In yesterday’s Observer, Henry Porter, who has written widely on civil liberties ‘stolen’ by the previous government, talked to Nick Clegg about the government’s recently-announced Protection of Freedoms Bill. As you probably gleaned from the headline, Porter is generally extremely enthusiastic about the Bill, though he takes the deputy prime minister’s advice to “hold the government’s feet to the fire” by listing some additional illiberal measures which he would like to see removed.
Here’s a short excerpt from the piece:
Negotiation over the bill has been long and intense, especially with the Home Office and police over the deletion of innocent people’s DNA from the national database, which accounted for the three-month delay in publication. “I am amazed how far we pushed the whole security establishment and the Home Office in a liberal direction,” he says. “They are in such a different place to where they were a few months ago.” Last Tuesday, he presented the bill to the cabinet, where he has quite a few Tory supporters (Ken Clarke, Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve), and sold it to the rest by saying, “Let’s remember how this government is different to the previous government. This is something that distinguishes our government. Bit by bit, in quite imperceptible ways, these measures tell you profound things about the country we are trying to create.” He compares the bill to the efforts to reduce the deficit. “In terms of a lasting adjustment, or what it is to be British, this may be more significant in the long run.”
All true maybe, yet reading the bill after our interview, I find it hard to ignore the imprint of Labour’s boot on the statute book. The formalised mistrust of every adult who has anything to do with children in the vetting and barring scheme has not been abolished, merely reduced to affect half the estimated nine million to be vetted under the original scheme. And there is no mention of the interception modernisation programme – the proposals, backed by GCHQ and the Home Office, to allow email, internet usage, mobile calls and text messages to be monitored.
Clegg concedes that the new version of the control order is not what he hoped for – it is still at base a breach of the rule of law. There is no action to be taken on CCTV in schools – a development that allows Stoke Park School and Community Technology College in Coventry to install 112 cameras on its premises, at a cost of £10,000 – and little attempt to address the databases of legitimate protesters kept by police.
But there can be no doubt that scrapping the ID card and the children’s contact database, removing the stop and search powers granted under Section 44, controlling the use of surveillance by councils, reducing the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorism suspects to 14 days – especially given that it was just a few years ago that police officers and Blair were campaigning for 90 days – are welcome moves. Particularly good signs are the protection of jury trial, the extension of the Freedom of Information Act so that the public have better access to data, and the proposals to curb the spread of public CCTV systems, on which Labour spent £600m between 1997-2007, a figure that the deputy prime minister has not heard before and which causes him to exhale and wonder what the money could be spent on today.
You can read the piece in full – and it is certainly worth doing so – here.