangerous exercise. As the numbers rise, the potential for abuse and the lasting damage that a poorly executed operation can do to its victims become of greater concern. Think how you would feel in your house if this happened to you.
Once, a man’s home was his castle. Today the Big Brother state wants to inspect, regulate and standardise the inside of our homes. Councils in the UK are dishing out powers of entry to officers within their council for their own ease, without giving due thought to the public’s right to privacy and the potential for abuse.