A new day for civil liberties? Coalition publishes freedom bill

Campaigners are hoping today marks a crucial new stage in securing British civil liberties
Campaigners are hoping today marks a crucial new stage in securing British civil liberties

By Ian Dunt

Civil liberties activists were carefully scrutinising details of the protection of freedom bill today, after the government finally published details of how it would restore British freedoms.

The long-heralded bill, which was originally conceived when Nick Clegg was home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, is the third significant step towards unravelling Labour's various criminal justice laws during its 13 years in office following the scrapping of ID cards and the review of counter-terrorism laws.

C:ick here to read the bill


Issue of the Day: Freedom bill

"Freedom is back in fashion," the deputy prime minister wrote in a piece for the Daily Telegraph.

"While our predecessors took it away, we will give it back."

Under the bill CCTV cameras will fall under a statutory code of conduct, with citizens able to apply for a judicial review if they believe they are being used inappropriately.

There will also be a relaxation in the criminal record checks required of those working with children and vulnerable adults.

Wheel-clamping on private land will be made a criminal offence and old convictions for consensual gay sex will be erased.

The DNA database will be reformed so that only people who are guilty of a crime have their information retained.

Under current arrangements people who are arrested and have their DNA recorded still appear on the database even if they are later acquitted or the case is dropped.

Labour said the plans risked putting the public at risk.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "The government is at risk of putting political rhetoric above the evidence from experts.

"They are going too far on DNA retention and are going against the evidence that shows it has a significant impact bringing serious criminals to justice and exonerating innocent people.

"It is important that the government doesn't put keeping Nick Clegg happy above the evidence on fighting and solving crime."

But civil liberties groups wanted the reforms to go further.

"Any moves to reverse the tide of authoritarian legislation we've seen over the last few years are warmly welcome," said Daniel Hamilton, campaign director for Big Brother Watch.

"While it is encouraging that the bill will see an end to the storage of the DNA of those arrested and not convicted of any crime, it says nothing about the 1.1 million innocent people whose details are already on the database.

"When they took office, the coalition promised to delete this data. They must now do so."

Today's proposals are being touted as the most important reform of civil liberties since the 1689 Bill of Rights.

Included in the package is the first serious attempt by a British government to address the prevalence of CCTV cameras in the UK.

Privacy campaigners argue that despite being one of the most watched societies on earth, British law places little burden on town halls and private companies who install and run the cameras.

Police have admitted that as few as one crime is solved for every 1,000 cameras.

The freedom bill regulates the use of CCTV and the automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) scheme for the first time.

Members of the public will be able to instigate a judicial review if the cameras are set up or used inappropriately. That policy allows for town halls which install the cameras without proper consultation to face legal action.

The move follows a tightening up of the controversial Ripa law, which was used by local authorities to put people under surveillance for relatively trivial offences.

Following the counter-terrorism review, local authorities will only be able to use the powers where the custodial sentence could amount to more than six months imprisonment.

Meanwhile, a statutory code of conduct will govern the use of CCTV cameras. A security camera commissioner post will be created, monitoring usage and shaming any private companies which do not use the equipment responsibly. The commissioner will report annually to parliament.

But there was concern about the extent of practical change the proposals could secure.

Christopher Graham, the UK's information commissioner, seemed to suggest that without explicit provisions for the private sector the reforms might appear weak.

"The detail of these important provisions will need careful consideration," he commented.

"The current proposals on improved regulation of CCTV and ANPR are limited to the police and local government only but their use is much more widespread.

"We will be examining all of the bill's provisions closely to be satisfied that they will deliver in practice."

The reforms to criminal record checks are estimated to affect around nine million people, meaning only people in particularly sensitive positions or who come into regular and intensive contact with children will need clearance.

The move is the first major attempt the cut down the ever-increasing requirements of the system, which was set up following the murder of Soham schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in 2002.

The bill also includes previously announced proposals to scrap Section 44 powers, which are used for stop-and-search and a permanent reduction of the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects to 14 days.

"We welcome many aspects of the freedom bill, especially removing innocent people from the DNA database and tightening up stop and search powers," said Isabella Sankey, policy director at Liberty.

"Both of these measures respond to cases on behalf of ordinary Britons in the Court of Human Rights. How ironic that Westminster's finest spent yesterday pouring bile on that same court."

There was some controversy over the plans to delete previous convictions for consensual gay sex, with activists pointing out that convictions will actually remain on criminal records.

However, the convictions will be considered spent, meaning men undergoing a criminal record check will not have to declare it.

"For some gay men, these convictions have continued to overshadow their lives long after the offences were removed from the statute book," Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill said.

"Britain has moved on. It's only right that these men should be free to apply for jobs and voluntary roles without fearing that these historic and unjust convictions will be revealed through criminal record checks."

The legislation is expected each the statute book by early next year.

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