Who Has the Power of Entry?

With the state possessing a disquieting number of different powers of entry, an Englishman’s home is less a castle than an open house.

Is an Englishman’s Home Still His Castle?

“An Englishman’s home is his castle” is a much cherished phrase that highlights a national inclination to claim a piece of English soil as one’s own private kingdom. But whereas it once had real meaning – being coined in 1604 as a legal principle to protect householders from bailiffs – it now rings somewhat empty.

The drift towards a ‘surveillance society’, where privacy and individual freedom are eroded in the interests of Big Brother-like state observation and control, has been a growing concern for several years now. The fears are largely directed at the threat to public liberty posed by CCTV and data collection, but recent research suggests that citizens are not even safe from the invasive eye of the state in their own private homes.

Privacy Invasion

However begrudgingly, we now largely accept that when in public, whether at work, in the street, or on public transport, our actions may be being monitored. But once behind our front door we assume we can shut out the outside world. What most are unaware of, however, is that by means of ‘powers of entry’, the state is even able to permeate this supposedly private domain.

An incremental growth in the number of state powers of entry over the years has meant that there are now over 1200 reasons why a council official may be permitted to enter a property without a warrant, something that even the police are not allowed to do.

Assortment of Powers of Entry

The myriad of excuses to breach the privacy of the home include recent rights to look for look for smuggled goods, pot plants without a ‘plant passport’ (2005 Order) or investigate suspected gambling without a licence (2005 Act). Laws also cover aspects like anti-terror, environmental and consumer protection and anti-social behaviour.

As the powers date as far back as 1737 there are some rather archaic reasons for state inspectors to enter your home still in existence, such as to search for a dancing bear without a permit (1925 Act), or to check for unregulated hypnotists (1952 Act) or forged stamps (1868 Act).

The irrelevance of individual powers may undermine the seriousness of the supposed threat to privacy but the sheer weight of numbers means that it is near impossible to fully understand what the potential threats are, and it is the unknowing that generates unease and a fear about the unexpected knock at the door. In effect a state official could cite any number of obscure powers of entry to bamboozle a householder into gaining admittance to their property.

Of further concern is the fact that this is largely a recent development, with nearly half of the powers of entry having being introduced during Labour’s government tenure between 1997 and 2010.

Short-Sightedness and Wider Consequences

Some have seen this as a further sign of that government’s total disregard for privacy and personal sanctuary. The introduction of each new power was justified by individual circumstances without any thought to the wider consequences, and so in effect they were not consciously stripping away freedoms but just paying them no heed.

For instance, a concern about hedge sizes causing neighbourly friction prompted a law allowing inspectors to measure a hedge’s height but as this meant they may need to pass through someone’s property, a power of entry was duly created. Concern for the implications this would have against civil liberties were less of a priority than solving disputes about hedges.

The state’s duties are largely focused on public and not the private domain and so many feel their powers should reflect this.