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Today, the Protection of Freedom's Bill will have its second reading in Parliament. We thought we would take this opportunity to give you TFA's verdict on the bill, the most positive elements and areas where there is still more to be done. The bill, championed by Nick Clegg, is an incredibly important move away from the intrusive authoritarianism that dominated the previous Labour government. While there is still a way to go in certain areas (control orders or rather TPIMs being one such example), the overwhelming mood of the bill is a big step away from the state and towards the individual.
- Under the tenure of New Labour, the state’s ability to control and monitor its citizens increased exponentially in a variety of forms. Most prominent of these was probably the rise of surveillance systems. For example, despite having only 1% of the world’s population, Britain had 20% of the worlds CCTV cameras, a staggering 4.2 million.
- The Freedom Bill will allow the Home Secretary to introduce a Surveillance Camera Commissioner. They will publish a code of practice in respect to the development and use of surveillance camera systems for the police, local authorities and the CCTV industry. This, it is said, will improve effectiveness and offer advice on the code, the virtues and downsides of cameras, locations, the publication of information and breaches of the code. This code will be kept under constant review by the commissioner.
- However, any failure to act in accordance to the new surveillance camera code will not necessarily make that person liable to civil or criminal proceedings. This could perhaps be enforced more strongly to dissuade people from abusing the code.
- Increased scrutiny and debate over surveillance is of course welcome, but we are worried that the CCTV industry is becoming nationally entrenched and surveillance networks are becoming bureaucratised and increasingly seen as part of the furniture.
- In 2009, there were around 5 million people on the UK National DNA database. One new profile was added every 45 seconds, making it one of the largest databases in the world.
- Many on the database are either innocent or have only committed minor crimes.
- The database is notoriously inaccurate; even the Home Office admitted that more than 500,000 names are false or wrongly recorded.
- Currently, the system allows the data of many innocent citizens to be held by the state. The Coalition Government aims to change this, by only retaining the data of individuals who have committed crimes. This represents a welcome retraction of the database state.
- In March 2010, 3,500 schools took biometric data from pupils in order to speed up basic administration. Often this data was taken without parental consent. Crucially, the Freedom Bill addresses this and rules that schools can only take biometric data with parental permission, thus protecting children’s rights.
- Whilst the Bill signifies a step in the right direction, there is plenty of room for improvement. As the Bill stands, those convicted of recordable offences (even for minor crimes) can have their DNA retained indefinitely.
- Also, terrorism related offences are exempt from the protections outlined in the bill. Whilst nobody should be flippant, a government should not undermine liberty when fighting terrorism. Chief Constables will still be allowed to ask a Magistrate for DNA profiles to be retained indefinitely for national security purposes. This notion is itself rather vague and unclear.
- This Bill will put the Government in line with a ruling by the European Convention on Human Rights, which unanimously ruled that allowing the retention of DNA and fingerprints of innocent people, breached privacy rights.
- The Freedom Bill will make many changes to the Regulation of Investigatory Act 2000 passed under the Labour Government.
- The Bill will require relevant authorities to receive judicial approval before accessing communications data. Unfortunately, those being put under surveillance will not be notified.
- The grounds that a judicial approval may be granted include a number of reasons such as where it is deemed necessary in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom, for the purpose of preventing crime or of preventing disorder and for the purpose of collecting any tax, duty, levy or other imposition, contribution or charge payable to a government department. Magistrates must be satisfied that these conditions are met before surveillance can be carried out.
- This is a great improvement over what RIPA was before. Prior to this bill, local councils and authorities could tap into people’s data without any form of approval and could abuse their power quite often. This is a step in the right direction but the criteria for judicial approval is very broad and open to abuse.
- The Bill puts in many restrictions on authorities regarding search and seizure. Once passed, searches will only be carried out for the purpose of determining whether the vehicle in question is being used for the purposes of terrorism. Additionally, objects discovered during the search may be seized and retained only if it is reasonably suspected that they constitute evidence that the vehicle in question is being used for the purposes of terrorism. Before hand, searches could take place without suspicion.
- The Bill requires the Secretary of State to lay out a code of practice giving guidance about the use of stop and search powers, specifically the exercise of powers to grant authorisations and powers exercised under an authorisation.
- This provision makes leaps and bounds over the laws that were previously in place but does not go nearly far enough. No one should be subjected to a search without a warrant. Allowing a police officer the ability to decide what constitutes reasonable suspicion is an obvious gateway for abuse of power. It should be up to the judiciary to decide if enough evidence is in place to search someone's private property.
By Stephen Hoffman, Devin Knox and Danny McMahon
- Freedom in the City on 22nd May with JP Floru on May 22, 2013 12:30 pm
- The Freedom Association’s Magna Carta Pimms and Politics Cruise on June 15, 2013 12:30 pm
- Conservative Renewal Conference on September 14, 2013
- The Freedom Zone on September 30, 2013
- The Freedom Zone on October 1, 2013
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